Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Digging Deeper with The Spandettes

The Spandettes are fronted by a sultry three-part harmony, backed by a tight ten-piece band and heavily indebted to jazz theory. But most importantly, as their March 21st concert at Tattoo proved to all in attendance, they are nothing short of a well-oiled disco dance machine. 

For those who missed the show - and for those who want to relive that stellar night - their new album, Spandex Effect, is out on Toronto label, Do Right! Music.

I recently had the esteemed pleasure of sharing tea and talking about the record with front-woman, writer-arranger, co-producer and way-back friend, Alex Tait.


What's the origin of the band? You were originally called The Spandex Effect.

Just Spandex Effect. We agonized over whether to have the "The." It's so stupid. 

Lizzy [Clarke], Kevin [Neal] and I – Kevin is our guitarist and Lizzy is one of the three vocalists – we started talking about how come there are no good girl groups anymore, how nobody sings harmonies anymore and also like comparing good and bad disco.

It can go so right and it can go so wrong.

Then I think what happened was that Lizzy and I started singing and Kevin was like, "What the fuck? You guys can actually do this?" And we're like, "Yeah." Over some drinks we decided to start a band. That was Spandex Effect.

Initially we had a third girl, who was not Maggie [Hopkins], who now goes by Dana Jean Phoenix. She's a solo artist, a nu-funk singer and worked with God Made Me Funky. She was initially the third singer but at the time she was way too busy doing backup vocals with Julie Black. 

So before we even did our first gig, before anything really happened, we found that we need that third person. And we knew Maggie from school and thought, "Wait, she's perfect!"

The first time we all sang together was magic. 

Why did you change your name from Spandex Effect to The Spandettes?

Two reasons.

We realized that Spandex was probably a trademark and thought that somebody might sue us. If we get enough attention, somebody will care and we’ll be in big trouble. But people will already know who we are and then we’ll have to change names.

But we’re also a girl group and the three of us – Maggie, Lizzie and I – had done a couple of side projects and called ourselves The Spandettes.

I had wondered if Spandex Effect was the band and The Spandettes were the harmony, then you became the front piece, so the band name changed. 

Oh. I could see how you’d think that.

But no.

The Spadettes are two things: the full band and then the three of us are also the face of the band. 

We [the vocal trio] are the the focal point I guess, but we've always run things in a way that everyone has a voice. Anyone is welcome to contribute compositions or ideas. We've never done a gig without a full band.

And it's a large band, ten piece. An eclectic jazz, funk, disco, soul outfit. In that respect, are you continuing a family musical tradition? I'm thinking specifically about your dad being in Manteca, which was a large band, heavy on the horns and percussion, with an eclectic sound rooted in jazz.

I think about my dad a lot. Not because the music we're doing is stylistically the same but because he ran a lot of bands that had a lot of people in them.

In Manteca he wasn't the band leader but he was one of the principal composers. But he ran big bands and did all sorts of large ensemble things. I remember that he – and I've had colleagues of his tell me that he – would get stressed out running big ensembles.

You're dealing with so many people. And you're fighting to get paid. And back then you couldn't just send a group email, you had to call everyone and hope they picked up their phones. And writing charts. I think about him in that sense.

I think the fact that he was a trumpet player also makes me a horniphile. Sometimes people ask if we could pair down our horn section for touring and I'm really reluctant to do that because I feel that the horns are a big part of the sound. People see that as disposable sometimes but I really don't.

That's what makes us special, what makes us stand out. God those guys are good. And they play really well together. 

Do you ever think of making the band bigger? Do you ever think of incorporating a disco string section?

Oh yeah. In my dreams.  

Initially there were eleven of us. There was a guy who played congas and steel pan and you can hear that on the record. But that's just an eleventh person to fit into rehearsal and on to stage.

In my perfect world, we'd have full time percussion steel pans, a bari sax (so a four part horn section) and strings would be amazing. If we had the players we'd write for them.

But you have to figure out what's workable, what's reasonable and how to get everyone in the same room. Until you can make it rain, you have to really, carefully, think about what you're doing.

Were there albums or composers that were touchstones for writing this album?

Kevin and I are sort of the principal writers for the band and Allison [Au], our alto sax player and flutist, does some cool arrangements. She did the Hunk of Heaven arrangement. And Lizzy has done a little bit of writing with us, too. But Kevin and I go back to a lot older Jamiroquai, Taveres and Pointer Sisters. Pointer Sisters are a huge influence. We love them and we’re careful about what covers we do.

But there are a lot of things: the disco-funk era of Herbie Hancock, sometimes we even reference stuff like Destiny’s Child or The Supremes when we’re thinking about girl group harmonies.

But for the most part, to be honest, when we write we don’t listen to stuff. We don’t put on a track and try to make that happen. Generally, our writing process tends to be: sit down with a guitar and make shit up. Kevin will start running some changes and I’ll start doing some singing. Once we have the backbone of something we flesh it out – we think about the harmonies and horns.

I know for him and I the harmony is the most important thing. Because if the changes are nice you can make the melodies great. I think that’s the jazz school part in us. We always try to think about the harmony and not go for the most obvious choice every time.  

And there’s harmony in two senses: the chord changes and the vocal three-part harmony. And for that, too, instead of just going for – I don’t know how technical I should get here – triads and stacked thirds all the time, we’ll go for those major seconds, minor seconds, what they call “crunchy harmony.” Because then when you resolve it to a triad it’s like “aaaahhhhhh!” It has that feeling of tension and release. 

What was the recording and production process like for this album?

The album was recorded live off the floor in the auditorium at Humber College. So there’s no isolated studio stuff on this album. Which really goes to the credit of the players. When you hear it, you’re not like that sounds budget.

It’s the players.

And Andy Pryde, our engineer, whom I co-produced with. He was really careful about using baffles and mic selection. He and I were up in the booth being so picky. 

And that was even before we knew there was any money involved. We were friends who said let’s do this. 

For the editing process we went out to Andy’s studio in Peterborough. So I schlepped out to Peterborough and spent a good couple of days going through things with a fine toothed comb. I’m the picky one. So I’m like “isolate Maggie’s voice,” “the top note is sharp, let’s fix that,” every little thing. 

Any good stories about making the album?

I wish I could tell you that there were some crazy party stories but it’s such a pro band. Everybody just comes, kills it, gets it done. Four hours – show up, set up, knock it down, hugs, peace out.

It’s not a band where we’re like, “How many beer tickets do we get tonight?” You know Mack is the least stereotypical drummer because he drives and he doesn't drinking and he’s early. He has his stuff together and he doesn't live on his girlfriend’s couch. Everyone takes what they do seriously but also has a good time.

There are no raucous stories to tell. I should come up with something so we sound cooler. 

Do most of the members of the band have other jazz bands that they’re part of?  Is this their fun party-music band?

Mostly? Maybe fifty-fifty.

We joke that Lizzy is the Motown Spice, I’m Jazzy Spice and Maggie is RnB Spice. We all work more in those worlds. Lizzy has her Motown band The Intentions. I do lots of jazz things and Maggie does RnB gigs.

Kevin, our guitar player, is really involved in the country scene right now, surprisingly. He took a left turn a few years ago and got into playing pedal steel and now he’s working predominantly in the pedal steel world.

And the rest are mostly doing jazz stuff.

Mason has some rock things going on.

And Mack is in like fifteen bands and does everything, all the time, ‘cause he’s a killer drummer. 

Who brings in the reggae angle? Is that from your skater-punk/reggae days in high school? 

“Shine a Smile” was written by Kevin. And initially it was supposed to be an instrumental and he was like, “Wait a minute, everyone wants to see the girls sing. We should put words to this."

But “Dig Deeper,” which has some island vibes to it, I wrote that one.

But I think everybody kind of loves reggae. Right? Is there anybody who doesn’t? 

I don’t want to know those people.

How did you guys get hooked up with Do Right?

So John Kong - who runs Do Right! – he and I have been buds for years. I first met him when one of my girlfriends was dating one of the deejays he worked with at Supermarket. And we just started talking music and he took an interest right away.

When we had our first gig it was at Supermarket and he helped connect that because he was running the Do Right! Saturday nights. He was interested from the get go but Do Right! was still building up its name at that time. And because he’s a smaller label he can only do so much at once.

He and I were talking for years and then finally after a gig, probably two years ago, he said he was ready to sign us.

Lots of coffees and lunches and talks about possibilities. 

It’s a perfect fit. I can’t think of a better label for you.

And that’s the thing about John – because he’s a deejay and a tastemaker – he’s really concerned how the music sounds. And he's approached all the time but he’s not going to sign someone because they’re cute or whatever. He’s way more concerned about how things sound. That’s what he knows how to market – that underground soul, funk, jazz influence. He knows what’s good. 

What’s it like hearing your music on CBC or hearing that you have Gilles Peterson’s attention or that you’re charting in Japan? 

I know! And G97 is playing it. And now they’re running commercials for us. It’s crazy. Surreal.

Crazy, crazy, crazy.

It’s hard to put into words because until you see a pay check there’s no tangible effect. But it’s this weird, vague, really-hard-to-understand thing.

Especially with Japan.

We have all these people loving us in Japan. And we’re getting tweets constantly, “Come to Japan!” And people are retweeting the photos from our vinyl. They’re so pumped about it. And I’ve been trying really hard to respond to them and thank them for checking us out and try to make a connection to them.

It’s partially for them but also partially for us, so we can actually – partially – understand what this is. We’re so used to just our friends coming to our gigs and going crazy. It’s different.

When I first heard it on the CBC last week I had to pull over my car, put on my blinkers and freak out for a minute. I was like, “They don’t have to play this. They’re playing it because they want to.”

Any talk of touring?

There’s definitely talk.

We applied to the TO Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival. And then there’s talk about Japan. But - of course – taking ten people to Japan, that’s going to cost twenty-five grand. It’s not a hey let’s go. We’re musicians, we’re not funding that. People keep asking us to come, though. Maybe it’s be a Field of Dreams thing. They’ll build it and we’ll come.

What is it about the music of the 70s that’s so attractive to you, collectively?

I feel like it’s not just the 70s. It starts with the 70s but comes up to current music. "The Beach" has a Latin house groove and we take influences from The Pointer Sisters and Herbie Hancock and Jamiroquai and the 90s soul-funk thing happening then. 

But even that stuff is a throwback to 70s music.

I guess it’s just a great era with so many killer records coming out. And so much underground stuff that you couldn’t possibly listen to it all.

And it has an organic feeling to it that the 80s doesn’t have. There are things from the 80s that we love – like 80s Pointer Sisters records – but not that overly-synthesized, overly-sampled stuff.

We want a real drummer. We want real horns. We want Rhodes and Wurlitzer patches, not cheesy synth strings. It’s the warmth and the space in those recordings and the soul that went into it. 

Are you already working on the next album or are you savouring the moment?

We’re always a few steps ahead. As the great Usher once said, “Luck favours the prepared.”

If we’re getting an opportunity right now and there’s a follow up but we’re not ready then it goes to someone else.

The nice thing about the situation we’re in is that we have a handful of killer unrecorded songs already because we had to make choices on what to record. So we’ve got half an album ready. And every week we get together for Tuesdettes and try stuff out.

So once the launch is done it’s going to be back to writing. 

What’s your jam from this album?

Umm…It’s really hard to say. I love all of these songs. "Dig Deeper" is my favourite to sing. I get to take off my mom shoes and step into a vixen’s. It’s sassy.

Moms can be vixens.


But if I had to choose, I’d say that one.

I’m also really into "Let’s Go to the Beach."

And I love the covers. "Hunk of Heaven" and "Automatic" were chosen for a reason.

"Calendar Girl" is cool. I wrote that one for a song writing assignment where we had to write for Katy Perry. And the teacher was like, "You have way too many chord changes and a modulation. Katy Perry would never use this…but it’s a great song." Then afterwards I thought, maybe that’s for The Spandettes. I might have been double dipping on that assignment. 

Anything else you want to say about your wonderful album or the people you worked with?

I’d love to big up the people who helped us out.

Andy Pryde, he had our back from day one, from when we were in school. He was helping us do mini recitals in the auditorium, making us sound good, giving us advice.  He’s amazing and he’s so invaluable. Because of the [Factor] grant he finally got paid something worthwhile but he was doing all this for peanuts because he loves us. 

John Kong really took a chance on us. He and I are in touch daily and working on things. 

And then the band. They’re just so extremely talented and bring so much to the table, every single one of them. We’ve had the same horn section for years, working together, getting tight.

My boyfriend David Charlec, he’s been doing great photography for us. And again, isn’t getting paid. But that’s because he can’t. He’s on a work visa from France. 

Most importantly, the other two girls, Lizzy and Maggie. The three of us together have such a cool vibe. We just love each other. And we’re just in it to win it, together. 

Anything else?

I guess one thing that I always feel I need to say something about is the conception in the music business that female singers don’t know anything and aren’t good bandleaders and aren’t good writers and aren’t real musicians, they’re just the pretty face.

And in our band, that’s just not the scene. The three of us all know what we’re doing. We’re all business savvy. We all work together to get it done. And yeah, we’re the face of the band and we put make-up on and dresses and coordinated outfits because that’s part of the show. But all three of us really have a drive to represent the band well and be more than just that. And write tunes. And arrange things. And negotiate with guys who want to call us sweetie and honey and lowball us.

I’ll smile but you’re going to pay me.


You can download the album, purchase the CD, and pre-order the LP through Do Right's website. You can also find copies of the 7" single for Dig Deeper/Hunk of Heaven in store at PlaydeRecord.

Photography thanks to David Charlec. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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