(Not So) Hard to Exist

An Interview with The Spin Doctors

by Jonathan Kosakow

2 November 2011

With the 20th anniversaries of Pearl Jam & Nirvana dominating the headlines, it's easy to forget that in terms of feel-good pop-rock, one of the most defining albums of the era came out right around the same time. The Spin Doctors sit down and talk to PopMatters all about it ...

Say what you will about The Spin Doctors. Whether you like them or not, it’s hard not to sing along to “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”. Twenty years since the release of that song and their quintuple platinum album Pocket Full of Kryptonite, a lot of their influence still lingers in pop culture, and music as a whole.

However, there’s a couple of common misconceptions about the band. First off, they were not some band put together by incredible music industry machine, though it may have seemed like that to many. At a time when some of the most influential music of the next two decades was being born, they sat front and center alongside the generations’ longest standing and most remembered bands like Nirvana & Pearl Jam. Their music and popularity was largely built organically. They hung in the trenches and helped pioneer a scene that is still strong today—the HORDE tour broke bands like Blues Traveler, Phish, and the Dave Matthews Band, to name just a few.

This year marked the 20th Anniversary of Pocket Full of Kryptonite, and The Spin Doctors are rightfully celebrating their milestone. With a tour scheduled for October during which the band will be playing Kryptonite on stage in its entirety, coupled with a deluxe reissue of the album that’s already in stores, you may very well find yourself rediscovering a band that you thought was gone. PopMatters recently had a chance to sit down with The Spin Doctor’s drummer Aaron Comess, who addressed the anniversary, nostalgia, and the future of music.

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Here we are, 20 years later. Kind of a big deal. What are you feeling? Let’s start with that.

Well, you know I think first of all we’re happy we’re all still healthy and alive and playing music together, all the original guys. We’ve been really enjoying playing together and I think the fact that it’s been 20 years since that record and people care, you know, is a great feeling. I mean, when you make a record ... you never really think that it’s gonna do much or really still be around 20 years later. So I think for us we’re just real grateful about the whole thing and happy to be able to do this reissue and go out and play these songs. It’s very positive for us.

I’m sure it’s a pretty great feeling for you guys, having been involved in such an influential period of music. I was thinking, there’re a lot of bands out there from 1991-2—right when you guys hit it big—that dropped monumental albums like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. And you guys were playing with some pretty big bands from the HORDE tour like Phish, Widespread Panic, and of course Blues Traveler. So you were right in the middle of this huge explosion, but I think some people still might describe you as a nostalgia act. What do you think about that?

I don’t ever think of it as nostalgia. Sure, you get nostalgic, like when I think about what was going on 20 years ago. It was a great time in music and it was a great time in New York, and a great time for the band—so you can certainly get nostalgic about that. But I don’t think it ever falls under the “nostalgia act” thing because we’ve always remained fresh. And to see the band right now, you’ll hear that these guys sound better than ever, everything sounds fresh. Even playing this record [for] this [upcoming] tour has been really surprisingly refreshing for us and it’s kind of taken us back to our roots. Obviously some of the record we play at almost every show, [as] people expect to hear the hits and stuff. But the other half—five or six of the songs—we haven’t played in a while, so it’s been really cool to get back to that, and it’s kind of like what we built the band off of. So that’s kind of a long answer but you know, I don’t think any of us would be satisfied being some kind of a nostalgia act. And we’re all really serious musicians. We take our own instruments really seriously and continue to grow—that’s what it’s really all about to me, as a drummer, and the other guys feel the same way. I couldn’t really be involved in something that was just like, nostalgia.  So I mean obviously you gotta go out and make a living, and I think we’re grateful that we have a band that can go out and do that, but it’s still viable and fresh for all of us.

We all remember those years when you were all over the place, MTV, the radio, etc. But there’s always a beginning. What happened before you really started touring?

Well we basically just played around New York City for the first few years. We just tried to get as many gigs as we could in town. We’d play literally like 20 gigs a month in New York, any show we possibly could play. We had a whole repertoire of original blues songs that we did because some of the clubs that paid money were blues clubs. You could make like $250 on a weeknight, or $500 on a weekend. So we’d go in and do four sets, and we basically made this blues demo tape and kind of just pretended we were this blues band. The first set we’d play blues, the second set we’d start off blues and we’d slip in our originals. And by the third and fourth set we’d just be playing our own shit and everybody loved it. It was great.

Was there a moment that you realized, “Holy shit, we’ve got something here!”? When did you get noticed? Or, did those two things coincide?

Well you could tell ... we’d worked so hard and there was this other scene, Blues Traveler were a couple years ahead of us and they had a following. We started doing gigs with them and the whole scene kind of merged together. A lot of the same people would be going to their shows and our shows and by the spring of that year—we got together in the fall—by like the spring or summer of that year it felt like, “Wow,” you know, “We have a following.” And all of a sudden I remember it was like, “Shit, we’re packing these places,” and then it just built up and a couple years later we’d graduated to the Wetlands and we’d be selling out the club. It was kind of obvious that there was an undeniable scene. Whether you liked it or not when you walked into a gig, it was packed. And it was like, something’s going on here, you know? In New York before we went out on the road, it felt like so much longer than it really was. But I guess in a really short time, things really built up in New York for us.

Yeah, that’s a much faster timeline than I think most bands have.

Yeah. Well, man, I think it depends on how you do it. People always ask us, “What would you tell a young band?” and I say, “Go out and play. Go out and create a scene, get out on the road and just play with your band and get chemistry and get some songs—of course that comes first. But you gotta go out and create a scene and you gotta play for people. Because if people react to what you’re doing, that’s what’s gonna create a scene. You can’t expect to just spend all day on Facebook. I guess that’s part of what it’s about these days, but I think too many people are trying to create some kind of false, weird internet boom, and show up every couple of months. But I think that, in a lot of ways even though things have really changed, if you look at the groups that are doing well, it’s still the same thing—you get out and you play for the people. And people wanna be around the scene and the music.

You touch on something really interesting with the whole “internet band” idea, it’s a new kind of getting the word out. Did you guys have any marketing behind you, or was it really just this organic “let’s play out” kind of thing?

It was very much organic word of mouth. You know this was right before the internet hit. When we first started in the late 80s you had a mailing list, and you’d send out a mailer once a month. We used to go and hand out—we’d make these little flyers, like little passes—and we’d walk around Central Park and just hand out these passes to people and try to convince them to come to the show. That was our marketing. And it really worked. That was how we did it and from there it was totally word of mouth, “Oh yeah this new band The Spin Doctors?” “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about them, cool.” You know? That’s what happened.

Eventually though, you guys got picked up by Epic and then in like, 1991 or 1992, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes”—all the hits—came out. Did that change things, coming out of this organic vibe and a scene where people seem kind of against commercial success?

It definitely changed things a lot because we were like this total grassroots band, and we had a pretty big hippie, Grateful Dead-ish, kind of a mixed fan base. A lot of the same people that were going to Blues Traveler and Phish shows ... were coming to us. And you know of course when the hits came, all of a sudden we quickly went from playing like 300- to 500-seat places to playing theaters, like 2,500-seat places, and then it went from that to playing like, 15- or 20,000-seat places, all in like a year or year and a half period.

So quickly it was like, “Wow.” From our point of view we were like, “This is awesome! This is great, we’re having all this success.” But ... I remember when I was a kid, you know you have your favorite band and nobody wants to share their band. Everybody wants to feel like they found this band. And as soon as you’re all over MTV and the radio, you go to a concert and there’s like a ten year old instead of a cool 18 year old—that can turn off some people. So I think we suffered from all of a sudden getting really huge. It wasn’t the original die-hard 500 people in that town who felt like you were their band. People aren’t usually the happiest to see their favorite band get really popular all of a sudden. But you know, I think that we rode that for a while, and it was like a blessing and a curse. But ultimately I consider it all a blessing because those songs have lived on, and they continue to this day to do well on the radio, and there’s a whole other generation of people who are discovering our music through that now. And I think that any of the negativity that can come with that level of success is certainly long and forgotten. But all that stuff happened, it’s normal and it’s just one of those things that’s like, what are you gonna do? How do you deal with it, and where do you go from there?

Yeah you kind of just say, whatever happens, happens.

But I couldn’t be more grateful for the whole thing. I’d wanted to do this since I was like 11 years old, and I was gonna be a professional musician one way or the other. And to have this kind of success with your own band, how can you not appreciate that? For me, I’m completely grateful for the whole thing.

With all the added hype lately, do you think the 20th anniversary is gonna spark anything new for you guys?

I definitely do, I do. First of all, it’s been a really good opportunity for, again, first and foremost it’s been really fun musically for us. It’s kind of brought us back to the roots of the band, and we’ve also been doing a lot of the old ... original blues songs, we’ve been playing a lot of those and considering the idea of maybe going into the studio and maybe doing a record of all these original blues songs we have.  So, you know there’s a couple ideas on the table. But I think it’s really been helpful to ... bring in interest to the band, remind people about us, because this is the biggest thing we ever did—it’s something people remember, listening to this record. I know about big records—even if you didn’t like a record you always think about a certain time or certain memories, and that’s a nostalgic turn you know. I think about what was going on when we made this record and there’s a lot of positivity that surrounds it, so I think it’s really good and kind of reconnecting people with the band again, and having younger people discover it.  And already I’ve been seeing a difference at the shows, there seems to be a little bit of a renewed interest in the band. So I think this whole thing is helpful in that.

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