Ticket To Shangri-La – Interview with Young Gun Silver Fox

On their new album “Ticket To Shangri-La”, Young Gun Silver Fox invite us to take a sonic break from everyday life and current crises. But anyone expecting an album full of relaxed ballads should buckle up. On their fourth studio album, Shawn Lee and Andy Platts pick up the pace and combine their inimitable feeling for catchy, sundrenched West Coast soul-pop with an infectious funkiness. West Coast Soul talked with the duo about their new songs, their creative partnership, sources of inspiration, tour plans and many more.

Shawn and Andy, you already have a decent workload this year with your solo projects and the new Mamas Gun album and touring activities, now the longawaited fourth Young Gun Silver Fox album is finally released. Would you describe yourselves as the hardest working men in show business? Where do you find the energy to do so much at the same time?

Shawn Lee (SL): I’m consistently one of the most hardworking people in the music business ! Andy is also very dedicated to what he is doing and we have a tough time scheduling rehearsals and tours because of our messy diaries. Not to mention juggling our own personal family time!

Andy Platts (AP): When all is said and done the thing that really drives me and compels me to give all the time, passion and energy that I do…is the desire to improve, to get better and better at the craft of making music – songwriting in particular.

You both said that it is always a liberating experience to work together on a new record. What is the secret of your collaboration?

SL: We have some sort of magical partnership for whatever reason(s). We both bring our A game and we have love trust and respect. Who knows the why’s and the how’s…I’m just thankful.

AP: Me and Shawn cross over in many ways – whether through music, socially or humour – but at the root of us I think we are fundamentally quite different beasts, there’s definitely a yin and yang thing going on there. Which chemically speaking is probably a strong foundation!

“Shangri-La” is a synonym for paradise, for an ideal retreat from the world. Is that what you want to give the listeners with your music, a place of retreat in difficult times?

SL: You have nailed Thomas! That’s exactly that. Our music is always a safe harbour for me and I really appreciate YGSF.

AP: Yes you have intuited it very well Thomas. Out of the storm of the last 2-3 years we want this record to be a welcome sanctuary.

When we talked about the previous album “Canyons” two years ago, we also spoke about the YGSF trademark sound that you have cultivated over the years. You are both known for always breaking new musical ground. How important was it for you to try new things and expand your sound on “Ticket To Shangri-La”?

SL: My primary motivation on “Shangri-La” was to use more acoustic guitar and deliver some more uptempo tracks. Other than that, the best songs always make the final album cut. I have to say I’m incredibly happy with this album! It’s our best so far in my opinion.

AP: I think we have made some interesting fusion moments on this record – combining of elements in a new way – and perhaps a subconscious desire to appeal to a broader spectrum of listeners whilst staying true to our sound and MO. Forever balancing on the tight-rope…

I find the expression “chorus-to-die-for” very appropriate when it comes to your music. You are always looking for the next hookline and have developed this into a mastery. What role does catchiness play in YGSF’s music?

SL: Andy is a songwriting son of a Young gun! The best songwriter out there as far as I’m concerned bar none.

AP: I always consider YGSF to be creating within the realm of “pop” music (in a classic sense) and so I always feel a certain freedom when it comes to melodies and lyrics. We are able to play with quite a large musical palette and still legitimately call it YGSF. The way many of our choruses interact with the YGSF harmony vocal sound is a huge part of what we do.

“Ticket To Shangri-La” contains ten new songs. Let’s talk about some of them. “Still Got It Goin’ On” with its Jerry Hey-like horn arrangement and a certain Bill Champlin vibe marks the album’s brilliant start and sets the basic mood of the album. How did the song come about?

SL: That track started out as a Superhighway Band instrumental with Nichol Thomson and myself. We both realised it was something different from the other tracks we were doing at the time. I could hear Andy’s voice in my head and knew it was totally a YGSF song!

AP: I received a finished instrumental record minus vocals and was already knocked out by it! Lyrically it’s a little portrait of some friends who both passed away a little while ago but who were very much deeply in love until their last breath. Their names were actually Jack & Rita, and I loved them both too.

“Tip Of The Flame” is in my opinion a perfect example for your funkiness. You can hear echoes of Earth, Wind & Fire and Con Funk Shun in it. Which of you had the first idea for the song?

SL: Tip of the flame started it’s life as an Shawn Lee instrumental. Something about the whole groove was effortless and propulsive from the git go. I knew Andy would smash a song on this one and his vocal performance just soars! He sings his ass off. One of my personal favourites on the album.

AP: This track screams Shawn at the heart of it. I just did my best to not ruin it haha!!

Your lead single “West Side Jet” sums up your pop approach perfectly. Andy, is it true that the classic musical West Side Story played a role in writing the lyrics?

AP: I actually bought an old vinyl copy of the original soundtrack for WEST SIDE STORY and was acutely reminded of just how good the music and the writing is by Bernstein and Sondheim. I also starred in a school production of the musical too so it has great memories and associations. Just pondering the music and the memories led me to reflecting the hard-up-street-kid story in our own song. Nothing more to it than that to be honest.

YGSF are often associated with the Californian AOR sound of the 70s. But the influences are much broader. “Rolling Back” shows you at the top of your game. You are crossing influences of 80s pop like Prefab Sprout with the sophistacted ease of West Coast heroes like Pages. How did you approach the song?

SL: “Rolling Back” is one of Andy’s master strokes. It really is a slick song that has a lot tasty bits in it. I especially love that 80’s new wave guitar part in the choruses!

AP: I had written the musical figure of the chorus a few years ago, knowing that it was good but I wanted to play the long game and let it bubble up to the surface when it was ready. The catalyst for it being written and finished was down to things happening in my personal life. There was a potent, raw feeling of guilt that needed to be let out. The song is written from the view point of someone else, not my own.

The atmospheric “Sierra Nights”, reminiscent of the acoustic West Coast sound of bands like America, shows you from a completely different side. It’s one of the highlights of the new album. How did the song come about?

SL: Sierra Nights is one of my fav’s on the new album. It is so evocative and atmospheric. It really takes ou into a vivid world.

AP: I read Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE across three months and was completely consumed but it. Every time I opened the pages to read….a whole world of landscapes, and emotions was there to greet me. I fell for Sancho Pancho and Don Quixote and their symbiotic relationship. This song felt like it spilled straight out of the pages of the novel onto the pages of my music manuscript book. I recorded most of what you hear in one afternoon in a bit of a daze.

I especially like the guitar work and sound on this song, besides the great harmonies. Andy, what guitar is used here? How did you get the sound?

It’s an old late 70s Kimbara acoustic recorded through a vintage Russian Oktava ML-19 ribbon microphone.

The sound of “Ticket To Shangri-La” in general. How do you work together when it comes to the sound of an album?

SL: The sound is a combination of the instruments that are used and the parts that are played. I really concentrate on playing the right thing in the right place. That really is key in this kind of music. Obviously the mixing maximises the optimum actualisation of the source recordings. Don’t I sound clever hahaha!!!

AP: It becomes a knack. You know precisely NOT what to do, after years of doing it, so that helps. Finding the right voicing, the right key for the instruments is crucial but ultimately it has to serve the song. The sound and production can only be as good as the song allows it to be. I think me and Shawn are getting into a place where we are creating knowing what the other might do when handed the baton. Not second guessing but some kind of intuition that helps us reach for a higher watermark.

Andy, Shawn told me in May that there was going to be a previously unreleased song on the album that you co-wrote with the late great Rod Temperton. Did that song make it onto the album? And how did the collaboration come about?

AP: When I signed my first publishing deal in 2005 I made a shortlist of people who I wanted to work with and gave it to my publisher. They sent some songs of mine to Rod and he agreed to try something out in the summer of 2006. The song we wrote “Moonshine” will rear it’s head soon enough, under the YGSF banner. 😉

We have already heard that you get your ideas for the songs from different sources. How important is it for you to process personal experiences in the song lyrics?

AP: I think songs that come from a personal place inevitably hold a lot of weight. They are believable in a way that is relatable, perhaps. Even in a song like “Sierra Nights”, I am channeling my own relationship through the vehicle of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. I think most of what I do comes from a personal experience whether directly or indirectly.

Hand on heart you two, what is your respective favourite song on the new album?

SL: That is a tough question Mr. Splett!!! I’d have to say “Sierra Nights” as it is pure magic and mojo. It stands alone in it’s own zone but perfectly aligns itself in the YGSF universe. It’s a real gem.

AP: Whenever I listen to “Sierra Nights” I am transported to an otherworldly place. That
song just has “it”, whatever that is.

Let’s talk a bit about the recording process. Did you stick to your previous working process and send files with song ideas back and forth or did you also work on the songs together in the studio in a classic way?

SL: The new album was made in the same way as it’s predecessors. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!

AP: What the Silver one said!

Who supported you in the studio this time?

SL: Nichol Thomson did the fabulous horn arrangements again and co-wrote the music to “Still Got It Goin On”. Tom Walsh & Mike Davis killed it on the trumpets. Pat Levitt played the tasty harmonica solo on “Winners” and Andy Ross performed the Tenor sax solo on “Simple Imagination”. Pierre Duplan and myself mixed the album together as per usual and our good friends David Page (YGSF live bass player) recorded a lot of the album, as well as Paul Elliott.

AP: All the guys Shawn mentioned of course. My wife Jodie and my daughter Frankie spurring me on. My dog Ralphy (I write a hell of a lot of lyrics when I’m out on my own in the middle of nowhere walking the dog lost deep in a forest).

I love the videos you have released for the singles. It’s always fun to watch you guys approach things with humour. How important is playing with irony and humour for your collaboration?

SL: Thank you. We take the music seriously but with the vid’s and the live gigs we like to have a laugh. I think not taking yourself too seriously when you are so passionate about music like me & Andy our is quite a healthy balance to have.

AP: We’re serious in all the right places I’d say – getting the music right. With everything else, it’s about enjoying it and working with others to create something positive to enhance the YGSF vibe.

Which one of you is the computer game fan? How did you come up with the idea of a jump ‘n’ run video?

SL: Jack Pell who did the animation came up with the video game concept. We loved how the 8 bit style fit with the song by contrast.

AP: Jack Pell also did the videos for “Baby Girl” and “Who Needs Words”!

Let’s talk about your tour plans. Your December show at the legendary Paradiso in Amsterdam is already sold out. Can we hope for more concert dates in Europe in 2023? And are there any tour plans for the US?

SL: Yes, the Paradiso is already sold out which is a great feeling. We will finally be playing in Paris in February and Germany in March. We are looking at doing some US dates next year finally. Looking like 2023 is gonna be a real doozy for us hopefully.

AP: We’ll go where we’re wanted!

Let’s do a little target group analysis at the end. How would you describe the typical Young Gun Silver Fox fan?

SL: Somebody with really good taste in music!!!

AP: Haha I’ve nothing to add to that!!

Andy and Shawn, thank you very much for the interview!

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Photo: Dan Massie