When it comes time to write the “artist” page for Shirk Circus, there’s so much to write that it’s tough to know where to start.
I was first introduced to Shirk’s music in 1993 by Ray Ketchem, producer and drummer for Melting Hopefuls, who recorded with Dromedary at the time. Ray was recording what would become the band’s debut CD for Bar/None records, Words To Say, and Ray wanted me to hear them.
I fell in love. Their music had the passion and anger of Husker Du, but with uncanny songwriting ability and insane musicianship. And I followed the band’s meteoric rise from a distance, picking up their second Bar/None CD, March, a year or so later.
In 1996 I met Josh Silverman, the band’s enigmatic and brilliant songwriter and guitarist, and he gave me a track to put out on a 7” for Dromedary. We emailed a few times, but the Dromedary story had to be put on hold as we went on our long hiatus.
Through the magic of internet search engines, Josh discovered Dromedary due to our blog, where we told the long and sordid story of the label’s history over the course of a year. Josh followed the story for a while, and when we “ended” our story by re-launching the label in January of 2010, Josh reached out with some fantastic news:
There was an unreleased Shirk Circus album.
Seems the band recorded the tracks in late 1996 without vocals, and in 2007 Josh and Dan went back into the studio with Ray and “finished” it. Josh sent it to me and asked if I’d be interested in releasing it on the new Dromedary.
I was thrilled.
Throughout the winter and spring of 2010, Josh and I emailed back and forth, reviewing ideas for the record, nailing down a track sequence (Josh had very specific plans in this area), discussing the possibility of a tour. There was excitement.
In October, Josh had assembled some early members of the band and played Shirk Circus music for the first time in a decade at our CMJ showcase at Maxwell’s. Josh’s guitar work was brilliant, his soloing masterful, and his voice in peak form.
That was the last time I saw him.
Josh passed away in February of 2011. His loss was enormous. His impact seems to have actually increased since he’s left; the bands and musicians he played with seem to miss him more every day. A great artist will have that sort of impact, I guess; you don’t realize just how great he is until he’s not there. A great person has the same impact, and although I didn’t know Josh as well as I would have liked, he was, by all accounts, a great person as well.
We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the most tasteful way to pay tribute to Josh, to the band (rounded out by Dan Smith on bass/vocals and Frank Lieberum on drums/vocals), and to this spectacular final document of Shirk Circus’ brilliance.
Josh asked Ray Ketchem to write some liner notes for the album, where he told the story of the recording itself. Unfortunately Josh was gone by the time Ray put pen to paper, but the result was an outstanding tribute. I think we all wrestled with whether they should be a part of the record, and ultimately they were left off – maybe because the record deserves to celebrate the band’s life, and not mourn Josh’s passing.
Still, the story Ray wrote was a touching tribute, and a testament to some talented guys. So I’m going to reproduce it (with some minor edits) here.
“He was uncertain about other things in his life, but when it came to his music Josh Silverman knew EXACTLY what he wanted. No time was needed to experiment. The studio was for making a document only.
I had documented Shirk Circus two times previously, for their well-received Bar/None LPs Words To Say and March, when we found ourselves back in my basement studio in Belleville, New Jersey on an autumn Saturday in 1996.
But we weren’t there to record Shirk. We had gathered to record a 4-song demo for Inger Lorre, an LA punk singer who had most famously been in The Nymphs.
The day promised to be interesting. Inger was being managed by Keith Morris, frontman of the Circle Jerks, who was coming with her to the studio. And there was talk of Jeff Buckley stopping in to add some harmonies.
Shirk and I were ready to roll when Keith called to cancel the session.
Josh suggested seizing the moment by banging through some old Shirk songs. This was surprising because Shirk Circus had been on hiatus. Their brilliant second record, March, had failed to earn the kind of attention it deserved, which had caused a lot of tension within the band. They were, for all intents and purposes, broken up. But here we were, all set to record – why not record…something?
Josh launched into the first track and I was blown away. “Did you guys rehearse that song recently?” I asked. They all replied, “No. That’s a really old song.”
And such was the whole day.
The classic lineup of Shirk Circus blazed through a collection of Josh’s earliest songs, some written while he was still a teen, in the way that only Josh, Frank and Dan could. By evening the band had 12 songs on tape.
Later that night we tried to cut the lead vocals, but Josh had a sore throat and wasn’t singing well. We agreed to come back to these unplanned recordings when we both had time.
Eleven years went by.
By summer 2007 I had moved into a new house and built a much better studio. I had toured Europe ten times as a drummer in my own band, and produced over a dozen albums for other artists. It began to bother me somehow that Josh and I had left these recordings unfinished. We agreed to get together, finally record the vocals, and do a few guitar overdubs. Dan even agreed to come in to sing the harmonies.
Josh sang over these 11-year-old recordings as if not a day had passed. Every vocal inflection and nuance was intact. As always, his musical precision was flawless.
I finished the mixes in September 2007.
Another four years later, these recordings are finally being released. It’s perfect that Dromedary, a ‘90s label from New Jersey that ran in similar circles to Shirk back in the day, is bringing this to you.
Josh isn’t with us anymore. But he left us this, the final document of his songs with Shirk Circus. I hope it means half as much to you as it does to me.
-Ray Ketchem, July 2011”