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An Interview with The Laughing Hearts: Charles Bukowski, Heart Break, and Being an Artist

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Tyler Stock, Ari Shellist, and Tom Hipchen have been writing music and performing together for nearly a decade. The trio first met in a college jazz ensemble while attending the University of Missouri and quickly began playing in bands together. After each of them returned to their hometown of Chicago following graduation, the trio formed The Laughing Hearts in 2017. The Laughing Hearts’ music channels the energy of classic rock 'n' roll and the songwriting sensibilities of modern pop. Coming from a city known for raucous rock shows — from the likes of Twin Peaks, Post Animal, or Rookie — the trio complements insightful songs with a dynamic sound and fiery live performances.

The group’s music is produced by member Ari Shellist and the band recorded Fast & Free at Palisade Studios (formerly Decade Studios) with engineer Alex Burns (Beyoncé, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and many more). Gold is the band’s second EP after a series of singles and their self-titled EP released in December 2017.

The Laughing Hearts wrote the Americana-tinged “Gold” during a time of isolation and distance, but long before the pandemic.

We sat down with Tyler Stock (Guitar, Vocals) and talked Charles Bukowski, heart break, and what is means to be an artist. When asked to give us a brief introduction to the band, here's what he had to say,

" Ari and I have been playing in bands together since we were 16. So like…10 years. Since then we have been inseparable songwriting partners and have played hundreds of shows together in that time. We met Tom in college and the three of us started The Laughing Hearts in 2017. The first record was a collection of songs Ari and I had originally written and recorded as a demo tape in my parents basement before taking it to Treehouse in Chicago and giving it a proper recording. Initially, we planned on taking our time to get back into performing live – but shortly after the releasing the EP we played a show at what used to be Tonic Room and from there we immediately booked 5 more shows and continued playing live just about every weekend until the pandemic began."

Does Charles Bukowski’s poem The Laughing Heart have any relationship to the band name? If so can you tell me a little about what the poem means to you and why you chose the name?

When we were first starting The Laughing Hearts I was transitioning from a role as only playing guitar to singing as well. I had a collection of songs I had written up to this point (namely: Wabash, Passenger, a variation of a song that became “This is It”) and wanted to write another song for our first demo. I chose to use Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as a starting point and write a song around it as an exercise. The theme of perseverance was what really connected with me at a time when the future felt quite uncertain. In my take on it, I was trying to convey the imagery of the laughing heart smiling / persevering through depressive periods and how it feels being the friend people come to for a good time. When you need to put on a face so as not to let people see you are hurting and keeping that face on to convince yourself you feel well. It works for a while but eventually you need to address what’s going on below.“The laughing heart it bleeds the same”The band name came directly from this song – which came from the poem. Thanks Chuck!

I remember reading the feature for Gold in New Noise Magazine and you mentioned that Gold was about “I first wrote this song when I was living alone, knew very few people in town, and was distancing myself from a recent break-up. It took me almost a year to condense the lyrics to what they are now” Can you expand a little bit on this quote, how did the break up shape the EP, how did you decide which lyrics to keep, what did that process look like.

I was in Missouri finishing my last semester of college and many of my friends had moved away. I ended a relationship with a good friend, who had also moved away, and spent a lot of my time in my one room apartment trying to write songs and get myself to a point where I was more confident singing and performing for people as this felt a lot more vulnerable than my previous role. I went to many open mic nights and continued to force myself to be in front of people. I keep daily notebooks full of thoughts, lyrics, and lists. Lots and lots of lists.

I will often pull lines from other songs I wrote that didn’t quite make the cut / that I wrote at different periods in my life. I think it works alright because they are all written from my perspective – so even if it doesn’t necessarily match how I am feeling at this moment or what I was originally intending with a song – I can find lyrics that fit well and help to further shape the song and push it in a new direction.Using this same method I can justify (to myself) writing songs that I know I won’t finish or wont bring to the band because I can pull from them later. Taking what works and leaving the rest. It takes the pressure off. I do this for just about every song, unless the lyrics come really easily…which is rare. I spent most days reworking (see: overworking) songs because I didn’t have the band to play them with. I can usually tell what’s working once I play it with the band – so I was writing and rewriting everything. I think I read something once about Leonard Cohen writing upwards of 40 verses for every song he wrote and then condensing these to 4-5 perfect verses. This is what I am attempting to describe and what I am striving towards in my own writing.

You also said “and throughout that time I was able to approach them differently as I matured emotionally.” Can you tell me a little bit more about the meaning of the evolution and describe a little bit more how the meaning of the lyrics evolved as you did?

Yeah, so… for Gold I wrote a ton of verses over the course of about 2 years before finally condensing them into their final form. I think when I started that song it was more melancholic in the way it reminisced on the past and being held up on what could have been or what I was considering to be time wasted. Everyone is in a constant state of instability or change whether we notice it or not – and the more I kept writing the song began to reveal itself to me differently – and what I wanted to say with it changed. I know that sounds redundant but sometimes what the song is saying and what I want the song to say are at odds. The song knows best, and I can do my best to mold it and guide it along but inevitably it goes where it wants to. I can learn from it too. It’s like talking out loud to yourself. The song eventually became more about identifying the good times and recognizing the ways in which I was existing in a perpetual state of motion and missing out on appreciating what was in front of me.“And with golden years – we’re finding ways to disappear – it took all this time to find us here”.

Tell me a little bit about the song writing process and the recording process for this EP, how did Covid alter the process and how did that change your perspective on the process of making music?

I wrote Gold and Fever Dreams. Ari wrote Fast and Free. Like most of our songs, Fast and Free and Fever Dreams were both part of our live set for over a year before we recorded them. Gold is structured around a piano part and wasn’t a song we were doing live before recording it. We tend to play songs live for a long time before they make it to the recording stage. The benefit of this is that we are able to tell if the song is going to land - if it feels cohesive - or if it needs some work. However, sometimes we lose track of the original feeling or arrangement and by the time we record the song it has changed…for better or worse. For this reason we have been more diligent about recording demos of songs after writing so we can go back and compare when it comes time for the proper recordings. A good examples of this is with our previous release “Hardline”. We have a few demos of this song that Ari and I did on cassette tapes shortly after writing it and comparing the two is a great representation of how the song started – and how it naturally changed after many live performances.With this EP we used a different process than we usually do for recording. We started this EP with some home recorded “dummy tracks” of the guitars and vocals – and then built around this. We then replaced everything with better recordings as we went to the studio. The vocals were all done in our apartment! We recorded the drums, piano, acoustic guitars, etc. at Palisade Studios with our long-time collaborator Alex Burns. We also worked with Alex on “This Is It”, “Hardline”, and “Doin’ Right By You”. We also worked with Faz and Ryan from The Lunar Ticks on the song “Fever Dreams” where they added some guitars!

I think the major effect COVID had on the recording process this last year was that it forced us to slow down. The Laughing Hearts have always been really active with live performances and so it was actually sort of nice to only focus on recording for once. I think we unlocked some things this time around that we will continue to use for all future releases. We finished the EP much earlier in the year - so we had a long time to promote & to work on the surrounding art in preparation for the release date.

I’ve seen you guys live a ton of times now and the release show just reinforced how comfortable you guys seem on stage and how apparent your love for music is in your preferences, with that being said why do you make music and what does being an artist mean to you?

I think our best songs are the ones that we have played live hundreds of times before taking them to the studio. We are always seeking any opportunities to play live. Our shows typically only consist of songs we are tight on and have practiced at length. We don’t jam or improvise much live besides a few select moments – we like to keep our sets really tight and predictable (for us). Practice is where we get to mess around and try things – but when it comes to playing shows, we need to always be showing off our best work and letting the songs / songwriting speak for itself. With regards to why we make music – I just can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. It has always come fairly naturally. I like to entertain. I like to push myself and try new things and set the expectations higher and higher with each release. Ari, Tom, and I have been working together for a long time – and it all comes really naturally.

Covid obviously forced some distance between artists and their art, without live shows forcing the industry to slow down. How has your relationship to making music changed? As you reflect on yourself as an artist and a person what changes do you notice

The live performance is, for me, my favorite part of making music. I actively seek out any opportunity to perform for people. To try new material in front of a crowd and learn what the song needs. I really took a break from songwriting during the pandemic as I just didn’t have much in me. I think it was pretty jarring and its like…I really don’t want to write a song about the pandemic or something so on the nose like that. I just wanted to make it through this thing and I think the emotions and processing will come later. Having a live performance to look forward to also helps me in setting deadlines for writing – so without that I just hit a wall creatively. I did get to write and direct the music video for “Fast and Free” , which was a blast and was all done in one night in our living room.

With the music industry starting to become active again, what are your goals for 2021 and what does the future look like for The Laughing Hearts?

We are currently working on our follow up the Fast and Free EP and have already begun the recording process – So we will be spending a lot of our time working on this. Besides that – trying to play as many live shows as possible and continue to get The Laughing Hearts name out there.

Who are some of your favorite Chicago bands and can you name a few releases you’ve been super into lately and what about the song you connect with?

The Lunar Ticks – 10,000 Pounds Of Talking

Check out their live recording from sleeping village. The Lunar Ticks Live performances are incredible and they are featured on our song “Fever Dreams” from the recent EP!

Baby Jesus Paper Boy - The People Are High

We are playing a show with Baby Jesus Paper Boy on July 15th at Golden Dagger!

The Darkhorse Collective – Mosquito Bites

This right here is a hearty bowl of psych-prog stew seasoned with aluminum shavings. I am frequently inspired by their never-ending creativity and drive.

Listen to 'Fast & Free' by the Laughing Hearts

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