Shane Sweeney does not look like a rock star. This, in and of itself, is not so remarkable. After all, he is not a rock star. He does not travel by chartered plane. He does not even travel on one of those giant tour buses. He spends most days and many nights in an Econoline van with his partner in music, Micah Schnabel. Most nights off involve fast food, the floors of friends, and again the companionship of his friend Micah Schnabel. It is difficult to envision other songwriting pairs this way, hard to see Lennon and McCartney sharing a Papa John’s pizza in the van before an all ages show. But Shane Sweeney is not a rock star. Neither is Micah Schnabel. Rather, Sweeney and Schnabel are the two constants in one of the hardest working touring bands in America, Two Cow Garage.
When Two Cow Garage first formed, it was three young, Ohio-born kids that loved to play. Over the years, it dropped to two members and then ballooned to the current four. Through all of that, the albums and the music of Two Cow Garage have been a chronicle—a history, if you will—of the friendship and songwriting partnership of Schnabel and Sweeney. Over time, they’ve fallen into distinct roles. Schnabel is the moody singer who is more comfortable behind a club alone after a gig than he is shaking hands or taking compliments. Sweeney is the “face” of the band. He is the first one into the crowd and the last to go home. When a fan from a different state is mentioned, he instantly recognizes the name. That’s not to say that Schnabel can’t be charming. He can. In fact, he can be knockdown funny when he chooses. It is simply not the role he has to play. To speak to them both at the same time is to really understand what seven years of playing together has created. And now, facing the release of what promises to be their best record to date, they rely on that friendship more than ever.
To fully understand what went into the making of Speaking in Cursive, you have to go back to 2001. Micah Schnabel and boyhood friend Dustin Harigle had been playing together for some time when Schnabel stumbled into a buffalo wing joint on open mic night. Shane Sweeney sang a tune and caught Schnabel’s attention. The “wing professional” running open mic that night imparted some wisdom, telling Schnabel that he was a good songwriter, but should never sing again, and referring to Sweeney as the guy “who sang songs about killing women.” The two made plans to play together, and despite the advice, Schnabel became the front man of a three-piece band. The trio made their debut at a September 11th fundraiser and took the name recommended by a friend. After some recognition from local band manager and sometime rhythm guitarist Chris Flint, Two Cow Garage released Please Turn the Gas Back On. Accolades came faster than profits, as comparisons to legendary trio Uncle Tupelo became de rigueur.
The band began a touring schedule that was relentless, performing 200 gigs that year. Clearly, the three bonded in those long hours on the road. Harigle and Schnabel quickly added Sweeney to their longstanding friendship. But the wear and tear of the road seemed to show in their sophomore effort, The Wall Against Our Backs. Songs about discouragement and frustration with the industry blended with tales of small town life in Ohio. This time, Sweeney took a turn at lead on one song, and it was a standout. Once again, Sweeney, Schnabel, and Harigle were met with wonderful reviews of the new record and the live shows, but paydays were still few and far between. Once again, a whirlwind of touring followed, with the band playing shows for gas money and floor space from Buffalo to Walla Walla. Once again, the men of Two Cow Garage returned to rural Ohio to resume their day jobs and to reevaluate if this was the end of the road.
The frustration of those days poured into the songs on III. The most expansive record of the band’s career, III was to be the “storm weathered” record for Two Cow Garage. The trio had made inroads in markets East and West. Matt Pence, Centro-Matic drummer and widely respected producer from the Echo Lab, had produced the record. III was a massive step forward. The songwriting and the musicianship had advanced, even as the basic formula remained intact. Sweeney’s songwriting presence was expanded once again. This seemed to provide greater balance with the quickly advancing songwriting skills of Schnabel. Harigle drummed and provided constant support for Schnabel, his childhood friend. If there was a power differential in the band, it was not evident on stage. It seemed that, after four years, Two Cow Garage were on the verge of a breakthrough. But like so many other incredible bands, a real break beat them to the breakthrough. On the eve of a departure to play Chicago, always a well-attended show for Two Cow Garage, Dustin Harigle announced that he was leaving the band. Somewhere near Columbus, Ohio, that night, whatever there was between Shane Sweeney and Micah Schnabel changed permanently. The next night the pair took the stage in front of an adoring crowd in Chicago. They had no drummer. It was a guitar, a bass, keys, and two vocals. They delivered a fearless performance… powerful enough to convince the two remaining original members of the band that there was more work to be done. In September, Two Cow Garage will release their latest record, Speaking in Cursive, the next chapter in the continuing partnership between Sweeney and Schnabel.
Once again, the boys from Columbus headed to Denton, Texas, to record a record born out of forced change. The elimination of Harigle and the addition of Cody Smith on drums and Andy Schell on keyboards have changed the sound of the band, and it is less likely that comparisons to Uncle Tupelo will be drawn. The songwriting has found a new depth and a fresh anger. If The Wall Against Our Backs was a testimony to the frustration of being on the road, poor, and at the mercy of an industry more concerned with piracy than art, Speaking in Cursive is a study of the life you leave behind. It is the story of jobs, women, and opportunity lost. The songwriting duties have been divided more equally, but still favor Schnabel. The sound has benefited as well.
“ So we leave him where we found him / And, to anyone listening, they’ll never even notice he’s gone”
The chorus of “Wooden Teeth” is nearly painful to listen to. It is as honest and open as Schnabel has ever been in a song. It’s the tale of someone who, in a vital test, failed to be the person he was thought to be. Schnabel could easily be singing it to the departed Harigle, or countless friends and broken promises left in the past. His vocal is uniquely suited to this grudge rock. That same cynicism is just as present on “Funeral Drag”, as he recounts the post mortem of a friend and the false mourning of his funeral. Schnabel seems to have made a decision that he will no longer suffer fools gladly, a lesson surely learned in seven years as a touring front man. “Humble Narrator” finds Schnabel reflective on a morning after, describing the emptiness of “cassettes tapes and ashtrays all filled up from the night before”, as well as the “stranger on the floor”. After seeing the songs performed live, it’s difficult to not imagine the new and impressive drummer Smith as the stranger that Schnabel sings of. “Brass Ring” shares its jaundiced view of the music business with “Humble Narrator”. As Schnabel contemplates how it “seems it’s getting harder every day to not be the one that’s fading away”, his resilience is also on display as he howls “I’m not gonna burn out ‘cause things didn’t turn out like I planned”.
Sweeney’s tracks on Speaking in Cursive are remarkable. Previously limited to deep-throated country-themed tracks, Sweeney seems to have tapped into his inner Springsteen. “The Heart and the Crown” is River-esque. Just a guitar and Sweeney’s tenor, it is haunting and humorless. A serious listen leaves the listener with the distinct impression that every time Sweeney steps foot in the van to tour, he is putting his whole life on the line. “Glass City” too has its Boss-like moments, but that should not be construed as a slight. Sweeney is as sincere as possible singing the lyric “being afraid of living is just the same as dying”. His expanded songwriting presence is a pleasant surprise on Speaking in Cursive. If anyone seems to have gained from the substraction of Harigle, it is Sweeney. He sings with greater confidence and writes with more freedom.
The core of the record still belongs to Schnabel, however. His take on love lost in “Sadie Mae” is a believable sob story, and “Skinny Legged Girl” would not sound out of place coming from the voice of Rhett Miller (something that cannot be said about any other Two Cow Garage song). “Folk Singer’s Heart” is a contemplation of the power that music has over the young songwriter, while “Swing Set Assassin” is as much a love song as it is the story of Schnabel’s life in Bucyrus growing up with a musician father. Schnabel sings “I wrapped myself up in Black Flag and flew it as my own” by way of explaining the sound that has become the calling card of Two Cow Garage. Speaking in Cursive reaches heights that no past Two Cow Garage record has, while retaining the sheer force of the previous efforts. If they never recorded another record, it would be a worthwhile calling card—another chapter in the tale of a struggling band.
Soon, the men of Two Cow Garage will load back into their white Econoline van and, once again, tour America in search of a larger audience for their brand of American rock. Once again, Schnabel and Sweeney will spend 24 hours a day together, and once again, they will be putting everything they own on the line. They will do so without tour support, a label, or even a touring budget. These are not choices rock stars typically have to make. But then again, the men of Two Cow Garage are not rock stars. And that may well be the best thing about Speaking in Cursive. In an era of rock stars, it is a record made by musicians for fans. For that, Sweeney and Schnabel should be proud.