Real Dreams of the West Coast: An Interview with Shawn Lee of Young Gun Silver Fox
"This was the first record I've ever made where I felt like it was totally understood by people."
Something peculiar happened in the mid-to-late aughts. Whether it was the "try to pin me down" ethos of hipster irony or the seminal 2005 webseries Yacht Rock, Hall and Oates became cool again. Music once reviled by the rockist critical establishment, and more-or-less relegated to montages in "'member the '80s" movies, had now become respectable.
This unexpected Rock 'n Soul revival culminated in the long overdue induction of the duo into the Jann Wenner-dominated Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Justice had finally been served to the artist, but what of the genre? While the slick pop-rock sounds of the late-'70s/early-'80s have been rediscovered and embraced by so-called millennials, there are seldom few (if any) new artists who have explored the sound on record.
Young Gun Silver Fox, like Daryl and John before them, are a new duo comprised of UK singer-songwriter Andy Platts (Young Gun) and American ex-pat studio wizard extraordinaire Shawn Lee (Silver Fox). Their new album, West End Coast, harkens back to the so-called "Yacht Rock" days of immaculately produced West Coast, AOR (album oriented radio) '70s gold. It's a fresh take on the much-maligned subgenre, and a record that Shawn Lee, who spoke to PopMatters on the group's behalf, has been wanting to make his entire life.
"I grew up with that music," Lee tells us, "It resonated inside of me. I knew how those records were made: I listened to them so much, and I played a lot of those songs in cover bands. Doobie Brothers, Hall and Oates, Steely Dan. I think that era of pop music -- it was different. From '77 to '82/'83 or whatever, it kind of hit an apex, before the tipping point of things changing and all that."
For years, the story of the late-'70s in popular music has been reduced to a punk v. disco civil war for Manhattan. The reason for this has more to do with the taste of the critical intelligentsia than it does with anything resembling reality (per usual, the history books are written by the victors, or in this case the historians). Yet for those who actually lived, or longed to live, during that era, there is the memory of a secret, criminally ignored musical heritage whose archaeological remains lay hidden amongst the smog-obscured palms of Los Angeles. And if you listen really hard, you can still hear it on classic rock radio ... but you seldom read a word about it in the press.
Chalk it up to East Coast Bias if you must, but I consider this a travesty. Shawn Lee is right when he said it was an "apex" -- of musicianship, of songcraft, of recorded sound. The disco-tinged grooves of the West Coast-style might leave you cold, but the medium is the message. New Wave might have saved Rock 'n Roll from self-parody (I'll give the punkers that one), but it damned the virtues of sonic fidelity straight to hell. No two artists better exemplified this mastery of the studio than Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, aka Steely Dan. Easily the most celebrated group of the era, their masterpieces Aja and Gaucho are perhaps the most exquisite examples of the era's emphasis on stellar musicianship and hi-fi analog production.
"I kind of felt like Steely Dan was a band that had it all," Lee continues. "They had the sort of musical sophistication, and people who could appreciate music liked it -- but they also had hit singles. They were sort of straddling commerciality while being completely artistic. That is kind of the perfect place to be as a musician: if you can make records that do both those things, you're winning."
If Shawn Lee isn't "winning" the chart-game, it isn't for lack of artistry. The ten tracks on West End Coast could all conceivably have been hits on FM radio circa 1978. The music wears its influences on its sleeve: "Better" brings to mind Katy Lied-era Dan; "Saturday" recalls peak Hall and Oates; the backing vocals to "So Bad" explicitly resemble those of a certain unlikely frontman's husky baritone. But if these comparisons make Young Gun Silver Fox sound like pastiche artists, a clarification is in order: the spirit of the era lingers large, but there are enough idiosyncrasies present to make this music their own.
"There's definitely a nostalgia factor," Lee admits. "It's obviously a love letter to that kind of music but we've turned it into its own thing. It has a life of its own, and it's a very honest record; it's not tongue-in-cheek."
If the name "Yacht Rock" is anything, it's tongue-in-cheek. Hairy-chested millionaires surrounded by models and cocaine on a boat might be someone's idea of glamour (namely the hairy-chested millionaire), but it doesn't invite respectability. And If the Yacht Rock re-appreciation efforts of the new millennium are guilty of anything, it's irony. Hipster fashion is knee-deep in its Jimmy Buffett-period, and provided you have a pair of eyes you can see the disingenuousness from a mile off the shore.
"To me the whole post-ironic thing ... I don't really want anything to do with that," says Lee. "I think sometimes you have to have a certain level of not giving a shit to embrace something. The idea of being 'cool' is not being worried about being cool: it's about being free from that. You got to make something that's true for yourself. For me, there's no point in doing something that you're not completely committed to. I think that's the difference between something being pastiche and something being real."
The real shines through, and that's what makes this album one of the best of the year. This is the kind of record whose bonus tracks (the shimmering "You Gotta Smile" and the deliriously catchy "Lolita") are better than the best cuts from a lesser artist's entire discography. The tunes are infectious, from the first mellow bars of the cruise down Pacific Coast Highway that is "You Can Feel It" to the lush Malibu sunset that is "Long Way Back". This music isn't about being some rich guy drinking Hennessy from a coconut: it's about feeling like you could be if you wanted to. Anything is possible.
If there is an ironic element to West End Coast, it comes from the recording process itself. Taking advantage of the 21st century, most of this album was created remotely over the internet, with each half of the duo essentially sending their individual contributions via "audio text message."
"There's a great advantage to working this way," continues Lee. "We had time to cultivate ideas at our own pace. I've made a lot of records, and I'm adept at working with people at the same time -- but what you get from that is different. When you get magic that way, it is magic, but often times you don't," he says, laughing.
One entertaining anecdote concerns opening track, "You Can Feel It", which somewhat ironically (there's that word again) was the last song written and recorded.
"We were talking about the first single, and how we maybe didn't have it. So time went by, then one night I sent Andy a text message saying, 'What if we did something kind of mid-tempo, that has the groove of 'Dreams' by Fleetwood Mac, and the verse would be G Major-7 to C Major-7?' Then he sent back a message saying, 'Yeah, that sounds good.' Then I said 'And how about we go to B Minor-7 in the bridge?' And he sent me another message, saying 'Yeah, that sounds good.' This was late at night, so I recorded the chords on my iPhone and sent them over, and when I woke up in the morning I had a mp3. He basically stayed up the entire night and wrote the song."
The contribution of Andy Platts should not be taken for granted. Parsing through Lee's account, one could infer that Platts was the one responsible for the songs' golden melodies and layered vocal arrangements. He doesn't have the distinct cadence of a Michael McDonald or Donald Fagen, but he can belt the soul in ways that would make Daryl Hall proud. The man has pipes.
Location itself was also a factor. As you might have deduced from the album title, the "West End" in West End Coast refers to the West End of London, where Lee transplanted to after spending seven years in L.A. It was a curious decision to record an album with so much California sunshine under the perpetually cloudy skies of England.
"I was very immersed in the West Coast before I even lived there. The sound, the imagery. It really was a part of me. Even the fantasy of that is a part of it. So not being there and making this record, it affects it. Because you're reminiscing about it, it's sort of a dream state."
All nostalgia is tinged with regret, whether warranted or not. As anyone who has packed his or her life up and moved to Hollywood can tell you, the California Dream is far different from the California Reality. I'm sure Lee discovered the same thing during his time there. It's easy to understand his fascination with the past; it's the longing for the innocence of that past that comes through the most in this music.
"Maybe being there wouldn't have helped," Lee muses.
In this case, the Dream is the Reality.