Twenty years with Two Cow Garage
Micah Schnabel and Shane Sweeney canceled a planned anniversary concert at Rumba Cafe, but don’t expect the silence to last long
Micah Schnabel and Shane Sweeney played their first show together as Two Cow Garage in September 2001 at a 9/11 benefit staged at Little Brother's by Dan Dougan. During the concert, Todd May sat in with the pair, offering musical support as well as pointed criticism of Sweeney’s sartorial choices. “He was like, ‘You maybe don’t want to wear flip-flops,’” cracked Sweeney, who laughed when he recalled how he wore shorts for the band’s live debut.
Of course, being slightly out of step with current fashions has been something of a career hallmark for the pair, who made a conscious decision to sacrifice comfort for creative freedom when they started recording sessions for Two Cow’s third album, III, from 2007. At the time, the group was coming off its greatest success to date: “135,” a ramshackle, revved-up and true-to-life portrait of a couple of kids hitting the open road that served as the spiritual centerpiece to 2004 album The Wall Against Our Back.
“So when we started the third record, I caught myself in a moment of … trying to write something similar [to ‘135’],” said Schnabel, who joined Sweeney for a mid-August conversation outside of a Clintonville coffee shop. “Those first records are Americana records, and you can very quickly get lumped into that, and if you deviate at all you get kicked out of the club.”
“We actually had a conversation about that in Des Moines, Iowa, where we were both like, ‘We don’t want to be painted inside of this box,’” Sweeney said. “You can make a choice to follow that path, and maybe make a good living, and lots of people do. But that’s not who we are as people.”
Schnabel said this early decision to chart a less-comfortable course is part of what has kept the band energized and engaged these last 20 years. “I’m not trying to dismiss what we’ve done, but we’ve never made a lot of money to where it’s been like, ‘Oh, we’re on this touring schedule and everybody makes a living and we’re just cranking the machine,’” he said. “And when you don’t have that, it has to be done out of love every single time.”
Schnabel and Sweeney met in 2001 at an open mic at BW3, with Schnabel making the first approach after hearing Sweeney perform a cover of a Tim Easton song. “Initially, [Micah] asked me if I wanted to play in a band, and I said yes even though I didn’t know how to play bass,” Sweeney said. “I figured if I could play guitar, I could learn the bass, but it still took longer than it should.”
These moments of reflection are rare for the forward-looking crew, which generally refrains from dwelling in the past. But with Two Cow’s 20-year anniversary just weeks away (the band started on Sept. 4, 2001), the two have taken more time to linger on the decades-long journey, even picking roughly 30 songs that they intended to revisit in concert at Rumba Cafe this week — a concert that was scrapped late last week amid the delta-driven surge in COVID-19 cases.
“When we play, I know everyone in the room by first name,” Schnabel said. “So the idea of gathering 200 people into a tight room right now, we can’t do it.”
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Revisiting these early songs in preparation for the concert, though, the two were struck by how close most remained musically — “They were all muscle memory, to some degree,” Sweeney said — even if they felt distanced from the people they were when the songs were first written.
Sweeney, for one, described his earliest songs as time capsules, while Schnabel cringed at the thought of inhabiting this earlier, more naïve version of himself. “Two of the songs on that first record I wrote when I was in high school,” he said. “I don’t really want to revisit that in front of people.”
“We were talking about that the other day, how there are subsets of people who really like 31-year-old Shane, and there are a subset of people who really love 24-year-old Shane,” Sweeney said. “But I’m 43 years old, and I’m still moving forward, and hopefully people like that, too. But people always want you to be that age you were when they discovered you, and that’s such a weirdly specific thing about music.”
While Sweeney and Schnabel have continued to grow both as people and musicians — an evolution chronicled in Two Cow’s deep, diverse and increasingly outward-looking discography — the two said their motivations for making music have remained virtually unchanged from that chance first meeting at BW3.
“I just wanted to be a part of music, of that scene and whatever was happening in the world,” Schnabel said. “I love playing, and I love writing songs, and it was always, ‘How do we get to be a part of that?’”
For 20 years, the two have remained entwined in this way with music, leading to experiences Schnabel said he never could have envisioned while growing up poor in Bucyrus, Ohio. “A person from rural America with a high school diploma wasn’t going to see much of the world,” he said. “Getting older, you realize how much you’ve gotten to do and see because of this band.”
“We didn’t just grow up working together; we grew up together as people,” Sweeney said. “We went through things that nobody should have to go through, but we also had amazing, beautiful experiences that are impossible to quantify, like drinking red wine and Coke on the steps of an art museum in Croatia with kids who just came to your show. … Considering our socio-economic status growing up, it really could have gone another way. We really lucked out.”