What if guitarist Steve Kilbey of The Church decided his life wouldn’t be complete until he formed a band with Robin Guthrie?
“Robin, I’ve long admired your work and would love to play with you,” I imagine Steve saying. “There’s just one catch,” he would quickly stipulate. “No vocals. Oh, and let’s dial back on the reverb – we don’t need it.” At this point, I imagine Robin enthusiastically agreeing, with the talented Cocteau Twins guitarist pointing out he’s always wanted to demonstrate what he’s capable of without his armada of effects pedals.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t keep this admittedly unlikely scenario out of my mind. You see, I’ve been listening to Thanks for Your Kind Words, the debut EP of DC’s Spectrums, a moody instrumental trio that needs to be heard by every fan of the aforementioned guitar players. Consisting of three veterans of DC’s music scene — guitarist David Nicholas (Sansyou), guitarist Dave Barker (Cobra Collective), and drummer Simon Ley (The Third Programme), Spectrums conjure a dreamlike otherworldly sensation reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins and The Church — minus the abundance of echoes and watery guitars. And they’re a great live band to boot.
Good news then that Spectrums is playing a live set at Friday’s We Fought the Big One at the Marx Café (3203 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC, 20010). I spoke with David Nicolas to find out more about Spectrums and their excellent debut EP.
Rick Taylor: All three members of Spectrums are veterans of DC’s underground music scene — how did you guys come together? And given the different backgrounds of the members, what was the process like to arrive at the band’s sound?
David Nicholas: It started as a guitar duo project at first. And we came to it with no expectations really. David Barker had played in previous bands with Simon on drums, and as the songs just evolved into more structured arrangements, it made sense to bring percussion into it. It happened really naturally, without any set agenda. So when we started writing as a trio it just felt like a very comfortable extension of how we started. So now we can push into more aggressive, driving songs as well as the more mid-tempo and ethereal stuff which is always part of it.
RT: Spectrums hasn’t been around very long, and yet you’ve already managed to record and release your debut EP, “Thanks for Your Kind Words.” First of all, congratulations — it sounds great. Can you talk about the writing and recording process a little? Where did you guys record and over what period of time?
DN: We had a good stockpile of songs built up from earlier this year so there was a lot to choose from. Rather than pack in everything we’ve written, we decided to focus on a representative sample and release an EP.
We’re generally fans of that format. There’s an economy to it that shapes the pacing and choice of songs. When the chance to work with Mike Reina at The Brink Analog and Digital Recording Studios in Centreville, Virginia, came up in mid-summer, we jumped on that. Mike has great ears and instincts so we approached it as a live in-studio session — no separate overdubbing or tracking in isolation. We all had eye contact with each other, which really is important. You can kind of sense it on “Who Asked,” which relies on those kinds of cues.
So we knocked out the five songs, had a nice meal, and called it a night. Mike did a great job mixing it, and we finished throughout August. During that time, we had Christian Baldo design the artwork and layout, which came out beautifully. So, it all came together in the past two months. We didn’t feel like sitting around waiting for someone to respond to messages or not, so we put it all together on our own schedule. It sounds good on cassette too.
Listen to Thanks for Your Kind Words by Spectrums on Bandcamp:
[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=551012820 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small]
RT: One of the things I loved most about Sansyou — that’s also present in Spectrums — is this intangible, otherworldly quality. It’s like music from another world that’s somehow managed to slip through the ether and descend to Earth for our listening pleasure. When you write music, how much of it comes from a desire to create a sonic place that’s outside the world we inhabit?
DN: I’m glad its connecting with you. The writing flows pretty easily with us; the editing can be harder work. If we feel transported by the music, then that’s success to us. It’s an escape for us as well.
RT: All five tracks on the EP beautifully illustrate that bands don’t need vocalists to tell compelling stories. How do you achieve this? Is there a deliberate effort to craft a musical narrative through each track?
DN: We play for the song. We do pay attention to leaving space for each other; in what we play and the tonality of what we’re doing. Allowing the guitars to have their own voices and let the drums step forward in a way that only happens without vocals is what makes this fun.
RT: I’m completely jazzed about Spectrums playing at We Fought the Big One this Friday, but looking beyond this weekend, what can you tell us about the band’s near-term plans? (I’d skip this last sentence)I understand there is an official EP release show happening soon.
DN: We are integrating keyboards more into our new songs. As soon as we finished recording the EP, more and more synthesizers started showing up in David Barker’s rig. We’re exploring those new sounds now, and it feels natural.
As an example, a few weeks ago, we had nice chord pattern and some dubbed out keyboard melodies going just jamming along the two of us. Simon arrived a few minutes in and didn’t even break stride — just straight to his drum kit and instinctively found a pattern that worked. In December, we’ll do an in-store show at Mobius Records (10409 Main Street D, Fairfax, VA) so we’ll include these new ideas in that set.
RT: Lastly, I’d just like to thank you for doing what you do. You make music with heart, integrity and if you’ll excuse my French, fucking soul. We need you to do what you do NOW MORE THAN EVER. I just want to say: Keep on fighting the good fight and making art from the heart — it’s why we exist!
DN: We feel lucky that we get to play this music together and we don’t take it for granted. Thanks for all you do with We Fought The Big One. You’ve carved out a special place for people to come together without pretense and focus on some great underground music and always with a welcoming vibe. So thank you!
Come see Spectrums perform at We Fought the Big One (WFTBO), which starts at 10pm, on Friday, Nov. 3 at Marx Cafe! Admission is free. RSVP on Facebook or simply show up!