The following interview, motivated by the opening of Love and Letters Studios, contains information about Love and Letters Music in general, Rusty Spell's old projects, Rusty's current projects, and Rusty's future. I conducted the interview in the studio itself with a talkative and matter-of-fact Rusty.
JW: This isn't the first time I've been in Love and Letters Studios, but it's the first time it's really looked like a studio.
RS: That's right. Love and Letters Studios has been around for a while, but it never was set up all the time. It was really just my bedroom that would be used for recording (mostly masters, not performing) every now and then.
JW: What was the first thing, then, recorded at the "unofficial" studio?
RS: Well, if you want to go even further back than that, before Love and Letters Music was started, we recorded some 'nikcuS albums at what is now known as Rusty's House. But the first thing I recorded in here was Covers By Casio. I could do that because the project was so small--just a keyboard, mic, and tape deck. The other Love and Letters releases were done at Noby's House Studios, which was the primary recording facility for 'nikcuS Productions.
JW: And you say albums were also mastered here.
RS: Yes, bands not in Love and Letters Music, like DNS and the two Synthetic Fibers albums, the reissues of those two.
JW: So, before we get too far, let's have an up-to-speed on all the changes that are going on now, the primary reason for this interview.
RS: Well, as you know, I released Rusty Spell's Mailbox in 1995 and created Love and Letters Music. Then I formed the band 100,000 Fireflies with Lori Berkemeyer in order to create keyboardy Stephin Merritt-like music. Then I released a Rusty Spell album--though I stressed then that it wasn't a real album; that is to say, not a followup put-hard-work-into album, but sort of a supplement--called Covers By Casio. That was followed by yet another new band called The Mnemonic Devices, and my idea for that was to enlist the help of one vocalist per song.
JW: That idea didn't fall through.
RS: No, it didn't. Tommy and Lori Burton recorded their songs, and Julie Scott recorded her song--even though in such a way as to render the final recording almost impossible. Technical difficulties. But those were the only ones. No one else recorded for me.
JW: So you recorded a you-only "demo" version and let it sit for a while.
RS: Right. I didn't know what to do with it. I thought of many ideas: to just sing it myself and I become The Mnemonic Devices, only keyboardier than my Rusty Spell stuff; I let the recorded versions stand, I record the others, maybe letting Lori Burton do one or two more; to let Lori Berkemeyer sing with me and it become a 100,000 Fireflies album... I didn't know.
JW: So tell us what finally happened.
RS: Well, I met Debi at this time. And what was once Noby's bedroom became my bedroom so that I could make the old bedroom my media room. A wall and a half of this room became Love and Letters Studios, officially.
JW: So you have a home studio. Now about The Mnemonic Devices?
RS: I decided the best idea, since Debi liked my music and could sing pretty well... the best idea was for she and I to become The Mnemonic Devices, screwing the idea of multi-vocalists and simply using the Tommy, Lori, and Julie versions on an outtakes album of some sort.
JW: Which you did, and we'll get to that outtakes album soon.
RS: Okay. Anyway, yes, Debi and I were The Mnemonic Devices, and we soon recorded I Don't Remember and finally released it, a year after the music was recorded.
JW: And, I must say, the real version is very good.
RS: Thank you. The demo version still exists, too, just in case someone wants to hear it. A few things are different. There's a breakdown section in the middle of "I Like You" which uses a David Bowie sample, for example.
JW: So tell us what happened around this time concerning 100,000 Fireflies.
RS: Well, I had this idea to sell all the 'nikcuS Productions stuff on the web. I figured we're making this stuff anyway, so why not? Noby thought it was a good idea, so I went for it. Well, Lori Berkemeyer heard about it and decided she didn't want her voice or lyrics being sold. I had told Lori when we first recorded the album that a billion people would hear it--since I'm always sending out stuff to people--and that she shouldn't record it if she didn't want anyone to hear it. I'm not sure what the difference was between this and selling it, but she asked that I not sell anything to do with her. Of course, this sort of made our album worthless if no one could hear it. Legally, of course, I could have done it anyway: Anyone who records on my albums are recording for Love and Letters Music and the copyright belongs to me, but I didn't want to be a pain in the butt about it, so I simply labelled the album as "out of print" and decided that The Mnemonic Devices would re-record it.
JW: Any hard feelings toward Lori about this?
RS: I don't suppose, since it was sort of messy having this stray band with one album while I've got a perfectly good working band who can perfectly re-record this perfectly good album. I like the new version. I like only having two Love and Letters groups for now, too: Rusty Spell and The Mnemonic Devices. The first for making more organic, more loose, more anything sorts of albums, while The Mnemonic Devices do specifically keyboard stuff. I might have more bands on the label in the future, but this is great for now. The only messy thing now is release dates: 20th Century Literary Problem was released 1996/1998 and I Don't Remember was released 1997/1998. I usually just go by the first date, because that's when the music and the songs themselves were recorded; the actual singing isn't as important.
JW: By this point, Love and Letters Studios is about ready for its grand opening, with Rusty Spell albums secure, Mnemonic Devices albums secure, and a now-defunct 100,000 Fireflies. Only one bit of business to take care of before Love and Letters can move on...
RS: Yes, the outtakes album, which I might like to talk about at some length, since there isn't a specific interview for it.
JW: That's fine.
RS: One of the reasons I had to make it (under the Rusty Rule of Stick It Somewhere) was because of those stray songs from I Don't Rememer floating around. But also, I had lots of songs I was recording in the studio, every one of them very experimental. And then I had these funny answering machine messages people had left for me.
JW: All of these elements went toward forming the new Rusty Spell album, Experiments and Outtakes.
RS: That's right. Eventually, I just started digging around in old tapes, cleaning shop, seeing if I could salvage anything. The first thing on the album is something called "Alpha," which was sort of a "ideas" track for a thing Synthetic Fibers wanted to do called Symphone. It was essentially some chords I thought were pretty cool mixed with me just messing around. I took this and had Dr. Sbaitso, the computer-generated voice, talk over it and introduce the album.
JW: This was a song from 1994, pretty old stuff. And Synthetic Fibers. Why did you release a Synthetic Fibers song under the name Rusty Spell... or--as you can barely read on the album cover--Rusty Spell and friends?
RS: Well, it was recorded sort of for Synthetic Fibers, but it ended up not being for Synthetic Fibers, and I made it by myself, so it was just Rusty. There were a few things like this. Such as "I Like You Too," a song written for The Mnemonic Devices, but it ended up not being on a MD album, so here it is... even though Debi and I sing this version.
JW: Any story behind this version?
RS: Debi would always say "I like you too" when she heard the song "I Like You," so she added that part and the end. I was going to get her to sing it for the muilt-vocal album (I still had the idea then) since Lenny didn't record her version.
JW: The next song is an answering machine track.
RS: Right. Don't ask me how these things fit in a musical project, but they somehow do here, at least for me. This is Lori Berkemeyer singing me happy birthday with me playing piano over the recording.
JW: The next song, "Afrikain (Rusty Track)" is interesting.
RS: Yes, it's another song from 1994. Basically, when Kevin did "Afrikain" for Synthetic Fibers, I went in and did an extra drum track for it, just screwing around. We didn't use it for the real album, of course, but I always liked it, so wanted it here.
JW: "This Time (Instrumental)"...
RS: Is an instrumental version of the song which appears earlier, with some extra stuff at the end. The only guitar songs on this record, and it barely sounds like a guitar.
JW: Then we have Tommy's version of "Crazy."
RS: Which took about twenty takes, but it was fun. And then more Tommy on the answering machine, after having finished my novel. And then a country song I did, "Staying," the first thing I ever recorded with my new Yamaha and by using only its internal recording system, not using MIDI.
JW: How long did the Lori Burton version of "Anyway" take?
RS: Two takes. Lori is a music machine.
JW: Now we come to two cover tunes in a row.
RS: I didn't mean to do that, but yes. The first is another Bobby McFerrin-y song, of Pavement's "Shady Lane." The second is Merritt's "Lovers from the Moon," done with almost every instrument I had at the time... too much crap, and on purpose, and Debi hates it, but I like it.
JW: I can't quite figure out the next track. An answering machine message, but...
RS: The machine was digital, no tape, so I couldn't take it out and record it to a real tape. So I held a portable to it to record it. Only problem was, the batteries were dying, making the recording go slow... making the playback go fast. Made for a hilarious little thing, in my opinion.
JW: The next song should be played loud.
RS: Right-o. I play harmonica into a mic which is connected to an echo box which is connected to a guitar distortion pedal. I play around with it and make my harmonica sound like Jimi Hendrix.
JW: The next song is Julie's outtake.
RS: Julie Scott did a very good job of singing "Perfection," but--as she says on the album--she didn't have a tape deck with both dual deck and a microphone, so she just recorded her vocals while sort of listening to the song on another machine. I thought I could manipulate the tempo of the computer recording and get them to blend, but I couldn't. It's still okay to listen to, though. And Julie does a nice version of "Lolly" on her piano which I stick on here. Oh, and Jonathan Katz leaves her an answering machine message which I also feel I need to stick on here.
JW: The last song...
RS: "Rock-a-Bye Moon." Debi called a crecent moon a rock-a-bye moon once, I thought that was cool, and I said I would use it in a song. I did. I wrote it not too long after and recorded it here, using the Yamaha track system again, so I got the volumes all screwed, but I like this version. A slower version will appear on the next Mnemonic Devices album. Cool, eh?
JW: Very cool, and the end of that album, and almost the end of this interview. Summary so far, of Rusty Spell solo...
RS: Rusty Spell album will now be just anything. Covers By Casio is real now, as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't have to be real to be real. I still plan to do a real real one, though. I won't call it Charles Grodin. I'll wait until I get a guitar to do it, though. I might get one for Christmas.
JW: 100,000 Fireflies...
RS: Don't exist. I still have that CD that crystallized them, but I never listen to them now that I have the MD version, and no one else will here them either. I'm glad they existed for a while, long enough for me to make the album, but now it's just as well that they're gone.
JW: The Mnemonic Devices...
RS: Goin' strong. Now that we've re-done everything, we're going forth with all new stuff. I'm working on three albums at one time right now. The first that comes out will be all originals, lots of very different stuff. Then I'm doing a covers album called Bedsheets as well as a Merritt tribute album. A song from that album (a different version), "Strange Powers" will soon appear on another Merritt tribute album made by bands on the net who like Merritt.
JW: 'nikcuS, Synthetic Fibers, Yo! MaHMa, DNS?
RS: Who knows? I'm assuming that they won't make anymore, which is fine, 'cause they all ended on a high note, but I'd still like to work with them if it could work out.
JW: Love and Letters Studios...
RS: Continuing to make tasty products for you and yours this holiday season.
Copyright (c) Jun 1998 by Rusty Spell and Johnny Winters