The Spinto Band and Blog-Rock Nostalgia

The other day, I posted a picture of the Spinto Band’s 2005 album Nice and Nicely Done on Instagram, along with a photo of my ticket stub and handbill from a gig they played at the Knitting Factory in late 2004. The band’s founding guitarist/songwriter Nick Krill commented to thank me. That gig was truly a game-changer for me, so I decided to share the images here, with a little backstory.

The Spinto Band were started in Delaware in the mid-90’s by the titular Roy Spinto’s grandson Nick Krill and a group of friends (including two sets of brothers). At the end of the 90’s, two members of the band, Jon Eaton and Albert Birney, left to attend college in Syracuse. It was there that I made their acquaintance through a group of creative older friends, three of whom started the Perry Bible Fellowship. Those were strange and wonderful times. I had several chances to see the Spinto Band play small venues in Western New York, including Planet 505 (which will garner several mentions on this site in the coming months), but somehow, I never saw the band perform until converging on a show in Tribeca’s Knitting Factory on December 21, 2004. See the flyer and ticket stub (above), noting that the headliners were technically Hijack Jupiter, another band composed of Syracuse friends who organized and promoted the show. Anyway, the Spinto Band’s set that night remains one of the ten (give or take) best live sets I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was the cold-outside/sweaty-inside juxtaposition of the Knitting Factory’s basement, how recently I had turned 21 (it may have been my first time in NYC since I had), or the band’s no-holds-barred DMX adaptation^, but the whole thing melted my brain in the best way imaginable. Thankfully, some evidence still exists on Flickr of how the night ended:

spinto band
The Spinto Band ending the evening at the Knitting Factory, December 21, 2004. Photo by Toni Sheppard (Flickr).

Now that I’m somewhat far removed from that moment, I can gaze back through the inevitable multivariate filter of hindsight, critical media geographies, and just simply getting old. The mid-2000’s “boom” in mass-visibility of millennial culture and viability of the now extremely dated (at least in nomenclature) genre of blog-rock is starting to retreat off the pale of our rearview mirrors, so look forward to plenty of essays like this one explaining just what the hell blog-rock even was. Some artists I affiliate with that era built long and successful mainstream careers over the 2000’s, even flirting with celebrity (e.g. Death Cab for Cutie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Arcade Fire, and Vampire Weekend, in rough order). Others got “the bump” from websites like Pitchfork and other hype factories that pretended to not know (or, just didn’t care) how much power and influence they held – a viable canary-in-the-coalmine for what would happen with Twitter, Facebook, and all of the latter’s holdings in the 2010’s. Some of these ‘others’ were perfectly decent to me (e.g. Wolf Parade, Tapes n’ Tapes, !!!), but didn’t enjoy the same enduring level mainstream appeal.

Then again, over the prior three decades, consolidating media conglomerates had mixed up a generous cocktail of deregulation, privateering, and conduit expansion (i.e. perpetually speeding-up internet) and snuffed out any semblance of whatever ‘monoculture’ the blog-rockers had been born into. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, whose book Irony and Outrage I’ve been reading recently, dedicates a chapter to this shift across the Reagan-Bush-Clinton administrations, all of whom were preoccupied with the horribly misguided promise of deregulating media ownership. Though not a media geographer, Young expertly points out the geographic dysmorphia with a quote by former Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser, who “see this dire situation as the result of corporate motives prevailing unchecked across the media landscape” (p. 39):

“Most newspapers, television networks, and local television and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American capitalism” (2002, quoted in Young 2020, emphasis mine).

This sticks with me for several reasons, not the least of which being how I came of age across the millennial divide, when we were suddenly all expected to want to live in Brooklyn or Silver Lake. Everyone in “ad world” was suddenly a hipster. The great promise that the internet would help music scenes transcend place, thereby rendering geography inessential, had fizzled. I can only speak for myself here, but this felt strange, considering how the pre-internet era of my youth had been dragging the journalists to all corners of the country less than a decade prior. Even worse, my generational tags, which had been “Gen Y,” “The Pepsi Generation,” and “the MTV Generation” for my entire life, were slowly being replaced with “millennial,” which was (to me, anyway) condescending shorthand for somebody who didn’t remember life before the internet. At the time, I was walking up and down Columbia Road NW in DC, listening to The National’s Boxer like every good Gen-X dork, fairly oblivious to all of this, but in retrospect I’m pretty pissed, honestly.

Strangely, but not shockingly, the heated conversations my punk-loving friends and I had in high school about “selling out” were fading from relevance. I may have cited this following passage here before, but Ronen Givony’s concluding manifest about Jawbreaker in his 33 1/3 volume about 24 Hour Revenge Therapy bears repeating:

“Maybe this is a symptom of the general passivity and quietism of always-online American life in the twenty-first century; or maybe it’s just another example of settled debates, bygone values, and obsolete terms… In a time when almost no one still buys albums, and tens of thousands of streams will earn a band pennies, the reasoning goes, artists deserve to get paid any way they can manage, and rightly so. Who are we to blame them if the only people still paying musicians their true worth are corporate advertising and branding companies? It’s a difficult claim with which to argue, which is why almost no one ever still does.”

I reached out to Krill to see if he remembered that era in any similar light, since he spent much of that time touring internationally with the Spinto Band. For example, they did a run of opening slots for the Arctic Monkeys when Alex Turner and Co. were barely into their twenties and riding an an unconscionable wave of hype around “I Bet that You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” They toured the UK with other acts on Bar/None Records (the Hoboken label that gave the world the first two brilliant They Might Be Giants records). Even “Oh Mandy,” a single off of Nice and Nicely Done (that may have been inspired by Mandy Moore; reports vary) appeared in at least one national ad campaign. Guitarist Jon Eaton called into my Georgetown radio show in 2008* when they released the “Summer Grof” single and their second album Moonwink, telling me about said UK shows as well as Spanish festivals like the brief-lived Summercase.

I always felt like the Spinto Band were in as a good a position as any to epitomize the highwater mark of “blog rock,” but the term doesn’t hold much of a meaning to Krill these days, and he has no recollection of it meaning much to him and his bandmates 15 years ago, either. He does remember, though, feeling expected frustration with the new music media landscape.

“[Around the mid-2000’s,] I do remember being a little peeved that if a record didn’t get a ‘Best New Music’ shout out, it could kinda get immediately lost in the noise,” he recently told me, referencing Pitchfork’s ostensibly career-making designation given to albums ranked higher than 8.0 on a 10-point scale. Years of continued service to indie rock, however, have endowed Krill with retrospective wisdom one would expect from a seasoned veteran.

“The more time I’ve spent in the music business, the more I realize that it really is a lot down to the hard work of an artist and the team they assemble around themselves,” he wrote. “Someone can shine a spot light on an artist, but that only can do so much. Artists that persist and make a career out of that initial attention truly have a vision for their work, and the work ethic to create amazing music and not stop until it is great.”

Nick Krill mixing a recording (photo via his website).

Today, Krill is still highly active as a producer and engineer, working with bands like The War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, and the aforementioned Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. As he put it, SoundCloud and Bandcamp are, in essence, a continuation of the function blogs served as a way for people to “scratch around and hunt for new tunes.”

I can’t help but agree, considering how much music still resides on my hard drive that I discovered via blogs during my downtime at various office jobs (prior to what Aesop Dekker termed “the great file sharing holocaust” a decade ago). There are still a few blogs I punch into my search bar on occasion simply to check in, not particularly expecting their proprietors to have picked the lock, cleared the cobwebs, and lurched the weathered, rusty machinery back to life.

The so-called “vinyl resurgence,” which had been going on for a solid half-decade before most any major media outlet noticed it, is even more salient considering how much digital music has been buried in the past 25 years. Hell, half of the music I bought from touring DIY bands at the time were on CDr’s they probably burned at 48x. My personal laptop doesn’t even have a built-in disc drive. Givony’s quote referencing how relatively few people buy music anymore does carry some weight, but our relationship with music has always changed depending on way which we discovered it, not just relegated to the digital era.

Given how much love, documentation, and reinterpretation Millennial pop has been getting of late, we are dangerously close to full-on 2000’s nostalgia. It may well already be here (don’t be stingy with case studies in the comments, if there’s anything I’m missing). Hopefully, the Spinto Band will be able to reap some of those spoils, whatever that may mean in the 2020s.

Thanks for reading.

“Your work looks good / Your look works great”

^According to Krill, this was a rap song the group wrote in high school that they performed whenever Albert Birney, who left the band in 2003, made it to a gig. I’m grateful he was there that night.

*If I ever locate this interview, I’ll plan to append it to this post.

My #NotbyREM Song Challenge Results

I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it also influenced me to revisit REM’s early and mid-era catalog on vinyl, which is always enjoyable. I had overlooked the second side of Murmur for so long! Anyway, here are my song choices from this month’s challenge. The matrix, for reference:

NotByREMSongChallenge

  1. Worriers – “End of the World” (song of 2020)
  2. The Aquabats – “Pool Party” (it was a cool party)
  3. Cee-Lo Green – “The Art of Noise”
  4. Pinback – “How We Breathe”
  5. Herbie Hancock – “Chameleon”
  6. Common – “The Corner (feat. The Last Poets)”
  7. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight”
  8. Mrs. Magician – “There is No God”
  9. Def Leppard – “Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)”
  10. Frodus – “The Day Buildings Mysteriously Vanished”
  11. Prefab Sprout – “Moving the River”
  12. Dan Deacon – “Wham City”
  13. Andrew W.K. – “I Get Wet”
  14. Travis – “Flowers in the Window”
  15. Goldfinger – “Superman”
  16. Grandaddy – “El Caminos in the West”
  17. The Dead Milkmen – “Watching Scotty Die”
  18. Orange Juice – “Falling and Laughing”
  19. The Ramones – “Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)”
  20. Meat Loaf – “Everything Louder than Everything Else”
  21. Snapcase – “Bleeding Orange”
  22. LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”
  23. Sick of It All – “Clobberin’ Time”
  24. Buzzcocks – “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”
  25. Deftones – “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)”
  26. The Replacement – “A Little Mascara”
  27. Cock Sparrer – “Working”
  28. Sunny Day Real Estate – “In Circles”
  29. Husker Du – “I Apologize”
  30. Ruth – “Polaroid Romain Photo”

Because I can’t stop won’t stop (procrastinating), you’re all getting a challenge for September, too. I am going to try to keep grinding one out for every month the US is in “quarantine” due to COVID, so you can all look forward to another year or so of these!

[cue bitter sobbing]

Anyway, tune in tomorrow at 9AM Eastern for that, and don’t forget to tell a friend or two or however many the Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram algorithms allow to see your posts (probably around 2).

Your Sonic Sunday: May 17th (Punk Scholars, Jangle Pop, and Hardcore)

Happy Sunday! I have a few music documentaries to recommend (which are streaming, for free, on YouTube as of this posting), but first a couple of announcements about things near and dear to me.

First, per Dr. Matt Grimes, the Punk Scholars Network website is up and updated! For those keeping track, I published an article in the connected journal Punk & Post-Punk a couple years ago ahead of Capitals of Punk, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with this consortium more in the future. For now, take a gander at what they’ve been up to lately, and who makes up their team.

a2570743017_10Second, while working on the Sonic Geography Song Challenge, I’ve inadvertently discovered that Mark Mulcahy put the entire Miracle Legion discography up on Bandcamp (the second-best website on the internet, behind Cinema Treasures). For my fellow 90’s kids who remember the beautiful show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Polaris were, ostensibly, a massaged iteration of Miracle Legion. Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb have said that Miracle Legion’s 1985 EP The Backyard directly informed the aesthetic of the show, and it makes perfect sense.

Under the “Hey! Free Viewings!” category: Lance Bangs made this appropriately slow-burn documentary about Slint’s 1991 masterpiece Spiderland, and it’s available to watch here. He does a good job pulling from his own super-fandom of the mystery that surrounded albums like this before the internet, as well as the fascinating little world of Louisville, Kentucky.

maxresdefaultDrew Stone has been breaking his back for a long time to not only keep the spirit of New York Hardcore (or as it’s properly pronounce “N’Yuk Hahdcowa”) alive through shows he organizes in Brooklyn, but hosting numerous live-streams with NYHC figures. I caught this one with Lou Koller, the singer of one of my favorite bands Sick of It All, and as I may have said on twitter, it felt like a warm embrace. Stone’s “The NYHC Chronicles” documentary (stream-able here) digs deep into that universe, and I recommend it. Also, somehow, Walter Schriefels does. not. age.

the-jane-projectSpeaking of hardcore (just a bit further North), every time I have the privilege of introducing someone to Converge’s 2001 masterpiece Jane Doe, I get excited about the record all over again. While traversing the algorithm for those previously mentioned videos, I found this video of Kurt Ballou talking about the album to a class at the Berklee College of Music in the band’s native Boston. As an academic who thinks Jane Doe deserves every bit as much respect as any other piece of critically-coveted “art music” of the past two decades, it’s always gratifying to see Converge getting that kind of institutional validation (not that they need it). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had an epiphany: Converge may be the greatest band in Boston history. Sit on that one, and tell whether you agree that there may be weight to that argument.

The Big Star Paradox

Alex Chilton died ten years ago today at age 59. Here are some words about what he and three other Memphians accomplished in their twenties with a little help from their friends.

Big Star Photograph © Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien Photo (C-heads)

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Radio City, the second (and arguably last) Big Star album. It’s my favorite thing they ever released, and it had me thinking: it’s almost paradoxical how beloved Big Star are. I find it impossible to parse whether Big Star were great because they were unsuccessful in their time. Would it cloud our cultural judgment if “Back of a Car” or “The Ballad of El Goodo” were on the same level of incalculable impact on Western society as the Beatles, Elton John, or Queen? If any of those three artists had been relegated to Big Star’s niche of history, would their music be so lionized? I understand that those are three imperfect examples, but no perfect examples exist. Had the Beach Boys not been in the right time-place when they changed their name from the Pendletons and hopped aboard the surf craze, would whatever they would have created in that alternate timeline (certainly nothing on par with Pet Sounds) possess such heavy caché today?

To add another layer to the paradox, Alex Chilton was a household name to baby boomers. When he died, a majority of the outlets I saw mentioned “The Letter” in their tributes, relegating Big Star – not to mention his influence on the late-70’s New York punk scene and his iconoclastic songsmithery throughout the 80’s – well beneath the fold. But, as the party line reads, Chilton’s decision to join Big Star was informed by feeling washed up by the time he was 20. He wasn’t the only teenybopper who pivoted into an artistic legend, but he managed to occupy such a unique space in both categories; millions more have heard the Box Tops, yet his unsuccessful second act has changed the world almost in spite of itself.

What these layers all reinforce was that Big Star were a generational band. They wouldn’t have reached the heights they did if Alex Chilton weren’t burned out by pop fame by age 18, nor would their songs be such a testament to the power of Memphis if they had blown up and transcended their hometown. One of my favorite anecdotes from Rob Jovanovich’s biography of the band was when a few North Carolina college nerds (who would eventually become the dB’s) took a pilgrimage to Memphis in the mid-70’s and found a despondent Chris Bell working at a fast food restaurant. They talked him into accompanying them to Ardent Studios for a meeting with Chilton. Within minutes, they could tell how little Bell wanted to be there.

I am not entirely sure why that anecdote stuck with me more than anything else from the book, especially since it puts such a tragic din on #1 Record. The album was a legendary flop, and Bell and Chilton grew apart almost immediately as a result. It was the most important thing in the world to the dB’s, but it was barely a footnote in the lives of the people who made it. This recalls what Chuck Klosterman wrote about a Guns n’ Roses cover band in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: “Paradise City care more about Guns n’ Roses than the original members of Guns n’ Roses care about the song ‘Paradise City.'” It also recalls an interview with Slash I recall seeing a little over ten years ago (perhaps with Larry King, as outlandish as that may seem), where Slash didn’t dodge a question about GnR reuniting but rather gave a perfectly straightforward answer: he and Axl just weren’t interested in trying to recreate the proverbial “that.” It struck me as surprising, since everything I’d heard since 1996 suggested that he and Bill Bailey hated one another. Whether or not they did share antipathy was immaterial; they had moved on, even if their fans hadn’t.

I suppose therein lies another layer to the Big Star paradox: speaking personally, I appreciate the ability to see that meaning-making at work from the level of the fans of an obscure band, rather than the insanely popular band curating their legacy, sometimes bitterly. The former is endearing, and the latter is usually uncomfortable. Thankfully, everything I’ve seen Jody Stephens (the one surviving Big Star member) curate has done nothing to tarnish the band’s legacy. It may owe a lot to the fact that he still lives in Memphis, keeps his drum kit at Ardent, and has no delusions of grandeur.

IMG_20110816_161433

Jody Stephens’ drum kit at Ardent Studios (Memphis, TN), July 2011

I felt the need to write all of this because (1) Big Star formulate a key part of any curriculum I compose about the strange (after)life of American Popular Culture, and (2) it’s a question for which I genuinely want to get other music fans’ perspectives. The Big Star Paradox dictates that it’s impossible to judge the band solely on their music in 2020, but no amount of post-whateverist academic thought changes the fact that I nearly cry whenever I hear “What’s Going Ahn.” Whether or not Big Star had ever become famous in their time, nothing can change how their music was just so, so, so, SO good. RIP Alex Chilton, ten years gone today, as well as to my fellow UTK attendee Andy Hummel, who died on July 19 of that same year.

Sonic Sunday Clips 01.26.20 (MLK, Istanbul, and Stars)

Happy Sunday. I’ve got about 3 new posts brewing at the moment, but returning to a regularly scheduled life has been my first priority of late. I’ll get those out soon, though. For now, here are a few things of interest from this week.

  • Derek Alderman on MLK Streets
    My friend and former PhD Adviser Dr. Derek Alderman has made yet another major news appearance talking about the geographic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Obviously, this segment aired last Monday on ESPN. Derek shows up at 2:02, right after RFK announces MLK’s assassination.
  • History of Geography & Gender Conference, Istanbul
    This conference in August looks great, and it’s in Istanbul, too. Easily in one of my top ten cities yet-to-visit. Either way, if you’re able, drop a submission, and even see if you qualify for one of their paper awards.

Here is your weekly affirmation: a teenage choir from Vancouver that covers of Canadian indie rock anthems. This one may be my favorite.

 

Michael Seman on Music Geography

From UNT website.

I felt a good return to music on this blog was in order, mainly because I’ve got some more antique postcard news in the works. I was very fortunate to meet and work with Michael Seman, a musical geographer based in Denton, TX (we did talk briefly about the Mountain Goats song and the Marked Men, don’t worry), at the AAG Meeting in Los Angeles last year. This morning, I got an email from a collaborator saying that Mike had been interviewed for the Washington Post! Not a bad spot to land.

You can read the whole interview here, or check in on writer Danielle Paquette‘s story about Omaha’s use of indie rock to revitalize it’s urban neighborhoods right here, but here are a couple of Seman’s quotes that I thought were pretty to-the-point about what Music Geography does, and why it’s important.

[Music Geography is] the examination of music and how it interacts with the people, economy, built environment, and technology that comprises a certain space or place.

Music, like food, offers a lot of insight into how landscapes develop and how they might continue to do so in the future… Music scenes can act as branding agents, spur urban redevelopment and emerge as industries in their own right. I’ve also found that music scene participants are civic-minded and often become involved in philanthropic pursuits, run for political office, and seek employment in city departments.

More updates coming soon. Check out Michael’s work for more background on the interaction between music and public places. I’m no doubt going to be citing a lot of them in the future.

For now, time to dive back into teaching and formulating my own papers to present this year. It’s been so busy that I feel like first I have to…. well, The Marked Men can probably say it better than I could.

DC Will Do That To You (Part 1)

The sunrise over Mt. Pleasant.

Sunrise over Mt. Pleasant, Thursday March 20.

Prior to last week, I had not been in Washington, D.C. (for more than a layover) since August of 2012. I have always thought hard about what to write on this site about the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia, for the outsiders), but the right words have never really come to mind. I’ve gone on record repeatedly in several contexts that I’m a firm believer that “D.C. makes; the world takes.” Take a look at the last three decades of punk and alternative music history.

In the past few days since returning to Knoxville, my conversations about the city with people who’ve clearly spent little time there begs the question of how the Capital City has inspired so many different and divergent public perceptions of it. Many (way too many) people associate it with the Federal Government for obvious reasons. The Reagan-overlorded crack era of the 1980’s and the District’s difficult reputation simply won’t go away. In each of my conversations about it, the other person has admitted having misconceptions about it.

This photo has no real bearing to this post, but I wanted to take this opportunity to plug my favorite bookstore in the world.

This photo has no real bearing on this post, but I wanted to take the opportunity to plug my favorite bookstore in the world.

Despite having lived there for six pivotal years, my own opinions about DC are equally fueled by public (mis)conceptions and (sub)cultural ideals as they were from my actual days wandering up 18th Street to Smash! and Crooked Beat Records on payday, sitting on my Arlington front porch watching an early summer storm roll across the sky, and squeezing my way through the city’s overcrowded Metro.

I’ve got a few mammoth posts in the pipeline about D.C. I’m sure, but this will have to do for now. It’s been that kind of a week, and the afterglow of being back in such a hyper-inflated city that I gave so much of my life to has left me in such a strange state of introspection. But then again….

“D.C. Will Do That To You”