With Shagwuf’s Sweet Freakshow, the Charlottesville surf-garage band celebrates five years of advocating for safe spaces, being vocal about intersectional issues, and rocking out.
Gutter-glam swamp-rock band Shagwuf is on a mission. The Charlottesville-based trio hopes to recreate inclusive safe spaces across the East Coast, and change the reputation of their hometown in the process. And they’re doing it all with music.
This weekend, the group will celebrate their fifth anniversary as a band with a giant outdoor party in the heart of Charlottesville, at IX Art Park. The event, which has been named “The Sweet Freakshow” after their latest single, “Sweet Freak,” will feature performers of all kinds, from the scandalous to the downright dangerous.
One such act is the daring and dangerous Stray Cats Sideshow, a husband and wife duo who, along with their team, do it all, from contortionist exhibitions to eating light bulbs.
“You see them and think, these are the craziest, gnarliest people, and then they invite you into their home and they’re so hospitable,” said Shagwuf bassist Sally Rose. “They fed us, let us take showers at their house, and the next morning we all had coffee in their backyard while throwing ninja stars and knives at targets. It was just so funny — they were these really caring, hospitable people doing this really dangerous stuff.”
Shagwuf intentionally organized this event to be held in Charlottesville, not only because that city is their stomping grounds, but because they want to take steps to erase the mark left on the town’s reputation after the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
“If you look up the hashtag for Charlottesville, it’s still deeply overwhelmed with really horrific images,” said Rose. “Now, more than any other time, is the time to be putting that work in, making sure people are safe at shows and celebrating everything we’re there for, in a really sacred environment that can’t be fucked with.”
After 5 years performing as Shagwuf, Rose, along with guitarist Pete Stallings and drummer Pablo Olivieri, has learned a lot about what it means to be in a band that’s more like family.
“There’s a very strong hunger to play music for as long as possible, and be on the road as much as we can afford to,” said Rose. “You have to have a lot of trust, and more than anything, you all have to want the same thing. With Shagwuf, we are really in it because we all love playing together, love music, and love sharing these experiences on the road together.”
They’ve also learned how important it is to be allies to their fans, not just passive entertainment. Whether they’re on tour or performing locally, Shagwuf has used their tight-knit feel and expansive experience to create a space in which their fans can feel safe and welcome. To them, ensuring their fans feel comfortable and welcome as they are is the most important part of the work they do and the music they share.
“It is a constant thing that you have to be working on to really prove yourself as an ally to any minority group,” said Rose. “Our cultures are constantly evolving and changing, and you have to be proactive and intentional.”
In these “woke” times, Shagwuf have encountered their share of bands and venues who want to be seen as enlightened, but aren’t backing up their words with actions. “Something we’ve run into a lot on the road is venues having a decal on their door saying this is a safe space, but then you go in there and there’s still misogyny or bigotry going on,” said Rose. “They’re talking the talk, and not walking the walk.”
Fighting to create those safe spaces for members of their audience who are POC, LGBTQ, women, and other minority groups has proven challenging over the years. In many cases, it’s caused schedule changes and last-minute moves to new venues, but for Shagwuf, it’s important to do whatever is necessary to make sure everyone will be comfortable at their shows.
“You have to address it while you’re promoting the show — that anything that doesn’t abide by these standards will not be tolerated, and you will be removed from the show,” said Rose. “We’ve removed entire bills the week of [the show], and had to do house shows instead, in somebody’s basement, to put on a really meaningful show.”
Sometimes creating a safe space for their music has even meant stopping a show to confront people who are behaving badly. But as far as Rose is concerned, it’s the band’s responsibility to do so.
“We’ve had altercations at shows, where somebody was uncomfortable, and you have to take that initiative and be responsible,” said Rose. “Onstage, you have to call it out.”
While the band has had to struggle to keep their shows safe, their experiences have been eye-opening, and given them a new perspective about what it means to be an ally.
“If you’re gonna claim that you’re an ally, and claim you’re creating safe space, that’s what you have to do,” said Rose. “We’ve lost some opportunities, but we’ve gained a million more because of our mission to do that as a band. Some places don’t want to book bands that are loudly queer and loudly trying to create spaces like that, but it’s been really rewarding for us as a whole.”
Shagwuf’s most recently released tune, “Sweet Freak,” rejoices in these experiences the band has shared and honors the lives of queer individuals through a compassionate, sex-positive surf-garage-punk anthem.
“The song and music video we released were trying to break down the stigmas associated with BDSM, being sex positive, being a part of the kink community, and identifying as queer. All of those things are often really a healthy and healing part of communities that are physically filled with love,” said Rose. “To me being a sweet freak is embracing that, celebrating that, and de-stigmatizing that culture in general.”
In the years to come, Shagwuf doesn’t plan on slowing down. Currently, they have a lot of music being written behind the scenes to be shared later on after they spend time in Richmond recording this summer.
“There’s stuff Pete is writing that’s almost heavy funk which is really weird,” said Rose. “The stuff I’ve written was after coming out of this really terrible relationship and awful breakup this past year that’s really heavy and raw.”
Shagwuf’s Sweet Freakshow takes place this Saturday, May 25th at 7pm, at IX Art Park, located at 522 2nd St NE in Charlottesville. “It’s gonna be a freak show filled with love where everybody’s welcome as long as they act out of love for each other,” said Rose. “I want that for this town, so we can take our city back. These people coming to the show can be a part of our city and we’ll show them that’s what we’re about.”
Tickets for Shagwuf’s Sweet Freakshow are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and can be ordered online through Eventbrite.
Top photo: Rich Tarbell, via Shagwuf/Facebook
Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond