Married to the Mob

Forget the white funk; where did Spymob find a couch that seats four grown men comfortably?
Courtesy of Spymob

Popular music in America has entered a new renaissance, and, people, it's baaaad. Consumer capitalism, for all its intrinsic faults, spent the better part of the past century funding some ridiculous experiments in aesthetic commerce, including a little something somebody used to call rock 'n' roll. Desperate not to miss the big bucks, corporations allowed the little bucks to filter down to wily creative types. Lotsa musicians were shafted, naturally--that goes back to those intrinsic capitalist faults I mentioned (I can dash off a reading list upon request). But audiences, bless our greedy little ears, were served--even, on occasion, pleased. Now, however (insert ominous John Williams symphonic flourish here), a virulent new strain of monopoly capitalism has all but smothered the modern era. We've returned to the age of the Medici, where artists who stray a few chord changes from the pop template require the patronage of the wealthy and connected. Roll over, Chuck Berry, and tell da Vinci the news.

If it consoles you any, many of these newfangled patrons happen to be musicians themselves. Take the case of local pop craftsmen Spymob. Like seemingly all significant Twin Cities musicians over a certain age, the quartet saw their first major-label deal fall through in 2000. Their already-recorded album would likely be consigned to digitized limbo. But a funny thing happened to Spymob on their way to the cutout bin last year. Two funny things, actually. One is named Pharrell Williams and the other is named Chad Hugo, and together they add up to a multi-platinum R&B/hip-hop production team that appeared unto Spymob as a duo ex machina. The two men, who call themselves the Neptunes behind the boards, decided to call themselves N*E*R*D* behind the mics and sing their own damn songs. And then, after releasing the initial results in Europe, they decided to scrap In Search Of Model A and enlist the input of a backup band.

Thanks to a fluke of familiarity (the acts share a lawyer), Spymob became that backup band. And the revamped In Search Of bears their mark. Keyboardist John Ostby and guitarist Brent Paschke interject filigrees into the mix (dig that Innervisions synth hook on "Tape You"), while bassist Christian Twigg combines with drummer Eric Fawcett to temper the precision funk with a healthy bit of wariness. Williams and Hugo were happy with the results. So happy that they released this version of the album. So happy that they didn't recall this version of the album from the warehouses. So happy that they signed Spymob to their Arista imprint Startrak, where the songsmiths share space with R&B eccentric Kelis and Bronx MCs Clipse. Spymob are now are in the fortunate position of having time to grow, recipients of what used to be called artist development.

"It's really cool to have such support," explains Ostby. He and drummer Eric Fawcett, Spymob's principal songwriters, are huddled around an antique Seventies speakerphone in the Neptunes' Virginia studio fortress. "But I think our family and friends might perceive there being more security in our situation than there actually is." Here's what it has come to--the career insecurities of past ages are today's catbird seat.

To be fair, Spymob would be a hard sell even in a more genuinely open pop market. I remember thinking, at an Entry show a few years back, that the room seemed just too small for the band. Not a value judgment upon either the band or the venue, but this wasn't small-club music. Neither, upon listening to their catchy Startrak debut, am I convinced that they're designed for radio as Clear Channel currently defines it. Too forceful for indie rock's confines, and too elliptical for the KDWB Last Chance Summer Dance, perhaps Spymob would have thrived only in that most disparaged of times, the Seventies.

Spymob is a conscious reconfiguration of the complex pop-rock of that decade--a time when session-man chops and cool skepticism behaved as an antidote to the airhead exuberance of hippiedom. In Spymob you can hear the labyrinthine puzzles of Steely Dan, the cerebral pop dissections of Todd Rundgren; you might even detect intimations of the fussy virtuosity of Yes, if they aren't careful in the future. Forget disco and Sabbath and Scooby-Doo lunch boxes. This is the part of the Seventies that isn't garish enough to ever achieve retro cool through camp nostalgia. Art is short, pop life is long, and, alas, no one has gotten laid by dressing like Walter Becker in 25 years. And no one ever will again. The only act faintly similar to Spymob to crease the charts in recent memory was the New Radicals. But to the extent that New Rad's Gregg Alexander fluked his way across with ersatz Daryl Hall soul and cornball showmanship, there's really no comparison.

For now, however, Spymob are enjoying the trappings of stardom without being stars. Spymob's collaboration with Williams and Hugo has unexpectedly injected them into a celebrity circuit; they now loiter at the periphery of video shoots with the likes of Beyoncé Knowles and Kobe Bryant. "There's a strange normalness about it," Fawcett says, adding that he spent the day before teaching Justin Timberlake how to play drums. (In case you were wondering, they say he was a nice guy. Of course. Nobody ever says that famous people are jerks. Either somebody is fibbing or there's some kind of Calvinist deity awarding superstardom to the genial deserving.) Fawcett wisecracks that Timberlake was awed by the band. "We had to tell him we're flesh-and-blood, too. Our shit does stink."

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