photography Victoria Black for lindsaysdiet.com
words Zarah Cheng
Describe Dirty Spells in three words.
Ryan Betts: Argento Scott Kubrick
The new video for “Hyperböl” premiered last month and you have described it as “creepy.” What kind of creepy things should we be expecting?
RB: Skulls, data-moshing, mycelium, implants, fascism, clandestine mad science, and the unsettling sensation that you're being watched at all times, everywhere you go. And our faces.
How does the video tie in to the song?
RB: Everywhere you go you're being tracked by security cameras, cell-towers, satellite positioning, and microphone echo nets. That sounds like a bit of hyperbole, right? Just do a search for “predpol” and take a trip down the rabbit hole. The song and the video are basically taking a nervous perspective on surveillance. We gave my brother, Graeme, that brief for the video and he pretty much nailed it. He used to be Dirty Spells’ saxophonist in our old line-up, so he gets the wavelength we’re on.
Dirty Spells as a 3-piece playing filmic post-rock is pretty different from the 7-piece garage psych-rock band that produced Greetings from Hangover City. Can you tell us more about the transformation of the group?
RB: Hmm. That’s actually a bit of a long and boring story. So, here it is.
Right after Sled Island in 2012, the 7-piece version of the band started to dissipate. We’d only formed in February, and by July people had gotten busy with other projects. The nail in the coffin for that line up was really Greg Pothier (guitarist) deciding to move to Portland. Eric Campbell (from The Dirt) was our second guitarist at the time and he's also got that wild psych bent in his playing, but Greg wrote a lot of the songs on the first album. The garage psych influence on the melodies really moved down to Portland with Greg. You can still hear a bit of garage psych influence in the rhythm especially on a song like “Hyperböl”, though.
Before Greg left, we laid down all the old tracks as a 5-piece live off the floor in our jam space and released it as a full-length demo called (untitled). On those recordings, you can actually hear the beginnings of a couple of tracks from Teeth – “Bleaker” and “Causeway Cannibal” – short instrumental interludes we used to play during tuning breaks.
Those recordings were supposed to be it for the band, really. I mean, what can you do with drums, bass and a violin, right? We couldn't really create the same psychedelic wall of sound we did as a seven piece -- the volume and the madness just wasn't there. Or so we thought. But we were idle musicians, so we figured there was no harm in heading into the space to jam. Eventually, some new sounds started to shake out and we realized that the violin, bass and drums combination has a lot of space to work with. It lets you be moodier.
By the summer of 2013 we’d turned “Bleaker” and “Causeway Cannibal” into full tracks and Emily was starting to really take charge as basically a combination of the band’s lead vocalist and lead guitarist. Then I went to Europe for a month, came back, and Doug and Emily had written another two tracks. The first time I heard their bedroom demos was on my phone standing outside The Black Lodge. I think I’d gone straight there from the airport. I was jetlagged and a little sauced, but they sounded great. The drums just all fell into place after that. And then the final missing piece was really having a mind meld with Felix Fung. He helped us find our footing in a big way during the week we spent recording Teeth at Little Red Sounds. That man has the gift.
Emily Bach: Also, I started to collect pedals. And there was suddenly sonic room to get weird with.
RB: So, all that happened and out the other side popped a filmic post-rock 3-piece.
I am an absolute sucker for anything that resembles dark, cinematic score-like music, which is why I love Dirty Spells’ latest record, Teeth. Do you guys have a specific movie or scene do you imagine soundtrack-ing when writing music?
RB: Why thank you. We used to play along to Koyaanisqatsi a lot. While we were recording the album, we were watching a lot of movies projected on the wall: The Big Lebowski, Withnail and I, Blade Runner, Koyaanisqatsi. Recently, we've been influenced by watching things like Fata Morgana and Under The Skin. I don't think any of us have seen it yet, but I get this sinking feeling that the new Mad Max is going to influence our new batch of songs (correction: Doug saw it on opening night and says it’s one of the best films he’s ever seen). And I’m sure that the year or so I spent watching Apocalypse Now on a loop had some kind of impact on me that I’m not even aware of. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet.
In general, Dirty Spells has gotten a lot darker – the record name, the sound, the album art. Did anything in particular trigger this change?
RB: It just happened. Stripping down to a three-piece really forced us to find a sound, and I guess there’s just enough wrong with all three of us that we gravitated towards being dark and moody.
As for the name, I was sitting there one night -- I think it was July 4th, actually -- watching an old interview with Henry Wallace and for some reason the interviewer’s grin jumped out at me and screamed “TEETH.” I immediately texted Doug and Emily and tried to convince them to change the band name to TEETH, but we compromised on using it for the album.
For the art, we’d always had a bit of a skull motif going. Our first run of t-shirts was a skull which, coincidentally, had teeth that spelled out Dirty Spells. Then, one day Emily was looking for album art options and she landed on Peter Ricq’s skull piece. She showed it to Doug and I, and we both immediately said “YES.” I don’t think any of us realized how well it all fit together. But we were sure we wanted it.
Kind of hilarious to describe it, because it probably sounds really intentional or invented as a story. But no, just dumb luck. Gut. Kismet. And the sound and style of the band is still moving. We’ve been sending each other a lot of tracks from ESG, Deerhoof, Beak>, Spaceart & LCD Soundsytem…oh, and Anthrax. So the next album might be a bit more “Blade Runner Disco” than “Sci-fi Horror Film.” I want to call it Nail House. But we’ll see. First, we need to write it.
The first track on Teeth is called “Causeway Cannibal.” Is this, by chance, referring to the incident with Ronald Poppo and Rudy Eugene in Miami? If yes, why’d you pick this incident to write a song about?
RB: It is. And we chose it because it was the most absolutely insane thing that had happened the week that we wrote the initial seed of the song. That shit was bananas. The song was actually originally named “コーズウェイの食人鬼.”
“Hyperböl” is the only track on Teeth with vocals. How would you describe the emotional process in terms of producing a song with and without lyrics?
RB: I leave the emotions to Doug. But I do really love not talking, so writing songs without lyrics feels a lot more honest to me. Words are so reductive.
EB: I can be a lot more honest without lyrics. Harmonies, counter-melodies, layers and textures, these can be far more complex when vocals aren’t in the front, and without words the music can take on a very personal meaning, where the meaning can change with each listen, or even each performance.
Tarantino or Kubrick?
Warlocks or witches?
What creeps you out the most?
RB: The other day this 7’ tall stranger was staring me down while I was throwing out my trash in the alley. That was pretty unsettling. I hate being watched.
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Posted on June 4, 2015
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