Shapel Lacey | photo by Alxis Ratkevich

Shapel Lacey interview by Alxis Ratkevich

Big Laughs, Black Flag and the Power of Just Being

Originally from Arizona, Shapel Lacey is a nationally touring, headlining stand-up comedian who currently resides in Los Angeles. Lacey’s personal and honest approach to comedy disarms audiences, inciting laughter while simultaneously planting the seed for us to think more deeply about how we define ourselves and the assumptions we make about each other. Subverting expectations both as a person and a comedian Lacey refuses to fit the “mold” of what others anticipate. He’s a skater, a punk, a comedian, and a former competitive cheerleader. These contrasting layers to his personality come through on stage: unabashedly frank yet cheerful, silly yet thoughtful and nuanced, resilient yet vulnerable.

A fearless individuality is the thread that binds all these unlikely facets together in Lacey, and to me is also the cornerstone of what defines punk. For many of us, punk goes beyond music to encompass a state of mind. It’s an essence that can be seen in life and other art forms, manifesting itself in different ways through the message or content of a piece, or in the attitude and approach of an artist. Whether watching Lacey’s standup, listening to his podcast It’s Managed or King and the Sting (a podcast featuring Theo Von and Brendan Schaub) it’s clear music has always been an important part of his life—initially serving as a happy escape during his chaotic childhood and later helping him articulate his feelings of anger and angst. Simply put, Lacey says, “Punk is something that has always just been in my blood.” I talked with Lacey about the intersection of comedy and punk, anger management, Black Flag, and the power of just “being.”

Alxis: What brought you to Los Angeles?

Shapel: I came out here in 2018 to do comedy. I’d been doing it back home in Arizona for quite some time. You hit a ceiling, you get bored, and you have to make a decision. I said, “Ah, fuck it. Let’s try L.A. Let’s roll the dice.” I’m a guy who just does things and sometimes that works in my favor and sometimes it doesn’t [laughs] but I think that’s just life in general. What do I have to lose? So I took the jump.

Alxis: Can you talk about the role music has played in your life?

Shapel: I grew up in a crazy household. My stepfather was physically and verbally abusive, so there was a lot of sadness and people on edge in our household. The only time I ever saw my mom happy was when she was listening to music. I was only five or six at the time. She’d be cleaning up over the weekend and playing music and it was cool to see her happy in that way.

So I just got into music at an early age. I was at the radio all the time. Initially I’d listen to the things my mom liked, which was mainly R&B and funk. Then I switched the station and I heard the song “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain and I thought, “Oh shit! What is this?” It was rock and I just kept getting into it. It was the ’90s, so grunge and alternative were heavy and I really got into that. As I was getting older towards the end of elementary school, going into junior high I got into nü-metal like Korn, Deftones, and Slipknot. That was the sound that I heard at home. It was like the music was screaming it for me. It just made sense.

By then I was a geek for music, and I wanted to play an instrument. I didn’t care what instrument. I just wanted to play. My junior high offered guitar classes. I got in and caught on pretty quick because all I did was listen to music. He taught us a chord and I was like, “Fuck, yeah. That was easy. Let’s learn another” and I flourished with it.

Then one of my buddies from guitar class said he was starting a ska band and asked if I wanted to be in it with him. I said “Fuck yeah. Why not?” So he started showing me music he loved: Less Than Jake, Pennywise, Mad Caddies, Reel Big Fish, the list goes on. His brother always wore a Black Flag shirt, the one with the bars (by Raymond Pettibon) on it. I was always curious as to what it was; the image just seemed so powerful. So one day I asked, “What is that?” he said “You never heard of Black Flag?” When I said no, he went over to his computer and downloaded this live footage of Black Flag.

Shapel Lacey | photo by Alxis Ratkevich

Alxis: Was it Keith Morris or Henry Rollins?

Shapel: It was the Rollins era, when Rollins first joined. So you just see this skinny dude, with just those bars right there [points] on his arm.

Alxis: In shorts. [laughs]

Shapel: Yeah! [laughs] And I just saw how wild he was. I was like, “Damn, I want to be that. I want that.” For me metal music was, “This is what you are going through.” But punk was, “Here’s what you’re going through and here’s what you’re going to do about it.” Granted, I was super aggressive. [laughs] Coming from a pretty hardcore upbringing, that’s all I knew. That was my life. With punk rock you hear these things like “Stand Up and Be Counted,” things that give you that individuality. I realized I didn’t need anyone’s approval. If I like something it’s because I like it and if people fall in with it, then they fall in with it, but if not, [shrugs] oh-well. That’s why I say punk is my blood because I think that was always in me. I just needed to find it.

Alxis: At that time was there a particular punk song that was an anthem for you?

Shapel: Yeah. It was “Rise Above.”

Alxis: That makes sense.

Everyone defines punk in their own way. What’s important is what it means to you more so than what it means to anyone else.

Shapel: [laughs] Yeah exactly! Every day it was, “Rise above, rise above!” It just put me on another level of thinking. Everyone defines punk in their own way. What’s important is what it means to you more so than what it means to anyone else. What I took from punk was that we all come together and like this music and have a fun time, but at the end of the day you are your own person. You have to think for yourself. Even being a comedian, it’s a community but, “What am I without this community?” That’s what I think about all the time. “What am I without this or what do I have without that?” I have my individuality, that’s what, which is more important to me than anything. There are those punks who try and say, “No, this is what punk is,” but you can’t tell people what it is and what it isn’t because it’s about what it is for you and it may not be the same thing.

“What am I without this community?” That’s what I think about all the time. “What am I without this or what do I have without that?” I have my individuality, that’s what, which is more important to me than anything.

Alxis: Since punk means so many different things to different people and includes a wide umbrella of bands from Black Flag to Crass, can you tell us more about how you define “punk”?

Shapel: It’s being authentic to who you are. As far as bands, I consider Green Day punk. That’s the thing I can bet you—Green Day fucks with Crass. Now Crass might not know who Green Day is, [laughs] Green Day might do it a different way, but there’s something about Crass that made them want to do their own thing. The inspiration just constantly rolls. That’s the thing about it—you can do it anyway you want to as long as you’re being authentic to yourself.

Alxis: So when did you start focusing on comedy and stand-up?

Shapel: In 2010 I was in college living in Louisville, Ky. and essentially someone dared me to do it. I studied standup for about two months, got on stage, and was like, “Yeah. I’m dropping out of college.” [laughs] I already was, but it’s fun to say it that way. There was just something about it that was really fun. It was my own thing, by myself. I didn’t have to rely on anyone to do it. It was all me. It was all in my control and I liked that.

At the end of 2012 I moved to Orange County to continue doing standup. I knew some people who lived there and it was close to L.A. Then in April of 2013 my brother passed away and I just didn’t want to be here anymore so I moved back home. When he passed, I didn’t want to make people laugh. I didn’t want to do anything funny. I just wasn’t feeling it, so I pretty much stopped. From 2013-2015, I did a total of four sets. There were times I tried but I just felt like, “Ah, fuck. I don’t like it,” [laughs] and so I walked away. People were asking me around town to do shows but I just said no to everybody.

Then in 2016 Brent Morin and Jason Collings (The Lion’s Den podcast) were coming to the local comedy club back home in Tempe, Ariz. I already knew Jason and he told Brent, “You should put up Shapel. This guy is funny.” When I saw Brent he said, “You’re going up tonight.” I don’t know; there was just something about the way he said it. I didn’t really have an out. It’s a weird psychological thing. Of course I had a choice but since he put it that way, I didn’t really have time to think about it. Brent and Jason are great guys. I give a lot of thanks to them for that. They didn’t know how depressed I was. Nobody did. I went up that night and was like, “Fuck yeah!”

Alxis: Was the set different subject matter? In your current standup you seem to talk about your real life. So was that set the turning point for you?

Don’t try to make it; just be… I simplified it to two things: be a good person and be good at what I do.

Shapel: One hundred percent.It was the first time I ever felt real on stage. It was the most authentic I’ve ever felt on stage. Before that, I was saying the stupidest shit. [laughs] What it came down to was my brother doesn’t get to do the things that he wanted to do. So I just “wanted to do.” Once I simplified it to that, it took away all the pressure of it being “something” and all the sudden you are just “doing.” Even when I moved to Los Angeles, I told myself, “Don’t worry about making it.” Here, everyone is trying to do this big thing or act this way because they think it will get them something. Fuck that. I don’t want to do any of that. I’d feel icky if I did that. Don’t try to make it; just be. My manager will ask, “What are your goals this year?” and my response is “To be happy.” [laughs] I simplified it to two things: be a good person and be good at what I do. As long as I’m doing and working hard at it, that other shit will come.

Shapel Lacey | photo by Alxis Ratkevich

Alxis: Do you feel like you carry your philosophy about punk into your comedy?

Shapel: Oh, yeah. Not everyone catches punk the way I did. Some people see punk as this crazy thing, but to me there’s more to it. The people that I idolize like Henry Rollins—the way those guys are on stage, I feel that. Once I saw him with Black Flag, it just clicked and I wanted to know so much more about him. Then I heard his spoken word. He just doesn’t stop. He’s made me understand the importance of the world of learning. I thought, “How does he know all this stuff?” and realized, “Oh, he’s constantly learning, trying to understand.” I’m not one of those people who need to know everything, like on social media [laughs] those people are trying to share everything. [laughs]

Alxis: Not too many people have the lifestyle that touring musicians have but touring comedians seem to. Is touring a big part of what you do as a comedian?

Shapel: I love the tour life. Every time you go somewhere, people say it’s like this or like that. I put all that out the door and say, “I’ll understand it for myself.” There’s always new stuff to see and learn. When I’m in L.A. doing sets I’m building to go put it out there, and touring is putting the product out there. It’s great.

Alxis: Are there any cities or clubs you performed at that stick out to you as “punk?”

Shapel: DC Improv and DC Comedy Loft are some of the dopest places to perform at. The people there just really want the comedy. They want you to say something different. The audience really wants to hear you. They want to know the way you think. DC all the way. I also did a festival (2019 Sonic Temple Music Festival) where I was on the lineup with Henry Rollins. The crowd was huge, it was crazy. Our trailers were even connected. I was like, “Did this festival do that on purpose?” [laughs]

Alxis: Did you tell him you were a fan or discuss music?

Shapel: I went through anger management, like quite a few times. I told him that I had a teacher who would use his videos to help me with my anger. He was like, “They used my videos?!” I said, “Don’t worry, they broke things down to where it made sense. It was about having control.”

Alxis: You come off really friendly, like the nicest guy, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about anger management.

Shapel: I worked really hard at it. [laughs] I worked my ass off at it. I love to think and my teachers noticed that so they always made me think. They were great. They never gave me an answer, just gave information. They knew if they threw it at me, I’d think about it.

Alxis: Music is a frequent topic of discussion on your podcast It’s Managed and in your standup. Why is including music in your work as a comedian important to you?

Shapel: I just love music. To really stand out you have to have these layers to you. All the things I’ve done, I’ve always been that way, like loving punk but also being a competitive cheerleader who likes to skateboard—these things that pile on to make me who I am. Doing comedy, I’ll post a song to my story and people say, “WTF? You play guitar?” they get excited about it. Most of my DMs are people wanting to talk about music and so many of my fans ask me questions about music.

Alxis: I’ve heard you discuss facing stereotypes and insults due to being a Black man who likes punk and rock music. Are you surprised that people are still surprised by the music you listen to?

“This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Your Land.” I took that as, “Oh, I can do whatever the fuck I want.” It’s my land too, so why couldn’t I listen to rock? Then you walk out into the world and it’s so different.

Shapel: I feel like I will deal with that for the rest of my life. [laughs] There are times people will say, “You’re so white,” and they literally know nothing about me. When they tell me that, I say, “Well I’ve never been white.” It startles them. What can they say to that? I’ll put it this way, when I was a kid in music class they’d make us sing “This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Your Land,”I took that as, “Oh, I can do whatever the fuck I want.” It’s my land too, so why couldn’t I listen to rock? Then you walk out into the world and it’s so different; people are like, “You can’t listen to that. You’re a Black guy,” but I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I love my life. [laughs]

Alxis: More recently you’ve been playing music with some of the band from Kill Tony (a live podcast featuring comedian Tony Hinchliffe, filmed at the Comedy Store). Can you tell me more about that project and what brought it about?

Shapel: We have always talked about punk together. Then when quarantine was just rolling and everything was shut down, we got bored and decided to do some covers, film it, and throw it out there (video by 4933 Productions). Joel Jimenez plays drums, Chris Dillon plays guitar, Ryan Clark plays bass, and I did the singing. It was so much fun. Ever since I was a kid and saw that Rollins video I felt it but I never fronted before, so to finally put it out there was like, “Fuck yeah!” We all have such hectic schedules but it would be great to find a way to continue it.

Alxis: You talk about books and reading frequently. Can you give us some punk book suggestions, whether it’s a book like Get in the Van or something that in your opinion demonstrates the punk ethos?

Shapel: The War of Art (by Steven Pressfield) was a big one for me and the Power of Now (by Eckhart Tolle). The thing about those books that’s like punk to me is they really cut out all the bullshit. I don’t know how that wouldn’t click with anyone, [laughs] but I know not everyone is going to learn it the same way.

Alxis: I noticed you are not on Twitter, which is pretty unusual for a comedian today.

Shapel: Fuck no. I can’t stand Twitter.

Alxis: I think that’s punk rock to be in your industry and not be on Twitter.

Shapel: Yeah, it feels great and I dare someone to say be on it [laughs] because I don’t have to do shit. I’m doing fine without it. [laughs]

Alxis: To the same point as the books, do you have any movies you recommend as your quintessential punk must-sees?

Shapel: Tombstone, specifically Val Kilmer’s character Doc Holiday. If you pay attention, it’s very punk who he is. He just carries himself in such a way, this “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. He’s not looking for your approval and he’s a badass but he’s not loud about it. The other is Angus, which is one of my top favorite movies of all time. People ask, “Why do you love this movie?” I say listen to the message. You have this kid who is trying to be something till he exhausted himself and realizes, “I don’t need to be cool with you. I don’t need to have what you have. I can just be.” That’s why it’s one of my favorites.

Alxis: Do you have any particular memories from going to punk shows that stick out?

All the sudden I hear, “Get the fuck off him.” Security let me go, this hand pulls me up, and it’s Keith Morris. He pulled me on stage and I’m singing over his shoulder.

Shapel: Yeah it was Circles Jerks and G.B.H. Circle Jerks were playing and closing with “Nervous Breakdown.” Keith Morris said, “Come up and sing it if you want.” Fuck, yeah, I wanted to sing that, so I hopped over a barricade and got tackled by security. In comparison to the security guard, I was this little sixteen year old. He was holding me down and all the sudden I hear, “Get the fuck off him.” Security let me go, this hand pulls me up, and it’s Keith Morris. He pulled me on stage and I’m singing over his shoulder and then he handed me the mic and I finished the song.

Alxis: Ahhhh! That’s beautiful. That’s perfect!

Shapel: You idolize this person and then you see that. That’s when I knew punk was this real thing. This real shit. People who were at that show will still message me about it.

Alxis: What comedians, if any, do you consider punk and why?

Shapel: Richard Pryor, Patrice O’Neal, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Robert Kelly, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn—honestly, a lot of New York cats. There’s a long list, that’s just to throw some out there. For example, my favorite Patrice O’Neal, he would say some of the wildest shit but you listened because what he was saying was super interesting. What he did for you was make it so lighthearted that when he shocked you, you still listened. He was so good at explaining his point of view because he had already prepared for the rebuttal, all the ways people were going to come at him. He’s hilarious, he’s shocking you, but he has a message. I think that’s punk. Chris Rock has a quote that a musician plays an instrument and the crowd reacts. For a comedian, the crowd is the instrument. The joke is you hitting a note and the sound that the note gives is the laughter. I think it’s a perfect analogy.