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Three part harmonies to die for

By Staff | Dec 29, 2008

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit this before proceeding with the article. I think I have a crush on Heather Robb, one member of the talented trio the Spring Standards, out of New York City.

Robb talked to me recently about rock cruises, the HBO hit “Flight of the Conchords” and one band member’s resemblance to Conan O’Brien. But it wasn’t the subject matter; Robb was bright, funny and energetic enough to rustle me out of my mid-week narcoleptic-filled haze. That’s no easy task and for that she’s my crush of the week.

For some perspective: I’m often asked how cool it is to interview bands for a living. Truth is it’s mind-numbingly boring most of the time. You get the same stock answers in the same monotone voice from a band member who’s surely answered the question just asked numerous times before. You can’t blame them really for their lack of enthusiasm sometimes. And you can’t blame the messenger either. The questions we must ask are often predetermined by our readership group (who may not be at all familiar with said band) and limited space. In my eyes, it’s the band’s job to sell themselves to me, no matter how many times they’ve heard the same questions.

Enter Robb and her bandmates, James Cleare and James Smith, brimming with confidence, a fresh, joyful sound and the hardworking, independent roots to solidify their status as a bright up-and-coming band ready to breakout of the Five Burroughs. Maybe it’s their relatively new arrival to the music scene, but I’d like to think it’s something more.

The three band members are each songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. Watching them perform is a treat, as each member plays at least two instruments at once, and often switches up mid-set to another instrument. And the three-part harmonies — the harmony! — are a special touch that raises the group beyond being a novelty act.

The Spring Standards are heading to West Virginia Jan. 10, when they’ll be headlining a show at the Purple Fiddle in Thomas. Be sure to catch the show.

Graffiti: Catch us up on what’s going on with the band. You just finished your debut EP and are starting out on tour, yea?

Robb: We put out our debut EP, which is six tracks with a hidden track, but don’t tell anyone that because it’s a surprise. We put that out in the end of July. It was co-produced by Rhett Miller and we’ve just been touring since then.

This month we’re doing some demos and working on new material … then we hit the road again and head up to your neck of the woods not soon after on our way to Florida for this crazy rock boat cruise. We’re pretty much straight touring from January through March. We’re looking pretty solid the next three months, which is great.

And we’ve had a bunch of little neat things: we played on the radio this morning in New York and that was awesome. We have a spot on an MTV show this weekend. It’s called “Exiled.”A bunch of random neat little pieces coming together.

Graffiti: Have any of you done anything like a rock cruise before? That seems kind of wild. I’m a little jealous.

Robb: I didn’t even know they existed but I’m glad they do (laughs). We’re really excited about it. It was started by Sister Hazel in the ‘90s and it’s been going ever since. It’s a really great opportunity for smaller bands to get an opportunity to play for people all over the country and the world. You go on stage and play before thousands of people who might have come for the headliner but they see you play and then you’ve made yourself a fan in Omaha or wherever. A lot of bands we’ve talked to said it’s one of the best places to get Midwest exposure because the Midwest is sort of dry. There aren’t many clubs and bars throughout the Midwest.

Plus, it’s a great excuse to go to the Caribbean in January and soak in some rays.

Graffiti: The Spring Standards are a completely independent band. I mean, you guys don’t have a label, a publisher, nothing. Just the three of you and management, right? Do you have any plans to sign with a label or a publisher?

Robb: We’re totally independent. As of right now it’s suiting us wonderfully, it’s getting us the chance to kind of really spread our wings and figure out exactly what we want so if a relationship starts to happen with a label or something we’ll have a stronger sense of who we are and what our priorities are going into that relationship. I think there’s no better place for us at this point.

The challenge is where does the money come from to make the full length (record). We’re trying not to let that disrupt our plans, we’re going to still try to get a full length out by summer. We’re not going to sit around and wait for a label to make that happen.

We’re not against those kinds of relationships, it can serve bands really well, but I also definitely speak for the band when I say I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished so far being independent. Until we hit a wall there’s no reason for us to move to a label (laughs).

Graffiti: Do you watch “Flight of the Conchords?”

Robb: (Laughs) It’s funny you said that. We were just talking today about the season two premiere being online now. But yes, I watch it and love it.

Graffiti: I mention it because I just watched that episode last night.

Robb: Oh yea? Is it good?

Graffiti: You know I was a little nervous about the episode because I had such high expectations. It’s good though, you’ll like it. But anyway, I mention the episode because it’s about the band being without any representation at all — no label, no management, nothing. They fire Murray, their manager at the beginning of the episode. I don’t want to tell you too much, but they end up getting swindled by the end because they don’t have any one looking out for them. I just found it interesting given that the Spring Standards are in some ways in the same boat.

Robb: I think that’s what a lot of bands are going through now. A lot of labels are going under; it’s a very unpredictable time in the music industry. It’s not the clear equation anymore, not that anything is. But that structure that everyone went through is not there anymore.

“Flight of the Conchords” was probably a little bit of a satire of what’s really happening in the music industry where more and more bands are going at it alone. We haven’t had any negative experiences or anything so far. We have great managers and a great booking agent. That’s all we really need right now. We’re very content and very lucky to have found good people early on.

Graffiti: To switch gears a little to your music. I’ve been listening to your EP a lot over the last two weeks. I love the blend of old-country and rock, with the three part harmonies rising over the top. There seems to be a resurgence of this sound to an extent. People seem to be looking more for harmony and roots music. Why do you think this has such an appeal now?

Robb: That’s a great question. I can only really answer from my perspective as someone who sees that as an integral part of my music making. It does seem to be a trend and in some way we’re a part of it, in a much smaller scale.

I think a lot of it has to do with the bands our parents really loved, at least from my perspective. The LPs my dad had are the things I started listening to early on as a kid. Being the babies of the baby boomers, there was the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Turtles and Buddy Holly to an extent. These were all really incredible pop and rock musicians that had these unbelievable harmony arrangements — and that didn’t mean you were a doo-wop group. You could be in a band and have harmonies. Those were the LPs in my dad’s collection. Maybe that had something to do with it. 

Those lush harmonies really do harken back to Brian Wilson and the stuff he was doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Possibly other musicians had the same experience I did as a child, listening to those records, and that’s why that sound is so popular now.

I also like the mindset of, why would there not be harmony in music and singing? It’s one of the great gifts, to make voices do that. It’s just magical; it’s the most moving, beautiful thing that could happen.

Graffiti: The three of you are multi-instrumentalists and each are songwriters, too. The drum kit is split up among the three of you and the two James alternate between bass and guitar. How do you decide who writes the songs and who contributes what instruments to each song?

Robb: It’s a pretty organic process. We’re all songwriters, so often it’s one person coming to the group with, ‘hey I started this song,’ or, ‘hey I’m working on this song.’

So usually who starts the song ends up with the primary instrument like guitar or piano. But sometimes someone will really want to play bass, for instance, on the song and they’ll get to do that.

Honestly it’s been a very democratic process. Hopefully it will stay that way. We’re all writing all the time but for the most part it goes Heather, James, James, Heather, James, James (writing the songs). We try to keep it really fair and really even.

Also we all have different strengths as songwriters so I think the more we kind of keep diversifying and taking turns the more that our sort of genre continues to expand and grow. It keeps us fresh.

Sometimes a songwriter will have an idea what they want every person to do, what they want the bass to sound like. But more often what’s more exciting to us is, ‘hey I have this idea what do you guys hear?’ That’s more fun and more often what happens. It’s a very kind of open creative process.

Graffiti: When you’re done with a song, can you identify who wrote it and whose influences are all over the song?

Robb: Oh definitely. We have common influences, but we have intersecting circles. They all meet in the middle and there’s areas where only James and Heather intersect and the other James and Heather and then James and James. And then there are places where we all meet. The blend of all those things is definitely present in our songwriting.

For example, it’s kind of a given that Joni Mitchell was a huuuge influence on me as a female songwriter and a piano player. I’ll never forget making tapes from my dad’s LP so I could listen to them in my car on the way to school. I know the two James have a deep respect and appreciation of her music but she didn’t have the affect on them that she did me. And they have people like that that I don’t listen to as much as them. I love it, love being introduced to new music by bandmates and hearing their fingerprints in the song writing.

Graffiti: What was it like working with Rhett Miller of the Old 97s? Was he someone the band was pretty familiar with before the recording?

Robb: We were big fans; we all were big fans of his solo stuff and with the Old 97s, so the opportunity to work with him was really mind blowing. He’s a wonderful guy.

We wouldn’t have been able to keep him on a pedestal if we wanted because he was so acceptable and wanted our tracks in the collaborative sense. He had a lot of great ideas to contribute but was respectful of the things we wanted to make sure we had on the record.

We’ve toured with them since then and we love the rest of the band; such a great group of musicians.

The whole thing was serendipitous.

Graffiti: How did that arrangement come to be? Was he a friend of a friend?

Robb: Our manager, Michael, has a house upstate and a house in the city and his house upstate is near Rhett Miller’s house. So both being in the industry they found this out and have since become friends and have kids the same age. Michael brought the idea to us not knowing we were fans. We all freaked out like, ‘holy crap this could happen.’

So we sent some stuff to Rhett and he loved it and we went upstate to work on some things. It was a very lucky sequence of events that resulted in a great friend and sort of mentor with us.

Graffiti: Speaking of another high-profile link to the band, you appeared on Conan earlier this year. How was that?

Robb: It was amazing. It was like a dream come true; very nerve wracking, incredibly scary and then all of sudden it was over and we were like, ‘that didn’t happen.’ We watched it later that night and almost died.

Graffiti: Did you have a little viewing party?

Robb: Yea, we had some friends who came over and watched it with us. It was really fun and totally weird.

Graffiti: Did you get to meet him?

Robb: He’s an amazing guy. He’s so tall.

Graffiti: Did James bond with Conan over their paleness and red-headedness?

Robb: (Laughs) A little bit. It’s actually funny because coincidently one of our friends works for his show. So last Christmas a friend got James a signed picture from Conan and it said, ‘I hear your hair gives mine a run for its money.’ So we had a laugh about the shared complexion and genetics.

Graffiti: That’s great. A former writer of ours, also a red-head and a rather pale one, recently interviewed Conan’s pal, Jim Gaffigan, and enjoyed some bonding over their sameness.

Robb: Nice.

Graffiti: So, that about wraps up our questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Robb: We’re really excited to come to the Purple Fiddle.

Contact Justin at jmcintosh@graffitiwv.com