Real Feelings: An Interview with Spiral Stairs
Stealing his drummer's cymbals? Making "Melbournian" music? Reuniting the most beloved indie-rock band of the '90s? All just a day in the life of Scott Kannberg, who recently released his first "solo" album ...
Scott Kannberg is Spiral Stairs, and Spiral Stairs is multitasking.
As a founding member of Pavement, Kannberg's modern rock pedigree is firmly established. Having answered the "what's next?" albatross with solid albums from Preston School of Industry, Kannberg took a musical hiatus following the release of Monsoon in 2004. The five-year gap between that album and his present emergence has added a new layer of intrigue to Kannberg's reputation, yet he seems completely unfazed by the changes. His new album The Real Feel -- the first official solo album released under the Spiral Stairs moniker -- communicates his personal experiences of the last half-decade in pre-rock 'n' roll style. The Real Feel struts, swaggers and stumbles out of the speakers in a heartfelt manner that holds little back in the service of "the real".
Kannberg's present activity suggests that he's reached the far side banks after wading through a divorce and what he calls the "doldrums". Energized by the new album, he seems wholly focused on getting down to business. After some phone tag that reinforces that busy, back-in-the-groove impression, I catch up with Kannberg in between rehearsal with his band and just before he heads for the airport to pick up another band member. We talk about the new chapter in his career, the conscious and unconscious influences for the new songs, the enduring power of Pavement, and the double-edged sword of the Internet ...
What makes this the right time for a solo effort? Did you approach the recording differently?
The solo thing came because it felt like a solo record because of all the different people involved. I mean the last two Preston records were definitely solo records, but that was more of a band thing. In my mind I was like, "Okay, this is a band". Whereas the Spiral record I kind of wanted it to be like a guy breaking off from his band. Doing the solo record ... it felt different to me in a kind of traditional solo record kind of way.
Could you talk more about the musicians who play on the album?
A lot of the guys who play in Preston play on it. A guy I've been using for drums for a long time, Darius [Minwalla], and then Matt Harris who's played on the last Preston record, and Chris [Henrich]. But it's ... there's a lot of other people involved. I've got this band down in Australia that I play with who did a lot of stuff for it. Ian Moore plays on it and does a great job. Jon Auer plays a little bit on it. It feels like a band did the basics, but then after those basics were done I was able to be free and put people in where I envisioned them instead of doing it myself, which I did on the last records.
You were able to shape the record and put your "touch" on it?
Is that the reason you decided to call this an official Spiral Stairs release?
It's the name I've had ever since I've been in music. But it didn't really feel right to use that name after the Pavement thing ended. I felt like I wanted to have a whole new band and initially that's what I kind of did. I got these guys involved initially who I wanted to be my band, but it didn't really work out with them so I kind of had to go off on my own.
The album strikes me as a balance between the muscular but melodic, similar to the recent Eels album Hombre Lobo. "Maltese Terrier" in particular has a kind of strut that is surprising to me. What inspired that direction?
I'm older. I'm more confident in the way I write songs and play songs. And I also kind of wanted to emulate songs that were coming from the same age that I was doing this at. I really got into Captain Beefheart and Dylan and Fleetwood Mac, like those periods that they were doing stuff. A Richard Thompson record obviously helped with the subject matter -- wanting to make my own Shoot Out the Lights. I think it's just the confidence in doing it so long. I had five years that I really didn't do anything. I mean I did stuff, but I didn't make a record for five years. I think a lot goes on in five years and you change a lot.
This is being promoted as a darker album. I've seen the "divorce rock" tag associated with some of the songs. With "True Love," I could almost hear Lucinda Williams covering that one. Are you invoking "True Love" ironically?
It's kind of about what was going on in my life. I went through a divorce. Just kind of always searching for true love. Lucinda's records are pretty raw and on some of them, the subject matter is great. Maybe that's what came out in it. I was going out with this girl at the time that listened to that [Essence]. Every time she'd get drunk she'd have to put that record on and I'd be like sitting in bed going, "Oh God here we go again" [Laughs]. It's a great record. It's really raw and the songwriting's amazing. So maybe that was in my head.
When you decided to write about that subject matter, did you think there would be something therapeutic in going public with it, musically?
Yeah. I wanted to deal with it, but I didn't really realize I was dealing with it until I started writing songs and singing the vocals. And I was like, "Wow, I'm going to have to call my ex-wife and tell her 'Don't worry about it -- it's not personal. It's not all about you. It's about me, too.'" She was fine with that.
It just kind of came out, and I kind of felt like I needed to do it. All my other songs in the past have been very vague, not being completely honest. It was honest but it was shrouded in words that trip you up and a bunch of nonsense. So I really wanted to do something that made sense. My favorite records are these records that are honest.
Do you feel that there is a risk in over-sharing? Did you consciously try to avoid going too far?
I don't think I'd ever go too far. When I hear the songs back, I'm like, "That's pretty raw and pretty much indicative of what's going on". She wrote back this great thing that said, "Listen: it's not about me, it's about you." Which is so true.
One of the songs that fits into that raw category for me is "A Mighty Mighty Fall". Would you say that a song that deals most directly with the breakup?
Definitely. It's her and me, and basically what I couldn't deal with. The lyrics are very raw on that one.
And it plays as the centerpiece of the album, too. I'm guessing that was by design?
Yes. I obsess over song order. I did that in Pavement and I do it now. I really think about what songs go well together. With this record, that song obviously needs to go in a certain spot where it hits you the right way.
That's one of the numbers that features the pedal steel prominently. Who plays that on the album?
Chris Henrich. He's been playing with me for a while, since the Monsoon days. I have to go pick him up at the airport in about 45 minutes.
Musically, you seem interested in pre-rock 'n' roll sounds on this album. Is that a conscious move away from modern rock sounds?
It's the kind of records I was listening to. They are old records, like Fleetwood Mac records. I really got into this record called Then Play On, which is pretty heavy blues. And Bare Trees was another one that really hit me. Originally those heavy rocking songs were a lot slower, and when we were playing them we just said, "Let's speed them up a little bit" and they took on this new form. It's kind of a heavier sound and I really enjoy that.
How did the recording process compare to your earlier work?
The first Preston record I did was in a little rehearsal space and we tracked it one instrument at a time. This one I planned it out with my guys here. We went in and did three or four days of basics (at Orbit Audio in Seattle) and then a couple of the Preston guys came into town and did some overdubs. And I did a bunch of stuff on it here and there. Then I went down to Australia for three months and got my guys down there to contribute some parts and then came back and did all the vocals and mixing here. It took a long time -- a lot of waiting around and waiting for people to come and do their parts.
But overall it sounds very cohesive. There's a live sound to much of the album, so I'm surprised to hear that it came together over such a long period of time and in so many places/pieces.
I think the live sound came about because we did it in the studio here in town where we hired a professional drum tuner to come in and tune the drums. And then I also made my drummer not play with any cymbals, which got him to play in a different way. It restricted him from going to the same cymbal that he would always go to. So I think it makes it a little more interesting. Eventually I started giving him a cymbal -- every day, another cymbal. By the end he was really confident and those heavier songs came at the end when he fell back into it.
Did you use any similar strategies for other instruments or players?
I really wanted to do that with Darius, to make him do something that he's never done before. I know that in the 60s and 70s, when you look at some of the pictures of these recordings, bands didn't use cymbals. They just overdubbed them. For a drummer who always relies on a ride cymbal to go at a certain point ... that song "Maltese Terrier", I told him, "Don't use that cymbal." During the bridge he had to make up this percussive sound instead of going to the ride and it makes the song really interesting. I like doing that and I think I'll definitely do it some more.
Do you think contemporary bands underestimate the value of proper studio recording?
I don't know. Things have changed so much. I remember doing the early Pavement records on tape. Even the last Pavement record [Terror Twilight] we did on tape and the first Preston thing, I think we did on tape. The last two records have been on Pro Tools. People are just used to it. I think it's a little too easy now to do it, but on the other hand that's good because it doesn't restrict people from making the art.
So it's another tool to be used wisely or not?
Yes, and I think people do [use it wisely]. People do a great job in it.
And who was the engineer on the album?
Joe Reineke, and then Jon Auer mixed it in his rehearsal space here in Seattle. We did all the vocals in my basement. There were a bunch of overdubs in Australia. We went out to Ian Moore's house one day and had him play some guitar and violin. It's been all over the world.
Australia has come up a lot in the press materials for the album. How would you describe "the Australian sound" and what about it appeals to you?
It's just got this certain attitude ... kind of a dark coffee, hopped up on coffee and cigarettes, skinny clothes with pointy boots -- it's just weird. I can't really explain it. It's got this cool swagger that you don't have anywhere in the States. They just do something right there, where there's a certain attitude. I have a lot of friends who are in bands down there that have that attitude. It's a great sound, especially from Melbourne. That's where I'm talking about. It's kind of a darker-underbelly kind of a city than Sydney or any of those other cities. The comparison here would probably be Chicago and New Orleans together.
Do you plan to pursue that sound and musical culture more when you move there?
Yeah, my next record I want to do there. I've already written a bunch of songs that sound very Melbournian. I'm excited about it.
And that would be another solo Spiral Stairs project?
Yeah, I'm going to keep that going for another record and we'll see. The Pavement stuff is going to be pretty full on starting next year.
On that subject, I'd like to ask you about a quotation I read in which you said you had talked with Stephen Malkmus over the years, but the idea of a reunion had not come up until recently. Why do you think the subject took so long to come up?
With Steve, he's got to be the one that wants to really do it. We would talk and our agent would call and say, "Listen, some people are interested in having you guys play". I would call Steve and he was like, "No, I'm not really ready to do it." But we had one of those conversations and he was like "Yeah, I could see myself doing that next year."
So you never pressed the issue with him because you knew he would say when the time was right?
Yeah. He's got to be into it, and I think once he made a decision that he would be into it, we got the ball rolling and it's become pretty out of control. We haven't even rehearsed so ... most bands rehearse and have a beer together and go, "Let's do this." We've already booked out shows not even knowing what we're going to sound like.
That is similar to the situation in loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixes, in which we see the reunited Pixies rehearse for the first time on camera. They have to stop and listen to the songs as they go.
I'm sure that's what we're going to have to do.
So it has been 10 years since Terror Twilight. Do you recall those sessions any more fondly now that a decade has passed?
I think the record ... we did the best we could at that time. It was probably the hardest record to make as Pavement, which probably was one of the reasons why we ended up splitting up. But also, on that tour, we were at our best musically. Most of us in the band have been playing music since then over the last 10 years, so I think we're much better musicians. I think we'll be able to take it from where it ended, and I think it will be pretty cool.
One thing I read, which might be erroneous, is that some of the band members felt less active in the studio during the recording of that album. Was that the case?
Not necessarily. We all were there. We all played our parts. No, that wasn't necessarily true. It was the first record that we all played on at the same time, really.
It is good to be able to clear that up.
There are things people say over the years that are just ridiculous. I read the Pavement Wikipedia thing and there is all this stuff on there that's just so wrong. I looked to see where it came from, and it's just some kid who did an interview with somebody once and heard over the grapevine that this happened. For some reason, it gets put on there. There's all this stuff about me and Steve hating each other, and I'm like, "How did that happen?" It's made a good story over the years, I guess, but that was never the case.
Do you let it get to you, or do you have to just not focus on the misinformation?
I just can't read that stuff. When my first Preston records came out I'd read things and get so wrapped up in worrying about that. You just can't.
Do you think the Internet has improved music culture in the past decade? Has it helped or hurt you in a significant way?
I think it's out there helping. It tears away a lot of the mystery in a band, but I think maybe the amount of people that might hear about you, it's a good thing. People cannot worry about the stuff other people say. It's just weird how much of the mystery gets torn away and things that get said. People like to focus on negative things a lot about bands. In the old days, people used to focus more on the positive.
... or on the music itself?
On the music, yeah!
Speaking of which, I've really appreciated how the Pavement reissues have kept that band's music alive over the years. What was your role in making that happen?
I've pretty much saved everything. I was the only one that saved anything -- the tapes, the pictures, everything. So after the Pavement thing ended I really wanted to kind of put together -- for Slanted and Enchanted, first -- I wanted to put everything together that we recorded around that time because everything was all over the place. I just thought this would be kind of cool to do this and it's taken on this whole new thing where we've done it with every record and have been able to give it to people. As a fan of music I love that, when bands do this kind of thing. I wanted us to do it as well. We've got one more record to do, but it might take a little longer to do, because Matador wants to do a best-of for the tour and we've got to think of something cool to do. I don't want it to just be this generic thing. It's been fun to do the reissues and I really think that's helped keep the Pavement name out there, and we're at this point now because of it.
So a younger generation has access to it? Pavement is not just a myth for them.
Yeah, it's almost like we never stopped playing because we kept putting out new records every couple years [Laughs].
Would you say the tactile experience is more treasured because there's a feeling that we almost lost it to the download culture?
It's weird. Right when Pavement ended, remember the whole talk about "rock's dead, DJs are going to take over, people don't buy music anymore"? All of a sudden we're at a point now where vinyls [are] back and people aren't buying CDs. People are buying vinyl and the digital downloads -- it's come full circle almost, where people are actually thinking about the art of the album again instead of putting eighteen songs on a CD.
... and filling it to seventy minutes?
Yeah, no one wants to hear that much music.
I read that your vinyl release has a slightly different track listing than the CD. What was the reason for the change?
The songs didn't fit the way I had them on the CD, so I tried to think of a better -- it's not a better track listing, but it flows pretty well. It's just a time issue, and I didn't want it to be a double record.
The cover art intrigued me. Is it a cautionary statement?
No [Laughs]. A friend of mine who plays in Preston, too, he put out a book of Polaroids and this was one of the Polaroids in the book. I asked him. I loved the image of it, and it kind of fit with what the last five years of my life have been [Laughs].
Finally, could you talk a little bit about Pavement curating the ATP festival?
We're going through bands and trying to figure it out. Our agent put together this website where the four band members could talk about which bands we want. So we've got this list of all these great bands that we want, some realistic and some completely not realistic. I'm really excited about it because I want the Clean to play and Mark Ibold really wants Black Flag to play. We've got all of these cool ideas but I can't really say anything because we haven't booked anything yet. [Editor: Since this interview was conducted, further developments regarding ATP have been announced here]
Are there any bands around which there is a consensus -- bands that make every member's list?
We were talking about Magazine and Broken Social Scene, I think, but nothing's been finalized yet.
And your rehearsals with Pavement will start early [this] year?
Yes, in February.