There are precisely two moments when THE SHACKS will stop you dead in your tracks. The first comes when you hear their music, a seductively dreamy blend of early rock, vintage soul, and intimately hushed vocals that seem to float out weightlessly from the ether. The second comes when you see the band and realize that the artists behind these captivating sounds are, in fact, barely out of high school.
Fronted by 20-year-old singer/bassist Shannon Wise and 21-year-old guitarist/producer Max Shrager, THE SHACKS are already well on their way to becoming one of the year’s big breakouts, and their remarkable debut album, ‘Haze,’ solidifies their status as a band with ability to deliver on the well-deserved buzz. With a sound that’s somehow both retro and modern at once, their cinematic songs play out like the soundtrack to some long lost 16mm film, beckoning you into their grainy, saturated world of analog beauty. It’s as unique as it sounds, and in the short time that they’ve been together, THE SHACKS have already made an impressive mark. Their hypnotic cover of Ray Davies’ “This Strange Effect” soundtracked a new iPhone commercial, one which actually stars Wise herself, and their self-titled EP earned the band dates with St. Paul and The Broken Bones, Chicano Batman, and their Big Crown Records labelmates Lee Fields & The Expressions. Critics have been quick to notice the group, too, with NPR’s World Café calling their music “the early work of a force to be reckoned with” and VICE i-D raving that they “bring a fresh sensibility to classic American sounds.”
Young as they may be, THE SHACKS are already veterans in their own right. Shrager began his career at the age of fourteen, when he sent an ambitious email to Daptone Records producer Gabriel Roth and landed himself an unexpected gig.
“I was really interested in tape and analog recording,” explains Shrager, who, along with Shacks drummer Ben Borchers, spent hours in his New Jersey basement each day after school experimenting with a four-track cassette machine. “I sent Gabe an email with a demo we’d done, and he called me the next day and asked if I wanted to come intern at the Daptone studio.”
Within a few years, Shrager was on the road playing with Charles Bradley and Lee Fields, and by the time he was 17, he’d penned singles for the likes of Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens.
Wise, meanwhile, grew up surrounded by music in New York City. With a songwriter for a mother and a producer for a father, she developed a voracious appetite and thoroughly eclectic tastes, and like Shrager, channeled her love of music into an encyclopedic knowledge of classic soul and vintage vocal groups. When the two finally met, their bond was immediate.
“I’d only hung out with Shannon four or five times before I asked her to sing on our first track together,” explains Shrager. “When we listened back, it was just magical.”
That chemistry lies at the heart of ‘Haze,’ a record so hypnotic and seductive that it feels more like a whispered late-night secret than a young band’s debut. Produced together by Shrager and Big Crown co-founder Leon Michels (who’s played with Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and Fields in addition to working with The Arcs, Lana Del Rey, Lady Gaga, and countless others), the album was recorded in bits and pieces between Shrager’s basement and Michels’ Diamond Mine studio, which the Observer dubbed “the Shangri La of Soul.” It was Michels who helped the band first get on their feet and shepherded some of their earliest recordings.
“Leon is a producer in the very traditional sense of the word,” says Shrager. “He’s the kind of producer who develops an artist and helps them realize their potential. He invested a lot of time in us and got us going so that we can really run on our own engine now.”
“We’d definitely consider him a mentor,” adds Wise. “He’s helped us with so much.”
‘Haze’ opens with the title track, which is, appropriately enough, the first song Shrager and Wise ever wrote together. It’s a spare, smoky tune that shimmers and sparkles as it shifts in and out of focus, and it’s an ideal gateway into the immersive world of THE SHACKS. On the breezy “Follow Me,” they channel the infectious charm of a 60’s girl group, while the soulful “My Name Is” grooves its way through a mesmerizing take on 70’s funk. Much like a dream, the songs often merge the familiar and the unfamiliar, constructing their own psychedelic reality full of beauty and yearning, all fueled by Wise’s breathy vocals and the unmistakable electricity of a wildly creative band truly inhabiting their music.
“In the studio, we like to cut the rhythm tracks live,” explains Wise. “It’s all about performing together and getting that right take where everyone’s on point and in the moment.”
The seeds of tracks often begin with Shrager or Wise, but they frequently come from Borcher and Michels, too. Ultimately, each song has elements of each member in its DNA, which helps explain how the band is able to cohesively bring together such disparate genres and eras of music. “Birds” makes brilliant use of Daptone drum hero Homer Steinwess’s impeccable feel behind the kit, while the 50’s ballad-meets-baroque pop of “Cryin’” tips its cap to Roy Orbison and John Lennon as Shrager takes over lead vocals, and the soulful shuffle of “Texas” belies a dark and violent undercurrent ripped from the headlines. Through it all permeates an unshakable sense that this is a group performing just for you.
“There’s a certain way we think about our music that allows it to be really intimate, and that’s an important part of who we are as a band,” reflects Shrager. “We try to think of our music as an extension of our lives, and maybe that’s a cliché, but I think it’s something that’s actually lost in the world these days.”
It’s not lost on The Shacks, and by the time they stop you in your tracks, it certainly won’t be lost on you, either.