"Really Raw, Really Good, and Totally Like the Spin Doctors"
Spin Doctors are in the midst of their biggest tour since the 1990s supporting If the River Was Whiskey, their strongest album since their celebratory salad days back in the early to mid-90s. Indeed, the work is built upon ten songs of all original blues, which features the Doctors at their quartet best—all muscle, all soul, and all heart, while mastering a whole lotta tunes sounding both classic and life-affirming. Quite frankly, no one expected the band, in their 25th year, to be sounding this energetic, tight but loose, and filled with the resounding sense of melody and craft and hook-laden songs that won over a mass audience over two decades ago. But, they are here, as vital as ever, and arguably one of the best live acts in the present tense, as well, mixing in the hits, along with the also-rans and a healthy dose of old material made new.
Jambands.com spoke with Aaron Comess, Docs drummer, during a Midwest to West Coast swing of dates, and before the band goes back on the road for a month in Europe. The percussionist is friendly, astute, and passionate about the current remarkable state of band affairs. He is also experienced enough to know that these amazing opportunities for a veteran band to sound so fresh and relevant do not always occur, and it is immensely satisfying to enjoy his conversation, while wishing the Doctors continued current success.
RR: I was very pleasantly surprised by the new record; although, its genesis is in your past. Detail how Spin Doctors chose to do an all blues album with If the River Was Whiskey, and how does the work connect with the origin of the band?
AC: The connection with the origin of the band is that about 60% of these songs are old songs that we used to play way back when the band first got together in Manhattan because there were a bunch of blues bars, particularly these two places called the Mondo Cane and the Mondo Perso. We used to play there, Blues Traveler would play there, Joan Osbourne played there, a bunch of other great bands, but for the most part, in order to get a gig there, you had to play blues tunes. And most of the bands played blues covers, so we decided we were going to make a demo tape of blues tunes, and try to get a gig because it was one of the only places in town that actually paid a guarantee, so you could go in there and make some bread.
We decided instead of putting a demo of blues covers together, we were just going to write a bunch of our own blues originals. We basically kind of faked the club out, gave them these blues originals—I think they actually just thought they were old blues covers or something—and we got a gig, and we started playing this place, Mondo Cane. You would do four sets a night. We would go in and do the first set all blues. Second set, we would start out with the blues songs and then, we would slip in the classic Spin Doctors songs like “Big Fat Funky Booty,” or “Jimmy Olsen” and all the other known songs that we had then, or what you might know now.
And then all of these songs fell by the wayside. We made Pocket Full of Kryptonite and started touring and did all the other records. When we were recently out on the road doing a 20th anniversary of Pocket Full of Kryptonite last year, we basically went out and played that whole record. We asked a bunch of people, “Hey, what would you guys like to hear in the encore?” And we kept getting back a lot of these old obscure blues songs that we had, songs like “So Bad,” “Scotch and Water Blues,” and “The Drop.” We busted them out and they are just a blast to play and people really liked them and so we started kicking around the idea that, hey, we should go and record some of these songs.
We ended up writing some more songs that were in that same kind of blues-y vibe. We went into my studio for a couple days with no real intention of anything. We were thinking that we should demo around five of the songs and see what happens. A couple days later, we ended up having ten songs recorded and they sounded great. We said, “Man, I think we have a record here.” It wasn’t like we didn’t feel like doing it again; it just felt really raw, really good, and totally like the Spin Doctors. It’s really the roots of what we come from.
I think the majority of people know us because of we had those big hits—“Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Go Wrong” and the Pocket Full of Kryptonite record. But any of the fans who really know who we are, and who dug deeper into what we do, know that blues is a huge part of where we come from, a big part of our music, so, for us, it just feels totally natural. It’s interesting that a lot of people don’t expect to hear this when they get it. They are like “Wow.” (laughs)
RR: The songs sound timeless. You could say that about the entire blues genre, but they sound like Spin Doctors wrote them six months ago, entered a studio, recorded them live, and, then, stepped back and said, “These songs really cook.” Was there any trouble playing these songs as if you had not played them before? If not, how much did the room, your studio that you mentioned, benefit the atmosphere? The ambience of a place can definitely play a role in the sound of a record, of course.
AC: Absolutely. I think the comfort zone of everybody coming to my place is great. I have a really cozy studio on my first floor. There was none of that big fancy studio pressure. I think the fact that we weren’t even really, in our minds, making a record took the pressure off everybody. It was just a couple of days when everything clicked between the four of us. I think that comfort zone of working over here really helped.
Also, the freshness of the material…I think, you know, this kind of music, your rock ‘n roll, blues-based stuff is timeless music, so if it is recorded right and played with a certain authenticity, I think it sounds good in any era. Thus, a lot of those songs we had not played in about twenty years, so I think there was something really cool about that—they felt really new to us, we hadn’t played them in so long, but there was a deep history because of the fact that we had written and played them a long time ago, and, so, there was just an extreme freshness to them.
Of course, the newer songs we had barely ever played before. There is that spontaneity and freshness that comes when you just write a song, and go in the studio. I think we just managed to…all cylinders were just kind of aligned. And with us, we’ve known each other for so long, we’ve had our ups and downs, things can either be incredible, or really horrible. (laughs) Luckily, we’re at a point now when everybody is getting along great, and we have this 25-year musical chemistry and friendship. You get a little older and you start to appreciate what that is. It is all the four members. We’re all grateful we’re all alive, healthy, happy, and enjoying each other’s company and making music. I think this record has been a really great thing in bringing the morale back in the band.
RR: You hit upon something that touched a chord, too. As I found out with my own life experiences, you can’t really tell your younger self that there is a long path and you need to be patient and there are things you will go through. Things can turn out pretty sweet if you just_ try_ to think long-term. And that’s tough at that point in time, especially when you have success pretty early on like Spin Doctors did.
AC: No question. When you’re young and you’re in your twenties, a year seems like an eternity. (laughs) It’s hard to have a real perspective on things, I think, and particularly inside a group when you are dealing with four different individuals. We are certainly…as well as we may click on many levels, we are also four totally different people. It has been part of our magic, but it’s also been part of our curse.
But, you’re right. I think when you get a little older, you become much more patient, you realize a year, even two years, five years, isn’t really that long. It goes by in a flash. You realize, if anything, if you stick with something, it’s gonna blossom. Nothing doesn’t have its ups and downs in life. I think with the band, it’s like…obviously, we’ve had our ups and downs and we’ve had time when we weren’t active, or we weren’t together, but we’ve been kicking it around the last seven, eight years, and not really putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, which, I think, was really the key. Finally, I think we just hit this magic moment where we made this body of work that just feels so right and natural.
With the Spin Doctors, everything seems to work the best when we’re not trying too hard. The initial magic of Pocket Full of Kryptonite was the result of us being a band that played five nights a week in bars, and by the time we entered the studio, those 11 songs that were on that record had been played 300, 400 times because we had played so much. Obviously, now, the chemistry gets developed after all this time. It’s cool.
RR: It has been eight years since the last album. Does it feel that long, and does it feel like now is when everything fell into place to get back into the studio?
AC: Yeah. I think we all put a lot of work into that last record, Nice Talking to Me. I really loved the record. I think it’s a great record, and it was a big accomplishment for us because it was the first time that we had all gotten together and written new songs and made a record in a long time. I think it was smart because after that, we didn’t put
pressure on ourselves like “oh, we’ve got to get back in”; we’d do gigs and we were trying to really make it fun. It’s got to be fun. As soon as things become like a chore, it’s hard to create really good music in that atmosphere. We never put any pressure on us.
This record happened by accident. It was a direct result of getting off that anniversary. It was also great because the Pocket Full of Kryptonite tour really grounded us and brought us back to our roots and it was so much fun to go back and play that music. That music really has stood the test of time. The songs just felt great. Even though we continuously played maybe half of those songs, a lot of those songs we had not played in years. I think that really helped us bring us back to the core of what the band was and go even further back to this blues stuff before Pocket Full of Kryptonite. It just feels right. It’s almost like we are digging deeper into our past in order to come up with something that feels fresh and new to us. It’s really working. (laughs)