By Sean McGoey
The section of Fourth Street Southeast that bears Heather Heyer’s name still invokes painful memories of August 12, 2017. Shagwüf bassist and vocalist Sally Rose was among the throng protesting against the Unite the Right rally that day.
“There’ve been few times where I’ve been scared like that in my life,” says Rose, who was standing just a few feet away from Heyer when a car barreled down the street and killed her. “It still feels like it just happened.”
Friday night at the Southern, Shagwüf will unveil its latest record, Dog Days of Disco, which feels simultaneously like a joyous celebration and an emotional reckoning. Rose says that’s by design.
“There’s so much work that we still have to do,” she says. “One of the most positive ways that we can think of doing that is through music.”
Dog Days maintains the band’s signature combination of danceable disco energy and head-banging, fuzzed-out riffage, but pairs it with weightier lyrics than on previous efforts.
“The boys (guitarist/vocalist Sweet Pete Stallings and drummer Pablo Daniel Olivieri) keep saying, ‘It’s so nice that we put out this happy, poppy disco-dance album,” Rose says. “And I’m like, ‘All my songs are…raw, almost murder ballad-esque.’ But that’s what makes it Shagwüf.”
One of the centerpieces of Dog Days of Disco, recorded in Richmond with producer Adrian Olsen, is “Television,” a song Stallings wrote as a response to the events of August 11 and 12.
“I’ve kind of been trying to…get that off my chest and write something about it for a long time,” Stallings says. “[But] it came really quick. That song probably took 20 minutes to write.”
“Television” starts with Stallings exploring the powerlessness of watching the horror unfold from afar, over a relatively subdued guitar riff, before Rose and Olivieri come in and crank up the volume.
“It was crazy because I knew Sally was there,” Stallings says. “I was just thinking about…the feeling of being away from it but being still pretty connected to it.”
Though the subject matter is on the darker side, “Television” is still a rabble-rousing rock song that fuses DNA from T. Rex, the Pixies, and Led Zeppelin. Stallings shifts gears toward the end, forgoing the despair and looking to bring people together: “Why are we divided when we all want the same stuff? / Money in our pockets and somebody to hold us.”
“Pete and I complement each other as writers because we write really differently,” Rose says. “When I write a heavy song, the music portrays that really hard. But with ‘Television’…it comes from a really heavy place, but it’s supposed to leave you with a positive message.”
Rose, 28, a Nelson County native who grew up on James Brown and Black Sabbath records and started writing songs at 8, is a self-described “madwoman” who also fronts another band, runs a women’s self-defense organization called Fight Like a Grrrl Club, trains for her own second-degree black belt—and still works 40 hours a week. The laid-back Stallings, 33, hails from Staunton, played saxophone in high school, and cites “pop music since 1950” as his musical influences.
They built their musical rapport over some 15 years in the Virginia music scene, including six where Stallings played guitar in The Sally Rose Band—a folk-tinged group that also features Rose’s mother, Catherine Monnes. But the urge to crank up the distortion and return to heavier music led to Shagwüf’s founding, first as a side project and then as a full-blown band in 2014.
The Southern also hosted the release for Shagwüf’s first album, 2016’s ¡Salvaje!, so it was a natural choice when it came to unveiling Dog Days of Disco to the world.
“We’ve been playing there for such a long time, we didn’t really even think about where else we’d have it,” Stallings says—a sentiment that Rose, who says release parties are “like a wedding for the band,” echoes.
“We would much rather play to a room full of sweaty bodies than have to worry about…it not feeling as intimate,” Rose says.
Harrisonburg band Wineteeth, who performed at Fight Like a Grrrl’s F.L.A.G. Femme Fest event last March, will open Friday, and local artist Leo Charre will be doing portraits before the show begins—a maneuver that Rose hopes will get people in the door early to support Wineteeth.
Rose and Stallings referenced “secret guests” that they refused to divulge—but pointed to the Sweet Freakshow, Shagwüf’s 2019 anniversary show, for concertgoers searching for hints.
“Anyone who’s been to one of the bigger Shagwüf shows…knows that we like to do weird shit,” Rose says. “Anybody who was at our Freakshow…there will be a tiny taste of that.”
Ultimately, even when the songs get heavy, it’s all about having a good time and fostering an inclusive scene.
“The Charlottesville music scene is great, it’s diverse,” Rose says. “But just like any music town, there’s definitely some cliques.
“We like to fuck that whole dynamic up and…get everybody to support everybody. I think everyone does a lot better when they support each other.”
Shagwüf’s record release show, scheduled for Friday, March 13 at The Southern Cafe & Music Hall, has been postponed due to growing concerns about COVID-19.