Two, the new album from Spirits Having Fun, should be a difficult listen. Comprised of four musicians from the jazz, punk and noise rock scenes of Boston (though now split between Chicago and Brooklyn) and containing all of the unusual time signatures, dynamic shifts and atypical structures that such an alliance might conjure in your mind, it’s certainly not simple music, but everything is done with such a deftness of touch and an open heart that it never once feels like a chore. Instead we find ourselves on a dreamy and surprisingly bucolic journey of discovery – guitar and bass whisping around us like a summer breeze, gentle drums rustling in the tall reeds as we’re taken on a series of scenic detours down overgrown tracks that we wouldn’t ever have spotted without the music’s guiding hand. Katie McShane’s vocal is a cool, clear stream, sparkling in the just-before-dusk golden sunshine that illuminates much of this album, leaving just a hint of the night to come.
Making music this rich and adventurous, whilst remaining open and playful is a challenge that few pull off successfully – that the first touchpoint that came to mind was Deerhoof is a testament to just how well Spirits Having Fun have realised this ambition.
Two is an album that rewards the repeat listener, unveiling new secrets with each play, and we were keen to burrow deeper, so we asked drummer Phil Sudderberg and bassist Jesse Heasly to share some of the books that have influenced their music.
One book and one poem:
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill (2019)
“Houseboat Days” by John Ashbery (1977)
Probably my favorite book that I read this year has been Tom O’Neill’s Chaos, but instead of forcing a connection between Charles Manson, the CIA, and the music of Spirits Having Fun, I’ll write a bit about John Ashbery’s poem “Houseboat Days”, which, as chance has it, also uses the Bay Area as its primary backdrop. First published in 1977 not long after the unrest described in O’Neill’s exhaustive new work, Ashbery’s layered poem describes “low-lying hills” and “little white flowers” alongside “the stench of knowledge” and “a common heresy” that a beach-dweller dodges while walking along the shore of the Pacific. In sum, the speaker of Ashbery’s poem trades the easy seduction of “sincere convictions”–which invariably leads to pain and division–for “the weather and the certainties of living and dying.” He writes:
The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,
Leads one subtly away from the beginning, where
We must stay, in motion.
What’s funny is that while writing this I’m realizing Tom O’Neill might not totally disagree with Ashbery here despite the two authors’ seemingly incongruent concerns; While extirpating unknown revelations about the dubious official narrative surrounding Manson’s criminal motives, Chaos concludes in the way that many books about conspiracy theories conclude, in that it never really concludes at all. I like to imagine Ashbery putting down Chaos and saying to O’Neill, “See, you spent all that time following the stench of knowledge when you could have instead come on a walk with me!” O’Neill, after dedicating twenty years of his life independently researching the Manson case, might be inclined to accept the offer. After all, as Ashbery would have it, “you don’t see until it’s all over how little there was to learn.”
These two works open me up to thinking about where the band Spirits Having Fun finds itself on the apolitical-to-political spectrum (or even on the sense-to-nonsense spectrum, for that matter). Unsatisfying it may be, this is all to say that I think we sit somewhere on both of those spectra, albeit in different places at different times within different contexts. Spirits is made up of four musicians who also happen to be four educators, which means, at least according to my conception of the role of the teacher, that we are constantly “finding motion” going back to “the beginning” with our students and ourselves. That being true doesn’t negate the fact that we are also four people deeply concerned about the climate and capitalism and what is to be done about it. Something I love about this apparent contradiction is the same thing I love about this rock band I’m in, which, to my ear, manages to do many things I love about both of these texts all at the same time. In the music we make, there is stupefaction, there is sense, there is joy and sublimity, and still, above all those things, there is a deeply shared feeling that “Life is beautiful.”
The Edge of Running Water, by William Sloane (1939)
The Edge of Running Water tells the story of a psychology professor, Richard, who receives an unexpected summons to downeast Maine from his former mentor, Julian. The two haven’t spoken much since the unexpected death of Julian’s wife. When Richard arrives in Barsham Harbor, he finds that Julian has withdrawn completely into his work: the construction of a machine that would allow him to communicate with the dead. The book tells the story of what happens between Julian’s housekeeper, his research assistant, his dead wife’s younger sister, and Richard. The housekeeper’s untimely death, uncanny and horrible sounds coming from the second floor, and a fearful and suspicious group of locals all coalesce into a real humdinger of a story. I don’t want to spoil too much for anybody. It’s a fun read!
Lately I’ve been enjoying horror and suspense filled books (shout out to the Southern Reach trilogy). I’m not usually a thrill seeker; I don’t think I’m reading these books in order to have intense and scary images fill my head or to vicariously achieve the catharsis that comes from committing extreme, forbidden acts. I think what I’m loving is the way it feels to follow the trail of breadcrumbs that lead to unlocking the mysterious. The way that my brain feels as I sponge up all the information I possibly can is the goal here. When I’m really in the throes of one of these stories my brain feels totally open and non-judgemental. I love trying to totally accept and inhabit the world that the author is creating without inserting myself into the story.
I think that kind of mindset is something I try to bring to music making as well. When Spirits Having Fun plays, we let each performance differ from the rest. There are spaces in the songs where we all get to mess with each other, improvise, and play around. When I’m at my best, my brain is in the same space that a horror/suspense/mystery novel takes it: accepting, non-judgemental, spongey. That way I can honestly react and incorporate a surprising drum fill or guitar screech into my performance. We haven’t been able to play together in a while so maybe these spooky books are a way for me to re-enter that headspace and scratch that itch. This kind of headspace is good for songwriting too. The more clear headed I can be about my ideas, the better.
One last thing I like about this book: when the story comes to a close, we still don’t know everything. Sloane resolves the character’s stories, but doesn’t wrap up lots of loose ends that have to do with the more mysterious and dark elements in the story. Something that I’m learning to embrace lately is the idea that I don’t need to know everything. Some things are really complicated and mysterious and there isn’t much you can do about it. I think there’s a beauty there that reading Sloane is helping me to see.
Two is released today on Born Yesterday Records, order now on vinyl or digital download via Bandcamp
Find out more about Spirits Having Fun on their official website
Introduction by Paul Maps
Photograph by Julia Dratel and Mia Friedman