The Spits: Forever Outcasts
And That’s Just the Way They Like It
Since the get-go, the Spits have had trouble fitting in. They were too proto-punk for the grungy ‘90s Seattle sound amid which the band was born, too sci-fi silly and lyrically banal to be part of the still-fresh political punk of the ‘80s. The indie-rock influx of the early 2000s was similarly unaccommodating for the synth-heavy band – yet that’s when the band first started releasing LPs. Since the band’s impetus, their penchant for party-fueling punk has never relented.
“We used to set up on Aurora Avenue with Pignose amps and a little kid’s drum set, a Muppet drum set, and play on street corners and stuff,” drummer Wayne Draves said of the punk act’s Seattle start. “And then we took it a step further and started doing open mic night at local taverns. We’d go there and put a sheet on or a Reagan mask and hop up onstage and do Spits lite in front of about three or four people.”
Draves says they dredged on that way somewhere between six and eight years. Eventually somebody approached them about playing a club, and then the ten or so songs they’d been playing (“for probably that amount of time,” Draves noted) became their first album.
Draves joined the band when he replaced his cousin, Lance Phelps, on drums. Phelps had helped found the band in Seattle with Sean and Erin Wood and recommended Draves as his replacement, though Phelps has remained an off-and-on member.
These days, there’s no shortage of fans for the Spits. In fact, their following is probably at its strongest – and so is their league of counterparts. Their idiosyncratic brand of punk stood solo for about 15 years until the garage and punk resurgence of the mid 2000s. The Spits then found themselves touring with younger garage outfits like the Black Lips and snagging prime spots at both genre-specific festivals like HoZac Records’ Blackout as well as wider-ranging fests like Raleigh, NC’s Hopscotch, a shindig arranged by the city’s alternative newspaper, The Independent Weekly. This welcoming environment is newfound for the guys, who are all fast approaching their fifties now (a couple might already be there). They’ve spent more time feeling ostracized than they have in the embrace of any one scene.
“The punks called us weird and the garage dudes called us stupid,” recalled founding member Sean Wood.
But they were just doing it “for fun,” Wood made clear. Poppy punk tunes about party crashing, aliens and skateboarding were the result of that credo, and it never faltered no matter how big a wave a trend would make. “I’m a Nuclear Bomb,” off their third effort in 2003, would be just as at home on last year’s album, the fifth and latest in the all-self-titled repertoire. (The albums are also referred to by corresponding Roman numerals.) “Fed Up” could smoothly slide onto the debut album, released in 2000, right between “SK8” and “Die Die Die.” Virtually every song is interchangeable with another for the Spits, and it’s because they made a permanent mold of their signature mix: a superhuman sounding vocal effect, distorted proto-punk guitar and don’t-give-a-fuck delivery. It’s obvious that they are by no means an impressionable bunch.
“There’s just a lot of fads. We’re really happy that we’ve lasted through a lot of those fads,” Draves said, naming garage, indie and grunge among trends that passed them by.
I interviewed Draves and Wood separately, but both cited a broad range of influences as a likely reason they never felt altogether part of a particular sector of music. These days, however, labels like Trouble in Mind, HoZac, Sacred Bones, Burger, Hardly Art and a slew of others host too many likeminded bands to count. None of those labels were around until the mid 2000s, long after the Spits kicked off.
I’d ruminated about that before the interview and explained it to Draves, and was surprised by his summation: “We’re the grandfathers of punk right now.”
It’s not shocking to hear a punk veteran say they’re a lifer or remind you they were hustling way back when. A claim like this is unexpected – and incredibly bold.
It’s important to mention that Nickel and Dime, Dirtnap and Slovenly, all imprints responsible for Spits albums, started in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, predating the current wave. Goner was around then too, but the number of labels then altogether crumbles in comparison to what’s available these days.
Did the Spits usher in this wave? It’s hard to be sure. They weren’t alone in pushing a poppy brand of punk during that time, but they’re one of the few acts that lasted through it.
“I don’t think we’re the grandfathers of punk,” remarked Wood when I tell him what Draves said. “I think that we picked up something, some form of originality that no one else could fucking pick up on, and we rode with it and eventually it became popular. And it really helped us out. I think a lot of people follow footsteps and we never followed footsteps. We did our own thing, and that led to being good. At the time, it hurt us. Back in the early ‘90s, late ‘80s, it hurt us. It was hardcore or garage, surf music. And we weren’t any of those. So now we do our own thing, and it comes from our age, our generation, how we grew up. We grew up listening to fucking metal, we grew up listening to punk. It was a weird time. I’m 43 and in ’85 it was metal or punk, and we grew up on both. Rockers and fucking punks. Weird, we were weird. We’re weirdos. We’re the ones who got the shit kicked out of us in fucking junior high for being weirdos because we weren’t either, we weren’t nothin’.”
Wood went on to say the Spits are practically a No Wave band because they “were nothing.” That’s a more difficult claim to support, and was likely said somewhat in jest.
Still, at the very least the Spits deserve credit as some kind of shepherds of the current crop. They were pushing a new type of party punk, a ’77-based hybrid of Ramones-caliber melodies, the raucousness of the U.K. scene and the blasé outlook (and resulting self-indulgence) of the ‘90s. They were peerless in that respect, operating all on their own with little regard for what anyone thought about it.
And they weren’t just playing something outside the norm, either. They were treating crowds differently than a lot of other bands were as well. Wood attributed their endurance to their treatment of fans almost equally.
“When I moved from Michigan out to Seattle and I was checking out Dead Moon, I started hanging out with Fred Cole. I was amazed at how fucking nice he was,” Wood declared. “He would drop anything, drop of the hat, and talk to you and answer your questions or be your friend. I’m so used to growing up with hardcore bands that won’t give you the time of day. It’s like of like that’s our thing now. We are out there for the people. If they come to see us then by God, fuckin’-A, I want to put on the best show for them. I want to play the best songs for them, I want everybody to have fun. I want them to get their money’s worth. It’s worked out great for us. We can tour and put gas in our tank and come home and feed ourselves. We’re not making a lot of money or anything, but we can stay alive.”
In its infancy the band had a nest of sorts in Seattle – a place they rented from Ted Nugent, actually. He didn’t come around much, Draves and Wood said, but they did chat a couple times.
“He would stop by and collect rent and see if we were destroying his home or not, and every once in a while he’d come by unannounced and just walk through the front door,” Draves laughed. “I think one time he saw Sean on the couch trying to learn how to play guitar. I think he came by to collect rent and was pissed off or something and actually chilled out and sat down with Sean and gave him a few lessons. And that was like a turning point for Sean. And Ted too – I think because he kind of respected us a little bit more because we played music. And I think Sean was trying to learn ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ too. It was pretty crazy.”
Wood has a more modest memory of that day. He said Nugent – who he called “kind of a prick” – basically told him, “Do your thing.” Maybe it would have been cooler had Nugent taken on a mentor type of role with Wood, but regardless, the advice seems to have worked for Wood.
Proof that the Spits are predecessors isn’t only found in the chronology of releases, though. The ambivalence toward politics they’ve always kept is in fashion for punks now more than ever. Even Wood admitted a little bewilderment at today’s lack of political punk.
“It seems like there’d be a lot more fucking punk rock that would be political now, because it’s pretty heavy now,” he speculated. “Fuck, there’s more ‘I don’t care’ rock ‘n’ roll versus more political fucking shit. In the ‘80s, everyone was anti-fucking government.”
I reminded him that the Spits have never been aligned with any sort of politics – unless you count a fixation on alien abductions as an implication of belief in conspiracy theories, that is. Does this mean they’re an “I don’t care” band?
“Nah, nah, we care,” he assured. “But we are kind of more like, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to have fun, let’s forget about that and let’s have some fun.’ And if anybody comes down on us then we’re going to have to kick their fucking ass. Then we’ll get loud.”
Even this far down the line, the Spits are still inciting near-riotous crowds at their shows. At their Atlanta show last winter, the mass of people was so thick and sweaty some took to hanging from the ceiling. A friend of mine even had one of her teeth knocked out.
“You play a club occasionally that’s, you know, not as crazy – but for the most part, it’s off the hook,” Draves confirmed.
Some of that good time comes from the antics onstage, which typically involve costumes or fake blood and sometimes even Reagan masks, just like in their open mic days. Something tells me that if all of the active garage and punk bands and labels all dropped off tomorrow, the Spits would still chug along. Neither distance nor age has slowed the Spits while fads came and went around them. The chances they’ll outlast this one are high.
Photo by Keith Marlowe.