Rogue features some of the most unique, brilliant artists out there. Some of them act. Others are play music. But Shane West is something that’s rare these days—a man who can do both well.
Currently, West divides his seemingly limitless creative energy between WGN’s horror-fantasy series Salem and his new punk rock band, the Twilight Creeps. On Salem, he stars as John Alden, the local hero of a beyond-nightmarish fictionalized version of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Twilight Creeps, on the other hand, have only played five shows so far, and are in the process of recording their first demo.
Versatility is one of the keys to West’s success. “I believe that jacks of all trades are happier people,” he told me, “because they’re doing all the things that they want to do, rather than talking about it. I’m a firm believer in doing. Doing what you say. Doing what you want to do, not just bullshit chit-chat. Most people get caught in that circle and do the one thing that they may want to do, but they don’t get to try out anything else. Or worse, they get stuck in something that they don’t want to do, and they can’t try anything else.”
It’s tough to argue against West’s philosophy of ‘doing’. He’s been doing things for two decades, and it’s served him quite well. It started when West was a high school junior. He had no desire to live anything short of an exciting life and he decided that becoming an entertainer was his best shot at creating an identity he could call his own. He picked up a guitar for the first time and tried to imitate the punk bands that were popular back then—Green Day, Rancid, Operation Ivy, etc. Fortunately, the three-chord progressions behind most of those bands’ songs were simple enough for him to copy while still a novice. Before he knew it, he had started his first band, Johnny Was. All the while, he was doing acting auditions and actively trying to find a manager. All before he had even graduated from high school.
Looking back, West is glad that he started acting when he was so young. “It took me years to get a part,” he said. “I auditioned for a million TV shows and a million commercials. Thankfully, I was in high school when I started… so I didn’t have too much pressure on having to ‘make it’ as an actor right off the bat. I’m glad I didn’t have a lot of pressure on me, because it took me a long time. I did the usual, or at least what was the usual back in the ‘90s—which was two lines here and there on a TV show...one line here, one line there. And I kind of built up a bit of a résumé until I finally got the [Once and Again] pilot.”
As a young adult, West’s acting career was much more fruitful than his music career. But then, something amazing happened. West was cast in the film What We Do Is Secret, a biopic about the members of Germs, a punk rock band from the ‘70s. He portrayed Darby Crash, band’s lead singer who committed suicide at age 22. “I knew about Germs. They weren’t my favorite punk rock band, but I knew a few songs, and I had certainly heard of Darby Crash,” West said. The flick took four years to film because Shane was starring on the TV series E.R. at the same time, so they were only able to only shoot the film between seasons.
As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, the actors were also asked to do something that was considered to be fairly unusual at the time—perform the film’s music. “Pat Smear, Don Bolles, and Lorna Doom—the original Germs—they would gather me and the other actors together to teach us how to perform the Germs’ songs. So when we did the live scenes in the film, we weren’t playing to the original Germs; we were playing to ourselves,” he said.
“And during that process,” he continued, “I responded very well with the original Germs. And so we played a gig where the actor Germs played first, and then the real Germs came on stage. I had to sing with them because Darby Crash had passed away many years ago. There were actually a lot of Germs fans at that party. And they just ate it up. They really enjoyed the performance, and all we did was play five songs. And people started kind of asking us to play gigs.”
And just like that, Shane West went from playing a Germ in a movie, to being an actual member of the band.
He continued to tell the story of his experience becoming one of the Germs. “They really enjoyed playing with me, and I obviously really enjoyed playing with them, and it just kind of grew. We did an American tour first. None of the other bands liked me. You know, I was kind of an outcast among outcasts. But I took my lumps and felt with my fights, and I dealt out my own lumps, and over time, the bands kind of grew to like me, for better or for worse. We did another American tour, which went much better, and a bunch a Warped Tours, and a European tour. It turned into a pretty amazing experience.”
As amazing as it was, West knew he would never be able to fill the shoes of Darby Crash. “We knew what we were trying to do was just keep the legend of this band alive. And I wanted Pat, Don, and Lorna, even though they’d seen it with other bands, to experience what it’s like getting the Germs on tour, because they never left Los Angeles—they never played outside of southern California. So having fans—whether they were in their fifties, their thirties, or their teens—being able to see a very tight representation of the germs, I thought was very important. For me, I did my best to emulate [Darby], but I also had to be myself. And I did my best to copy him as much as I could with the vocals—his vocal styling. But I was still myself on-stage, and I did my own thing. And it became kind of our own thing. But it was essentially always almost more of a tribute. Just getting that music out there to the people who never got to see it. And for the lucky few who did get to see it back in the day, now got to see it tighter, and not filled with drugs.”
But the Germs are now defunct, and the dominant focus in Shane West’s life is Salem. Now in its third season, he gave a little preview of what we can expect on upcoming episodes of the show. “We’re building toward who will have their power in Hell, and if Hell will actually come to Earth. We get all these wacky characters and creatures this year that keep coming out of the bowels of Hell. I can’t even really list the actors yet because they haven’t even been allowed to say they’re on the show at this point (minus the fact that we’ve been able to add Marilyn Manson, who plays essentially a Sweeney Todd character of the barber/surgeon in the town, which has been a trip). Manson and I became friends about a year before the show started. So it’s great having him aboard doing this thing. I think if you’re really a fan of this show, you’re just gonna see the world a Salem open up more this season.”
With his long list of film and television credits, including his four season stint starring on Nikita, he feels his current project trumps the rest of his catalog. “[Salem] is probably one of my most favorite projects that I’ve ever done,” he told me. “Being a horror and fantasy fanatic and getting to basically play the hero in a world that we’ve created is another dream-come-true. So every season that has been written there has been just insane stuff that we’d be doing—whether it’s sexual, gore, or over-the-top scares, I’m happy as a pig in shit every day on this show. There’s always a new surprise.”
Shane West has done a lot over the past twenty years. As a teenager, he set out to create an exciting life that he could call his own. If his career is any indication, looks like he is exceptionally good at living that life.
Story by Cody Fitzpatrick
Photographs by Tyler Shields
Grooming by Marissa Machado