How The Glands' Posthumous Swan Song Solidified the Legacy of Late Frontman Ross Shapiro
Some musical acts are fortunate enough to leave a large catalog behind before the principal creator passes away (consider the discography of Frank Zappa or even the Bee Gees), while others leave this mortal plane with only a flash of brilliance to show for it on acetate.
Led by master songwriter Ross Shapiro, Athens, GA-based indie rockers The Glands were working on the long-awaited follow-up to their classic eponymous second LP when Shapiro was diagnosed with lung cancer. Following the frontman's untimely passing in 2016, surviving members drummer Joe Rowe and bassist Derek Almstead—together with longtime Glands associate and renowned producer David Barbe—continued work on the third album, which later would be titled Double Coda.
"The whole thing came together about six months before Ross died," Barbe told Billboard. "He and I had run into each other in the bank parking lot, and I was interested getting those first two Glands albums re-released. He asked me if I would be able to get the rights for them, and I felt like I knew enough people who knew enough people and could find out if there'd be any interest in this. The first step was to make sure we could get clearance to release the existing recordings, and his previous labels were very supportive of the whole process. At that point it was down to shopping the project around, and New West [Records] made the best sense."
In addition to the reissues of 1996's Double Thriller and 2000's The Glands, there was a substantial cache of material recorded for that third LP left behind in the singer's absence, which Almstead began sifting through following Shapiro's death.
"When Ross passed away, his parents returned his Pro Tools hard drives to me, which I had rescued from his house and delivered to him at his folks' place in Atlanta while he was convalescing," Almstead reveals to Billboard. "From those files and previously shared mixes I spent about a year, on and off, putting together a multi-disc box set of about 60-70 songs called Glandthology for his friends and family. We built the Double Coda album from the 'best' of those tunes."
"After the self-titled Glands album had come out, Ross had made a lot of headway on a follow-up in 2013 and 2014 though none of it appears on Double Coda," Barbe explains. "There were also songs that went back to the Double Thriller era as well. What we did was filter about 70 of those songs for the Glandthology and then began whittling it down from there, firstly by asking, 'What do we have where Ross has left us a clear path to work with?'"
For Almstead, Barbe and Rowe, the finished Double Coda is reflective of Shapiro's indelible talents as a songwriter, a man who was able to capture the contemplative warmth from within the boogie in a conveyance stemming from countless hours running the Athens location of Schoolkids Records.
"I hung out with him a good bit there and would bring him coffee in exchange for time with his record cleaner/vacuum," explains Almstead, who has also played in such acclaimed Athens groups as Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power. "I'd bring in stuff from my collection -- like my dad's old Dead records that I'd abused as a kid and since inherited -- that I wanted to clean up, and he'd let me do a few at a time. Ross had a great pre-selected vinyl shelf, he pretty much only carried stuff he liked and it was a small section compared to the much larger general selection of CDs that still dominated sales when the store was open. I'd always leave with a couple used ones with his little reviews on the cover 'slight surface noise on side 1, a very enjoyable listen.' As far as a hang spot I think it was probably a bunch of drop in one-on-one conversations like ours."
"He went back real far in terms of music," Rowe explains. "Ross had a very diverse set of influences of artists he liked to listen to. I also like the fact that Ross let those different influences come out in his own songs instead of one more streamlined style. I know it's sometimes done to a bit of the band's detriment, because it makes us harder to explain or review. But I always appreciated being able to do that as a member of the band, that ability to be able to play different styles of music and get away with it."
"He had a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of music," adds Barbe. "Ross was a huge fan, so if there was something out there that was cool, he was on it. One of the things that make The Glands' music so cool is that—to Joe's point—it's so hard to peg. It's not tethered to a specific genre. It's its own thing."
As for the songs themselves, Almstead finds himself satisfied with the way by which they are presented as a 23-track song cycle which, despite drawing on different points in the band's career, maintains a cohesiveness that offers the feel of a singular work of art and a classic Glands LP to boot.
"When we finally finished the record I presented the sequence -- for better or worse -- because I felt pretty inside the whole thing from spending so much time with it all," he conveys to Billboard. "I've seen that some critics have said it's disjointed, but I think it's a triumph and a game unto itself to get people to listen all the way through a double album without it feeling like a slog. 'Possibilities' was my favorite from day one and I snagged it to do the mix. I really love 'Sadie's Song' and 'Body and Soul,' as well. 'Save A Place For You' was a huge surprise and discovery when I was going through the Pro Tools sessions. Ross was so cool...it felt like a secret diary entry or something, but I love it."
The vinyl editions of all three Glands albums have been housed together in the form of an all-encompassing 5-LP box set entitled I Can See My House From Here, which comes with a 52-page book featuring never-before-seen photos and testimonials from David Cross, James Mercer, Ira Kaplan, Patterson Hood as well as a foreword by music critic Stephen Deusner. Whether the rest of the material—both live and in studio—that was discovered in Shapiro's archives will see the light of day remains in flux, including those songs from the 2013-14 sessions aforementioned by Barbe.
"The new tunes we were working on that was pretty well-developed, that he was about to start recording vocals for, and well... lung cancer doesn't make for great vocal takes," adds Almstead about these recordings. "Lots of dead-end takes exist, but it would be rude to him and the fans to put it out."
Yet according to Rowe, the possibility of getting to hear these songs performed in a concert setting is happening sooner than you'd expect, despite some initial trepidation about the idea when it was first brought to the table.
"David had asked me when we knew the release date for this new Glands stuff if we wanted to book anything, but I really didn't to play those songs without Ross," the drummer reveals. "But Bill Cody, who produced the Athens, GA: Inside/Out movie, is making a follow-up that he's been filming over the last couple of years. He's putting together a fundraiser for the movie here in Athens in January, and a bunch of former Glands members are going to get together and play a bunch of songs. So who knows, I might start feeling differently about playing Glands songs out again. But at the time it was discussed, I wasn't into it. I felt like it wouldn't be good enough and people wouldn't be interested in seeing The Glands without Ross. But now after talking to different people over a little bit of time, I'm realizing that it might not be such the case as I thought it was."
Regardless of what the future may hold for The Glands as both a band and a brand, Double Coda indeed serves as a fitting coda for this great American rock band whose legacy is long overdue for proper establishment in the pantheon of the Athens music scene and the alternative rock universe at the dawn of the 1990s.
"Who knows, maybe we could uncover some live recording at one point," proclaims Barbe. "There are no immediate plans, because we're not sure what we have in terms of quality material. But in the moment, we're proud of what we put out there. This is what we've all been doing for the last two years, working on Double Coda, which is something we feel is really reflective of Ross and his art. It's the closing of the book for right now."