Photo Credit-Claudia Martinez Mansell
It’s no secret that I was born and bred a fan of The Clash, and when I first took a listen to The Spreewells self-titled EP I knew that I found a band that was after my own heart.
I met The Spreewells on the same night I met No Small Children and though set-wise, they are a perfect band pairing, the punk rock of The Spreewells is much more political than the zany, fun punk of NSC. Simply put, The Spreewells are a solid punk band that boast a powerful stage presence, phenomenal musicianship, and their lyrics delve into topics much deeper than many bands out there- primarily touching on world political issues. In fact, as you’ll read in the interview, Mike dubs their songs, “Political love songs” and I would have to agree. Basically, they play killer music that makes you use your goddamn brain.
Their four song EP starts off with ‘Ryanair Express’. It’s a bass driven tune with the chorus, “Oh he’s acting up and crying out and reaching out for both my hands, I took a Ryanair Express to another promised land”. If you listen closely, this song (to me) discusses the poverty and destruction of promised lands, and how we can easily leave the issues in these lands behind and, “Take a Ryanair Express to another promised land.” (Note: Ryanair Express is an actual airline that flies throughout Europe, the Czech Republic, etc.) The bass lines hint at some ska influence until the chorus when the fast-paced strumming and quick beats are put together in perfect punk style. This moves into ‘Dreams of Lebanon’ a more guitar driven track, with quicker vocal styles slowing only to highlight specific phrases like “Move with you”, “Proverbial crowded room”, “You had me at Palenstine” and “You left me abandoned there.” Throughout the EP, Richard’s vocals have a hint of drawl reminiscent of Brit punk, which only reinforces their Clash-like tunes. Track three, ‘All the Things’, has a variation of rhythm styles, alternating the fast and slow perfectly. The harmonizing on this track is pleasing and well executed, adding to the overall effect of stopping to let Richard spit out “answers” (Which in actuality are just adding to the force of realism of the question being asked) to questions like, “Whatchu gonna do? With the silence that surrounds. What’s your next move? Now that everything is breaking down.” Finally, the EP ends with the super fast paced ‘Ghosts in the Network’ discussing, “taking down the Imperial network”. Which is entirely classic punk rock in both sound and content, and is the perfect track to end the EP on. In fact, each song on this EP builds into the next and if you really listen to them, they will fire you up enough that by the time ‘Ghosts in the Network’ hits, it’s the climax of your emotional journey with the EP as a whole.
Recently, The Spreewells- Richard Wittman (Guitar/Vocals), Jeff, Gross (Bass, Guitar), Mike Ball (Bass) and Ro Meraz (Drums) sat down and talked to BBB, so read on to get to know The Spreewells. Find out if their name is actually a homage to Latrell Sprewell, how a fan became their drummer, and what they would change about the music industry if they could!
When and why did you start playing music?
Richard- I started the band because I didn’t think there was that much going on in rock music here. There was a lot going on in England that I liked a lot. I’d been writing songs here for a while and just thought, “ Its now or never.” Jeff was the first recruit of the band and then Mike and Ro.
Mike- I started playing guitar when I was 12 years old. My mom was a music teacher. I wanted to play metal so my parents bought me a Flying V, a little 15-watt amp and a distortion pedal. So I started to try to learn to play metal. Then my neighbor was playing and he taught me some riffs and I quickly discovered punk rock and other music. I guess I have to say my mom started me off playing guitar. She had an acoustic, and we used to use pennies as picks because she was a finger picker. I’m from West Viriginia so yeah, we used pennies as picks.
Richard- You guys had pennies?!
Jeff- Being a rural kid, my parents took us on a family vacation to Mexico and there was this Mariachi band who played where we were staying. I remember sitting there watching, amazed and super into it. I had Beatles and Elvis records when I was a kid. My sister was older and when she hit the age where she was listening to more rock, I got some of her records. I remember I got ahold of Led Zeppelin II when I was in sixth grade and then I went into the kitchen and asked my mom if I could take guitar lessons. She said yeah and the next week I was taking guitar. I took lessons for about a year then from there on out I taught myself.
Ro- My mom’s side of the family is very musical, so I have been around musical instruments my whole life, well, every instrument but the drums. I never really got that into it. Then in fourth grade they offered a music class. I wanted to play guitar but they didn’t have guitar for some reason. So I settled for the drums. I didn’t really get into it seriously until I was older, like after high school. My buddy and I just started playing together and that’s when it felt right.
How did you guys meet?
Ro- Actually, I was playing in a Sublime cover band and we played a show at Skinny’s, so I saw them play. I was like “Wow, I really like them!” I loved their style, it was a little more reggae and punk beats then. So I got their CD from their old drummer, and I listened every day on my way to work. A year later I saw a Craigslist ad for an indie band looking for a drummer and I applied.
Richard- Yeah, actually when I got in touch with him to give him a couple songs to learn, he said, “I knew it was you guys!! I don’t believe it!”
Ro- Small world.
Richard- Yeah, one of our 30 fans ends up auditioning to be our drummer.
Jeff- The first sort of iteration of the band was Richard, Joel (our old drummer) and this guy Chris.
Richard- The band started in Santa Barbara and Joel was just finishing UCSB undergrad. Chris we met through a friend of a friend. Jeff has Santa Barbara upbringings and that’s how we met, sort of a friend of a friend there.
Jeff- The band was sort of up and going when I joined. They were rehearsing and initially looking for a bass player. So we were at a dinner party and Richard was like, “Hey man, I’ve got this band and we’re looking for a bass player. Maybe I could play you some tracks.” So he did and I was like “Yeah!” I didn’t know what to expect.
Eventually, Chris who was playing guitar quit, not long after I had started playing bass. So I switched over to guitar.
Richard- The irony is that our guitar player had always been known as a high level bassist, and our bass player has been a lead guitarist for major touring bands in LA. They actually switch for some songs.
Why the name The Spreewells?
Richard- Well, we did have a collaborative process to come up with a name. Originally, the band was called The Stalin Trials. It’s when people had to admit their mistakes under Stalin’s rule and in act as their own prosecutors.
Mike- But you didn’t want to get blacklisted.
Richard- I wanted something political that would make people reach for something to connect with. Anyway, The Spreewells- I am a huge NY Knicks fan and from the NY area. Latrell Sprewell was my favorite basketball player during a hard time in my life, so that was one of the happier things. Then I added an ‘e’ to his name because my favorite city to spend time in currently is Berlin and the river that runs through Berlin is the Spree. So it’s a way to pay homage to a couple of my favorite things.
How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t ever heard of you?
Mike- I would say indie punk, but that just genre-fies us.
Ro- I always say we’re British rock music.
Mike- A lot of people think Richard is British.
Richard- Its hard. I’ve tried to write this out, I try to use words like high energy, melodic, lyrics that are more drawn from a newspaper than our love diaries.
Mike- I’d say political love songs.
Jeff- I always reference bands that we draw on like The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Jams, Smiths, The Libertines. I think people that are a little bit older than grew up listening to that era of punk/alternative music really seem to enjoy what we’re doing. There’s a bit of nostalgia to it.
Richard- A lot of our songs reference far away places. In a sense we’re trying to write about being conscious of a world in which something that happens in Cairo or Montevideo, can impact your life.
How does your creative process typically work?
Jeff- Richard comes in with a song pretty well sussed out. Then we all work on our own part of it.
Mike- We will jam it out for a little while then record it and send it to each other.
Jeff- We will then work out the arrangement as a group. There is a lot of back and forth about arrangements. Richard writes a lot so we have to pace ourselves as a band and have to keep the current set tuned up. If we have shows coming, we can’t really devote our rehearsals to new material.
Richard- Yeah, sometimes rehearsals are just us running through our set to make sure everything is still tight. Once we finish that, there typically isn’t much time left. We have quite a big repertoire, so as soon as the Staples Center books us for a three-hour show, we only need to work in two covers and we’re there!
Jeff- We have a system that seems to work pretty well, even though Richard seems to have the lion’s share of the creative process.
Richard- It used to be that I would write the songs and multi track all the parts. So in the beginning these guys essentially just learned the songs from what I had. However, since then, it’s a lot more like Jeff just said and to me, that is much more fulfilling. To have four people’s creative input as opposed to one person is much more fun. Its like playing team sports.
If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?
Richard- The fact that we’re not famous.
Jeff- The money.
Ro- Yeah, money, it should be easier to make a living off it.
Jeff- Everything that has happened since digital downloading has obviously been a huge shakeup for the established music business. However, its been great for small artists because now you can get your music out there easily. The thing about it though is, how do you get paid? It costs money to do what we do. Every month we’re out of pocket to do it. It’s understandable given where we are at, but there is not an easy way to even make it something that breaks even. I read that Thom Yorke recently pulled all his music off Spotify because of money issues.
Richard- He did it as a protest on behalf of bands like us.
Jeff- Right, that’s what I am getting at. It doesn’t compensate acts well enough. Its hard enough to even get to a point as a live act where you can go tour, even just to break even.
Richard- Also, because of digitalization there is an oversaturation of music.
Jeff- Yeah, every commercial now has music, cutesy ukulele riffs or whatever, it did not used to be like that.
Richard- I remember listening to The Black Keys before they were big and then I heard their song on a Volkswagon commercial and thought, “Wow, that must have been a really hard decision for them.” I’m glad they cashed in, but that such a slippery slope. There was a Clash song in a Nissan commercial recently, I mean, Joe Strummer must be turning over in his grave!
One song you never get tired of.
Richard- Spanish Bombs- The Clash
Mike- Anything by The Strokes
Ro- Wonderwall-Oasis, and Hotel California- The Eagles
Best live show you’ve ever gone to?
Richard- I saw The Clash once, but it was late in their career after Mick Jones left, but it was good. I saw Babyshambles play in London the night Pete Doherty got out of jail. I also saw James Brown in Rome, that was really awesome.
Jeff- The Ramones, I saw them when I was in High School. I have seen tons of stadium shows and stage gimmicks, but there was something about that Ramones show. It was simple and powerful. My band at the time was supposed to open for them, we were on the bill but there was some snafu with the power and we didn’t get to play.
Mike- The Police
Ro-I haven’t really gone to any shows…
Jeff- We’re looking for a new drummer!
Favorite things to do not musically related.
Ro- Lift weights. I love it.
Richard- I travel a lot.
If you ran Badass Bands Blog, what bands would you feature?
Richard- Well, you already did No Small Children. I love these kids called The Marr. Effyou Merilou.
Ro- I like Warner Drive.
Jeff- Miranda Richards
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