Tragically unhip

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      Success is finally starting to catch up with Shane Nelken, the Awkward Stage's talented underdog.

      According to Shane Nelken, awkwardness is not a stage, it’s a life sentence. All it takes is one step in dog poo or an accidental dumping of a briefcase, and wham—you’re 12 years old again, with braces full of cheese and skin caked with pimple cream, getting laughed at in the school yard.

      Of course, the last thing most people want to do is put their awkwardness under bright lights and jack it through amplifiers, but Nelken—the brains and brawn behind new Vancouver band the Awkward Stage—had always felt the need to perform. Until he got on-stage for the first time, that is.

      “If someone had stepped on-stage and said, ”˜Uh, Shane, instead of playing this show, I’ve got an airplane outside and we’re going to take you up and you can just jump out, and the parachute may or may not work,’ I would have done that for sure,” says Nelken with a laugh, as he sips a cup of tea in the comfort of a Main Street lounge. “On the way to a gig, I’d have these crazy fantasies, like ”˜What if I get into a car accident and I break my arm? Surely they’ll have to accept that as an excuse for not playing.’?”

      Hearing that from Nelken is like listening to a former high-school sports star talk about how insecure he felt at the time. After all, the veteran Vancouver musician has fronted several of his own bands, and toured and recorded extensively with many others, including Sparrow and A.C. Newman (the solo project of New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman). The accomplishments don’t stop there: just a couple of weeks after the October release of its debut album, Heaven Is for Easy Girls, the Awkward Stage was named artist of the day on; the ballad “West Van Girl” was a featured download on iTunes; and the band was performing at the hipster-sanctioned CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. (Within a few hours of arriving in the Apple, Nelken met Public Enemy’s Chuck D, chatted with David Letterman’s musical right-hand man Paul Shaffer, and saw Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of Kiss in full regalia in Times Square.)

      There’s a good reason why success is catching up with Nelken. Heaven Is for Easy Girls—which was coproduced, engineered, and mixed by the New Pornographers’ extraordinary drummer Kurt Dahle—offers sharp, witty writing and wonderfully uneasy contrasts. The irresistibly summery title track is a dark tribute to girls who give it up for date-deficient guys (“For the longest time, sexuality in women has been so stigmatized,” explains Nelken, “and as a lonely pervert, I always thought that was really ?ironic and unfair”); the album’s opener, “The Morons Are Winning”, is brightly anthemic—but it’s about how the world is being taken ?over by idiots and people who wear tinfoil on their heads; and the catchy driving tune “We’re Going For a Ride” touches on death, bloodshed, and munitions.

      “I have always loved juxtaposition. Like ?that Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas song. It’s such a melancholy song, but the lyrics ?are really joyful, so it’s got this unsettling and beautiful quality about it,” says Nelken. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to start a really hard-core metal band with lyrics just about ?my feelings, flowers, and baking muffins.”

      Ironically, Heaven Is for Easy Girls almost didn’t happen. Nelken—whose salt-and-pepper hair belies his brown-eyed boyishness—had written songs and was intending to eventually make a record. But with constant offers from other musicians to record and tour, he put his own material on the back burner for years at a time. Still, his songs kept simmering.

      “You can’t turn the mechanism off that gives you ideas at 4 in the morning when you need to get up for work,” says Nelken, who jots down song fragments on matchbooks and corners of pieces of paper but rarely commits them to a full blank page. “And I’ve tried in the past to quit playing music. I’d think, ”˜Why would I take this masochistic course of sleeping in bathtubs and playing to barstools and incurring thousands of dollars of debt? Forget it.’ Then you write your best songs and all you want to do is play.”

      For now, he still has to work a day job, and on the scale of awkward occupations, Nelken’s hovers close to the top: he’s a cremationist. But with a job that forces him to face life’s dead end every single day, you’d think that he would have discovered humanity’s fleetingness, shed his awkward feelings, and be confidently looking forward to the rest of his life, right?

      “I probably do think about death more than I did [in the past], but only in the sense that there’s not going to be some grandiose parade through the city square. No statues erected, no angels singing. My death is going to be very commonplace and ordinary, and there will be some joker like me pushing my casket into a machine for not very much money an hour.”

      Nelken, whose parents are both shrinks (and yes, he watched Six Feet Under), continues: “It might seem depressing, but it’s not, because the job has given me proper perspective on the whole thing. But I don’t walk around thinking, ”˜Every day is a gift.’ If it were a gift, I’d take it back. ”˜Did you keep the receipt? This isn’t my size.’”

      The Awkward Stage plays the Railway Club on Saturday (January 13).