Drew Shuck’s life is noisy. You can find the general manager of Pageturners often hustling behind a bar, measuring liquor into shot glasses or cracking open a Tecate for those who’ve made the Dundee classy (but not flashy) bar their neighborhood spot.
But in 2020, things got quiet. There was the existential dread of an uncontrolled pandemic. Shuck also lost some close friends while watching others wonder if they’d make it to next month without work.
In a word, it sucked.
Then Bug Heaven happened.
Shuck had played drums for punk bands, but never jostled for a frontman spot. But now, the songs started coming — pop-punk, emo lamentations about him, his friends and a modern age colored by so much loss, sadness and hopelessness.
Once he had the songs, Shuck figured he’d record them. And as pandemic restrictions lifted, he figured he’d put together a band.
Bug Heaven — which consists of Drew Shuck (vocals/guitar), Alex Brown (lead guitar), Drew Augustine (bass/vocals), Kelly Langin (keys/vocals), Austin Elsberry (drums) — has since become a regular around town, finding a fan base who connects with the confessional lyrics and noisy instrumentals. They’ve played small stages like Pageturners as well as larger ones like opening for bands like Motion City Soundtrack. The Reader sat down with the band to talk beginnings, finding their stride and an underlying hope driving their music.
You can see them live this November:
- Saturday, 11/12 at The Waiting Room for Lucida Dark’s album release with Minor Movements, and Living Conditions
- Friday, 11/25 at Reverb Lounge with Twinsmith.
This interview has been edited for brevity
The Reader: Let’s start off with a very simple question: how did the band get started?
Drew Shuck: So I played drums my whole life. I’ve never played guitar or sang in a band. In high school I played shows and did acoustic covers of some very bad originals where I don’t think all the chords are in the same key. But at the beginning of COVID when things shut down, I was buying stuff to do at my apartment. And I was like, “Well, I can’t play drums here. So maybe I’ll get a guitar.’
TR: Did you know how to play at all?
DS: I feel like I’ve been at the same skill level for guitar since I was probably 13. I didn’t understand how to write a song. I just knew how to play some other people’s songs for fun. Initially, I was just going to take some suggestions from people on Instagram for cover songs to record. And then I was like, “What if I could record like every instrument in my apartment and just make a cover thing and see what happens?” So I started out doing that.
But then I started writing about some stuff that had been going on. Not even really pandemic related, but just some stuff like before that. Then my buddy Ian Aiello sent me a key for some recording software. So I started recording some stuff and had these two songs I was changing a little bit over time. Mostly because I figured out how to use a microphone better so I re-recorded them, or I thought of another harmony. And I kind of just hacked away on those two songs over and over.
Then, in September of 2020, our friend Jordan Maly passed away. Not too long ago, he and I had played in a band with Drew Augustine, who plays bass with us now. And then he and Alex, or guitar player, had been in another band after that. They had been roommates and everything too until he passed. I was chatting with Alex, maybe a month or two later, and I was like, “We should try to play some music.” So the way it started was Alex and I would go down and record at [now-closed rehearsal and performance space] OutrSpaces. We would set up like across the room from each other with our masks on and jam and be scared of each other. Then Drew works at the barbershop right next to there. I kept bugging him and was like, “Hey, you should come play.” Like, every time I get my hair cut, I was like, “Hey, me and Alex are making some songs that you should come.” Finally he was like, “Okay, I’ll bring my bass.”
Then we started tracking the record. [Drummer and producer] Nate Van Fleet came down and helped me set up the drum mics. He was like, “What are you working on?” I showed him the demos and said, “Hey, if you know anybody that wants to play drums, if we ever get to do shows, let me know.” And he was like, “Well, I’ll do it.” So then we had a drummer and my friend Megan [Siebe] did all the synthesizer and keyboard parts for the record.
This whole band is just like people that I’ve either played music or wanted to play music with. Megan and I made our first recorded music ever together when we were like 13 years old. I think we used her parents PC microphone with my practice amp and Epiphone guitar, and an old Casio keyboard. We were just making up songs about chicken nuggets and shit. It was ridiculous. But yeah, that’s a huge full circle moment.
So we finished the record and then Ian mixed it. At some point in there, we asked Kelly to play keyboards. I can’t remember where we were at in the recording process, because we did hit a point where we were rehearsing for shows and also finishing the record at the same time.
TR: So when did you finish the album?
DS: It basically took all of 2020 to get really into the recording process. Our first show was in June 2021. Then the record came out finally in January 2022.
TR: It sounds like the way this came together was like a snowball effect: You’re going with it and picking up things along the way. When did the vision for what this could be become clear?
DS: I remember halfway through the second or third song at our first full practice, I just started crying a little bit. This was something I wanted to do since I was like a little kid, and I just never did it. Now there’s four other people here making these songs sound like real songs.
TR: Yeah that can be such a powerful thing, what was it like for you, Kelly, when Drew asked you to join?
Kelly Langin: I was like, “Yeah, sure.” Like, really? You’re gonna ask me to be in a band. That’s probably the fifth or sixth time that’s happened. I was just like, “Yeah, this isn’t going to happen.” So I came down to practice on this day and then just kept going.
TR: What was it like to reverse engineer the songs. Usually you write songs, workshop them and then record them, but you guys took a different approach.
DS: It came together naturally, but I feel like I was learning as I was going the whole time, too. It took so long — we were spaced out due to COVID and other commitments — and sometimes it felt like it was moving frustratingly slow. And then I’d think of a new idea to record and add it to the song.
There’s an intro track to the record called “Pretty Okay.” It’s probably a minute and a half long. Several people have been like, “That’s like my favorite one.” But the funny thing about that is that song only happened because I didn’t really know what I was doing when I was recording it. I fucked up the file the song “Alone Time” and all the drums got off to the point where I couldn’t fix them with the computer. And I was like, “Fuck, I have to go redo these.” So when I went down to do that, I had started writing [“Pretty Okay”] but, at the time, I wanted it to be a full song. I just needed to write more lyrics and parts. When I got there, I was like, “Well what if it was just that long?” I added some drums to it and thought it might just be a demo. Once I added the vocals I was like, “Wait this should just be the beginning of the record.”
TR: How did making this kind of music during COVID feel? Making any kind of music is very personal, but I feel like the kind of music you guys are playing is very confessional. Having the forced separation of the pandemic could add a layer to that I imagine.
DS: I feel like it was like a combination, for me, at least. I was bored and had time to play guitar. But it was also the first time I really felt like I had something I needed to make. I was like, “I have to make these songs to deal with how I’m feeling.” Not necessarily about COVID, but maybe it contributed to that by giving me less distractions from whatever I was feeling. There was nothing to do except write the songs and deal with it.
KL: It was kind of a different thing for me. I came in like April or May and had been double vaccinated for a few months. Bug Heaven was like the first normal thing I got to do.
TR: It must have been nice to rehearse and look forward to shows that weren’t just some live stream thing on Facebook.
Alex Brown: Dark times.
KL: I mean, it technically broke up my last band. I think it was gonna break up anyway, but I was like, “Well there’s a pandemic, we can’t play shows anymore.” Now we’re all playing shows again with different bands.
TR: It must be cool to play live now because you’re giving people something new. Rather than like “Hey we put this record out three years ago,” it must feel a little optimistic to play new stuff because it’s like, life goes on. Good things continue to happen.
KL: It’s been fun playing songs that are new to people. And now that they’re not as new, people still keep coming to our shows. And we’ve seen people like, sing?
DS: [A friend of mine] was, like, “I have a weird question. Do people still learn the words and then come to shows and sing along?” There’s a good handful of people that do come and sing along. And it’s really cool.
TR: Do you think it’s because there’s kind of an innocence to the songs? It just feels like you’re not trying to be anything. You’re just trying to do what you would have thought was cool when you were a kid. I feel like people respond to that differently.
DS: Everything that’s on this record is just like everything that I’ve heard in a song and been like, “I want to do something like that if I ever have the band.”
KL: Yeah and the lyrics are also extremely relatable. [Drew has] a lot of personal anecdotes and stories about specific people, and events. A lot of people have experienced the same things. DS: It’s like, the more specific it is, the more universal it is.
TR: Do you ever approach a song with an idea or mind or do you just get out of the way and let it be what it is?
DS: Yeah, like the title track of the record “We Love to Live in Hell” was originally supposed to be about how much I hate [Nebraska Governor] Pete Ricketts. It’s about being in a red state and feeling like there’s all these politicians you can’t do anything about and they’re just trying to make things worse for everybody. I kept trying to write it but it just kept feeling like “baby’s first [Leftist punk band] Anti-Flag song.”
Then I turned it on its head. My friend Mary had just moved to Seattle. And I was like, “Man, I wish I lived in Seattle and not Nebraska.” Then I was like “Oh, what if I just made it more about just the feeling of not wanting to be here.” Now it’s not so blatantly about the original inspiration and it feels more relatable to me.
TR: Kind of predictable question, but for the other members, how does playing in this band compare to bands you’ve been in previously.
KL: This Music is extremely different from my last band. My lyrics were all about the worst shit going on in my life. This is optimistic, which I think is better for this timeframe. Of course there’s sad lyrics in there, but with more of a positive, upbeat tone, which I’ve been really excited about, because nobody danced to my last band. This has been fun to look up from my keys and see people dancing and vibing.
DS: There’s like a part of me where I always just think about how sad the songs are. We haven’t played a show yet where at least one person hasn’t told me they cried. But lyrically there’s always a sense of like, wanting things to be okay. Or like, hoping that things could be.
KL: You’re always smiling.
DS: Yeah even in “No Better (Party Dad)” which we wrote for our friend Jordan. There’s a line about when I used to sit at his apartment and listen to records. And he would always just be like, “Dude, this is so good. How can you not love this.” I put that in the song. There’s like two or three lines in that song that made me able to get through it because it makes me smile for a minute.
TR: Something else that seems kinda unique is you guys don’t seem afraid to be yourselves. I feel like there can be a stigma here to look or sound cool, but it just leads to a lot of tension. Maybe that’s cynical.
AB: If that makes you cynical, then I’m very cynical. I feel like that’s a huge thing and always has been in Omaha. The kind of competition aspect of it is dumb. Because I feel like it makes people bitter.
DS: That’s what’s always drawn me to like emo or pop punk. It just is something that makes you want to sing along. And it is something that feels specific but universal. I think like, even beyond being cool or posturing, I think sometimes people are not capable, or like too afraid of what other people think. And I think I kind of have been that way in the past, which might have been why I never wrote the way that I do in this band or the way that I wanted to.
I remember getting halfway through our first show [at Pageturners]. And I was really nervous. So many people ended up coming. I hadn’t played music in like three years before we even started this band. And so I was just like, what are they gonna think? Are they just gonna think I’m some bartender who’s trying to play music?
I remember being like two or three songs in and having this intrusive thought of “Does anyone even like this? Does everybody think this is stupid?” And then I looked at Nate. And he was just like, smiling at me or something. And I was like, “It doesn’t matter if anybody likes it, because I like it.”
That’s what makes it so accessible. I didn’t make it for anyone but me. And I think that’s not easy. It sometimes can be the hardest thing to do. It’s like sharing something with someone.
There’s been like a handful of people that have come to me, or talked to friends of mine, who’ve said “I’ve been having a super bad time this year.” Or like, “My dad passed away.” And they say the record helped them. And I’m like damn. That’s so fucking crazy. That’s what I got from music my whole life, but I never imagined I would make that for someone. And then I made it for me because I had a lot of shit to deal with. And then it became that thing where it’s like, helping people in a way. That’s very bizarre, but very cool.
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