Text and Interview: Andy Fenwick
Photo: Lauren Belski
In their previous incarnation as Brooklyn favorite Backwords, Spirit Plate was more plaintive, for the most part, sounding like they could raise hell, yet simply choosing otherwise, floating on songwriter Brian Russ’s wistful tunes. Expanded into a six-piece, their 2015 s/t debut as Spirit Plate shot for a bigger, messier sound, and succeeded, something like NRBQ crossed with Kevin Morby, with raucous rhythm guitar and expanded percussion specifically evoking Exile-era Rolling Stones, less flower-y Stone Roses, or a groovier Thee Oh Sees.
On their new full-length Youth Moose, out August 4th from Russ’s Campers’ Rule Records, that approach remains intact. “Daily News Headline,” premiered here by Ravelin, begins with a snippet of programmed drumming only to explode into fuzzed guitar, tenor saxophone, and a wall of head-nodding percussion. Sax returns around 3:00 for a winding, brain-melting solo, leading the song out in spectacular fashion.
Additional Youth Moose tracks, like the charmingly shambolic “All Day Long,” or the Mellotron-supported “Everything’s a Joke” (fact check: might not be a mellotron) switch up enough to provide variance while one chop remains consistent: that ‘massive percussion wave,’ impressively recorded live at a semi-secret location in Greenpoint, by Russ, with minimal later overdubs. You can imagine fans dancing, live, while they recorded: “Open Automatic” almost requires dancing to its 4/4 stomp, an Afropop-inspired guitar figure whirling above a lovely vocal melody.
We spoke to Russ about Spirit Plate, Campers Rule, and modded preamp boxes.
What’s the story behind the band’s name?
I lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for a couple of years as a volunteer school teacher through the AmeriCorps program. Pine Ridge is the home of the Lakota Sioux tribe. This is the tribe known for, among so many other amazing things: Crazy Horse; Black Elk; Sitting Bull; the Wounded Knee Massacre, and then the Wounded Knee AIM occupation. One of the many eye-opening and enlightening traditions I learned about while living there was that of the “spirit plate.” Let’s say it’s dinner. When your meal is ready, and you are serving it out your guests/family, you always make sure to put together an extra plate of food to leave outside your doorstep, in front of your home. This plate of food is then meant to be a welcoming in of any spirits nearby who may be hungry – it’s like saying, “this home welcomes you, please partake in our meal, we want and respect your guidance and voice in our home.” We would leave out spirit plates at our volunteer house, and the tradition has really stuck with me over the years. When naming the band, as someone now living in New York City, I thought those two words “spirit” and “plate” initially don’t seem like they go together in any way and seem pretty jarring for someone who might not know about this tradition, but if you are aware of It – it’s a common practice that just makes sense. So I thought, what a perfect band name – seems to make no sense, but it’s actually full of meaning, a tradition that is thousands of years old.
You recorded live – what equipment did you use to record, however basic? What was done after that?
When I began writing the songs for this “Youth Moose” record, the band was growing in size, literally. We used to do shows with just three of us – Brad on bass, Chris on drums and me the guitar guy. But as the sound and vibe of the band evolved from a straight indie rock sound to a more substantial tropical and the world influenced thing, we added members to the point that we were up six people in the band. With an all-around sax, flute and keys player, David, and two additional percussionists Andrew and Billy, we could really hone in on the true sonic vision of the band. As the six-piece version of Spirit Plate started to cook and gel, I knew that when recording our new record, we had to capture the sound of all six of us playing at once. So that was my main priority – to get the sound of six people in one room playing together. We weighed some options at legit pro studios in Brooklyn, but it came down to it, there was no way we could afford to do it the way we wanted at a professional studio. Since I have been recording, mixing and mastering on my own, in a DIY sense, for years now, and did some records from scratch mostly with my old band, Backwords, I was kind of like – “We got this. We’re doing it ourselves.”
Over the years I’ve collected enough stuff to record a full band live. It’s all pretty outdated, fairly cheap, and obsolete type digital stuff, but you can find that stuff for nothing on Craigslist and eBay and some of my gear, like original made in the USA mics and little-modded preamp boxes actually are really nice and vintage sounding. Basically, the entire record was done in Logic 9 on a seven-year-old MacBook Pro that I upgraded the RAM and swapped for an SSD hard drive on. It would crash and glitch a million times because some of these songs have around 60 tracks on them. We did it through an older Mackie brand FireWire interface that I actually like but never heard of anyone using. As a band, we share a rehearsal space with about 8 other bands near the Acme Fish Smoking Factory in Greenpoint. To make this record I filled up a couple suitcases with all the recording gear I own, brought it to the rehearsal room, spent a few hours setting it all up, recorded the band with a bunch of room mics, close mics, and tons of bleed, and then spend two hours breaking it all down and wrapping up all the cables and putting everything back in the suitcases and taking it back to my apartment. We did four all-night sessions like this in that rehearsal room to get the main chunk of the record done. That part is very raw and cool sounding – the room is overcrowded with band gear and a real “Where’s Waldo” of clutter – I still don’t know how we managed to do this. But now I’m recording other bands in this fashion because somehow it works.
So then I took the tracks from those sessions and added whatever overdubs where needed, like guitars, sax, and then went back to the rehearsal space separately to do the vocals, all of which I did myself in one epic day of singing. Our bassist Brad is the voice of every backing vocal track on the record, and we recorded some of his vocals in the Greenpoint space, but he was in the process of moving to Nashville when we were finishing recording – so he did most of his vocal takes in Nashville and we kind of virtually collaborated on their sound for a while.
After that, my wife and I had our second child, so I would spend nights when the kids were asleep here and there in our tiny office space of a room mixing the record – probably over the course of a year – making a little progress at each go. In the end, I really enjoyed working on the record this way – because it was a labor of love and a real painstaking process, but the songs kept changing as I went about it and new things kept coming to life in the mix – stuff I probably never would have considered if it was like “we’re paying this person to record us and mix us and that will all be done in a week or so.” I’m self-taught at recording and mixing and mastering, with a long way to go in all of them, but every time I work on a record I feel like I get a little better at it, so that’s something I really enjoy about it too.
Talk about the space where you played/recorded. Did it influence the songs?
One thing I want to say here is that we were trying to make a conscious effort to not hide the truth, the grit or the fact that there is not any studio polish or sheen to this record – the struggles and chaos of the city and just the crazy way you have to go about accomplishing everyday tasks like doing your laundry or bringing groceries home was a big influence on this record. The space we recorded it in was too small, too chaotic, too cluttered, not acoustically treated in any way, had other bands playing really loud in the rooms on the other side of the walls, etc – just not a space suited for making a record – but we wanted to do that on purpose to kind of make a statement that goes along with the mantra of Youth Moose. From the dirty and massively jammed BQE to the trash on the streets in the stinking hot summer – we wanted to work too hard to make this record – so that it really counted – the way we all struggle to make things happen here in NYC as artists dedicated to art and working people and working families. There’s something addicting to it. It is the heart and soul of New York City me. Which is why in some of the songs on Youth Moose we have these silly call-outs to New York people like John Mayer or Taylor Swift – who I don’t really know – but they probably have a way different style or way of recording their records – yet we’re both doing the same thing in the end – making records.
Were the songs written/worked out live?
I wrote all the songs and demoed them out several months before we recorded them. For the most part on the recordings – we probably only had played some of the songs about 3-5 times from start to finish before going with a final take. Everyone kind of learned them in a couple rehearsals as a band, and then we recorded them. We didn’t do much of any practicing of these songs – which is a style of recording I stole from Neil Young who famously would be teaching the band the song for the first time while running the tape and then saying – “that’s it, that’s the recorded version.”
The songs’ percussion is dense – drums, and what else?
That’s our wall of sound percussion style. Chris, Billy, and Andrew. Those guys can really lock in, they all have some crazy setups of stuff and they feed off of each other really well. They’re all amazing drummers in their own right, but in Spirit Plate, they form this like massive percussion wave. We were joking the other day being like “half this band is drummers!” And it’s true! I personally like it so much that I’m always wanting to do less and less of everything else and more of just drums, bass and singing. But in that small room where we recorded, we had no idea if all those drums and percussive sounds would work or if it would just sound like garbled garbage. I had to do a lot of interesting EQ things later to bring everything out – and yeah it can get a little sloppy at times, but that’s just part of the vibe. One thing I forgot to mention about the recording process is that we did no listening back whatsoever. So we really had no idea what the stuff was sounding like until later after the fact. We just went with our gut feeling in terms of which take was the good one. For the most part the headphones didn’t even work, so you just heard what was in the room live.
From the dirty and massively jammed BQE to the trash on the streets in the stinking hot summer - we wanted to work too hard to make this record - so that it really counted - the way we all struggle to make things happen here in NYC as artists dedicated to art and working people and working families.
Talk about founding and running Campers Rule records (if Russ answering).
Many moons ago I was on my first tour with my old band, Backwords. We were camping out somewhere one night and in the middle of the night, someone got out of the tent to pee. Whoever it was, I can’t remember, was peeing like the second they opened the tent flap, and then someone inside the tent yelled, “Campers’ Rule man – you gotta pee at least 10 feet from your tent!” We were laughing so hard and I remember saying one day I’m gonna start a label called Campers’ Rule Records based on how much joy I got out of that stupid moment. But it’s also based on just being out on the road and playing music with your friends, doing it yourself, not making any money really, but just spreading the tunes around and seeing things and soaking up the art and culture of it all. We met so many great and amazing people and artists on all the little tours we did. When I became a dad about 4 years ago I felt like the time was right to start Campers’ Rule Records. It’s really fun for me, it keeps me connected to the Brooklyn and greater music scene. I’ve been able to do some really unique releases like my friend Brandon who goes by Cuss Words, who released a double record and a book of short stories which we hand published as well. I met a sister label over in the U.K. called Fox Food Records run by a really awesome guy and a dad too named James Smith. We did stuff for Cassette Store Day, and he’s collaborating on the Youth Moose release as well. We’ve been getting more and more bands email us their demos which I love and listen to all of, and I’m usually happy and psyched to contact them to see what we can work out – it’s never much – as I have no budget to run this – but it’s a legit LLC. Brad, the Spirit Plate bassist, is now our Nashville office, and the intent is to grow and really see what happens as an indie label. I take it seriously but have a lot of fun with it too.
Talk about “Daily News Headline” – what’s it about?
To me “Daily News Headline” is about wanting to be a little trashy and/or sensational like one of those stories in the Daily News and being ok with admitting it. On this record, we name names a lot. “You did Roger Waters gardening” is a true story about my brother-in-law who was a landscaper who happened to be working at Roger Waters NYC home – and that line is kind of like “couldn’t you slip him my demo.” You know how everyone wants to do that. Same with the Yoko Ono line in the song – “I want Yoko Ono to discover me.” Because sometimes I really do want that. But other times I’m a middle-class dad and happy to be just that and want nothing more. To be in no limelight, to just be a guy in New York City like the billions of other guys on the subway. There’s other stuff in there too – like coming to terms with the being out-priced and the changing of the DIY venues, art spaces and things that we used to do about 12 years ago when we first moved here. And it goes beyond that too. Like wondering what to do next? Is it time to leave this city? Did it get the best of us or did we get the best of it? Should we be devising some sort of plan? Who knows. We love it here. We don’t want to leave.Who’s playing the horn?
Thank you for asking that question. Because that’s David Engelhard and he’s incredible. One of the most talented musicians on one of the highest plains of musical theory and philosophy possible. He’s an incredible jazz player who doesn’t shy away from playing rock or any genre really of the intention is there among the collaborators. He’s a master of drums, piano, flute, sax, practically any instrument. He teaches music, gigs around the city like crazy, tours, and is one of the most down to earth human beings with a true love supreme in his heart. He plays all the keys, sax and flute parts on the record.
How was Northside?
Northside was cool as always. I wanna say that Jeff and his team from the L Magazine who run Northside are really amazing at what they accomplish from my humble perspective, and they up the bar every year it seems. I remember when Northside was a new thing and my old band, Backwords, was playing at it, I was thinking, “this is gonna be bigger than CMJ one day.” And that seems like it already happened and it’s on its way to being bigger and better than SXSW too. So much respect to the Northside team from me. We really enjoyed our showcase which had great bands all around thanks to Luis who runs Cara Bella who helped co-book a showcase with me/Campers’ Rule Records. Grim Streaker brought the fog machine. Debbie Downer is my new band obsession. Caged Animals are one of my favorite bands from Brooklyn of all time, and Luis helped bring this high energy band from Brazil who were really great Finger Fingerrr. Def check them out! Spirit Plate doesn’t play many shows right now – so each one is extra special for me, and this one, with the festival feeling of Northside behind it, coupled with playing a lot of the “Youth Moose” songs live for the first time was really a blast.
Any travel tour dates lined up soon?
We have the idea of doing a little tour around SXSW this March. We sat down and looked at the map and talked about possible routes. Brad lives in Nashville, Andrew lives near Jacksonville Florida, we have friends in New Orleans, Austin, and all those great towns down there. It would be super fun!
How has making/playing music in NYC, esp Brooklyn, changed over the last ten or 12 years?
I’ve come to the realization that New York City is a place of rapid change – that’s the nature of this town. And to me, it seems like it happens over 10-year cycles. I once sat down and counted all the venues I’ve played here over the years and the number was getting close to 100. But I would say a good half of them no longer exist, or maybe even more. I’m in my mid-30s now, and at this stage in life, a lot of our friends have decided it was time to leave the city. But then at the same time, you have tons of lifers, old school New Yorkers and people who were born and raised and grew up and are never leaving. Now I kind of dig it. This constant change keeps you on your toes, makes you seek out what’s important to you, and think of new ways to approach your art.
‘Youth Moose’ out 8/4/2017 via Campers Rule records, preorder: https://spiritplate.