It doesn’t matter what time of year it is – when a band has the ability to make the listener feel good in a room, it can be a memorable experience. Evenings like these might bring some new friends into someone’s life or perhaps even a significant other.
This is a goal that New London’s Chris MacKay & the ToneShifters always have when they perform live. Their take on rock ‘n’ roll is a bit more peculiar than your typical band, and people can check them out at the Revival Brewing Co. at 505 Atwood Ave. in Cranston on Jan. 4.
Recently, I had a talk with MacKay about the band’s current sound, the music scene in Connecticut and plans for a new record.
ROB DUGUAY: You began your career in New London as the percussionist for the new wave act Newjohnny 5. With the ToneShifters, the sound is based in blues and roots music, with you being the lead singer along with playing the washboard and doing percussion. What inspired this musical shift?
CHRIS MACKAY: I’ve always liked all different types of music. Before I got into new wave, I was into a lot of southern rock back in the day. I’ve got a big family, and everybody was into music and they’re all from different generations. I have a brother that’s into the ’50s stuff and he collected it, we had jukeboxes in our house. I have another brother who listens to classic rock from the ’70s and another one who grew up in the ’60s with all that stuff.
I got exposed to a lot, and my wife was playing accordion in a country band for quite a while, too. So I started listening to a little bit of that and I got into all kinds of styles. I decided that I wanted to do a roots thing because Americana was kind of happenin’, so I figured that I’d try to do something blues based. I also wanted to add a bit of country, rockabilly and mix it up a bit.
RD: The washboard is a very unique instrument. How difficult can it get to play that thing, and how long did it take you to learn it?
CM: I learned it pretty quickly, it was basically me deciding how I wanted to play it. I use thimbles on my fingers – some people use brushes and spoons and whatnot, but that’s what I use. I found this washboard company that’s the oldest one in the country called the Columbus Washboard Co., and they sell them real cheap. So I bought one and you can get it with different surfaces. Mine is a stainless one. When you use thimbles on your fingers it can be pretty fun to play. Coming from being a percussionist, it became easy for me to start.
RD: When it comes to art and music, Connecticut has this interesting thing where there are cities like New London, Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford each having their own scene going on. It’s somewhat isolated, but if you’re willing to travel you can network yourself with the entire state. From your point of view, how would you describe the music and art community in Connecticut?
CM: It’s great, particularly in New London. That city has always been kind of in the forefront of it, and when I got this band together Americana was kind of a movement around there. People were getting into that kind of thing. Blues has always been big in Connecticut and also in Rhode Island, but I think we have a great, diverse scene where I come from. There are always people trying different things, especially with different types of music, and that’s pretty much what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to just do a blues band, I wanted to do it a little differently with a twist.
RD: I also find there to be a bit of a New Orleans swing vibe from listening to the recordings.
CM: Yeah, I can see that.
RD: For people who haven’t seen you and the ToneShifters live, what can they expect from the show at Revival on Jan. 4?
CM: It’s pretty high energy. When I started the band, I basically wanted to do something that would make people happy and have a fun time. It’s danceable and it’s upbeat with mostly fun lyrics. There’s serious lyrics as well, but they have more of a happy vibe. We like to have fun on stage, and people seem to notice that. We have a good interaction. We just like to have fun while making sure people do the same.
RD: What are your plans for the new year?
CM: We’re way overdue for a new album, we’ve just been so busy. During the summertime we travel up I-395 to play gigs in Maine and New Hampshire. Some of our members are in different bands as well, so it’s been tough. The wintertime is when we don’t play that much at all, we have a few select gigs. But as far as this year, in February we’ll be heading down to Sun Studios in Memphis to do some recording. After that, we’re going to try to really start working on the album. Hopefully by the summer it’ll be ready to be released.
To learn more about Chris MacKay & the ToneShifters, visit toneshifters.com or like the band’s Facebook page.