It’s fitting the somewhat imposing presence of Soundgarden’s Ben Shepard loomed over my interview with Ragan and Jeremy Crowe of SHIM at a Georgetown bar.
Soundgarden is a band that can almost pass for classic rock nowadays and SHIM is band that puts its own spin on a classic rock sound. Throw in the tendency for both bands to deliver a visceral big rock show experience every time they step on stage and it’s only natural that they wet their whistles at the same watering hole. This is why I wasn’t too surprised to not only see Shepard in the building, but to also find out he and the men of SHIM are friends.
Halfway through our interview, Jeremy Crowe, SHIM’s drummer, points Shepard out to me in the crowd and says that when the Soundgarden bassist found out the SHIM was being interviewed he was planning on dropping by our table uninvited and playfully causing a scene. I will admit that I secretly wanted this to happen, because let’s face it, it would’ve made for a fun little anecdote, but Shepard kept his distance. And while I didn’t leave the bar able to tell the story about the time a Seattle rock legend crashed one of my interviews, I did walk away able to tell the story of SHIM, which is quite a tale.
Despite having rock star friends and quite an impressive family tree – SHIM’s guitarist and co-vocalist Mike Notter are in up-and-coming groups Hannah Lee and Motopony and the band’s bassist Micah Simler plays in better-known local bands Moondoggies and The Maldives – the story of SHIM isn’t the story of a band getting by on its connections, or of a group getting by because it’s packing its music to fit into the musical genre du jour. SHIM’s story is one of friendship and brotherhood.
To properly this story you have to go back in time about 25 years and head about 150 miles east of Seattle. While SHIM technically got its start in the Emerald City, the band’s roots are in Wenatchee, a rural city in the shadows of Cascade Mountains with a population hovering around 20,000. Notter and the brothers Crowe grew up in the Wenatchee Valley, an area that calls itself the “apple capitol of the world,” and back in the mid 1980s the Crowes moved one house away from the Notter family. Notter was a plucky first-grade kid and Ragan was one year his senior carrying all the sage wisdom of a second-grader.
Notter and Ragan bonded and grew up together one house apart on the same street in the agricultural lands of Wenatchee Valley and Jeremy, who is five years older than Ragan, was around to give that always important, big-brother influence.
Notter and Ragan picked up guitars around the same time and while in high school they formed their first band together called Scary Spiders. And while the formation of their first band was an important benchmark, it wasn’t nearly as important to the SHIM story as a fateful trip to a garage sale.
It was 1996 and a 16-year-old Ragan Crowe came across the perfect accessory for Scary Spider’s live show. That accessory was two sets of 10 headlights that were wired together in triangular formation.
“The guy who had the garage sale was in a band in the ‘70s called Red Wulf and he had these lights. It was like ‘What are these?’ and then we just had to own them,” Ragan said.
Those manually triggered, triangular headlights would go on to become SHIM’s calling card. They may not be big-time rock stars like their pal Ben Shepard but they pack a big-time rock show experience every time they perform. SHIM’s live show comes complete with foggy effects from a smoke machine, cranked up amps, shout-along choruses and a flashy, 20-headlights strong light show.
“When we started SHIM it just seemed obvious to us that we needed to use those lights. I mean, things just got riffy and we wanted to step up our game a bit.”
Things got riffy indeed.
When you listen to, or talk about, SHIM it’s actually tough not to use riffy as a descriptor. The band plays the type of music you’d expect to find in the jukebox of bars across America. It’s the kind of balls-out, riff-driven, American rock ‘n’ roll that sounds stellar cranked up on your stereo and is the perfect accompaniment for a six-pack of tallboys and a thick, juicy steak.
“It’s our goal to put on a show every time we are on stage,” Ragan said. “We want to be exciting and we want people to have an experience where they can have a drink, pump their fists and enjoy the visceral magnetism of loud rock music performed well.”
Crowe and Notter continued to develop their riff-mastery throughout their high school years while big brother Jeremy left the Valley to attend college. Crowe would periodically check-in with his big brother often times excitedly talking about bands and sharing his music.
“When I went away to college Ragan would leave messages on my answering machine and it would be him playing whatever new song he learned. He would just play until the tape ran out on my machine” Jeremy said. “It really amazed me at how good of a guitar player he was becoming.”
When Notter and Ragan headed west to attend college and later formed SHIM, Ragan once again dialed up his older brother except this time it was to ask him to be SHIM’s drummer.
“I told Jer he had to be our drummer. I’d jammed with Jer for years and knew he could be filthy,” Ragan said.
Fast forward to present day and Ragan and Notter are now both in their 30s. The ups and downs of their lifelong friendship is the backbone of SHIM.
“There’s always been a bit of philosophical sparring going on between Mike and I and I think that really helps us as a band,” Ragan said. “We both have this sort of dedication to the truth with a capital T, whatever that may be, and it’s been a real defining part of our friendship.”
That search for truth is nearly inescapable on the band’s latest record, Medicine Show; it’s third and most ambitious in its catalog. The record has a cast of recurring characters such as the street preacher, the truth-seeking narrator and the house band and it carries broad themes like religion (the Crowes were raised by a pastor), mysticism, nature and the aforementioned search for the truth with a capital T.
Even the record’s title plays into the loose somewhat conceptual theme. Medicine Show is a nod to the snake oil salesmen who would travel from town to town at the turn of the century selling their wares. The snake oil salesmen would bring bands with them to attract crowds and create an almost party-like environment to encourage sales and in a sort of Meta turn of events, SHIM somewhat acts as that band throughout Medicine Show. But Medicine Show is not as much a concept album as it is a record filled with stories told from different perspectives.
“A lot of the songs are about me and Mike and how we’re working to try to figure out how to navigate through this world. They’re all just told through different lenses outside of ourselves,” Ragan explained.
On the surface the music sounds like your typical hard-rocking stuff produced by a group of good ol’ boys. But if you dig a bit deeper there are messages planted in almost every track. Material with substance and depth isn’t exactly the stuff you’d expect to take away from a band whose music when simplified can be classified as 1970s classic rock throwback material, but it’s there.
“Party People Eater,” a song fueled by a barn-burning boogie that serves as the record’s opening cut, is about believing in the party line before thinking for yourself. “Rock and Roll,” which carries the simple-yet-effective hook of “Rock and roll will save your soul,” is about finding salvation wherever you please be it in music or a sleazy dive bar. “Man From the Mountain” is a story of exploring nature and mysticism.
Almost every song on Medicine Show is filled with big riffs and catchy choruses wrapped up in a classic rock shell that delivers something that’s familiar and comforting while also telling an interesting tale.
“The smoke. The lights. The loud guitars. The beers. It’s fun. Who doesn’t want to be in a band? We are definitely about having a good time and if we can throw in some meaning and get our thoughts out in the form of a song it’s a bonus,” Ragan said.
SHIM celebrates the release of Medicine Show tonight at the Columbia City Theatre. Tickets cost $8.