Spiral Stairs (Scott Kannenberg) “We wanted to do it… before their kids got too old, or before I start having kids.”

As early as Pavement's first recordings, nearly 20 years ago, singer/guitarist Scott Kannenberg has always carried the nom de plume Spiral Stairs – even credited thusly on record jackets through the 90s. That band would blaze a now-mythologized trail for California slack rockers with an archetypal “lo-fi” charm, to become an almost messianic figure, central to the flare of indie-rock culture, which continually pays tribute to the songwriting of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannenberg.

As the story goes, Terror Twilight comes out in 99, and Pavement play their last show in London 10 years ago, to the day of this writing. What followed were the two musicians/songwriters going their separate ways to find themselves through "solo" albums. For Kannenberg, his first outing, 2001's All This Sounds Gas, was recorded and released with a band named for a Pavement B-side: The Preston School of Industry. The songs on that record, as well as 2004's Monsoon, dipped slightly into weird space-rock/country hybrids and had moments of palpably lingering Pavement flavors.

Now, in 2009, Kannenberg, Spiral Stairs finds himself on The Real Feel. Cheesy as that sounds, he admits it himself in the interview below. He also discusses the busy year he has ahead, the highly anticipated Pavement reunion, Australia's influence and its pull upon his destiny, and “warmer,” “evening records.”



First off, what's the scale of your plans for the Pavement reunion?

Oh, we're doing tons of shows. We're just announcing them as the negotiations get done. We wanted to start with the New York stuff, just to see what would happen. We didn't realize that the excitement would be as much as it is.

Oh, indeed. It's felt like the stuff of legend, across nerdy indie blogs for years now... once Pixies did it, we just waited for the next shoe to drop.

Yeah, that's right -- hopefully, we'll be as good.

The big get-back-together thing, how casual or dramatic was it?

Uh, it's a matter of getting everybody together, talking about it and not really having anything going on. I think everybody was ready, at some point, to do it again. It's just, Steve and I have been doing our records, (Steve)'s had some kids, Steve West has kids, Bob (Nastanovich) got married and Mark (Ibold)'s been doing Sonic Youth. It's just a matter of trying to get everybody on the same page to do it again. Luckily it coincides with our 20 years of playing together, since we first started playing. We thought it would be a good idea to do it. We wanted to do it before we got -- before their kids got too old, or before I start having kids. You gotta think about all these things, before kinda completely changing your life for a year; it looks like it's gonna be 9 months-to-a-year of doing at least a couple of weeks of Pavement stuff every month. It wasn't one thing it was a combination.

As a Pavement listener, I always had my ideas of what a Spiral song was like, be it “Date with Ikea” or “Passat Dream” or whatever, but it seemed early Preston tracks like “Falling Away” and “Walk of Gurl” still felt like Spiral-Pavement-B-sides. Now, to this record, it seems like its own creature, completely cut away from anything-Pavement. Does it feel like your songwriting identity has changed?

Yeah. I don't know. I definitely felt like the Preston stuff was more geared toward Pavement just because, especially the All This Sounds Gas, was songs I was writing around (Terror Twilight), that last Pavement record. It's easy to write songs like how you know how to write them, but this record, it was such a time difference. It wasn't that I tried to write songs differently, it just came out that way. And, yeah, I feel like you're right, it is a different -- it's just a different time of my life, I'm not gonna write the same songs.

"Kevin didn't play on the record, he kinda got misquoted. His grandmother is actually on the record."

How's your year going so far?

Good! Good -- my year's going great. It's gonna be a very busy end of this year, that's for sure. A lot of shit going on.

Tell me the story of The Real Feel: how did it get started, how'd it happen?

Well, it's been, from the last Preston [School of Industry] record, probably a good 4 years or so, maybe 3 years – since I've really -- I mean, after I got a divorce and kinda hung out in Seattle and worked from my house, I didn't really do much music-wise. I just wasn't really inspired; it wasn't that I hated music or anything, I still went to see shows and listened, it just didn't inspire me. So, I went to Australia and some friends of mine down there said, "Hey, why don't we get together and play a show?" So, I said, sure, and made up like 5 or 6 new songs with these guys, and ‘Whoa, this is fun.' So, had those songs, came back to Seattle and kinda got inspired again. I had some songs, but they were a lot different than “Preston songs” and so I went in that direction of wanting to make something a little different, a little warmer sounding, a little more honest, a little more mature. Ya know, a little more… my style and of what I was listening to… I got some of the guys who are in Preston to play on it and then we recorded it; then it went back and forth between Seattle and Melbourne and recorded there and there ya go: Real Feel.

Was there something about your time in Melbourne that particularly re-inspired you?

I wrote them with these guys that I play with in mind, to bring everybody into the fold. And they were a little more bluesy sounding, a little more kinda heavy-rock sounding. That spurred me onto this different direction.

There's a point on “Mighty Fall,” a very country-ish moment, where you finish a verse and say, “Alright,” under your breath and it starts rolling into this, as you said, bluesy twang thing and there's a ‘mighty' solo: what was the song-writing process like? As open-feeling as it sounds?

In the past, with the Preston records, I just basically did everything myself and I had other people play on them, but they were kinda my ideas for the songs. This one I kinda left it open to some other people to put in their guitar lines, their bass lines, and it kinda formed the basis of this record. And I spent a lot of time on the lyrics; I really tried to talk about my experiences and it just came out pretty frank and honest.

""Okay, maybe this is what people go through when they start maturing, they start kind of being more introspective and, not really trying to be so elusive.""

We've caught you in country-ish moments before -- if it's entries on Wowee Zowee or twangy ballads like “Treasure @ Silver Bank” or folky “Caught In The Rain” things, and it comes back in a big way, in a pedal-steel way, on songs like “Call The Ceasefire.”

That was what I was listening to; I was listening to a lot of Dylan and probably putting out records the same year as he was, probably in his high thirties when he was making any of these records (that I'd listened to), and I was trying to think of, "Okay, maybe this is what people go through when they start maturing, they start kind of being more introspective and, not really trying to be so elusive." Basically, that's what inspired me; some early Fleetwood Mac records too.

And songs are longer, spaced out, atmospheric, I think of a song like the extended intro for “Wharf Hand Blues.” Set aside getting away from traditional structures, it's also almost like you're getting away from the pop, of past songs like “Falling Away.”

Yeah! Yeah, like I said, I was listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac, this record called Then Play On... Bare Trees... they've got those kind of songs, like mid-tempo things in there that really take off -- these structures that are very strange and I kinda really wanted to write a song like that, and “Wharf Hand Blues” is like that song. “Ceasefire” is kind of like that too, but that comes more from a Richard Thompson-type song.

What was it like working with Jon Auer? And, I read that Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew was involved?

Jon mixed the thing and helped me do all my vocals here in my basement. He took it upon himself to immerse himself in it and he did a great job. Kevin didn't play on the record, he kinda got misquoted. His grandmother is actually on the record. There's this part at the end of the CD, where this English lady says “Ladies and gentlemen… Spiral Stairs.” It was supposed to be for Kevin's record, but he shelved that idea, and I used it for my record instead. I love his band. Definitely, one of my inspirations for, over the last 5 years, helped me love music again, is Broken Social Scene.

Not even in the words, but in the wave and strain of your voice – this feels like a much more emotional record for you.

Yeah, it was, but, I wanted to make it a little more of an evening record, ya know? I was singing, although I did most of the lyrics, writing them in the evening. I just wanted it to be more, relaxed, because the lyrics are more honest and more open.

"after I got a divorce and kinda hung out in Seattle and worked from my house, I didn't really do much music-wise."

Relaxed, maybe, but then “Stolen Pills” comes along and wakes everybody up.

Yeah, haha, exactly! Heh, that song actually started out as a really slow, relaxed song as well. We had all these slow songs and then my bass player said, "put that in another key," or, "How can we make this different?" And then my drummer was like, "Let's speed it up!" Drummers love to speed stuff up. But the original was really slow.

Since the first Preston record/post-Pavement onward – schmaltzy/cheesy as it is, what have you learned about yourself? As a songwriter? As an album arranger? 

Well, Preston stuff forced me to become more of a songwriter. Pavement was just, I could write a song but that band, Steve (Malkmus) was more of the frontman and it was kinda more about us, as a unit, and I just didn't really know how to write songs or at least didn't feel like I could all the time, because I was just too busy with Pavement. Preston made me write more songs but I think I've finally gotten to the point where I feel comfortable writing songs and I think finally found my voice, where I do feel comfortable. I was telling somebody the other day, that even though I like the song “Falling Away,” I don't feel really comfortable playing it. I would rather play “Ceasefire.” “Falling Away” just feels foreign to me, playing it now. I've already, at this point, heard the Real Feel so many times that I can't listen to it, I need to make another record. And hopefully I will, next January I think. I'm gonna move down to Australia in December, so I'll be there till the Pavement stuff starts.

And from here? Future plans? 2010? Pavement of course, but anything else?

The Pavement thing is gonna ramp up in February ('10), that's filling throughout all of the year, basically, until the end of September, is when we're planning to kind of stop it. There might be some other stuff; the Spiral stuff I'm gonna try to do some things in between all that, when I can. But, just, take it easy and do that. I'm moving to Australia, and getting married. Seattle was fine while it lasted, but I'm looking forward to Australia.

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