Q + A with Backwards Dancer

Cataloging the band’s emotional experiences, Backwards Dancer has combined powerful lyrics with musical discipline. Now the band’s touring their asses off! Band members include Zack Shaw (vocals), Ryan Kelleher (guitar), Andy Underwood (drummer) and Sam Creager (bass). Teamed up with established Texas indie band, Eisley, this group of guys from Massachusetts are touring the US to promote the self-titled debut full-length album. Creative wordplay aids in the band’s overall mood and aesthetic. Rock riffs blend with a darker tone and gives the album plenty of depth. Recently, Backwards Dancer played a show at the Hi-fi, and PATTERN met up with them to discuss their album release, overcoming obstacles, and touring with well-established bands.

Eric Carlson: Can you talk about the band’s formation?

Zack Shaw: Andy and I were playing an acoustic set with a former band. Ryan came to the show and really liked it. Andy suggested that we all get together and jam. We decided on a time to meet, but the address that he gave me was Kelleher’s house. I was confused because it was my old friend’s address. We had been friends since around 13 years old. This was in Worcester where we grew up.

Ryan Kelleher: Yeah, that was crazy how it came together.

ZS: Timing for the album was funny. We were all dealing with musical obstacles, even personal hardship, before coming together to form the band. When we began to play local shows, not many people knew about the band. So to be on tour now, we feel some progress. People began to recognize us from the local music scene and from previous projects. That led to Backwards Dancer getting more attention.

ZS: We started jamming and got a practice space. We had a bunch of songs that we all worked on together that led to other ideas. So we got together and made little sound babies. [laughs]

RK: When we had started, Zack had been in a band named Hotelier. They had recently parted ways, so we were in a position to do fresh new music together. I also recently left a band and had some free time. I had an idea of what each member could do well and built off that. We both always wanted to be musicians. When we came together, Zack presented me with a ton of ideas that I thought were sick.

ZS: We jammed out the songs, felt them out, moved them around, and made them into our style.

EC: During the making of the album you’re promoting on tour, what was everyone’s role?

RK: Zack took care of financial roles and insured our practice space by signing the lease. Zack has always been the main songwriter. His great ideas are put together during practice, and we collectively turn them into music. He is very synergistic for our band. Our ability to work well together makes it a good time.

EC: Personal stories and emotional overtones in your lyrics require a ton of self reflection. What helps your process when you write these complex songs?

RK: I did a lot of writing at my own leisure for the project I was previously in. Going into this band, I had a clear mental space and focused on learning with other people, regardless of what my musical role was. I can be a better artist through guidance from people. I’m better around other artists, so we were able to feed off of that energy and build songs that we are all excited about. Being together has really helped all of us in that regard.

ZS: I think it was a way for us to discover our dynamic as a band — what became the Backwards Dancer sound. I write a lot, like all the time. I often write poetry. When I feel inspired, I will turn my writing into a hook or small part for a song. A lot of the context is from personal experience. I become observant when writing. My songs tend to categorize emotions, and capture that feeling in time.

RK: Almost like writing down a mood, or setting the mood of the song with the lyrics.

ZS: This EP definitely captured our mood at the time and set the tone for the lyrics of the album. We put everything out there — from relationships to personal vices to home life situations that were affecting us — and we felt that people could relate to those difficulties.

Most of the songs tend to be a dark mood that reflected our living environment at the time. Sometimes band practice was a therapy session that helped me through personal dark times. Being able to let go of the self-deprecating feelings was part of the process. It allowed for growth as well as prevented feelings to subside and affect any future relationships. Sometimes music can become a quest for personal growth. The satisfaction in looking back on previous struggles and recognizing growth is a powerful thing. Even if I still have those same emotions from two years ago, now I know how to cope with them.

For our band to work, we knew it would have to be like any healthy relationship. So we decided to nurture it instead of picking it apart.

RK: Channeling that into music is a great therapy for us.

ZS: Music is a great outlet. A great vessel for emotions. Music also allows us as a band to create a dialogue. We are like modern day socialists when we write down and speak about our passions through our music. As a band, Backwards Dancer has stuck to our guns about our beliefs and our passion for equality. I believe that as songwriters we have a responsibility to make sure our music conveys the right message.

At this point, the process of songwriting has become this extension of my daily life. It acts as a muscle. In order for my writing to be powerful and strong, I exercise it everyday. And when I have a lull, it can ache and become a burden on my mind.

EC: What were some obstacles and learning experiences the band went through making the album?

RK: Yeah, obstacles are expected within the songwriting process.

ZS: I used to isolate myself in order to write. Learning how to write with a group of people is a completely different process. And learning how to write in a studio under time pressure is yet another obstacle, but you learn how to conquer them. Hearing suggestions without having a ‘prima donna’ attitude toward the whole thing was definitely something that I learned. It convinced me that their criticism was a positive thing.

ZS: Yeah, definitely. When you have other people listen to your work, it’s very personal. It’s a trust thing. I trust that you will do justice to this song in your suggestions, I trust you will do justice by a song.

RK: Yes, of course. [laughs]

ZS: What? [laughs]

RK: No, do your thing.

EC: You’re touring with Eisley, and they have been around for two decades. Can you talk about your stage performances with the band?

ZS: When the tour started, we became fast friends with the band. I was excited to work on tour with everyone in the band (Sherri DuPree [vocals, guitars], Garron DuPree [bass], Remington DuPree [drums], Elle Puckett [guitars], Jedidah Lachmann [keys]).

RK: Yeah, they are a great band. We considered them friends quickly.

ZS: Sherri DuPree’s dad had texted me a very excited message: ‘Hey! Zack, my man! Zack, dude! Listen here…’ I laughed as soon as I started reading the message. It was this long paragraph about getting up and sharing the stage with Eisley.

ZS: Sherri and her dad had suggested I come onstage to perform Andy Green’s part in ‘Louder Than a Lion’. This song was included on their fifth studio album, I’m Only Dreaming. So I jumped on the opportunity.

ZS: The first couple of nights on tour, I was shy on stage. Then during one of the stops, the entire band keep egging me on to perform the track together with them. So the next day at sound check, I showed up ready to go with the lyrics written on my hand. [laughs] All kinds of nervous.

Photography by Elese Bales.
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