City Plans and Vulcan Hands: Spiral Stairs' Scott Kannberg Speaks
Doris and the Daggers is the first release from Spiral Stairs since 2009. Scott Kannberg explains what took so long. Spoiler? Life.
Scott Kannberg didn't intend the gap between albums to be so long.
He had rolled out the first Spiral Stairs LP, The Real Feel in 2009, just before reuniting with Pavement the following year. Though those 2010 shows were successful and, by all accounts, enjoyable experiences, the group was mothballed soon after. Kannberg and his wife moved to Australia, had a child, and got caught up in the everyday matters of life.
Speaking from his current home in Merida, Mexico, Kannberg patiently retraces the years between 2010 and now. "I mowed the lawn. I lived a Dad life," he says. "I had all my equipment there and had we stayed I probably would have started doing gigs at some point but I really just hung out."
When his in-laws decided to leave Oz for Mexico, the Kannbergs took to L.A., allowing for closer proximity to both sides of the family. "We lived in L.A. for three years and found it too expensive and too crazy. We moved down here to live a simpler life for a while," he says. Though neither he nor his Australian-born wife speak Spanish, their daughter has been learning the language. "She'll probably be teaching us soon," he adds.
It was during his stay in Los Angeles that the music heard on Doris and The Daggers, the brand-new Spiral Stairs effort, began to take shape. In early 2015, Kannberg booked time at a Seattle studio with the intention of knocking the record out in a single week. Shortly before those sessions were to take place, drummer Darius Minwalla died. Known for his work with The Posies, the Vancouver-based musician was only 39. His playing had been central to Kannberg's Preston School of Industry and The Real Feel. His death left Kannberg distraught. Three months drifted by before the Doris sessions finally got underway.
"All of that kind of turned the direction around," Kannberg says now. The down time between Minwalla's death and the first Doris sessions in Eagle Rock, California saw the music transform into something more reflective. If one detects a shift in attitude and style within Kannberg's writing, it can be attributed to a number of factors, though maturity served as a central one.
"The older I've gotten my tastes in music and art have changed. Maybe more mature. Maybe not. I still like old punk rock songs," he says. "But my tastes are different than seven or eight years ago and the record reflects that. It reflects a number of things. I definitely took more time in crafting the songs. In some ways, it was easier to make this record than past records. But maybe it's that I'm getting better at what I want to do."
He continues, "I never would have liked Springsteen or Van Morrison or Lloyd Cole in the early '90s," he says. "I wasn't ready for it." He adds that there has been other music he wasn't ready for either. "I worked at a record store back in the early '80s as an indie/import buyer. I thought I was into some really cool music and this guy asked me if I'd ever heard Wire. I hadn't and so he sent me Pink Flag. I put it on the turntable and said, 'Ugh. What is this? I can't deal with this!' Which is weird because, at the time, I was listening to R.E.M., The Replacements, Velvet Underground. But I just couldn't get Wire. I listened to their 154 and thought it sounded like prog rock. A couple years later, it's all I listened to and it's such a big part of my influences."
Among some of Kannberg's more recent influences is Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. Considered a top-tier writer and performer in his native land, Kelly has a solo discography that spans back to the early '80s. He remains, however, little known in the US. Kannberg says he came to love Kelly's music while living in Australia.
"You really get inundated with down there. When I first heard it, I wasn't really into it but the older I got, the more I understood it and came to love his stuff," Kannberg notes. "A&M put out some of his records in the States but I think the only people who'd come to his shows were ex-pat Australians. I have a new song for the next record that has a couple Paul Kelly references in it."
It was love of another act that initially brought Kannberg into contact with one of his key collaborators on Doris and the Daggers, Kelley Stoltz. The Michigan-born musician recorded a track-by-track cover of the Echo & The Bunnymen LP Crocodiles (titled Crockodials in 2001). "Someone slipped me a copy of that," Kannberg recalls, "and the Bunnymen were my favorite band when I was growing up. When I was in college I'd follow them around, go see ten shows on their tour. Wait around for their autographs and stuff. A friend of mine said Kelley was an even bigger fan of Echo & The Bunnymen than I was. Then I heard Crocodials and it's just amazing. We became friends."
The pair formed Crocodiles with Fresh and Onlys bassist Shayde Sartin and Mother Hips drummer John Hofer, gigging several times over the years. Stoltz offered some key guidance on Doris in addition to playing guitar on "AVM". "Originally, I wanted him to produce it but he didn't have the time, so I said, 'Give me some ideas.' He came up with a lot of ideas that I wouldn't have."
Among the others who joined Kannberg in his endeavors were bassist Matt Harris and Broken Social Scene's Justin Peroff on drums. That group's Kevin Drew added vocals to "Emoshuns" while The National's Matt Berninger sings on "Exiled Tonight". Their friendship in part inspired Kannberg to write the tune with Berninger in mind. A special bond with Paul Esposito inspired a golf trip to Scotland (Kannberg, it turns out, has a bit of an obsession with the sport) which in turn inspired the tune "Dundee Man".
Kannberg turned his attention closer to home for "Unconditional", a loving ode to his daughter. "Is it that obvious?" he says with characteristically warm humor. "It could be about anybody's life. If you have a kid and drive past Target they say, 'I wanna go in!' At first I was wary about it because my lyrics have always been mysterious, kind of vague. This record is more honest and personal. The last one was too but this one if more coherent." He adds, "McCartney wrote about his kids on his early solo records and I'm sure some Beatles fans thought that that was sacrilege."
If the new album reveals a deepening maturity and tunefulness, it also carries an accessibility that others may not have found with Pavement, Preston School of Industry or The Real Feel. Kannberg responds enthusiastically to the idea that Doris and The Daggers could find a home on the radio waves. "I've always welcomed that," he says. "I don't write the songs to make something commercially viable. Sometimes they come out a little more poppy. Maybe more palatable for some programmers. I'd love to hear my songs on the radio again."
Born in the '60s, Kannberg was coming of age at a time when FM radio was transforming from a backwater of the airwaves to a dominant form of music delivery. Within a few short years, commercial radio would become locked into a format of familiarity. One that bred some contempt in music lovers.
"It was getting stale," Kannberg offers. "All they played was Led Zeppelin. Every day. Led Zeppelin. Queen. I love those bands but it was just over and over. I thought, 'Really? When you have The Clash going on right now and they're more important, we're listening to something that's 15 years old?' But in the '80s there were stations that played more current music and that kind of steered me in the right direction."
That, along with an older cousin who hipped the budding musician to cool music. "Every summer, I would go up to Montana to my grandparents' farm," Kannberg recalls. "You're out there on the prairie and it's so boring. My cousin would bring up these cassettes of new music he heard. I remember it vividly: Devo, The Police, Elvis Costello. Before that I was lost. I liked Kiss, I liked the bubble gum stuff that I watched on American Bandstand. When my cousin played me that stuff, that's when things turned for me."
That same cousin, Daryl Kannberg, would play in an early version of Pavement that the younger Kannberg put together while attending Arizona State. During his brief tenure at that university, the budding musician laid the groundwork to study city planning. Fascinated with maps as a young man and, by his own account, able to remember locations with an almost savant-like accuracy, he also briefly toyed with the idea of turning to the discipline after Pavement's demise.
"I have a few blogs I look at all the time about city planning," he says. "I get pretty excited about that kind of stuff. I lived in Seattle for a long time and I still follow what's going on there. San Francisco too. I had the idea that I was going to get back into it but I just kind of let it go and kept making records."
He adds that his interest in the topic inspired a song that will emerge as a B-side from the Doris sessions, "Vulcan Hands". Taking its name from the company owned by Paul Allen that oversees a range of his interests from basketball teams to issues of conversation. "When you look at what Amazon and Microsoft have done to that city, in some ways it's great and in some ways it's like you don't recognize it anymore," he says. "It's because of the big Vulcan hands!"
With Doris and The Daggers serving as the second Spiral Stairs LP, Kannberg is keen to see the project continue. There are no plans at the moment for further Pavement activity and it seems unlikely that the musician will return to the Preston School of Industry moniker. Though, he adds, the dividing line between that project and Spiral Stairs is sometimes blurry.
"It was a solo project for me as well but The Real Feel felt more like a solo record. Preston seemed more all over the place. Spiral was more direct," he offers. "I still play the Preston songs live and it is all kind of one thing."
He recalls that Matador, the label that issued both the All This Sounds Gas (2001) and Monsoon LPs as well as the Goodbye to the City Edge EP (also 2001), wasn't initially keen on the name change when it came time for The Real Feel to hit stores. "They said they didn't think people would know who Spiral Stairs was," he says. The statement struck him as odd, he notes, because he'd used the name during Pavement's initial run. "I said, 'Really? Is it that hard?'"
He may have found further opposition with his initial intention to release Doris and The Daggers as an entirely new project, a move that was set aside once the record's direction changed from garage rock to the more contemplative affair it became. Spiral Stairs will remain the moniker for the next LP as well, for which Kannberg has already written a significant amount of material.
"I'm already planning the next recording sessions for August," he says. "I recorded so many songs for Doris, basically 30 pieces. There's stuff that didn't make the record that's really good. The drums and bass are already there and it'd be really easy to finish it up. And I've been writing new songs. I'd like to get something out in a year. I remember, in the old days of Pavement, they'd tell us, 'Well, you gotta wait a couple of years. That's too long. Especially at 50."
With the standard album-tour-album cycle a thing of the past for many artists and others seeking to connect with the audience through a more rapid-release pattern, two releases in the span of a 12-month period doesn't seem out of the question. Guided By Voices and its many offshoots will have issued somewhere around half a dozen recordings by the close of 2017. Kannberg, then, sees nothing wrong with having something ready for his fans.
"If I'm a fan of a band and new record comings out, I will listen to it over and over and over, hundreds of times," he says,"you get sick of it at a certain point, so why not have another record six months after one comes out? The next Spiral Stairs record will be good. It's not the bad songs, they just didn't sound like Doris and The Daggers."