Spencer McGillicutty (the band) on writerly songwriting and school days
Spencer McGillicutty -- they're a band, not a person -- mine the sounds of early-'60s AM gold on their third album, All the Happy People! Throughout, the local group swings effortlessly between cotton-candy sweet group sing-a-longs and wistful acoustic balladry. Employing a rotating co-ed cast of four charming lead vocalists and with an ear for precise group harmonies, this is irresistibly winsome ear-candy for fans of Wes Anderson soundtracks who don't want to visit the cemetary or a convalescent home. It's heartening to know this kind of music is being made by living, breathing human beings nearby.
Prior to their CD release show tonight at the Triple Rock Social Club the group's core members Mitchell Johnson (vocals/guitar/keys), Ryan Ruff Smith (vocals/guitar), Brittany Miller (vocals) and Nicole Wilder (vocals) took time out to talk with City Pages about looking backward for artistic inspiration, embracing an innocent lyrical worldview, and their collegiate beginnings.
City Pages: Your sound is obviously strongly redolent of the early '60s, but so are your songwriting methods. While Mitchell and Ryan write all the words and music it's often Nicole or Brittany singing lead vocals. This sort of Brill Building approach isn't exactly in at the present time in indie-rock. What led you to it?
Mitchell Johnson: It's just more fun writing songs for people that have way better voices than us [laughs]. It's cool to let go of the typical rock-star ego of "I want to sing everything that I write." I enoy writing from someone else's point of view and being able to sort simultaneously express myself and hide behind a different identity or gender. That's really what Spencer is all about, we all have our different strengths and if somebody is better at singing a song we hand it to them, and if they want to change a lyrics that's great.
Ryan Smith: From a craft perspective writing a song you'll know someone else is going to sing provides a a nice shortcut to thinking about point of view in your songwriting. I feel like when I'm singing a song It's easy for me to know what I'm feeling and then just assume other people will inherently understand it. When I'm writing for a different person I find it forces me to be clearer in a good way.
MJ: Deep down I think we want to be.
RS: [cutting Matt off] Girls! [table erupts in laughter]
MJ: In our dream world it's like we're Holland/Dozier/Holland or working in the Brill Building. We love pretending we're writing hits for other people to sing -- even though none of them will be hits [laughs].
CP: While there are a lot of modern acts out there emulating the sounds of early-'60s music they typically don't replicate its lyrical spirit. There's always that element of winking irony or purposeful vulgarity thrown in to call out the modernity. By contract these Spencer songs have a real innocent quality to them that's fairly rare these days.
Nicole Wilder: Mitchell's kind of a lost boy a little bit, a Peter Pan, so I think that innocence in his songwriting is fairly effortless. Everybody at the table except me writes songs on their own and you can kind of tell what's going to be in the group based on that innocent tone. When that comes out of us it ends up in Spencer.
RS: I think part of that winking irony is just symptomatic of a different worldview that's more dominant now in music. The main thing people seem to focus on now is a band's sound rather than their songs. Fans will be talking about a new band and say "I like their sound" rather than "I love that song." Putting the songwriting first, and thinking of the sound or style that will support it second, is something that not a lot of people do anymore. There are some people that are still kind of writerly writers like Stephen Merritt but for the most part that's fallen by the wayside. That's definitely something we aspire to.
CP: All The Happy People! Is Spencer McGillicutty's third album but you're still relatively unknown on the local scene, in part because you gig so sparingly around town. Do you view Spencer McGillicutty primarily as a recording project?
MJ: I'm probably not speaking for everybody but I get a bigger thrill out of making a record I'm proud of than playing live. It's not a black-and-white thing as it can be fun to play live.
RS: We never saw our main musical heroes live back in the day because we weren't alive. All they are is the record's they left behind, so I think we have that mentality a little bit.
CP: Spencer McGillicutty formed when you were all in college nearly a decade ago [in 2004, the guys at Saint John's, the girls at sister school Saint Ben's]. How critical is having that combined personal history when it comes to keeping the band a going concern as other adult priorities encroach?
Brittany Miller: That past history of friendship is really the biggest part of the band. My best college memories are of us sitting together in dorm hallways playing music and hoping we don't get kicked out by the RAs. We would go on so many midnight walks together around the lakes singing harmonies. I feel like we were able to carry those special feelings of that time all the way through our twenties. I still feel like I'm in college sometimes because of Spencer I feel like I haven't had to grow up yet. We have to do business-y things sometimes and go to practice when I don't want to, but whenever I get there I'm reminded it's a friend thing and how important it is to my happiness.
MJ: We have so many talented friends who are all over the record too and shape the sound. It's not just us four anymore. Everyone else adds so much and before any of us played any music together we were all good friends. We all lived together in a house for a couple of years up until two years ago and that was a great experience.
Spencer McGillicutty. With Brian Just Band and Paul Spring. 18+, $5 for admission and a copy of All the Happy People!, 8 p.m., Thursday, May 24 at Triple Rock Social Club; 612.333.7399. Click here.
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