Rusty Spell: A Musical Portrait

... in which Rusty discusses many facets of music, all in his endlessly annoying yet engaging way. (Last update, 12 Jan 1999.)

What are your favorite bands?

I have a list of what I call "supergroups." That name usually refers to bands like The Travelling Wilburies where all these already-famous people get together, but I use that name anyway to mess with people's minds. The list can be found here.

How many albums do you own?

It's a growing number. I keep an accurate list of the CD's I have here.

How would you describe your musical taste?

I'm not sure. My friend Tommy Burton has been trying to figure out my taste in music for years, and he always ends up stumped. He got closest one time with "you like people with weird voices." But that didn't work for too long. I like music that some people call inaccessable or whatever--though I never see why it is, it's just music and how do you grasp that anyway?--but then I really like stuff like dance rap. "Whoomp! There It Is" or whatever. Some people think I'm joking when I say that. Anyway, I do see that there are descrepancies in the styles, but--then again--people are complex, I thought, so they should like lots of different stuff for the different parts of their makeup.

If you had to pick a "movement" or whatever of music that you like, if you simply had to label it, what would you say?

Indie rock. And it's only because of the sound. I'm not like those eletist folks who use phrases like "sell out." I think that's dumb. No one can sell out anyway, because no one ever knows exactly what the public taste is like. If I did, I would sell out quick, because I really do want to sell stuff. I can only make what I make, though, and I think most people are like that. But back to indie rock, those just seem to be the guys with my ideals in their heads. They are non-stop music-makers and they're allowed to be; they don't have restrictions to release something overly polished once every two years. If an indie rocker wants to record in his bedroom because he likes doing it there, and if it sounds like it was done in a bedroom, then he can do that. Anyway, it just seems to drag feelings out of my middle the way nothing ever has. Of course, I didn't like it at first. The first time I really heard it was 1995, a tape collection someone made for me. I told her "These all sound like demos." I was really into production then--still am, but I was mostly only "shiny" production, and I didn't like the shoddiness. It was stuff like Guided By Voices, Superchunk, Sebadoh, Pavement... people in my collection now, who I no longer hear as "shoddy." I don't have an ear for that anymore, I guess. Or maybe I do, since I heard some Pink Floyd album a while back and was just blown away by how nice it sounded. How super-professional. I didn't like the music too much, just the production. Or at least I was impressed with it. I'm sure indie will pop up again in here.

So what about these eletists?

Well, people get on my nerves when they say that vinyl (I don't even like using the word, but record and album can mean any form) is better than CD. The only thing I guess they mean is that an analog recording is the "actual" sounds you hear, and that digital is simply a numeric reproduction, leaving "holes" in the sound. Of course, I'll be damned if I hear any holes, and I have good ears: like the best ears I know. I can hear anything. And, anyway, in the studio most people record digitally nowadays anyway, so the final form it takes is really dependent on that. I never liked vinyl, not even when I was a kid and it was what everyone sold. I always liked tapes better, and I didn't like those much because you couldn't skip songs easily. CD combined the best of those two things, and they are durable and last forever and you can transfer them to other digital sources without loss of quality, and there you go. They sound as great as the people making the record make their record sound. Vinyl people say that it sounds "warm" or something. Glenn McDowell, a music reviewer, said this: "The lost `warmth' analog purists lament can be reapplied, as far as my ears can tell, by using crappier speakers." It boils down to, I think, that vinyl was something they remembered from their childhood, when everything was "better." Of course, it wasn't better, they were just too young to know it. People always talk about "these days" being bad and "the good old days" being better, but that's stupid. Times are basically always as bad or as good--fluxuating a bit, but about the same. Nostalgia does a hell of a lot, I think. I'm all crazy about WWII times: I just see it as this perfect time in American history when everyone was great and noble and people had things to live for and things were genuine and less ironic, but that's probably me filling my head with a load of crap. Of course, I have to wonder.

So what about your childhood? What was your first album?

I bought a 45 of John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels" single, backed with Yoko's "Yes, I'm Your Angel." I was five and it was shortly after he was shot, 1980. Mom gave me and my older brother Tony money to get some music. (Well, Tony asked for something, and she let me get something, too. Tony got "I'm Walking On Air" from the Greatest American Hero TV show.) I had never heard the song, but I knew who John Lennon was, that he was a Beatle and all. And it just seemed like a cool thing to get. After that, I didn't buy albums too much just because Tony was buying them all, and our taste lined up pretty well. So it wasn't until he got married and moved out in 1989 that I started forming my own real musical taste, not based around what he got. I was fourteen when I bought R.E.M.'s Green. That wasn't really my first album, but I don't know what my first was, and that was the first I remember and the first that really "counts," so there it is. Also, for sure, the first CD I ever bought was when I got my player in 1992 and got the soundtrack to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, my still-favorite movie.

What was your first concert?

Again, we'll talk about things that count. Mom and Dad took me to see Kenny Rogers twice (which was good) and T. Graham Brown once (which was okay at the time) when I was little. When I got older, I never wanted to see concerts, mostly because the people who played in Jackson, Mississippi were (again) country music people or "scraz rock" (Poison, Def Leppard, etc.). There was never anyone I wanted to see, and I always just liked the records anyway. I finally saw R.E.M. in 1995 in Memphis, Tennessee on their Monster Tour. That was a big, blown-up arena show. It was cool. The next show I saw was The Magnetic Fields in Atlanta, 1997. I got to talk briefly to Stephin Merritt and the rest and got their autographs on my Holiday CD. I still cite that as the best concert I've gone to yet, especially since Ben Lee opened for them. And Shallow. And in spite of the fact that yet another opener was Ancient Chinese Garden who sucked so hard and were so loud that I fashioned a pair of earplugs out of paper. I saw The Magnetic Fields again in New Orleans in 1998 and got to talk to Stephin, Claudia Gonson, John Woo, and Sam Devol. Damon and Naomi openened. The only other show I was was 1999, Magic Spells Don't Work in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was across the street, pretty much, in the newly-created Mercury Coffeehouse Theater, and they were the only local band I liked. I liked them a lot. Duffy had a perfect stage presence: I think they could go somewhere.

What do you think about live music overall?

Well, it's always nice to see live music, just because it's people right there. But live albums and things like that are often a waste of time. The music would be much better if it were done right, the way the band really wants it, in the studio. I have two live albums. The first I bought was Rheostatics: Double Live, which I think deserved to be made. It showed them at different types of venues playing different-sounding-than-studio-version songs, and it did them justice. The other I have is They Might Be Giants: Severe Tire Damage, which is less interesting. I don't like any of the live interpretations better. In fact, my favorite tracks are the one or two studio ones. (I also have some live recordings of Modest Mouse on their Interstate 8 EP. It doesn't make them sound as good as they actually are.)

What do you think of rock journalism?

I think that the people who write it are mostly idiots and that the writing is usually horrible, but I find myself reading it often anyway. You can get away with anything if you're a rock and roll journalist. You can write any piece of crap and it gets left. They're trying to hard to be cute and clever, for one thing. I don't know what about writing about music makes it okay to be stupid. Compare, for example, literary critism, which I read even more of. Always sounds intelligent, even if the opinions are stupid. Okay, I read an article once that began this way, no lie: "`Danger, Will Robinson!' So-and-so band has a new album out! (In case you don't know, Will Robinson is the name of a band from the 1960's TV show, Lost in Space. He had a robot which shouted the aformentioned phrase whenever young Robinson's life was in jeopardy.)" Um, hello? Where does something like that have a place in anything other than... well, I can't think of anything. I saw another where they talked about how Michael Stipe of R.E.M. said that The Beatles didn't influence him, which is true. He just didn't and doesn't listen to them, so how could they possibly have, at least directly? He said he only really heard them in elevators, which is also very believable. Well, the rock writer said, "Elevator music? Without The Beatles, R.E.M. would have had to use the stairs." That doesn't even make any sense! If you're going to say something stupid, at least correctly use a metaphor. But I read them because it's all we have, and I like to read and hear other people's opinions, so I have to read something. Some are okay, don't get me wrong. I like my own little personal rock journalist, Johnny Winters, because he doesn't even seem to have an opinion: he's just a good reporter of information, which is mostly what I want. I think he once said something like "I liked `Suddenly There Is a Tidal Wave' best on this album," and that was as far as he went. He doesn't do any language garbage. The other thing about rock journalists that bug me is their limited vocabulary of words no one else in the world uses: eponymous, moniker, something-cum-something, ersatz...

Who's your major musical influence?

Stephin Merritt, without a doubt. At least for now. He's my biggest vocal influence, combined with Michael Stipe. Here lately, I'm starting to (at least try) sing like Pavement and Modest Mouse and folks with that kind of whine, just because I think it's gutwrenching (in a good way). But, yeah, I'm just nuts for his stuff, and I made up and entire band for the sole purpose of playing music in his style (The Mnemonic Devices). Of course, when I do solo Rusty Spell stuff, the influence line gets longer. I start being influenced by people and things I don't even like. That's the way it was with 'nikcuS, too. Noby, Kevin, and I had just a little bit of musical taste in common, so we had to use that common denominator (mixed with funny) and it made this really weird music. One of the first songs we ever covered was Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer" just because we all knew it and tolerated it and thought it might be fun to do, but none of us actually liked the song too much. That's why we always did negro spirituals and oldies (mind you, not covers necessarily, just in that style) and techno and 80's country and... well, we just ended up doing everything most people tolerate, even like a little. We didn't realize that then, but I do now. We got in trouble when we started going off doing stuff we liked individually, and I was the biggest law-breaker in that respect, though I didn't know it was bad news. You can tell on Plugged that my musical tastes had differered even more than normal from Noby's and Kevin's, and I finally realized it was getting in the way, so I had to do a solo project to let that stuff out. It allowed me to do Surprise with true 'nikcuS fashion, playing BBQ commercials and prog rock and songs about chickens, smiling all the way. But I was talking about musical influences. Unless I do it conciously, I'm really influenced only by a megamix of every music that's ever been made. Concisously, though, I can make a song that sounds like Pet Shop Boys or whatever.

Copyright (c) Jan 1999 by Love and Letters Music