Archive for March, 2010
grandscheme’s Spokesman of the Ghost chats with Spy Island about new release, At the Vegan Witch Trials
Dale Nicholls is the master mind behind Portland’s Spy Island. We tracked him down in the songwriting mines of the Willamette Valley to talk about the group’s latest release, At the Vegan Witch Trials.
Spokesman of the Ghost: The production on At the Vegan Witch Trials seems to grab attention from the get go. The liner notes say that it was recorded by you and Rian Lewis in basements and bedrooms. Except for the drums recorded at Ripcord in Vancouver, WA. Can you take us through your recording process for a bit? What kind of recording set up do you use? What was the decision to just record the drums in a studio? All of your records for the most part were recorded by you. Are you an engineer at heart? Or, did you just fall into it? Do you feel like the nature of home recording has advanced so much that you can totally get a sound that you want now?
SPY: The recording process is pretty basic. Lots of Thai food and beer. We did the drums in a studio so we could get a good room sound, and take advantage of some gear that we (Rian Lewis and I) don’t own. When we go into the studio we try to get the most bang for our buck and record really fast. Get the drums and my scratch guitar down, wolf down some food, then track anything as much as possible. Ripcord has a nice wobbly Wurlitzer and a creaky pump organ, so we did those parts. Usually by then, we’re drunk and exhausted. We then convene at Rian’s house or my apartment and finish the record. On At The Vegan Witch Trials, we tracked and mixed using Logic Studio on my laptop. It’s a sweet set-up. I was able to take my laptop, a homemade pre-amp and a Duet interface all over town to record sax, vocals, etc. at the player’s houses. I love recording and engineering, and yes, I fell into it. Geeking out when I was really young. Listening to records in headphones and trying to mentally deconstruct the tones, picturing the band recording, etc. I would collect photos of my favorite bands in the studio and tape them to my wall. I’ve never made a recording that I’m 100% in love with. For me the process of songwriting, recording, etc. is the best part. Once it’s a finished product, I rarely listen to it. I move on to the next batch of songs.
SOTG: Do you feel like your songwriting has changed over the years? What is your songwriting process? How does an idea develop? Are you always working at it? Or, does it go in waves?
SPY: It comes in waves for sure. I’ll write a grip of songs in a day or two, then not pick up a guitar for weeks. Lazy songwriter I guess. I’m always taking notes of melody or lyric ideas. With this record and the newer stuff, I try to be as concise as possible. Some of the old tunes had a lot of stoner jam outros and noodling. Now I try to trim the fat, and get out before the song gets boring. Although, when we play live, we do rock some stoner jams.
SOTG: Spy Island was based in Detroit at its conception. What was the decision to move? And, do you feel that your songwriting was influenced by dwelling in different environments?
SPY: Detroit is a weird and amazing place. After living in the city proper for six years, I needed a change. Roommates got mugged, gunshots at night, snowstorms, dirty air, sulfur smells, car getting booted, etc. I felt like the city was done with me. I have family in Portland and I grew up spending my summers here, so I was familiar with the city. So, about six years ago I packed up my ’91 Ford Escort Wagon and drove west. I think my songwriting is very influenced by my surroundings. A lot of my Detroit songs had undertones of paranoia and fear, frustration, etc. Portland is kinda bland. Terrible drivers, lots of beards and tattoos, NPR moms and subarus. No real sense of danger, but I love it here. Mountains and ocean so close. Although we need more juggaloos.
SOTG: There seems to be different contributors to each of Spy Island’s records. Would you consider Spy Island a band? Or, a moniker for a solo project with the help of others? Where do you find the other members? Spy Island has always used different vocalists on all recordings. Lucy Martin seems to have a particularly distinct voice that might have created a different vibe on this record. Your voice and Martin’s works so well together. Where did you find her?
SPY: I write the tunes, then gather friends together to play and record. It’s the David Bowie school of record-making: write some songs, then find musicians who are better than yourself. I like recording with different people to get different brains on it. All my demos sound the same and it’s fun to hear someone go a completely different direction. I’m a pretty limited musician and often can’t play what I hear in my head. The same goes with recording different vocalists. I view it as an instrument or a tool. Like changing mics or preamps, it’s the same. Lucy and I worked together for about a year and then she moved to NYC for school. She was home for the summer and I bribed her to record with me. She would just nail it first take while eating a tuna sandwich. Crazy. I’m trying to figure out how to get her on the next record too. She’s insanely talented and hilarious and will probably be famous someday. Then I will release the embarrassing vocal outtakes CD and make millions!
SOTG: Was there any specific thing that influenced you while making the At the Vegan Witch Trials record?
SPY: Just the usual. Life, the news, vagrants on the bus, work, spring reverbs, friends, overheard conversations, Vanessa, weird dreams, etc. My friend Bret is a very prolific songwriter. He’s in the band Crosstide, and his solo project is called Incredible Yacht Control. He writes like 40 songs a week or something stupid like that. He inspired me to just write and not over-think it. The same reason I love Fred Thomas’ (Saturday Looks Good to Me) work. Output, output, but it’s quality.
SOTG: What are your plans for 2010 and beyond? More record releases? Touring?
SPY: All of it! We’re about halfway done with a new ten-song LP called “New Milesian Kings.” I just finished writing an EP, and we’re starting to play shows again. Later in the summer, we’re recording an LP called “Ghosts & Goblins.” We’re pretty excited for this year.
The new SPY ISLAND album, AT THE VEGAN WITCH TRIALS, is now available for download or purchase here: