Playing the Grand Shell Game
Singer and songwriter Eric-Scott Guthrie was a wanderer for a while. Then he stopped and stayed still for a bit. Now he’s ready to ramble again, but with a pack this time. Guthrie is the frontman and main songwriter for The Grand Shell Game, out of Carrboro. The band is about to release its debut album, Man on a Wire, and they have a show on June 10 at The Crown at the Carolina Theater.
There’s a semi-standard story arc for musicians who give it a shot in their 20s and 30s, traveling around the country, playing in bars, clubs and coffee shops, living without much cash or stability, and then at some later point deciding to focus on paying bills and stability, maybe cultivating relationships, a rooted calm and other qualities that are sometimes at odds with the always-moving life of a touring performer.
Born and raised in Greensboro, Guthrie, 39, is complicating the routine plot a bit.
When I spoke to him last week by phone Guthrie was preparing for his last day at his job with a company involved with solar power. He had put in his resignation, amicably, to allow for the upcoming string of live shows that The Grand Shell Game will be doing to support the new record.
“The 20-day tour upcoming didn’t vibe with the office environment I work with,” says Guthrie.
From 2005 to 2009 Guthrie was in a Charlotte-based band called The New Familiars. After leaving that group he did solo stuff for two years. In describing his efforts with his previous band and as a solo performer Guthrie says he failed completely. A band that makes records and gets to travel the region would seem like some kind of non-failure — if not a success — just in terms of paying dues and learning the ropes. But Guthrie says it was a frustrating struggle.
“I was living in a minivan, doing 5000 miles a month,” he says of his time playing solo shows. “It was stupid. It was me and my dog, which was a great companion, but also a stresser, making sure he was okay. It hasn’t necessarily been rational at times.”
That led Guthrie to his dayjob with the solar energy firm.
“I quit music for three or four years,” he says. “I was burning myself out. I didn’t have it in me to run my own ship.”
But finding a band to help him flesh out and rework songs, to give encouragement and criticism and to experience the pleasures and hardships of playing out live and hitting the road has made Guthrie ready for round two (or three, depending on how you count) of the rock life. (His new band has a bus, and they’re ready to travel as a group.)
The music that Guthrie makes now with The Grand Shell Game, which is most definitely a band and not a puffed-up solo project, is about finding meaning and joy in the general swirling chaos of life. The songs are about uplift. It’s not exactly self-help sloganeering, but more of a kind of defiant optimism in the face of uncertainty.
The Grand Shell Game — a six-piece outfit with two drummers, a keyboardist, bass, lead guitar and vocals — formed in the first half of 2014. There are a lot of players to pile on vocal harmonies behind Guthrie, and the arrangements are both complicated and open enough to breathe. Guthrie, in addition to his degree in electrical engineering, at one point was pursuing a masters in liberal arts with a focus on philosophy. So his writing can have the whiff of a humanities survey course. Riffs on lines from Shakespeare (“To thine own self be true”) show up on “Oracle,” which is like an existentialist rumination set to swampy Americana.
Elsewhere, The Grand Shell Game brings to mind bands like They Might Be Giants, The Mountain Goats or Dr. Dog, with their literate, unaffected vocals, and almost manic eclecticism. A song like “Note To Self” has a theme of reflexive and expansive empathy set to a hiccuping carnival waltz. “How we treat ourselves is just how we treat each other,” sings Guthrie.
Even the band’s name is a nod to the virtues of engagement in a potentially confusing endeavor. If a shell game involves a tiny seed — a pea — getting shuffled and slid around in crafty ways, the participant or player is rewarded by focusing and trying to make sense of the blur, which can be a thrill even if one doesn’t win the game.
Guthrie’s songwriting temperament hasn’t always been of the look-on-thebright-side variety. His stint living out of his minivan, being basically penniless and without any possessions, was depressing. But he’s worked to steer his songwriting away from fixating on emotional edges.
“I could write a really sad song. I’m aware of that capacity,” he says. Guthrie says the most dark and depressing song he’s ever written has “no element of hope,” but it’s not something he performs or wants to pursue.
“It’s not what I want to convey to others,” he says.
“Man On A Wire” was recorded at Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a highly regarded studio where artists like Kurt Vile, The National, Interpol, Guster, Frightened Rabbit and others have made records. The title track was inspired in part by the documentary film of the same title about daredevil tightrope walker Philippe Petit and the novel Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann (also about Petit).
The process of working with others — bandmates and producers — on the songs has pushed Guthrie toward a different mode, one with more compression, and fewer words.
“[When I was working solo] I was boring myself when I was writing,” says Guthrie. “I’ve been trying to simplify and simplify and simplify.”
The urge to pack a lot of meaning into a small vessel is still there, but Guthrie sees the process as one of sharpening and boiling down. “I figured if I could hone an 80- page thesis down to a three-minute song, then the emotional capacity of the music would carry feeling on top of words.” !
See The Grand Shell Game play The Crown at the Carolina Theater, 310 South Greene St., Greensboro, June 10, 8 p.m., $7, 336-333-2605, carolinatheatre.com