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Folk-Rock Duo Celebrates 45 Years in the Music Industry

Jan 12, 2017 04:00PM ● By Nicole Gould
Neal Shulman and Rex Fowler are the epitome of a music duo, spending close to a lifetime performing and making music together. With their folk-rock sound, Shulman and Fowler are currently celebrating their 45th anniversary as critically acclaimed Aztec Two-Step.

After their first encounter in 1971, at an open mic night in Boston, both Shulman and Fowler realized it would be more beneficial to work together rather than struggle individually, releasing their first self-titled debut on Elektra Records in 1972.

The duo has not only performed worldwide, but has been reviewed in Rolling Stone, appeared on numerous radio and TV shows, including The King Biscuit Flour Hour and David Letterman. In 1986, their album Living in America was named to Billboard’s year-end critic’s poll and received the New York Music Award for Best Folk Album.

Most recently, the two ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund a brand new album full of all-original songs, which successfully reached its goal. This album will be their first release since 2011.

“It’s a combination of where we are as people who are a lot older than when we started, but also the world we’re living in. You put all that stuff together and you write some songs that reflect your inner and outer life now and it’s a new part of the journey. You’ve never been done this road before. It spurs you to want to make a record and get it out to the world.” – Neal Shulman

Help Shulman and Fowler celebrate their 45th anniversary at The Stoltz Listening Room at the Avalon Theatre Friday, January 20th, 8 p.m. Tickets are $40 and the audience will get the opportunity to witness a performance of their “in the works” album’s title track, “Naked.”

 

When did you first develop your love for music and how did you decide that folk rock was the genre you wanted to pursue? Who did you look to for musical inspiration?

I mean we’ve been doing this 45 years. I’m listening to music when I’m a kid: rock n’ roll, folk music, and other stuff. I kind of always had a sort of desire to play music. I got a guitar when I was 12 and I got a set of drums when I was 13 and it was sort of split between rock n’ roll and folk music. The bonus is it’s a lot easier to go somewhere with your guitar than to be 13 years old and haul a set of drums around. I listened to a lot of people growing up like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.

Rex and I met in 1971 at an open mic night at a little club in Boston. Open mic nights are perennial things no matter where you go, whether its live music or comedy, there’s always going to be that. Its always a place to try to get noticed and honestly, both of us had this notion, in a sea of singer/songwriters and folk singers, that it would be good to have another person, to have a duo, and be able to sing harmony. That proved to be very true, very quickly.

How would you say the music industry has developed since you started touring the early ’70s compared to now? Do you have a favorite place that you’ve toured to? If so, what is it and why?

Everything. So much has changed. A lot is driven by technology. Recording technology is more accessible. More people can make records because it doesn’t take as much money and it’s something you can kind of do in a room with a computer, to a certain extent, whereas before it had to always be in a studio. In terms of distribution, most recordings don’t have to necessarily exist in a literal format, they can be digital. You can distribute it around the world at the push of a button; you can put your video on YouTube. Radio isn’t the sole gate keeper to an audience.

I don’t know if there are any favorite places; over the years, we’ve played at so many different places. These days there are some really wonderful venues we get to play consistently. Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine and Infinity Music Hall in Connecticut. Those are really nice venues. It’s a combination of great room and great staff.

Being a duo for 45 years sounds like an eternity in the music industry. What has been one of the most memorable moments throughout your music career thus far? Is there anything special the duo will be doing for its 45-year celebration?

You know it’s hard to sort of pick one thing. But, if I had to pick one, after 9/11 there was a big benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. For the few days before that, there was a series of benefit concerts in Red Bank, New Jersey. A lot of people from that community were affected. There’s a ferry from that part of New Jersey to the Wall Street area. A lot of people who work on Wall Street live there and a tremendous amount of lives were lost.

There was a series of concerts at the Count Basie Theatre and because of this unthinkable circumstance, everybody who was available showed up to play at this benefit concert. There was Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, and so that was a pretty memorable event because usually you come to play a concert and leave. We were there for like two to three days. It was a pretty spectacular lineup. That was memorable.

So, I’ve noticed that Rex has been the primary songwriter for most of the duo’s music. However, in your 2005 album, Days of Horses, you had written five of the 11 songs on that album. Where did the inspiration come from to write those songs? Did you ever think you’d develop into a songwriter?

I don’t know, I must have sort of come to terms randomly with my short attention span at that moment. There were just some things that I just wanted to write. I don’t always concentrate on my writing and if I did I would probably have more songs because I do have ideas for songs that I work on. Some I kept going for a long long time but haven’t finished. It was one of those periods in my life when I was a little more focused on my writing. It could happen again or not, but I’m still writing a little here and there.

Looking back on your career, did you ever imagine reaching the level of success that you have?

When we started doing this, I think I was just kind of putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t think I was really looking left or right or too far ahead. It’s really great to have this much success, but there are levels of success that are far beyond this. You’re there making your first record and the next three records; you think maybe this will be a gold record. It’s not something I think about a lot or really ever thought about.

Because I think a lot of it stems from the material you have and it’s not just random material. There will always be certain kinds of love songs, but it’s not necessarily up to the listener to know that the women who had the love song written about her ten years ago isn’t the same women ten years later. There are other things going on in the world and those songs are very much the centerpiece of those records.

Now, the album Naked is an album full of original songs. Where did you pull inspiration from when writing these pieces? Did you both contribute to the song writing? You haven’t put together an album since 2011. What brought about the idea to produce a new album now?

It’s a combination of where we are as people who are a lot older than when we started, but also the world we’re living in. I mean, c’mon Donald Trump’s going to be the President. You put all that stuff together and you write some songs that reflect your inner and outer life now and it’s a new part of the journey. You’ve never been down this road before. It spurs you to want to make a record and get it out to the world.

We’re not all done yet, we don’t know everything that’s going to be on it yet. We’re working on four songs now and I wrote one of those songs.

Can you tell me a little more about your Kickstarter project and why you took this route for funding? How long did it take for you to hit your goal amount?

It is as we say, a music business that has almost completely changed since we started. When we started, every record that had any credibility came from a major label. They were the gate keepers of the budget, the radio promotion, and the physical distribution of the record. Those things only exist for a very small group of musicians.

There’s no record company to go to. It worked out really well because it’s [us] and our audience and they’re the ones who stepped up to do the Kickstarter with us. They validated it, saying they wanted it when it was done and they were willing to buy copies now.

For me, it was a real sense of validation, the audience is in this with us. This is what 45 years of playing constantly and having an audience is about. I was very pleased and feltvery validated that people were willing to make a stone cold hard commitment so the record gets made.

What’s next for Aztec Two-Step?

That’s a good question I don’t know the answer to. Doing the album and the Kickstarter campaign, there’s a lot of effort that goes into that. We just finished it and recorded some stuff. We have a lot left to record, the majority of this album. So, there’s not much else on our radar screen now, we just don’t know.

We’ll make this record, get it out, support it, and see what happens.