MVRemix’s resident punk/rock writer Wes Kirk interviews Tom Sean of the New York rock band The Black Spoons, who is gassing up the tour van at a Texaco station “somewhere in Pennsylvania…”
MVRemix: You’re two shows into the tour right now. How did they go?
We launched in New York on Friday, and that was a great show. We played there [at Pianos] a bunch of times, and every time we’ve played there we’ve done well. We have a good relationship with the club and we like the space, and the sound is just fantastic, so that’s why we chose there as our New York launch. The place was packed and the sound was awesome. Things were just trippin out: my amp tripped out for a while but that afforded me the opportunity to put my guitar down, grab the mike and run out into the crowd. We had some fun with that one.
MVRemix: Are you going to be playing at some new venues?
Everywhere beyond NY is all new. We’re playing Pittsburgh tonight, Chicago tomorrow, Cincinnati, then Nashville, and New Orleans on St. Paddy’s day, and then we’re going down to Austin for the South by southwest show. All those clubs are new. The Chicago turnout is just awesome. We will actually have as many people at that show as we did in New York even though we’ve never been there.
MVRemix: Do you know why that is?
Well we always sell advance tickets to our shows, because when people pay money, it’s a hell of a lot more likely that they’ll come. We just sort of went through online sites like Craigslist and Friendster, and started chatting people up in Chicago and the response was huge. It’s Monday night and even still, we’ll probably have as many people there as we did in NY on a Friday night, so it’s just amazing. So we’ll definitely be going back there soon.
MVRemix: You just mentioned Craigslist — a big part of your tour. I just wanted to ask you specifically how Craigslist has helped.
The short of it is that we wouldn’t exist without it. All three of us met each other through Craigslist, we formed the band through Craigslist back in 2003, but in addition to that the entire infrastructure of the band is all through Craigslist. We found our recording studio there, our recording space, cinematographers, web designers, promotions people, right down to people to walk around the crowd and do mailing lists — the nuts and bolts that are necessary for a band, especially in New York. All of those things we tracked down through Craigslist. It probably would have taken us five years to get to where we are now, just because there would have been so much more trial and error if we didn’t have Craigslist to rely on.
MVRemix: The site is not just dedicated to music. Are there a lot of bands in your area using it?
Actually the music thing came late, and there is. It’s funny because if you click on the other cities, and you go to the musicians page there's like one, two, maybe three postings a day. In New York it’s like 200 postings a day, so it’s just a constant barrage of people looking for bands, and a lot of the bands that we’ve interacted with we’ve actually found a lot of there members through Craigslist who run there business through the site like we do.
MVRemix: So, no Craigslist, no album…
Well, no album in the time, I mean six months after we formed we had the album out. We actually booked gigs before the band existed, because sometimes club booking agents go through Craigslist sometimes to find—obviously not there Friday and Saturday bands—but some of the audition gig bands on Sundays and Tuesdays. We had responded to one of those, had a small demo, sent it out and got a few gig through that way. After the band formed we played together three times, and then had that first gig. It was sort of zero-to-60 in no time at all, and that’s kinda the way we liked it. We didn’t want to be spending years and years just kind of kicking it because New York is so expensive. We see certain bands come through New York and they’re just awesome. You can just hear they write a style of music that’s got eight minute compositions, and really textured stuff, multi-instrumentalist. Part of the reason why music sounds like that outside of New York is because it doesn’t cost any money to rehearse. You can do it in a garage or a basement, wherever, so you have all the time in the world. In New York, creativity comes at $25 an hour. You can hear it in bands like the Strokes and Interpol: it’s very tight and you know when the song is going to end.
MVRemix: Your bio compares your D-I-Y work ethic to bands like Fugazi and Guided by Voices. I am just wondering what your personal opinion on being independent is.
The way we go at is if a small label like Kill Rock Stars, or Touch & Go emerged, places that we respect; if they came along of course we would talk to them. At the same time, we’re not waiting for them. We know a lot of bands that, you know, are kind of waiting. I mean, they’re good, or their sister’s boyfriend used to sleep with the so-and-so from whatever place, and you can tell they’re just kind of waiting around for it. That’s okay, but it’s not the way we want to be. We say, “Alright, let’s imagine we’re not going to get this knock at the door tomorrow where they give us a development deal, so lets do what we have to in the meantime to survive.” Unfortunately, the truth is that if you’re in a band and you’re creating good music, and then you do it for a few years, after a while you simply can’t live anymore, the music suffers, and it goes away. You need to be able to sustain yourself, with both music and behind the scenes. That’s what Craigslist is basically all about for us. As far as Fugazi, the Dischord of the 21st century can’t be based on mimeographed or photocopied fanzines, now all the stuff is transferred into a totally new medium. It’s funny because you can see people are trying to use Craigslist in the same way and failing. People stuff on Craigslist sometimes and it’s a waste of time. I know no one who has gone to see a show because they saw “Come to my show” in big bold letters. If people use the tools for what they have to offer, then it’s possible to remain independent but still survive and not have to be waiter eight hours a day, and have music be the second thing. But to have music be the primary thing, and still be able to pay the rent, which is a feat in New York City to pay for rent with music.
MVRemix: Listening to your CD, and specifically the lyrics, it is clear that you have had some education. Your whole band is somewhat educated, and you’re going for a Ph D. in Chinese history. I was wondering why you chose that as your field?
I got into it kind of by accident. I’ve always adored studying language. I was originally going to study Arabic, but then I somehow found my way into a Chinese history class. The teacher was a four foot tall ball of energy, and it was fucking awesome. I just loved it and stuck with it. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always hated summer because it meant not being in school. The day before the first day of school, where all my friends were pissed off, I had my clothes all lined up on my bedroom floor, couldn’t sleep and ready to go. I don’t know what it is about it, but I’ve always liked it. On the other hand, you put me in an office for five hours and I get really depressed. And there is a certain “father impulse” in me. I’m really looking forward to spawning some people, but in the meantime—all my band mates are making faces at each other as I tell you all this shit—but in the meantime, until I can do that, I would like to teach. I’ve always known that I wanted to end up in some sort of teaching profession. That path, that career, is really conducive to music because you have so much free time and you have summers off, and you have whole semesters off. It makes it possible for me to balance that equation, with academia on the one side and music on the other.
MVRemix: You said that this CD took you about six months, so were the songs flowing out quite easily or where there a lot of late nights?
We kind of lucked out. Two things kinda happened. We knew we only had five days to record the album because that’s all the time we could afford in the studio, so we spent a lot of time before hand mapping things out. We had also made the decision that we were going to embrace limitations, and not attempt to add a bunch of instrumentation that didn’t reflect what we are when we play live. Don’t just have seven screaming guitar solos come out of the left channel when we only have one guitarist in the band who never solos. So we made that decision, and when we moved into the studio we could play the songs backwards and forwards, without any vocals, we had just really nailed it down. When we walked in there we worked with the best studio engineer, Josh Clark Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn, and we walked in there and we told him we really wanted him to be a part of this. ‘This is not just a pay to play thing. Please get involved.’ He did an hour pre-production, we went earlier and he walked us through it, he came to see live shows. He was fantastic, intervening left and right, with fantastic suggestions and we just sort of banged it out. We loaded in on a Friday night after the guys got off work, and we were just planning on miking the drums and getting the sound, and we actually ended up recording two of the songs on the album. We were just kind of just playing around with it, why don’t we just try it and press record. We ended up, on just a few take, nailing what we thought was really good. It might have been “Softest Leather” or “Chemical Sue,” I forget which one, it was but it was a great experience. Then, three days to track the core of the album, and then the next two were just guitars and some vocal overdubs. We were listening to the album and we were like, “If we had $5000, $20,000 more and a month in the studio, this would be a different thing. But we really love it. This is where we are, this is the stage of the band and we said let’s go with this.
MVRemix: Would this CD sound different if you were still living in suburbia, or is it just a reflection of where you are now?
The next album will reflect all the time we’ve spent together now. We are now very, very close friends, we anticipate each other, we know each others style and it’s very collaborative now, more than it’s ever been. There’s sort of an aging process, which will be reflected definitely on the next recording. If we had recorded the same album in six months, out of town we probably would have taken two weeks in the studio, but besides that probably no difference.
MVRemix: Do you have an onstage philosophy, or how do you approach your live shows?
If you walk off stage and you’re not totally exhausted, and you still have energy to flirt with some girl then, well... It’s kind of like a little death on stage. I think I remember one the guys from Mars Volta describing it like that. If you’ve not sort of got to die on stage that night, then there’s something wrong. There’s no posturing, there’s no fronting, and it’s just the three of us. We are the easiest band to mike in the world; we are a sound guys dream. We get up there, and from what I understand, it’s just pure energy.
MVRemix: What was your motivation to right a song for Marie Curie?
I actually was in Paris sitting in the Pantheon, walking around the tombs. I think Rousseau is there, Voltaire, Pasteur, there is just like a shitload, and I’m just walking around. Before I had gone I had not know of this place, and I saw Marie Curie. She’s the first woman to be entombed there. A lot of that album comes out of the end of something in my life that was very big. The album title, My Dear Radium, is how she referred to, you know the two radiums, and it’s my dear radium. It’s this thing that she phrased and made part of her life, and treated like a loved one that is slowly sapping away, a sort of love is radiation poisoning, that sort of motif or metaphor sort of started to get into my mind. It’s just one of those things. That when someone is exposed to radiation, there’s that moment when you feel absolutely fine, and then the doctor tells you that this is inside of you, and it’s just gonna get worse and worse. That’s sort of how the end of a love affair is sometimes.