Standing directly behind Joseph Hess, arranged face-to-face with Mabel Suen, in the basement of Apop Records wasn’t good for my hearing. But even though I carried that blissful buzz of decibel crushing pleasure for a good while, by no stretch of the imagination was it anything but exhilarating. Their sound is rich, generous, and accessible: The explosive, positively volcanic, drums perfectly compliment the precise, geometric shreds of metallic string scraping against lipstick pick-ups with copious amounts of reverb. Their recent LP Sweet Dreams, Strange Animal is a perfect representation of the craft that’s implemented into their songwriting, and in no time you’ll be a Spelling Bee fan like I am. You’ll get many chances to see them this summer, the first of which will be April 8th with Zevious (PA) at the Schlafly Tap Room.
I’ve always been fascinated with the limitations/constraints of writing and performing as the duo. A band of 2 can make themselves sound like 12 with the assistance of samples, pre-recorded music, etc. but I found something wonderfully “immediate” about your sound. Being that both of you have had your share of experience in different bands, what was your goal with Spelling Bee?
Joseph: Both of us had been on tour in previous bands and we wanted to continue doing that. The fewer members you have in a band, the easier it is to tour. Being romantically involved, it made sense to create something we could call our own (just the two of us) and travel with it. We didn’t expect many people in St. Louis to be enthusiastic about the project and had plans to primarily tour out of town. The support locally has been wonderful and I hope we do a suitable job of representing St. Louis to everyone else.
Mabel: I think someone once described us as a “cozy” little two-piece, and I’ve always liked that. We simply strive to do the best we can with the few skills that we have, utilizing our natural chemistry together to create something fun that we can share with others.
Having resumes as collectively prolific as the two of you, how do you go about keeping creatively fresh and developing a unique experience with the band?
Joseph: Hearing new music that is both intriguing and exciting is my primary motivation for keeping things fresh and unique. I have never felt like I was proficient musician in any facet, so I strive to create things that are unique to me. When I see or hear a band I try to absorb the feeling or message of the music, rather than pay attention to the intellectual nature of the composition. A group of 18-year-old artists playing sloppy punk in a basement can present a greater appeal to me than a group of experienced progressive jazz artists.
Mabel: Seeing or being involved with extremely charismatic musicians always offers new, refreshing perspectives on things. My mind is still blown all the time by the energy behind some of the great music that I get to experience live or that I’m lucky enough to participate in. It’s all an exciting learning experience, and absorbing the motivations and emotions that go into everything really is a quintessential part of it.Can you describe the collaborative/songwriting process of the group? I’m so curious to hear how these songs came about.
Joseph: It began with Mabel writing a group of guitar riffs and me modifying the parts, changing the rhythms and piecing things together in a way I found appealing and exciting. Once the music was finished, I wrote lyrics that conveyed the feeling of the song and Mabel and I would split up the vocals as evenly as possible. The songwriting process has evolved to the point now where we’re improvising and coming up with sections through free-form playing. We also have sections where I come up with a rhythm and she plays to it, or we employ older techniques to compose the music. Those methods among others are used. I want to begin writing songs based on an “idea” or “feeling” and attempt to compose sound that conveys just that.
There’s an incredibly visceral, angular rip to your sound. I thought it extremely cohesive in both a live setting and on record. How much tweaking do you do to that sound to get it where you want it?
Joseph: I will say that most artists become incredibly frustrated when they play a particular section wrong or perform unintentional errors. I believe that is a part of the live experience and should not be met with disappointment. However, I am very picky on the tone and sound quality of our instrumentation live. We use two amplifiers that produce different facets of the guitar sound and spread them out as far away as possible. This way, the guitar is not swallowing any part of the drum-set, and the percussion is not overpowering any aspect of the guitar parts. Every room you perform in lends itself to different acoustic qualities, so we spend the most time tweaking before we begin playing.
Mabel: I’m pretty drawn to in-your-face hard-hitting sound; however, It’s important to me that there is some depth beyond simply being “loud,” so I incorporate fuzz and delay pedals to coincide all the different tones and pitches coming out of Joe’s carefully tuned drum kit. Joe has played in a couple of duos before, so he has a great understanding of how the balance game works. Almost all of my equipment was bought secondhand, so a borderline rustic/trashy quality comes through somewhat intentionally too. Playing around with various textures like these is one of the funnest parts about writing and performing.
Do you guys find it difficult to navigate the dichotomy that can result in the space between the “record” and “playing live”. Do you have a desire to do something different on record that you can’t do live? Or is the record just a representation of what the listener has the chance of experiencing in going to a show?
Joseph: As I stated, I feel every room produces different acoustic qualities. Most performances are saturated with small imperfections and sounds unique to that time and place. An album should be a representation of the artist’s intent. With an album, you hear things the way the artist wants you to hear them. In a performance, you hear things the way the inherent circumstances cause you to hear them.
Mabel: A lot of musicians will record all the instruments separately in the studio, but we’ve always preferred live recordings in which we play together so that some of that raw energy is still retained. We also prefer to have our audio engineers incorporate their creative input. After all, engineers are artists too, and their work is being represented in the recordings as much as our own.Having been on tour and playing in other cities besides Saint Louis, I would think it’s given you the chance to get a good overview of what’s happening in independent music as a whole. What are your observations?
Joseph: I feel that concerts with diverse line-ups are becoming popular. People are realizing that seeing four bands from the same mold is not as exciting. I think that we will see less concentrated line-ups and more unity between ideas and thoughts. The mainstream music industry is a slow falling giant, something punk bands no longer need to speak out against. As always, we have throwback bands that emulate the sounds and ideas of the past, progressive bands that move forward with new ideas and a far reaching middle ground that is easy to tap into.
Mabel: One thing I’ve learned is that exceptional and interesting music is happening and being supported anywhere and everywhere you can possibly look. Figuring out where it’s hanging out is the hard part!
The band set-up you have is ideal for playing just about ANYWHERE. Can you talk about some of the best, worst, strangest places that you’ve played?
Joseph: Recently we played outside the Old Post Office Plaza downtown St. Louis with Theodore. The baseball stadium only a few blocks away, bustling traffic and a natural light show coming from a setting sun provided a unique backdrop. Our first performance was an outdoor grand opening for the Binge & Purge store on Cherokee Street. Sound and clarity is always a fickle issue when you perform outdoors. We have performed in a secluded park area and a grocery store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Brooklyn we found ourselves in an abandoned party supply store. St. Louis has some great performance spaces in warehouses on the riverfront, as well.
Mabel: Our favorite places to perform tend to be open environments that foster independence, culture and unity – places like art spaces, shops, or even friends’ basements or living rooms. We also enjoy some local bars that do shows like Lemmons and the Schlafly Tap Room because they cater to a lot of different crowds while still being exceptionally considerate to the musicians. Our most memorable shows tend to be in nontraditional venues without stages. It literally and metaphorically puts the audience and the performer on the same level, which I love!
After playing so many shows with so many different bands, you must have played with bands in Saint Louis or otherwise that made an indelible impression on you. What are some bands that the readers of MOTH should be actively seeking out?
Joseph: Artists that we have performed with that have left lasting impressions on me are (but are not limited to): Zach Hill (of Hella), Lightning Bolt, Cheer-Accident, Yowie, Polysics, Jeff the Brotherhood, Past Lives, Glass Teeth, Mil Effect, Skarekrau Radio, High In One Eye, Female Demand, Haii Usagi, Gnarwhal, Marj, Onlythebugman, Zwounds, Egg Chef, Thy Mighty Contract, The Sunglasses, The Living Room, Catacombz, Lord of The Yum Yum, Jake Murta, Tideland and many others. That’s off the top of my head. There are undoubtedly more bands.
Mabel: Add to that list The Conformists, Theodore, Der Todesking, I Love You, Hunter Gatherer, Passe Montagne, Doom Town, Medical Tourists, Lonely Procession, Bangerang, The Red Squad, Demon Horse, Curtis Tinsley, The Pat Sajak Assassins, N. Nomurai, Windy Hill Mill, Sine Nomine, Smiley with a Knife, Bunnygrunt, .e, Concentric, Tambersauro and more.
What are your plans for Spelling Bee in the near future?
Joseph: We have our new album, Sweet Dreams, Strange Animal, which was recorded with Ryan Wasoba (formerly of So Many Dynamos). The formats are compact disk and cassette tape. We recorded the entire album in two days back in June 2010, and sent it off for production right away. Albums serve as a snapshot and up until this point we had yet to take that picture. The time was right as our Summer was packed to the brink with tours and festivals. Spelling Bee was asked to play Bitchpork 2010 in Chicago (which ran concurrently with the Pitchfork Media Festival). We also flew to Houston, Texas to play Tambersauro’s final performance and embarked on an East Coast tour directly thereafter.
We had put off getting this album together until the time was right and the funds were there to support it. Too often do bands put an album together and a 4-6 month period occurs between recording and release. We wanted to be able to cut the album and release it almost right away, so the album is fresh and new while we are on tour supporting it.
Mabel: I guess you could say that we were busy little bees last summer!…
Joseph: We have a split 7″ coming out next month with Glass Teeth (on red vinyl!), and we’re opening for Lighting Bolt at The Luminary on April 23rd, and we’re touring the entire United States this year.
What are you guys listening to at the moment, or listen to while you’re on tour?
Joseph: The greatest joys of tour are enjoying new artists, seeing new sights and eating exciting new foods along the way. We hope to fill our long drives with new music, old favorites (like our extensive Deerhoof discography, a necessity for any road trip) and stand-up comedy recordings.
Mabel: I think we actually listened to a lot of video game soundtracks and old school rap during our last tour… but you can also always hear what we’re into at any given time on our radio show, Wrong Division. We always come back from tour with great new finds to share, so check back with us soon!