“I’m getting so excited I can’t remember what I’m fucking saying.”
Shawn Mrazek makes this admission about halfway through a 13-minute monologue that serves as the response to a simple question about the genesis of his debut album under the moniker Shawn Mrazek Lives!, Thought He Was Dead. His answer touches on everything from his newborn children to his love of the Velvet Underground to his past struggles with alcohol, and it quickly becomes clear that the songwriter’s personality is every bit as giddily ebullient as his music would suggest.
Despite his effusive, optimistic demeanour, Mrazek had to beat back some personal demons when recording Thought He Was Dead. He typically performs as a drummer—he’s a member of the Evaporators and has previously played with the Doers and Notes from the Underground, among many other projects—with this marking the first time he’s ever gone it alone.
“It was super fucking nerve-wracking,” he tells the Straight during an early evening interview in Douglas Park, “because it’s like, ‘Is this going to fucking suck?’ And you don’t have your bros there to say ‘I’m not feeling that one.’ ”
Such self-doubt seems at odds with the spirit of his songs, which are joyous bursts of indie rock, filled with surging rhythms and hyper-caffeinated shouts. “I wanted to make this record super-positive, and while I’m doing it, I’ve got all this fucking stuff going on in my mind,” he recalls. “‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re fucking Bob Dylan or something? You’re not. You don’t even know how to play the guitar. You don’t even know how to sing.’”
He notes that he played “95 percent” of the instruments on the album, and credits producer Hayz Fisher (of local punks the New Values) with helping him to overcome his insecurities. The pair first began working on the recordings back in 2010, but their progress was slow after Mrazek and his wife had two children in quick succession.
Mrazek eventually found enough time between diaper-changing sessions to finish up the songs with help from guest performers like guitarist Adrian Teacher (Apollo Ghosts) and trumpeter JP Carter (Destroyer). After delaying a full year before getting it mastered, he released it this spring.
Judging by the eight songs that make up Thought He Was Dead, Mrazek had no reason to question the quality of his work. Standouts like “Another World” and “Forget the Past” are rife with distorted six-string strumming, inspirational lyrics, and wonderfully rough-around-the-edges vocal quirks. His version of “My Funny Valentine”, meanwhile, radically reinvents the popular jazz standard by transforming it into a beautifully simple two-chord ditty with a major-key melody that bears almost no resemblance to the original.
“I was just messing around at home,” he explains of this unique cover. “I was screwing around with C and D. I’m the worst guitar player so I can only play a few chords. I made it into something I sang to my daughter Molly when she was going to sleep.”
But while the mood of Mrazek’s indie-rock songs is overwhelmingly cheerful, there’s a faint undercurrent of melancholy that lurks just under the surface. This is particularly true of the rousing “Love Is Bursting Through the Walls”, which finds its characters struggling with depression, loneliness, and alienation before ultimately triumphing during the heart-swelling choruses.
“There was a shitload of darkness, man,” he confirms. “There was fucking tons!” He’s referring, in part, to his experience quitting drinking. “I used to hit the sauce really hard for a lot of years, for a long time. Alcoholism runs in my family,” he reflects. “Thank God I kicked it, and things just got better and better.”
For Mrazek, music has long been a means to remedy the difficulties of his personal life. “When I was young and I was listening to music,” he says, “I remember my folks were fucking loaded and arguing, and I remember going to my room—I was maybe eight years old—and I remember putting on the radio, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles came on. It was like it was my best friend. It was like Smokey was talking to me. There was this fucking crazy bullshit going on at home, but this guy was there. It was the best.”
These days, thankfully, his life is far happier. He’s a self-described “family man” with a wife and three children, and he teaches drums full-time. “If you stay positive, you can be more helpful in the world,” he observes. “You have a chance of the negativity not swallowing you. If I’ve got my head screwed on straight, I have a bigger chance of helping someone else. That’s what I think it’s about.”
What’s more, he’s even beginning to get over his musical insecurities. Mrazek hopes to record a new album before long, and he’s growing accustomed to his new role as a singer-guitarist during live shows.
“I really like it,” he enthuses. “It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s exciting. I get nervous. The whole trip is there, so it’s great.”