Who is Mishka Shubaly: Past, Present, and on the Road?
I first met singer-songwriter Mishka Shubaly somewhere around 8 years ago in Austin, Texas. I was drunk and stupid and had painted my life into a corner so dark and low that I was considering taking up stand-up comedy. He was the New York City-based musical opening act for legendary drunk, dark and low comedian Doug Stanhope. He took the stage alone with a guitar and talk-sang through a handful of cleverly penned elegies on love, hard living, and low hopes. Shubaly’s sardonic country-nicked booze ballads washed over my mind like India ink. I still can’t get out of the damn thing. All these years later he’s sober, living on the west coast and writing best-selling Kindle Singles.
Having recently completed a 350 page memoir (“I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You,” out on March 8 on PublicAffairs) it is perhaps most interesting that Shubaly still tours as a musician, playing songs written as his former drunk self to a following of bar flies who tend to cheer for the most self-destructive songs in his catalogue. The inherent conflict of interest that sometimes occurs between the singer and the crowd makes witnessing a Mishka Shubaly performance feel not like a Rock ‘n’ Roll love-in but like a real artistic flaying of the self. There aren’t a lot of encores. 1AM recently bothered him about his career:
1AM: First off, can you give us a brief rundown of your origins as a New York City Musician? I once read that you were around while The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were breaking, is that true? If so, how have things changed since then?
Mishka Shubaly: I moved to NYC in November of 1998 with $300. It was idiotic. Fortunately, my idiocy is only outmatched by my stubbornness, so I stuck it out. All I can say is thank God for Gray’s Papaya and their $0.50 hot dogs—that got me through a long, malnourished winter. Not a whole lot was happening in the NYC rock scene at the time, or at least little that lasted. The hippie jam band thing centered around Wetlands was over, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion had crested, all the bands in our practice space sounded like Limp Bizkit. There was a vein of sleazy Dead Boys gutter-strut r’n’r happening with bands like Nashville Pussy and Toilet Boys and Honky Toast but it had little appeal outside of the Continental [US].
In 1999, the Strokes got their big break opening up for my old band COME ON at Tiswas, a weekly party at Don Hill’s. Gordon Raphael, a producer who had come to see us, dug them enough that he invited them to record with him. That demo got them signed to Rough Trade… and gave me a lifetime supply of sour grapes. We also used to play with Challenge of the Future, Nik Zinner’s band pre-Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When he and Karen got Yeah Yeah Yeahs going, I cornered him at Mars Bars one night and told him that the folky stuff they were doing was great, but that no one was ever really going to ‘get’ the punk s**t. Worst advice I’ve ever given anyone in my life.
The Musical Game Today
It felt at that time like the systems weren’t totally established. Now, it all seems laid out for you: you post a Craigslist ad, you make a demo, you post it on Soundcloud, you sell it on Bandcamp, you play some crappy venues, you play less crappy venues, you get your coke dealer to manage you, you apply to CMJ, you apply to SXSW, you try to get a song in a commercial for a website. The infrastructure is in place, and every gate you pass, someone siphons off a few nickels of the paltry amount of music you may make.
I don’t mean to s**t all over it because that’s what every 38-year-old does when talking about the current scene — not necessarily because things were better back then and they’re worse now — but because it’s more fun to be 22 than it is to be 38. There are still great bands coming out of Brooklyn but I do feel like the gold rush has happened and kids are making music less because they want to get loud and weird, but [more] because they want to be part of some established scene. Established scenes are lame—make your own.
1AM: Tell me about how sobriety has impacted you creatively. Have you written music since getting clean or are you just sort of traveling around playing songs written by a previous form of yourself? That’s the impression I get. Last time I saw you, you described gigging as living through a sort of toxic dream. That’s a pretty unsettling description.
Mishka Shubaly: Yeah, it’s a f****d situation currently, that much is clear to me. Writing—both writing songs and writing prose—has always been challenging for me. When I was drunk all the time, I certainly had tons of material to write about, but it was hard to be clear-headed enough to get it down. When I stopped drinking, it really unleashed a flood of prose writing about my life (I’ve cranked out basically 3 full-length books of material in the last five years—6 bestselling Kindle Singles and a 350-page memoir, I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You).
Musically, I wrote a lot of music for my old band, Freshkills, and I’ve written a bunch of music for other bands that haven’t really gone anywhere, but I haven’t written a lot of new lyrics for new songs. I’ve actually banged out a couple of new ones since I’ve been living in the camper, but yes, your assessment is accurate: I have been traveling around, pretending to be Mishka Shubaly. I feel more than a bit uneasy about it.
Conflicted with the Audiences’ Desires
The songs that people want to hear are songs that I wrote 7–10 years ago, songs I wrote when alcohol was still the center of my world. When I was 25, my only dream was to travel the country, playing music to a small, hardcore crowd, make enough money to get s**tfaced every night and get the occasional hotel room, get laid once in awhile. That dream has come true. Yay? I’m 38 now. It’s a 13-year-old dream now. It’s past its expiration date. What the hell am I doing? And also… those are my songs.
I lived that life. I’m fine being in bars, I’m fine dealing with loser drunks like you (until you start slurring and then PEACE). I really don’t feel cravings being in bars. I don’t pretend that I’m still that guy up there. I’m honest with people before during and after the show about my uneasy relationship with the songs and the endless touring. It’s okay being uneasy in your life. I’d much rather be uneasy being a sober alcoholic in a bar singing my old songs in praise of oblivion than be uneasy sitting a cubicle doing motherf***ing Powerpoint presentations.
1AM: What compels you to continue playing this stuff? Is it the listeners, the cash grind of touring, or something more insidious? I guess what I’m saying is, it doesn’t seem to be the love of the game. You seem contracted by something.
Mishka Shubaly: Ha. It ain’t the money—I’m basically at the breaking-even point. It ain’t the glory, it ain’t the hookers and blow. It’s absolutely compulsion. I do love making people laugh, and I love making people cry, and I love making people feel s*** that they can’t put into words so they just come up to me and stutter and then give me a weird, creepy hug and then slink away. I do love that.
But the best I ever feel, even if it’s a Sunday morning and last night was killer and tonight is going to suck, the best I ever feel on the road is leaving. That sensation when you’ve had your coffee and you’ve gassed up the van and you pull out onto the highway and put on some Thin Lizzy or a podcast about a serial killer and you don’t really know where you’re headed but you’re just leaving… man, that is the f***ing highest high. And chasing it is kinda ruining my life right now.
1AM: You’ve got some real writing chops at this point: some best selling Kindle Singles and now your new book… Where did the drive to write come from and how did you find success with it?
Mishka Shubaly: When I was in 6th grade, I made my teacher cry with one of my stories and that made me feel incredibly good, I guess. Not sure if I really enjoy bumming people out or I’m just good at it… In some ways, I only succeeded as a writer by failing at absolutely everything else. When you’re drinking and drugging a lot, you move through your days with a tremendous amount of weight attached to you. You’re trying not to throw up, you’re trying not to crap your pants, you’re trying not to cry, you’re trying not to scream at people, you’re trying not to just fall on your face in the street and absolutely lose your s**t like an infant.
Finding Freedom from Obstacles
When all that had been holding you back is gone, you find you have an incredible amount of energy. Life feels effortless. It’s sort of like wearing heavy body armor and eating Benadryl every day for a decade and then having someone take the heavy armor off and take the Benadryl away. Just feeling NORMAL feels like a f***ing miracle—you can move, you can think, you feel light, you feel capable. So in those early days, man, the writing just poured out of me. I’d written about the drugs I had been doing and the trouble they’d gotten me into for NYPress.
My editor there moved to Amazon and encouraged me to write Kindle Singles for them. I thought it would never work. I told him, point blank, that it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of. But I trusted my editor, and I was broke and desperate, so I gave it a shot. I hoped my first story, “Shipwrecked,” would make me $500. It’s probably made me $50,000 by now. Sweet weeping Jesus, when I am wrong, I am wrong wrong wrong. The next Single was even bigger. And my string of successes with Amazon culminated in my new memoir.
1AM: I know you recently taught writing at Yale University, tell me about that.
Mishka Shubaly: Oh, Jesus. They wrote to me through Facebook and I thought it was a joke! I taught a four-day intensive writing workshop there last summer. I assumed it was going to be terrible and I would be run out of town with torches and pitchforks. But I got applause breaks during my speech there, and they invited me to come back for a month this summer. It’s the toughest gig I’ve ever had; it takes every ounce of focus I have, and I have to sleep for three days after it because I’m so fried, but it’s the best gig I’ve ever had.
1AM: How does it feel to return to NYC?
Mishka Shubaly: Eh… It’s kind of like going out to dinner with a girl you dated five years ago and her fiancée. You judge EVERYTHING. Like “ooh, someone’s packed on a couple of pounds” or “Christ, she’s still beautiful” or “Why does she let him get away with that? She used to hate it when I did that?” or “Why does she say ‘sobes’ instead of ‘sober?’ Being sober is humiliating enough without un-dignifying it further. Is she so f***ing busy that she doesn’t have time for that extra syllable?”
Which is to say that your disappointments in the city become disappointments in yourself. You hate it because you realize it’s not as magical as you once thought it was. You hate yourself for being 38 and knowing enough to know that it’s not magical. And, you wish that you were still a 21-year-old nitwit with $300 because, as desperate as it was, it was also a lot more fun.
1AM: What does the future hold for you?
Mishka Shubaly: Oof. A lot. January 27th at Grand Victory with some of my favorite songwriters. Ten days on the road with JT Habersaat in February. “I Swear I’ll Make it Up to You” drops March 8th. I’ll be speaking at the National Arts Club in NYC on March 16th for the book release party. Then around 40 national tour dates from California to New York, two weeks in The UK, teaching at Yale. Then hopefully a long, meaningful relationship with a dog, and a lonely death. http://www.mishkashubaly.com/