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Catching up with The Capstan Shafts

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Raf Spielman spoke with former recluse and current captain of lo-fi pop Dean Wells of The Capstan Shafts.

Catching up with The Capstan Shafts

The Capstan Shafts is Dean Wells and Dean Wells is the Capstan Shafts, tucked away in musical isolation somewhere in Lyndonville, Vermont. Handy with the rudiments of recording technology and equipped with a rock-band's worth of instruments, Wells seems to have put himself to the task of methodically charting the ins and outs of the verse-chorus-verse pop song. Though the profile is modest, it's hard to believe his mission is anything less than world domination -- the Capstan Shafts' prolific output is en par with the likes of Jandek or Robert Pollard. Also like Jandek, Wells seems focused almost exclusively on recording his songs; he appeared "live" only once before his recent spurt of publicity thanks to the excellent Environ Maiden. The performance was on WMBR's excellent radio program Phoning It In, and even then he was broadcasting long distance from Lyndonville.

But completely unlike Jandek, Wells has rooted himself firmly in the pop-rock tradition. Almost without exception, one can expect a Capstan Shafts song to be built around a sturdy vocal melody, a steady beat, a familiar chord progression, and to be finished in a concise two minutes. Also to be expected is a faint streak of melancholy running through the tape-hiss, most satisfyingly when the lyrics otherwise border on the surreal or nonsensical. To my ears, Wells' project bears a striking resemblance to upbeat pop of the Bats, but with a greater willingness to let the songs unhinge a little bit, or let a wild, Guided By Voices guitar-solo slip in there every once a while. Wells' has a knack, too, for the thrown-off couplet that sticks in your head for weeks, which is often the saving grace of his less substantial songs.

Capstan Shafts' albums have been released by Kittridge, Asaurus, Yellow Mica, Slight and Wells' own Christmas The Ladder Monkey, and most recently on Rainbow Quartz. Still, the curious reader might still be wondering how, without appearing live and separated from any larger scene, anyone has ever heard of the Capstan Shafts. Beyond the interest the "group" has drawn by association with labels itís worked with, it seems that any name-recognition the band has achieved has been the result of Wells' CD-R carpet-bombing, directed at college radio stations and small, online music publications. Wells' pace seems unflagging at this point, and I can only imagine that the cult army of Cap Shafts fans will continue to grow.

As a last note, and for those interested in the Capstan Shafts but overwhelmed by the number of releases, my favorite album is the 60s-tinged The Sleeved and Grandaughters of the Blacklist, which came out on Abandoned Love records in 2005, and Euridice Proudhon, on Asaurus, is also very good.

Dusted: When you were on Phoning It In, you mentioned that it was around 1999, 2000 when you first started finishing songs and putting things together, what was your musical activity before then? What was it that motivated you to make that change, and to start sending out CDRs and looking for an audience for your music?

Wells: Well I first got a guitar late '99 and instead of learning to play, I started writing songs.

Dusted: And what led you to start sending out CDRs?

Wells: There wasn't enough room for everyone to come here and listen to them.

Dusted: Is there any kind of organization, thematic or musical, that decides what songs go on each album or EP, or are they more documents of what's happened in the duration since the last cd? And when do you decide an album or EP is done?

Wells: Thereís always some vague concept, some book as it were. One idea makes two if it works and three if it fails. So they generally rush out, but the connections are deliberate and when I have enough on that theme that I can throw away half of them, then I consider the album done. Having said that I realize they are all boy/girl songs even if itís a rant against public financing of elections or emminant domain. I'll be singing it to a neo-abstract- expressionist/constitutional lawyer biker chick with a child she never sees named Contrary or Ruin, she can't remember.

Dusted: So, for example, the album Euridice Proudhon, the two guiding ideas are the stories of Euridice, Orpheus' wife, and Proudhon, the 18th century anarchist; is that right? Are the songs then about the overlap of these two ideas?

Wells: It's much more half-assed than that. Didacticism is fine but it takes time away from... non-didacticism, I guess. Really I equate politics, world view economic idealism, culture hawks, those youthful art-school type ambitions(loosely speaking), inter/intra-personal relations.... I find if I comment on all of it at once, the individual aspects make more sense to me. The more colors the higher the resolution maybe, and of course there is the whole "dig me wordplay" thing. It's the eternal crush, ultimately, these are all loves songs to...?

Dusted: And are there a lot of, um, biker chicks in Vermont?

Wells: There's a little biker chick in all of us.

Dusted: Do you go back to your songs after you've recorded them? Are there songs that you've written that stick with you, that you maybe still play on the guitar every once in a while or hum to yourself in the supermarket?

Wells: I almost never play them after I record them. I do listen to them, though, and find myself singing them at work, in the running order as they appear on the CDs, usually.

Dusted: Is the order particularly important?

Wells: Yeah, pretentious I know, but I can't help thinking of the albums as song cycles, little movie dreams/novellas. They aren't chronologically set but I can't listen to albums out of sequence nor do I skip chapters in books... some do... and they scare me.

Dusted: No, not pretentious at all. I'm actually surprised how rarely albums are song cycles, in more than a very tenuous sense. Actually, this would be better as a question: Are your favorite albums song cycles?

Wells: I always assume albums are stories until proven otherwise. I always loved classical music (classical loosesly, romantic era specificly) and as a kid dug soundtracks in that vein; main title, end title, Wagner and the lietmotief; Mahler with his notes about each minute or two section of his symphonies, building to something that lends power to every element which has far too many metaphorical tangents to be enumerated over a six-pack.

Dusted: Do you have a favorite Capstan Shafts album?

Wells: The next album is always the favorite, all potentiality and vision. But I tend to think of them all as one big piece so....

Dusted: What comes first when you write a song? And when you start recording a song, how much of it is written, or conceived in your head, and how much of it is a result of the process?

Wells: Usually start just dragging phrases or nonsense over chord changes. I have lines jotted down but most of the song is held in my head, maybe 70 percent done when I push record. Most stuff released likely went writing to mix down in an hour or so.

Dusted: One of the things I like about Capstan Shafts songs are the weird words that come up, "nudebranchs," "semiotics," "the NEA," to name a few from the album I just listened to. Where do these words come from?

Wells: So much of the words are just what feels good to sing, what fits the line but, yeah, you could call me a "reader."

Dusted: Do your friends like your music?

Wells: Some do... it doesn't come up much. Most have a more utilitarian view of music; TV songs, all-girl trailer dance parties -- well, she told me they only allow girls.

Dusted: Are there other groups out there that, though you aren't playing shows with them or playing in bands with them, you feel a connection or affinity with? Groups that you hear their music and you think, "Yeah, I'm glad someone out there is making music like that," or, "Yeah, these people are on the same wavelength as me"?

Wells: And I know you don't mean a movement or even a sub-genre, but I don't hear a lot of current bands, though I like reading about them. I'll give that a little more thought. Mostly I put the coffee on and sit by the four track. It all makes sense at the time. It's difficult to explain.

By Raf Spielman

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