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"It's pretty boring, actually," says Spaghetti Western String Co. banjo player Mike Rossetto about his band's decision to break up. "I wish I could give you some dirt. No one took anyone else's girl, there's no creative differences—except Paul is an alcoholic.
While mandolin player Nick Lemme's upcoming move to Nebraska ultimately helped finalize the decision, the local string quartet is bowing out for the simple reason that, after over six years of making music, the time seems right. It's a straightforward gesture from a band that's always let its music speak for itself, and the group is celebrating in the most logical of manners: by releasing one last album, appropriately titled Farewell Verse.
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The massive undertaking of Lull and Clatter, the band's 2008 release, which included 17 guest musicians and took 10 months to record, left the quartet—its members now all in their 30s, two of them with children—contemplating their future together. "[Lull and Clatter] was just a lot of work. In order to maintain that we were going to have to sacrifice a lot, so we said, 'Let's just do one more and with just the four of us,'" says Rossetto. "And it's a good place to stop."
The band's ambient sound enabled them to find their way into a pair of film scores and a variety of other collaborations over the years, but this time they set out to make a livelier set of songs. "We'd be happy playing to rooms of 200 or 100 people a night if it was intimate and the sound was good," says Lemme. "We found ourselves playing places like Café Maude or, you know, some really nice places like the Dakota, but we felt like we were putting people to sleep or something."
Farewell Verse's stripped-down sound and sense of purpose ensures that Spaghetti Western are hardly leaving with a whimper. The melodies are sprightly and brighter than ever, while the playing is just as polished as one would expect: With seeming ease, banjo and mandolin entwine to create a ringing echo effect or build textures over which the clarinet spins its notes, while the cello's carefully woven rhythms frequently make their way to the surface. Despite the more straightforward approach, the arrangements remain diverse and ambitious, capturing the grandiosity of a classical movement just as easily as the jauntiness of a tune from Tin Pan Alley.
Over the years, most the band's songs have originated from Rossetto and Lemme, but Farewell Verse features input from the band's other two members as well, allowing everyone to take center stage. "The last record [cellist] Ethan [Sutton] started contributing and Paul came on as clarinet player," Rossetto observes. "Basically it wasn't until this record that [clarinetist] Paul [Fonfara] could add his own voice."
The increased input from the rest of the group inspired everyone in Spaghetti Western to push the envelope of their playing right up to the end. "Each song we work on I [try to] bring something new to the banjo and push what I can do technically," says Rossetto. "When we play and someone takes a solo and plays something ridiculous, just something we've never heard [before], I'm like, 'Shit, I need to step up.'"
Spaghetti Western's strongest suit has always been their uncanny ability to explore complex and unfamiliar ideas with the simple aid of their instruments. One of the surprise highlights of the album is Lemme's operatic performance of "Exit Music (For a Film)," one of only two vocals present. It's an imaginative and transformative rendition as Lemme sings the song in Italian, but he says he did so for simple reasons: "I never would have sung it in English and put it on a record because it would have felt like karaoke."
"My one big hang-up is lyrics," Rossetto admits in reference to the band's preference for instrumentals. "I have absolutely nothing to say. I have [lots of personal views] but I don't want them to come across in my music. I'm like the exact opposite of Bono."
For a band typically so sparing with words, Spaghetti Western are openly appreciative of the time they've spent working with one another.
"There's that moment in your life that's the best feeling, like you can do anything. You'll never get [back] that feeling of being 16 and plugged into stereo speakers because you can't afford an amp, just like playing music," says Rossetto. "The thing I'm going to think about the most when I'm done with this group is it's the closest I've come to getting that feeling back. It's that feeling of, 'We can do anything we want,' and we've never been pressured to play any style of music."
SPAGHETTI WESTERN STRING CO. play their final show on SATURDAY, JUNE 26, at the CEDAR; 612.338.2674