When they were in high school, the Shrimpers passed the time by driving around the new, manicured subdivisions on Billings’ west side, blaring Velvet Underground or Big Black from their rolled-down windows. This is at the foundation of their music. The music is defiance, a rejection of all that they grew up with and were expected to want, i.e., the comfortable sterility of middle-class American life. Their very name is a mockery of middle-class youth culture. When they first formed, a lot of kids in Billings were into Marilyn Manson, sadomasochism and sex fetishes. So their name alludes to the sucking of toes, not the kind of shrimping where you go out on a boat, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term.
But the satirical name game doesn’t stop there. The members use pseudonyms loosely based on their favorite iconoclasts. Carl M.rks sings and plays guitar, Tim L.ry is the drummer, and Bill B.rr.ws plays bass and viola. The Shrimpers’ sound is wild, raw and hard to classify. The songs each have a different feel. Some resemble garage rock, some have a swing tone to the percussion, and others resemble the classic country sounds of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams—only grittier. There are a few instrumental peculiarities worth noting to grasp the Shrimpers’ sound. First, unlike most current rock outfits, M.rks never uses distortion on his guitar, claiming that distorted guitars all sound the same: “Distortion hides your mistakes,” he says. “I want people to hear every note I miss.” Second, L.ry abstains from crash cymbals. “They’re too bright and overused,” he says. “We wanted a thick, ugly drum sound.” Third, B.rr.ws plays a fretless bass guitar. It almost sounds like a standup bass in country or bluegrass music, and therefore is smoother and blends together with the drums into a single rhythmic unit, says M.rks.
Still, don’t let the talk of smooth bass lines and undistorted guitars fool you into believing that the Shrimpers are a placid band that plays quietly in the background while you have a relaxing conversation. For all the abrasion they lack in guitar fuzz and cymbal rings, they more than make up for in sheer amplification, screamed vocalization and raucous stage antics. The Shrimpers are a sight to see live. On the street, they are all mild-mannered, Clark Kent types: collared shirts, neat hair, and the rest. But on stage, something gives way and a furious, almost reckless energy is unleashed. “That’s why I admire (William) Burroughs,” says M.rks, “He dressed like a normal guy, but inside he was a sick, sick man.” Just as Burroughs revealed his inner lunatic through writing, the Shrimpers reveal theirs through music. They all flail wildly, spastically hitting notes or beats (usually, but not always, the right ones), they sweat, they yell and get down onto the beer-glazed floor with the crowd at Jay’s. “If you play music and you’re not even twitching, then it’s not resonating enough,” says M.rks.
At times M.rks resembles a deranged street preacher in his erratic gestures and unrelenting delivery. He was raised Lutheran and says he actually wanted to be a minister until he hit puberty and couldn’t reconcile the church’s view on sex. He’s still dealing with that conflict, and most of his lyrics are about sex and God, mixing the spiritual with the corporeal, the sacrosanct with the profane. M.rks says he mines the Bible for “fresh, old material,” and rewrites its stories in a different, disturbing light. “The churches have whitewashed God,” M.rks says. “I like the bloody, unpredictable God of the Old Testament.” Like those old tales from Israel, M.rks wants Shrimpers performances to be a spiritual experience that is all at once “full of emotion, heroic and a little scary.”
Have flocks adhered to the Shrimper cult? Possibly. Since all three members moved, one at a time, from Billings to Missoula, the Shrimpers have become more recognized and popular in town. It’s likely that most people don’t emerge from a Shrimpers show somehow mystically transformed, but the Shrimpers usually get people moving and dancing (not always an easy feat at Jay’s).
And so, they soldier on, pursuing their own path. “We have to take on the Gnostic idea that we’re right and not everyone else gets it,” L.ry says. “If we didn’t, we’d all give up and start a rap metal or pop punk band instead.”
The Shrimpers spaz out Saturday, Aug. 3 at Jay’s Upstairs with special guests Sasshole and the Muddy River Nightmare Band. 10 PM. Cover TBA.