This week's NOW magazine has a cover story on Spiral Beach, written by the illustrious Sarah Liss. I'm tickled for the band, who I instantly fell in love with when I saw them for the first time last March, and Ms. Liss does a fine job of capturing their character, despite the absence of singer Maddy Wylde. (But who wrote that god-awful headline?)
I'd be lying, however, if I told you I wasn't mildly miffed: I was supposed to do a piece on them this week for chief competitor Eye, but NOW has a long-standing insistence on exclusivity when it comes to their cover subjects. Bastards! But this just means we'll wait until the new album is actually out [they were supposed to be recording this fall]. In the meantime, this seems as good a time as any to print this interview I had with drummer Daniel Woodhead in August, for a short article that ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record back then.
As a way of introduction, here's what I wrote in Exclaim about my virgin experience:
In a festival of hustlers, Spiral Beach was refreshing, even if only because these recent high school graduates are far too young to be jaded. An unconsciously 80s fashion sense made them look like they stepped out of a John Hughes movie, probably one made before they were even born. Their collective individual talent is terrifying considering their youth, but they put their music school chops to work on giddily unconventional new wave songs somewhere between the Sugarcubes and the B-52's. Each one is a bonafide rock star able to make their cojones sound casual, making Spiral Beach as playful as they are awe-inspiring. MB
Their youth is what most people find so attractive right now, and why not? They're viciously skilled and totally confident on stage, which is refreshing at the best of times, never mind at an age when most people are terrified to break out of their shell. Every one of them is an attention magnet, but they pull it off in spades. That giddy energy is probably what sells people on their proggier tendencies: they love a left turn like nobody's business, and they do this without belabouring the point. Their ten-song debut CD doesn't always live up to their potential but at least half of it stands as my favourite pop music of the year (sorry, I'm out of superlatives now that it's listmaking season).
Part of their success is also due to the fact that their parents are well-established in the Canadian folk scene, which leads to odd sights like old-timers Bernie Finkelstein and Richard Flohil giddily rubbing elbows with kids barely old enough to get into the club. No doubt all that wisdom will help them navigate the treacherous waters ahead--the sharks are swimming. I missed their Pop Montreal show in October, but rumour has it that O Patro Vys was stuffed with suits and professional chin-strokers.
This interview took place just as the industry hype started rolling (or at least before the band became fully aware of it). It's interesting to hear Mr. Woodhead admit to patently uncool formative musical influences, and to tacitly suggest that the Talking Heads aren't as daring as Spiral Beach is. (OK, he doesn't really say that, but it kind of sounds like it.)
Spiral Beach just got back from their first-ever tour, opening for the Hidden Cameras across the U.S. They met the band at Guelph's Hillside Festival (where I was an MC and introduced their set), just before this interview took place. Their next Toronto show is this Saturday at the Horseshoe, opening for Tokyo Police Club. Get there early!
Spiral Beach, Daniel Woodhead
August 10, 2006
locale: phone interview from his Toronto home.
That was the 16th show at the Drake in a year. I don’t know how many shows we did that year, but probably half of them were there. At first we did an Elvis Monday: free bands and free food. The guy Will(iam New) who runs it invited us back a few times, so we figured we might as well play every week. Then just by coincidence, every other show we’d play turned out to be at the Drake.
Where are you all from originally?
Toronto. [Bassist] Dorian [Wolf] lived in New York until he was seven and then moved here. The rest of us lived close together as well, in the same neighbourhood. Me and Dorian went to school together, then I went to another one.
When did the band start?
These four started at the beginning of 2003. Me and Airick and Liam Titcomb, he was in the band with us before his Sony deal. To an extent it’s the same because Airick and I do a lot of the writing together. But it’s a different group of people. There were about five different names before.
Did any of them leave anything behind?
I got a t-shirt made up for Bilge.
How old were you both when the first band started?
Airick was 11. He and I never listened to pop music until we started the band. We listened to a bunch of people our parents knew, also Arrogant Worms and Moxy Fruvous, and both of those are half-comedy bands. We weren’t really into music, until we discovered that we could do that too. It seemed easy at the time, maybe because of the music we were listening to.
A lot of names come up when people talk about Spiral Beach. A lot of older people hear things from the 80s.
Yeah, I know, it’s kind of strange. There are a lot of bands that sound 80ish, lots of newer bands. If there’s an 80s influence it’s probably through newer bands that sound 80s. I don’t mind when people say it sounds 80s, that doesn’t matter. Or that it sounds like Talking Heads—they’re a good band! I know myself, structure wise, that some of the melodies and chords do things that Talking Heads wouldn’t do. I’m not really bothered if someone thinks we’re a Talking Heads rip-off band, but I don’t think people believe we are. [ed note: the youngest member of Spiral Beach was born the year Talking Heads broke up. Chew on that for a while.]
I grew up in the 80s, and I realise in retrospect that a lot of bands from that time tried to rewrite the book in terms of verse-chorus writing. Somewhere along the line things got conservative again and people wrote normal sounding songs. One of the things I like about your approach is a return to that experimentation and yet it’s all still pop.
That’s an important thing: making sure people want to listen to it. I listen to some music that is abrasive and rude on purpose, but I don’t think it’s cool to be doing that. But I like when we throw in some extremely noisy stuff in the middle of a happy song. I’d rather do that than make a noisy song that no one can listen to.
People aren’t as afraid of noisy interludes these days.
If you listen to mainstream pop stuff, some of the beats are heavy—and I don’t mean the 80s snare drum reverb thing. The crunk’n’b stuff is great.
There’s also the ostensibly classic rock bands like Wilco who have all sorts of noisy bits in their songs, and then there are people like Deerhoof, who are always out on a limb and yet always pop.
As far as new bands go, there’s a band we’d want to sound like. Not that I think we sound like them, but if I was comparing us to something we’d want to actually do, it’d be Deerhoof. Although they’re more far out.
The lyrics are not conventional either. Is it boring to sing about normal stuff?
I do the lyrics, which is weird because I play drums and not really any other instrument.
Don’t you play keyboards on one song too?
No. Oh wait, there was one older song that we stopped playing because it was too quiet. For young bands, when suddenly the dynamic changes and it gets quiet, usually people stop paying attention. If we were playing the ACC [Toronto hockey arena] it would be different. In a little club, people want to hear bangin’ music. We scrapped that song because it was always the low point of the show. That might change. It’s not like we want to play loud music all the time. But what were we talking about…
The songs are usually about not specific things, but what everybody has songs about: vibes, having the right emotion to go with the lyrics or whatever. It can be pretty vague. But they’re not supposed to be intentionally poetic. I think that’s kinda stupid. Unless you’re Leonard Cohen, most people can’t get away with having the lyrics stand alone—and they shouldn’t have to, either. It’s essentially dance music, to get people into it physically.
Do you go for phonetics, just the way certain words go together?
A lot of it is rhyming, for sure. I’m usually more worried about the next rhyme than following a story. They’re not stories, although some of the newer songs are more so.
How old is this record now?
We just did a new pressing, so it’s kind of confusing.
Haven’t you changed the cover each time?
Yeah, we have three covers so far.
Are people collecting all of them?
I kinda hope not, because it’s kinda silly to buy the same CD three times over. We actually finished it at the beginning of November last year, and we had a CD release at the Drake. When that sold out we made new ones with new covers, and we’re probably going to make another cover as well. This record was very slow to do, which is bad in my opinion. Too many overdubs, too much time spent on not-important things while we were doing it.
That usually happens with a band’s first record.
We have some EPs that are older, but they were done in a similar way, we just didn’t work on them as much. When we do a new record in the fall, we’ll spend less time on it and be more efficient. Last summer we didn’t do much, just record every couple of days and do a take.
Not that many people know who Spiral Beach is, but everyone who does is very excited about it. I’ve heard rumours of major labels sniffing around.
Really? I haven’t. We were talking to Paper Bag a bit, but nothing serious and I don’t think that will happen. At this point, not a lot of people have been talking to us about record labels, and it doesn’t seem essential at this point. In Canada, at least. I don’t think we need a label for anything other than distribution. If we could get distribution through a label without actually signing to them, that would be much better.
The rumour I heard was from a friend who was hanging out with an A&R guy at Hillside. My friend was enthusing greatly, and the A&R guy said, “I’ve seen them a couple of times, I don’t get it and it will never sell.’”
Well, that’s cool. Better they say that now than later. Major labels—I don’t have something against them in principle, but I know a couple of people who have been totally screwed over by them. For distribution, they can put CDs anywhere, and we can’t do that. At this point, we’re delivering CDs by hand to stores in Toronto. I think if we did something with a major it would be just for distribution. But you never know.
Liam is the best example of that. He had a huge deal and they spent so much money making his record with the guy who produced Madonna and Michael Jackson, and now he has no deal and he’s recording in his bedroom. Not that his career is over, or anything. He’s 18.
Just for the record, how old are all of you now?
We’re 17 to 19.
How does that work in the Toronto club scene?
It’s usually fine. The only thing has been at NXNE and CMW showcases, but I know they have to be tight there with all the chaos going on. Normally they’re fine with it.
The Barmitzvah Brothers always had horror stories about Toronto when they were underage.
Yeah, we’ve been friends with them forever. I think somehow they had it worse than us, I don’t know why. They told us that too.
Then again, they all looked even younger than they actually were.
They’re older than us, but they kind of look younger, it’s true.
How was Hillside for you? [the festival took place two weeks before this interview]
It was really good, it was crazy. Everybody was there. All these people I know from different places. There were people there who were my parents’ friends, and people there I listen to but I’d never met before. I was talking to Ian Blurton, and how cool is that? Although him being there was kind of weird, he was a bit weirded out. His band is much more of a club, downtown rock band.
You don’t see him in daylight very often.
No! But his band was really good. I thought they were one of the best bands there.
I heard that you had gone for years, and that you were Dish Ninjas before.
Yeah, last year all four of us were Dish Ninjas. That was sweet. It was fun, to a point. It’s an easy job, and it’s beside the main stage, so that’s cool. It’s funny that we were all back for another year, but playing this time.
I saw that you played a bunch of folk festivals this year. Hillside is a very different festival, but when you go somewhere more folkie like Blue Skies [folk festival outside Kingston, ON], how does that go over?
We were there last week, and that’s the most hippie one of anything. It’s like, extreme hippie. It’s almost too much to take sometimes. Everyone is just so happy.
Are you the loudest band there?
Not this year. Last year we did a main stage set and it was really loud and good. This year we did a totally not-electric workshop, which totally failed. We had decided beforehand not to plan it, and that didn’t work at all. When we got there, people were expecting us to play our songs, and we were expecting to play with some old people there with acoustic guitars and jam. But people wanted us to play ‘Voodoo’ or something. We just sat around and eventually got around to playing some songs. We also tried to do some clapping pieces like Steve Reich, which didn’t work at all. It was fun being there, though.
Don’t the hippies love to clap? Why wouldn’t that work?
They were good at clapping. We just didn’t know what we were doing. I was just having a really bad day, anyway.
Was Hillside the first time you played with the Hidden Cameras?
Yeah, and I’ve only actually ever seen them at Hillside. I’ve never been to one of their shows, which is weird, because they’re from Toronto. Mike [Olsen] the cello player had come to one of our shows, and maybe some other guys too. We know people who know them.