Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst are at home on Johns Island for a rare break from the road.
When I call up Trent one afternoon, he and Hearst are knee-deep in home improvement projects, like building a garden structure in their yard.
While his band Shovels & Rope has been gaining momentum—mainly due to a hard year spent on the road—I’m calling Trent now to talk about The Films, his very first band, originally called Tinker’s Punishment.
The Films were four high school buddies—Trent, Jake Sinclair, Kenny Harris, and Adam Blake—from the Denver area who moved south to the milder clime of Charleston around 2003.
“That was the first band that I was ever in. We were in high school and just starting out,” Trent recalls with a due sense of nostalgia. “There’s a lot of history there.”
In the mid 2000s, The Films signed a record deal with Warner Brothers, but ultimately got caught up in a major label kerfuffle. The record was never released and eventually the band got their masters back and put out the double-disc Don’t Dance Rattlesnake in 2006.
The band toured overseas with British indie-rockers The Kooks and played European festivals.
In 2007, Trent connected with the songwriter-producer Butch Walker at the Austin City Limits Festival, where Hearst was performing. They’d met before in Denver and Walker remembered Trent and expressed interest in recording the next Films record.
In the summer of 2008, Walker began capturing a Phil Spector ‘60s girl group vibe during sessions in Los Angeles County. (Trent also co-wrote songs for two of Walker’s recent albums.)
The second Films album, Oh, Scorpio, is brimming with Elvis Costello-indebted snarl, featuring lines like, “If you have a heart I’m gonna break it,” from “Completely Replaceable,” which opens with a distant-sounding piano, something that could come from French musette, before the clattering rhythm bangs in with a Costello-circa-This Year’s Model thud.
“I don’t think we were trying to hide it at all: we were going for the early Elvis Costello thing,” says Trent. “The thing I love so much about him was it was as much about songwriting as it was about attitude—[it’s the] fearless delivery and use of lyrics that I was really attracted to.”
Following the record’s release, The Films toured with Walker in early 2009, then spent much of 2009 and 2010 on the road. They gained a strong following in Germany of all places, and embarked on European tours in September 2009 and summer 2010.
So what happened? Why did the band break up?
“Lack of momentum, couldn’t get anything going on,” says Trent. “We were running out of money and running out of hope for the project.”
Trent points out that it was also a transitional point in the music industry, where bands were starting to rely less on major labels and more on DIY methods—and the Films got caught in the middle.
“We had been through the major label disaster, and didn’t really know how to get our shit together from a [DIY] standpoint,” he says.
“Creatively, I just had to do something,” says Trent, who had released his first solo record in 2007 while still fronting the Films. In 2010, he went ahead and started putting together his second solo album, The Winner.
“The Winner could have been the very next Films record. It would have just sounded differently.”
Instead, The Winner today looks more like a clear precursor to the folksy rock and roll of Shovels & Rope—as well as a reflection on the failures the Films had experienced.
“That was my self-deprecating way of being like ‘Mannn…’ A lot of those songs are coming off somber moments for the Films. ‘Kitchen Hallway’ is about being on the road for so long and not knowing what to do next and coming home and feeling like you don’t really have anything going on. The Winner is a reaction to everything that had happened prior to that.”
So is it ironic that Shovels & Rope—a side project with no marketing plan—has taken off in place of the Films?
“It’s totally ironic because the Films were a hardworking band that practiced all the time. I was writing all the time,” says Trent. “[Four guys] from the same town and high school all picked up and moved and kept it going for so long. And accomplished some great goals. Then it blew up in our face.”
“It’s ironic that Cary and I said we’ll just [record and play] together and see what happens. I think that’s a lot of the appeal of Shovels & Rope—it’s so not rehearsed. We can be loose with it and let things happen. There’s just two of us so it can be really in the moment. I really like that about it, opposed to being in a very structured, well-rehearsed band where everything is pretty much scripted. With Shovels & Rope, it’s the complete opposite.
But perhaps Trent’s life as the songwriter for the Films wasn’t all for naught.
He says that writing punk songs for his first band eventually led him to the idea that “if you slowed them down, they could be country songs.”
“Maybe that was my evolution into my own songwriting. Sometimes I get nostalgic about it. I almost forget that I’ve written all those songs. Every once in a while a Films fan will show up at a Shovels & Rope show and holler a request from Oh, Scorpio.”
“It’s been kind of fun talking about it again today.”