Ask bassist/vocalist Myke Spy of Denver's Harriet the Spy to elaborate on his band's music and you won't get a single reply. Instead, you'll get a whole series of them.
Reply number one: "I like Jean-Luc Godard. I want our music to be like one long version of Breathless. It's just like a journey...It's like driving in a convertible, speeding, listening to the song `Disappear' [from the Sonic Youth album Goo], driving in a car with Thurston Moore, and it's scary and it's raining, but you still have the top down. And Kim's all passed out in the back seat and you just keep driving and you can't stop. And everything's in black and white."
Reply number two: "My goal is that word `spy.' `Spy' is really big in our name, because ever since I've been a kid, I've been really into spy and surf music. We're not blatantly surf or spy, but the feeling is there, the influences are there. And ever since I heard `Walk, Don't Run' when I was like eight years old, I've wanted that feeling. That spine-tingling, kind of spooky kind of feeling that spoke so much more to me than, like, Van Halen."
Reply number three: "I want a feeling of wonderment and abandonment. I want to bring any and every audience into a state of musical bliss."
By contrast, drummer Jens "j.c." Carstensen is much more succinct. When quizzed about his goals, he says simply, "I just want to rock."
And he succeeds. Harriet the Spy, which also includes guitarist Brian Circle, plays a fast-paced, complex brand of indie punk that displays a strong sense of dynamics and plenty of good humor. The sound evokes the spirit of America's underground-music capitals: Olympia, Washington; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Washington, D.C. Somewhere in its sonic palette are pieces of Superchunk, Fugazi, Tsunami, even R.E.M. But the most dominant influence, at least until lately, has been the aforementioned Sonic Youth, in part because former Harriet guitarist Patricia Kavanaugh (who left the act last month) specialized in what her ex-bandmates describe as "Sonic Youth-y chord progressions." For his part, Circle prefers a more straightahead style.
"Brian and Patricia are almost antithetical in their approach to guitar," Carstensen says. "Brian's a bit more punk rock. But we're not all three like that. It'll bring a little balance."
"Yeah, creative tension," Spy interjects. "Just like John Cale and Lou Reed. Or like the Police, with Stewart Copeland breaking Sting's ribs."
"Stewart knew where to hit them to crack them," Carstensen marvels. "Stewart Copeland is my hero. So is anybody else who can break Sting's ribs."
While Harriet's history is not replete with tales of fractured bones, it does include several near-breakups. Spy founded the combo last August with Kavanaugh and two other players on guitar and drums, respectively. The latter pair left a few months later, prompting the ad-dition of Carstensen in January. Kavanaugh's departure was also a big blow, but Circle--the man behind Denver's Black Plastic Records label, best known for its Rocky Mountain Arsenal compilations--has ably filled her shoes. Although the band landed only a handful of club dates this spring, the remaining players expect to make more frequent live appearances in the near future, including a showcase with an outfit from Ohio that's also called Harriet the Spy.
"We're going to do an all-star jam at the end of the show," Carstensen boasts. "We're going to do `Beat on the Brat,' by the Ramones."
"And Jens can do vocals," Spy says. "He can do Joey Ramone like nobody's business."
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On stage, Carstensen--his hair tied in tiny ribbons, his eyes rolling back into his head as he thrashes at his drums--cuts a striking image. For his part, Spy prefers the Quentin Tarantino look. Clad in a thin black suit, he cracks pop-culture references and spins strange tales between tunes. This banter, he suggests, results from "nervous energy. I think that's the amount of adrenaline you have to dispose of so you can put all that into focusing on playing and filling up the silences between songs. It kind of makes you feel like you've been to more of a show--that you're not just watching a rehearsal."
As for Spy's bass playing, it owes a great deal to heroes such as Mike Mills and Mike Watt. "I'm really trying to get away from the Michael Anthony thing, where people just want to put the bass into the corner," he says. "I really like subtle, kind of emotive bass, you know? Bass that's sort of brooding."
What about the lyrics? "A lot of them are about UFOs," Spy notes. "They're sort of chilling." With tongue definitely in the vicinity of his cheek, he continues, "I'm just a vessel, a crucible for sonic life. I don't claim to understand the forces that move through the room."
Spy claims plenty of other things, though. Replying to a request for a final description of Harriet the Spy, he responds, "We're a nihilist punk band, and we don't care about anything. We don't care if we suck, and we hate your guts.