A year ago, I interviewed Tom Shillue at the start of his ambitious “12 in 12” project. Last month, after he was finally finished and all 12 albums were released, I reviewed his 12 albums for NerdTitan.com and interviewed him again. The following is a transcript of our interview, edited for clarity.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So, 12 albums in 12 months. Now that you’ve done it, would you ever do it again?
Tom Shillue: (laughs) I would. The thing is, I’ve got to think of something else to do that involves deadlines and that is a little more–well maybe a lot more–difficult than I like, because it got me really producing on a level that I’ve never done before and I realized I need deadlines … So, yes I would do something like that again. I don’t know if my wife’s gonna allow me to do any monthly projects like that, because it was interfering in my family life [laughs], holing myself up in this room and editing for days at a time.
BB: How much of it ended up being material that you’d already written or already recorded, vs material that you had to write specifically for the albums?
TS: When I first started, I made a list of big stories — I think I had 8 big stories — and I thought “well, I’ll probably come up with 4 other big ones by the end of the year.” I used those big stories as a base to build albums on. So … the last album I did is a good example. It’s called Don’t Force It, and that’s what I think of as one of my big stories — that story about my Uncle Bobby and living with my grandmother when I was in college. It’s like a story I can sink my teeth into, it’s compelling, and it takes a long time to tell it. So that one was like “okay, that’s an album.” So I had to come up with other stuff to kind of pad around these big stories. That’s the way I did it — the idea of big stories supported by little stories and/or small chunks of material.
And as I went along, I would get an idea for an album and then it would change because maybe I went out and recorded something and I didn’t get a great set. And then I would need to make my deadline so I would go through my stories and think “okay, what do I have here?”
If I couldn’t get a good recording of something, I would sometimes use an old recording that I had of some story that I told, but usually I would start editing and I would throw the old version into the Garabeband, and then it would sound old to me, so I would go out to UCB and I would record a set and try to do a fresh take on it. On the last album, I had a recording of something I did last year of me telling my story about my Uncle Bobby and it was from a solo show I did, so it was a good recording of the story, but I started listening to it and thinking I could do something more fresh. So I went out to UCB and I called the guy Jeremy who does Whiplash at UCB and I said, “hey can I come down and do a set,” and he said “yeah,” so I went down and recorded the set, came back and then I dumped it into Garaeband. And I used most of that set, but then the ending of the old set was better. I had a nice closing on it, so I ended up fusing the two recordings together. And because they sounded like they were different recordings, because they were recorded with different equipment, I put a little musical break in the middle of them…
BB: Oh yeah, that’s right.
TS: Yeah. Did you notice that they were two different recordings or did you think that there was just a break in the middle?
BB: I did notice that they were two. It felt like, you know if you’ve seen Chris Rock’s show “Kill the Messenger,” where he does a show in New York and a show in Johannasberg, and he’s shifting back and forth between tapes, it felt like that.
TS: Yeah, and to fuse it together, it was so jarring. I thought “well they’re gonna notice this is different, but what am I gonna do? I gotta make my deadline.” So that happened a lot where I had to make decisions in the editing room, and one of my albums, which I love, Dancing Alone, I kept going out and recording stuff and it was garbled because I would try the whole story in front of an audience and it was getting mixed results, because it’s about mental illness and things like that. So i had to piece a bunch of things together, and then in the end, I created a little story in Garageband. I just plugged my microphone into Garageband and recorded a little narration that fused the whole story together and I thought “I would love to have the time to do this in a solo show and get it up on its feet,” but I just didn’t have any shows booked, and I had to get the album done. So on that album, Dancing Alone, it takes a little break and then you hear me narrate. It’s a little awkward, but you know…
BB: I think because you’re a standup, you feel like you may have been breaking some rule, by doing it that way…
BB: But from a consumer’s perspective, it feels more like it’s opening doors for different kinds of ways to mix a comedy album.
TS: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
BB: So it was interesting to me. When you started having to use music and having to do Garageband narrations, did you think that you might end up trying to do more of that in the future?
TS: Yeah. That one, that Dancing Alone album is like my favorite one, because it’s weird and it sounds a little bit like a radio story and a little bit like a live story. And as I was doing that and I had to add the narration, I was thinking of this song from the 80’s so I ended up looking up this band that was popular in high school, The Lines.
BB: That was a really good moment. That kind of pulled me in.
TS: Yeah, I was like “alright, if anybody’s from Massachusetts, who’s my age, who remembers this band, they’re gonna love this album.” Once I added that music in, it was so good, so I called the guys in the band and I was like “guys, can I use this song? I need you to give it to me for free because I can’t pay you for the rights,” so I sent them the monologue with the song in it and they were like “oh yeah, you can use it.” So yeah, that was a case where most of that album came about in Garageband and it was me just kind of building it and I just didn’t have time to get up in front of an audience and make it like a cool live show, but yeah. like you said, when I listen to it, maybe it’s a fun way to do a comedy album, you know? You build it half in the room and half in your headphones at home.
BB: It’s a good mix. It’s sort of like when on This American Life, you’ll randomly hear a story from The Moth and it adds sort of a rawness to what is otherwise a a pretty produced product. So looking back at it now, if you had to do it all over again, are there things you would’ve done differently?
TS: You know what I would’ve done, is more sets. It’s hard to say because in the end it almost benefitted me with sets. At the end of the day, I had no choices. It was basically only one or two versions of these storeis that I would’ve done because I didn’t have time to keep recording these sets. I had to start editing, you know?
So I think what I would’ve done though was maybe … there would’ve been more advance planning in finding places to record, so I would have a little more lead time. On that last album, my guy Jason at BP media — he was the guy who sent the tracks to iTunes and the services — he emailed me and he was like “if you get me that track by 4 days, we won’t be late with this one.” It was always like “are we gonna make the deadlines?” I always wished that I had a little more advance time to record the story so I could then take a little more time with the editing. But again, it’s always a trade off. Some of the magic that came out of this was the rushed quality, the deadlines. I had to keep going. And out of these twelve albums, I bet you ten of them I wouldn’t have put out there. I would’ve said “no, I’m not gonna put this part out there. I’m gonna wait,” and in the end, it ends up all being a little narcissistic, like that perfectionist thing of “oh I can make this better.” It’s like “no one really cares.” It’s not as if people’s enjoyment of these albums would’ve been that much higher if I slaved over them even more, because in the end they’re just stories so it’s like “get them out there.” Part of the enjoyment of them is that there are people who are downloading them the day they’re released. I’ve been to a couple of places where people are like “we download all your albums” and like a married couple will be like “we listen to your albums every month” so for those people, it’s part of the fun. They’re like “we don’t care, just get it out there. Get us another album.”
BB: It’s a ride for them.
TS: Yeah, they’re into them. They’re into the stories. I know that I’m not that impressed with polish. Like sometimes I just want the material. That’s why I like to binge watch shows on Netflix. It’s just like “keep it coming.”
BB: Yeah it’s kind of an internet-focused release model for comedy.
TS: Yeah, the other night, I was on RedEye with Greg Gutfeld, and I gave him questions to ask me because it was a real opportunity to plug my project that I’d just finished. One of the questions I had him ask was “what was the secret to doing 12 albums?” And tI said “Oh well, really, they’re not that good.”
TS: I knew I could get a laugh out of that, but the thing was that’s kind of true. They are good, but they’re not that perfect. If I say “I believe in quantity over quality” that’s only partially true. Obviously I think the product is really good, but in a joking way, it’s like “get over yourself,” you know? Nothing’s that mind-blowing. Just get the product out here.
BB: Right, if you had unlimited time to work on all these bits and all these sets, they would end up being like 8 percent better.
TS: Yeah. You know what I would love? I would love to sit down with McCartney and just go over The White Album and just be like “what would you do differently,” you know? I’m in dangerous territory, because I just compared myself to The Beatles [laughs]. Abbey Road is so ridiculously good, but those guys were under a deadline. They cranked albums out. You know if you asked McCartney about the album, he would be like “oh yeah, I should’ve done that part differently.”
BB: At the top of this I asked you “would you do this again” and it seems like having to do this has shown you that you work better when you have an ambitious project that’s always sort of nagging at you to complete. Have there been other ways in which the project has made you realize things about yourself as a comedian and how you work?
TS: Yeah. I used to always talk about myself as a storyteller comedian, and, you know, there’s a whole storytelling scene, so you start to think of that as your specialty and then you do an interview and people are like “oh yeah, Tom Shillue was around in the early days of the storytelling scene. He was a pioneer.” So then you start to believe “yeah, I was a pioneer” And you get kind of an attitude like “oh yeah, this is my thing, I’m a storytelling expert.” I don’t want to take away from myself on that. It’s like “Okay, that’s good. That’s my little niche,” right? But in the end, after doing a project it’s like “it’s all the same.” This is what comedians do. We just put our work out there and we try to get laughs. And that’s all I was doing. I was just throwing together…I was trying to tread water. I would go and do a show at UCB and then I would do a show at Union Hall. I would record them both and sometimes they wouldn’t go the way I wanted them to. People still had to laugh. It’s standup comedy. I’m trying to make people laugh. It made me think of myself as a little bit less special. Like sometimes I’d have an attitude of “Oh, I’m not doing the standup thing man, I’m telling stories.” You know, you think of yourself as a bit of an artist and you get a little attitude about it, but in the end it’s the same stuff that everyone’s doing every night at the Comedy Cellar or at Creek and the Cave. We’re all just getting up there, trying to get our laughs. It’s not a different genre. I’m a standup comedian. So sometimes I’ll talk to someone in the storytelling world and they act like we do a different art form, but it really isn’t. It’s all the same. And then I go work for Gaffigan, huge national, huge world name and he works the same way. You get an idea and you’re trying to express it and you’re trying to express it in a funny way. We’re always working the same way. So I guess it was a little bit humbling in that way. It’s like “forget the attitude, you’re not a pioneer. You’re doing what everybody else does.”
BB: Do you have a favorite of the albums?
TS: Like I said I love the last one because it’s a good story, it’s about my family, all the elements are there. I love Dancing Alone, because it’s an exmample of having to build a story in post-production, and it also has a little bit of sadness, it’s got a little music, and it’s got the live performance. And then I think I love In Vogue because it’s just a funny story. It’s a good New York story. So those three; In Vogue, Dancing Alone, and Don’t Force It.
BB: What do you have coming up? Are you going to be taking a respite after having done this?
TS: I’ve got a bunch of dates with Gaffigan so I’ve been working on these TV sets — when I open for Jim, I do these 13-15 minute sets — and I just had a Letterman audition. I’m always kind of up for Fallon because I’m always over there doing sketches and things like that. And then, I’m trying to get ready for a TV standup special. I haven’t done any big TV projects since the half hour Comedy Central thing. The next thing is, to next year try to get that hour long special in some form, whether it’s pay TV or Comedy Central or something, and try to get some bits and TV sets. So always go back to the traditional standup sets, showing people that’s what I do, you know? I’m not just a storyteller. Then, also maybe work on some writng, as in a book, or try to get a book project going. And then, do these dates with Gaffigan, and try to get that national exposure, you know? I don’t go out and do that that much. I’ve always stayed in town and done voiceover work, and I’ve played the clubs here…If someone’s asking me to headline, I want to take the gig. If somebody says “hey why don’t you come to Denver” I want to be like “I’ll go.” I want to kind of step up to the plate, fill some rooms, and be headliner that I think I am [laughs].
Tom Shillue’s albums are available on iTunes and through most other streaming/downloading services.