Zak Shultz, guitarist and vocalist of Orange County’s Stairwell, recently took some time to talk to RELEVANT about the band. He spoke about their experiences, including his thoughts on the re-release of their album, The Sounds of Change.
[RELEVANT magazine:] Okay, let’s start out with the basics. How did you get involved with Stairwell?
[Zak Shultz:] It’s pretty normal for a lot bands to intermingle … Stairwell is an entity. I’m an addition to Stairwell. Jon [Caro, lead vocalist and guitarist] is an addition. There’s only one guy who was originally in Stairwell from the beginning. We came together about three years ago.
[RM:] Is there any significance to the name “Stairwell”?
[ZS:] Not a d*** thing. We’re okay with it, because back in the day … we’re talking Mineral, Sunny Day … every name was so emotional … Bloodshed … I think some girl was like, “Why don’t you just call it ‘Stairwell’?” Most names don’t mean anything. I mean, Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt … what the h***?
[RM:] Who are some of your influences, musically?
[ZS:] I can definitely try and tell you what we’re influenced by majorly. Superdrag is a huge influence. We’ve just gotten into Superdrag. Stuff that the other guys like? The Beatles, Morrissey, The Smiths, Mineral, The Promise Ring.
I’m a huge fan of U2—rock staples, you know. Americana. Uncle Tupelo. We’re going through a Wilco phase. We go through phases, but the basics are always the same.
[RM:] How about Johnny Cash?
[ZS:] I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan. Right now, I’m stuck on Johnny Cash, The Sun Years. It’s the album before or two albums before The Man Comes Around. It had Cash singing with Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, doing back-up music and vocals. You’ve got two absolute legends in songwriting right there.
[RM:] Speaking of songwriting, how does the process work for you guys?
[ZS:] We’ve all got our different talents. Jon comes up with a short idea, and then we all listen, restructure it. Sean [Stapnik, guitarist] is really good at restructuring compositions. Mainly it’s Jon who’s the songwriter. Especially with Stairwell going through so many lineup changes … we just react to what’s happening.
[RM:] What are your thoughts on the current music scene?
[ZS:] Well, I think we feel pretty lonely and left out. We have been around for three years. Any band that goes out has to believe … you believe in yourself, and you go out and tour. But the music business can make you pretty cynical. It puts a hamper on how you feel about music.
Right now, you kinda have a recycled emo, hip-hop/rage rock. I heard Thursday years and years ago. We don’t want to hear it anymore. We find ourselves in the pop-rock genre. We had our fun in the emo/indie/punk/whatever scene. But we’re done with that. Those are the CDs that we have already out-listened.
But we do have respect for a number of bands. Superdrag … they write really great pop tunes. But where do you put them? Who do you put them on tour with? How do you put them out for people to hear?
When we write, we try to think, “What is something that people wouldn’t expect today?” That already puts you out there alone. It sets us apart. But it also makes people interested. We always change what we like. Always evolving. We’re influenced by stuff that we like and stuff that we don’t like. I’m influenced by Limp Bizkit because I don’t want to sound anything like them. U2 had it right. It’s always about the song; it’s not about the scene, or the album.
[RM:] Where does the inspiration come for song topics?
[ZS:] That comes out a little more sub-consciously. A lot of Stairwell songs are about being the odd man out. You’re talking about one of us in high school. Girls breaking our hearts, relationships. Then on the flip side, there are the positive songs like “Champion Weekend.” It’s kinda our life experience, but at the same time, it’s something that everyone can relate to.
[RM:] What do you think about the re-release of the album? Is it difficult promoting an album that’s “old” to you guys?
[ZS:] It’s h*** to see a record sit around for two years. Everyone else is out on the road, while you sit at home wondering when you’re tour time will come. We’re just really excited about Hopeless [Records] picking it up.
But that hurt from just sitting around; that tells you a little bit about what we’re writing right now. When you’re hurting so much, you can’t get too dark. You risk coming out the other side saying “Forget it, I quit.”
The band affects the rest of your life. Especially when it’s like people are kicking you when you’re down. That of course is going to affect the rest of your life. In one sense, I think it’s the music that saves us, getting up and playing and letting it out. It’s a double-edged sword. I think that’s why I say Stairwell is an entity. Look at Zao. Zao’s lineup changes constantly, but they keep on putting out record after record, and they keep the fans coming back. I think the music is a reflection of the people and also the ideas set out at the beginning.
[RM:] What’s your vision of the band and its future?
[ZS:] I guess we would be total liars if we didn’t say that we would love to see ourselves on Behind the Music in 30 years. That would be fricking awesome. Most people told us when the album first came out, “Why isn’t this record out on the radio?” I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that I want to make money, and I want to survive doing this. I don’t want to work at a mortgage company all my life, and Jon doesn’t want to be a plumber all his life.
[RM:] You guys just posted a video for “Breathless” on your website. Any further plans for that, beyond the web?
[ZS:] We did it a long time ago, but it took a while to get out. Hopefully we’re looking to do a video with Darren Doane and Lex Hallibee. I believe we’re going to do either “Boxcar” or “Disaster.” Probably “Boxcar.” That’s the one that’s getting the most reviews right now.
[RM:] Okay, off on a tangent here: What would be your dream concert line-up? Who would you like to see perform together?
[ZS:] I guess I think, “What bands have you seen live?” U2, Quicksand, Rocket From the Crypt, Superdrag. Chamberlain, The Promise Ring from back in the day. You want to see a show of what you saw as a kid. I would love to see U2 from the Rattle and Hum tour … mixed with Quicksand from like two years ago.
[RM:] What do you guys do in your spare time?
[ZS:] We are fans of culture … movies, media, art, films … a lot of that. Our drummer Tim [Kowal] is one of the world’s biggest Simpsons fans. He’s taking a class on screenwriting. Jon spends a lot of time at home recording and writing. I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors. I can’t get enough of it now. I still sit around on the couch of course.
[RM:] Your favorite movie(s)?
[ZS:] Definitely the classics, good ’80s classics: Rad, North Shore, Say Anything, Empire Records, The Goonies, Better Off Dead, Rattle and Hum.
[RM:] Zak, thanks for your time.
Listen to The Sounds of Change, releasing March 25 on Hopeless Records, online at http://www.thesoundsofchange.com.
[Jeremy Hunt is a freelance writer and musician based near Charlotte, N.C. Soli Deo Gloria.]