The thunderous pop trio recalibrates for next-level stardom.
When I saw SHAED storm the Music Hall of Williamsburg last summer, I knew I was standing in the presence of greatness. Lead singer Chelsea Lee possesses a voice so potent, rich, and downright earth-shattering that I could barely move from my place at the end of the night. Twin brothers and fellow musicians Max and Spencer Ernst round out the trio, and their production style is both crystalline and lead-based, switching between cat-like pounces and base-heavy trembles. Their 2016 EP, Just Wanna See, is a masterclass of pop-rock, shaded in all the right places with Lee's truly breathtaking caterwaul.
Not two months later, the electro-pop bopped hard with "Too Much," a slickly-decorated and trendy piece of pop, and that fall "Lonesome" witnessed the group showing evocative restraint over delicate piano and a more lethargic, vulnerable performance. Their headspace at the time, from gallivanting across the country, holing up in Airbnbs, was tired-eyed and foggy. But a necessary recharge was just over the horizon.
Early this year, Lee and the Ernst boys came back with a clash. Where "Lonesome" felt like a stylistic reprieve, a detour, really, "Trampoline" feels more like a bridge from then to now. Lee returns to her power-pop form, shattering the sky into magical little pieces. The production is whipped and dunked as you might expect from them, but it feels just as triumphant. Something's coming, and they're ready to explode in mid-air.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Screenshot from "Silver Knife" video
Over a recent phone call, Lee walks us through their mindset from last summer leading into the new project. "We did the Marian Hill tour and the Bishop Briggs tour, and we were kind of living in Airbnbs, basically. We were just doing one-off shows and then staying in that place for two weeks and then going to another place," she says, talking frankly about their road-weary mental state. "We were in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for several months and went to Las Vegas and to Death Valley. So, we were just roaming around and didn't have a set place. When we were in Las Vegas, we wrote 'Lonesome,' and we were in this Airbnb in the middle of nowhere and wrote that song and a couple other songs."
A bigger moment came right around the same time. The three moved into a house together for the first time. "We were spending so much time together anyways," Lee adds. Now, they had a studio just steps away; it gave them such an electric shock, their creativity hit overdrive. "'Trampoline' is kind of the first song that shows us in this new chapter in our lives. We can record whenever we want." Max chimes in, "Chelsea and Spencer are engaged and getting married in a couple months, so it definitely feels like a family at this point. It was an adjustment moving into the house together, and there were some challenges but it felt like a relief because we had this opportunity to wake up every morning and make music together in our space, which is really nice."
Screenshot from "Silver Knife" video
Another new track, called "Silver Knife," takes a markedly grim, macabre swerve. "Mental pictures of a silver knife in your chest / It feels right," Lee snickers into a twisted Eurythmics-style steam. The video also displays a far more ghoulish tone, harkening to such blood-thirsty thrillers as High Tension and Hostel. Lee just laughs. "Yeah, people have been saying that. It's actually pretty hilarious because we're about to release another music video very soon, and it's like the polar opposite," she explains. "Basically, we had been working with this director named Max Haben, who lives very close to us. He kind of reached out and was like, 'Hey, I love this song, and I want to do something for this song.' That whole concept kind of came from him and us, and it's already kind of a creepy song. It definitely needed a creepy video."
That hellscape soaks the eardums, then permitting the visual to tap into the darkest corners of the mind. New York dancer Anna Pinault serves as the antagonist and is seen in the aftermath of the bloody act, wielding her dance moves across a secluded, starkly-lit stretch of earth and highway. "She killed that. We loved working with her," gushes Spencer.
If you have qualms about watching, don't worry, they don't actually show the murder on screen, which, according to Spencer, was an artistic decision from the start. "We liked having some mystery behind the video. Max [Haben] kind of wanted to keep it vague. At the beginning [of filming], we attempted to shoot some footage of the actual [fictional] murder, but it really wasn't feeling right," he says. "While we were on the road, we were listening to a lot to 'Criminal' [a popular real life crime podcast]. It's about all these different types types of crimes. When we wrote the song, we didn't really have like one crime in mind. It was just inspired by the whole series. That might be another reason why we didn't really want to show the crime in the beginning."
"Trampoline" and "Silver Knife" are the tip of the iceberg. SHAED's new EP (out in August) aims to graduate the trio to big-swinging pop juggernauts. Below, the trio discusses why they settled on another EP (rather than a full-length record), other new cuts, impact of constant touring and being moved to create.
Why did you decided on another EP? Had you considered a full-length album?
Chelsea Lee: Yeah, we did consider that, but I think right now, we're more interested in getting music out than releasing a full body of work ⎯⎯ just because that takes time. I know that we've been releasing a couple of singles, but for us, we just liked the idea of getting the most amount of music to people the fastest. That's kind of been our thing.
"Trampoline" feels very much a bridge between your past and your future. Was that the intent?
CL: We're just trying to write the best songs that we can right now, and we're just trying to be inspired by everything around us. "Trampoline" was just a culmination of us really working at getting into the studio every day. The idea of a 'Trampoline' was actually born out of us watching a lot of home videos recently, so [this song] came from this video of Max and Spencer as four-year-olds jumping on a trampoline. I don't think we were consciously trying to bridge the music.
In the song, you paint a picture of being trapped in a nightmare and in this overwhelming sense of loss and dread. From where did you draw for that?
CL: We wanted it to be kind of an Alice in Wonderland type song, not necessarily a classic love song but in an alternate state. We live in a suburb, so when we were writing lyrics, we were basically looking out our window. And we have a really kind of lush forest, and we were trying to really picture what it would be like if this were the Upside Down [from Netflix's Stranger Things].
Now, "Silver Knife" is a very different for you. What inspired the song's dark storyline?
CL: Well, I think we were having writer's block this particular day, and so we went on a walk. We have a very strange schedule where we just try to work most of the day and try to take like 20 minute breaks and walk. So, we went for a walk and then came back and were like, "Let's just write a creepy, weird song that's totally out of our comfort zone and that's totally different than anything that we've done before, just to do it." Our label loved the song. It came from trying to really push ourselves to do something different.
The production is very reminiscent of the classic '80s alt-pop wave.
CL: We definitely wanted to channel the '80s vibe. We have a lot of inspiration from alternative '80s music. It became that because we really were trying to push that vibe. Another producer, named Manatee Commune, helped us with this song. He came over for like a week and helped us.
What was the progression of producing for the song?
Max Ernst: I think it started with the baseline. We have a [Roland] Juno 106 keyboard to find that creepy synthesizer that does the chords in the verses. We were just looping that verse and baseline over and over again and then trying to come up with the cool hooky melody. So, it started with that whole verse progression. We just tried to then embody the themes of [Criminal]. Then, we just told Chelsea to really go for the vocals. It's definitely a different sound for her than her normal. She really went for it and tried to do this weird Michael Jackson-type vocal.
On your first EP, 2016's Just Wanna See, you have a song called "Thunder," which is inspired by Bernie Sanders. Do any of the new songs have a political undercurrent?
CL: No, there isn't. Just being able to make art in this crazy time is an incredible thing. It's more of just us. The EP doesn't really have an underlying theme of anything. It's truly just us writing every day and feeling a certain way one day and writing a song that kind of reflects that.
Your new EP is called "Melt," which is the title cut and such an interesting word in and of itself. What is the story of this song?
Spencer Ernst: You know, when we were younger, we were in weird situations where it was just tough to create music. Chelsea was working with a label, and we just reflected on that whole experience. I think the word "melt" really just feels right. When you feel like you can't create, you just want to melt.
What does the production of the song feel like?
SE: It's one of our heavier songs. At the same time, we wanted it to have sort of an uplifting feel at the end. It's heavy, but there's some hope there, too.
In the coming weeks, you have a new single coming called "You Got Me Like," which features rapper SNNY. How did that collaboration come together?
SE: Well, we've been fans of his, and we wrote the song and wanted to feature with a male vocalist. Our label reached out to his team, and he dug the track. We actually just recorded his part of the song in an Airbnb when we were staying in New York. We just brought a microphone, and he laid it down in a couple of hours.
What is it about director Max Haben's work that you enjoy so much?
SE: He's able to make really cool stuff that was a low budget, and he's really creative and also very open-minded to our ideas. So, for example, with "You Got Me Like," we pretty much brainstormed with him for the [video] concept. He's just super open and brings these really cool ideas to the table.
Coming off your first EP, did you have any goals, production-wise, for the new music?
Max Ernst: Well, on the last EP, my brother and I produced mostly everything. On this new EP, we opened it up a little bit, mainly to this producer Manatee Commune. That's his [stage] name. His name is Grant [Eadie]. We flew him out here for a couple of weeks to work on our songs, which was really nice, bringing in an outside perspective.
He's super talented and definitely brought some cool elements to some of the songs. For the last EP, Just Wanna See, we weren't all living together. There was a lot of sending beats back and forth, and for this EP, most of the songs we kind of wrote in a more stripped down format with just a piano or an acoustic guitar and really just tried to flesh out the song a lot before we started actually producing.
What is the deep cut "Keep Calling" about?
ME: That was one of the earlier songs we wrote for the EP. What really solidified pursuing the song was that chorus and the whole message ⎯⎯ and how the lyrics kind of run together. I keep calling you keep calling me. And it kind of flows together. It's that whole idea of a cycle of a relationship where you keep kind of falling in love with this person and then falling out of love and getting back together. So, we've actually got some friends that have been kind of dating and not dating.
What's its vibe?
ME: That's the song Grant worked on the most, but it was a pretty equal co-production. He loves that feel and that kind of breeziness. It's a little tropical. We had a totally different production, and then we brought him the melody and the tempo. He built out a lot of that beat from scratch, and we ended up taking production elements that we had in the chorus and bringing those in. It has a very easy, fun, summery vibe.
How did all the touring and basically living in Airbnbs for awhile impact you, creatively?
ME: I'd say that none of us had really done a ton of traveling before we got signed to Photo Finish. Within like a few months, we started touring and didn't really stop until we started working on this EP. It was just non-stop touring and then maybe having like a couple of weeks off. I think those experiences really influenced our life, I guess. It changed the way we thought about music. In playing a ton of live shows, we saw what songs resonated with people and how people responded to different music. A lot of this EP wasn't really written on the road. It was written in our house. It was nice to be in one place after being in all these different places for about a year and a half.
Where do you envision your live shows going next with this new music?
ME: We don't have like a big tour planned yet quite. But we definitely want to change up the production of the show before the next tour.
What do you want the listener to take away from this EP?
SE: For the last couple months, we've just been writing every day. We chose these five songs for the EP because when we listened back, we felt something. When people listen, there's no one way we want them to feel. But we just want them to feel something.
Screenshot from "Silver Knife" video
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