Singer overcomes tumors to bring back The Show | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Singer overcomes tumors to bring back The Show

"After a while, I couldn't even sing along with songs in the car."

It must go on: The Show
It must go on: The Show

The guys in The Show aren't in it to have fun on the weekends or impress chicks.

"I want to make music that will make people cry, make them smash hotel rooms or stop them from committing suicide," says lead singer Johnny Saint-Lethal (not his birth name, FYI).

The quartet spends 35 hours per week writing, rewriting, rehearsing and recording its music, which has a tight post-grunge sound reminiscent of Built to Spill or Foo Fighters. (But don't ask them about influences: "We don't want to sound like anyone but The Show," insists Saint-Lethal.) For their new EP, they churned out 40 tracks and whittled down to the six best.

"The whole goal is to make a product everyone is still listening to after we're all gone," says drummer Matthew Vaughan.

And like Lennon running into McCartney at a church picnic, or Jagger riding the same commuter train as Richards, this group of aspiring immortals began with a chance meeting. Future Show guitarist Brandon Mitchell was hitchhiking through Death Valley in 2005 when Saint-Lethal gave him a lift. The two immediately hit it off.

"I wrote poetry and he knew [the poems] could be songs and gave me my first guitar," says Mitchell. He moved to Saint-Lethal's hometown of Pittsburgh, and the two began performing together — though initially, they played back-to-back sets on tour and were not a band.

"We were too good of friends to be in a band," says Saint-Lethal. "You always lose your friends when you try to make them bandmates. But we were always helping each other with our songs, so I was like, ‘This is fucking stupid — let's be in a band!'"

The Show uploaded its debut album, Here's to Your Jigsaw, to websites that connect bands to radio stations across the globe, and discovered the album was getting play in Western Europe. So with nothing but DIY promotion and management, band members planned a tour through the U.K.

"It took a lot of calls, but we got put in one legit club and then the others started taking us seriously," says Mitchell. They connected with Chris Potter, the go-to producer for The Verve and its frontman, Richard Ashcroft, and he expressed interest in working with the band.

But just as their hard work started paying off, Saint-Lethal's voice began tapering off minutes into a set. He borrowed money from his father and saw a doctor. The diagnosis: leukoplakia, pre-cancerous tumors on the tongue. "After a while, I couldn't even sing along with songs in the car," he says. Then, he could barely speak.

The band spent a year out of commission, but Saint-Lethal says he made a full recovery, in large part due to "holistic, hoodoo-voodoo stuff." He says it softened his vocal approach. "I don't scream anymore, because I can't."

The band reformed in late 2012, recruiting drummer Vaughan and bassist Michael Ward. (When you are as serious as The Show, you burn through a lot of rhythm sections: The band has had four drummers and nine bassists.) They are back to being full-time musicians and sacrificing to do so; Saint-Lethal and Mitchell share a one-bedroom apartment, and Vaughan is living at 20 Cedar Studios, the Dormont recording facility he runs.

"We're out playing again, which has a lot of people excited," says Saint-Lethal, "and I am speaking again, which has a lot of people pissed off."

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