Shannon Koehler enjoys every sandwich, every cocktail, and every performance as if it were his last.
Born with a leaking tricuspid valve, Koehler, the lead vocalist of San Francisco-based band the Stone Foxes, turned deep blue and purple at birth after the umbilical cord draped around his throat. Ever since then his life has been steadily and precariously interrupted with hospital visits and heart surgeries.
When he first underwent open-heart surgery to install a pacemaker at age 10, the doctor scraped a nerve nucleus and permanently damaged it. That original pacemaker freakishly broke in the midst of a routine checkup and there was even a mass recall on the replacement.
“Over time,” said Koehler, “the valve corrodes and the leaking is bigger, and then I have to have surgery. In between the surgeries, all of these extra nerves grow in the heart wall and I developed tachycardia. I’d be sick and nauseous and I’d pass out at home, and it almost caused a stroke. We lived one hour away from San Francisco, where I had a few procedures, and my mom would hit me in the face, waking me up. I enjoyed the trips to San Francisco, checking out Giants’ baseball games. My mom picked up a drum set for me there; she really felt badly that I had to have that open heart surgery at 10.”
From these experiences, Koehler developed a preternatural relationship with mortality and an uncommon communication with music. He delighted in instruments and always found them regenerative.
“My uncle bought me my first drum set and I remember watching my brother (and future band mate Spence) play,” said Koehler, age 30. “He quit playing, but then I had the surgery at 13, and my brother started playing again. In high school, nobody sang because nobody could sing, but I did it because someone had to sing. I picked up the harmonica, because it was a cheap thing to play, and cheap to buy. My mom would ask me to play quieter, lower notes on it (the harmonica), because it was causing the dog to be crying all of the time.”
When one has a brush with mortality, logic goes out of the window. Each moment feels especially raw, and all those “things” one takes for granted, from conversing with a family member to quiet mornings with a lover, to songwriting, or trading verses and bending riffs with your buddies, deliver a rapture of unordinary intensity.
“I think it is always a wellspring of emotion that I dive into for our songs, subconsciously or literally. I mean, “If I Die Tonight” is the first song on the new EP (“Twelve Spells”), and it’s always in the back of your head. You never know. We leave it on the stage as if it might be the last night, and we play hard, with a purpose and with care, and with love.”
Shannon and his brother Spence formed The Stone Foxes while attending San Francisco State University. Two weeks before setting out to tour in 2011, they added keyboardist Elliott Peltzman, a Fairfax, California, native. Shannon’s high school friend, Brian Bakalian (drums, bass, guitar, vocals), joined in 2013, and soon after another old friend bassist-guitarist Vince Dewald hopped on board. In 2014, the group convinced Vince’s former associate, Ben Andrews, to enlist as guitarist and violinist.
“All of the guys are good at moving around and doing what needs to be done,” said Koehler. “Maybe a song needs two guitars or maybe I’m in front or in the back or someone is needed on violin. We all get to experience playing different things and it all feels a little experimental every night. We are of the mentality where everyone is involved, singing and playing.”
The band embraces hard-rocking, hard-charging rock-‘n’-roll, a longtime comfort zone. Somehow it sounds and feels classic, but very much in the future.
“To make this band work we check our egos at the door,” said Koehler, who singled out the recent release of “Twelve Spells” as an example of the band’s increasing continuity. “The art is in the partnership and we’ve been in it together for four years. The playing is easier, the songs are coming together easier, and it helps that we don’t hate each other. We can be out on the road together for a month and a half and then go get a sandwich together, and it is hunky-dory.”
In the face of difficult odds, Shannon Koehler has found a place — the stage — to feel loved, to belong, to survive. He takes his pills every day; he tries “not to party too crazily.” Instead of laying in bed and staring up into the darkness, he creates his own brighter day.
“There was a night when I was bleeding out of my incision, and I was thinking that maybe I should stop. But I have a great team of doctors and they’ll let me know if I’ve gone too far … I’m going to keep going until the ticker stops me or they tell me too. It puts everything in perspective, and it’s important to remember to kick ass and rock out and make people have a great time every night…I’ve had several pacemaker changes already because the lifespan of it only lasts seven years and I keep trying to play too soon after the procedures. We had a gig once right after (he had a procedure), and I was doing jumping jacks beforehand, and there was blood coming out. They said to call if it got worse.”
In a time when our culture is stimulated by everything, yet nourished by nothing, The Stone Foxes express renewed vigor and a communal banquet to feast, to engage, to jump into, to get loud with, to applaud and root with. The band doesn’t seek imposing titles or headlines; flying the banner with the will and fire of rock-‘n’-roll is the aim.
Perhaps not surprisingly Koehler frames the band’s music in the larger context of social and economic responsiveness, implementing ideas such as Goodnight Moon Project, which raises empathy of homelessness through the collection of non-perishable canned goods from concertgoers.
“Music is not just about our own lives,” said Koehler. “To me, it’s about creating a better world in a short amount of time and it’s OK for a young man to be thinking more about others and not just about himself.”
Helena-baseed writer Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at email@example.com. He is at work on his next book which chronicles the history of both famous and forgotten entertainers and performers in Montana.