It's tough to get a handle on the Spinanes. Guitarist/singer-songwriter Rebecca Gates is the only permanent Spinane, but she sees the contributions made by an ever-changing cast of players as essential to her sound. So is the glorious pop-rock collective a band or a solo project? In Gates's opinion, it's both. And it's neither.
"For some reason, the world requires certain things of bands and musicians," she says. "Which is understandable. But for me, playing music needs to be fun. It needs to be interesting. And right now, I'm in this amazing position where I can actually ask people to come play with me, and I can learn from them. I've been doing it for the last couple of years, and it's worked out great, because I'm not some sort of God-gifted prodigy. I still feel I've got a lot to learn about songwriting. And the way I do that is by playing with other people."
And what an impressive list of folks it is. Members of Fifth Column, the Maroons and the Jesus Lizard have all been temporary Spinanes, as have Elliott Smith, Memphis producer Doug Easley and Tortoise mastermind John McEntire. Indeed, the liner notes for Arches and Aisles, the Spinanes' new LP on Sub Pop records, read like an abridged indie-rock who's who. McEntire and Easley are joined on the long-player by Jr. High's Joanna Bolme, the Sea and Cake's Sam Prekop and the All Scars' Jerry Busher, among others. Still, Arches is a Spinanes record through and through. The supporting crew adds punctuation and musical depth to the mix, inserting a cosmic keyboard dribble here, a haunting guitar lick there. But from the opening chords of "Kids in Candy" to the last fading notes of "Heisman Stance," Gates's plush guitar fills, sparse song structures and sensuous vocals take center stage, washing over the listener like a warm bohemian lullaby. The result is the Spinanes' most focused, mature and adventurous effort to date.
Given Gates's recent relocation to Chicago, it would be easy to attribute at least part of this creative leap to her new environs. After all, Windy City friends such as McEntire, Prekop and Thrill Jockey president Tina Richards are among the most innovative figures on today's scene. But while the singer admits that these individuals played an important role in the creation of Arches, she is quick to point out that it was a limited role at best. "To tell you the truth, a lot of the stuff was already written before I got to Chicago," she says, laughing. "But one of the great things about being in Chicago is that I had some ideas and some sounds in my head that I hadn't been able to express to a certain extent. But then I moved to Chicago and started getting to know some of the people here, and I discovered a whole new musical vocabulary."
When Gates started the Spinanes in Portland, Oregon, in 1991, the last thing on her mind was expanding her musical horizons; she was too busy trying to round up enough people to start a band. After playing a smattering of solo shows in and around the Portland area, friends introduced her to Scott Plouf, an aspiring percussionist whom Gates describes as "someone who didn't really know how to play drums but who had a brother who had a drum kit." That was enough for the singer. The two immediately started writing songs in the basement of Plouf's parents' house, all the while hunting for other budding rockers to round out the combo.
As fate would have it, such comrades failed to materialize. Then, only a few short months after their first practice, the Spinanes were invited to showcase at Beat Happening founder Calvin Johnson's International Pop Underground convention in Olympia, Washington. Gates and Plouf performed for just thirty minutes, but the indie-rock fanatics liked what they heard. Soon, hipsters all over the country were abuzz about the Northwest's first boy-girl rock duo. Gates looks back at this reaction with mild amusement. "When some friends of mine in Olympia called me and asked if we'd play at IPU, I told them, 'We're not even a band yet. We're just playing as a twosome.' But they told us to come up and play anyway. We did, and it totally worked. So from that point on, we felt comfortable presenting that. But people blew the whole 'duo' thing out of proportion. We never came from a point of view like 'Our manifest is that there can only be two people in our band, and that's what's going to make us cool.' It just sort of worked out that way."
Fortunately, Gates possessed the songwriting skills to back up her newfound notoriety. After honing their act on the PacWest circuit for the better part of a year, the Spinanes released their first LP, Manos, on Sub Pop. Although rough around the edges and sometimes even abrasive, the full-length was well-received by critics, who found Gates's rich, intimate creations honest and refreshing even though they were often buried under a truckload of buzzing lo-fi screech.
By contrast, the Spinanes' sophomore release, Strand, found them playing a more restrained, occasionally pensive brand of music. Unlike Manos, which emulated the fuzzy, four-track approach associated with Olympia's K Records, Strand shared characteristics with the stark, passive-aggressive sounds of Low, the Chills and Galaxie 500. It also found Gates and Plouf outgrowing their "dynamic duo" image. For the first time, they used outside players to enhance their sound; for instance, the aforementioned Smith appears on two of the platter's eleven tracks. They also expanded their live sets to include a keyboardist and a bass player.
By the end of the Strand tour, however, it was glaringly obvious to everyone involved that the Spinanes had reached an impasse. Plouf split in 1996 to join Built to Spill, leaving Gates to pursue a variety of side projects, including collaborations with Beck, the Mekons and teen prodigy Ben Lee. She also ventured out on a four-week solo jaunt, an experience she says was invaluable. "I don't think I could have made Arches and Aisles if I hadn't done that. It gave me a ton of self-confidence. It gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to get out of playing music--that sort of thing. Basically, it just gave me the chance to let some things settle."
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Gates's current tour in support of Arches, which has already received glowing reviews in Rolling Stone, Spin and Entertainment Weekly, is moving forward under an entirely different set of circumstances. For one thing, she has company: Arches contributor Busher on drums, Kendall Meade (Mascott, Helium) on keyboards and bass, and Ted Leo (Chisel, the Sineaters) on guitar. Gates warns that anyone who expects to hear the quartet offer note-for-note interpretations of her recordings will be disappointed.
"It never fails," she says. "Whenever somebody who's heard our work comes to see us live, they are almost always blown away at how much we rock. We don't play hard rock, stupid rock. But I love rock and roll, and when I'm out playing music with other people, that's what we strive for. Whereas when we're making an album, it's a different experience. It's not quite so balls-to-the-wall."
Does Gates see the Spinanes settling into a permanent lineup in the near future? In a word, no. "I'd love to have a constant group of people on the payroll that were all working. But the fact of the matter is, a lot of the people I want to work with right now are making a living by doing a lot of different things. So I suppose if I all of a sudden started selling lots of records and making millions of dollars, I could put everybody on the payroll, and things would be totally different. But for now, we just get together and do our work and try to enjoy ourselves in the process."
The Spinanes, with Sue Garner. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 1, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $7.50, 303-443-3399.