It’s been eight years since Scott Kannberg released a record as Spiral Stairs. He’s been busy, mind you, with a Pavement reunion, kids, moving to Australia, then to Los Angeles and now Mexico. The wait is over, though, with Spiral Stairs’ terrific new album, Doris and the Daggers, which is easily his most emotionally direct record ever, touching on fatherhood, death, happiness and other “life stuff.” He can still craft a massive hook, too, and the LP is probably his best non-Pavement work to date. You can check out new single “Dundee Man,” which Kannberg says lyrically is “about remembering things in the past” and musically is an homage to LLoyd Cole & The Commotions. You can listen to that below.
Scott is currently gearing up for his first Spiral Stairs tour in years, which will happen on the West Coast in April, with the rest of the country to follow later in 2017. His first shows, though, will be at SXSW. All dates are listed below. I talked to Kannberg via phone about the impending tour, the new album, its many guest stars (The National’s Matt Berninger, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Kelley Stoltz & more), the fun incentives with the LP’s Pledgemusic campaign, what he’s got planned for his 51st birthday, and more. Read that below.
So you live in Mexico these days?
Yeah I live in Mérida, it’s in the Yucatan. It’s like three hours West of Cancun. A couple million people live here, it’s pretty cool. I moved down here about six months ago, had to get out of L.A. and the States for a while. It wasn’t political (laughs), although things are moving that way. I may not be able to get back over the wall, who knows?
Yeah, right? I don’t want to derail this interview with politics right off the bat, but what’s the vibe down there?
Mérida is kind of different. It’s so far East of the rest of Mexico you don’t really have the same kind of problems or stuff going on but, people think it’s ridiculous. There are a lot of people here who are pretty angry. They’re a little worried, and the peso is taking quite a hit because of it. Mexico, for such a long time, was very rich and very poor but over the last 15 years there’s been a growing Middle Class, and they’re coming to Merida because so many other cities in Mexico are not so safe. People are worried that that is going to change. It’s hard to tell because my Spanish is not the greatest, but I can kind of understand. People are confused. Just like all of us I guess.
Mérida sounds nice. I hear a lot of birds in the background…
There’s some birds here! They’re pretty loud I guess, but I’m used to loud birds because I lived in Australia for a while and down there the fucking birds are insane. They have the loudest, craziest birds that would come down and swoop on you, or try and peck you if you were riding you bike down the street. At least the birds here are friendly.
So, this is your first album in eight years.
I guess it just came out that way, with all the delays in recording and finally getting it out. I started in 2015 so, yeah, I guess it’s been a while. I’ve also been doing stuff. Time just got away from me, musically. After my last record, Pavement got back together and did a world tour, so I never really toured that LP. Then I got married, had a kid, moved to Australia and…shit just got in the way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t making music. I was still writing songs and stuff but, fuck, time went quick. When you have a kid, time just goes by so quick because that’s all you’re doing.
So was there a song that when you wrote it, really made you think “OK I need to make a new album now.”
Originally I was going to record in Seattle with the guys I always record with and then our drummer [Darius Minwalla] died unexpectedly, so what was going to be a really quick recording session got derailed. It took me a little bit of time to get over that and figure out what I was going to do, and in the meantime I just started writing a lot more. They were different kinds of songs, too, dealing with death and life and being happy. So that’s what I think changed it all. I had a bunch of songs from before but they took a different, more emotional direction after that.
I definitely think this is the most from-the-heart batch of songs you’ve ever done.
I think I finally found a key to my songwriting. I don’t know what song, specifically, that would be. When you write songs, you listen to them so many times. You think one song is going to be great and then when you end up recording it, another song you didn’t think would be so good ends up being the best one. Like the first song on the record, “Dance.” That was just kind of a throwaway song I had, but in the studio it morphed into this Bowie-esque, Roxy Music kind of thing and really came alive.
Does “Mother’s Eyes” speak directly to Darius’ death?
I kinda had that song and I had this verse about him, and then I made the other two verses about other people who died unexpectedly. Friends of mine. So, maybe that was the origins of the record. And then the last song I sang for the record, did the vocals for, was “Exiled Tonight” and it was really eerie, I couldn’t find the right words for that song. Then I ended up having this dream where Darius was this ghost who couldn’t rest until I finished this song. That was really weird. Sometimes there’s shit going on in your subconscious that spurs you to finish stuff.
There are a lot of guest stars on this record: Kevin Drew, Matt Berninger…
Kevin I’ve known for a while and he was friends with Darius as well. That song “Emoshuns” that he sings on is actually a song that we did together for Sled Island festival in Calgary back in 2008. I was the guest curator that year. We had this band called Human Milk that we put together just for this festival and “Emoshuns” was one of the songs, so when I went to rerecord the song for the album I wanted to make sure he was a part of it. Luckily, he was in L.A. at the time. Justin from Broken Social Scene plays all the drums on the album. Matt I’ve been friends with since The National and Pavement toured together in 2010. He lives in L.A. so we’ve met each other a few times. Actually, “Exiled Tonight” was a song that I’d envisioned him singing, I wrote it in this vocal style that he kinda takes. So I asked him if he wanted to come sing it, he came to the studio and insisted I had to be the one to sing it. He provided backups though and it was cool.
Your old Crocodiles bandmate Kelley Stoltz is on the album too.
He’s on it all over the place, he did a lot of the cool keyboard parts on the album.
I feel lucky to have seen Crocodiles’ [Spiral Stairs and Kelley Stoltz’s Echo & the Bunnymen cover band who played Crocodiles in full) only NYC show, which was at Arlene’s Grocery during CMJ 2003.
Really. That was a cool show. Did we have a smoke machine for that one?
Oh yeah, you couldn’t see anything.
That was awesome. [Bunnymen guitarist] Will Sergeant was in the crowd for that show.
They’d played Webster Hall earlier that night.
And now Kelley actually got to play guitar with the Bunnymen on that tour last year.
Really? I had no idea.
Yeah, he was the rhythm guitar player, living out his dream. I was so jealous! “That should be me!” People are trying to get us to do it again, but I don’t know when it would happen. Maybe we could do a different record this time, Heaven Up Here.
One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Dundee Man.” Had you just taken a trip to Scotland?
The lyrics are about remembering things in the past, and the music’s sort of an homage to Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, so I guess Scotland just became a part of it somehow. I like that song.
There’s a song by The Fall, “Edinburgh Man.”
Oh of course, yeah. It’s kind of based on that as well. My version of that. He’s got “Edinburgh Man” and I’ve got “Dundee Man.” Beat you to it, Mark E Smith.
There’s a little bit of that Brix-era poppy Fall on this album.
The melodies and stuff, keyboards. The guy that I did the record with who engineered it, Dan Long — and Kelley Stoltz as well — the kind of keyboard sounds they were wanting to use are very mid-’80s new wavey. There’s definitely some I Am Curious Orange in there, which is my favorite Fall record.
There are so many Fall albums.
I know. Speaking of so many records, I just heard Robert Pollard is releasing his 100th album! That’s amazing. I’m sure Mark E Smith is pretty close but maybe not. [Nowhere near – Bill] I wonder if there’s someone who has every one of those Pollard records. I betcha there is. It’s inspiring. They’re all pretty good. I remember Matador telling me back in the late ’90s when Pavement was still around, they’d be like “We can’t deal with GBV anymore cause Pollard just keeps putting out new records every three months! We can’t afford it.” I was like “c’mon, man, it’s Guided by Voices!”
So with the new album you’ve got an interesting Pledgemusic campaign with some cool big ticket incentives, some Spiral Stairs “experiences” like a private concert, a round of golf with you or, in a tip of the hat to Pavement, you take someone to IKEA.
They’re pretty cool, I think. There’s one that’s me playing a private party, that seems like a fun one. You know, a bunch of guys could go in on it together and have me play whatever songs they want. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do that wth my favorite band. The IKEA thing, it was just like, “let’s think of crazy ideas.” It would be kind of cool of to go shopping. I still like IKEA.
Do you have an IKEA strategy? Do you follow the line through the store, do you head straight for the market stuff?
I have a hard time in that place. You have to know exactly what you want and zip through it. If there was a fan that wanted to spend all day there, it’d be great. I know everything about IKEA.
Do you make time for meatballs?
That would be the last bit, right? The meatballs or the hot dogs. But if someone was vegan, we’d just eat the Lingonberry jam?
On the golfing one, will you come to them or is it your choice of course?
I come to them. I’ll go wherever. It’s part of the package. The only bummer is that it’s only offered for the U.S. and Canada. That limits half the world, but if anyone wants to play golf with me I’d love to do it.
Is there a course you’ve always wanted to play but never have?
Oh man. Hmm. I’ve played a lot of courses. St. Andrews, the old course, I’ve never played. I’ve been on the new course which is the one right next door, but I coudn’t play the old course, because it’s a lottery system and I was too lazy to get on it. The old course at St. Andrew’s would be a great one, so if there’s anybody reading this who wants to bring me over, let’s do it.
You’re going to tour for the record, right? I hear you’re playing SXSW.
Yeah we’re playing a few shows at South By, and we’ve got a West Coast tour lined up for April, and hopefully we’re working on something in June for the rest of the U.S. and Canada. We’re trying to figure out what we can manage. Also I’m going to throw another big birthday party in San Francisco for my 51st. I don’t know if you heard about my 50th birthday party last year.
Yeah you did two nights with The Jicks.
It was so cool. Steve filled in for my other favorite band of all time, The Clean. But The Clean are going to be touring the West Coast in August so it looks like they’re going to play my birthday party, and I’m going to play with them. Maybe Steve will come out for that too. Kelley Stoltz may have gotten to play with The Bunnymen but I’m gonna get to play with The Clean!
Spiral Stairs – 2017 Tour Dates
March 15 SXSW 11pm Nine Mile Records and Touring Showcase at Maggie Mae’s Upstairs
March 18 SXSW 4 pm Nick Tangborn’s 6th Annual Secret Handshake Party
April 19 San Diego Soda Bar
April 20 LA Resident
April 21 San Francisco Swedish American Hall
April 22 Sacramento Old Ironsides
April 23 Chico Duffy’s
April 24 Portland Mississippi Studios
April 25 Seattle Sunset Tavern