When Shiffley came together a year and a half ago, the four college guys thought they had put together a fun music project for when they were on Long Island during school breaks. Now, less than two years later, winter break means much more than jamming in a friend’s basement. In its month home, Shiffley released its second EP, Atomic Robot Man; hosted a sold out release party; and competed as a finalist in CBS’s Grammy Gig of a Lifetime Contest. Although Shiffley didn’t make it to be the opener for The Neighbourhood, the internet buzz skyrocketed from the contest publicity (their cover of “Clarity” currently has over 23,700 views on YouTube). I sat down with band members Alex Ganes, Alex Jenks, Bryan Contreras, and Shaune Killough to find out how these four silly friends are finding some serious success with a killer pop sound.
The Argus: So let’s start at the beginning. When did Shiffley form?
Alex Ganes: We’ve all been playing together for years, [and] over the past few years we’ve been in all sorts of different bands with each other. And [Bryan Contreras and Alex Jenks] have always been really great friends of mine. And then the way we met Shaune [Killough] is kind of interesting.
Shaune Killough: Alright, so I was kind of slacking off on my homework one day in 10th grade and I was roaming through the musician section on Craigslist. And I found them.
AG: We found him on Craigslist. We find our friends on Craigslist.
A: If you had to put Shiffley’s sound into five words or less, how would you describe it?
Alex Jenks: This is what’s on our Instagram: synthesizer-driven alternative rock with a pop flare.
Bryan Contreras: That was more like six…
A: It’s perfect. What are your musical backgrounds prior to Shiffley?
BC: I got my start in music when I was very little. I was always influenced [by] my parents playing different sorts of genres in the household. We’d listen to Bachata music to Michael Jackson. I started singing, and then I stopped singing after high school because I fell in love with drumming. More specifically, Rock Band drums and that’s where I started playing drums…. I just haven’t stopped since. So I got my start in music from Rock Band: the videogame.
A: A true inspiration for us all!
BC: Play copious amounts of Rock Band and you’ll do what I do.
SK: I grew up in a musical family; both my parents were in rock bands. So I grew up listening to music and playing music. I was actually a drummer when I first started when I was six years old. And then when I was in fifth grade I taught myself how to play guitar. From that point I just kind of developed that a little bit and I ended up playing bass with these guys. I actually started out as the guitarist, and then when we came back together as Shiffley I was like, “Dude, I have the perfect bass line for ‘These Cold Eyes.’”
A: But guitar was your main thing.
SK: And my playing is very influenced by guitar because I play a lot of weird stuff.
AG: Something that makes it our sound more is that the bass lines are so much like guitar lines.
SK: With the exception of Bryan, in Shiffley none of us plays our primary instruments. My primary instrument is guitar.
BC: Uhh, sticks.
AJ: So I started with piano lessons when I was six…and then when I was eight we got to pick our instruments in the school, and…I was assigned to trombone. I played it and I was like, “Oh man the slide is so fun,” and then I fell in love with it…. [N]ow I’m a trombone performance major at school, and I keep up with trombone a lot. And piano, mostly for Shiffley. I’m really more classically trained for symphonic bands, orchestras, that sort of thing.
AG: For me, for lack of a better word, when I was five I was forced to play the violin, and since then I’ve never stopped. I really appreciate that I was forced to play it because that pushed me into music and kind of getting into it early. …I really started getting into other instruments when I was in high school, picking up the mandolin first as a transition, and then to the guitar, and then bass with these guys, and I started writing songs in high school also. I go to college for [classical] music composition. Most of the year it’s strictly classical that I’m studying or listening to, and then when I’m back on break it’s just a complete switch from working with everybody else here.
A: How do you guys manage to balance being in school full-time and making Shiffley successful as well?
AG: Maximizing the breaks.
SK: In general, school time is for school and then breaks are for Shiffley.
A: In dream world, where would you guys like Shiffley to be a year from now?
SK: Signed to Fueled by Ramen and somewhere touring in Spain.
AJ: Number one on the Top 40.
AG: Realistically, starting to see some profit from it. Some evidence that we should continue it on a more serious level.
AJ: Ideally, signed to a major industry, touring, recording, and turning a profit.
BC: I’ll just say this: in one year Shiffley will be touring, recording, signed to a label, and profiting off of our hard work.
A: What’s your favorite track you’re recorded so far?
AJ: “Turn Around Now” is my personal favorite. That was really fun in the recording studio. That was the one I got to see the most of the process for.
AG: I would say “Cry” because it’s just so ridiculous. We recorded it at two in the morning. If you actually listen to it, there are so many hidden undertone really quirky tracks. There are four undertone trombone lines. There is an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, on purpose.
SK: We thought about recording in the bathroom at one point. We ended up deciding against that.
AG: Just a lot of quirky things on that track. “Cry” is on our new EP [Atomic Robot Man].
A: What’s the story behind Atomic Robot Man?
SK: We initially thought we were going to call [the EP] Diamond Complex, because if you look at our logo it’s made of a bunch of different Shiffley diamonds. We thought of using Diamond Complex as an extended metaphor. Each of our songs are like diamonds because… [to AG] do you want to explain it?
AG: [W]e had a deep meaning behind it, and we all basically agreed upon it. Then I’m in my room later that day and I see this little toy called the Atomic Robot Man. And I’m like, man this thing is awesome! And I called each of [the band members] and had a talk with them individually, that I know we agreed on this title but what if we just made it Atomic Robot Man? All of them switched instantly and then Shaune was the last one…It kind of fits because all of the songs have sort of this retro surf rock undertone feel to them. If it’s not apparent, it’s just undertone. They all have very retro synth sounds.
A: So there ended up being a meaning…
AG: Even though there wasn’t.
A: Which new tracks are on Atomic Robot Man?
BC: There’s four songs on it: “She Bites Back,” “Turn Around Now,” “Cry,” and “Harmonic.” And those are all kind of songs that we’ve been playing at our shows, wherever we play…we’ve only played like five shows [All laugh]. It’s pretty crazy that people come back for the next one and they’re singing it after hearing it once. It doesn’t leave their head. So that means Alex [Ganes] is doing something right.
A: Where have you guys been recording this new EP?
AG: We got news that the studio we recorded the old EP, Game of States, at was closing. So we wanted to try out some new studios. The vocals I did with my friend Ambrose [Teniozo] in his closet. We recorded all of the vocals in his acoustically treated closet…. [He] likes to call it Studio 66. We mixed and mastered it at a studio called The Cutting Room, which is in New York City. They’ve recorded everyone from Aerosmith to Kanye West. The same person who worked on us, Tom, did a lot of John Legend stuff. And the guy who mastered it, he masters Steely Dan. So a lot of really cool names.
A: What has Shiffley meant for you guys on a personal level over the past couple years?
AJ: It’s been a very transformative process for me. I never thought that I would be able to perform, especially in a rock music scenario. I went to college initially for music ed[ucation], and then performing with Shiffley and realizing how much I enjoyed playing and realizing that we could actually have some success with this, I was like, “This is something that I could do. And this is something that I would want to do over teaching.” So I switched my major to performance and this is becoming more and more a potential career. We just have to get there.
AG: For me, when I started college I would have never guessed that this could be a possible thing I would be doing. I kind of saw going to college as the end of playing with bands and stuff like that. And even the first year we started I felt such a hesitance to say, ‘Oh I’m in a band.’ Really until this year; now I feel like I can say that I’m in a band and feel confident about it and have music to back it up.
A: [To AG and AJ] Is it weird that the culmination of your music experience is on Long Island, instead of at school where you study music?
AG: When you go to school with a bunch of musicians, everyone has their own agenda. It’s hard to get a feel of connection. We’re just so lucky that [most of us] have been great friends for so many years, now we’re all great friends. That connection means so much. I’m not the most proficient guitarist, he’s not the most proficient pianist. It’s just the connection we have…has a hand in whatever concerts we’ve gotten so far and whatever success we’ve seen is because we’re friends and because we have all of these jokes.
SK: Shiffley for me started off as fun thing to do, and that was it. Since then it’s become a big part of my life. It’s what I love doing, it’s what I want to see myself doing in years down the line, it’s everything. It’s one of the very few secure things I have. These guys are my brothers and I want to see how far we can get with it.
BC: I can put it into three words: perseverance, unity, family. This is what we’re trying to establish. The four of us, like they said earlier, are brothers. But anyone who’s involved in this, anyone who likes the music and enjoys what we’re doing—I just want people to enjoy what we do. I want everyone to be a part of our Shiffley family. Basically, I do this for myself of course, but for everyone to enjoy [Alex’s] beautiful voice, the cool piano lines, and my lame drumming. What it means to me, is everything.
This interview was edited for length.