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Ryan Shelkett and Liars Academy Leave Emo Behind

Christopher Myers
Graduating Class: Liars Academy (featuring Ryan Shelkett, with bottle) has made a more "honest" album its second time out.

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Liars Academy

By Melissa Flanzraich | Posted 8/18/2004

If you were wondering why it has taken Baltimore’s Liars Academy almost three years to release a new album, don’t blame the band. Demons, which comes out Sept. 7, has been in the can for more than a year. Equal Vision, the band’s label, wanted the group to have a strong team to push the new album. And after the group obtained new management, publicists, and booking agents, Demons is finally hitting shelves.

For the members of the band, however, Demons is the album they’ve always wanted to make. “This is the album we should have recorded from the start,” says Liars Academy frontman Ryan Shelkett. “The record was mixed and finished last September, [and] we started writing songs a year before that. [But] this is what we should have done all along.”

Such confidence in Demons belies a lack of it in 2001’s No News Is Good News and 2002’s Trading My Life EP, early efforts on which the group sounded like it was still finding its feet. Singer/guitarist Shelkett, bassist Chris Camden, drummer Evan Tanner, and new guitarist Fred Fritz (former guitarist Matt Smith plays on Demons) graduated from such bands as Blank, the Pee Tanks, Cross My Heart, and Strike Anywhere, and, for better and worse, those groups’ emo baggage followed them into Liars Academy.

“We all played in various bands, people just know we have been around for a while,” Shelkett says. “I think it has helped us out. We have a lot of friends and fans carry over. It could hurt us, too, if people weren’t into the other bands we were in and have preconceived ideas about what we will sound like. Hopefully, people can just take it for what it is and just enjoy it or not.”

When Liars Academy first started, the members primarily wanted to separate themselves from their other bands—and maybe tried to separate themselves a little too hard. “When we started this band we wanted to get away from what we did before, we tried so hard that we didn’t concentrate on what was real,” Shelkett says. “Songs came out in a spiteful way. They were loud, not honest.”

Demons, Shelkett says, the most “real” record the band has put out so far, but it might not sway the haters. “I don’t know,” Shelkett says. “No matter what I say someone will call it emo or cheesy rock.”

With the help of producer J. Robbins (who has worked with the Promise Ring and Jets to Brazil), Demons is a poignant experience derived from real-life angst, confusion, and a genuine love of playing music. “Working with J. was the best thing we could have done,” Shelkett says of the former Jawbox frontman. “He really brought out some natural performances from us. Overall, it’s a really cool release, every song had its own things—[and] it’s the most honest thing we have ever done.”

When adjectives such as “honest” and “real” start flying out of his mouth, you might think Shelkett is just getting old and losing the angry anthems and wishful optimism that marked the Blank and Cross My Heart. He is, and he’s the first to admit it.

“The whole album is basically based on the fact that we are getting old,” Shelkett says. “I am going to be 30 and I don’t wanna be. A lot of it is [because of] playing music and touring for the past 12 years and feeling like you are in the same spot.”

And although he may not want to be 30, Shelkett realizes the band shouldn’t be what some of its younger counterparts are. “A lot of bands [Liars Academy plays with] sound like whiny 15-year-old kids,” he says. “I am just so glad to not sound like a whiny 15-year-old. [This] album is about just growing up, moving on, and accepting things.”

Take Demons’ “Ghosts of Baltimore,” for example. Shelkett says it’s about “my fear of becoming the drunk at the bar that is always telling you, ‘I am doing this or that,’ and then you see [him] four months later in the same spot. I know a lot of musicians who get trapped in Baltimore. I don’t want that. I have been fighting for it for too long.”

Demons’ spite and anger takes aim at the music industry, too. “The industry’s focus on fashion and image—the whole independent music scene is all about who your manager is, who you went on tour with, what sizes your T-shirts are,” Shelkett says, speaking from obvious experience. “It is sickening to me. What happened to making good music and doing what you do?”

Demons also sees Liars Academy branching far away from the emo stigma that has hung around its neck since the beginning. From the Brit-pop intro of “The Accountant” to the slow, hesitant vocal in “Breathing” and the jazzy drums percolating through “People Are Games,” Demons is the group’s most varied album to date.

“Saturday Night,” for instance, is a fun, upbeat song with Gin Blossom guitar sounds and an Elvis Costello-esque vocal. “That song sounds like a car commercial,” Shelkett jokes, but explains that it’s the kind of thing the band is consciously embracing. “We wanted to do stuff that not everyone is doing. I want to have fun memorable songs.” And Demons’ songs are catchy, even those with some downer hooks, such as “Dying as Fast as I Can.”

The entire album is held together by the continuity of Shelkett’s intuitive lyrics amid extreme musical highs and lows. One minute a song is lighthearted and upbeat, the next it’s slow and depressing, and minutes later aggressive guitar riffs rip through the speakers. It’s a soundtrack cuing a leisurely drive one minute, road rage the next.

Demons’ songs are also much more radio-friendly than the group’s previous efforts, but Liars Academy isn’t necessarily looking for a Dashboard Confessional-style MTV2 breakthrough. “Radio would be great,” Shelkett admits. “It opens your music up to different people. We want the band to go as far as it can, but our label is awesome, we don’t really need a major label. The money would be great, [but] those deals are scary. But if it’s the right thing, it’s the right thing.”

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