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Big Music Feature

Sweet Emotion

Ryan Shelkett, Happy at Last

Jefferson Jackson Steele
The Arms of Someone New: After getting a little taste of the big time with Cross My Heart, Ryan Shelkett (center) has embraced two new bands, Liar's Academy (from far left, Matt Smith and Evan Tanner) and Dead Red Sea (Charles Cole, Buck Carey, and Alan Randall).

Big Music Issue 2001

Sweet Emotion Ryan Shelkett, Happy at Last | By Anna Ditkoff

Swamp Fever Are These les Bon Temps for the Local Zydeco Scene? | By Brian Morton

Local Heroes Musicians Pick Their All-Time Favorite Baltimore Bands

Unleash the Oriole An Open Letter to Sisqó | By Vincent Williams

All About Artscape Your Guide to the Best of the Fest | By Lee Gardner

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 7/11/2001

"I always kind of had this goal and plan [to] just make music and have that be my life," says Ryan Shelkett, the 26-year-old guitarist and singer for Baltimore-based bands Dead Red Sea and Liar's Academy. With those two groups and a few other projects in the works, he's realizing that goal. But even the best-laid plans don't always work out as expected. Along the way, Shelkett has experienced the frustration of spending years in a band that never quite hit and the difficulties of breaking up a band on the brink of commercial success. Put that together with personal problems and the derision he's faced within his hometown scene, and it has been a strange journey for Baltimore's very own emo king.

Shelkett formed his first serious band, Blank, in 1992, right after graduating high school and deciding to eschew college to focus on music with four friends. Shelkett took center stage as the vocalist, but singing didn't come easily at first. "I was really a quiet, shy person," he says. "Being a singer guy made me come out of my shell a little more." With Shelkett's achingly melancholy vocals at the forefront, Blank paired emotional lyrics with chunky, hardcore-flavored guitar parts, thundering drums, and plenty of screaming. The mix of hardcore, metal touches, and California pop-punk-style ballads gave the band an intriguing mix of rough and smooth.

In the five years that Blank was together it created music with substantial staying power. Of the band's final album, Anywhere but Here (Reptilian Records), Shelkett says, "I could put that record out now and be proud of it." Blank fans still turn out when the singer tours with his current bands, and a two-CD Blank retrospective is in the works. But the postmortem popularity belies the band's troubled existence. There were a lot of lineup changes, and, as Shelkett says, "Blank was always plagued with, um, nobody wanting to put out our records."

Shelkett's next band almost couldn't help being successful. Cross My Heart formed just a couple of months after Blank's November 1997 demise and featured former Pee Tanks drummer Evan Tanner, Chris Camden of Daybreak on bass, and S. Dwayne Bruner of Late Bloomer on guitar. After just four days together, the quartet recorded a demo that immediately caught the attention of John Szuch, e founder of the Charlotte, N.C.-based label Deep Elm, which released the band's self-titled EP in January 1999. The guitars created lacy melodies and Shelkett sang more softly, but Tanner's powerful drumming and Camden's rough-and-tumble bass lines kept Cross My Heart rooted in rock, filling in sweet ballads with hardcore-flavored hooks. The time was right for the band's brand of hard-edged melancholy. "We got lumped in with that whole emo-pop genre that was exploding," Tanner says. A week after Cross My Heart's release, the vinyl sold out its first pressing, says Shelkett.

Despite burgeoning success, the band suffered its share of slings and arrows from its local peers; maudlin, sensitive, lyric-driven emo is about as welcome in the blue-collar Baltimore scene as a drama-club nerd in shop class. When the E-word is dropped during a recent interview, Shelkett and Tanner resort to jokes. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Tanner deadpans. "I think I heard that word once," Shelkett chimes in. After a litany of one-liners, Tanner offers an impromptu history of the loaded word: "Until, like, 1997, 'emo' was a derogatory term any way you looked at it. Nobody wanted to be labeled emo. And then in '97 the catch phrase 'emo' caught on, and a lot of bands started identifying with it. It's just a softer form of a rebellious kind of rock music."

"To me it's just this dumb little tag," Shelkett says. "It's not like I'm tossin' and turnin' at night because people are calling me this emo guy or something. The main thing is that people listen to my--to the bands I've done, and the music we're playing."

It's a little slip, a singular quickly switched to the plural, but it says a lot about Shelkett's musical trajectory. Bands are often identified with their singers, and Shelkett's tender tenor has become a brand of sorts. And so the vocalist took the brunt of Baltimore's distaste for emo. Shelkett notes with a laugh that the other guys in the band "got off scot-free. I took it all. I took the praising and the bullshit comments." This was especially difficult, he says, since he considers singing intensely personal. "That's you," Shelkett says. "If people don't like it and say, 'I hate his voice,' that's like saying, 'I hate his face.'" In addition to being a target for criticism, he also got most of the attention, which occasionally irked his bandmates.

And there was plenty of attention. Cross My Heart's recordings were widely distributed, the band got radio play in some cities, and its tunes popped up on TV shows like MTV's The Real World and ABC's Making the Band. "We actually never solicited television," Szuch says, "but we had a lot of people contact us."

The national exposure didn't help endear the band to the rest of Baltimore's tight-knit music scene. "People from here don't perceive [Cross My Heart] as being as original as it was because it's from here," Tanner says.

"I think a lot of it was jealousy, plain and simple," Shelkett adds. "I don't think you can deny the talent."

As the band's success escalated, so did the depression Shelkett had been battling for years. "It was hard because personally my life was a wreck and the band was doing so well," he says now. "It was like my dream come true, and here I am just wanting to die in a corner somewhere." Cross My Heart's lyrics definitely reflect that mind-set--they're morbidly melancholy even for emo. (The title of Cross My Heart's most well-known song: "It Doesn't Take That Many Pills to Sleep Forever.") And the ways in which Shelkett chose to deal with his depression were not always healthy: "I was really getting heavily into the whole rock-cliché things--sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." But as Shelkett worked through his depression, it became difficult to live up to the band's gloomy reputation. Reliving painful memories on stage and listening to fans' tales of woe off became draining, he says.

Shelkett's personal struggle combined with internal strife led him and Tanner to pull the plug on Cross My Heart. "Toward the end of it we could have probably toured full-time and not had to work," Tanner says. "But there were just too many conflicts." Some of the band members were not ready to give their lives over to touring; Shelkett and Tanner weren't willing to let the band stall. Cross My Heart broke up in September 2000, shortly after the release of the radio-friendly full-length album Temporary Contemporary.

"We were disappointed, but it wasn't a surprise," Deep Elm's Szuch says. "From day one, [the band] had lots of internal struggle."

And the band that was teased for its success started getting teased for throwing in the towel. "A lot of people are like, 'Are you stupid? Why the fuck did you break up that band? That band was your ticket,'" Shelkett says. "But it just didn't feel right anymore."

This time around, Shelkett already had a new project going when his band broke up. In October 1999 he had started a side project called Dead Red Sea with Wrong Button guitarist Darren Houlk on drums and bassist Alan Randall. When Cross My Heart split, Shelkett simply shifted his focus to the new group.

The singer never really intended for Dead Red Sea to be a serious band--"just friends getting together just to play some music," he says. It became more serious when Cross My Heart broke up and two labels showed interest in putting out Dead Red Sea's upcoming album, Birds. Deep Elm eventually won out and will release it in September. "I just fell in love with it," Szuch says. "It's very honest." An advance copy of the album reveals a sort of dreamy sound, mixed with an almost country-style twang, offset by a few new directions, such as an intriguingly Indian-flavored song. The band's sound is soft, melodic, and spare. "A lot of the Dead Red Sea stuff is very down-tempo, very quiet, very personal," Shelkett says. "We use a lot of space and atmosphere."

Once again, just as the band started gaining momentum, problems popped up. Houlk left Dead Red Sea this past May on the eve of a tour. Charles Cole, who had joined the band late last year as a second guitarist, switched to the drums to take up the slack, and Buck Carey came on board to play electric piano. At a June show at the Ottobar, the effects of the recent shake-up were apparent. Shelkett played lead guitar with no rhythm guitar to fill out the sound, and Cole's drumming was noticeably sparse.

Shelkett has also started another group, Liar's Academy, with Tanner and Matt Smith of Richmond, Va.-based Strike Anywhere. Again, immediate label interest has helped get things rolling; the trio goes into the studio next month to record its first album, slated for release on New York-based label Equal Vision in November. The new band has a punchier, more straight-ahead rock feel than Dead Red Sea, with catchier hooks, shorter songs, and a bigger sound overall. Its sound is also a return to the energy and pace of Blank. "In a weird way, Liar's Academy for me is kind of in the same place mentally as Blank was," Shelkett says. "It just makes me happy, because it's me doing what I want to do in its purest form."

Despite the members' excitement about the new band, Liar's Academy hasn't toured yet. "We're going to take it a little more strategically than we have with previous bands," Tanner says. "Wait till we having something out there instead of beating ourselves to death."

So with more experience in the business side of music and songs that Shelkett describes as "very radio-friendly," will Liar's Academy match Cross My Heart's success? Whatever the outcome, Shelkett is sticking to the plan he hatched nine years and four bands ago. "I'm really not much good at anything else," he says. "I'm OK at a lot of little things. But I feel I really am good at writing songs and being in rock bands, so I'm going to see where it goes."

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