In 2004, just as fall arrived in Los Angeles, Ryan and Aaron Baggaley packed up their Venice apartment and left town. After years of playing guitar on their own, the brothers started in together with an aim to make music that will “change the tone of your day,” as Aaron puts it. They moved back home to Folsom, California, to a house near the lake where they spent their summers as kids, a few miles from the prison made famous by Johnny Cash and a handful of high-profile criminals. “We liked LA fine,” explains Ryan, “but there were too many distractions. We needed to isolate ourselves.”
Joining up with drummer Jim Mikesell, whom they met working a construction job, Ryan and Aaron recruited younger brother Bryson to play bass after going through a series of misfits. Bryson, like his brothers, had never taken formal music lessons—“We wanted someone that could grow the way we were growing,” says Ryan. “I started playing with my thumb,” Bryson recalls, grinning. “I learned quick. The blisters went away.” The band’s aesthetic evolved under the premise of creating a sound that is at once confrontational and vulnerable; both warm and discomforting—a sound not burdened by what’s come before them.
Brown Shoe’s aesthetic indeed came together quickly. Heading into the studio with Joe Johnston of Pus Caverns (Cake, The Deftones) in the summer of 2005, the band recorded The Wheat Patch, an album that would serve as the cornerstone for the swelling, ethereal soundscapes and melodic narratives that mark the band’s sound. After playing a handful of festivals including SXSW and the Midwest Music Summit in 2006, the band wrote and recorded Vanity with producer Dwayne Lundy of Shangri La Productions (Ben Sollee, These United States), whom they met on the festival circuit. Venturing away from the warm, fuller sound of the previous record, Vanity was a reflection of Lundy’s minimalistic aesthetic and the recording environment—a large warehouse studio in Kentucky in the dead of winter. “We used space heaters to warm up our hands before we tracked. I think the album reflected that,” says Aaron.
In January of 2008, after taking the better part of a year to refocus their sound and write the next record, the band headed back into the studio to record Jackalope, working once again with Joe Johnston at Pus Carverns. Coming off the dissolution of an intense relationship on Ryan’s end, Jackalope marked a return to the foundations of Brown Shoe’s songwriting, turning out tracks like “The War” and the anthemic “Aquarium”—songs that aim to pull your heartstrings taut and take little care in being gentle about it. An underground favorite of the college radio scene, Jackalope was hailed as Brown Shoe’s “most focused and heaviest album yet” by Performer Magazine, drawing comparisons to bands as varied as Sigur Ros, My Morning Jacket, REM and Explosions in the Sky.
After the September 2008 release of Jackalope, the band toured extensively, playing over 100 shows across the country in eight months. But upon their return home, the band was faced with some news: Jim, their drummer, was leaving. In keeping with their old recruitment techniques, the band called on younger brother Landon (if you’re counting, there are eight Baggaleys all together) to play drums.
The band headed back to Pus Caverns in 2010 to record The Gift Horse, a manically expansive and treacherous tale coming off more heavy heartbreak. Four months in to the recording process, with the record halfway done, Ryan fell mysteriously ill, spending a month in the ICU, the doctors at a loss. All but paralyzed by the uncertainty of Ryan’s future, the band went back into the studio at his urging—“I thought, if this is the last story I’m going to tell, it has to get done.” Over the next few months, in the process of recovering from what turned out to be a rare, fluke blood infection, Ryan went in to record two additional songs he’d written in between hospital stays—“Sick Man” and “Sweet Crazy Baby”—songs whose lyrics concern his on-again-off-again girlfriend’s erratic presence throughout, and her eventually desertion of him before he was released.
Dire as the situation seemed, it was this turn of events that imparted The Gift Horse with an uncommon gravity. Their most cohesive album to date, the album tells the story of a love gained and lost twice over, laid out against an inflammatory foundation of the band’s driving rhythm section and subtle guitars and keys. At first blush, it’s easy to get caught up in the pop-sensibilities of songs like “Late Nights” and “Colt Rider,” but listen closer and you’ll catch lines like “You’re not f—ing Jesus/ You’re f—ing me now.” For every one part sweet, the album is four parts salty.
Brown Shoe heads back on tour this fall in support of The Gift Horse, eager to be back in front of a crowd. “I’ve always hated it when people say they play music just for themselves,” Ryan says. “What you’re saying doesn’t matter if nobody hears you.”