A Dash Of The Weird: An Interview With Solos’ Spencer Seim

Solos

With Hella’s 2007 release There’s No 666 In Outer Space, the noise rock duo of Zach Hill and Spencer Seim expanded their lineup to a quintet, embracing into its ranks the eccentric musings of folk singer Aaron Ross on lead vocals. While the future of Hella’s on-and-off hiatus remains uncertain, the meeting was a creative spark between Seim and Ross. Taking time away from their own solo projects to explore their musical kinship, the result was (ironically enough) titled Solos, a perfect marriage of Ross’ classic rock sensibilities with an infusion of Seim’s eccentric drummings.

Before opening for Pinback at the High Noon Saloon this Sunday, November 18 (tickets here), I talked to drummer Spencer Seim about Aaron Ross, his experiences recording the band’s first album The Beast of Both Worlds, the financial realities of being a musician, and how the music of Mega Man 2 changed his life.

True Endeavors: Your band has caused journalists to use some of the most interesting adjectives I’ve ever seen in trying to describe your sound. Help me out here–how would you describe your band to someone who was about to pick up your record?

Spencer Seim: Obviously it’s always really hard for an artist to describe their own music. When people ask me how other people describe it, it’s a really flattering description, but one that I thought worked really well was “MGMT meets Zeppelin.” Not because our styles are super similar–it’s just more the approach. There are technical aspects to what [Solos] does, and a lot of it is really trying to lay it down big and heavy but have the parts sound interesting. I thought it was a good combination only because MGMT mixes synth and things with what they do, and Aaron and I incorporated synthesizers early on because we liked it and because we did not have anyone to play bass or anything low end. Synthesizer works because Aaron can play it with his feet with a Roland MIDI pedal, which we still use now. We’ve added another member for touring, and he’s also writing the next album with us. He’s able to do a lot of the ambient guitar stuff that’s on the record. So I think that’s a good description. A mix between classic rock with…

A dash of the weird.

Yeah, and not just for the sake of being weird. The stuff Aaron writes is very weird, but also has a pop element to it. And I guess I’m the same way, which is probably the reason why neither of us hit it big as far as the music industry. [Laughs.] Our music is strange enough where it’s not diluted enough for everyone to be able to completely understand it.

The first time you and Aaron Ross collaborated was with Hella’s There’s No 666 In Outer Space. At what point did you begin discussing what would become Solos?

I guess at that time, and also after that album, the band [Hella] stopped playing basically. Aaron and I still had a great relationship. Obviously, Hella has always been Zach [Hill] and I when we both got together, and Zach and I had our various issues and things. So once we were kind of at that point, Aaron and I wanted to continue playing. Something a bit different, but basically just combine our two styles, whatever that would sound like. We’d been talking about it for years but it never really happened until recently. Both of us have kind of been doing our own solo music, but I know for me personally, I enjoy being in a band where others get to put in ideas and feedback. To me, that’s what makes music fun.

 What do you like about Aaron’s lyrics and what he brings to the group?

Everything. [Laughs.] I’ve just always been super into what that dude does. I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve gone to see him [live] many times. Even way before the Hella collaboration or anything. That’s kind of how [Hella] first thought of having him, is just because we were all fans of his music. He also lives in the same town that I do, so I was able to see him a lot over the years, just him with a guitar. And I’ve always thought that where he was coming from lyrically was very real and different. I’ve never seen him perform and not gotten goosebumps numerous times throughout it, so for me it’s really exciting to be playing with him.

 You also worked with Guy Massey, who has produced records for The Beatles and Radiohead. In general, what’s a producer’s involvement with a record, and how was working with Guy different than other albums you’ve worked on?

Well honestly, I’ve actually never worked with a producer. From various interviews and things I’d read over the years, especially from major label bands that were picked up off a demo they had and then sent in the studio with a producer, it ended up being a negative experience even though the album did well. A lot of bands view it as a negative because a producer comes in and dumbs down what you are doing, and makes you play things that hurt your soul on your own music [Laughs.] So maybe that’s why we’ve never gotten a producer before. I’d always thought that that’s what having a producer was like, but I’d also heard from various people describing it as an amazing experience with the right producer.

I just knew it was going to be like that with Guy. Our good friend Josh Henry produced the record with Guy, and he was the one who actually gave guy our demo recordings. Just the fact that Guy has been at Abbey Road for eleven years…he does amazing recordings and he’s an absolute professional, so he’s there for a reason. And just the fact that he wanted us to come out and record us, basically with no budget because he really liked it, made me have an understanding what he was like before we even got there. It wasn’t going to be this contrived thing where a label tells the producer, “We want it to sound like this.” We didn’t have a specific idea of the sound, we just knew that we wanted to make the songs into their best form possible.

Is a producer’s job somewhat like an editor to writing?

I guess so, but in this case it’s almost like a co-writer. I mean, Aaron and I wrote all the parts for the record. But Guy and Josh are sound masters as far as taking a pre-existing guitar part and understanding first of all what frequency range is going to fit into the music, but also what the voicing of it is going to be, and then pairing a bunch of voicings into one entity as the song. That’s what those guys are really good at. They also did help us adjust arrangements, but there wasn’t a whole lot of, “No, play something more bluesy.” It was just adjusting what we’d already written to sound better. Which I really appreciated, because for somebody else to tell you to kind of change your style–especially for someone like myself and Aaron who are not trained–we wouldn’t really be able to do that. If they were like, “Hey, do this in kind of a more bluesy scale”, neither of us would know what that is or how to approach that. So that would have been frustrating. [Laughs.]

I was surprised to see the Michael Jackson cover “They Don’t Care About Us” at the end of the album. Why that song? It’s a strange song from Jackson’s catalogue.

It is. What’s funny is I actually didn’t have any decision making in that except for that I suggested we play it as a band. I saw Aaron perform with a guitar at a local Michael Jackson benefit concert, so all of my musician friends were all putting together little bands to play Michael Jackson covers. And I saw Aaron play [“They Don’t Care About Us”]. The original song is very mechanical and electronic, with not a whole lot of melody going on, at least in the music. The way that Aaron was able to apply that to a guy with a guitar worked amazingly, so all I suggested was that we figure out a way to do that as a band. So we added synthesizer and other things, but did it in a style that he came up with all on his own.

Would you be willing to talk about the financial realities of being a touring musician? 

You could think of it in a lot of different ways. I was just thinking about this tour that we have lined up, and how it’s funny the way things come together. I’m sure people know that when you’re on tour, they say, Oh, this and that must be hard. And I think it can be, especially if you’re in a band that maybe isn’t your own music or you’re just a hired hand for the tour. I could see that getting very long and tedious. But all the tours that I’ve been on have always been really fun and the music has been great. So driving sometimes six to ten hours a day and playing in a different city every day, where in certain circumstances it might be hell, it can also be really great.

This East Coast tour we have coming up with Pinback, it’s long drives every day, and you’re putting in a whole lot of energy every day and even a lot of your own money to get all the merch together just for a forty minute set every night. That’s a funny reality, but that’s what it is. If you’re doing that a lot like I was early on, I made a very good living for myself. I wasn’t supporting a family or anything at that point, but that was amazing. So that’s the big thing to consider. Unless you’re selling billions of records or hundreds of thousands of records on an indie label, you make most of your money from touring. That’s why you see all these bands who may not be getting big, but they’re touring all the time, because they can make a good income.

You’re known for your complex melodies, and with the previous work you’ve done with bands like the NES-cover band The Advantage, would you say that you’re inspired by video game music?

Yeah, definitely. It was some of my favorite music growing, and that’s the section of my life where I feel like I was the most influenced in general. I’m definitely guilty of pausing a game and recording [the game’s] music with my walkman so I could listen to it away from the television.

What did you like about that style?

I guess just the simplicity of it. Obviously, a lot of are very complex compositions, but the fact that they had to produce this music with only four channels of audio to use, they really had to fill the space in a way. Especially for the real complex compositions which I thought were interesting, where instruments are taking over for different parts. Basically, there was no room for added, unnecessary stuff, which I can appreciate. Obviously, I love complex music. Though I’ve always wanted to do it without overplaying, as ridiculous as that may sound to you. I’ve always just wanted to lay it down in a way that sounded like one entity as opposed to a bunch of people shredding on various instruments.

What were some your favorite scores from video games?

Definitely a lot of stuff from the Mega Man series. Actually, Mega Man 2. I remember the Doctor Wily stages, all four of those I guess had the same music, which I really liked. I also really liked the end themes. I think they always tried to make the end themes on the games really catchy and triumphant, so that when you get to it there’s a little reward, even though you’re just watching a bunch of things happen on the screen after you’ve beat it. But part of the anticipation of beating the game is that you actually get to watch the game do something by itself and play a little sequence. So the ending music on a lot of games is great. I really remember Ninja Gaiden and the Mega Man series having awesome music. Those were the kinds of things that made me feel goosebumps or butterflies in my stomach.

–interview by Austin Duerst

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