shogun on royal headache, antenna, and a completely fucked music industry

A conversation about the unsustainable nature of spilling your guts onstage and the inherent necessity of extreme vulnerability in rock'n'roll

shogun on royal headache, antenna, and a completely fucked music industry
Antenna, photo courtesy the artist

Royal Headache is no more, and I wouldn’t hold out hope for that band to come back. “I’m not a Royal Headache nostalgist,” says Shogun on a video chat from Sydney. “I think the band needed to end when it ended. I'm glad we didn't do a terrible third record where I was trying to be introspective and trying to do some kind of Stone Roses worship.” It’s not like he’s turned his back on those days entirely; he lights up talking about a wild frat party night in Madison with Royal Headache. Those dudes partied pretty fucking hard back when, but I’ll leave those stories for the members’ future dishy memoirs.

On Friday, two of the band’s live performances are coming out on Live in America, which What’s Your Rupture? is releasing. The A-side is the band performing on Terre T’s WFMU show Cherry Blossom Clinic in 2012, a set featuring many of the songs from their first album as well as a live debut of “High.” The other side is three years later at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, a tour behind their second album. When approached with this idea, Shogun was reluctant about putting out another Royal Headache record. “Then I heard the recording of the album and I thought why not?” 

In the time since Royal Headache disbanded, Shogun has stayed busy, most recently with the bands Finnogun’s Wake and Antenna. The Antenna record that came out earlier this year must be heard; it features some of Shogun’s best vocal performances ever (which is saying a lot). Antenna’s tour schedule is picking up, though he’s not concerned about shit becoming unmanageable. “The landscape now, it's so different,” he said. “I could go and write a record as good as a Stiff Little Fingers record and I don’t think it would make a jot of a difference. Music has been demonetized. We all have to work full time.”

“I think music is mostly just soft porn or photos of young people for old guys to fap to, you know? Like, the game is fucked. I could go and write fucking ‘Twist and Shout’ and I don't think I would get more than $15. The game is completely jacked,” he said. “So I'm doing it because I like it, you know?”

You mentioned you’re not a nostalgist, but going back and hearing these recordings, how did that make you feel?

I mean there’s a lot to say. The two sides of the record, the radio show and the Empty Bottle show, almost demonstrate the band at opposite ends of our trajectory. There’s this sort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed incarnation of the band on the Cherry Blossom Clinic side of the record. You can hear the band becoming darker, maybe my temperament becoming more bitter and alcoholic on the second side. We became faster, heavier, uglier, but also tighter. The two recordings capture the evolution or devolution of that particular band. 

Like the first side, I feel like we're kind of innocent and nervous. And the second side is just where we feel like we've been on tour forever. And we're just smashing it out. But yeah, I like the record. And it's good to have mementos because in all bleak honesty, there's a lot about Royal Headache I don't remember because it was just a hard drinking band for me. There was no other way to do it. And you know, people would be like, “Oh, you should stop drinking.” And I'll be like, look at one of our shows—could you do that without drinking? And they're like, “No.” So it's like, well, shut the fuck up then. Could you actually do that sober? You know, spill your guts like that? No. Maybe that's one of the other reasons it really had to end. There was something about Royal Headache that was so intense. It was unsustainable, I think.

You talk about spilling your guts, but is it also the level to which you had to perform those songs that made it unsustainable?

Yeah, I think so. You know, Antenna is similar, but I was in a really dark place back then. And I definitely had this highly idealistic, almost quasi-religious approach to the spirit of punk music needing to be completely authentic at all costs. And I think our entire crew back then had this really antiquated idealism and total commitment. I don't think it would fly at all today in today's business model, for want of a better word. Maybe it's coming from the skater and hardcore kid background and a bit of a lad background back in the ’90s, like where it's all about just getting fucked up and blowing it and making a scene, like being completely distasteful and ridiculous.

My point is, I really had the idea that if you weren't totally fucking up, you weren't doing punk properly. Maybe that was one of the reasons Royal Headache crumbled, you know, when it became too successful and was just sort of chugging along, I was like, something's not right here. It's not complete until it's totally fucked up.

When you say totally fucked up, do you mean you guys partying too hard or the band just imploding?

Oh, just running my mouth on stage. The recordings of Royal Headache were quite palatable and listenable. There's that Beatles-y aspect. But the live shows definitely just became, especially towards the end, increasingly dark and drunk. I think maybe I felt a degree of guilt that the band had attained like a small degree of success and it just seemed like the right thing to derail that. 

How are you doing now?

Yeah, good, good. Just old and busy. I'm doing two bands. I just practiced with one of them last night, with Finnogun’s Wake. We're playing my girlfriend's 30th birthday on Saturday night. I'm pretty good. Yeah, Royal Headache was a long time ago. Fuck. I mean, the heyday of Royal Headache was like 15 years ago. But a decade ago, it was just sort of petering out. This is a long time ago. This is pre-COVID.

It's a generation ago, in terms of how fast generations creep up on us. I'm 43 now. I can't behave like that anymore. Rent's too expensive. You need to be a normie now. I have no choice. I had a choice then. I was paying cheap rent. You can work a couple of shifts a week at a shitty job where you can show up drunk and high, and I did pretty much all the time towards the end. I'm surprised I wasn't fired. So those days are gone. I have no choice but to man up, you know?

So you feel like you’re not in the same hard-drinking part of your life?

I still drink, but I just know my limits. I think back then it was about testing limits, and I think now it's about observing them. I've tested them and I've learned what I needed to know. Testing the limits of oblivion. I think that is just a quest of self-knowledge and I’ve taken that quest more than enough times.

I did a Royal Headache interview a dozen years ago and it wasn’t with you. Any reason why that would’ve been?

Yeah, I went through a period of interview fatigue. I think for a little while I was like, look, could someone else take a few of these? Because I also have the propensity to, uh, overshare in interviews. It's almost like I lack the imagination to lie and the guile to press train myself. Actually, here's a story. There was one night I was going through all this fucked up shit. My best friend had just died and I went through a bad break up immediately afterwards. Essentially I was losing the two most important people in my life at the same time, like things were just bad, bad, bad, bad. And Royal Headache, we're at our peak.

I did an interview on the phone on the way home from some party blackout drunk. I get this phone call, I've forgotten that I have to do an interview for Primavera with this big publication in Spain. I have no idea whether that interview surfaced, it was a phone interview and I was yelling at the guy, and I was crying, and I was ranting at this dude like he was my best friend, and I was just letting it all out. I have that much recollection of it, but very little. And I woke up in the morning with this text message on my phone saying, “Man, I'm so happy that you shared all this with me. Thank you for an amazing interview.” And I was like, fuck, what have I done now?

So that's probably why you didn't talk to me.

Mercifully, it never surfaced. Neither did my interview with the Pixies when Vice had the bright idea of thinking that Shogun from Royal Headache should interview the Pixies at the Opera House. The interview was at about 11 a.m. or some godforsaken hour and I showed up drunk and stinking of weed and the Pixies…as people know, the Pixies are a little bit aloof, you know what I mean? And Frank Black hated me. It was like, I am Frank Black from the Pixies. I've come here at 11 a.m., why is there a drunk, stoned lad—an actual scumbag—sitting where the interviewer should be. Who the fuck let this guy in here? And again, never, the interview never surfaced. It was canned, but there could be footage of it somewhere. 

The song “Lost” by Antenna is just unbelievable. What does it mean to you?

I think “Lost” was about a breakup that I had many years ago, during the time of Royal Headache. People cleave together for a variety of reasons. I think people with emotional or mental issues can take breakups really badly. People who are on top of their shit, everyone will hurt, but some people will handle it. But I went through a breakup that, because of the context and a few details, was an obliterating breakup. It took me years to recover from it.

Looking back, I can see that it was about the relationship, but it was also about what I was hiding behind that relationship, which was an identity that was unstable and incomplete. It's about a breakup that it takes you years to recover from. I must have been truly lonely. I think, sadly, the mentally ill have a compulsive need to love and be loved, but the irony is that they're so unlovable and impossible. I think that's the gist of it.

It’s such a powerful song. And your voice on it, too, is just unreal. When you deliver a performance like that, do you know you’ve made something deeply impactful?

No, actually. You never know until you're mixing it. My voice is pretty hard to mix because I'm singing, but I'm kind of screaming as well. It can take me a long time working with a producer to get my vocal sound. Funnily enough, my voice unmixed can often sound really awful, like really embarrassing. You can hear all the polyps and nodes in my throat, so I have to work with a producer. And I've produced a couple of records, but it didn't really get my vocal sound, and it's not good. So it takes time. There's just a degree of constant anxiety of “will this work,” and you actually don't know until the very end. 

I work really, really hard on everything I do. And I labor it endlessly. I mean melodies, I work and rework and workshop all day. A song will take me days and days of thinking about, because I don't want to think about my life. I don't want to think about the state of the world. So, you know, music is a really good way to just avoid thinking about anything and become completely obsessed with these tiny two and a half minute universes. Because they're perfect. You can make that two and a half minutes perfect. You can't make your life perfect. Civilization is irredeemably doomed. No one is going to fix that. I'm just going to concentrate on my little gardens.

You’re saying you’re willing to drive yourself into the ground because the work is worth it?

Yeah, I'm a chronic insomniac. I'm at a point where I can not sleep for like three days and I develop like a speech impediment and I'm actually really liking the feeling of being completely fucking rammed. I have something to do every day, every weekend I have a gig or two, you know, constant band practices. I'm letting the music crush me. You know the old saying, find what you love and let it kill you? I think that's what I'm doing at the moment. I'm going into music hard out again to the point where it's mutating me. It's changing my psychology the way iPhones change human psychology. It's making me accountable. It's making me visible. It's taking me back into my Royal Headache state of mind. It's making me want to be a better person because people are listening to what I'm doing. Being an entertainer makes sense to me. I need to be visible because I often feel invisible, lonely, and lost. You know, I put myself in front of people so that I can appear to myself.

When you talk about feeling like a troubled person, it’s evident how much you're putting that into music. Does it feel like catharsis?

Absolutely. All the great punk music and rock’n’roll comes from these people. I think it's necessary, which doesn't really reflect well on rock’n’roll. It's not a healthy lifestyle. It's a forum where people celebrate their flaws rather than trying to overcome or rectify them. Obviously I'll try, but I could certainly be accused of that. Without sounding like that old guy, the problem with music today is that there's a sort of surveillance culture—a sort of moral cleanliness.

There's a business-like sense of perfection to it all, and no one is willing to be that guy anymore, I think because of the age of social media. Everybody is watching. It's not just like the punk scene. Your boss will probably see that shit. Your family will probably see that shit. So even if you're doing this outrageous punk band, there's a modicum of normalcy to it all. No one is willing to literally share or sacrifice anything. I'm happy to be that guy. I've been that guy forever and ever and ever, and I'm not going to front or hide who I am. If anything, it will become more extreme. Someone needs to take the bullet.

And to be honest, I talk to kids these days, and it's like, “Oh, what's the deal with your band? I want to check it out.” They're like, “Yeah, we sound like this band.” They literally don't. They literally say that all like, “It's this worship. We're worshiping that.” This is insane. How the fuck do you think our heroes would feel? There's nothing punk about fucking copying something outright. That's just stamp collecting.

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