The collaborative spirit of Spirits Having Fun
The experimental rock quartet returns to Mickey’s on June 29. (Photo: From left to right, Spirits Having Fun are Jesse Heasly, Phil Sudderberg, Katie McShane, and Andrew Clinkman. Photo by Julia Dratel.)
It's always exciting when a band takes an unorthodox approach to rock music but keeps its sense of humor, and frequent Madison visitors Spirits Having Fun certainly follow that M.O. As experimental as the Chicago/NYC band can be, its Bandcamp description simply states that its a "rock band making music." But the members' disciplines extend further than just "rock," especially in their offbeat work in projects Every Kim Parcell and Tredici Bacci.
In support of their debut record, Auto-Portrait, on NYC- and Philly-based label Ramp Local, the experimental rock group is kicking off a two-week summer tour this Saturday, June 29 at Mickey's Tavern. (This show is also an album-release celebration for Madison band Hex House.) At a breezy 27 minutes across 9 songs, Auto-Portrait is brimming with a tense but rollicking energy, pulling from the mathy rhythms, angular and occasionally noisy riffs, bursts of improvisation, and deadpan vocals of acts like Deerhoof and Marnie Stern. This was instantly audible on the first single, “Electricity Explorer,” originally released in spring of 2018 before finding a home as a sort-of centerpiece on this LP. The song’s playful off-center guitar-rock spirit carries over onto the more tortuous eccentricities of “Waiting At the Airport” and the particularly intriguing and elastic standout, “Comedy.”
Before heading out on the road, guitarist vocalist Katie McShane and bassist Jesse Heasly talked with me via phone about how everything got started (or continued) for the band, the intricacies of their songwriting and improvising process, taking a stream-of-consciousness approach to lyricism, adding a soft element of theatricality to their live shows with signature two-footed hops, and their general proactiveness as musicians.
Tone Madison: What was the genesis for Spirits Having Fun, and how did you come together to write music across cities, as you're both in New York, and drummer Phil Sudderberg and guitarist Andrew Clinkman are in Chicago? As your band name may imply, was it just to write your version of fun-sounding music, or was there another intention?
Jesse Heasly: I think it was about links. Like, Andrew and I used to play together in Cowboy Band, and we had a chance to collaborate on one of Katie and I's other projects called Listening Woman. He came along on a tour with us a few years ago, and I think the three of us realized that we had a strong mutual connection and friendship that we wanted to keep alive. So after that tour, we made a decision to get back together and play music, and that's what became Spirits Having Fun.
Katie McShane: In terms of music writing, I think the impetus was to write music for each other and see what happens. That's all we said to start. We had this preexisting relationship from Jesse and Andrew's time together in Cowboy Band (bass and guitar). I didn't even know what I would do, but then we thought, "Let's try [it with] you playing guitar." It was like what we tried at the start and then went with it.
Tone Madison: Are you still writing music together as Cowboy Band?
Jesse Heasly: Cowboy Band broke up when Spirits Having Fun [formed]. Me, Andrew, and our friend Ethan used to live in Boston together, and we stopped writing when Andrew moved back to Chicago in 2013.
Tone Madison: Auto-Portrait can sound very familiar in a lot of ways—sonically referencing the landscapes of '90s indie/math rock on labels like Kill Rock Stars and Matador—yet retains a signature oddity, maybe in syncopation, time signatures, or song structures that allow for weird and thrilling, jazzy bits of improvisation. And I assume this is the product of not just one of you involved in the writing process but several. Do you each approach composition differently, or do you all generally work the same way with melody and rhythm?
Katie McShane: I would say that we all approach it with a similar mindset but we all have different processes and different parts and aspects of music that we're drawn to in terms of what we focus on when we're writing.
Jesse Heasly: Similar goals but different means, I think. Andrew's really good at writing in the moment when the band is in the room. Going with the flow and chasing ideas. Katie's really good at going into her mind and creating a beautiful little thing out of nowhere. Like, she'll go away for a couple hours and come back with an amazing song. But I think that our shared musical interests sort of ensure that the four of us work [well] together, I guess.
Tone Madison: Katie, is there any truth to Jesse's statement about you going away for a couple hours to write? Is that how you work best, kind of like in short, steady time frames?
Katie McShane: Usually I'll try to keep a consistent practice of at least like visiting my writing every day even if it's just for like a half-hour. It puts me in a good flow for working. And then a lot of times writing a song will be a thing for six or eight hours, and then I'll have a little demo at the end of [the session]. Often when I find time to just be completely alone, and I find myself in the zone to run with it. Keeping a steady practice helps me flip into that mindset where I can write more easily, as I practice accessing it. When I'm writing songs for the band and often making like a demo, I use my keyboard. Not necessarily defining what it's gonna sound like but laying the groundwork for some strong ideas to bring to the group, and we'll make a decision about the arrangements.
Tone Madison: Does Katie have the most songwriting credits on Auto-Portrait?
Jesse Heasly: I would say that Katie takes the lead. But I would also add that every member of the band has input on every single song. A method that's been successful for us: if Andrew and I come up with some raw material that I'm not sure what to do with. "Oh, I like this groove" but we don't know how to make it into a song. Katie almost always knows how to figure it out. There's a little bit of “Katie-ness” in each song, because she organizes our material. Does that make sense?
Tone Madison: Yeah, she's the arranger.
Katie McShane: Maybe structures, but not part-wise. Everyone is the best at writing their own, I feel like. I was thinking about the writing credits. On the record, "Gift Shopping" and "Alligators Bellow In B Flat" are Andrew; and "Electricity Explorer" and "Plastic Party Perfect" I wrote by myself. "Destiny" Jesse wrote by himself; and the other three songs are co-written by me and Jesse. Mixes of material. "Touch The Sky" was also, you, right, Jesse?
Jesse Heasly: Yeah, but you definitely helped.
Katie McShane: We work together sometimes.
Tone Madison: Teamwork.
Katie McShane: [laughs] Teamwork makes the dream work.
Tone Madison: This one is more of a question for Katie. Last time I spoke to you when you were here in May at Mickey's, I mentioned that a lot of your lyrics seem to reference food (not only in this band but Every Kim Parcell). I know there's a reference to sweet potato pie in song "Comedy," and then you have references to ice cream, clam chowder, salad, cheese puffs, Pop Tarts, etc. I'm wondering if I'm missing any. But I'm just curious to know your process for writing lyrics. Is it sort of stream-of-conscious or more deliberate?
Katie McShane: That's really interesting. I feel like I'm always developing my process for those things, but it's similar to my experience writing music where I kind of feel like it's like being in that certain mindset where it just comes stream-of-conscious. It also comes from not necessarily thinking about something specific but maybe just like having ideas around you that are important to you. Or things I'm finding meaning in or a strong reaction to. And then I'll just write stream-of-consciousness, and then I'll create lyrics from the poem I'm written... leaving my mind on a feeling. Thinking about some topic in the world that made me feel distressed... let myself sit with that feeling, and then I just write whatever comes out, and then [boop noise], choose the word I think feel good.
Sometimes I also write lyrics at the practice. Sometimes when we're writing songs, that's when my best lyrics come... when I'm having a chance to just riff on a section. "Oh, I know what it is!" And I'll write a couple verses down. It can be a mix of those two things. If I'm in that first way, and I start thinking about it too much, then it starts being labored.
Tone Madison: So, when you're writing at practice, it's kind of—not out of necessity, but you're in a different mindset then, because you're around your collaborators.
Katie McShane: Yeah, for sure. There's a special balance for us of bringing strong ideas to the practice but also just enough, because we also know that too much pre-writing will sort of not be the thing that we want to make. It's about finding that balance musically and lyrically... giving us enough impetus to create together. That's the best part about the band, when we have enough impetus to create, and then we can riff.
Tone Madison: Jesse, this question is for you. Your bass playing on the record often seems rather elastic and funk- and rock-inspired. It's very full and prominent in the mix compared to a project like Every Kim Parcell, in which you and Katie previously collaborated. Was that a style and sound you immediately wanted to explore with Spirits Having Fun in a live setting, or did it come out more during the studio tracking?
Jesse Heasly: That's actually not me playing bass on that record [Sour Don't by Every Kim Parcell]. Part of the scheme for that band was that it courts the idea where we'd all not play our primary instruments, so that's our friend Ethan playing bass on there. I did talk to him about what the bass parts should be and stuff like that. I actually play synth.
Tone Madison: Oh, my mistake.
Jesse Heasly: It's fine. No reason why you'd think I wouldn't be playing bass. So, I'm thinking about Cowboy Band again for a second. There's something about the trio of guitar, bass, and drums instrumentation, which really asks a lot of the bass—more melodic stuff for the music to feel full, in my opinion. One of the features of [Andrew and I's] musical relationship is that we leave room for each other to be ourselves and also have an understanding of each other's style. He likes to play actively, and I love a lot of different funky music. Because of that preexisting relationship, once we started writing these songs, I settled back into that kind of role.
Also, when I'm writing music for this band, I think of Katie and Andrew's guitars as a unit. There's so many interesting ways that their [electric] guitars can blend. Something about that mindset for me makes the bass stand apart in a way, and maybe that contributes to your feeling that it's full and upfront, because it has a certain musical independence. I'm not a shy bass player, so it's kind of built into the DNA of the band.
Tone Madison: You do play bass in Tredici Bacci, right?
Jesse Heasly: Yes.
Tone Madison: There are certain similarities in the sounds. The sound of your bass in that band is pretty similar to Spirits Having Fun. So, maybe, playing in that group influenced your playing in this one subconsciously or consciously?
Jesse Heasly: Oh yeah. I'm sure that happened. These two projects are the two I do the most, so it makes a lot of sense that they would feel similar to you. Part of the Tredici Bacci sound is a retro thing, and have that worn, old, Motown-y, Bacharach-y studio sound. Maybe my dive into that world has given me an appreciation for that kind of thing. Maybe it's part of why Spirits and Tredici Bacci have dry guitars and basses that blend on their own without tons of effects or production.
Tone Madison: I need to listen to more of that group. I know Ryan Power has a guest spot on your latest record, and I like him a lot.
Jesse Heasly: Yes, we've been fortunate to collaborate with Ryan a lot. We did two of his songs on our latest record, La Fine Del Futuro, we did his song, "The Calvary," which is from his newest record [We Sell Doomsday], but we also did an older song of his called "Modern Man" on [2016's Amore Per Tutti].
Tone Madison: What can people expect from your live show, beyond the songs on this latest release? Have you been working on new material or any kind of stage performance? I know project you mentioned previously that Listening Woman had elements of that. I had the pleasure of seeing the group in the fall 2016, I think, when you came through here at Arts + Literature Laboratory.
Jesse Heasly: Yeah, we have a lot of new songs. We're working on writing our second record, which we're going to record in August. So, people can definitely expect [that]. Katie, do you want to talk about our approach to playing live?
Katie McShane: We'll probably be playing at least half new songs. We have almost 65 percent of our new record written. All our new songs… they're longer. [laughs] The live performance of Spirits Having Fun is very improvisatory, and it's the best thing about our relationship as a band. We all know the details and how the parts go together. But they're also very detailed songs, so we definitely always each mess a bunch of stuff up.
We're kind of building in to how we perform the songs live in improvising spirit. So, we're kind of expecting not to hit all the notes. Obviously we'll do our best, but it's more about having freedom to bend tempos and sections. All that nonverbal communication stuff; we just try to be super playful with how we play the songs. In a live performance, it might be way slower—and it's never pre-planned or anything. We always feel each other, picking up on each other's needs. [pause] Jesse, am I doing a good job? [laughs]
Jesse Heasly: Yeah, I'll just add that each of have a background in the avant-garde and improvised music. We definitely want to keep that as part of the band, and I think you see that during the live show. I don't think any performance is quite the same as another. I hope not anyway.
Katie McShane: High energy!
Jesse Heasly: It's high energy. We're all trying to be super present; and if something goes wrong, we can improvise a solution that'll make the song still work. Certain songs like "Gift Shopping," there's a ton of improvisation built into it. Certain sections where none of us know what's going to happen. We know how long the section will be, but we don't know what's going to happen. We get excited by that.
Katie McShane: The other thing is that we bring a lot of physical energy to the live performance. We're all kinda going for it.
Jesse Heasly: Katie gets excited about two-footed jumps. A rock 'n roll maneuver.
Katie McShane: Oh, yeah. Jumping or singing. I feel like that's why we chose to do a rock band as our way of playing. We all have a guttural fun with the medium, I guess. We all love playing in this context. We just honest music, and we play it as a rock band, and it feels very satisfying... to share that in the live setting.
Tone Madison: I think definitely comes across. What kind of jumps did you say?
Katie McShane: I'm working on two-footed jumps. You know, when people are playing guitar, and they jump with two feet and kick their butt.
Tone Madison: Well, at a venue Mickey's, there's limited space to move around, so you kinda have to do that.
Katie McShane: [laughs] Yeah, we've got little hops.
Tone Madison: What other things do you have in the works? By that I mean, future ambitions or other projects? And do you solemnly pledge to continue having fun? It sounds like it.
Jesse Heasly: [laughs] Yes, we do pledge. The way we think of ambition with this band is our main thing is just to be able to keep doing it. Do whatever it takes to sustain the project. Some exciting bands fizzle out, and we're trying to be careful to never do that. It's a lot of boring details as to what that looks like on the day-to-day, but we're in it for the long haul. And hopefully that includes some upward mobility and success. More than that, it's just important that we keep doing it.
Katie McShane: Agreed.
Jesse Heasly: We're recording another album this summer, which will be the two-year anniversary of when we recorded Auto-Portrait. And then, tours galore. It's been great to work with Ramp Local to release the album, and hopefully that relationship stays as good as it has been. I see no reason why it won't. With their support, it feels like Auto-Portrait has a lot of momentum. Hopefully we'll be able to keep working with them to release music. I don't think Katie and I have any ideas about a new project.
Katie McShane: This our main project. Yeah.
Jesse Heasly: We're putting a lot of eggs in this basket.
Katie McShane: Well, Jesse and I do Kateboard, kind of our lower-key version of what we do together [in Spirits]. And we have some stuff coming out for that. We play shows in New York. It's an ever-evolving songwriting project. Jesse and I are also playing in Lina Tullgren's band. And Tredici Bacci is continuing on.
Tone Madison: Is there a related project that you would recommend people check out right now? I know you have some connections to other groups like Guerilla Toss and Cloud Becomes Your Hand. Also, Phil was in Wei Zhongle.
Jesse Heasly: Definitely JOBS.
Katie McShane: They're also on Ramp Local.
Tone Madison: Yeah, I know that band. Rob Lundberg, who plays bass in [JOBS], lived in Madison for several years.
Katie McShane: Sundog, an incredible singer-songwriter in Boston. He's about to put out his fifth or sixth solo record. And he's really like a hidden gem. His music is unique and special. Oh yeah, and Kevin Wynd.
Jesse Heasly: Yeah, Kevin Wynd, who plays incredible synthpop and sometimes asks us to play in his band. But that's a rare occasion. But he's this mad scientist writing incredible songs. Also I want to shout out Greef from Portland, Maine. A very dear friend who makes sound collages.
Katie McShane: Also, Mia Friedman's solo project. Another incredible hidden gem singer-songwriter.
Jesse Heasly: While we're at it, we play in a band with Mia, her partner Andy, and our friend Nick Neuburg called Creative Healing. It's pretty dissonant Beefheart-inspired music. They just released a record. I'm proud to be a part of that.
Katie McShane: We also just recorded with the band this past week, actually [during the 50th anniversary of the release of Trout Mask Replica]. No set release plans, but hopefully sometime later this year.