Marriage Equality may not have reached the “bon temps” state of Louisiana, but that hasn’t stopped Liz Hogan and Lilli Lewis from joining in music and matrimony.
A quick youtube search on the Lilli Lewis moniker will reveal plenty of earnest little understated morsels from the artist, and comments like “Most slept on black folk singer. I listen to her when I want to be high on my soul,” followed by the inevitable “why haven’t I heard of you before?” That could be because for the last 5 years, the deceptively shy soul/folk songstress from Athens, GA has been living in Louisiana, making “hallelujah and shake your booty” music with The Shiz, an original roots rock and soul band said to have “enough energy to power a large city.” (indie-music.com)
The almost newly-wedded Lewis and Hogan formed The Shiz in January of 2009 when they moved to Liz’s hometown of Hammond, LA after spending one and a half years working at a Buddhist retreat center in Northern Colorado. Hogan had been denied employment with a wilderness therapy program in Arizona that she had been recruited for on the grounds that her marriage was not recognized by that state, and that her relationship went against organizational policy. Facing the start of an economic crisis after having spent all their savings attempting to relocate for that job, forming a rock band seemed to be the only reasonable thing to do.
Hogan, herself a folk artist to the bone, with a penchant for silt rivers and old songs in minor keys, says they found their indie rock alter-ego because “being an artist and being gay in small town Louisiana makes people want to be loud sometimes…well, more than sometimes.” The two were already mutually inspired by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone, Indigo Girls, and Toshi Reagon, but on long road trips across the country they began to discover deeper resonances in their respective musical languages. Liz shared artists and icons like Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, and her personal giant, Neil Young, while Lilli handed down the likes of Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Giant Steps himself, John Coltrane.
Hogan and Lewis found in each other’s writing, a compulsion to speak on weighted truths more elusive than what they tended to hear from their peers, and when they finally started writing together, they found the substance in their differences made it real. They called their collaboration The Shiz, mostly to close the door on taking themselves too seriously, and released their first eponymous EP as part of the 2009 RPM Challenge. A first full length studio album “Where We Stand” was recorded only a few short months later by Liz’s uncle and Nashville veteran Sam Tritico at Island Music in Merritt Island, FL. The album won favor with a cross-generational audience, but the lineup that made the record didn’t last the year. Over time and after a rotating door of guest members, they found kindreds in drummer Wade Hymel and bassist David Alan Craig.
Multi-instrumentalist Wade Hymel joined on bass in the Fall of 2009 by way of the band’s original drummer Melinda McElveen. Hymel was a talented composer, arranger and frontman with an infamous gift for being able to make music out of anything, easily found performing on anything from to cajon to car keys. Although he had had been an early fan who seemed to know all the songs better than the band, Lewis and Hogan drafted Hymel for their own after catching his original band “204” and his White Stripes tribute project “Black Polka Dots.” Hymel offered sincere melodic innovation on the bass, and added a rare discerning energetic facility on drums when bassist David “Alan” Craig was added to the lineup in 2012.
The son of singer/songwriter David Craig, a local legend whose songs have been recorded by any number of rock, country and blues artists including Memphis Slim and Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Craig had lived on the other side of the wall from Shiz rehearsal space for over a year before they knew he was a musician. An impromptu front stoop conversation about the value of a good song and live original music led to Craig joining up shortly thereafter, and from the very beginning, Craig provided a grounding in the band’s sound, with a no frills, only play what serves the song approach directly influenced by the authenticity present in the music that had always been around him. Not only was his father an accomplished singer/songwriter, but he’d also helped build the remarkable Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, LA, the landmark facility that has been the choice of legends from Jimmy Buffett to Stevie Wonder. The Shiz recorded the first EP for their latest studio release “Meet You in the Morning” (Elysium House Records, 2013) along with the single “New Jim Crow.”
“Meet You in the Morning” co-produced by The Shiz and TJ Barends (Bare Sounds Productions at Sir-Reel Studios, Hammond, LA) is an ambitious 70 minute 14 song opus with a wide ebb and flow reminiscent of Tom Petty (one of the band’s most obvious heroes) from his “Wildflower” days. Singles include “Juggernaut,” “Driftin’, ” and “For the People” from Hogan, and “New Jim Crow” and “Sleep Baby, Slumber” from Lewis. But as with any album conceived project, the songs, diverse as they are, belong to each other, and are held together by the quartet’s “electric chamber music” approach and Barends’ roots based sensibilities, yielding a youthful, transparent authenticity to the relatively mature and nuanced collection. Challenging industry and ideology from the BP Oil Spill to the prison industrial complex, the themes are both topical and existential in nature, and rely on their southern/bluesy roots to keep the much of the most weighted material in a context of light touch confrontation. A notable exception to this, however, is the 7 minute tone poem “Boxcar,” a song written by Lewis and Hogan after experiencing an exhibit of the same name at a Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, FL in 2012.
The deluxe edition of the recording, only available for download at theshiz.bandcamp.com, includes a studio outtake of “Broken Wings, ” the only original love song in the band’s repertoire to date. When asked about the glaring the absence love-based themes in their writing, Lewis mentions that so many of the love songs she knows “don’t seem to be about love of the requited variety.” She says sometimes their most political action is “just showing up as themselves” as they’re Uncle Sam had once put it, and since she and Hogan are currently lucky enough to enjoy a relationship that actually works, they are free to use their music to work on other ideas like personal sovereignty and redemption.
The album features a number of worthy collaborations, most notable are the contributions of violinist Andrew Robin and guitarist Owen Scott, III. Owen Scott, a friend and former band mate of the late B52’s founding member Ricky Wilson, is a fellow Athens, GA native who left the city the same year Lewis was born. Lewis recruited Scott after a coincidental meeting in Baton Rouge, LA, just as the band was going into pre-production on the new album. Owen is featured on “New Jim Crow” and “For the People,” along with the decidedly Athens / REM influenced “The Rapture.”
After completing Midwest and Southeast tours in support of their debut album “Where We Stand,” and a West Coast tour in support of the Studio in the country EP “I AM,” recorded by Ben Mumphrey (stage sound mixer for the Pixies’ 2004 reunion tour, documented in the film loudQuietloud: A Film About the Pixies), 2013 saw the band become a constant presence on stages throughout the gulf region. They climbed to Reverbnation’s Top 10 New Orleans Rock Charts, was a regional finalist in the Hard Rock Cafe’s Hard Rock Rising Global Battle of the Bands, was an inaugural feature for the re-launch of indie-music.com, gained “Next Big Thing” kudos on AfterEllen.com, and was a New Works Showcase feature in the New Orleans 21st Annual Cutting Edge Conference. Recent singles can be heard on radio all about the region, including New Orlean’s signature station, WWOZ.
Hogan and Lewis now reside in New Orleans, LA where Hogan is completing an MFA in Poetry from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Lewis is a freelance musician/composer/producer/engineer and manager of Elysium House Records, a boutique label specializing in releasing “innovative, soulful music” informed by the Southern American aesthetic.
Lewis and Hogan say that the band name first chosen to keep them from taking themselves too seriously now serves as a reminder to keep investing in “things that are good… things that matter.” They feel despite what they see a mass media culture trying to sell them, art still matters, music still matters, and people pouring their everything into something for no other reason than the love they may hold for it or for each other still matters. Any music born in that room is what the band band proudly calls Shiz Rock.
ROOTS & BRANCHES
A 2010 transitional hiatus allowed Lilli and Liz to form “Self Evidence,” an acoustic duo with a focus on activism and social justice. The two did two short stints in the Midwest and were invited to perform for various events around the country like IDAHO Atlanta and Toledo Pride, (opening for BITCH at OUTSKIRTS Toledo). They also engineered and co-produced the debut album from Oberlin, Ohio’s feminist garage band BACKBONE.
They also took the opportunity to complete a longtime dream of Lilli’s, which was to record a collection of Spirituals from the African-American folk tradition that resulted in “The Promised Land: Songs of the Sacred South.” Enlisting fellow band mates and local talent, the album launched the jazz/bluegrass offshoot “The Promised Land Players,” and features violinist Andrew Robin and flutist/composer Nicole Chamberlain.
Elysium House Records is slated to release Wade Hymel’s debut “No Regrets” in 2014.