Taylor Shaw recently faced such a challenge. As guitarist and founding member of Wild Sweet Orange (WSO), one of Birmingham’s more recent success stories, he had an opportunity that many musicians only dream of—a chance at the national spotlight. There were opening spots for Counting Crows and Guster, an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and a featured spot on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy. Yet, in September of last year, WSO called it quits and Shaw turned to what had been a side-project up until then, his band The Great Book of John.
“I had stopped writing for a little bit,” says Shaw, “and when I started writing again I was hanging out with my friend Becca and my friend Alex. He was playing upright bass, and she would sing back-up harmonies. WSO had a show, and we didn’t have anybody to open. I was like, ‘Well, me and Becca and Alex have been playing.’ I wasn’t trying to have a band, I was already in a band. I was just hanging out with my friends playing music. I was like, ‘Well, let’s just play some of these songs that will kill time, and then just chill...no drums yet.’ Chip, who was in WSO too, is now playing drums with us. But then, it was just me and Becca and Alex, but we didn’t have a name. When they asked, ‘What do y’all want to be announced as?’ we said, ‘Just don’t announce us.’ But then it just felt real good and right, and people seemed to dig it alright. I guess I just have to write, want to write, so I just kept doing that.”
Soon, the band (now comprised of Shaw, Chip Kilpatrick on drums, Alex Mitchell on Bass and Becca Fox on background vocals) was working on its first album and needed a name. Though some bands agonize over the right moniker, The Great Book of John popped into existence with ease. “It comes from me and Alex hanging out real late one night listening to Hank Williams, Sr.. The original Hank Williams, the only Hank Williams. We were listening to a song called ‘Angel of Death’ and the first line is ‘In the Great Book of John’. I think we had just gone through the drive-thru at Arby’s, so I got a shake, and that one came on, and he was like, ‘Dude, let’s name our band that.’ You get a lot of people wondering if it comes from the gospels, but Hank, when he’s talking about it, he’s talking about Revelation, and I didn’t even think about it at the time. I was just like, ‘Hank Williams said it and it sounds cool so I’m okay with it.’ Revelation, in the Bible—it’s a pretty poetic, symbolic-heavy book, and ironically, I think our music kind of embodies that.”
After the WSO breakup, Shaw turned to Jeffery Cain, member of Birmingham-based rock band Remy Zero, who had worked on We Have Cause to Be Uneasy, WSO’s only full-length LP.
“Taylor told me he had a record written and I could tell he was anxious to get it on tape,” says Cain. “I asked him to come by my studio and play me the songs he had in mind for his album. He sat down and proceeded to sing me about 30 songs . I was blown away, and there was no question in my mind that I needed to help him make this record. From the very beginning Taylor let me know that he wanted to experiment and search for a new sound on this album. Some tracks were cut live to tape, others were built layer by layer. The number one priority was getting the right arrangement and performance cut to tape. The heart of this record is very traditional, but sonically we wanted to push things and find new spaces and textures that put the listener in a different frame of mind.”
Regarding his songwriting craft, Shaw says, “Usually I try to make songs have a life, like they are birthed, so even if the story is being told, it’s almost conversational. So it could be the life of a conversation that you’re hearing. But I’ve noticed that there’s usually a theme. It’ll usually start off, maybe not dark, but I guess like [author Kurt] Vonnegut, he says ‘Every character, everything, should have something they want, and some kind of conflict,’ so I think at the beginning of every song, there’s always some kind of desire or longing or some kind of conflict. I think usually with poetry, there’s a darkness, and then it unfolds and sometimes there’s this resurrection quality or some glorious moment. Or other times, like when John Wayne gets shot—he’s riding off, he’s probably not going to make it. There’s your fallen hero-sounding moments or something like that.”
The Great Book of John’s new album is as yet untitled and unreleased, but the first single is available on vinyl at area record stores, including Renaissance Records and Charlemagne Records in Five Points South. Titled “Let Me Slide,” it is an instantly enjoyable track, with a brooding intensity that drives into a vaulting hook.
“Rhythmically it’s really interesting,” says Shaw. “I’ve never done something like in the chorus. It’s just a real cool rhythm. It’s not a weird time signature, we’ve done some stuff like that, but it’s just—I mean, it’s not going to sound like Paul Simon, but almost how he’ll use everything to push a rhythm. That idea, just applied to a completely different sound.”
Luckily, you’ll have a chance to hear more of The Great Book of John this Friday, February 5, when they play at Bottletree with The Gum Creek Killers and Sanders Bohlke. The doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $8. The show celebrates the first three releases in the Communicating Vessels 7-inch vinyl series.
For more information, visit communicatingvessels.net/7inchseries.php. For more information on the show, or to purchase tickets, visit www.thebottletree.com.
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.