The Spoils are dark romantic troubadours who’ve been sharing their tales of the human condition for almost ten years. With two albums under their belt, the compelling sextet have spent much of the last two years overseas, playing to ever increasing audiences across Europe. With a new album, The Crook, The Cloak & The Maiden, and another European odyssey pending, Dan Clarke caught up with multi-instrumental lead singer Sean Simmons to dig a bit deeper into the fairytales.
Music Feeds: First up, tell us a bit about the band. How did you guys get together? Have you always been a six piece?
Sean Simmons: The band initially formed as a completely different beast to what it is today. I guess you could have categorised us as an ‘alt. country’ band back then. There were five of us. The instrumentation suited the intended sound. We had acoustic guitar, lap steel, drums, bass, violin and harmonica. It wasn’t until later that we began resenting the ‘alt. country’ label and sought to broaden our sound. With that came different instrumentation and different personnel.
MF: Now I was reading that you’ve done quite a few tours of Europe, and you’re heading back soon. What made you decide to head over there the first time? Was Europe a market you’d always planned on trying to crack, or was it just a spontaneous decision?
SS: We always planned to take our music overseas. Australia is such a massive country with a small population which makes it hard to continue touring and finding new audiences. The cities are so far apart which makes it economically difficult. We would have as happily gone to the U.S but it was Europe where we began selling records so the decision was made for us.
MF: So how’s the response over there? Was it hard to start developing a fan base?
SS: The first tour was as a duo to test the waters. We only toured Germany and France. We weren’t quite sure what to expect. We played in front of similar sized crowds in Germany compared to Australia but when we got to France there seemed to be a buzz about us. The crowds were bigger than any we had played in front of in Australia. People sang along to songs and responded so positively that we decided to return the following year as the full band. During the second tour we added Switzerland to our itinerary and this time we’re including The Netherlands and Belgium. Each time we go the crowds get bigger. Repetition is necessary in trying to establish a fan base. Fortunately Europe is such an amazing place. We’d go there if no-one came to see us.
MF: What do you think it is about you guys that the Europeans are digging?
SS: I’m not quite sure what the Europeans dig about The Spoils. I try not to think about it too much because as soon as you try to contrive a formula, everything changes. I guess it has a lot to do with us being from Australia. Suddenly when you travel out of Australia you are exotic. Most Europeans tend not to travel outside of Europe so are incredibly curious about this mass of land at the bottom of the earth where the British sent their convicts. They also seem to like our accent. I think a band like The Drones do so well over there because fans love Gareth Liddiard’s Aussie convict drawl.
MF: And has the mother continent rubbed off in your songwriting? Have you drawn any inspiration from the history and diversity of cultures over there?
SS: It’s funny. Europe influenced our sound way before we ever toured there. Our violinist, Bronwyn Henderson became rather obsessed with gypsy music in the early 2000’s. She visited Serbia and Turkey for a brief period and studied gypsy violin over there. It was around this time the band’s sound changed. We swapped lap steel for piano and harmonica for accordion.
I also began writing songs from observation rather than personal experience. She introduced me to a lot of brilliant field recordings of gypsy music and I introduced her to more contemporary artists that had been influenced by these recordings like Tom Waits or The Dirty 3. The diversity of cultures probably does influence our music as we’re always on the look out for a new sound or instrument however I believe it has to do with enriching your mind as much as you can. Travel does that in a way that no book, documentary or TV show can. History definitely influences us. I love taking an element of history and then making up my own story around it.
MF: I played some of your songs to a friend the other day, and he said he wasn’t too fussed because he thought you guys “sound like you’re trying to knock off Nick Cave” (which I personally don’t agree with). How would you respond to comments like that?
SS: I don’t think Nick Cave is any danger of us “knocking him off”. He’s doing just fine. I appreciate that people need to draw their own comparisons and have their own reference points so the music can mean something to them.
It’s hard because there is so much music out there and it’s near impossible for a person to know every artist that has ever recorded. Nick Cave is famous so it’s easier for someone to draw that comparison than to someone like Jacques Brel who is someone that influenced Nick Cave. The Spoils influences also extend far beyond music. Books, films and art also influence our sound.
MF: Have you guys found the online realm an important way of touching base with fans, establishing a closer relationship with them than otherwise would have been possible? Do you get online much?
SS: The internet is so necessary for an independent band. We set up our first European and New Zealand tours entirely through Myspace and continue to keep in touch with fans through that medium. The introduction of Facebook and Twitter has only widened the net that you can cast. I can’t imagine how hard it was for band’s who had to rely on postage and telephone in the days before internet. When I was younger, I never thought I would be so obsessed with computers but these days when I’m not writing or playing music, I’m on the internet.
MF: Tell me a bit about the new album. How would you describe it to someone who’s never heard of The Spoils?
SS: The Crook, The Cloak & The Maiden is best described as a collection of enchanting fairytales of pursuit, regret and frustration. It’s dark whilst remaining romantic at the same time.
MF: What was the recording process like? Is it hard to stay on track in the studio with so many members, and different opinions floating around?
SS: The Spoils run a tight ship in the studio. We have to with so many members and instruments. It may sound rather conservative but we have a running sheet that we do our best to keep to. Eg. MONDAY: drums & bass 12 – 6pm, guitars 6:30 – 9pm etc.
That way we avoid members hanging around unnecessarily. It gives everyone an opportunity to get out of the studio and freshen their ears.
Most of the arrangements are finalized before we get to the studio however we always leave time for experimentation as that’s when the real magic can be captured. We work extremely hard and fast in the studio and often forget that our engineer needs a rest too.
MF: How would you say The Crook, The Cloak and The Maiden fits in with your earlier releases? Have you found that your sound has developed and matured over time, or was it something that you had a very good idea of when the band first started?
SS: We never had an idea of how the band’s sound would develop when we first started. The Spoils tend to get extremely restless with their sound and always trying to add something new and take it somewhere it hasn’t been before. As mentioned, the first album, Hurtsville has a country influence while The Crook, The Cloak & The Maiden is a departure from the gypsy-pin-stripe suited second album, Goodnight Victoria. The introduction of instruments such as the Indian drone box, musical saw and vibraphone seem to compliment the sweeping strings and bravado horns, whilst the narrative at times nods towards dark fairytale rather than film noir.
MF: Having been together for nearly ten years, what advice would you have for an up and coming musician? Any hard lessons you’ve learned over the years?
SS: It’s frightening to think that this band is about to reach its ten year anniversary. In that time the biggest lesson that I’ve learnt is that if it’s no longer fun, stop doing it. You need to remember the reason why you began playing music in the first place. If that feeling ever dies you need to search until you find it again otherwise there is no point in continuing.
MF: What’s next for The Spoils? I know you’re leaving again to travel Europe soon, but what might we expect when you guys do a national tour later on in the year? How many of you are there in the live show? (I noticed you’ve got an honorary member on percussion and drums for the European tours)
SS: Yes, we’re touring Europe again in September. Our success there and in New Zealand has dictated our touring patterns for the past few years. With so many in the band, interstate touring can be a nightmare to coordinate. Our members also play in other successful Australian bands such as Augie March and The Gin Club so availability is always an issue. We hope to do a national tour when we return from Europe but can’t promise the line-up. The benefit of this band is that it can still exist in many forms whether it be duo, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet or even me solo. Our drummer has other commitments that disallow her to tour overseas so we use a European drummer when over there. His name is Svein Lillhamre. He lives in Norway and usually meets us in Germany (where we most often begin our tours) for one rehearsal having learnt the songs via emailed mp3s and then go on tour. We met him when he lived in Australia for a brief time. He’s a fantastic drummer and whilst not a permanent fixture in The Spoils, he is definitely an honorary member.
MF: Last question… Independent or major? Would you ever consider a major label deal, or are the Spoils happy being independent? Is that even really important to you guys?
SS: We have friends in bands that have signed major record deals and it seems that is when the freedom of expression ceases. It becomes about money and selling large quantities of albums. The band seems to lose control of its direction and is at the mercy of the label because they are the ones financing the recordings and tours. It would be nice to have the push that a major record label offers but at what artistic cost is that to the band?
Indeed. The Crook, The Cloak & The Maiden is out now through Stomp! Records.