A chat with Cindy Wheeler
I first saw Pee Shy play in 1994. I was working the door for the Thirsty Ear poetry series in Ybor City, Florida, and Pee Shy was the featured band for the night. Back then, they were an acoustic trio: Cindy Wheeler played accordion, Jenny Juristo was on oboe, recorder, and keyboards, and their drummer, Bill Bowman, had just joined a couple of weeks before. For a band that had been together for less than a year, they already had a huge following, partly because Jenny DJ’d the best alternative radio show in town at the time, and partly because they were one of the most original acts to come around for a while — a truly genre-crossing lounge/punk/rock band fronted by two well-known poets (Wheeler read at the second Lollapalooza’s poetry stage and on several spoken-word CDs) paired with intelligent, tongue-in-cheek lyrics about sex, race cars, and underage boys. Their first record, For Those of You Afraid to Rock, captures exactly Pee Shy’s feel in those days. Their second album, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, shows where they’ve been and a glimpse of where they’re going as a band. Tracks from their new record are getting radio play all over the country and have made it to several college radio station Top 10 charts — their song, “Rope,” was played with the opening credits for an episode of last season’s Melrose Place. I spoke with Cindy Wheeler…
So how’d you two actually meet and how and why was Pee Shy born?
I kind of knew of Jenny and she knew of me before we actually met. She had a radio show that I listened to all the time (After the Polka, WMNF, Tampa) and I had a bookstore in Ybor City that held weekly poetry readings — but we didn’t actually meet until we both attended a performance art workshop at the Loft Theater in Tampa. I heard her talking from across the room and I recognized her voice from the radio and just introduced myself. So that’s where we met. She started MC-ing poetry slams at my bookstore right after that, we did some spoken word stuff together on and off the air at the radio station. We talked a lot about doing music together, but I didn’t know how to play any instruments.
I started house sitting for some friends of mine at some point and they had an accordion. I kind of started teaching myself how to play it, just kind of fooling around — Jenny came over with her clarinet and we tried writing some original stuff together. Michael Pool found out we were doing stuff and he was like, “Okay, you’re going to play in three months at the Thirsty Ear,” and he booked us right there — kind of kicked our butts in gear. We were playing as Pee Shy for about 6 months before Bill Bowman joined the group as our drummer and stayed with us until we moved to New York. Four months after that, Mary joined us on bass, and a couple of months later, we pressed our first record.
Do you consider the band as another vehicle for your poetry, or do you keep the two pretty separate?
I think they’re very separate. Songwriting and writing poems are very separate processes for me. I mean, I enjoy both of them, but, yeah, they’re a lot different.
What’s your process for writing music?
A lot of times, it seems like I get I come up with some sort of riff, some sort of melody, something like that, and figure out how to play that, then I write the words second. As a band, Jenny or I will come up with lyrics and the bare bones of a song, or a melody, and then everybody else writes their part, you know — Mary writes the bass line, Billy does the drum parts, Jenny writes her keyboard or clarinet part — we all write our own parts. The songwriting process is a very collaborative process between all members of the band.
Are you having a good turnout at your shows?
Yeah, it’s been really good. This last tour that we did, we sort of hit the pop market at the right time and were getting played on the radio, so it went really good. We’ve had some great shows. In Detroit — we’re getting played on the radio a lot there, and we had a great crowd — people were really responsive to us there and were actually making song requests — it was a lot of fun.
Is there another album in the works right now?
Um, yeah, we’re working on a few things, but right now, we’re just — this record’s only been out for, since January 27th, so it’s only been a couple of months, so we’re really focused on just promoting this record, just working this one.
What’s in the future for Pee Shy and for you? Do you have any writing plans or spoken word engagements?
There’s this thing in New York called Poem Phone, Jenny and I did Poem Phone together during the month of December and they’re getting ready to put a book out with the year’s poems in it. During the CMJ conference we were part of a thing at the Knitting Factory that incorporated, like, people that are poets in the music industry, that are in rock bands and do poetry as well. That was a lot of fun.
What do you get to do now that you’re rich and famous that you couldn’t do before?
Well, we’re not rich or famous. I work at a coffeehouse in my neighborhood and we’re not — there’s no money to be seen yet. We just keep plugging along, we’re doing these tours and if things go well, we come back with enough money to pay our rent. Hopefully, you can ask me that again someday and I can tell you what it’s like.
Is there anything you want to say about the band that you’ve never been asked before?
Hmm. There have been a lot of questions. But at least you didn’t ask the dreaded question, the one about the band’s name.