The Mailbox Interview:
Johnny Winters' Interview with Rusty Spell About His Solo Debut

Rusty Spell of 'nikcuS fame is the first from that group to go solo. I caught up with Rusty at his parents' home in Pearl, Mississippi to grab this interview. He sat on his waterbed, leaned against a study pillow, and we began...

JW: Today's date is March 1, 1996. It has been well over two months since you put out your solo debut, Mailbox, last Christmas, and you told me you wouldn't be up for an interview until this time. Why?

RS: Well, when you called the day you found out I was making one and asked me for an interview, I refused then. When you asked me the day you found out I had finished, I also refused, but set the date at March first. I didn't want to talk about something until it had enough time to settle down in my mind and body. I figured two months was a good number. I picked this specific day because it's my parents' birthdays, and thought that would be easy to remember.

JW: Both your parents' birthdays?

RS: Yeah, they were both born the same day. That's fate and a half.

JW: Let's talk about Mailbox. When did you decide you wanted to do a solo project?

RS: It's hard to say exactly when I decided this. I used to joke about it a lot... like I was going to go off and screw everybody like Paul McCartney or whatever. I think it was around Plugged, though, when I really started to think about it for real. There's a lot of stuff I did all by myself, so you can really tell I wanted to try something alone.

JW: Yes, I looked over Plugged, and I saw five songs that you were pretty much solely responsible for?

RS: Wow, that many? Yeah, Plugged was in the Summer and then I went to school again. I started telling people, "Get ready. When Christmas holidays roll around, I'm going to do a solo album." At that point, I just started mulling over what I wanted on the album. I never wrote down a song or anything; I just thought of what the broad feel of the album would be.

JW: Let's get into that concept. Why did you call it Mailbox, first of all?

RS: Believe it or not, I had the album title before I wrote one song. It just came into my head as the perfect title... Mailbox. You know how us 'nikcuS folks dig one-word titles anyway.

JW: But why Mailbox?

RS: That should be easy to answer. It makes perfect sense it my mind. [He takes a deep breath.] Okay, what with the dominance of email these days--heck, with the dominance of telephones even--it seems that regular mail is one of the last old-fashioned forms of communication we have. And, as I said on the album, the last bit of magic. There are still men and women who will carry your stationary anywhere on the globe and deliver it for you. You can open your mailbox in the afternoon and find something there waiting for you, that a real person sent, hopefully a real letter from a real friend. You know?

JW: Kind of. Maybe we should go song by song in order to get at the heart of the album. Would that be okay?

RS: Sure, that would be fun.

JW: "Box 6779," then. The first song. What about this title?

RS: It's my post office box number at school. USM Box 6779. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 39406.

JW: Thank you.

RS: Anytime.

JW: Lots of biography in this song. Didn't you say one time that your album was "Rusty set to music"?

RS: That's exactly right. It's self-indulgent, sure, but I figured that was the point. Something else to plaster my name on. If you have your lyric sheet, you can read along with me. I'm going to go over a few things in this song. I mention my favorite bands: 'nikcuS, of course, first of all. Then "the Rheos," or Rheostatics, as well as R.E.M. They tie for my favorite band.

JW: You can definitely see the influence.

RS: Right. Let's see. The Binders, that's what I call my collected stories, mainly because I keep them in binders. I'm up to five now. And then I mention that I go to school at the University of Southern Mississippi, and that I study English.

JW: We don't have to go line-by-line, of course.

RS: Yeah, I know, but this song is different. People who don't know me won't know what the crap I'm singing about.

JW: Is this a problem? Aren't you the one who one who sung "The Ballad of Swinigin"?

RS: [He laughs, but is annoyed.] Sure, but at least Sansing cleared that up later with his story. [He pauses.] Okay, fine, basically "Box 6779" is a big ol' list of stuff. Next song.

JW: "Berky." Is this about a real person?

RS: Yeah, Lori Berkemeyer... "Berky" is her old nick name, stemming from her last name. I won't even try to explain the things in this song. It's just a lot of inside stuff between me and her. I figured since I get the most letters from her, I should at least write a song about her.

JW: Has she heard the song?

RS: Yes, but I wasn't around when she did. Noby played it for her. Apparently, she was very flattered. She also pointed out that she was responsible for most of the lyrics, which is true.

JW: Was the next song, "She," about a real person?

RS: [He brushes back his hair with his hands, not for the first time or the last time.] Oh, probably... maybe not. [Pause.] Sure, it is... but I don't feel like saying who. Who cares?

JW: Fine, we'll move on.

RS: You skipped "Steele Life" anyway.

JW: You're right. Sorry. I was looking at the lyric sheet. This is an instrumental, of course. Not a big story on "Steele Life," I'm assuming. We'll go on to "Blue."

RS: Do you get the joke, though?

JW: What joke?

RS: "Steele Life."

JW: Yes, of course.

RS: I figured I would do a song about my favorite color... and to do a song about my love for the aquatic. I also wanted to do something in this surreal style. I wanted this to be an eclectic album. I didn't want just all guitar or whatever.

JW: And it definitely isn't. So far we've had some sort of country- alternative, steele drums, a song bordering on new age... and next we come to big band swing.

RS: Well, a little big band, but yes. And definitely swing.

JW: We're talking, of course, about "Windows 95 Rejection." A clever title, by the way. The only cover on the album, a remake of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." What do you think the boys in R.E.M. would think about you doing this?

RS: Hey, that awful band, Bush, goes around singing "The One I Love" every night. Why can't I have some fun? I think they would like it, actually. I did a cover of "Strange Currencies" on Plugged and it was a straight version. But I thought this should be different. I always found myself singing this song like Frank Sinatra or something... it was also a good way to slow these very fast words down to a digestible speed. I can recite the song now. Would you like to hear?

JW: Maybe later...

RS: Sure. [He drinks his Cherry Coke.] Anyway, that ends Part One of the album, doesn't it? We're almost done with this puppy.

JW: We'll see how it goes. Yes, but on to Part Two... a little surprise for some, "Twinkle" begins with something called Mr. Rusty's Neighborhood, then jumps to rap. Are you just making fun of rap--not to mention children's shows--or what?

RS: [He laughs.] This is a hard question. I don't like most rap. I don't like many of the newer branches of rap like gangsta or monsta or whatever they've come up with. I like the old school stuff as well as the people who still follow that style, like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. Oh, and dance rap. I can really get down to "Whoomp There It Is."

JW: I can only imagine. Anyway, it's no doubt the funniest track. And humor is what is most important in 'nikcuS, correct? However, it doesn't seem as important in your solo work. Why is this?

RS: Not important? Me doing a solo album is the biggest joke I've played in years. No, but I'd say it's a good half and half, just more subtle than--say--"Pig Milkin' Contest." On one hand, I'm making jokes about myself in the lyrics: "Since then he's been the coolest person alive," etc. But on the other hand--and sometimes at the same time--I'm singing about things that are so personal that I'm thinking when someone hears it, "Jeez, it's like they're reading my freakin' diary!" I always feel uncomfortable when I listen to the album with someone.

JW: Did you ever feel this way with 'nikcuS?

RS: Maybe, but for different reasons. Then it was because I was embarrassed about my voice or whatever. Now, it's because everything's so personal. It's like I dished out everything that was important to me onto 38 minutes worth of tape.

JW: I see. This interview is going well. I feel like we're really covering something.

RS: Well, I'm glad you can feel good about your job.

JW: "Rich Man's Fantasy." It's a drum solo... another Rusty Spell drum solo. This is at least your fourth or fifth. First of all, why the crap did you give it its title?

RS: One of my favorite things to do is make up fake band names and fake album names. This was once a fake song name. I liked it so much that I decided to use it for a title. Better than "Boogie Beat Down Baby" or whatever I might have called it.

JW: I'll take that one if you don't mind.

RS: With my blessing.

JW: So, what do you think about this solo? Is it any different, or just another solo?

RS: They're all different. I'll say this: If I don't watch it, this will be my favorite. But you know what? I hate drum solos. Drums weren't made to be played by themselves; they're there to back up the other instruments. So what if the backup is cooler than the foreground... Every drum solo I do is parody.

JW: Interesting. Let's go on to the single, "No Way of Knowing." It's pretty obvious why you chose to release this one as your single. It's the most readily accessible, it's catchy, it's fun, it's semi-meaningful, it's all those great things that make a good single.

RS: What's your point?

JW: I like it, too. I bought the tape. I sing along to the karaoke B-side.

RS: Do you have a question about this song or what?

JW: You're getting testy, Rusty. What's the deal?

RS: It's just that Mom and Dad are almost ready to eat cake. They're almost fifty, you know.

JW: Sorry. Yes, "No Way of Knowing." How did you go about writing this song?

RS: I'll tell you how I wrote every song. I didn't write one word until about two hours before I went to Noby's House Studios to record. I called up Noby and said, "Are you ready to record today? Yes? Okay, I'm going to write the entire album and I'll be over in a little." I wrote all the words in about an hour and a half, sitting on my computer. "No Way of Knowing" was one of them.

JW: And what about the music?

RS: I got there with the lyrics and figured out what I was going to play before I did each song. It's sort of a more polished form of adlibbing. It's not like I sat and worked days and days on each. The longest song took about three hours--"Windows 95 Rejection"--because of all the computer sequencing and double-tracking and sound effects and things. Most of the rest of the songs took about twenty to forty minutes to get organized. And all that wasn't really writing the lyrics and music... that was mostly technical stuff.

JW: Your chief engineer was Noby Nobriga. How important a part did he play?

RS: Well, at first I had the big idea that I was going to go into the studio and record and mix everything all by myself. I soon found out that I only have two hands and that I was going to need some help. So, I called on Noby as the chief engineer and he did most of the recording for me. I told him what I wanted and he did it: It made things much easier and I got the album done really quickly... in only two days. December 21 through 22 1995.

JW: Impressive.

RS: Yeah, I got so fed up, though, when I was trying to do it myself that I walked into the other room where Noby and Kevin were playing Doom and told them I quit. To lift my spirits, Kevin said, "Let's just go in there and do a few 'nikcuS tunes." That was our first session for Surprise, the January '96 album.

JW: Funny story. I'm trying to hurry this up. Let's move on to "Little Girl."

RS: Ah, yes, my Bobby McFerrin song... I've always been interested in human body instruments. Look at my remake of "You Lost That Loving Feeling" from the first 'nikcuS album.

JW: You pay a small tribute to that.

RS: Yes, I do.

JW: Is "Little Girl" about a real person?

RS: You love this question, don't you. No, not really. It's about every girl, I suppose. I'm not one to take crap off of girls because they're not worth it. If they're good, I'll love them to pieces, but I'm not going to take any crap... I don't care how pretty they are, or even how much I'm in love with them. It's unromantic, I know, but there you are. [He looks in the mirror and brushes back his hair.] Oh, and "No Way of Knowing" is not about anyone, either.

JW: Yes, I'd forgotten to ask. Next track, "Number 14." Obvious John Lennon tribute here, right?

RS: Oh, gosh, no. "Revolution 9" was the worst thing John Lennon ever did and it screwed up the flow of the White Album. I just wanted a short track with a bunch of noises of things that clog my brain every day... something short, not nine minutes long. "Number 14" is what my brain sounds like a lot of the time.

JW: Why fourteen?

RS: Because it's the central number of the Universe. Look around, bubba.

JW: We're on the last song now, "Reprise." Are you happy?

RS: Very. I'd also like to thank Karon Clark for the photography. Thanks, babe! And you can check out my homepage--

JW: I'm not quite done yet. I was going to talk about "Reprise" a little.

RS: What's there to talk about? It's a reprise of the first song.

JW: The line "I don't want to sing any songs about a cow" has lead some people to believe that you want to break from 'nikcuS for good. Is this true?

RS: Don't be silly. In case you haven't heard the latest album, Surprise, it's full of cows and tackle shops and chickens and everything else we love so much... I didn't want to do a solo 'nikcuS album; I wanted to do a solo Rusty album. That's all that line meant, I suppose. It's 'nikcuS Productions, but it's also Love and Letters Music, so it stands on its own. It's more of a solo deal that those Kiss albums where "Kiss" was even on the cover.

JW: One more about "Reprise." You scream, "I just feel so alone!" In the lyric sheet, this is even italicized. Do you really feel this alone?

RS: That was mainly a joke that I was by myself this time. But loneliness is a horrible thing. I don't want to get into it. "Lonely no more!" exclaims Kurt Vonnegut.

JW: So Mailbox. I'm not sure if we got at the answer, at the concept, at what you were trying to say, but I feel that this interview might help. Listening to the album itself, of course, is your best bet. Rusty, thanks for talking to me. You go enjoy your parents' birthday party now, okay?

RS: I will. It's been fun. Let's just try not to do this next time.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Rusty Spell and Johnny Winters