Don’t know Shiffley yet? That’ll probably change soon. The popularity of this Long Island five-piece, consisting of Alex Ganes (vocals), Alex Jenks (keyboard), Bryan Contreras (drums), Shaune Kilough (bass), and Will Rosati (guitar), has skyrocketed in the last year and a half. In October 2013, the group opened for Twenty One Pilots at Syracuse University (which Ganes and Rosati attend). In January, after the release of their newest EP, Atomic Robot Man, the band placed fourth in the “GRAMMY Gig of a Lifetime Contest,” which gave up-and-coming acts the chance to play in Los Angeles during GRAMMY Week and attend the ceremonies themselves.
Still curious? You’ll have your chance to see Shiffley perform this Saturday with Laura Stevenson at Earth House. In the meantime, I chatted with drummer Contreras to talk about Shiffley’s origins, music, and rise to fame.
The Argus: How did Shiffley form? How long have you guys been working together?
Bryan Contreras: So Shiffley was formed about two or three years ago. It was when our lead singer, Alex, was a freshman in college. He’s currently attending Syracuse University. He was writing new material. You know, Alex, myself, and Jenks, who’s the keyboardist in the band, we’ve all been friends since high school, we all knew each other from the Island—We’re all from Long Island, New York. So he started to write some songs, and then he contacted us and was like, “Hey, you guys want to jam on these?”—Actually, jamming is such a terrible word. I’m gonna take that back. He was like, “You guys want to create something?” Jam’s cool, I guess, but we’re so not a jam band at all. So we got together and started creating these songs, and it was really cool how organic it was and the chemistry, because we’ve all known each other, we’ve all been best friends. It really just clicked. So instead of that jam band phase that most bands go through right out of the gate, we were very polished and were ready to write some really cool songs. So it definitely started two to three years ago, thanks to Alex, the singer.
A: So you guys all go to different schools?
BC: Yeah. So, the band currently is dispersed all along the East Coast at different universities. Alex Jenks, the keyboardist, is at Furman University in South Carolina; Alex Ganes, the singer, is at Syracuse University; and Will Rosati, the guitar player, is also at Syracuse with Alex. And Shaune Kilough, the bass player, is at SUNY Oswego. Myself, I just graduated from SUNY Old Westbury over here on the Island.
A: So I have to ask the most corny question in the history of questions: Where did the name Shiffley come from?
BC: Oh my God, that’s pretty corny…I can’t escape it. I always have explain…no, I’m just joking! It’s actually a really cool story. Our singer, Alex Ganes, is a very creative soul. He not only is very musically inclined…He studies music composition at Syracuse, so his whole life he’s been classically trained in violin, he’s been a musician all his life. But in his free time with our friend, James Zaino, a good friend of ours from the Island, they drew comic books together, they made a series of comics called “Wrath and Jim.” And in the comics, there’s a character by the name of Shiffley, and he’s this sleazy salesman, always up to no good, trying to get Wrath and Jim to do bad things, mischievous things. So Shiffley just kind of came from that character name. We were thinking of band names, and, you know, all of the band names we had come up with were terrible, just like every other band that tries to come up with names, and Shiffley just kind of stuck. And we like it because we use Shiffley in such cool marketing ways. So we basically replace [everything with] “shiff.” So basically, “shiff” is replacing “shit.” So we use this cool hashtag called “share the shiff,” and what that kind of means is sharing our music through your peers, anyone you know that hasn’t really heard of Shiffley. I know no one would really say, “Share the shit,” but we use “shiff” in a lot of cool marketing ways.
A: How would you describe your music?
BC: We call ourselves “bubblegum synth rock.” It’s kind of a weird name—“bubblegum synth rock,” what does that even mean? We honestly don’t know either. But the main focus of our music if you listen to it that makes it unique is how synth-driven it is. A lot of these synth keyboards really take the dominant factor in the songs. And rather than having guitar lines, like lead guitar, we have bass guitars that are really playing some cool intricate things. So that kind of separates us in that aspect. But if you were to listen to our music, a lot of people compare us to Phoenix or the Killers, Twenty One Pilots, Smallpools, kind of these pop-indie rock bands that have a tinge of electronic influences as well because they use a lot of sounds and stuff. Rather than say “pop rock,” which we clearly are, we like to spread the word about “bubblegum synth rock” because it’s going to become a thing.
A: It’s funny you mention Twenty One Pilots because I read that you opened for them at Syracuse and that you guys placed in the Top 5 for the “GRAMMY Gig of a Lifetime” contest. Have things changed since you guys have taken off? Has the dynamic changed?
BC: Yeah. It’s kind of crazy because these opportunities that have happened were just the true perseverance of our friends, fans, family, anyone who’s involved with Shiffley. We like to actually call them…the “Shiffley Armada.” The people who are involved with Shiffley, they put us in those contests. For Twenty One Pilots, we won a contest. It was through votes, and people had to vote for which opening band they wanted to open for Twenty One Pilots at Syracuse. And we won due to the sheer perseverance of our Shiffley Armada.
The same thing happened with the GRAMMY Gig contest…We were submitted, we had no idea we were submitted, and we got an email from CBS, and we were just like, “Oh, this is spam. There’s no way.” And our bass player, Shaune, looked into it and was like “Guys, this is really legit.” We were just so excited and from that, the exposure from those two things, really catapulted us from a local standpoint. We got a lot more familiar here on the Island and at Syracuse. Those are mainly our two home bases, you know, so the word really started to spread. And people got really excited.
As far as the dynamic in the group, the great thing about being in a band with your four best friends…the dynamic is always going to be the same. We’re all down-to-earth dudes, just really excited to play music together and we’re just…. Actually, we’re a bunch of idiots, man. If you hang out with us all together, it’s a trip…but the dynamic stays the same. As far as the recordings, the recordings have to live up to the live shows. We pride ourselves on great live performances, the tightness of our group. We rehearse hours upon hours upon hours, and we really make a show worth watching. And we really focus on production to make sure that the show is something that people are going to remember: Whether it’s your fourth time seeing us or your first time, it’s always going to be something new and refreshing. It’s definitely helped get us to where we are now. We’re lucky and fortunate enough to be touring along the East Coast and playing all these different states and new markets, which is a dream come true because we never thought our little band would be playing music in front of complete strangers in Atlanta, Georgia, and they loved us. It’s a cool feeling to get that recognition.
A: So this is your first tour across the east coast, in support of your last EP, right? How’s it been supporting that EP?
BC: So, Atomic Robot Man, we just released last January. And definitely we’re spreading the word about that. I mean, it’s kind of taken a life of its own since we released it back in January, that was during the whole GRAMMYs thing, so it got a lot of traction back then and still does now. Whenever we go play the EP that we promote and try to get the word out. What’s awesome about that EP is that our song, “Cry,” has been placed on national television, on the Discovery Channel, and also TruTV. It’s been synced over ten, fifteen times within the past six months. So it’s really cool that our songs are playing on people’s televisions in their houses. It’s ridiculous how these opportunities have presented themselves. But the fact that they do…we keep on pushing.
So as far as the touring, we’ve played Connecticut a handful of times; I would say this is going to be, like, our forth time in Connecticut. And we were lucky enough to play Quinnipiac University a couple weeks ago, and that show went over great. They had a nice, intimate crowd, and everyone got really excited about Shiffley. So that’s the kind of relationship we like to establish wherever we go. We definitely play a lot of colleges, that’s our main thing. We played Florida Institute of Technology last year—it was awesome to get a nice vacation weekend in Florida—and then we also played Syracuse University, Stony Brook University here on Long Island, basically we played just about every state on the East Coast. Almost. Except for a handful, like two or three.
A: Does being at different schools present any difficulties?
BC: I would have to say no. Which is definitely weird. You would think that a band that is not together 24/7 is not as productive as most. But we are definitely way more productive than a lot of other bands that are trying to get out there and do their thing. The fact that we’re away at school is…we’re not able to practice all the time, which stinks. But what we do is mitigate roles. So everyone in the band has their own role, whether one of us is controlling the email list, one of us is doing marketing…so on and so forth. We conduct our band as a business, and that’s the way it really should be. So we don’t stop. Whenever we’re away at school, we’re pretty busy trying to get a whole bunch of college shows, and we spread the word, we play as much as we can, and then when we’re home for break, which is the month in winter and summer, we make the most of it. And we go out on the road, and we play big hometown shows and the train never stops. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
This interview has been edited for length.