Written by Chelsey Marshall
Taylor McKee, of the Shagbots, rocks just as hard as the next angry teen, but this Snapple-drinking history major is no bad boy. With an album coming out this May, McKee is clean cut cerebral inspiration, but good luck trying to convince him...
Becoming a semi finalist in the Rock Star search meant that the band would receive $26,000 to go towards its music career-more specifically: insurance for the van, merchandise, and the recording of its first album, We Were Born Tigers, which they will be releasing May 8th.
The first time I met Taylor McKee, was right before he and his band, the Shagbots, hit the stage, and the airwaves, for a live-to-air show at The Brickyard in Calgary. At the time I had no idea what he looked like, nor had I remembered to get a description of what to look for; a revelation that came to me around about the same time I checked my coat.
The plan was to meet with him before the band went on so I started to scan the venue and headed towards the stage to scout out a good seat. Before I had finished my scan, I had spotted McKee, and the Shagbots, no description necessary.
Sitting just to the right of the stage in a VIP looking booth, was a group of about 14 people, five of whom were distinctively band mates. There were no matching haircuts, or cheesy colour coordinated outfits; just five, 19-year-old guys with identical looks of anxious excitement, that fully gave them away.
As I walked up to the table I could tell McKee apart because he was the only one who looked like he might be expecting someone. With one arm around a beautiful girl, a drink in the opposite hand, and a look of confidence and composure that could demand attention on any stage, he appeared to fit the rock-star semblance to a T. I would later learn that he has been with Alexandra Morrison, the beautiful girl on his arm, for the past two years- since high-school, and that the drink was probably a toss-up between Snapple and Fanta.
He is tall and fresh faced. Everything about his look feeds into his easy presence; no screaming labels, no crazy hair or crazy piercings, nothing- he stands out without a single gimmick.
When I got to the table he leaned forward and put his hand out right away, with the most unpretentious smile I had seen on a 19-year-old guy --maybe ever, and formally introduced himself. He then introduced me to everyone at the table, including the faithful fan following that had been there since the Shagbots were headlining basements, community centres, and birthday parties.
They have since added a couple of highlights to their resume. Last year the band landed a spot in the line up for the second annual Sled Island Festival, where they played with bands like bands likeThe Mai She of Los Angeles, and DDMMYYYY of Toronto.
McKee describes the festival as the first thing that went right. He says that this show is what gave them the confidence to enter a little thing called a Rock Star search. Here they beat out a series of local bands, some already established and successful, to become semi-finalists in Calgary alternative radio station Fuel 90.3’s Rock Star Search 2008, something McKee never imagined.
“I remember standing in the living room and the lady who organized it called us and was like ‘ya you’ll be in a round with- uh- Hot Little Rocket’ and we were like, ok game over!” Not only was it intimidating because of their competitors’ success, but also because McKee had been staring up at this band from down underneath the pedestal he had set them on, for years prior, “That was one of the bands we used to go to when we were kids!”
The Shagbots are five childhood friends: Joseph Mosca, Devin Boudreau, Davis de Souza, Michael De Souza, and McKee. De Souza and McKee go way back, “Taylor and I went to elementary together, and high school,” says de Souza, the other three members have been friends since elementary as well, and they were all friends in high school.
McKee says their name –the Shagbots— is a version of a make-believe swear word he heard on an episode of MTV’s 2gether when he was in grade three and felt inclined to repeat—often—to de Souza, who used a version of the term for his hotmail account, which eventually inspired the version of the term that was adopted by the band.
“Music is just a way of being together as friends,” says de Souza, “I wouldn’t have it any other way, everything means that much more.”
Aside from Hot Little Rocket, their other competitors held their own as well, “Another called One Nine Hundred was in our round, and they recorded their album at Chad Kroeger’s Mountain View studio, so we were thinking to ourselves-wow- this is going to be ugly,” says McKee.
The band didn’t even really think it would make it, but all it needed to enter was five songs, a resume, and played at least three bar shows in the city, “When they contacted us, I know that we were probably in the bottom of their selections, even to get into the semi-finals,” says McKee, “They were like ‘you guys will round out the night nicely’.”
There is magnetism about McKee that is intriguing. He is adored by everyone close to him for the authentic and distinct person he is. Anything but average, it seems like everything in which McKee has chosen to participate he has taken on with full, good-natured force and has found success.
Becoming a semi finalist in the Rock Star search meant that the band would receive $26,000 to go towards its music career-more specifically: insurance for the van, merchandise, and the recording of their first album, We Were Born Tigers, which they will be releasing May 8th. It also meant that they would compete in the finals for $200,000. The line up for the finals: The Dudes, Zoo Lion, Static in The Stars—Matt Blais Connection--who were eventually named the winners, and the Shagbots.
Since then, the band has concentrated on the recording process and all that is involved in getting ready to release an album. They have also done a couple of live radio performances around the city, where Fuel is on location and the set is broadcast live on the station.
This brings me back to the night at The Brickyard where I was first introduced to McKee and the sound of the Shagbots.
The crowd was pretty lean, about what you would expect at a downtown pub on a Thursday night; however, it would soon become apparent that the entire crowd was there to see the band.
The venue was all rock-and-roll with deep colours and large mirrors, and the bar’s name -The Brickyard- is no coincidence, most of the walls inside the bar were brick, adding to the gritty gothic glamour of the venue. Fuel had taken over the stage, and set the backdrop with a huge banner stating Live Rock Thursday’s which seemed to add to the anticipation.
The second the Shagbots took the stage, a small mass of 18 to 23-year-olds hit the floor. There was no awkward first song while they warmed up the crowd; it was clear that the Shagbots have a small, but avid fan base. There is something about the almost famous stage that makes fans deeply committed, like they are part of the rise, like they know something that the rest of us don’t, like they are voyagers and they have found this magical non-exploited gem. It’s as if they are intoxicated by the novelty, and the further they have veered from the mainstream, the further they fall under the influence.
Off the beat and track is one thing the band definitely has going for them. Devo-on-acid, post-Punk, original-dance-punk, alternative -rock -funk, theses are a few attempts that have been made by reporters and music bloggers to categorise the sound since they hit the scene.
Brad Simm, editor-in-chief of BeatRoute magazine, says that the Shagbots sound is heavily influenced by a rich period of Brit-pop that emerged in the early 80’s; the post-punk/electronic dance composition that was shaped by bands like the New Order and Joy Division.
“They have a big, full sound,” says Simm, “The vocals oscillate from moody, to full on punk.” According to Simm, this powerful punk surge in the vocals is what makes their sound stand out against other bands with a similar, synthesized Brit-pop resonance, “They just pull in a bigger, fuller, rock sound.”
Jolayne Motiuk is the Canadian talent development manager for Newcap Radio Calgary, and the force behind the Rock Star search. She has been working with the Shagbots since the competition in 2008, and has recognized elements of the band, beyond sound, that make them stand out: “They are one of the youngest, hardest working, creative and talented bands I have come across,” says Motiuk, “At their age they are writing songs and performing well beyond their years.”
On stage they are a band; you don’t even recognise what each is doing, no one stands out, and no one falls back. The sound is so full and involved that you don’t separate the elements. Their stage presence matches the harmonious chaos of there music, with everyone in constant motion, even switching roles on occasion.
The limited knowledge I had of McKee before the performance, included the fact that he played guitar and bass-guitar, but half way through the set he took centre stage on vocals. It turns out, he wrote, and performs vocals for Blank Slate, one of the songs that will be released on their album in May. This song is a bit different from the rest, in sound and context. His voice is smooth and the song is charismatic, but the real meaning behind the lyrics like the more I learn the less I know/ is this a waste of my time/ books are crooks, and I wont change my stride, only made sense once I learnt more about McKee, and how he feels about where he is at, and where he’s going, with music and his other notable passions.
First passion I uncovered: Snapple. The next time we met it was at Good Earth Cafe near his neighbourhood in Calgary’s northwest where, much to McKee’s delight, they sold Snapple. “Snapple is the best!” he said, before adding, “Well nothing tops Fanta.” I’m not exaggerating the passion here, for the first five minutes, every time he finished a sentence he would unscrew the lid, take a sip, and then screw the lid back on.
One thing he, rather incongruously to the cliché rocker, doesn’t care for is alcohol. He says he has never been drunk, and has chosen, for no religious or morally profound reason, not to drink, ever, “It tastes bad, and it’s expensive,” says McKee.
The next passion we talked about was the music. My assumption was that being in a band that is releasing an album at 19 meant that music was a huge focus growing up. And I was wrong again. Baseball and hockey were the focus of McKee’s extracurricular activities in elementary and junior high, and in high school volleyball drama and student council. He took band from grades 7 through 12, but he played trumpet.
“I got a guitar for my birthday when I was in Grade 9, took one guitar lesson, I’m pretty useless at guitar to be honest, I’ve sort of been moulded as the base player now, I didn’t start playing the base until I was already in the band.”
His mother, Cathy McKee, a classically-trained piano teacher, disagrees. She recognised a musical aptitude early on, “He always had a really good ear,” she remembers.
McKee has three sisters, two younger, one older, his dad is a lawyer, and his mom now works on the local film festival. According to his mother, the whole family is extremely supportive of the band, and whatever he chooses to do, “I know whatever he does, he will do it well,” she says, “He has always been inspired by greatness.”
Modesty seems to be McKee’s chief characteristic; that, and his genuine good nature. His mother says this is something McKee has possessed from day one, “When he was about eight he told us that he wanted to work in Atlanta, at the Jimmy Carter Institute,” referring to The Carter Center, devoted to human rights, “And when he was very little he used to say, ‘I want to be a poor giver’.”
His girlfriend knows that compassionate side of him well, “He’s just a really kind person, like he’s not nice to get something,” says Morrison, “And he’s so modest, sometimes you just want to shake him and be like - everyone can see how great you are why can’t you!”
McKee says musically it’s always been more about making music and being in a band than mastering any one instrument. Being a fan and going to all ages shows, and just getting caught up in the music is what it was about for McKee, “That’s what makes you want to be in a band, when you’re like 14 and you see these guys who you think are the most amazing musicians ever, you’re losing your mind over bands like this band called The Pants Situation or The Skitzos.”
“Musical theatre actually is what did it, after you’re an awkward scrawny 15-year-old boy who has to get up and sing in front of people, at that point you aren’t afraid of anything anymore.”
There is, however, one element from high-school he credits for helping him with the live performance aspects of being in a band, “Musical theatre actually is what did it, after you’re an awkward scrawny 15-year-old boy who has to get up and sing in front of people, at that point you aren’t afraid of anything anymore.”
McKee graduated from St. Francis High School at 17 in 2007, and received honours with excellence every year except for second semester grade 10. He then went straight to work fulltime as a support assistant at a law firm downtown until February, and then to Europe for two months. “I wasn’t really on of those kids that didn’t know where they wanted to go, I sort of knew exactly what field I was going to take, and I didn’t really want to jump right in.”
He now attends St. Mary's University College. McKee says that the school is geared towards preparing you for things like law school or a master’s in fine arts. “It’s got to be the best liberal arts secret in Calgary.”
McKee is working towards a history degree as an undergrad, with hopes of attending law school. “My Dad’s a lawyer, so he has sort of been helping me figure this all out, and trying his best to convince me not to be a lawyer,” smirking at the obvious irony, “He said the best thing to do is learn how to write, and learn how to think.”
“I want to feel like I accomplished something.” This he knows for certain, “Something where I’m not just like; wow I’m really good at making money.”
His minor is religious studies, “The study of western society in the last 4,000 years is basically a study of religion like it or not,” I can see now that there is a second passion that is ignited along side music for McKee. “It’s really important to understand the beast.”
Here the mood gets serious for the first time in our discussion: “if you don’t understand religion unfortunately you’re not really going to get the dynamics of something that’s going on in the Middle East, or you’re not going to understand even the geo political plan of the U.S.”
This is another thing that sets McKee and the band apart, “We’ve got probably the most intellectual band I’ve met so far.” Two band members have aspirations for medical school and are at the University of Calgary studying Biological Science while McKee thinks he’ll pursue law.
I think back to the lyrics of Blank Slate; the more I learn the less I know and is this a waste of my time, is it a crime to be confused, and I won’t change my stride and I ask him what inspired the song. He tells me that the song is based on his experience at university; an obvious reflection on the decisions he and his band will be facing after the album comes out in May, as they consider the abundance of potential, ready to occupy their presently blank slate, but quickly he returns to modesty, “It’s not really ambitious, but it rhymes!”
McKee never imagined they would have reached the level of success they have this soon, “I’ve never been so genuinely surprised at anything in my entire life,” McKee remembers, referring to the night they won the $26,000. “We looked like school girls up on stage, screaming at the top of our lungs.”
Not for one second does McKee seem to have taken anything for granted. As he tells me about the whole experience with Fuel and all the bands they have played with and competed against, never once does he suggest that they are better as a band, nor does he suggest even the slightest bit of egoism, which at this point would be justified. The only real emotion that comes across when he is talking about the experience is an overwhelming appreciation.
“You play shows in basements, and you play shows and get 15 bucks, do you have any idea how long it would take to get $26,000 that way,” says McKee, “You win Fuel and you’re spoiled rotten, it’s almost too much money, its like do we deserve $26,000 when we are 18-years-old.”
He continues to discuss what his plans are for the upcoming year, and talks about how these days the band gets together according to the gig in order to make it all work, “school is the killer of band practices,” he confides, looking on the bright side, “If you practice every other day, you’ll break up, because you’ll kill each other!”
McKee reflects again on how fortunate they are to have this huge opportunity at such a young age, “Were [We’re] cutting our teeth when were still young,” something many band can’t do, simply because at such a young age you just don’t have the kind of money to put into it. “This album was free, most bands have to max out there credit cards, ya--we’re lucky.”
The Shagbots will be releasing the single off the album, Consequences to local radio stations, and as well as on iTunes, “We though it was going to be this huge thing getting iTunes to add it,” says McKee, “but they were like ‘ya well put on for you,’ and we were like oh-- well good!”
They will also be releasing 1,000 albums to stores like Play and Megatunes, and hopefully HMV, “I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in the Backstreet Boys / Spice Girls era where it was like- oh I sold 60 million records! - but I was like 1,000 doesn’t sound like that many, but then I started thinking about it,” if they do sell 1,000 records, they will return to the studio to record their second album.
“It’s an intense crossroads where we’re at right now, because pretty soon its going to be like you have to start making decisions, do we want to take time off school, do we want to leave home for three months,” says McKee.
Everyone close to him has no doubt he will do great things, “I know whatever he does, it is going to be meaningful, he is going to help people,” says his mother, “It’s been a neat journey, I cant wait to see what’s coming up.”
For now, McKee is taking it day by day, trying to enjoy the ride and not stress too much about what the next steps are, “We all sort-of realise what our opportunity is here, I mean we have recorded, mastered, mixed, paid for a professional $27 to $30 thousand record before we were 20.”
“We are not expecting this record to put us on the bill boards,” says McKee, “We want this to be a spring board.”
As we jump out of the conversation and back into reality, we both acknowledge the pile of little pieces of paper that now sat in front of McKee, the remnants of the label that used to wrap the circumference of his beloved Snapple.
I can’t help but to compare my observation to the conversation that preceded it. The big picture: McKee is a 19-year-old member of the Shagbots, the little band that could, and did--becoming finalists in last years Fuel 90.3 Rock Star Search 2008, and now releasing their first album next month.
However, when you break it down there are many of little pieces that make up who Tyler McKee is. Winning The Rock Star search may have landed him the spotlight for now, but I have a feeling it will find him often in the future, on stage with the band or otherwise, even if the spotlight is something he tries to avoid.