The Johnny Winters Christmas Again Interview

Rusty is too busy. Even indie rockers--who are known as "prolific" if they put out an album or two a year--don't work this much. Midi Skirt by The Mnemonic Devices was released in October of this year, and when was Christmas Again released? Um, November. What makes it all right is the fact that it doesn't sound like it was recorded in only one month, so Rusty's off the hook off being accused of rushing things.

I, again, had the opportunity to interview Rusty Spell about his new album. It's gotten to the point where these interviews go along with the albums as much as--say--cover art, so we stopped both complaining and enjoying them and simply did them. And here it went...

JW: Tell us as much background as you think necessary for talking about this album.

RS: Well, Noby and I had wanted to do a Synthetic Fibers Christmas album for years. Like, since SF started or something. Every October or November we'd talk about it, but we never were able to get around to it because of one thing or another. So a Christmas album had been on my mind for a while. But this was the first year I really felt it feasible to make one myself.

JW: Why was this?

RS: Well, for one, the studio: the new keyboard and the new guitar. I couldn't have really made anything without those, without having them at home, at my disposal. After I got the guitar, I started work on some stuff for the next Rusty Spell album... the thing that's now simply called "the followup to Mailbox," the one that's a "real" album, that's not some idea like Covers by Casio or Experiments and Outtakes. But I didn't get too far with it because I was going at it directionless, thinking maybe it would be a hodgepodge album. Then I realized I didn't want a hodgepodge album, and then I realized I just needed to wait a while. And then Christmas started rolling around...

JW: So what was your original conception of the Christmas album?

RS: I thought it would be something that might be called A Love and Letters Christmas, where it wouldn't just be a Rusty Spell album. It would have some songs by Rusty Spell, some by The Mnemonic Devices, one or two by a makeshift Paint My Scum, maybe inventing a new band in the process. Then I just decided, "Nah, make it all Rusty Spell. If some of it sounds like TMD or whatever, that's fine." Then I went further and said, "You know, now that I have this studio, I ought to sort of show off everything I have." So I did. I played my MIDI keyboard (using the Yamaha internal arpeggios as well as regular Cakewalk sequencing), my guitar (clean and distorted), my two Casio keyboards, my snare (something that I've never used on a Rusty Spell album, just on 'nikcuS stuff), my two harmonicas, my kazoo... and I made sure I used the effects unit for the microphone, as well as other mic tricks.

JW: So it was actually more of a "Love and Letters Studios Christmas," huh?

RS: Exactly. For two seconds at a time, it flitted through my mind to call it something like Christmas at Love and Letters Studios. But I didn't.

JW: Well, we've got that part of the background. How did you decide what songs you wanted to use?

RS: Basically, I knew I wanted about four or five originals. I'd never really written a Christmas song--unless you count something I adlibbed for 'nikcuS in 1991 called "Christmas," which fell apart after I got tired of doing it. It was an overly- sentimental (on purpose, but it didn't sound like it) song that was actually not too bad as far as those sorts of things go. Anyway, besides those originals, I just looked through my Christmas album collection and made a list of the ones I thought I might like to do, making sure I had plenty of pop songs as well as traditionals. I wanted to mix everything up, to make every song sound pretty different, even though I did it all at roughly the same time.

JW: I think you got that effect. We'll go down the line and talk about them.

RS: "It's Christmas Again" was the first original Christmas song I ever wrote. It's the one that would have been The Mnemonic Devices song if I had done it that way. It's basically about all the junk of Christmas, in a positive way. Good junk. All that paired with being with your love--in this case, a man and wife.

JW: The next song, "Jingle Bells," sounds like a 'nikcuS song. In fact, Tommy Burton has said that this album harkens back to your 'nikcuS days, that it sounds like one of their albums. Do you think this is true?

RS: Sort of, I guess, but not really. This song sounds like a 'nikcuS song because we used the Casio that we used to always use and I sang with that sort of who-cares-I-can't-sing voice, not the deeper one I've adopted for my MD stuff.

JW: Debi sings on the next song. Is she part of Rusty Spell now?

RS: Well, Rusty Spell--as I now see it--is anything goes. If I wanted to do an album with only Joe Blow singing the songs, I could still call it a Rusty Spell album if I wanted to. Debi is sort of another instrument, you might say. I need a female voice sometimes, even in my solo work. Actually, for this song ("God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"), it was originally just going to be an instrumental, but when I played it for Debi she started singing along with this Julee Cruise-sounding voice, and I said, "That's how we'll do it!" And so we did, though the mix wasn't how I wanted since she wanted her vocals buried more for some reason... I let her have a little bit of creative control from time to time... but probably just so she'll do it.

JW: So, you often say that track four is meant to be your "hit." Is it true for this one, for "Silver Bells"?

RS: Nah, not really. Though I still notice a pattern in how I organize my songs. The first one is a setup for what is to come, even if not sounding like any of the other songs. The second one shows a little of where it might actually go. The third one features the girl singer. And the fourth one is a good, solid song. "Silver Bells" is a good, solid song. I did double- tracking for voice and guitar. I thought it sounded nice... and Dad seemed to like it when he listened to it. Actually, he liked the entire album, pretty much, and asked for a copy. I always freak out when my parents like anything I like, especially stuff I do.

JW: "Senor Santa Claus" is a Jim Reeves song, right?

RS: Well, he didn't write it, but he performed it on the very good Christmas album he made. I thought it was a great song, and I liked the way that Jim Reeves did this not-quite-Mexican accent, so I did that too: a different one.

JW: "The Chipmunk Song" is a nice little minimalist piece.

RS: Yeah, just keyboard drums (except for the organ at the beginning) and me singing along with Alvin of the Chipmunks. It's basically fun with high-speed dubbing. Debi and Mom and them can't figure out how I did it--how I sing along with myself as a chipmunk--even when I explain it to them. It's not hard at all, of course.

JW: And you even got the computer you asked for in the song, Alvin's equivalent of the hoola hoop.

RS: Yeah, that's right!

JW: Next comes another Debi song, "Santa Baby."

RS: Yeah, she loves this one. When I asked if she wanted to sing anything in particular on this album, she asked to do this one. We listened to the Eartha Kitt version way too much before we did it. Debi demanded a little from this song, too: she made me take out a vibe part that she said was screwing her up. That was okay. I like this version, kinda sexy... like it's supposed to be.

JW: "The First Noel" uses an instrument you'd never used before, the accordion.

RS: Right. I had stolen one from my church about a year ago and thought I couldn't play it. But I just realized I'd stolen the broken one. So I brought it back and stole the one that works. I really actually sort of love and hate the accordion. I like how it sounds and to watch people play it and everything, but it's just too heavy and hard to manipulate, and I'd just rather use the accordion sound on my keyboard, which sounds just as good, if not as "breathy" or whatever it is that gives it its distinct sound.

JW: The vocals sound cool on this one, too.

RS: I just did one of those tricks where I got two mics and did effects on one and not the other. I was supposed to also do them both on each ear, but I can't remember if I did that or not. I know I was singing along to the accordion softly, though.

JW: The last song on the first side is an original, "No, Virginia." Not a very positive view of Santa Claus.

RS: No, not really. I took the title (and I guess the name of the wife character in this song) from the article in whatever paper that was, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus." Well, guess what, kiddies: There ain't! And I have no problems telling that to kids, even though Debi doesn't want me to tell Luke and Justin (her two little ones who still believe) that he doesn't. I hate lying to kids about things as big as Santa Claus, something very close to religion. So, Debi fast forwards this song every time her kids are around (even though she likes the song herself). It's a heated debate between us. But, you know, she gave birth to them, so I guess she has the right to screw them up if she wants to.

JW: Santa gets a pretty negative view on this album, it seems. Senor Santa Claus is someone who doesn't exists, who fails to bring a little boy what he wants. Santa Baby maybe exists, but he's probably just the chick's boyfriend. Even later... well, we'll get to that.

RS: Okay. Time for next song, huh? Well, "Ebenezer Scrooge." I couldn't resist.

JW: Good enough description of that song, I suppose.

RS: I think you're right. Listen carefully for the demonic voices.

JW: So, why did you call "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" "Hockey Stick!"?

RS: We were going to sing it with just Debi doing vocals, no instruments at all. But she kept cracking herself up, and-- instead of trying it again, even with music or whatever--I just thought it might be better as a short blooper thing. It wasn't serious enough to call it by its real name, since I think that's a wonderful song and all. So I just took "Hockey Stick!" from the Peanuts Christmas special (the second one) when Sally says "Hockey stick!" instead of "Hark!"

JW: Well, if that one didn't get the full respected treatment, the next song did. "O Holy Night."

RS: Yeah, it would have to. It's about the best carol there is. The most profound. But I only liked the first verse, not the others, so I just sung it once, sung it way in the background in the middle instrument section, and hummed the third. But I think it sounds great, a nice mix of MIDI and guitar and everything.

JW: And now we hearken back to the days of yore...

RS: With my very first Casio keyboard. The little bleep-bleep- bleep is the sound it makes when you turn it on. That was one of it's selling points, I think. That and the ROM pac that came with it. I remember when I got it in elementary school, I felt bad because Mom was buying this expensive thing for me. It was forty bucks. I just knew I wanted a keyboard and was thinking of something along the lines of one of those really cheap, little white Casios with about an octave's worth of notes. The one she got, the MT-18, was full-blown and big and gorgeous. I played it constantly. Anyway, I played "Joy To the World" on it.

JW: Okay, the next one is a "half-original."

RS: Yep. Well, you know, in addition to using all these instruments, I wanted to do all sorts of styles of music. So I've already got the electronic and Latin and children's and samba and grunge and sacred and everything and... well, you know, I just love rap music anyway--good rap music. So I rapped Rudolph, and added a verse, telling the story of Rudolph made popular by his appearance on the DUSKBUSTERS! program a few years ago.

JW: Not to mention another bad view of Santa.

RS: Yeah, Rudy hates Santa. Wouldn't you if you were him?

JW: Probably. Okay, for the next one, "Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees," did you just have Elvis's dead body enter yours or what?

RS: Actually, I just went back in time and imagined how Elvis's brain was working... not in any given time, since he's recording "All Shook Up" at the same time he's doing this song, which is actually separated by about twenty years. Elvis was weird, had weird thoughts. I never know why he's doing what he's doing. I wonder how his brain works. So I just let myself think like that and became him. That's the best I can explain it. You get to hear my lovely Ludwig snare on this one.

JW: I guess you needed to spotlight your harmonica for the next one, "Angels We Have Heard On High."

RS: I guess by that you mean it was a throwaway song. Maybe. But by that point it doesn't matter, you expect to hear something small and crappy. Of course, it might be bad since people who've listened to the album while I was there--at that point--say, "Okay, that's enough." It's like they spot I digression or say, "Okay, I get it." Whatever. I'll think about it and maybe get rid of it when I remaster, but I doubt it since I do need to have my harmonica in there... just like the "Jingle Bells" into with my first harmonica.

JW: Well, "Silent Night" makes up for it. It's a very nice instrumental.

RS: Thank you. I thought, after I recorded it, about overdubbing Linus's speech in the first Peanuts Christmas special, the one from Luke, the true meaning of Christmas. I might go back and do that.

JW: Tell me about the last one, "Xmas Blah Blah Blah."

RS: I had written down on my idea list: "Merritt Christmas." And the lyric I came up with was "And so it's Christmas, blah blah blah." Then I sat down to do the music, to make it all Merritty, but it became something more (as it usually does), and then I added the guitar part, adlibbing along as I played it and recorded it. I haven't adlibbed in about three years, so I was out of practice, but it came out okay. I really like this song; it's one of my favorites, just because it's so loud and crazy and all this stuff is going on and it's the last song and a nice finish. And Santa Claus didn't bring this guy nothing, either. It's a bang.

JW: It's a big bang baby. I really like it--I'd let my kids listen to it every year if I had kids. I guess I'll have to listen to it alone, maybe with my crazy rock and roll dad and his pretzels.

RS: What are you talking about, Johnny?

JW: Nothing. Personal life. Here's your favorite part, since you sort of hate talking about things after they're old... and this is old, right? Two weeks.

RS: Pretty old. I know what my favorite part is: What's next? Well, I'm going to pick up my new Gateway computer tomorrow, so I'll have all sorts of cool stuff to do after that. I'll have the CD-writer so I can digify all this stuff, finally. It's scary having all this important stuff on tapes that can screw whenever they feel like it. How I've kept some recordings intact for almost ten years is beyond me. But besides that, I'm supposed to get a new version of Cakewalk from a friend, so who knows what new joys that will bring. Not to mention all the digital voice stuff I can do now, with programs like Cool Edit or whatever. And--hey, hey--I'll finally get to do that sample band I've been wanting to do, Paint My Scum. A new band for Love and Letters Music, won't that be something? P.S. on that: Debi's expressed an interest in going solo, though I don't know how that would work since she can't play anything. We'll figure something out. I guess solo people sing all the time who can't play a note.

JW: So what about plans for existing things?

RS: I've already done the first song for a piano EP for The Mnemonic Devices. It will be the first LLM EP. I have sort of been against EP's and floating singles and compilation appearances and things like that just for neatness's sake, but I figure "screw it" these days. I can be messy like everyone else. I'll collect everything and be nice when the things build up enough.

JW: What about Rusty Spell?

RS: Followup. And children's album, though I don't know how that will work or when I'll feel like it. Maybe the Rheostatics children's album coming up will inspire me. And also, I already have in mind two full albums for TMD: one samply and one slow and mellow. The latter will be called Blue Light.

JW: All sounds wonderful. Thanks again, Russell.

Copyright (c) Dec 1998 by Rusty Spell and Johnny Winters