OffStage with The Shankman Twins
Have you ever wondered about the offstage world of a professional musician? Every month in this column, bluegrass now will provide a glimpse into the lives of some of your favorite bluegrass stars.
With their blonde hair, blue eyes, and upbeat personalities, the Shankman Twins look like typical California girls, more interested in boys and beaches than in bluegrass music.
Appalachia's a long way from Malibu, but these young women have a deep love for the high lonesome sound. After all, both Dana and Lauren have been playing bluegrass professionally for about seven years now, and they've even studied its roots firsthand - as students at the University of California, Los Angeles.
These identical twins are both majoring in ethnomusicology, which involves the comparative study of music of different cultures. “We've been in all the same classes since our freshman year,” laughs Dana. “We took one different class during our entire time at UCLA. Can you believe that?”
Now that they are seniors, their lives have settled into hectic but carefully plotted schedules. “UCLA has three quarters, and this quarter, we've had almost every weekend at a festival,” Lauren says. “I knew I was playing almost every weekend, so I scheduled no classes on Friday. We have Monday through Thursday at school, and then Friday through Sunday is performing time.”
Kids who cut their teeth on bluegrass music often find other kids with the same interests, and Lauren and Dana are no exception. They got to know the members of Nickel Creek, for example, when they were about ten years old. “We all grew up in the LA bluegrass community,” Dana smiles. “We used to jam a lot at Follows Camp. A lot of the same bands play at a lot of the same festivals, so they all get to know each other. It's almost like a big family. Everyone becomes friends.”
Bluegrass remains a family affair for the Shankmans. They are accompanied to festivals by their brother Michael Alden, who plays bass and shares singing chores, and their mom and manager, Vicki. “Even if she wasn't our mom, I'd want her with us,” Dana remarks. “It's so hard to do everything - set up the table, put up the CDs, do the driving!” Michael plans to enter UCLA in the fall as a freshman.
In their seven years as touring musicians, the twins have learned a lot about traveling. “Always make sure the heater works before you take a motel room!” advises Lauren. “Make sure everything works. Sometimes the sink is stopped up, and you don't realize it till hours later.” Dana says she and Lauren try to avoid the dietary pitfalls faced by many traveling musicians. “One rule we have is that we'll never go to fast food, 'cause it's too fattening. The only kind we'll have is Subway!”
Back at school, the twins share an off-campus apartment with three buddies, two of whom are also twins. “Jessica and Johanna are fraternal but they look about as much alike as Dana and me,” says Lauren. “Sometimes I hear nightmare stories about people who live with friends, and it doesn't work out. But we've never had a problem.”
Active and energetic, the Shankmans spend a lot of time exploring Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and Malibu. “We can't cook that well,” Dana confesses. “We basically go out to dinner every night. We're kind of regulars at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard. They say Marilyn Monroe met that baseball guy there - what was his name?” she wonders aloud, giggling.
Identical twins often share a strong bond, and the Shankmans are no exception. “We go to the same school, we have the same friends, we're in the same band…” Dana says. She quickly adds that this shouldn't be misinterpreted. “People always think we have same personality. In a lot of ways, we're the same, but I've always been more talkative, and she's always been more laid-back. One of our biggest differences is that she's more practical!”
When it comes to music, the twins' tastes are almost identical, and charmingly offbeat. They love headbanger rock music like Def Leppard and Motley Crue. They like Britney Spears, but they also really like Del McCoury and Alison Krauss - and Ralph Stanley is their idol. The last two concerts they attended? “Well, over the summer, we went to the Glam Slam Metal Jam,” Lauren remembers happily. “It was all these 80s bands like Poison and Quiet Riot. And then before that, we saw Neil Diamond twice - two days in a row. He was really good!”
They both say they'd be lost without music. “A lot of the time, traveling to different festivals, there's nothing to do in the car,” Dana comments. “It became a really big deal that we each had our own CD players. We have portable Walkmans, and we're completely obsessed with them!”
The room they share contains unmistakable evidence of their busy bluegrass career. “It looks like we're real musicians!” Dana laughs. “We have guitars, banjos, and fiddles all over the floor. We try to keep it as clean as we can, but there's suitcases all over, because we'll come back for a couple of days, and we won't have time to unpack.” Lauren plays fiddle, a little mandolin, guitar, and piano. Dana plays guitar, Irish tinwhistle and - of course - the banjo. “I have so many banjos now, it's ridiculous. My favorite is the Deering. I have a lightweight model, about six pounds lighter than a typical banjo, and it has a good sound, with a wooden tone ring.”
By the time you read this, Lauren and Dana will have graduated from UCLA. What's next? “We want to continue with the music, and see where that goes,” Dana says. “That's the lifestyle we always wanted - being musicians.”
“We also have plans to go to graduate school at some point,” Lauren, the practical one, reminds her twin.
This will be a busy year for the Shankman Twins. Their debut CD, Duality, was released on their own City West Records in 1996; this year, they'll do a follow-up recording on Rounder Records. “Our first album had Cajun, a country song, and traditional bluegrass… we'll probably do the same thing on this album,” comments Dana. “Maybe a few songs we wrote, maybe some songs no one's ever heard… maybe an Irish tune. Maybe some Def Leppard! We've always liked variety.”