I don’t know if everyone’s initial meeting with the men of The Shemps is as strange a whirlwind of an adventure as it was for this writer, but if it is, these guys have scarred innumerable unsuspecting victims. Truly, upon entering the lovely 7A diner in Manhattan, I was greeted by four seemingly normal men, until a couple seconds later when vocalist Artie Philie began inspecting me closely…a little TOO closely…and asking incessantly all night whether I was of Polish descent, causing not a little self-conscious feelings on my part.

Having the odd sandwich fixin’ (Roy Rogers represent!) placed ever so delicately on my hand by the vocalist while in deep conversation with some of the other guys in The Shemps, namely bassist/MRR expert columnist Bill Florio, guitarist Dave “Squeaky” Wilentz, and keyboardist Neil Callaghan (members not in attendance were drummer Jim Hass and guitarist Neil Halpin), and tales of various old-school punk legends’ (who shall remain nameless) interest/membership in NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association), only added to my own bewilderment and sense of detachment. As irrelevant as this whole description may seem, I only mention these goings-on because they added much to the atmosphere during our “interview” and have left an imprint in my brain (as has that alarming photo of Jerry Lewis that greets you upon visiting the band’s Website…). When I think of The Shemps, I think of craziness. And, truth be told, I think the guys might like that.

But first, a little background on the NYC band, who’ve been playing since 2000. The only original members left in The Shemps are Bill and Squeaky. In the beginning, the act also included WFMU DJ Dave Spazz, but things just didn’t work out. During that time, however, they released a single, which Bill reveals the guys are “distancing” themselves from “as much as possible” and are in the process of buying every last copy so no one can have a chance to bear witness to it.

Is it really THAT bad?! Squeaky describes the endeavor thusly: “There was an attempt – actually it was a miserable failure. With the second line-up we actually achieved what we intended to do.” The differences between the material of the first line-up and that from the current, (hopefully!) solid set-up, according to present frontman Artie, is that the songs then were catchier, whereas “now all the songs are a little crazier” and “more aggressive.” Bill says the guys had wanted to sound the way they do now, play how they are at the moment, but had trouble doing so with those other members. However, now with the present members (who’ve all done time in countless bands previously), they’ve found a great cohesiveness and everything has fallen into place, which is overtly apparent on their debut LP, the 17-song blast ‘Spazz Out’ (Reservation Records).

This cleverly-titled album showcases The Shemps’ aptitude for coupling the excitement of GOOD garage-infused punk with highly disconcerting-bordering-on-psychotic lyrics from the minds of some truly deranged, disturbing men. Ahhh! I jest. Seriously, though, if I may, these guys, however scary and off-putting they are to meet at first (!), are some very, very cool people who just know how to write extremely intense, raucous, rowdy, high-energy rock ‘n’ roll songs.

That being said…as indicated, their lyrics ARE different, wacky, and reflect their own distinctive personalities (that shine through from the moment one has the pleasure to meet them). They have a sense of humor, I suppose, is what I’m getting at, and yes, it’s warped, but that’s the best kind! Sometimes, this humor turns dark…very dark… One psychotic song that comes to mind is “Blind Date”, a man’s “psychopathic fantasy” and “master scheme” to see the girl he loves “bleed – bleed for me!” Artie confirms it’s a true story, a “rockumentary,” if you will, wherein the man in question “went on a date and the girl was blind and he killed her.” Yet honest Bill dispels Artie’s delusional ranting, saying with a laugh that the lyrics originally had been, “Yeah, yeah, you’re for me,” but Artie rewrote it as, “Yeah, yeah, you’re gonna bleed.”

This isn’t surprising when looking at the direction the band has gone in since Artie came on board and considering the fact that The Shemps’ greatest inspiration is horror-rock as played by the NEW Misfits (no, not really, just one of the vocalist’s MANY lies of the night – the members who left the band all either died, went to jail, or died IN jail?!). Analyzing who wrote which songs aids in deciphering just where the band is headed. For instance, there’s also a song that’s somewhat creepy written by former vocalist Dave entitled “Lurker”. As Squeaky reveals, “[It’s] kinda psychotic, but ‘Lurker’ is about stalking someone and ‘Blind Date’ is about…” “Killing her,” Artie so judiciously interjects. “That pretty much sums up the old Shemps versus the new Shemps. We just [went from] a li’l creepy to a li’l scary,”explains Bill. EVERYONE knows it’s better to be scary. Whoa…(now that I’ve totally lost every last reader) I don’t know where I’m going with this… I seem to be painting dear Artie and his henchmen as madmen, but as said before, it’s all in jest. Just know that upon conversing with this team of slightly mental musicians, there was not one point where someone wasn’t laughing. They’re having fun with what they do, which is definitely honorable.

“We don’t take anything seriously and we don’t expect anyone to take us seriously. If you do, it’s your crying towel. If we make people like that miserable we’re very happy about it,” Bill philosophizes, “I think that’s the meaning of my whole life: I’m persistently trying to always make people with no sense of humor more miserable than they already are.” Artie agrees, “That’s pretty much my whole life too. When I’m like 75 I’ll feel the exact same way.” One can only hope…

No doubt their zany demeanors come out in spades live. While onstage, anything goes, as pants drop and the music roars. Why should people come out and see them? Bill says nonchalantly, “We strive for an audience reaction; we don’t really care what that action is.” Squeaky declares Artie has a tendency to become “pretty extreme onstage,” to which Bill says, “He’s not very extreme; he’s not hurting anybody…maybe their feelings.” Anyway, The Shemps have played Japan early on and toured the West Coast at the beginning of 2004. All you readers out there (because I know there are a lot of you): expect them to come out again for two weeks in January 2005. You’ve been warned.

Interview date: Sep 21, 2004

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