Analogue Music | Mightmare


By Matt Conner

River Shook never wanted to be a professional musician.

That's not to say that Shook, who goes by Sarah in any public-facing aspect, are at all ungrateful for the success they've found fronting their band, The Disarmers. Rather, the industry can make its demands or present its hurdles, and for Shook to keep the train moving, it means coming up against and wrestling with those aspects that run contrary to their values and hopes.

That's what makes Shook's "little rebellion" known as Mightmare such a powerful force, both internal and external. Mightmare was born as a sleeves-rolled DIY endeavor during a global pandemic, one that allowed Shook to start anew and follow the songs' lead—toward a much more rock and roll sound that doesn't fit into the "pile" of Disarmers songs. What began as a creative experiment took on a life of its own, and now Shook are trying to balance both as the industry finds a new normal.

We recently sat down with Shook to ask about the birth of Mightmare, the songwriting process for both, and why a new outlet was needed in the first place.

Analogue: Given your career with the Disarmers, how far back does this thread of songwriting go for Mightmare in any form?

River Shook: I’d been dabbling in making demos of songs that I couldn’t see being Disarmers’ songs necessarily. I wanted to do something with them and give them a life, but in the pre-pandemic time, there was so much touring and so much going on with the Disarmers all the time that there was virtually no time for me to even think of doing anything serious with these songs. When the pandemic hit and everything shut down and it seemed like this issue that was going to be a month or two became indefinite, I was like, ‘Shit, I have to do something.’

Bear in mind also that I was pretty early in my recovery. I got sober on July 15 of 2019 and then in March 2020, the world shuts down. Realizing that my entire way of living—being on tour 150 days a year—is a different way of living your life and then knowing I was going to be at home, not just in my town but literally in my house for a couple of years was very daunting. [Laughs]

Cruel Liars cover art
Cruel Liars cover art

I am a homebody and I’d always much rather be sitting on my porch in the woods than partying out in a big city somewhere, but everything in moderation. I felt like I need a project to throw myself into and give myself something to focus on. So basically I started taking these songs, some of which were kinda old and then a lot of them I started writing while I started working on Cruel Liars.

At the time, my plan was to make these demos sound as good as possible, right? But I get halfway through tracking and I’m like, ‘I could actually make a record. These don’t have to be demos. If I just tweak this, this, this, and this and do everything myself—do all the writing, perform all the parts, do all the engineering, and put what budget I have into getting it mixed and mastered by people who I know are good at what they do, this could be an album.’

So initially I hadn’t planned on making a record. I planned on making really good demos as reference points for the future for some unknown project. Then as things transpired, I realized I could do this.

Initially, I wanted Cruel Liars to be very much a rock and roll or indie rock kind of record. Not having access to a full band, specifically a drummer, presented a unique challenge. Pretty soon I was teaching myself how to program beats and how to tweak packs that are already made. Specifically, because of the drum incident, I made a record that was much more pop than indie rock.

I was talking to my manager and Kill Rock Stars and suddenly they wanted to put it out. So I told my booking agent, ‘Hey, you book for the Disarmers, would you like to put something together for Mightmare and see how it goes?’ He’s like, ‘River, you want me to book you a tour but you don’t have a band?’ [Laughs] I said, ‘Dude, you’ve gotta trust me. I won’t let you down. I promise. You do what you’ve gotta do on your end and I’ll do the same. We’ll make this thing happen, I promise.’

So in the midst of constantly being on the road with the Disarmers, I managed to pull a band together. We had basically three six-hour days in a row of practices. Then the next morning we hit the road for two weeks.

Analogue: That’s intense.

River: Well, that was literally all the time that I had. There was no other way logistically to make it happen. We got home from a tour and I had a day off. Went into those three days of rehearsals followed by two weeks of tour followed by another two weeks of tour. So it’s been intense and it’s been wild, but it’s also so awesome to play these songs live with a band that’s nailing it. It’s exactly how I thought it should sound in my head.

Analogue: When you do everything yourself, does that make you prouder of this than other things that didn’t require so much from you?

River: To a degree. There’s definitely a feeling that I cannot believe I pulled this off. Not to go back to the sobriety thing, but when you’re on the road and you’re about to play the Empty Bottle, which is an institution in Chicago and you’re listening to the opener, Jess Price, who was awesome… I’m just sitting there thinking that I can’t believe I’m here and the only reason I’m there was that I made this record. It also gave me the opportunity to hire people and give people jobs. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sober.

One of the things that people don’t think about a lot when it comes to alcohol cessation is that, while it does so much good for your physical and mental health and your appearance, it’s blown me away how much more time I have to do things. It’s amazing how much mental energy I have to accomplish things that I never thought I’d be able to accomplish. So having the time, having the energy, being stuck at home, and being hyper-focused because I have ADHD gave me all the tools. [Laughs]

Analogue: So it sounds like you’re not a different person on the other side of Cruel Liars so much as you’re a different person on the other side of sobriety and Cruel Liars is the outcome of that.

River: Yeah, but even more specifically, I’d say sobriety and therapy and a host of other things haven’t made me a different person, but they have helped me to stop running from who I am. Getting reacquainted with myself and the aspects of my personality I had to repress when I was younger has been amazing. Allowing myself to find things funny and play throughout the day and be mischievous has been really delightful. It’s getting back in touch with myself and who I am.

Analogue: Why did you need a whole new outlet in the first place?

River: So typically when I write a song, it goes into a ‘Definitely Disarmers’ or ‘Could Be Disarmers’ or ‘Not Disarmers’ pile. For the last record, we’d been in pre-production for weeks. The band has historically done our own pre-production so when we get to the studio, there’s not a lot for the producer to do in terms of arrangements. Our goal is to go into the studio and get in and out as quickly as possible. We want to trim anything that was unnecessary and amplify the things that are cool—like signature riffs. So we’d been rehearsing for weeks and on the last day we finished early and had an hour left. Everyone was feeling great and spirits were high and someone said, wanting to blow off some steam, ‘Do you have any other songs right now?’

I was like, ‘Yeah, actually I’ve got a couple I wrote within the last month.’ They said, ‘Yeah, let’s run through them. Let’s blow off some steam and play some songs with no pressure.’ I thought that sounded great. So we did it and two of them ended up making it onto the record. One was “Been Loving You Too Long” and the other was “I Got This.”

I feel that the band has always been able to play genres that are wildly different from country. We all have different backgrounds and influences. All of us enjoy country music but none of us listen solely to it, so it wasn’t surprising to me that we were able to pull it off.

Analogue: I love that it’s on your terms.

River: I feel very protective about Cruel Liars and the band itself because it all feels like a little rebellion to the Disarmers. I know it sounds good, but the Disarmers is a polished, professional business that operates as a legal partnership. That’s never what I wanted music to be. I didn’t want to be a professional musician. There are all sorts of aspects of this job that do not line up with my job and with my value system.

While I love the Disarmers and I do like the music we make, there’s still a part of me that’s like, ‘I just want to make music because I fucking love music and if I didn’t, I would die.’ And so, it does feel like Mightmare is this rebellion. It’s this little thing that’s all mine. No one else has any say in what I’m doing, and I think that’s a very big part of the making of the record.

VISIT: Mightmare

*Photo: Danny Council