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Shelley Salant, 24, helps drive Southeastern Michigan’s underground music community / by Evan Minsker

There are show posters plastered all over the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan-- on campus bulletin boards and streetlights, in record stores and coffee shops. Most of them are pretty run-of-the-mill, with a press photo of the artist, maybe a goofy illustration. But the best shows have flyers with a signature minimalism-- hand-painted bold lettering in distinctive handwriting. They've advertised both local heroes (Tyvek, Swimsuit, Bad Indians) and internationally known entities (Blues Control, the Evens, White Lung). These flyers are a good sign. It means the show was booked by Shelley Salant, a 24-year-old Michigan native.

Shelley’s efforts around Southeastern Michigan’s underground scene are integral part of keeping DIY music alive in the region. Salant runs a record label, hosts the community-centric local music show at WCBN (with live performances each week) and distributes a low-budget monthly flyer called Michigan Happenings-- a calendar of noteworthy shows coming to Southeastern Michigan. It’s an important resource for show-goers in the entire region.

Around Ann Arbor, you might also run into Salant at Encore Records, one of the only three record stores downtown. She just celebrated her sixth year of working there. Encore sells mostly used vinyl, but right near the register, across from the Ted Nugent and Boz Scaggs records, there’s an assortment of new 7”s, tapes, and LPs by local musicians. Shelley helps stock this section.

Every time I see Shelley at Encore, she picks up a new tape or 12-inch and says, “Have you heard this?” And then she gives the pitch: who’s in the band, who put it out, what it’s like, why you should probably check it out. (She doesn’t always push local music-- one time she convinced me to buy a high-quality bootleg of Neil Young’s Human Highway on DVD.) Shelley’s “recommendations” section is another store highlight. It’s where I’ve found LPs by local musicians, plus stuff by Blues Control, Nü Sensae, Peaking Lights, and Grass Widow.

Earlier this year, she booked a national tour for the great Detroit rock band Protomartyr. “I’ve known them for a long time and they actually ended up having a really good band,” she said. “And I really kind of freaked out when I saw them. ... Basically, if I’m going to put a lot of work into something, I need to believe in it.”

Last fall, you could have also seen Shelley walking around Ann Arbor with a clipboard, helping register people to vote.

At the end of July, when Shelley and I meet up at Mighty Good, a coffee shop in downtown Ann Arbor, she is just about to leave for a tour playing drums with Chain and the Gang. While people plug away at their laptops, she tells me the completely awesome reason why she dropped out of community college: She wanted to tour with Tyvek. “I was just a huge fan and I would always ask them to come and play at my house,” she says. “I really thought they were the greatest.” She played on their album Nothing Fits, toured with them, but eventually left.

Shelley’s the sort of person who can look at a space or a situation and see its potential -- her shows around Ann Arbor have taken place in all sorts of venues: houses, art spaces, a loft, a record store, an Elks lodge, and Ann Arbor’s teen center, Neutral Zone. A couple of years ago at the teen center, she co-directed a Girls Rock Camp. “I’m basically a person who’s like, ‘Oh, this place is cool, maybe we could do a show here.’”

She’s been that way since high school. “I started going to shows a lot when I was a teenager,” she says. “It was really helpful for me. I got a lot out of music, and also the community I found in it. I just wanted to contribute to that in some way, to get involved and give back to the community that had helped me.”

As a 16-year-old, when she wasn’t busy working as an intern for her friend and Swimsuit bandmate Fred Thomas’ old label Ypsilanti Records, she was booking shows a Neutral Zone. Around that time, she was pushing against the folk scene. Folk is a huge deal here: There’s an annual folk festival, a folk-specific venue on Main Street, and an enormous fanbase of folkies. “[When I was in high school], all of the house shows and everything, it was all folk. So when I started booking shows, I was really excited about doing the loud, more exciting shows.”

Even now that she’s in her twenties, she hasn’t lost site of the need for all-ages space. “I prefer to do all-ages shows that aren’t at bars,” she says. “I feel pretty strongly about just trying to include everyone regardless of their age. I am really not into doing things that are just for the sake of selling alcohol. I prefer to do things that are more focused on the art itself.”

As a musician, Shelley has put in time with, by my count, 12 bands: Tyvek, Saturday Looks Good to Me, Swimsuit, Chain and the Gang, the Rebel Kind, Bad Indians (for a few shows), Charlie Slick, No Haircut, the Stefchura Rock’n’Roll Band, the Santa Monica Swim and Dive Club, Am Shells, and her duo project with Thomas.

Illustration by Kevin Banks

She also just released a solo album under her recording pseudonym Shells. It’s called In a Cloud, and it was put out by local label Life Like Records (Thomas’ current label).

The project got its start at Noise Camp, an annual fake noise + crafts camp in Detroit. Warren Defever from His Name Is Alive heard one of Shelley’s early psychedelic guitar tapes and asked her to play solo. She had a hard time thinking about how to approach a solo set-- whether she should use a loop pedal or play to a backing track or what. “I think [the Noise Camp show] helped me focus on just playing guitar.”

As Shells, she makes these guitar melodies that build, resolve, and repeat. Her guitar tone seems to waft and slowly evaporate, lingering for a bit after the chords have initially been delivered. Some tracks have this haunted quality like the Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. Some sound like they’re underwater. Shelley cited Neil Young and Blues Control as influences, which both make sense, but more fitting is the non-musical influence on In a Cloud. “I definitely feel really influenced by nature in this project,” she said.

Live, Shells set can put an audience in a trance. With her head down and hair covering her face, Shelley’s hypnotic music is the central focus. “I’m always surprised that people will pay attention to it as much as they do, just because it is instrumental,” she said. “I usually just get into the zone and don’t really notice what’s happening, and then I look up and there are a lot of people paying attention. And that surprises me … I can’t really meditate, but I think that’s the closest I can get to it, playing guitar in that project.”

Although she was leaving to tour with Chain and the Gang shortly after our interview, it seems like she’s ready to focus more of her energy on Shells. There’s never been a Shells show outside of Michigan, except once in Toledo, which is less than an hour away. She’s hoping to do a Shells tour at some point.


Malcolm Gladwell has a term for people like Shelley: “connector,” somebody who knows a lot of people, and has a seemingly effortless knack for organizing extremely well. In Southeastern Michigan’s music ecosystem, she’s vital. She knows when all the good shows are and probably helped book some of them. She’s got a few leads on how to get a PA. She’s well connected with local labels, so she knows when all the best local stuff is coming out. When the Evens came through this year (on her birthday), she booked them in an Ypsilanti puppet theater.

Album art by Fred Thomas. StreamIn A Cloud here.

“I don't really want to think about all of the touring bands that I would have missed out on seeing if she wasn't around to bring them to Michigan,” said Jules Nehring, co-founder of Bad Indians. “I think I the first time we met may have been a house show in Ypsi. Charlie [Slick] would crash house parties with a couple boomboxes taped together. Shelley held the boomboxes while Charlie busted some moves.”

“One of my earliest and fondest memories of Shelley is Halloween weekend 2009 when the Blues Control and Tyvek tours merged for a couple of shows,” said Russ Waterhouse of Blues Control. “The day after Halloween we were all killing time at a Salvation Army next to a skatepark in Olympia, and Shelley bought some bedsheets and started sewing them together. That night in Seattle, Tyvek started their set with every member under Shelley's mega-sheet, an amorphous ghost-blob.”

"I'd do any favor for Shelley, because as both someone who goes to shows in Southeastern Michigan and someone who plays in a band around here, I can't overstate how important she is and how much she does," said Scott Davidson, Protomartyr's bassist. "Touring, I've met plenty of people across the country who've met Shelley and never have anything but positive things to say. Imagining the music scene around here without Shelley is a bleak thought."

So hypothetically speaking, what would Southeastern Michigan do without Shelley?

“I definitely don’t want to just live in Ann Arbor forever, but I do feel a lot of investment in the community,” she said. “I really like the West Coast. I just feel good when I’m out there. I like to be by the ocean, which maybe sounds really dumb. But it is really far from here.”

“I wish I felt like I had more people to work with that would keep it going if I left,” she said. “I’m always just trying to encourage more people to do stuff like start bands or book shows or just get involved if you wanna get involved.”

With all the good work she does around here, Ann Arbor without Shelley Salant is a dismal prospect. But Salant thinks it shouldn’t be.

“Live music is really powerful,” she says, reflecting on what attracted her to all of this in the first place. “Seeing that people can make something happen by working together. It was really inspiring to me as a young person. I try to encourage people to get involved, as opposed to just consuming. If you want to do something, just do it, you’ll figure it out.”

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