by Jeremy Johnson
photos by Jeremy Johnson
Alex Sheppard is restless if nothing else. He’s a Pittsburg native who’s been writing and recording music for more than a decade, though he’s only in his 20s. He was part of the funk-rock group the Medicine Men, and was the driving force behind Alexandre, who released a couple of legitimate albums. But despite the numerous projects, there’s an undeniable thread connecting their music, one that delineates Sheppard’s musical creativity.
When he was living in Istanbul, Turkey, Sheppard ended up staying longer than he anticipated, and, being a musician, felt compelled to start recording while he was there. But having planned for a shorter stay, he didn’t have any of his recording equipment or instruments with him. So he started recording using a laptop and bluetooth phone mic, though none of his previous musical efforts incorporated electronics in a major way. “It was born of necessity,” he said.
Thus was the genesis of his current musical project, Pageant Boys, who play a sort of electronic minimalist soul. Their closest analogue might be the British duo the xx, whose chiming guitar and subdued affect are prominent features of Pageant Boys. But the comparisons end there. While their songs rarely climb above 60 beats per minute, Pageant Boys have a peculiar intensity utterly absent in the xx’s music, many of whose songs barely include percussion, and it’s born of two particular features: performance and precision.
Sheppard related some advice given to him by his father, the accomplished folk and blues musician Lem Sheppard: “If you take a drink of water on stage, that’s part of the show. Everything you do is part of the show.” And this plays directly into Sheppard’s vision for the project. “I want it to be more than three guys playing songs,” he said. “I want it to be a whole experience.” That experience currently includes interstitial recordings of Sheppard reading poetry, but he hopes to eventually add light and video to the show.
But that “experience” also extends to what the performers are doing while on stage. You get a palpable sense that performing is something of a meditation or prayer for these guys–every detail is an intentional, conscious choice, executed for specific effect. And what radiates most about Pageant Boys, beyond their supremely honed sound and sharply crafted songs, is the way they sell the music. Each of the band members–Sheppard on guitar and vocals, Cooper Neil on keys, and Larry Fleury on percussion–is invested in their playing in a way that cannot escape notice. Neil, after playing a chord progression, will make a gesture like a chef having just perfected a recipe. Fleury will get lost in reverie, closing his eyes and nodding along, and then snap back to life to hit a big synth note that rattles both your eardrums and your bones.
Sheppard, meanwhile, takes his frontman status and milks it for all it’s worth. His guitar and microphone, while also instruments, are almost primarily props, tools for conveying much more than just the sound coming out of them. The way he approaches and caresses (and sometimes grasps) the microphone says as much as the words he sings into it–though the words say a great deal as well. The lyrics often deal with hopelessness and uncertainty, expressing a fear of what the future holds. “Hear your voice through cell phone static / speaker to my ear / bit my tongue to keep you close / connection is never clear,” he sings on “Single Cell,” and the trepidation in his voice is tangible.
But the music itself expresses none of this lingering doubt. Every musical decision, from the instrumentation to the chord progressions to the placement of beats, exudes the assured confidence of an artist comfortable working with his medium. “Single Cell” speaks strongly to this ability. Amid the echoes of guitar and minimal electronics, Sheppard’s wary voice hovers like a ghost in a fog. And if this were the entirety of the song, it would still be very good. But that artistic restlessness just won’t go away, so at the 3:30 mark, this unbelievably lovely piano line comes in and everything else except Sheppard’s voice drops out, and it gives you goosebumps. Then, just as it starts to lull you, it cuts out mid-sentence, the call going dead, with just those washes of guitar left reverberating. It’s haunting and brilliant. And it’s just one of their many outstanding songs.
In describing his writing process for Pageant Boys’ songs, Sheppard talked about spending time in Istanbul with one of his friends, a poet, who came to visit him for a couple weeks. He said they developed a fairly specific daily routine for working on music, with the intent of finishing songs, regardless of their quality. “I would wake up at 8 in the morning and start the song and get the chord structure. And then at 10, he would wake up and I would show him what I had. I’d make breakfast, and then I’d show him the melody I wanted for the singing. He’d go down and start writing the lyrics, we’d eat breakfast, and he’d have the lyrics written after we got done with breakfast. At 1, I’d start recording the vocals. It was a good schedule.”
And that schedule and work ethic clearly paid off. Out of this collaboration, they completed around eight songs, many of which make up Pageant Boys’ repertoire. Sheppard said that he’s still working on ways to bring other songs from the collaboration and Alexandre’s back catalog into Pageant Boys’ purview. Given the consistent quality of Sheppard’s body of work, it’s not hard to imagine him doing so while adding flourishes that make the songs both engaging and cohesive.
Pageant Boys’ next performance will be on April 30 as part of Big Bang Rockfest, Pittsburg’s annual music festival to raise money for the city’s 4th of July fireworks show. If you haven’t listened to them yet (and you really should), you can do so on their Soundcloud page.