Q&A + Giveaway: No Age Drummer and Lead Vocalist Dean Spunt Talks Never Fitting In, Earning Rave Reviews and Tossing Out Takes
How the hell does a DIY, eff-it-all-if-it's-not-art duo birthed out of Los Angeles' famed DIY-venue The Smell come to grips with the pressure of following up a critically successful debut album on Sup Pop? Well, according to lead vocalist and drummer Dean Spunt, if the band's No Age, then it records an album, sits on it long enough for some maturing and self-discovery, essentially scraps the first attempt, writes a bunch of new songs and, then, ends up handing the label a completely different final record that is somehow both a step backwards and a step in the right direction for the band -- both artistically and sonically.
The band's 2010 release, Everything In Between, can't be seen as a let down, though (even if the band's 2008 release, Nouns, earned higher reviews). Not when Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, fawned endless over Everything in Between's punk riffs for his review that aired on NPR, saying, "as somebody who's thrilled to propulsive punk riffs for 35 years, I want to testify that the shrieking tumult in 'Fever Dreaming' is the coolest new one I've encountered in this century."
High praise, for sure -- but deserving praise, too. Which makes the band's performance in Dallas tonight at Sons of Hermann Hall all the more exciting.
In advance of tonight's show, I chatted with Spunt last week about what it's like to get that kind of praise, about the pitfalls of recording the "follow-up" album and how much that kind of pressure affects the final record.
Check it out after the jump -- where, courtesy of the show's booker, Parade of Flesh, we've also got the details on how to win couple pairs of free tickets to give a few lucky DC9 readers free entry into tonight's gig.
Update: Contest is over. Congrats to our winners!
I know today's a weird day for y'all, because I just saw on your blog that you're going to be on Letterman tomorrow night, right?
And y'all were already on Ferguson? And that went, well, interesting, to say the least, right?
So, after that, how do you feel going into this tomorrow?
I don't know. TV is like a way to express yourself to a lot of different people, and it's a good outlet. But, y'know, growing up as a punk rocker, you wanna fuck with the system a little. Or you just want to state what you're about, and sometimes the networks and people up there don't let you do that. It's a form of censorship, but it's also their playground so you can't do much. So there's mixed feelings. But, I guess, I'm honored that we got asked to perform on there.
Do you know what song you'll be performing?
Yeah, "Fever Dreaming."
Speaking of that song, there's something kind of weird that I wanted to ask you about. I remember hearing Robert Christgau's review of Everything In Between on NPR, and he said that he'd been reviewing punk rock for over 35 years, and that "Fever Dreaming" had the best riff that he'd heard in over a decade. Had you seen that?
Yeah, I did actually read that.
That's quite a compliment.
I know. And, you know, that's like the only review that I've read.
I also stumbled across a guy on Amazon.com who said that he heard the review on NPR, and then went out and bought the album. This guy writes that he's 48, and that he's glad that he lived long enough to hear it. And, I'm wondering, what you think about that, when you're to the place where the band's about to go on Letterman, and while you're getting so much positive feedback from the critics like him, and then ones like Pitchfork, and indie blogs and then people like me. Y'all are starting to see a certain level of crossover appeal with the album, right?
Well, I guess so. Yeah. And, I obviously respect your position as a critic, but I just don't pay much attention to that world so much. I feel like we make music, and make art for our friends and for us. And I don't necessarily care one way or another if someone likes it or doesn't like it. It's really nice to hear positive things about art from people, but, um, that's not what we're doing it for. It's always great to hear that people are so into it. For me, I feel like this record sort of goes back to a little bit more like the idea of Weirdo Rippers, maybe. That sort of just more, um, experimentation, and not really thinking so much about what we're doing. I mean, this record was a little difficult...to finish, for us. You know? We did the Weirdo Rippers stuff with no expectations -- none of that. We just thought up an idea. Did it. Done. And moved on. Nouns was really just sort of trying to make a record that was more live. Cause Weirdo Rippers was really, pretty mellow.
Yeah, compared to Nouns.
Yeah, and we were playing out a lot and it was like, "Fuck!?" y'know? We're playing these songs, and people are just sort of like...we were coming from the band Wives, which was more aggro and a little more energetic. Playing our early stuff, we missed that. So, with Nouns, we wanted to make an album that was a little more energetic -- more live-based. Because we were playing all of these mellow songs, and though the crowd liked it, and although we enjoyed it, they liked it but there was sort of like a...
It was harder to connect, to get the crowd into it?
Yeah, and then we were like, "Let's try this." So we did Nouns, and that was more of a live record like we wanted to do. And, then, after that we were like, let's take that back a little bit. Y'know, because we'd been a live band for a few years, and we'd been playing and playing and playing. And that does get old after a while.
I can imagine.
You just want to try different stuff. And we do have a lot of different outlets for our ideas and we like to communicate in different ways. So, for whatever reason, I guess this has more of a, maybe, more of a wider appeal. I'm not really sure, you know? I'm not really sure how it works. I just know that when we get into a space, we just make music and it just happens.
I have to ask. Because I'm really wondering, and I feel like this is one of those lame stereotypical critic's questions that I kinda hate myself for asking, but with the success of Nouns, was there that pressure to, after being on so many year-end lists and getting so much critical attention and buzz, was there that pressure or struggle -- internally in your mind or whatever -- not to succumb to the dreaded sophomore album jinx?
Yeah dude, definitely. I mean, I tried to ignore it, but I think this record kind of came in a few different phases. And the first phase, well, we basically had the record done. We had a record done -- but it wasn't this record. And I think we kinda sat with it for a bit and then we were like, "This record isn't done. Man, this isn't what it could be." Then, we went back and wrote some more songs and took some out and added some and changed a few things. And, then, then we finished the record. So, that second phase was really coming to terms with the pressure and reminding ourselves what we're making music for. You know? Because it's hard, when you read reviews and stuff. And people tell you, "You're the best!" And all that stuff. That shit can affect your art, and that's not cool. How do you not let that kind of pressure affect the art, not to let it shape what you're trying to create?
Then, there's the psychological stress from not letting the original pressure shape what you're thinking or doing.
I mean, I'm definitely over that now, man. I think I'll never feel that pressure again because, um, I just don't care. Like, I know that, if we make something that we really like, then it's gonna be great. And even if it's not accepted as like, um, "cool." It's hard because, you know, when you get a certain level of success and a part of you feels like you should do what you can to maintain it. And I started thinking like that. And when we finished the record with that attitude, it was like, "Wait!? What!!?" Like, "How, how did I even get here, man?" Like, "How am I even thinking like this? This isn't what I think. This is just from the people telling you, and you listening." And you just sort of end up second-guessing what you're feeling. One little compromise leads to another little compromise, which leads to another little compromise. Until, then, you don't know what you're left standing there with. With this record, I feel like I woke up from a nap. You know, like I went, "Wait? What? Fuck all of these people. Man, I don't want to listen to anybody else. I can't."
So, the last phase?
We really work well under pressure. I feel like we also spent a little more on this record. Honestly, we don't know what we're doing, you know? We don't know. We're just like making music, and people are up our ass sometimes, and it's hard to navigate. And we can pretend like we know what we're doing, sure, we do to a degree, but, like, we don't know how to sell records, how to appease the masses. I just really don't care about that kind of stuff. But, anyway, when we got the pressure on us, we talked a lot and we were just like, let's take it back. And then, right before we finished the record, we wrote "Glitter." We wrote "Glitter" in, like, one day and recorded it. And we wrote "Chem Trails" the same day. And I did "Life Prowler" really quick.
That was the one that got me. That one got to me.
Me too. Yeah, I feel the same way. When I started messing around with the samplers, and started making it, I was like, "This is a real song, where I'm just letting these words come out of my mouth the way they should be." It's just communication in the simplest form, and it's nothing about trying to make it cool. Maybe it's punk, or maybe it's not punk, or maybe it's this or that. We finally just wrote some songs.
And, about this mix of punk and ambient - y'all aren't really thinking about genres? Or balancing the two? Because this one does seem to strike a balance between Weirdo Rippers and Nouns, while building on both.
Yeah, it's just what comes out. I mean, we could have written a country record, and I'd like to think that we would put it out if that's what we were feeling.
Oddly enough, a lot of the ideas were really similar to where we started. It's like in certain ways we've progressed a lot, but in other ways we've just sort of said "Let's make something really pretty." That's, like, a lot of our conversations were about "Trying to make something extremely beautiful." And then, "Let's make something so fucked up!" And, then, just depending on what our experiences are since then, it just comes out different. Me and Randy are unique people. And I think, that we've had interesting lives. And whatever we think is beautiful and fucked up tends to be different than, I guess, a lot of other stuff that's out there. Our process is different. We're not trying to, like, I don't like to make labels, and I don't like genres because I don't feel comfortable with that. We came from a world growing up and seeing music -- and really going to punk rock shows and going to The Smell. And, me and Randy, we grew up in different suburbs and he grew up differently than I did. And he got into some different music than I did. But, for myself, music was really, like heavy -- like a religious experience. And I remember distinctly getting, when I was in the sixth grade, my friend's cousin let us borrow the first Ramones album on tape, and I remember thinking like, listening to the tape and looking at that cover image, and I remember thinking, "OK, my life is completely different. Sign me up." Because, you know, that music scared the shit out of me too. The Ramones sounded like scary, everything was like coming down on me. My life as a child wasn't that great. I'd had a lot of problems, family problems and some stuff. And from that moment on, it was me with my headphones on, and skateboarding, and that was it. Just trying to, I guess, in a way escape. Or in a way to make sense of the world. And I found that with music. And then when I found out about local bands and touring bands at The Smell and stuff like that, I was 16. Fifteen or 16, and those guys that ran [The Smell] were a little older, and the things they brought in, it was punk, it was DIY. I guess it was more DIY than punk. That meant that I'd see a band like The Locusts or something, and then the next night see an avant-garde performer or a free-jazz band that played all of their instruments upside down. And, in the context of The Smell, it was all relevant, and it was all OK to do. So, for genres and stuff like that, it really means nothing to me. because the whole point for me is to make music and to express myself is to do something different. So, as soon as somebody, or when certain websites and blogs say, "Hey, these people or this guy's making a scene, and this is this and that is that," that's not what it's about for me. I don't want to be a part of any scene -- unless you'd call it punk, because punk's such a broad term. You know, it's like that spirit. We're really trying to make music that sounds different, and I'm not trying to rip anyone off -- that's not the point. I don't want to be a part of a particular anything. When we started doing The Smell stuff, in like 2000, 2001, 2002, the whole point was that a band like Wives or like Mika Mico, or a band like Friends Forever, or like Barr, would all play together. And everyone was doing their own thing, but we all played together. One guy might be spoken word over noise, and another guy might be playing in a van, another band might be hardcore, and another might be jazz. The unifying thing was the DIY and the energy, and it's not about trying to fit in. That's the whole point: We never fit in. We never have.