Artist Ethan Shantie on creativity, labels, and not sweating the small stuff

Even though Ethan Shantie has published a book of poetry, the 30-year-old doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself a poet. Instead, he refers to himself as an artist. And it makes sense: other than writing poetry, he can be found immersing himself in a myriad of other creative endeavors. He plays drums (and sometimes other instruments) for a Potsdam, New York-based, hardcore band called Sunflo’er; he can compile a mean zine; he works for a radio station; and he’s been known to dabble in some really cool, eclectic collage art.

I’ve never actually met Ethan face to face. I was supposed to interview him once after he had a collection of his poetry published, but my car (that did not agree with Northern New York winters) broke down on the way to the interview. After some scrambling, I was able to interview him over the phone. That was a couple years ago, and he’s been pretty busy since then.

Ethan and I talked for a bit on Friday and I realized then that he is truly passionate about everything he throws himself into, whether it’s playing with his band, writing, or making art.

Elly Gibson: So as you know, this isn’t actually the first time I’ve interviewed you. When I was a reporter at a newspaper in Northern New York, I wrote a feature story on you because you had just released a collection of your poetry. What have you been up to since then?

Ethan Shantie: Yeah! That seems like a very long time ago. Since then, I’ve been making collage art and writing new music with my band, Sunflo’er. In September, we released an album called “No Hell” on Noise Salvation Records in Ottawa. We were originally scheduled to release it on another label, but there were some complications which lead us to look elsewhere and, in the process, we decided to do something kind of unique with the release, which was to design a lyric zine along with the CD. So I designed this booklet with Polaroids and collages to accompany the lyrics, got some cool art from friends, got an essay to serve as a foreword from Dr. Derek Maus at SUNY Potsdam. It was a huge undertaking which ended up being a lot more work than I anticipated, but that’s how it always turns out, I guess. I used mostly Post-WWII images that I got out of a Time-Life collection and that ended up being, like, the aesthetic through-line of the zine.

Since we last talked, I, of course, have written more poetry; not a lot of prose. But to be honest, it’s been a hot minute since I wrote a new poem. The zine and the press and everything that accompanied the album took up a lot of my time.

About a year and a half ago, I quit my radio job without a plan, spent a month with family and friends and my girlfriend in Phoenix, Arizona, and then came back to look for work only to find myself, surprisingly, back in radio working for North Country Public Radio, the NPR affiliate in Canton, which has been rad.

EG: NCPR is probably one of the things I miss most from the North Country. We can get V(ermont)PR here in Albany, and that’s okay, but it’s no NCPR! Tell me a little bit more about the band. What’s it like being a drummer? Only my husband knows this, but I am an aspiring drummer. I hope by the end of the year to buy an electronic set to play in our apartment, but for now, I’m getting pretty good at air drumming.

ES: You should definitely get a kit! I’ve been flirting with the idea of an electronic kit for a while but always resist because it’s just not the same as an acoustic kit. Playing drums is so fucking fun. I played sax when I was in grade/high school and have played guitar and bass since I was 13, but I always wanted to be a drummer and it’s by far my favorite instrument! It’s immediately satisfying; you barely have to be skilled at all to get a good sound out of it. I’ve played for 11 or 12 years I guess, and I’m absolutely not the best drummer in the world, but I think I do a good job in this band and have gotten better by necessity as a way to keep up with our guitar player, Carter, who is a phenomenal musician. I still do play guitar but not often and usually only when writing new music for the band.

EG: What kind of music does Sunflo’er play? It’s very loud — in a good way.

ES: Thank you! It’s easiest for us to just say we’re experimental hardcore, but depending upon the conversation, I might just say we’re punk or metal or whatever. Some people have called us mathcore and that’s fine too.

EG: Also, I played sax in high school, too!

ES: Nice! Sax was fun, I enjoyed it most playing in jazz band. It’s funny — I didn’t pick [the saxophone] up for years and years until last December when the band recorded a Pink Floyd cover for a big compilation and we decided to throw some sax into the mix, which I think turned out really well.

EG: So at this point in your life, do you consider yourself a drummer or a poet? Or a poetic drummer? A radio-station-working, drumming poet who occasionally plays saxophone and does collage art? A jack of all trades?

ES: Shit, I don’t know. On my Instagram, it says “New York writer and collage artist.” I’ve never been super comfortable saying, “I’m a poet,” but I will gladly admit I’m a writer. It’s easier to just say I’m an artist, I think because my interests do change often and, a year ago, I never would have thought I would be a visual artist in any real capacity. Before that, when I was in college, I would have never thought I would have written poetry. I like that I’m an artist and that’s probably the defining characteristic of my life. I just like doing what I do and it all seems like part of the same thing if that makes sense.

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EG: I get it. I once saw someone describe their multiple hobbies and ever-changing interests like clicking on the recommended videos on the side of the screen whenever you’re watching something on YouTube. It’s not necessarily a distraction from the current hobby you have; more like you don’t want to miss out on anything life has to offer. And exactly, the different hobbies can usually be found under the same umbrella anyway.

ES: Yeah, all my interests have informed and influenced all my other interests for sure. With drumming, like I said, I don’t think I’m the best, but I’ve always approached guitar from what I wanted to hear on the drums and with playing drums it’s always with what I want to hear the guitar do. And my poetry has informed how I write lyrics, and on and on.

EG: What were/are your inspirations?

ES: I think that as far as inspirations are concerned, all the things I like and do inspire the things I create. So, like, my writing projects are influenced by the books I like, by the movies I watch, by the music I listen to.

EG: Regarding your writing, how did you get started?

ES: I’ve written for as long as I can remember. My first real memory consciously writing was in, like, third grade and it leading to my parents buying me this cheap kids typewriter. In fourth grade, a teacher asked me if I really wrote a story I turned in and I thought I was in trouble, and she was like, “no it’s just really good and imaginative!” I always enjoyed reading and excelled in my English courses through school and loved having to write essays and stuff. I knew from an early age that I was going to go to college for writing and thought it might be a good career move, but didn’t really care. I just wanted to get better. So when I got into school, it was to write fiction, get into novellas and novels, and as I took more courses with my teacher (who became my mentor) Dr. Maurice Kenny, he encouraged me to take his poetry course in my senior year. I said no. He said it wasn’t a choice. And it turned out to be the best decision of my academic life because it turned out I’m pretty okay at poetry and more importantly, I really enjoy it.

So poetry has really been my writing focus for the last ten years. I’ve written some short stories that I like and tried my hand at novels (mostly during drunk NaNoWriMo sessions), but I know I’m better at poems than I am at fiction. I couldn’t say why and maybe I just need more practice, but yeah.

A couple of years ago, I was contacted by one of Kenny’s interns, who ran his own press called Ghost City Press in Syracuse, and he asked if I would be interested in putting together a full collection for them. Kenny had published a tiny chapbook of some poems two years prior to that, but putting together a full-length collection was way more work. At the time, I was working a full-time job in radio, helping to run a federal study on Noise at Alcoa, and writing new music with the band, so taking on yet another project was stressful but I don’t regret it.

After that was done, I said I would never tackle another book while doing all this other shit, but that’s probably a far-fetched dream. I’m always busy with 40 things, it feels like.

EG: Is “after that was done I said I would never tackle another book while doing all this other shit, but that’s probably a far fetched dream” code for “I have some upcoming projects I’m working on”?

ES: Hahaha, I wish I could say that, but I don’t really have anything in production right now! Producing the zine was, like I said, a huge undertaking. The album came out in September. But we spent a year writing it, then it was another year before it came out after we recorded. So, like… I thought that I would be able to not think about the album after we recorded it, but it took a year to get everything settled for the release, including the zine. And we shot a music video and did a few interviews and did a lot of social media stuff. So a ton of mental energy went into making this thing come out the way we wanted. That meant that I didn’t have a lot of room upstairs for other ideas doing all these collages and putting the zine together has given me ideas for what I want to do next, which I think is another book of poetry but with collages and photos and, yeah, just getting weird. “we meet by accident” was a pretty conventional books in terms of the format, but I would like to try a new approach.

EG: I saw the music video! It was really badass — very gothcore meets LSD, in my opinion.

ES: Thank you SO MUCH. We hired this guy from Plattsburgh, Matt Hall, to film and edit it. We shot it in just a few hours in our barn. He’s really talented and does so much, from music to music videos to a podcast; a lot under the umbrella Trashburgh, which is super cool.

EG: Besides Dr. Kenny making you take that poetry class in college, what was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

ES: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer to it. My dad has told me often not to get pissed off about things I have no control over — don’t sweat the small stuff, ya know? And I try to keep that in mind. It’s gotten easier as I get older, but I admit that I lose sight of it sometimes. But is advice as good as a lesson learned through experience?

I’ve found that when I just make art that’s true to me without really concerning myself with how it will be perceived, then I’m a lot happier. And that has only been realized over, like, almost two decades of making music and art.

EG: Lastly, I know from personal experience it can be difficult to get published in the creative world, poetry especially. There is a lot of rejection as well as competition — I guess, except in your case when someone came to you for “we meet by accident,” which is really lucky but also, obviously, speaks to your talent. What’s your advice to the creative types trying to get their work out there?

ES: My advice is to do everything on your own as much as possible. DIY might not be glamorous but it is the most fulfilling. There are a lot of avenues through which people can publish or have their work featured. It might not get you the most press or attention at first, but you can take pride in knowing your work is as true to you as can be. Publish through your friends. If you want to start a record label and release your own music, do it. If your friend has a label and offers to help you out, take them up on the opportunity. If they have a journal and tells you to submit, do it. Put your shit on Instagram, share it on Facebook, take ownership of your art.

If you are beaten down by the fact that you are not making a million dollars a year on your art, then maybe get into banking because art is for art’s sake. It is for the work that goes into it. If you’re in a band, play a show to fifteen kids and enjoy it. If you read poetry, go to a coffee house and read aloud. Accept feedback. Even if you don’t agree with them, take time to consider that the person critiquing put time and energy into your work and you probably owe their words a moment of consideration.

My most honest advice is that the more you work with friends and your own community (not limited to locale, but stretching across social media), the happier you will be. Work hard and expect nothing in return, because it’ll feel great when even one person notices and digs what you do.

Ethan Shantie is a writer and musician living in Potsdam, New York. You can follow him and Sunflo’er on Instagram at @ethanshantie and @sunfloerny, respectively.

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