"Really Raw, Really Good, and Totally Like the Spin Doctors"
RR: I reviewed the 20th anniversary Kryptonite box set for our magazine, Relix, and it made me hopeful for the future of the band because there is so much vitality on that record, including all the bonus material. These days, when I do a retrospective on some band, they are either long gone, or well past their prime, or have lost whatever chemistry held them together in the first place. But I think you have described a way that a band can do it.
AC: I think it is a great template for us to go from here. I think because we’ve gone back to these roots, I feel we are all inspired to write more songs and make more records together. I just felt like we re-found ourselves as a band.
On top of that, like you said, a lot of times, it is very common that a band that becomes 25 years old just lose it. They don’t have that chemistry. They sound tired, and, in our case, I think the thing that has really saved us is that all four of us are really dedicated musicians. In the time that we are not playing together, we are all individually working with other people on our own projects, so you’ve got four lifers here, I like to call it. Everybody’s playing better than ever. There is a certain naiveté and energy that comes from a youthful band, which is why many bands’ first record are always their best. It is hard to recreate that youth.
But, with that said, we’ve all matured a lot on our instruments and learned how to work together, so there’s another thing that is happening now that is a lot deeper and richer from what we had 25 years ago. And that’s really a direct result from everyone working really hard on their craft this whole time and continues to do so. I think that’s what makes…when bands get a little older, the bands that continue to grow and sound great are the ones where everybody takes their instruments really seriously.
RR: And that brings us back to the new record itself. It is right there on the cover itself—there are no overdubs; these are live recordings in the studio. The record is strong and immediate; the musicians are essentially locked-in with each other. We talked about patience. The opening of the album. It is your studio and you are opening the album. A cool beat starts things off. I had to laugh when I heard it because that was a perfect moment for the record.
AC: That’s cool, man. Thanks. We didn’t really have a plan, except to go in and record some songs. We didn’t say to each other, “Oh, let’s not do any overdubs.” When we got in there, we started listening to the stuff, and it sounded so good that we felt: “This is what it’s all about; we don’t need to add anything.” I’ve always been of the thought that when you are in the studio that if it doesn’t sound good, if it is just some situation where four musicians are recording together and it doesn’t sound good right when you hear it, it is not going to sound good when you put on a bunch of background vocals, or another guitar part, or a tambourine, or all the stuff that people get so used to doing in the studio.
I know. I work a lot in the studio, and you always hear people say, “That’s great, but wait until I put the background vocals on it, it’s really going to lift it.” That’s cool, but if it doesn’t sound good with a regular vocal, it’s never going to sound good. (laughs) We really just resisted the urge to do any of that stuff, and quickly realized it wasn’t necessary, and I am really glad that we did that.
RR: You and Mark [White, bassist], in the engine room, lock down and play through some of my favorite Spin Doctors moments ever on the record, which also frees up Chris Barron to deliver some of his best vocal performances.
AC: Chris sounds great. I agree. I think Chris is singing better than ever. He just sounds totally relaxed. He’s a great singer; he’s always had great pitch and great rhythm and he’s a great technical singer, but he’s got such an original style, a great style and a great lyricist. He just sounds really unique and relaxed on this record. Eric [Schenkman, guitarist], too, let’s face it, this kind of music is so guitar-driven, and he’s covering so much that we wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of record without a great guitar player like Eric. He really shines on this record. Ultimately, obviously, it’s that chemistry that we all have together, but I have to give props to Eric. It’s a blues record, and it is a guitar-driven form of music, and he really came through.
RR: Yes, Eric was my next target here. It is very difficult to sound original at this point in time within blues, but, not only does the whole band sound original in surprising spots, but you don’t really know where Eric is going to step in and step up, you don’t know where Eric is going to take you, and he does take you to a different spot. He is also recorded really well. I was equally impressed with his work.
AC: There was some separation in the studio. The way my studio is set up is that I am in a drum booth, but right outside of my booth was Chris standing right in the middle of the room with a microphone, Eric was standing right next to him with an electric guitar. His amp is out in the hallway, and then Mark was running direct into a bass amp in the bathroom. So, basically, Chris and Mark and Eric were about two feet away from each other in the main room, and I was just a few feet behind them in the glass-doored control room, and the engineer, Roman [Klun, who also mixed the record] was standing right in front of everybody running the board. We were all right there looking at each other, close-knit, friends and girlfriends hanging out on the couch, and I think it helped having that atmosphere. Nobody really cared; it was just that relaxing thing. Again, it was that chemistry, which is why I think that, even though it’s a blues record, it does sound like…I really respect the blues; it’s the basis of rock ‘n roll and jazz and so many things—it is such an important style of music, and I think it is important to understand the authenticity of this type of music, and everybody in the band really respects it, which is why the record has a certain authenticity. But, I think the fact that we have our own Spin Doctors chemistry without really trying, it just ends up sounding like us.
RR: Let’s talk about touring If the River Was Whiskey. Spin Doctors initially toured the UK and other parts of Europe early in 2013. How did that go, how did the material go over, and how did it feel to be back on the road again with the band? From there, how has it panned out for you as you cut across the States?
AC: UK tour went great, as did our time in Spain. We actually had pre-release records to sell. People loved them, they bought them up, and people seemed to really enjoy the new material, or the old material—whatever you want to call it. It just fits right in; it feels really good within our set. We’re basically mixing up our set. We’re doing a lot of the new stuff. Out of the ten songs that are on the record, we’re doing seven or eight a night. We’re doing about half of those songs and half a mix of our other songs from our other records and this material just feels perfect in there. Again, I think it was what we were doing back in the old days. It just works and the crowd really seems to like it. It’s been great to get out on the road. We did a two-week run on the East Coast that went great, and we had a lot of great dates throughout the summer. We did a lot of flying around—two or three in a row, come home, two or three in a row, come home; we have a good amount of dates, certainly we’ve done more dates this year than we have probably done since back in the 90s. And, yes, the original response in Europe was great, and we are doing a full tour in Europe from September through October. We are going to Spain for a week, and then a month throughout Europe. It is going to be one of our busiest years.
RR: How much thought goes into mixing up the setlist every night?
AC: We’re mixing it up every night. We mix it up. Anybody that comes out and sees the band on a regular basis knows that we mix it up a lot. We improvise and every night is a little bit different. There will be drum solos some nights, bass solos some nights, and, sometimes, we will do weird jams. You never really know what is going to happen with us. I usually write the set list. I’ve taken on the job of writing the setlist for the band, so every year they change a little bit. Right now, we are certainly focusing on a combination of songs off [ If the River was Whiskey and trying to mix in all the other stuff, too.
RR: It must be nice to know that “O.K., I’m doing the setlist, and whatever I pick, the crowd is going to be able to vibe off of it fairly well because there is a lot of material that holds up,” right?
AC: Yeah, it seems to work. I mean…I’m a big believer that if you really play something with all your heart, you make it really good, it almost doesn’t matter what it is. Obviously, it’s great when you play a song like “Two Princes,” or “Little Miss,” or “Jimmy Olsen.” O.K., you know the people are going to cheer, and they’ll like that, but the trick is to try to get that same reaction off of lesser-known songs. You would think that going out and doing a song like “Scotch and Water Blues,” a slow blues, would be tough to win a crowd over, but if you play it with all your heart and soul and give everything you have into it and do great with it, it does just as well. “Scotch and Water Blues” has turned into one of the best songs in the set. People love it. It is very dynamic, it gets very loud, very quiet, the lyrics are great, Eric plays amazing guitar solos on it, and it is just proof that you don’t have to hit them over the head all night. I think we are really noticing lately that a lot of the more dynamic, even slower tunes, are songs that move all around and are the ones that people really react to. I think a lot of bands make the mistake that you just have to go out there and hit them over the head: bam, bam, bam, bam. But you really just tire people out by doing that.
It’s another thing that comes with being in a band for a while—a little more maturity, and realizing what works. That has been really encouraging to see that. With that said, we are mixing things up even more dynamically, which makes me really happy because I love music that is very dynamic. I love being really, really loud, but I love being really, really quiet, too, and that’s what makes music.
RR: Let’s wrap up with another run at going full circle in life and a career. Last year, Spin Doctors shared a stage with Blues Traveler at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester. Obviously, both bands share so many things from back in the late 80s and 90s, and have achieved separate but equally amazing careers. The Capitol gig was pretty epic for a lot of fans, so I feel it is appropriate to hear your comments.
AC: We had a great time. It was awesome to get back on stage with those guys. Obviously, there is so much history there. We used to do those kinds of shows on a regular basis when both bands were coming up in New York City, and it had been a really long time since we had done it. It was great. It was really great. We are talking about doing some more next fall, so fingers crossed there will be some more events like that. Both bands had a great time. We came off saying, “Why haven’t we done this in so long? Let’s do this some more.” And the people really liked it. I think it is something because people like to see these two bands together. [John] Popper used to always sit in with the band, especially back in the early days in New York. He was and is always welcome on stage; he would always pop in and play, and it was always great to have him play with the band. Different people would sit in with different bands. We have so much history. Bringing that camaraderie back is something great and I think we would all love to see it happen more in the future, and, hopefully, it will.
RR: Did you think, 25 years later, you would still be at your peak, pushing forward as you are as a musician, while looking around and seeing Popper there, too?
AC: Yeah. I’m just really happy to see him. We’ve lost a few good people along the way, and I’m just happy we are all still here. Yeah, you know…it’s a funny thing. It seems like yesterday we were all playing at the Wetlands and playing at the Nightingale. Time really does go by amazingly fast. (laughs) I’m just grateful that we are all here and everybody is playing great and we can keep doin’ what we are doin’. It is a trip to, all of a sudden, think: “Holy shit—25 years. Wow, how’d that happen?” (laughter) It’s good. I actually like getting older because I just feel like I am getting better. For me, my number one goal has always been to try to be the best musician I can be—on my own and with the band, and whoever I am playing with—and try to bring the most I can to any musical situation. So, for me, those goals? I feel them even more now. I’m 45 and I’m taking drum lessons again. I just want to keep getting better and better and better, as opposed to, like, I see a lot of people just burn out and kind of lose their direction at this point. I really feel like I’m just in the middle of it all and just getting started and I have a whole long, huge musical thing ahead of me. I don’t judge the whole thing by success, or how many records are sold, or how many people are in the audience. I really judge it by how I feel the music I am a part of is good or not, and how I feel I am playing. I feel good right now because I am a part of so many great things and, most importantly, a great musical moment here with the Spin Doctors, and, hopefully, we’ll just keep doing it.
There is so much to learn and gain and, really, as soon as you feel you have reached the peak, you’re dead. (laughs) There is always more to learn, and that’s what I want to do.