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Retro Spankees - Interview

  by Jamie Rowland

published: 22 / 8 / 2008

Retro Spankees - Interview


Jamie Rowland chats to indie pop/art rock act the Retro Spankees about music, festivals, Jedi mind-tricks and their forthcoming new album

The Retro Spankees have been together and gigging hard for a good few years now (I have to be honest, I don’t know exactly when they formed) and in that time they’ve released a brilliant album (‘I Know You Are But What Am I?’), two singles (‘My Sonic Driver’ and ‘Vowel Play/Out Like One’) and made themselves a firm favourite and friend to many of their indie-music peers. The Retro Spankees' strength lies in their ability to write challenging music that is still fun and accessible; there is no pretension to their songs, but they by no means play it safe – their debut album features tracks that mix catchy pop and Sonic Youth-esque art guitar, barked falsetto vocals and a screwdriver. But since releasing ‘I Know Your Are…’ in 2005, the band have been very quiet in terms of releases, and in the first half of this year, seemed to be playing less shows too. Hearing that they were playing at July’s Indietracks Festival, I leapt at the opportunity to meet up with them and find out just what the Retro Spankees have been up to. It took a while for the band and myself to find a time we could all meet up, and our chat was delayed even more when guitarist/vocalist Charlie Wood had a rather significant nose-bleed. In the mid-afternoon heat of Indietrack’s second day, I, however, met up with Charlie, drummer Rob Nesbitt, bassist Jo Collis and guitarist Josh Ryan to talk to them about music, festivals, Jedi mind-tricks, good cooking strategy and recording their new album. Plus added Winston Echo! PB : Are you enjoying the festival so far ? I mean, despite illness. Charlie : It’s not really illness. I’m just a geek, and I get nosebleeds. Unfortunately it happened today. Jo : I’m enjoying it, I love it. I think it’s a brilliant concept for a festival, it’s fantastic. Rob : We were talking about it earlier. It’s a really nice place. It’s really laid back. Jo : The weather’s been nice as well, to a certain extent. PB : Who have you enjoyed seeing so far? In unison : Darren Hayman. Charlie : That’s all I’ve seen. Rob : And KateGoes. I’d say they’re the two highlights so far. Jo : Winston Echo, he was alright. Rob : Over-rated, as usual, but alright. PB : Can you say he was over-rated? You were playing drums for him. Rob : Yeah, definitely. Jo : Rob’s the only one who’s qualified to tell you that. Charlie : We can just think it. No, we get on with him. All his friends pretend to hate him, and he pretends to hate everyone. Like him and Jimmy from the Bobby McGees; they really hate each other, but really love each other. PB : Outside of Indietracks, what bands are you enjoying at the moment ? Rob : There’s some random things. There’s the Spankee and Our Gang thing. Charlie : We’ve just got into this old 60's band called Spankee and Our Gang, who are really cool. Rob : Obviously we came across them because of the name, but then yeah we’ve been listening to them on the way to gigs. Charlie : I can’t stop listening to the Fiery Furnaces. They’re my favourite band in the whole world. Jo : I’ve been really enjoying the new Das Wanderlust album. It’s amazing. I really like Sunny J as well, which is way more dancey than anything I’ve ever really enjoyed to this extent before, but I love it, I really do. Charlie : I’ve been listening to a lot of Deerhoof on my iPod recently. Josh : Obviously, the big one’s Polysics. That’s more me, more my influence. PB : As we’re at Indietracks and I want to make things kind of relevant, if you were able to curate your own festival, with time and space not an issue, who would you want to play ? Rob : Well, I’d like to have it in a castle, and have the main room with a king sitting at one end who decided how good people were, and they were just taken away if they were crap. So if it was the Retro Spankees’ festival, we’d be sat on thrones at one end, and the people watching would be watching at the other end, and if we would say “oh no, this isn’t working”, then they would go down a trap door and we would bring on the next ones to have a go PB : Do they fall to their deaths, or do they live to play another day? Jo : We haven’t thought that far ahead yet. Josh : There’ll be a Sarlak pit down there. Rob : There’ll definitely be some form of punishment for being rubbish. And I like the idea of having different gigs in different parts of the castle, like maybe in the castle you’d have an electro room, where you’d have Gay Against You and that kind of thing going on. Jo : And Drum’n’Bass in the dungeon. Charlie : We’d have all the obvious bands to play, like all the ones that are playing here, plus the ones that aren’t, like Misty’s Big Adventure and Bearsuit, Das Wanderlust. All the good ones. Then we’d get all our favourite bands that we’ve already mentioned. Then to headline…50 Cent. No, not him, but someone big. Rob : No, we’ll get 50 Cent, and then we’ll send him down the dungeon. PB : Well, hip hop is the new best music, isn’t it ? They won at Glastonbury. Jo : Well, I like Jay Z. Rob : Yeah I like Jay Z, I thought his set was alright. But now hip hop is the new thing. Everyone saw it on the BBC, at home with their tea and said “ooh, this is good. He’s very exciting, isn’t he ?” Charlie : Winston Echo has admitted to me that he only has hip hop on his iPod. Jo : I remember when he DJed once in the Labour Club and he played a load of hip hop… Rob : I remember when he kissed all those dudes. Jo : …and some woman came up to him and said to him “ooh, have you got any Keane?” And that’s a true story, what they’re saying is a joke, but I’m telling a true story, and it’s a fact. PB : Well, she’ll be eating her words now, because hip hop’s the top stuff. Jo : But who would we have headlining at our festival, though ? Charlie : U2. Jo : The B52s. They could headline. Charlie : That’d be good, but only playing their old stuff. Jo : No, we’d write the set-list for them. Rob : Well if they played what they want, that would be ridiculous, so we’d choose eveyone’s set-list. It’s not a nice festival for the people that play. PB : Would you let them do their cover of the Flintstones theme, and the Captain Planet rap? Rob : Yes, absolutely. And they’d have to be dressed in the costumes, like go off and come back in the Flintstones stuff, and then change again. Make sure it’s in the middle of the set, so it really shakes things up. Charlie : They’d be billed as the B52s, the BC52s, then the B52s. Rob –:Yep, this is working for me. Would you come to this ? PB : Oh, absolutely. You’d have to pay me to keep me away. Do you play a lot of festivals, generally? Rob : Not really. It’s all a case of being invited, I think. We’re not the type of band that really tries to tout ourselves too much. We played MonkeyFest in Liverpool three years ago. Again, that was just because somebody comes across us and says “do you want to play”. But we’d rather be asked because they’ve found us rather than us send them demos and hassle them, entering competitions. So we haven’t done any big festivals, because we’ve never really been on a label to push us onto any line-ups. Charlie : It’s always us that do the work. It’s hard when you’re in the band and you are trying to do that side of thing, because I mean you’d be a band manager if you wanted to do that sort of thing. Jo : But hopefully, we’re fairly hopeful that next year… Rob : Yeah, hopefully if we put out another album, we’ll be a bit more clued up on that sort of thing. Charlie : Well we recorded our album in early 2005, and we were still late-teens, and that doesn’t really represent us anymore, but that’s all we’ve got to sell and for people to play. We’re going to go round Gareth’s house (that being Grandmaster Gareth, of Misty’s Big Adventure fame) for a week, and we’re going to record five or six tracks of our new stuff with him, just so we’ve got some more stuff. PB : Will you be putting that out as an EP ? Rob : I don’t think so, I think the plan is to just keep recording… Charlie : Yeah, and then eventually have it as an album and try and release it next year. Rob : This is more of a session to start recording the new stuff that we’ve got. Charlie : The rest of Misty’s are all on holiday, so the house is empty for a week, and that’s where their studio is. So it’s an opportunity, we’re taking a week off work and just…jamming some tunes. Rob : Skanking. PB : Speaking of Misty’s, you featured in the music video for their track ‘Fashion Parade’. Was that a lot of fun ? Rob : Brilliant experience, we recorded it all around Birmingham, and they were really organised. It was a really tight schedule. They had a camera man, and the director was their friend – they were paying him, though. They knew exactly what they wanted, so we were just carted around for three days. Charlie : Do you remember when he made us walk down the middle of the city centre down the middle of the road, swaggering around like we owned the place ? Rob : While there were buses coming towards us. And then he never used it! Josh : Yeah, he never used that one. Charlie : It didn’t even make the outtakes. Rob : That was definitely the hardest thing we did. Josh : Oh, and there was almost a car crash. Charlie : Yeah, because they were holding a mattress up outside the Job Centre – if you watch the video, you’ll see them holding up this mattress outside the Job Centre, which was on a really busy road – and this car crashed into the back of another one because they were wondering what we were doing filming a mattress. PB : Your lyrics are quite difficult to decipher meaning from in a lot of your songs. When writing them, do you have a set idea of what a track will be about, or is it more of a stream-of-consciousness kind of thing ? Charlie : Without trying to be really pretentious and wanky, it’s a bit of both really. I carry a little book around with me, and as I go through life, I’ll write down things that are kind of…it’s all along a theme. What I started trying to do when I was younger was to write lyrics as things that didn’t mean anything to anyone else. So, if it was like “you broke my heart and tore it in two”, it’d be something else, like…”you have eaten…too many…windows today”. No, not that, that’s really rubbish. But more of our stuff now, is about themes. Stories have started to evolve. We’ve got one new song that’s a little bit about aliens on a bit of a run, and they stop by and notice Earth, and they don’t really like it, so they don’t bother staying, but they take a human with them. So it’s that kind of thing, little stories are starting to pop up. But the old stuff’s really just… we all met at college, and it basically raps up those two years we spent at college, just random in-jokes and things. I think there’s one song about a girl, and the rest of it’s just things that happened. Rob : Quite early on, I remember it being like…we don’t really discuss lyrics in any depth together, but I remember being at a gig, and one of us saying “this song is about a goldfish that died, and Charlie would say “well, it’s not just about the goldfish”, and you think oh yeah, there’s about three different things in one song, so it’s hard to say one song is about one thing. Charlie : ‘Out Like One’ is about a dead goldfish. My little brother Hugo, who was born the day we wrote it, and being caught out by weather, because it was all of a sudden really nice. Like this, here at Indietracks! Rob : And a Mere-Cat. Charlie : And a Mere-cat, yeah. Because we all lived together in a tiny house, so the album ‘I Know You Are, But What Am I?’ is just about those two years of our life. So yeah. Next question. PB : You use a lot of interesting items in your live shows, in particular I’m thinking of a screwdriver you use in one or two songs. What makes a band want to go outside the world of instruments and experiment with other objects ? Charlie : I think someone pointed out to me once that if you hold something up to a pick-up, then stuff happens – I mean, everyone knows that – but Rob got that screwdriver as a really random Christmas present, so it was literally “I wonder what that would do?”, and it did, and then you go “oh, I want to use this”, and then you write a song around that screwdriver. So that one song was written because we wanted to make a noise. It’s not over-laid, it’s built around the screwdriver. So really it’s a bit silly, it’s stupid. Jo : I don’t think we’ve ever set out to do those kind of things or experiment with those things for any other reason other than we wanted to know what it would sound like and we thought it would sound good. Charlie : We never sit there together and go, like, “oh yeah! Lay it on!” Rob : It’s really just because we think it will sound good. Josh : Yeah, that’s it, it’s just the sound. It’s like, oh, this sounds really cool, I want to use it in this bit! It’s exactly the same as if I would find a really good sound on my guitar pedal or a really good sound on my synth. Charlie : Or like if you find out it works really nicely if you put a bit of basil in your Bolognese, so you start doing that because it’s nice, and the way you grill mushrooms, or if you’re making mash potato you put it under the grill for a bit with a bit of brie on top for a couple of minutes. Rob : Oh, that’s a good idea. I’m going to do that. Charlie : It’s nice. Jo : And the other thing we use regularly is the voice changer. Charlie : Yeah, the voice changer, we use that in about two songs. And that was literally, someone just bought me that as a gift, so I just thought “I’ll use this”. PB : You released a single about Richard Whitely (‘Vowel Play’) – what made you want to write a song about the late Countdown host? Rob : It’s quite a boring answer really; we played it because there was a random gig that was like a Richard Whitely themed night, and someone asked us to write a song, then somebody from our label saw it and whizzed us into the studio and said that they really wanted to release it as a single, with the intention of releasing it on the anniversary of his death. Giving a lot of money to charity, so it didn’t seem really out of place. So we said “well if you’re not going to make us look like complete bastards, go for it”. Charlie : It was just a fluke that we ended up releasing it. We didn’t really want it to end up representing what we are, like a novelty. But it’s a cool song, I like it. Jo : It was just going to be for one gig and one gig only. It dropped out of our set for a long time, because we were so nervous that it was going to become one of those things where people will go “oh yeah, that Richard Whitely band!” Rob : It’s probably the reason why we got booked for Indietracks, so that’ll be interesting when we don’t play it. It’s probably the twee-ist song we’ve got. Jo : I think the trouble is, it’s quite a nice pop song, but it kind of got over-taken by the fact that it’s about Richard Whitely. At this point, the interview pauses as Winston Echo boards our train coach to briefly converse with Charlie. Jo : I keep thinking this carriage is moving. Rob : Yeah, I keep feeling like it is. Josh : I want it to move. Rob : Well maybe, you’re just willing it, and you’re making it happen. Jo : Finally! The Force! Josh : I do have midichloreans! Rob : I like the idea that if you were a Jedi, you wouldn’t bother saving people. You’d just get on trains that weren’t supposed to move and move them around. Josh : I’ll just be crashing parties, and levitating the cat. Rob : “Who’s this Jedi jerk?” Josh : “What’s he doing now? He’s moving the book shelves!” Winston bids us farewell. Charlie : He lives round the corner from this lot. Jo : We’ve known him for a long, long time. Josh : When he had an afro. Jo : We met when he used to put us on in Winchester, when he was at uni there, and I still have him saved on my phone as Undereducated - that was his night. Charlie : This is just going to turn into 'Winston Echo, by The Retro Spankees'. PB : Just to go back to the ‘Vowel Play’ single briefly; one of the B-sides on that release was ‘Get it Along Gum’, which I think is a great track, and I notice it’s also one of the songs on your MySpace site. Was it important for you to get that song out to the public ? Rob : Well, it’s a really old song, isn’t it? It’s one from when me and Charlie were just a two-piece. We had a lot of songs that we didn’t use as a four-piece, because once we started writing we just thought it was much better, so some songs didn’t work. Charlie : But ‘Get it Along Gum’ was always one that stood out a little bit more from our old set, so we decided to keep it. Rob : We would have definitely have tried to release it somewhere along the way, because it’s just a really strong song. Charlie : I think they said we could have two b-sides, and which ones did we want to do? So we said right, lets do that one, and ‘Charlie’s in his Garden’. Jo : I think there’s always been old songs that crop up from time to time. Charlie – I think we’ve done it odd, because we could have released that as a single. Jo : I always liked ‘Get it Along Gum’. I remember coming to see you when you were a two piece. It used to be a lot longer than the recorded version. There was a whole other bit that we took out. Rob : We had learnt pretty much all of the songs from the two-piece set, just to see if they would work, and we thought that one works. Charlie : For that single, we were thinking which songs don’t we want to use because one day they might be able to use them for something else, so in theory, I suppose we just chose our weakest song. Although ‘Charlie’s in his Garden’ is our weakest song. Well, there’s worse. Rob : There’s worse to come! PB : My dad wanted me to ask you a question, which you can choose to ignore if you wish: he wanted to know, what is a ‘retro spank’? Rob : Ok, there are websites which you can point him to which will explain it, which we have not, or I have not visited, but I’ve noticed if you type ‘Retro Spankee’ into Google it will come up with sites which will lead you to, I presume, it’s some sort of spanking fetish thing. Jo : And also, ‘spankees’ are cheerleaders’ hotpants, that they wear under their little cheerleaders’ skirts. Rob : I think there’s an American sports team, I don’t know what sport it is, but they’re called the Spankees, as well. I don’t know why I’ve said that, actually. I’ve given you some pointless information there. Charlie : But what is a Bobby McGee? What is a Take That? Jo : What is a “Cold – Play”? Charlie : Yeah, exactly. What is a Kasabian ? Actually, what is a Kasabian ? PB : Kasabian was the name of the Manson family’s getaway driver. Which is a depressing piece of trivia. Rob : That’s a really good name then, isn’t it? Charlie : What is a Razorlight? PB : I’ll put all these questions to my dad when I catch up with him. Rob : Yeah! They refused to answer, and they have some questions for you! Charlie : What is a Funky Cheesey Wah-Wah ? Rob : We need to know. Charlie : We’re idiots, aren’t we? PB : What are plans for the next year and beyond ? Rob : We’re just recording at the moment, and the next time we release an album. We want a bit more of a business set-up with somebody else that can sort it out. And we’ve got someone who’s a friend who’s very organised and works for a media company, and she’s said she’ll start managing us, and I think she’ll be really good at it. The next time we release an album, we want to get some really good times out of it and really put it out there. I think that last album’s done as well. I’m not bitter about how it went, but I think we need to be a bit more organised, or have someone be organised on our behalf. Charlie : I think we’ll have a better product next time, anyway. Jo : I agree, I think generally the feeling in the bad at the moment is really positive, and just quite exciting. We’re all looking forward to what we’re going to be getting up to. Charlie –:It would be nice if we were able to release an album next year, or a single. Josh : It is really exciting, because we are progressing as a band as we carry on, so it’s exciting to see what’s going to happen. Charlie : We’ve had a really slow year, this year. Sometimes that happens, like you’ve got nothing to do, and you don’t feel like doing anything, and then you just fade out, you disappear. And then, things like, we’re changing. I live with my girlfriend now, and I don’t have long hair, I’m like a grown-up. I think we’re going back with some sort of meagre avenence. Jo : I think this time round, when things start gearing up in terms of releases and stuff, and like Charlie said, we have got a lot planned. We’ve learnt so much from doing it the first time round. Charlie : This time round we’re not opposed to going on tour with the Hoosiers, or something like that. We don’t mind, because it might mean we could give up our day jobs and ‘be’ a band. Still be poor, but not too worry too much. Rob : Generally, whoever we play with, we seem to be lucky enough that we can still do exactly what we’re doing, and people will go “god, they’re not very commercial, but I like it”. So in the past, we’ve just tried to get on bills with bands that we love, so we did a Bearsuit tour, and then we did a tour with Das Wanderlust, because we’re friends with them, so that’s all very well, but it’d be good, you know, if you’ve got an album out, to get loads of people to see it and get more exposure, and then hopefully we’ll be able to do tours off our own back. We’ve been a support band for so long, which is fine… Charlie : It’s great fun. It’d just be nice to have a little bit of a better profile than what we’ve got, but you have to do that yourself, and you have to show people that you’re there. And that’s what we haven’t been doing, because we haven’t really been there. Jo : But we’re back! PB : Thank you.

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Retro Spankees - Interview

Retro Spankees - Interview

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