Rock As Exploration: An Interview With Spiral Stairs of Preston School of Industry
by dave heaton
I suppose it makes sense that the lead singer of a band tends to get more attention than the other members. Still, it'd be a mistake to ignore the contributions that each member makes to each artistically successful band. Here's just one example...it'd be a crime to miss the role Scott Kannberg, aka Spiral Stairs, played in Pavement--as the group's founder and guitarist--or the fantastic songs he wrote and sang here and there throughout Pavement's existence. Music fans should also be sure not to miss out on Preston School of Industry, the band that Kannberg now leads. PSOI's debut album All This Sounds Gas, released last year, was a remarkable mix of pop melody, adventurous rock guitar and intelligent lyrics that poetically melded personal, honest emotional outpourings with more abstract meditations on the idea of exploration and discovery. Hopefully that album and its related EPs are just the start for Preston School of Industry, as the group's music thus far has been as compelling, as mysterious and heartfelt, as anything Kannberg's previous band did. The creation of All This Sounds Gas and the current and future goings-on for Preston School of Industry were just some of the topics Kannberg graciously talked to us about in a recent e-mail interview.
Who is in the current line-up of Preston School of Industry?
Me, Dan Carr, and Mike Drake and Jim Lindsay from Oranger.
Does the band have a fixed lineup, or is it pretty much you and whoever's around?
Yeah, it's pretty much me and whoever's around and willing. Jim (drums) and Dan (bass) have been with me for a couple of tours now and Mike played with me last summer.
What can you tell me about the origins of the songs on All This Sounds Gas (and the preceding 10")?
Most of them came from fooling around in my room just playing the acoustic guitar. Toward the end of Pavement I had started recording demos of my songs on a little mini-disc 4-track recorder and I kept notebooks of lyrics or song titles. When I actually started thinking of doing a solo thing, I went back and listened to all the tapes I had that were crammed with ideas and rough versions of songs and I flipped through my notebooks. Sometimes I'd just have a riff or a snippet and sometimes there would be a line repeated over and over. Anyway, these four-track recordings, along with some of the songs I started writing while we recording, became All This Sounds Gas.
How many of those were songs you had been working on for Pavement before that band broke up?
I guess there were five songs initially that I had been working on for the last Pavement record: "Whalebones," "Encyclopedic Knowledge," "Where You Gonna Go?", "For Sale: the Preston School of Industry" and "Idea of Fires," but we never got to the point of recording them. There were three songs that made the All This Sounds Gas cut. I'd actually had "For Sale: the Preston School of Industry" since Brighten the Corners and we took a half-assed stab at recording it once for a radio thing in Holland. Anyway, "Preston School" was always a back-burner song that got pushed aside. Though I had visions of it being on a Pavement record, we never had time to record it properly and I never liked the way it turned out on that radio program. Instead of re-recording the song by myself, I figured I'd just take on the name of the song instead.
At one point, a while before All This Sounds Gas came out, I read (I think) that it was going to be a triple-album--am I remembering that right? Was it originally going to be a lot longer? If so, what happened?
Initially I had over 30 songs that I wanted to record. When I started recording, I started writing more songs. In the end, there were really too many songs and we had to narrow things down. Instead we settled on twenty. The triple record thing was a reference to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and though I had hoped to put together a triple record, I started listening to shorter records and realizing I really preferred shorter albums. Also, I couldn't get myself to record the side three and four all-star jam.
Between lyrical references to gold mining, rivers, etc. and the collage photos that make up part of the album's cover art, All This Sounds Gas has, to me, an certain aura of history and geography (and more specifically, exploration) to it--was that purposeful? Are those themes that interest you, or that influenced this particular album? How aware are you of themes in your songs?
I write about things I'm interested in or about things I'm surrounded by. I studied Geography in college and I've always had an interest in architecture and the history of cities and places. Growing up in California, you are inundated with references to California's history--Gold Mining, water wars and the state's legacy of natural beauty. Also, I'm aware of the west as a destination. It's always been seen as the ultimate land of opportunity and a place to explore. At the time when I was putting the record together, the whole dot-com boom/bust thing was going on. Of course, this rush was similar to the California Gold Rush and its aftermath--all the hope and optimism and sudden wealth and then the damage left behind by a get-rich-quick economy based on greed. I too had experienced the hope and possibility of discovery, as well as the fall. I guess I was also using these themes as a way to explore what it was like striking out again on my own, and rediscovering the hope part. It was sort of like I was trying to use this history to show the beginning of a new exploration-expedition that I was experiencing when I was older and wiser.
Speaking of the album's artwork, what can you tell me about the artist behind it and why you chose to use those particular paintings and images for the cover?
The artist's name is Emilie Clark. She's a friend who was originally from the Bay Area who now lives in New York. She pretty much just listened to the songs and came up with the collages etc. you find on the cover of the album and the singles. It was funny because around the time she was listening to my rough mixes she had just seen the "Shackleton" pictures in New York and thought "exploration." I also had the "Shackleton" book lying around in the studio and I was working my way through the book while recording. When I saw the artwork she came up with, I felt her art conveyed what I was thinking and feeling at the time.
What's up with that weird backwards part before track 1?
That's actually parts of all the songs pieced together. If you have a rewind function on your cd player, there is actually a whole song there. I thought it would be funny to have a secret song first.
How about the backwards song titles listed in the liner notes? Those made me feel like there's a whole other album hidden somewhere on the CD, but I couldn't find it.
I think I was thinking that those were all the clues to the songs, as if there can be answers or clues.
How would you describe your approach to writing lyrics? It seems like you strike a certain balance between direct emotional expression and more abstract, mysterious lyrics--is that a fair observation?
Yes, I think that's fair. Most of my songs begin with direct emotional expression over and over and over. Then I get a bit embarrassed. When I sit down to write the actual lyrics, some of this emotion stays, but then I try to find a little humor and not take myself so seriously. Sometimes I just try to fit things together. On some songs, I actually tried to write a story or a narrative, kind of like my stab at a John Prine or Smog song.
What are you currently up to? Do you have future recordings planned? If so, what can you tell me about them?
Lately, I've been working on some new songs. At the end of the month, we'll be heading to Australia for a short tour. It's a fun place to tour, so I'm excited to be getting back to Australia. We'll be playing six shows there then it's two days of flying to get to Glasgow to start three weeks of supporting Wilco throughout Europe. This should be fun, too, since it'll be a nice change to play short sets. After that, it's a three week tour of the US and Canada. All around we'll be playing some different songs from the album and we've got a few new songs to try out. Later this summer I'm probably going to start recording.
The first Preston School of Industry song that I was aware of was the cover of Phish's "Axilla (pt 2)" for a tribute album. I'm sure some "indie-rock" fans were surprised by that, but it made some sense to me, as your style of playing (with Pavement and PSOI) has a certain free, open feeling about it that isn't all that removed, in principle if not style, from the so-called "jam bands." Do you have any affinity for that type of music in general, and for Phish in particular?
The Phish thing was fun. I picked "Axilla" because it was the only non-"jam band" song of theirs that I had heard. It was kind of like a Frank Zappa or a Roxy Music song and I liked it. Personally, I'm not really into the "jam band" thing, although I love the Velvets bootleg series that just came out, and that's full of jammy songs. I do like songs to be free of structure though. I thought that Pavement pulled the free, open structure part off nicely while typically veering away from the "jam band" part.
Nearly every PSOI review I've read and most Pavement reviews mentioned The Fall as a touchpoint--has too much been made of that? How aware are you of being influenced by the Fall?
Maybe mentioning the Fall is just an easy way out. What about Beefhart? What about Roxy? What about Devo? There were so many bands we were influenced by, the Fall wasn't the only band. Nevertheless, I was definitely influenced by the Fall and I am aware of it-it's hard not to be aware of it since I have fifteen or so of their records. I think it was the Fall's style more than anything that influenced the way I write music and the way I put together a song although I think I'm a nicer person to the people who rip me off and I'm much more willing to give credit to those people who influenced me than the Fall are.
On a similar note, how sick are you of people comparing your current band to Pavement? How much does your having been in that band cloud people's perception of PSOI?
It's hard to know how much my being in Pavement clouds people's perception. Some people may expect PSOI to sound just like Pavement and they may be disappointed, and others may expect it to sound nothing like Pavement and be disappointed. Who knows? I don't get sick of people comparing, though, not yet at least--it's still pretty new. Again, the comparison is an easy way out since people don't have to think about other bands that might be influencing me. But that's ok. I think it'll just take more records to squash the comparisons and for people to listen to PSOI for its own sake.
Amazing Grease is your label, am I right? When did you start the label, and what made you decide to do so? What releases does the label have coming up?
I started the label in 1999 with Mike Drake and Ben Lutch. At that point I had been in Pavement for ten years and I knew it wouldn't last forever and I wanted to get involved with something else. There were a few bands here in the Bay Area who I'd seen and loved and I wanted to get involved and help people out. It's a small label and we only release a few things a year. About a month ago we put out the Noisepop Ten Year Anniversary compilation (the title is probably self explanatory). It's a double CD with songs from bands throughout the history of the Noisepop festival--everyone from GBV to Neko Case, from the Flaming Lips to the Stratford Four. Upcoming we have a record from the Panty Lions coming and a few more releases to be announced for the fall when I'm back and touring is over.
When did you first start playing guitar? Singing? Writing songs? What first got you into making music?
I started playing the bass in 1984 when Steve Malkmus and I started this band called Bag O Bones in Stockton. I didn't really know how to play. I just figured it out as we went along. I started playing the guitar in 1986 when I was at ASU and I started the first incarnation of Pavement with a few friends. From then on I tried to write songs and sing (if that's what you want to call it). I was a record collector and I'd listen to everything. I also worked in a record store while in college and making a record didn't seem that difficult at the time.
One last question, one I ask everyone: If there was an album, movie or live performance that blew you away recently, please tell us what it was.
It depends on what you mean by "recently." For instance, last fall I went and saw the Clean at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. It was mid-September and this was the first show I'd seen since all the 11th. It was also the first time I'd ever seen the Clean. I'm a huge fan and, I have to say, that show was the biggest release. It made me feel so much better after weeks of depression. I had been feeling like music was sort of useless and going to that show made a huge difference. Also, I've been listening recently to a record by David Dondero and I finally picked up Sparklehorse's record from last year. Both are fantastic. Also, that Velvet Underground box set is mighty nice.