Rob Burleson is a familiar and friendly face to anyone who has been around the local music scene. After playing in dozens of bands — Hearts of Palm and Lion Sized, just to name a few — he found his way to the "vacation-rock" outfit SPELLS, which has quickly become one of Denver's most beloved bands. With the impending release of the group's first full-length album, Staying In > Going Out, Burleson took time to chat about running's influence on his taste and how being formulaic is not necessarily a bad thing.
Rob Burleson: Most of my guilty pleasures come from my run mix, when I run. Here's my thinking on music, or things in general: If you get pleasure out of it, then it shouldn't be guilty.
Westword: I keep running into this issue with musicians, where they act like they have never been embarrassed about their own taste. You know what I mean, though, right?
Yeah, yeah. I get it. I think the genre I listen to the most when I run is sugary radio-friendly pop. I'm talkin' like Taylor Swift, Sia, "All About That Bass." I'm not a huge Miley fan, but I like Ke$ha and Nikki Minaj. All of that stuff.
All women artists? No Bieber?
No. I mean, JT. I do like Justin Timberlake, and that's probably about it. I like Bruno Mars.
It's my run mix, man! When "Happy," by Pharrell, comes on, that's when I get into my stride.
Did you like this stuff before you started running?
No. I used to run to bands like Fugazi, Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt, all the bands that I actually love, but with that stuff I found myself having to think. When you listen to Fugazi, you have to think about what they are saying. There are a lot of lyrics. I got to a point where I didn't want to think when I ran. So that's why I started listening to [pop music]. It started with Michael Jackson. I would put on a lot of Jackson 5, and it was just so good. It's catchy, it's got a good rhythm. When Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off" came out and was getting so much play, I was like, "I LOVE this song!" I downloaded the whole album and was like, "All right. Let's see what else." This was right before I ran my first half-marathon. And then I found Sia. I really like Sia, actually. She is probably my biggest guilty pleasure.
That seems like bummer music for a run.
Her early stuff when she was still in Australia, when she was still hopped up on drugs, it's real happy stuff. I think it's because she was on a bunch of cocaine. I love it. It's got a good tempo, the choruses are easy, they're not breaking any new ground with the verses.
So to get into a "runner's trance," you just need a driving bass line and lyrics you can ignore?
Yeah, and a hook. A good tempo is really important. I think they all have the same tempo — 185 bpm, or whatever it is.
And that's how you know you are going to make great time on your run?
Yeah! That's the beauty of sugary pop music: There's a formula. Every single song that comes out has the "Millennial Whoop" and I'm okay with that. That's fine.
The thing that most people complain about in pop music is the thing that you love about it.
That's what pop music is. This may be an exaggeration, but look at the bands that came out of Motown. That's all formulaic. That's what makes them popular, pop music. It's easy to listen to, it's catchy, it's got a hook...I mean, the Beatles did that shit! The Beatles were a pop band and very formulaic. In my opinion, all the pop-punk stuff I listened to in the '90s was pretty formulaic, and that's what I like about it. I know what I'm getting into. This summer was disappointing, though. There was no song of the summer. Nothing really stuck out to me.
I thought "Song of the Summer" was a dumb thing until we didn't have one. It's like a president: You may hate the one you have, but if there isn't one at all, it's chaos. I don't know why we were so hard on President Smash Mouth back in '99.
Has anyone said Smash Mouth yet for their guilty pleasure?
No. That may be mine, though.
I thought you would say Blink-182.
I'm not guilty about that.
I know, but you should be!
[Laughs] See! Now you're getting it!
You know, good for you. You own it, and I'm happy for you. I'm glad a lot of these bands are getting back together and people are going to see them in concert, because when people are posting pictures, it makes it very easy for me to scroll through and go, "Oh, no." I judge. I judge completely. I walked out on Blink-182.
No. This was '94, and my friend's band Zoinks played with them in Reno. I think they were just called Blink at the time, and it was the most awful thing I've ever heard. They opened, and we were like, "This is the worst shit." Even for teenage punk rock they were terrible. Sorry, I'm not here to bash you.
You are just pointing out how much cooler you are than me. Then again, I'm not talking about how much I love Megan Traynor ,so I guess it goes both ways.
This is true! This is true!
Since it started with running, has this love of pop music bled into your everyday life?
Heidi, my girlfriend, has a twelve-year-old son, and it's my absolute pleasure to blast [pop music] right as he gets into the car.
Does he hate it?
Oh, he gets so embarrassed. You know what, though — and this is a good plan — I'm hoping that me playing this pop shit makes him hate it so bad that he is gonna rebel and his favorite band will be some dark metal. That will make me so happy! Reverse psychology.
It is reverse psychology, but you genuinely love it, too, so you don't have suffer while still getting positive results. You are an evil-genius stepdad.
That's exactly it.
SPELLS has a new record coming out. Did you hit the 185 BPMs?
We're a little faster than that. There are a couple tunes were we hit that dance sound a bit, but...
So Taylor Swift beats didn't make their way on to the album?
I tried so hard to get SPELLS to cover a Taylor Swift song, and they weren't having it. I had the beat and everything. I was like, "Look! Look! I can play the beat!" And they were like, "Yeah, that's not gonna happen."
Jimmy Eat World and Ryan Adams have covered her recently. Did the band not want to cover it because a lot of other people have already? Or were they just too cool for it?
That's a good one. I don't know... I don't want to say they were too cool, but they probably were.
Have you guys ever done a pop cover?
Pop-punk. The Briefs. Screeching Weasel.
So you pick a cover that people would assume is an original song.
I think a lot of people that come to a SPELLS show know who the Briefs are. That is my favorite thing, though, when you cover a band and after the show someone is like, "The set was okay, but that third song... That's the hit!" It is a hit. It's a Beatles song!
Is it a goal for SPELLS to write a song so catchy that when your step-son's future band covers it people will say, "That third song is the hit!"
This new record... We're really stoked on it, man. There are not many bands that I'm with that when we record, I can re-listen to the album. After we recorded this one, we hadn't really listened to it until we got the actual pressings back. We listened to it at Chuck [Coffey] house and I was like, "This is the song, this is the hit!" When I hear it, it's almost like, "Somebody else snuck in and played these songs when we weren't around."
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That's the best compliment you can give yourself: "I can't believe that's me."
Yeah! I'm stoked about it. I've been trying not to just give the record out to everybody. As a drummer, I think playing along to pop stuff is the way to go because there is a lot of repetition and I think you get better doing that. There are not a lot of fancy fills or anything like that. You get to learn to be in the pocket and stay on beat. When I practice; I listen to a lot of hip-hop; that way I can stay on a constant beat.
Drummers seem to be less rigid with style or genre compared to other instrumentalists.
Yeah. Vocalists tends to stay in one style, but as far as drummers go, I think you can mix all styles of music into anything. You can do a cool hip-hop beat in a punk song. It's all about how you do it or you end up sounding like Limp Bizkit.
SPELLS' album-release show is Saturday, November 12, at 3 Kings Tavern with Ned Garthe Explosion and Low Forms. Doors are at 8 p.m.
*Writer's note: SPELLS guitarist Chuck Coffey produced an EP for Big City Drugs, of which the writer is a member.