Chuck Coffey of SPELLS on DIY Record Labels and Writing the Theme for Those Who Can't

Chuck Coffey has more Denver music pedigree on his own than a lot of bands combined. Starting Not Bad Records in 1997, Coffey helped numerous Denver bands put out albums and gain much needed exposure, all while playing in notable Denver bands like Eyes and Ears, Big Timber, Contender and countless others [including, along with SPELLS drummer Rob Burleson, Andy Thomas' Dust Heart, which features Westword writer Andy Thomas].

These days, Coffey continues to help out bands from all over the world on his Snappy Little Numbers imprint and is set to put out his first full-length with his current band SPELLS.

SPELLS, fleshed out by drummer Burleson, bassist Don Bersell and backup singer Lauren Shugrue, is a band known for its high-energy performances, catchy songs and charismatic frontman, comedian Ben Roy.

We caught up with Coffey recently and asked him about the new SPELLS album, his history with Denver music, and writing the theme song for a television show.

Westword: SPELLS has had a lot of releases, but Staying In > Going Out is your first full-length. Why did it take so long to get a full-length album out?

Chuck Coffey: It was kind of by design. Rob and I talked a lot about it when we started the band. Bands in the '60s would always be recording songs and immediately putting them out to be fresh, and that's what we wanted to do because of how long it takes to write songs and get [vinyl] pressed. Usually you have a bunch of songs in your set, and by the time you record and release them, they're old and you don’t play them anymore. We didn’t want to fall into that trap.

Why did this particular batch of songs get released as an album then?

It was because of timing and writing. We were gonna put out an EP, but we had a previous recording session, and we weren't that satisfied with it. So we took our time, and by the time we got ready to record again, we had had enough songs for a full-length.

You have a personal history of putting out records and running labels. Talk about that.

I started Not Bad Records with Don [Bersell], in 1997. We were just following in the footsteps of labels like Suburban Home, Seven Lucky and other friends of ours who had started labels. Basically it was just a means to put out our own bands. Not everyone is knocking down your doors to put out your band's records, so the idea was to do it ourselves. I think I used Dischord as a model, which was two friends who wanted to document what was going on in their city at the time. Not Bad wasn't exclusively Denver, but it was largely Denver and Boulder bands.

The first release was by my band at the time, Mail Order Children/Qualm, a split seven-inch, and the second one we did was a Gut Bucket/Sirr Isaac Lyme split seven-inch. Gut Bucket was Don’s band at the time, so the first two releases were our own bands, but since they were both splits, we got other bands involved.

We did Not Bad for about thirteen years. The label was sustaining itself for a long time, but then the music industry took a dump, and people weren't buying records anymore, so we knew we didn't have the money to be sinking into it.

We had some distribution at that time, so we turned the label into a co-op and changed the model to: If bands were already going to put out something on their own, we could split the costs and we would do all the legwork and promotion. While we always fought to get their money back, we always told [bands], if you want to put out a record, you gotta pretend you’re never gonna see that money again!

We stopped doing Not Bad, and I wanted a fresh start but still a way to put out some bands, and Snappy Little Numbers started out of that.

SPELLS is known for fun live shows and being a bit wacky — matching uniforms and having a well-known comedian as a singer. You personally, though, are pretty serious, especially when it comes to music. How do you balance the two sides?

I don’t mean to come across as serious; I just think I have a resting bitch face that I can’t help! [Laughs.] Song like “Jet Set,” and a lot of the more off-the-cuff stuff, I write the lyrics for, and the more serious songs, Ben writes the lyrics for. That's his outlet to be more serious, because he’s funny in his profession.

The uniforms were a throwback to old rock-and-roll bands, and even more current ones like Rocket From the Crypt, who carry that old rock-and-roll banner. My old bands had tried it before but never really pulled it off, so when we started SPELLS, we thought, let's do this for real. We started finding our groove around that time.

A lot of the time, what can kill a band is that someone takes it too seriously and burns everyone out. We are all older and wiser, and we know that there’s not a chance in hell we're gonna make it, so why should we try so hard? We just want to have fun.

You recently wrote the theme song, “Quit Wastin’ My Time” for Ben’s TV show, Those Who Can’t. Talk about that experience.

When I first started getting sick and couldn't play in bands as much, I knew that when I had these moments of feeling okay, I could at least go and record a demo. [Writer's note: Chuck has chronic gastrointestinal issues.] My attitude toward songwriting changed. Instead of bringing a riff to practice, I started writing songs from start to finish.

So, when Ben, [Andrew Orvedahl and Adam Cayton-Holland] had gotten their show, I thought, "I'll bet I can totally write a song for something, for a purpose." I wanted to write with a specific intent. So I called Ben and he asked me to try something.

I wrote the song “Quit Wastin’ My Time,” and it was real short, like twenty seconds, because I knew the purpose of it. Ben was really psyched on the demo, and Adam and Andrew were really into it as well. The executive producers and network heads eventually signed off on it.

All in all, from the time I wrote the song until the time I signed the contract, after all the lawyers and everyone signed off on it, it was about five months total.

For a one-minute song?!

Yep! But it taught me that I could write for a purpose. I’m willing to write for more things, but Those Who Can't is probably as good as it’s gonna get. You get your fifteen minutes of fame; I figure this is mine. Contrary to popular belief, one song does not get everyone knocking at your door!

The SPELLS album release show, with LOW FORMS, Ned Garthe Explosion and Shame Ray, 9 p.m., Saturday, November 12, 3 Kings Tavern, 60 South Broadway,, 303-777-7352.
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Andy Thomas is a music journalist who hopes other music journalists write nice things about the music he performs. He lives in Denver with his wife, their two cats and a massive pile of unfinished projects.
Contact: Andy Thomas