The Way It Should Be: An Interview with Spiral Stairs
Scott Kannberg. Photo: Steven Simko
Spiral Stairs, the brainchild of Scott Kannberg, is best known for his role as guitarist of the band Pavement. But since the band’s separation in 1999, he has shown that he’s here to stay, whether that be with the group Preston School of Industry or his solo work. Doris and the Daggers, his latest release, is a 10-track record that sounds like everything you’d want to hear from him, and it’s his first in almost a decade. My first time getting to see him perform was at SXSW where the interview was originally planned to occur, but due to our busy schedules, it didn’t happen. I was bummed. Luckily, however, he announced that he was going to play Houston, and I knew I had to set up something. Trying to hide, or at least limit, the fact that Pavement is my favorite band — maybe the world’s greatest band that has ever existed — I decided the best way to go about this chat was to refrain from working on questions beforehand and instead have an impromptu chat. Free Press Houston was honored to chat with Kannberg about his new music, traveling the world, and the likelihood of another reunion with Pavement somewhere down the road.
Free Press Houston: Well, first off, I heard your new record back in August and I was hooked on the first listen. It sounds so true to what we’ve heard from you in your other works. Is this actually your first release in eight years?
Spiral Stairs: Basically, yeah. The last one was released back in 2009, and I’ve been working on this one for almost two years now.
FPH: One thing that I like about it, or perhaps all of your work that you’ve done, is how you reference a lot of cities, for example Edinburgh and Tel Aviv. Were you traveling around a lot during those two years working on it? I understand you made the move from the United States to Australia, but now reside in Mexico?
SS: No, not really. I mean, I’ve travelled a lot in my life, but I’ve never been to Tel Aviv. Pavement was supposed to go there for the reunion tour we did in 2010, but it got cancelled because of some bombing or something. But I’ve been to Edinburgh a lot. I also mention Aberdeen, but I’ve never been there. I like referencing cities and places. I was kind of a geography major in college — urban planning and geography. I like cities, I like traveling.
FPH: I like to read your Twitter every now and then, and you have been a vocal critic of the president. Do you feel like you’ve moved out of the States at the right time?
SS: Well, [laughs] no one would have imagined what had happened, you know, so people could have said, “Well, why’d you leave?” But no, [the move] was all planned before. As you said, I’ve lived in Australia. My wife is Australian. I had my kid there. I really like Australia a lot. I have a lot of friends there. Down there is great. Oh, the golf courses are great there.
FPH: Oh, that’s right. I heard that your whole band really likes golfing!
SS: Yeah! My drummer is a golf pro, by the way.
FPH: You recently donated an unreleased song to a charity. Can you talk about what it was for and the song itself?
SS: Yes, it’s like a heart foundation up in Calgary. This is the second edition of a compilation the guy does. It’s a new song that we actually played in Houston for the first time. It’s like the demo version; we haven’t recorded it yet, the finished version. It’s a cool song for a good cause. My old drummer died from a heart attack.
FPH: At SXSW I heard that your new drummer joined the band in a special way?
SS: Larry, yes. He’s an old friend of mine from San Francisco. We played golf together for years and he always bugged me about playing drums in the band, so when I didn’t have anyone to play the tour I asked if he wanted to come on for five shows and see how it goes. Now he’s going to play them all!
FPH: Did all of this start off at the festival? I remember seeing that you played more shows than most other bands.
SS: Yeah, South By was the start of it. We did some shows on the West Coast in April. Now we’re doing this run, which goes for a couple of weeks. I think we go to Europe in September or October. Hopefully I’ll make a new record and do it all over again.
FPH: How far are you on some new material?
SS: I have most of it written already. I just have to find time to go back into the studio. I’m going to go back in with Kelley Stoltz in San Francisco and try to get something done in August, before the tour in Europe. But it takes so long to put out records these days.
FPH: Yeah, for sure. You went out and started your own label. Was it easier to do that than put it out via some other one?
SS: For this record, Matador was originally going to do it, but they ended up downsizing everything. They didn’t want to put out 30 records a year, they wanted to do five. So I got the axe. [laughs] After spending a bunch of money already, after they promised me some money! Oh well, whatever. Anyway, so I was like, “Shit, I’ll just put it out myself.” I had these friends in Austin and they steered me towards Tim [Regan]. He was like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” It’s been cool. It’s like the way it should be.
FPH: Before it came out did you send it to the other members of the bands you’ve been in?
SS: Yeah, I sent it out to everybody. Steve West wrote back and said he liked it. Actually, he might join in on some songs when we play Chapel Hill in a couple of weeks. Mark Ibold might come do a show. [Stephen] Malkmus was out of town, Portland, or he would’ve come. Bob [Nastanovich], who knows where he is?
FPH: I find it pretty cool that he’s so into horse racing.
SS: Yes, it’s all he talked about. Joking. He loves it, though! If it wasn’t for horse racing, Pavement would’ve never gotten back together.
FPH: Oh, really?
SS: He lost some money on a horse, so we had to get back together so he could pay down his debts.
FPH: I’m sure if there was one question that you’re probably tired of hearing, it’d be this one, but do you see another reunion ever happening?
SS: Hopefully. It’s going to be our 30th anniversary in a couple of years, so we might as well do something. We’re getting old.
FPH: Of course people love to make up rumors about reunions for all defunct bands, but do you think it’s probable that something like that would happen before a group like Oasis?
SS: [laughs] Yeah. I hope we do. I mean, I don’t want them making any more money.
FPH: Your tour manager is a member of the band, and he also is the one who runs your record label. But he also has some connections with Texas; he was in a band named after the state and lives here?
SS: Texas Never Whispers - the Pavement song! I don’t think they’re together anymore, though. He’s got this story about how he broke up with a girl or something and the first song he heard on the radio was “Texas Never Whispers.” He wasn’t really a Pavement fan, but he just said that was going to be the name of his band. He became a fan of the band after that.
FPH: It was never going to be a cover band of sorts?
SS: No, it was always his own stuff. It was just — the song made sense to him. But I think he’s a Pavement fan.
FPH: So a few days ago you played a KEXP set in a new studio. Were you one of the first to play it?
SS: Yes! That place is great. I used to live in Seattle, so it was like I had done a bunch of things at their old studio, which was really small. This was amazing. It was state of the art and a beautiful setup. The guy who engineered it didn’t do the best job, though. There were a few levels that could have been better, but that’s our own fault, probably.
FPH: Was this show the first you’ve played Houston?
SS: No, Preston School of Industry played twice in the early 2000’s. We played Rudyard’s. Pavement’s played all over the place, but I’m not sure if we played Houston. But yea, PSOI did. It might’ve been with Wilco. It was fuzzy. I can’t remember some of those shows. I don’t know if it was because I was drunk, but my parts of my memory are gone, unfortunately.