Few records have held up as well for me as Strand, the second album from The Spinanes. I first saw said band in their days as a two-piece — Rebecca Gates and Scott Plouf — sharing a bill at the Westbeth Theater Center with Elliott Smith and Versus. Two years later came Arches and Aisles, which found Gates working with a new group of collaborators, many of whom were associated with Chicago’s post-rock scene. I believe a feature version of this appeared in NYU’s newspaper — which may explain the haphazard transitions between certain questions.
Thirteen years later, I would interview Gates again; she continues to make and play vital, essential music, and her album The Float was one of my favorites of 2012. Also, it should be noted that Gates can play an absolutely stunning Lungfish cover.
This interview was conducted person in spring 1998, and appeared in issue 4.
Is it warm outside?
Not as warm as last week. Last week, [it] was kind of weird, waking up…. I was planning to wear a sweater last Friday. Then I went outside and it was 80 degrees.
(laughs) I got into town on Saturday and it was so beautiful. There was one day where it was cloudy, and I was like, “okay, sweater”, because that’s mostly what I brought. And then it was sweat city. (laughs)
I’m more of a fall and winter person, myself.
I like the warm weather, but I don’t like it when it’s humid. It immediately goes to “humid and dirty” both here and in Chicago.
I hear that. I’m from Jersey, originally.
Central, the shore area.
There’s waaay too much humidity at the shore.
(laughs) That’s one thing I miss about the west; there’s no humidity out there.
Do you want to start?
Sure. I’ve just been sitting around all day, talking to people….
What are you doing, in terms of a lineup for the band now?
Basically, I’ve been playing with a bunch of different people over the past two years. I used the album as a chance to continue doing that, to just check stuff out. My friend Jerry, who played drums on most of the record, on all of the record except for the one John McEntire drums on, is going to come out and tour. Basically, we’re going to go out as a three or four piece. We’re talking to different people, finding out who’s available, who wants to do it. It would be nice if I could get a group together for it that was going to stick together for a while, so you don’t have to keep on teaching people songs. I’m trying to be casual about it; for some reason, if something’s amazing and everyone’s having a great time, then good.
I always remember hearing about the Spinanes as a two-piece, before I saw you live. The first time I saw you live was about two years ago, at Westbeth, with Versus and Elliott Smith, and the other time was the solo show this past week.
Well, at the Westbeth we always did a couple of songs as a two-piece in the beginning.
What exactly happened with the Spinanes? I had heard that you had broken up, and then I saw an ad last year for a solo show that you were playing at Brownies with 764-HERO and the Van Pelt, and then I heard that the Spinanes were back…
Well, the thing is that the only reason that the rumor was going around that the Spinanes broke up was because there were two of us, and one of us left. (laughs) What I always told people was that if you think in terms of, here’s the drummer, and here’s me playing guitar and singing and doing all this. And if you throw in a bass player…. For me, the Spinanes never broke up. I just wanted to take a break from doing a band and do some solo shows, which was really good.
Do you ever see yourself putting something out solo, as opposed to a band record?
Yeah. It’s funny; I’ve always had it in my head that when I do solo acoustic, it’s my name, and when I do a band or there’s more people playing, it’s the Spinanes. But I’m actually going to do a seven inch for Merge, and I’m trying to decide what to do with it. I think that I might use that as an acoustic solo thing, and put it out under my name.
Do you find that you’re writing songs for more instruments now, and is that related to anything that’s happened to you recently?
Well, I think just knowing that that was going to be how we could proceed, and that it wasn’t a matter of…. It’s also what’s interesting, and what I’m learning as I keep doing this. The first record was very much like a recording of a show with some overdubs, and that’s why it was very live and done very quickly. With this, I really wanted to pay attention to getting some good sounds and getting the vocals to be stronger. It’s just a chance to pay more attention, to learn. I love how melody intertwines and different things can work together and move the song around.
When did you first get into music?
Well, I’ve always been a huge fan. My first memories are totally musical. As far as actually playing, I kind of played for a little bit when I was twelve, and I played a little bit when I was sixteen, and a little bit when I was nineteen. Then I started playing more often; I was like, “This is fun, I’m going to sit around and play”. The first band I did was the Spinanes, and that was started in ‘89, so it’s coming up on almost ten years. It’s sort of misleading, because I don’t play very often. I’m actually trying to work on that, on practicing. I realized that the other day, when I was talking to someone, that since mid-December, I’ve played guitar twenty-one days (laughs), which is totally pathetic, considering it’s what I do. And probably six of those days were shows, where I had to play the guitar.
How’d you end up hooking up with Sub Pop?
Mostly just because of the regional thing. We put some singles on this label Imp, two seven inches, and they had heard those. Those are going to be re-released by Merge this year, too. They had heard those, and I knew Jonathan and Bruce. Even though it’s a big area, everyone kind of knows each other up there. Then they saw us play, and Jonathan asked us to do a seven inch. Then, we were opening a show for Babes in Toyland, and they saw us play again, and said, “Would you like to do a record?” We were talking to a couple of people, and that just seemed like what made the most sense at the time.
Are you from the west coast originally?
I grew up all over, mostly in Denver when I was young. I went to high school in Portland, and then I lived there for ten years, so I’ve been there a lot.
You said that you’re living in Chicago now.
When did you move out there?
A little over a year ago.
What type of shows are you more into? Do you prefer a full band thing, or a solo acoustic one?
I like them both a lot; I like the different things that you can do. First, we were a two-piece, and that was all I knew. When I started playing- Actually, it was when I was playing with Ben Lee a little bit, and when I was playing with Ben, all I had to do was play rhythm guitar and sing backup. And I thought, “This is fun! This is easy!” I mean, I love doing what I do, but I’m always thinking. You can’t stop playing for a second and check stuff out, and then start again, and that’s really fun. When we worked with the four-piece, there was a lot more of that. I really enjoyed having all those different people playing together. By the time I started doing solo stuff, I really needed to do it, because it’s so easy to tour. And being on stage, you don’t have people around you going, “Okay, I know you’re having fun talking….” I try not to talk too much, although now I talk too much during solo shows. It’s one of those things where I worry a lot about the people on stage; when you’re up front, you’re kind of representing them, because they don’t have mics. When you’re solo acoustic, you can just play. I also like being able to change the songs around. I started playing solo electric a little bit, too. It’s nice, it’s a good change, but the acoustic, I like the space of it, how quiet it can get.
What’s your songwriting process like?
It changes. It always is different. It’s really funny, because I haven’t been writing a lot, because I just finished the record. So there’s one song where I have a verse and a half, and the chorus. There’s another song where I’ve had a melody in my head for three months, and I haven’t sat down and figured it out on the guitar yet. I do a lot of writing while walking and driving and that sort of thing. This album’s the first one where, for a few songs, there was music and no real lyrics. That was a new thing.
What do you usually base your lyrics on?
I think it’s just people; watching people, or thinking about people and how they get along or don’t get along. Trying to convey moods or set scenes; I think visually, so, for every verse, I have something that comes up, whether it’s a person that it reminds me of or a scene that I was trying to describe. It changes a lot, too; sometimes, I’m just like, “I want to write a fast song!” You try to do that and see if anything works.
Who do you see as your contemporaries?
Rebecca: It’s interesting, because we’re sort of in this middle-land. I’m a little bit older, too-I’m not Bob Dylan, but not Alanis Morrisette. I like the community in Chicago a lot, I relate to that; The Sea and Cake and some of the Thrill Jockey bands. And then out west, there’s…. I mean, Elliott is now on to greater and huger things, but… There’s a real community of people out there. As far as people who are making records, I love Those Bastard Souls. I like a lot of Dave’s stuff; he and I sit around and talk a lot. Sam Prekop from the Sea and Cake, he and I talk a lot lately about different things. It’s kind of an interesting place to be.
You’ve worked with a lot of people who have done a lot of work either on their own or in other bands; what’s that like?
As far as working with different people, or-?
Well, the fact that Elliott Smith was on a few songs on Strand, and I recognized a few names on the new record… How much do they bring to it?
A lot of times, I know what I want. With this record, I tried to relax that a little bit more and realize that these people are really talented, and I wanted to hear what they brought to it. I also knew from myself playing with other people that it’s totally fine to kind of…. I think I was a little nervous working with other people, because you didn’t want to tell them what to do, but you also didn’t want them to just do whatever they wanted. And then I realized that there is this real middle ground. When I was talking to Sam, for instance, he was like, “What do you want me to do?” And I said, “Well, you know, you’ve got your thing. You’ve got your way of singing.” You kind of pick someone because… If you’re going to have someone make a dress, you’re going to pick someone who makes a dress out of fabric you like already, who uses colors that you like. It’s kind of interesting to have people be like, “What’s the ballpark of what you’re going for?” Then, they bring their own thing to it, and you can tweak it. Sam wrote all the- I told him, “I’m not going to write lyrics for you.” Anything he said was stuff that he came up with. Elliott, same thing, he has harmonies that he hears. He was like, “Do you like this one?” We would sing together, and I’d say, “Yeah, that part right there, that.” Most of the time, everybody’s so great, you’re just like, “That’s great”. Or “‘Can you make the guitar a little punchier there?’ ‘Like this?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay.’”
Are you touring with anybody with the new record?
Yeah, Jerry who played drums on the new record is coming out, and we’re trying to find a couple of people. We’ll just see; I’m hoping, if we can, to pull Sam, maybe some of the people out for a couple of shows, and also some friends in Chicago who can’t tour for a whole tour.
Are you going to go out with another band, too?
Yeah, usually that’s the best way to do it. I don’t know who, yet.
If you could go out with any band….
TLC. (laughs) It would be fun. The Rolling Stones, TLC. We did a bunch of stuff with Versus, and I always like touring with them. Quasi, who put an album out on Up. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to, because I think they’re going to tour with Elliott at about the same time. I’m going to try to do some stuff with them. Just mostly friends and people who are good. We have to wait and see.
When you’re not touring or recording, do you go to a lot of shows?
Mm-hm. It depends. I go through phases. I’ll go see bands because they’re friends; Superchunk just came through, so I went up and saw them. I do, I do like to go to see music. I’ve also got to the point where I won’t stay if I don’t like it. I used to be a lot more tolerant.
What have you liked lately?
The new Fugazi’s great. It’s not out yet, but I’ve heard it. I think the Quasi record is good. I went and saw this band in Chicago that some friends were in that I thought were doing some great things. They’re called…. Basically, there’s a couple of jazz nights at Empty Bottle, and people get up and play little short sets. So I’ve seen some friends do that, and it’s really informal, but that’s usually really inspiring, because it’s usually people trying out stuff. I haven’t seen any shows this week.
How long are you in New York for?
A week, total. And of course, the day I’m leaving, someone offered to take me to see Mary J. Blige, which I would love to go do, but I can’t.
Do you do a lot of reading when you’re home?
Yeah. I’m kind of a distracted reader; I’m trying to work on that. I always have a bunch of books around. I’ve been reading Art and Lies by Jeanette Winterson, and I actually got some-this is really goofy-I got some books on trees. Because I was down in Memphis, and there were some really amazing trees, and I was like, “I’d really like to be one of those people who can identify trees”. So, I was doing that. And there’s this book called No Place Like Utopia that I just got and haven’t read, but it’s stories of architects and architecture in the early 60s. I just finished Nina Simone’s autobiography.
Have you toured in Europe as well?
How was that?
It was great. It was after the first record, so it was a while ago, but it was interesting. We were over there with Codeine, which was a nice match, as far as audiences. We weren’t getting the punk rock gobber crowd, we were getting more the art school crowd, so that was nice. It’s kid of frustrating, because you get over there and you don’t have a lot of time to check stuff out. The drives are pretty long, and sometimes through the same country. We passed Mad Ludwig’s castle three or four times, but did we ever stop and get out? No. But it’s still great because you can get out and run around; we played a show in Vienna, and everybody went back to the hotel. I said, “I’m walking,” and just started to run around and saw Vienna at night.
Are you going to go back over with this record, do you think?
Hopefully, yeah. It’s a little bit more difficult to get over there now than it was when our first record came out, but…. I got to go to New Zealand and Australia, and I hopefully can go back there. We’ll just see if people like the record enough to warrant it.
Do you do anything outside of music?
As far as a job, or just in general?
Yeah, I like to do a lot of different things. I love to walk, and I like to cook and go learn about art; I’m trying to do that more. I’m a pretty normal human being. I don’t see movies. I love movies, but I realize that everyone thinks that I’m a total freak now because I haven’t seen a movie since August of last. And I was watching the whole Oscars with people, and I knew all about these movies because I’d read magazines on the plane. They were like, “Have you seen any of these movies?” And I said, “No.”
Have you got a lot of questions in the vein of ‘What’s it like to see someone you’ve played on a record with play on the Oscars’?
Yeah, Elliott’s a pretty hot topic of conversation these days everywhere. It’s awesome, you know? I don’t just think it’s awesome in the same way that Celine Dion’s mom probably thinks it’s awesome Celine is on. I thought it was really great. It is; it’s kind of weird, but it’s also…. To me, it’s more freaky that, just because of friends… I mean, I loved REM-I still do-but I was a huge fan of them when I was 20. And I was driving around in Peter and his wife Stephanie’s car, and we’re listening to the new REM record before it’s mastered. Like, “Hey, what do you think of this?” I’m like, “Oh, it’s cool”. For me, it’s like I’m hanging out with Peter and Stephanie, my friends, asking about their daughters. But there’s the twenty-year-old in you, who’s like, “Oh my God! I’m actually…” For me, it’s the same thing. You’re like, “Poor honey, he looks nervous. Don’t be nervous, it’s okay, you sound great”. Everyone’s like, “What did you think when they had to hold hands?” I said, “Man, that’s awesome. Total Dada.”
I just thought that it was cool to see someone whose record I would go out and buy playing there.
Rebecca: It’s so rare. I think it’s weird, because I’ve actually heard people say, “Oh, it’s part of the sellout” or “Oh, I hope that he doesn’t get screwed up”. You used to be able to watch the Midnight Special-I don’t know how old you are-but you used to be able to watch good music on TV. It wasn’t just Joe Schmo pushing their record on Letterman. It used to be Midnight Special, or Solid Gold, featuring the Spinners, or whoever. Same thing with radio, I was talking with someone about that. You used to be able to learn about new music on the radio, and now, if you don’t live near WFMU or the Pacifica station in Santa Monica, which is a great radio station, you’re screwed. I think that really pointed it out, to be able to see good music, like you said. And I hope that people did see it and go, “Man”. Did you feel like the audience got totally quieted when he was on? They were riveted. I thought that was awesome.
I guess that’s all I’ve got; do you have anything to say in closing?
No. I thought of something the other day; sometimes people ask that, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll make sure I say that”. I have no idea what it is. Buy more albums. (laughs) Floss your teeth.