SPIRIT FAMILY REUNION
hAVE A BEER WITH SPIRIT FAMILY REUNION
Spirit Family Reunion are East Coast natives, but you'd hardly believe it from their homegrown, Americana sound. Gathered around one mic on-stage, Spirit Family's six members stomp, clap and holler in a wildly cohesive way. We had a chance to see the band perform at Evanston SPACE on May 28, and the entire performance felt less like a concert and more like a communal gathering between friends. Strangers were dancing together. Drinks were flowing. And on-stage, Spirit Family Reunion led the charge with the sounds of traditional instruments like the fiddle, washboard, upright and acoustic guitar. If you need to see it to believe it, you can check out their NPR Tiny Desk session or catch them at one of numerous folk festivals they've got on their line up, including a second-year run at Newport Folk Festival.
We sat down with the band before their show at SPACE over some beers, red wine and gin and tonics to chat rock 'n' roll (and un-rock-'n'-roll) moments, the hype of the music business, what fellow bands they're looking forward to seeing at Newport and what it means to put a song through the "Spirit Family Filter."
The Show: Evanston SPACE, May 28, 2013
Drinks of Choice: Gin and tonics, red wine and beer
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You’re playing Newport Folk Festival here in the next few weeks. How long have you been out on this leg of the tour?
Stephen: Yeah, that’s our next run. We started in St. Louis on April 15, we’re out for seven-and a-half weeks and we’re back on June 9. We drove from New York to St. Louis, then we went all the way up the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle, back across Montana, then over to Maryland and now back over to Chicago...Because Josh, our booking agent, never took geography. I’m just kidding—he’ll be here in a minute.
Kristen: Have you played Chicago before?
Ken: We played Schubas previously.
Maggie: And we did a house show. It was funny.
Stephen: There was a girl in a bikini and a vaporizer. It was in Chicago proper, but maybe twenty minutes outside of downtown.
Maggie: It was one of those shows where there were like seven bands on the bill. A lot of the people that were there were in bands.
Stephen: And a girl in a bikini. That was weird.
Kristen: When you've previously played Chicago, do you enjoy it?
Maggie: Yeah, for sure. You remind me of New York more than any place.
Ken: Chicago has been good for us recently. That last show at Schubas was sold out.
Maggie: We’ve met some really good friends here, too.
Stephen: Yeah, Al Scorch, you might know him. He’s a local.
Maggie: He’s slowly become one of the Spirit Family.
Kristen: I’m sure you get this question a lot. Where does the band name come from?
Stephen: We don’t have a good story, which kind of sucks. My joke is always, “Matchbox 20 was taken, so…” The truth is, when we first started playing shows, Nick and I worked at a bar and every show was a different group of people playing with us, so every show we just had a different band name and then one day, he put down “Spirit Family Reunion,” and it just made it to the next show... I like to think that you could have a really shitty band name and if you’re good, you’ll still cut through.
Kristen: Who inspires you musically?
Maggie: We all really like Dr. Doug.
Stephen: We all agree on a couple of people, which is nice. We all like Big Kitty from Chattanooga, Michael Hurley, Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Tumbleweeds…I think most of us like The Alabama Shakes. We like Leyla McCalla.
Maggie: Those are the ones we all agree on.
Stephen: And then there are the ones we disagree on.
Ken: I’d say everybody likes The Band and Dr. Doug.
Kristen: Who have you been playing with consistently on these tours?
Stephen: Anytime we play Chicago now it seems to be Spitzer Space Telescope, but we’re not big enough to choose openers yet.
Ken: We tend to just take whoever the promoter recommends. We’re going to a lot of new places…Almost every show has been a new place, a new venue. It’s our first national tour.
Kristen: That’s exciting. I’m sure it’s cool to see how it varies from place to place.
Stephen: It definitely varied on this tour.
Ken: We’ve been on tour with Hurray for the Riff Raff and The Tumbleweeds.
Stephen: Those are two of our buddies, and in September, October and November of next year we’re going to be out on the road again with them.
Ken: We also went on tour with Trampled by Turtles and that was a really great tour.
Stephen: They’re sweet dudes. They just came out to our show in Minnesota. They were the first tour we went out on opening for someone and they were very, very nice.
Maggie: Chasing a big tour bus around the country. That was our first time.
Stephen: They were sweeter than any other band we’ll probably go on tour with.
Kristen: How was that, chasing around the tour bus?
Ken: If you’re super lucky like we were, they’ll give you their hotel room that they don’t use. They just use it to shower after the show and then they all pile into the bus and at 3 AM, they go to bed on the bus and the driver takes them to the next destination. They wake up there. The little band—us—we wake up super early and just make all that distance up in the van. Show up. They’re sound-checking or finishing up sound-checking by the time we get there, we sound-check and then play the show a half-an-hour later. It’s pretty intense.
Kristen: Yeah, what keeps you going?
Maggie: It’s amazing though. We’ve never played for that big of crowds…ever. They had between 600 and 1,000 people every night. Sometimes 1,500. It was crazy.
Kristen: So, it was probably an adrenaline rush.
Stephen: Oh yeah, that’s like every show. In the end, you want to kick the shit out of your performance so that the next time you come through, people come to see you. That’s what happened. We got lucky in Burlington…we had never played there before [Trampled by Turtles] and we went back and 300 people came out. So, I guess what the motivation is on every tour when you’re opening for someone is that next time, they’ll come out to see you. And it worked there...and a bunch of other places.
Kristen: You’ve got one record out in addition to a previously released EP. Tell us a little about the recording process or the creative process with this most recent album.
Maggie: It was a long time coming. We started it down in Richmond, Virginia at a friend’s studio…
Ken: Montrose Recording.
Maggie: We were doing it all live and it was kind of like pulling teeth...for me at least. So, we went back up to New York and finished it at Translator Audio. I think for me, being able to go home at the end of the day and sleep and have some space as opposed to being in one place for an extended period of time really helped.
Kristen: I feel like if you’re in a place that feels claustrophobic, that must stunt your creative energy to some extent.
Stephen: It’s also hard to relax. And I don’t know…maybe you shouldn’t be able to relax when you’re recording anyways, but it’s like you can’t step away from it if you’re in the middle of a plantation house in Richmond.
Maggie: But so many great elements are made by a band going to a place and shutting themselves in.
Stephen: We only did like four days.
Kristen: How do you feel like you’ve progressed from the EP to this album? Has there been a big shift?
Ken: I think there’s a big difference in the sound. The new record sounds a lot more upfront, cleaner and more like radio-friendly, while still including some of the grit that we have. That was one of the goals of the record—to do something that was a little closer to that than the EP. The goal for the next record is going to go back…
Stephen: Moving forward, the goal is going to be getting the best possible representation of our live show in an album. That’s what we want. The record that you got doesn’t really do that.
Maggie: I kind of feel like live things have changed a lot, too. Previously, it was un-contained and wild and we were fighting for attention. We were playing in restaurants and bars where people were eating and you were trying to play loud and ruckus. People tend to listen a little bit more now.
Stephen: And we listen to each other a little bit more now than we used to.
Ken: You think so?
Stephen: Pete and I listen to each other a little bit more. I zone out the rest of you guys…
Kristen: What's the writing process like?
Stephen: Nick has written pretty much every song. Maggie and Mat just did one a while back that we’re starting to play in live shows, and I think it’s slowly changing. But Nick writes most—if not all—the songs.
Ken: He brings them to the table and then we put them through the Spirit Family filter.
Kristen: I love that.
Stephen: It’s not a fucking Spirit Family song until we get up on that shit.
Kristen: You’re playing Newport Folk Festival. Who are you looking forward to seeing on the line-up?
Stephen: This is a great fucking year. Better than last year. Michael Hurley, Shovels and Rope, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Beck—who I’ve never seen…
Kristen: Will you be able to catch some of the shows?
Stephen: Yeah, we’re going a day early just so we can see shows. We play Sunday, but we’ll go out Saturday.
Ken: Last year when we went, we were just so busy the whole time doing band stuff-- this video thing and this audio thing and this workshop thing and then our set-- so it was hard to catch any of the actual festival. This year will be different.
Stephen: Yeah, this year we’ve got a day off the first day. Hurray for the Riff Raff is playing that day and I’m going to jump on-stage even if they don’t want me to.
Ken: They’ll want you to.
Stephen: Michael Hurley is probably who I want to see more than anyone else actually. And Michael Kiwanuka. I saw him in Texas for a second. Bombino is gonna kick the shit out of Newport. We’re playing a bunch of festivals with them.
Maggie: And The Felice Brothers.
Kristen: What’s the most un-rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past thing? And most rock ‘n’ roll.
Ken: Most rock ‘n’ roll moment. Here it is: playing in a bar in Arcata, California to zero people. Not one person came to the show.
Maggie: The bartender was also the owner of the bar, and he was the only person there.
Ken: He and our tour manager doing sound were the only people. It was fun actually.
Stephen: We started late and then we just worked on shit.
Ken: We just kind of got tanked and recorded the set.
Kristen: That’s good. You get something out of it.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s going to be our live album.
Kristen: Any other rock ‘n’ roll moments?
Stephen: 95% of it is not rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all just like…we never know what day of the week it is…
Maggie: Sitting in a car for eight hours.
Ken: There was also that one time when we couldn’t get the bus out of park after the show in that weird California town, so we slept in the bus and camped out in the parking lot. All of us.
Stephen: We also posed naked in front of Sun Studios. It’s going to be our 7" album cover.
Kristen: What’s the Spirit Family Reunion philosophy?
Stephen: Fuck it dude.
Stephen: No, that’s not really it. I wish we were, but we’re not. As far as performing goes, I think we try not to hold ourselves any higher than the audience we’re performing for…My personal thing is, even when I’m in the shittiest mood—which happens a lot with the people I’m on tour with—it’s like, I’m not performing for them. I’m performing for the people who haven’t seen the last twenty shows.
Maggie: I don’t know if it’s always practiced, but trying to make sure everyone in the band is okay. When you’re traveling with a group of people, that’s the most important thing. Looking out for each other. We don’t always succeed at it, but we try.
Ken: I think for me, there’s a lot of weird stuff in the music business and stuff you have to do that isn’t necessarily what you desire to do in an ideal, perfect world. There will always be shows you don’t want to do, promotional stuff you’re not into, festivals you’re playing that you don’t want to do…it comes in all different forms. But one of the most important things is remembering why you’re doing it in the first place...Keeping our center and realizing that we’re just a group of musicians and friends that have fun playing together and have played together in whatever circumstance we could, wherever it was. Basically, there’s a lot of hype in the industry, and a band on the rise is susceptible to that. It's important not to let it get to your head.
Kristen: That’s a good one. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Stephen: Learn the fucking washboard. I’m just kidding. No one ever said that to me.
Maggie: Be yourself.
Stephen: A good friend of mine who was a lot older gave me some advice. I had this job in a kitchen once and I told him it sucked and he goes, “Well, this doesn’t need to be your life. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do until I was 35. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, it doesn’t have to be the rest of your life.” And thank God I don’t work in a fucking kitchen anymore.
Kristen: What about you, Ken?
Ken: Keep your head up, but watch out for the guano [bird shit].
Stephen: I think in the end, just overall for us, compared to a lot of bands that we see, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which I think is really important...We’re not going to start loving the smell of our own farts too much.
Ken: That’s kind of what I was talking about before, with the hype.
Kristen: So, what’s next?
Stephen: I just want to play as many shows as possible, go out with some bands that we like a lot and show their crowds that we’re good at what we do. And release the best record we’ve released. Ever.