INTERVIEW: CHRIS SHAR
The sun is going down and Chris Shar’s apartment is definitely too dark for a casual photoshoot. His complex is tucked away in Burlington’s South End with a backyard overgrown by berry bushes and grape vines. The inside is cool and dank with unpacked moving boxes surrounding the perimeter. Chris clears some space for us to sit at his dining table amongst some percussion bells, guitars, and other miscellaneous clutter. We help clear it off a bit, and take a seat while he prepares some espresso for himself. “It’s like one of five ground-level apartments without a step in all of Burlington” he proudly remarks. A main entrance with a front step isn’t something that most able-bodied people would even consider when looking for apartments, but for Chris and many other people living with Muscular Dystrophy, a raise of a few inches appears as a barricade.
Chris has been a casual friend of mine for a few years now, but I spent many of my teenage years hitching rides all over New England to see him play in Man Man. I would go absolutely apeshit at those shows. There’s still some photographic evidence tucked away in the deep, dark depths of the internet if you look hard enough. When I first moved to Burlington, I had seen his then-new band, Pours, play around town a few times, but I didn’t make the Man Man connection until a friend spotted a homemade “MAN MAN” insignia on Chris’ bass case. Being the fanboy that I was, I approached him and got the scoop. From that point on, if I saw him on the street I’d sort of flag him down to start some small talk, but I wasn’t aware of Chris’ medical condition.
Chris’ struggles with Muscular Dystrophy have been much more apparent over the past few years. First it was his shimmy-walk and his cane. Then it was the GoFundMe campaign for the motorized wheelchair that he now uses to get around. But over the last year, I just haven’t seen Chris around as much as I used to.
We caught wind that Chris was looking to play a show, that he was sitting on a bunch of new songs, but couldn’t find an accessible place to play. We did what we could to get him on a bill [See Chris play this Saturday, 9/14 at Burlington City Arts!] but we felt a deeper obligation to hear his story. He brought us back to his high school years, told us stories of touring with Man Man & Santigold at the height of their careers, and shed a light on his lifelong struggle with a debilitating muscular disease. He also shared a new track with us, “God’s House”, that you can stream below.
hope: Where are you from & how did you first start playing music?
Chris: I grew up right on the shore by Seaside Heights in New Jersey and I kind of took off as soon as possible. When I was eighteen I dropped out of High School and moved to Philly.
When I was in ‘Jersey I was playing in this band called Supergrub and they were hot shit in the hardcore scene at the time. Right when I joined the band they had a record come out and after a couple months of doing shows we kind of decided that the next step was moving the band to Philly. New Jersey kind of sucked at that point in time — especially the ‘Jersey hardcore scene. There were tough guy gangs coming out to every show and trying to start fights. This was around 1993-97.
hope: When did you link up with Man Man and Santigold?
Chris: This guy Ben that I left for Philly with started playing guitar for The Roots after living in Philly for a year or two. He eventually left to play bass for Incubus, which he’s still doing and has been doing since 2003. But when Ben & I first got there we had this guy, Chuck, playing drums in our band. Chuck was like 10 years older than us and a pro skater and had played in Bad Brains for a while. He’s been in a shit-ton of bands and was one of my early mentors. But Chuck & I were also playing and writing songs with Santi White (the artist commonly known as Santigold) in a band called Stiffed in like 2001. So when Ben left for Incubus, the other project disbanded and Stiffed became my full time gig for a few years. I was the first one to quit, and that’s when I joined Man Man.
For Man Man I was just an extra or a fill-in for awhile when they were touring off of their first album, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face. When they got back from their first big U.S tour, the whole band quit on Ryan (AKA Honus Honus, the bandleader of Man Man). I guess they all thought that Ryan was going to quit the band too, but he’s a very spiteful motherfucker, so he was just like “No, you guys all fuckin’ took off? I’ll show you! I’m going to keep doing this! You think I’m gonna quit? No fuckin’ way!”
He asked me to join the band. People really liked Man Man at the time and playing in the band was fun as shit, so it seemed like a no brainer. We recorded the second record with a collection of people — sort of just whoever was around — and a loose selection of those people became the official lineup. For about two years we toured the country behind Six Demon Bag, playing sold-out shows in rooms like Webster Hall in NYC. We recorded the third album, Rabbit Habbits, during this time. The final mixes came back the day before our big tour with Modest Mouse in 2007.
hope: When did you and Ryan have a falling out?
Chris: Everyone in the band had their own ideas, but Ryan was really, really driven in his efforts of sticking it to us — and it was starting to really piss us all off. Everyone was looking for a reason to hate him and he made it pretty easy to do.
I reached my boiling over moment somewhere outside of Tallahassee. There was a fight that started with Ryan and the other guys in the van. The fight spilled out of the tour van where they were slapping and tossing Ryan around. He was laughing the whole time — he loves that shit. It died out and they all got back into the van and then it started up again. In a burst of violence, I smashed a full bottle of Kombucha over his head. I laugh about it now, but it was a really low moment for me, as a pacifist and a buddhist and whatnot... Plus I got Kombucha everywhere.
We showed up in Orlando the next day and Russell, our guitar player, had a cast on his arm, Billy, our saxophonist, broke three fingers and could barely play, Ryan had stitches in his head and all sorts of bandages and shit. Everyone took one look at us and was like “Dude, what the fuck is up with you guys?”
The last two weeks of tour were really awkward. I quit right after the third record, Rabbit Habits, came out. Ryan & I had a pretty horrible relationship, but we’re all good now. He actually probably hustled the hardest to raise the funds for my wheelchair and most of our conversations end with “Love You” now.
hope: So how did you end up in Vermont?
Chris: I was done with Man Man, my partner was up here, and I didn't feel like I had any reason to be in Philly anymore. Around the same time that I quit Man Man I started working with Santigold in Brooklyn. I was living in Philly, coming to Vermont for weeks at a time, and then working in Brooklyn. When I left for a tour with Santigold I just packed my normal touring bag, and secretly got an apartment here in Burlington. When I was on tour, my girlfriend went to Philly and packed up my whole apartment and then my brother and my dad drove everything up here. After a couple of months of touring I came back to Burlington and I’ve been here ever since.
hope: When did you find out that you were diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy?
Chris: Muscular Dystrophy is genetic and there are hundreds of different kinds so I’ve always had it. I was born with it. The kind that I have specifically has to be on both parents sides and it turned out that both of my parents have a recessive gene. Basically, there is one amino acid that my body can’t process... You know how when you exercise and your muscles break down, they’re supposed to rebuild? Mine break down but they don’t rebuild because my body can’t make that protein. I have a very specific kind of MD called “Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy.” Your “Limb Girdles” are what hold your limbs to your torso.
I always struggled a bit as a kid to keep up with everybody, but everyone always just called me “lazy”. In reality I was really just taking it easy because I would be in agony after doing the normal shit that the other kids were doing. My legs would feel like they were on fire and people would just tell me that I needed to “exercise more.” This continued until I was a freshman in High School when I got Mono really bad. I dropped a lot of weight and my dumbass doctors didn’t recognize it as Mono, they kept calling it all of this other stuff and giving me antibiotics for the wrong thing. I had it for months and was dropping weight like crazy. It was muscle weight, so I couldn’t get that back, and all of a sudden I was a lot weaker than I was before then.
We went through a lot of doctors and we went to a lot of specialists to see what my problem was. We ended up with a doctor who said I had “Epstein Barr Syndrome” from having Mono. He explained that I’d be tired and that I’d be ache-y, blah, blah, blah. From that point forward, I just attributed everything to that — my aches and pains, being tired, all of the things that happen. I didn’t recognize it as being weaker, it just felt like more strain on my body.
Fast forward to when I was about 25 or 26 years old when I was at home at my mom’s house and she saw me struggling to climb the steps. Now, I had progressed pretty far down the road with Muscular Dystrophy — I had noticed, but it was a slow, gradual progression. At that point I was still walking around like normal. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, I rode my bike everywhere. I had like 3 jobs and played in a couple bands — I wasn’t lazy by any means. It should have been great exercise, but when my mom saw how it had progressed, she was like “Dude, what’s going on? You’re really struggling on those steps...” I just sort of blamed it on my Epstein Barr, but she wasn’t buying it. So we went to go see different doctors again for a couple of years and it was just like childhood all over again. I had doctors that actually called me “lazy” because they didn’t recognize what was going on. They were just guessing! This whole thing went on for two or so years — right when Man Man was really starting to take off.
Randomly, one day my dad was complaining at work about my condition and his boss was like “That sounds exactly like my nephew’s story and it turns out he has Muscular Dystrophy. You should look into that.” We ended up taking his advice and there happened to be an MDA clinic right near us in Philly. The nurse took one look at me, my unique shaped torso and was like “Oh yeah, look at you! You’ve definitely got Muscular Dystrophy!” For the next year or two we were doing blood and DNA tests, which take fuckin’ forever… They all came back negative because the doctor kept on guessing the wrong kind. So she ended up saying “You have Muscular Dystrophy, but we don’t which kind. If anything changes let me know.”
It wasn’t until I was 30 years old, living in Vermont and seeing a doctor who sent me to a neurologist that we were able to narrow it down to which kind it was: “Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy Type Two I.”
hope: After Man Man and Santigold you were playing in a local band called Pours for a while. How did that project come to be?
Chris: I was touring with Santigold when my disability first started to take effect with my bass playing. I had spent my whole career as the guy who was the harshest critic & giving the hairy eyeball to everybody when they’d fuck up. On the Santigold tour the disability started affecting my fingers — they just weren’t doing what I wanted them to do and I was fucking up on stage. It was very noticeable and it was embarrassing. Those were HUGE shows out in Europe, and fucking up was a new experience for me. I sort of had an emotional breakdown, and when I came back to Vermont I thought I was done with music. As a bass player I couldn’t foresee myself playing anything else, so I stuck my guitars in the closet and sort of just gave up.
But I had my drums set up and I’d dick around on them every now & then. One day I realized that drumming was something that I could still do plenty fine. So I started playing more seriously and I made the switch over. At the time I saw a local band called Parmaga and it turned out that they had actually just fired their drummer, so I joined in. They wanted to switch their sound up, so it began as a mix between guitars & electronics, but eventually the guitars were phased out and we changed our name to Pours.
Signal Kitchen recorded & produced our record and we did one U.S. tour behind it then I broke it up. Since then I played drums with a band called The Dead Shakers for a minute and I’ve done a couple of solo shows. I’ve had a lot of false starts and I’ve recorded like a thousand unfinished songs.
hope: Outside of causing you to switch instruments, what other limitations from Muscular Dystrophy have been getting in the way of playing music?
Chris: I’ve had to re-adapt to my body every six to nine months. It's been a while since I switched to primarily playing drums. But at this point I don’t think I could do a full set as drummer. Same with bass. I don’t play a normal sized bass anymore, I need to play a small bass and even then I can’t do what I used to do. I’m ok at playing guitar, but I have to tune really low. I learned that from Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath... He tuned his guitar really low because he chopped off the tip of his fingers which made it really painful for him to play — which is why I stopped playing in the first place. The whole section from my elbow to my wrist would feel like it was on fire when I’d play, I’d just have to push through it.
Not being able-bodied — it’s hard to put all of your energy into something for it not to work out. My disability really affects my energy. The thought of putting all of my energy into something only to have to start all over again makes me not want to do anything. By the time I finish a song, if I finish a song, it’s a ton of work to put it online, write about it, and put all of that shit together. Thinking about it takes more energy than I have — which is a big part as to why I haven’t been playing shows.
hope: Have you tried writing & structuring songs in a way that makes it easier to avoid pain?
Chris: No, I really just push myself to the absolute limit of what my body can handle. I wish I could write songs that way. Back in the day I used to sort of be known for doing a lot of crazy things on bass — a lot of big stretches and walking all over the fretboard. I can’t do that shit anymore of course. Back then I could feel the strain in my arms and in my hands, but I’d push through it. With Man Man I would fall on stage because my knees began to give out and I’d knock everything over, but I’d just get back up and push forward.
It’s sort of like skateboarding. You hit a wall and you either decide to give up or push yourself further. In all of the bands that I’ve played in there’s always been an M.O. of “Kill, Crush, Destroy”.
hope: What other limitations do you run into as a disabled person in Burlington and as a musician in the community?
Chris: Burlington is a tough town to be a disabled person in. Nothing in this town is handicap accessible, or at least most of the places that you would want to go to are not. The venues typically don’t have an accessible stage... I mean, I can think of maybe 2-3 stages on the planet that are accessible for a handicapped person though. If I can get into a bar or a club that’s great, but as far as playing a show goes, it’s not usually possible. I much prefer to play at a DIY or alternative space anyway, but those spaces are typically up or down a flight of stairs, so I’m sort of boxed out in a weird way.
I don’t think anybody is intentionally leaving me out, but it’s been a few years now, and I’ve been clamoring to everybody about finding a space for me to play in. I’ve been met with a unanimous shrug, I guess. One of the last shows I played was in a small bar in town and they had just recently taken the stairs away from that stage. It took a long time to figure out how to get me on stage that night, it was embarrassing. Once I was up there, I was sort of stuck up there and then had to figure out how to get down. I ended up hurting my back in the process and the whole thing just ended up not really being worth it. Playing music, I’ve always been able to adapt to my physical limitations, but I have hit walls. The most difficult thing is definitely just finding an accessible place to play.
In this town you just don’t see disabled people out in public often. I recently had the realization that you don’t see them because they can’t get into any of the places. Did they all give up a long time ago? You’d think that there were other disabled people that would also like to go to these shows. This whole town has an “all-inclusive” attitude, and a lot of places will even put on their promotions “All-Inclusive, Everybody Welcome, Safe-Space for all.” Then you notice that the place is up two flights of steps, which just automatically eliminates anybody like me — whether or not I want to go — from being able to go to the show.
If I go to a place and there’s a step or two, then I’m just not getting in. It gives me anxiety trying to make plans with people. If a group of people invite me to something, I have to go online and look up pictures of the place before I can commit to going. A few weeks ago I tried to go to a restaurant and was faced with a flight of stairs. I took a picture of the entrance and raised the question on Facebook and it turned out there was an elevator on a different side of the building, it just wasn’t communicated or posted anywhere. The mental stuff sucks, but really the biggest wall I face is just a step or two.
hope: Tell us about your new songs and what they’re all about.
Chris: Well, I’m not much of a lyricist. So I wouldn’t say they’re about anything… But I’m trying to meld all of my weirdo influences into one thing. When I was young I grew up on thrash metal and then got into industrial music which then turned into punk rock and hardcore. Since then I’ve gotten into everything that you can think of — from blues guitar to Asian gamelan music or the African tribal pygmy stuff where they slap water — all of which you’ll hear in my music. I’ve been toying with the terms “Acoustic Industrial” or “Goth Blues”.
Chris Shar plays at Burlington City Arts with Horse Jumper of Love and Adam Wolf this Saturday, September 14th. Entry to the event is $10 // Buy tickets here.
- hope all is well