The Possibilities: Coming In Waves
Wednesday 17 July @ 11:44:49
by Tom Hallett
“We were listening to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Smile sessions when we were 16 years old—riding around mowing the grass in the summer,” says Bob Spires, 26-year-old bassist/singer/songwriter for Athens, Georgia pop-rockers The Possibilities. One listen to their 2002 Parasol Records release, Way Out, is enough to make that claim believable to even the most jaded old ‘60s pop aficianado. Literally swooping in on a wall of Phil Spector/Brian Wilson-inspired keys and lush, layered vocal harmonies, the album follows the brilliantly damaged musical paths of those larger-than-life luminaries, veering off just long enough here and there to nod at later (yet similar) travelers like Pink Floyd, Big Star, and Teenage Fanclub.
The album’s title is no happy accident—these pop-savvy Gen X-ers were born and raised far from the material trends and fashions that poisoned many of their peers over the past decade—and this music is light years from damn near anything happening on the pop scene this side of the Atlantic. Growing up in the hot, muggy swamp country of rural Georgia was both a blessing and a curse when it came to musical influences, says Spires. “Kevin, Matt, and I grew up in a little town called Bainbridge, Georgia,” he recounts, “which is down in the corner of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Kevin and I went to high school together. He and his older brother by two years, Matt, were skater punk kids, and I lived way, way, out in the country.”
“They had a band called The Insults, and I’d go over and listen to them practice, because we had nothing to do. Bainbridge is a really boring town, I didn’t have access to radio or anything that was new or different—as a matter of fact, MTV was banned in our town!” Eventually, he says, The Lane’s older brother began sending them VHS-tapes of 120 Minutes and other modern music, but they were always a few steps behind the rest of the country. “Being skateboarders,” he points out, “Kevin and Matt were [still] listening to D.R.I., the Circle Jerks, The Ramones, stuff like that.”
Easily impressed and eager to cultivate his guitar playing, 15-year-old Spires adopted the Lane brother’s skater look and began learning punk songs, but says that led to some negative attention from the locals. “The Future Farmers Of America were the biggest club in town—[laughs] I got rocks thrown at me for having long hair and stupid-looking earrings. I mean, I looked like a dumb-ass, we all did, but we were trying to break out of the whole thing, you know?”
Eventually, the three found musical compatriots (in spirit, anyway) with a decent practice/jam space, and began imitating the three-chord punk that throbbed in their heads all day as they skated past the National Guard Armory, hair salons, and churches of Bainbridge. “We had friends who were in a heavy metal cover band,” recalls Spires, “and one of their dads had one trailer house, and their uncle had another right next door. Between the two, they constructed a stage—a permanent stage with a catwalk, lights, a soundboard, and a cover, right out in the yard. It’s out by the truck stop, so nobody bothered ‘em. And that’s where we’d play. They’d play “Cat Scratch Fever,” and we’d play The Ramones.” Later, after Spires’ parents divorced, his father moved to Atlanta and left the boys with a big, empty house to practice in. There, they brought entire albums (“From REM to Teenage Fan Club to Uncle Tupelo,” says Bob) to play loudly—and endlessly—until they’d learned every note, lyric, and lick.
Once their tastes had expanded and their chops had improved, they quickly moved beyond the skater/Ramones phase of their musical development. “After you start playing guitar for awhile,” chuckles Spires, “and realize what Ramones songs are made of—they’re catchy-ass pop songs with three chords—you have to start branching out. We wrote all the knock-off Ramones songs we could, then moved on. Some of our favorite groups at that time were Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom, Uncle Tupelo—that’s how we got into Big Star and Gram Parsons, all those bands. I guess I’ve just never understood why people try to pigeonhole music, I mean, I’ll listen to Ray Price, and if somebody wanted to put on a Slayer album, I’d listen to that!”
The trio put out a half-dozen or so homemade cassettes in area record shops over the next few years, then moved to Athens with pedal steel player (and Lane relative) Corey Chapman, where they morphed into a rootsy, classic-country/pop quartet. That period led to the recording of their first nationally-recognized EP, Scattered, Covered, Smothered, And Chunked. “I was only 18 when we moved there,” remembers Spires. “There were a lot of really cool bands still playing, REM still all hung out there, and sometimes a cool college radio band like Superchunk or Cracker would come through.” But their first real break came in the form of a big, friendly singer/songwriter/bar bouncer by the name of Todd McBride.
McBride’s gritty country-rock outfit, The Dashboard Saviors, had already caught the attention of Twin/Tone/Medium Cool Records A&R man Peter Jesperson, and the band’s popularity was growing wildly in the early ‘90s. “Kevin and I were walking down the street one day,” Spires laughs, “and Kevin was wearing an Uncle Tupelo T-shirt. Todd was the door guy at this bar, and he was like, “Hey! Cool T-shirt!” So he invited us in and bought us a pitcher. We brought him a tape and he liked us, so we started playing with them. And that’s how we ended up connecting to Jesperson. He was very, very supportive and interested, and eventually offered us a five-album deal, which we were kind of questionable on.” That kind of a commitment, says Spires, combined with the sudden loss of their pedal steel player, put the kibosh on any deal with Medium Cool. “Corey bailed on us, he was going to Georgia Tech, where he was pursuing a master’s in electrical engineering. So we called Peter and said we didn’t think the deal was a very good idea.”
Through it all, the band continued to write songs at a frantic pace. “Prior to that time,” Spires admits, “Kevin was writing and singing a whole lot more than I was—I had two or three songs on Scattered. So we worked on concentrating on harmonies and doing it as a three-piece again. The next thing we did, Loser Stew, was a 14-song project that a friend of ours sent to Meltdown, a now-defunct label out in Hollywood. They had some college radio kind of bands, and we were still doing some of the stuff we’d learned with Corey, but we’d gotten into Big Star, and were trying to model ourselves after other great three-piece acts like early Uncle Tupelo, Nirvana, Buffalo Tom—even The Who were an instrumental three-piece. But we learned that it takes a whole lot of energy to do that—you have to fill up so much more space!”
The Meltdown execs ended up flying to Athens to audition the band, and loved what they heard—even offering to sweeten the deal with fancy dinners and such, but the band cared only about their reactions to the music. “We took ‘em out to the Waffle House,” cracks Spires. “We were excited at first, but when we got our contract, we weren’t excited. They asked for all kinds of ridiculous things, like all of our publishing for all of our songs, forever. And we were like, “No.” We had lawyers and went through all that back-and-forth stuff, but it became obvious that they were gonna control more than they were gonna give us. We called our next, five-song EP Foot In Mouth.”
But although the band continued to generate interest in far-away entertainment capitals like L.A., some of their staunchest allies were living within a few miles of their regular haunts. “We recorded with Kevin Sweeney,” says Spires, “who plays in Sunshine Fix and Hayride, and did a bunch of songs. And we recorded six songs at a big studio here in Athens with [current guitarist] Chris Grehan as engineer long before he was in the band. We cut three songs with [ex-Sugar bassist/producer] David Barbe, too. We’d also been sending tapes in the mail to [Young Fresh Fellows frontman/REM sideman/producer] Scott McCaughey, who was interested in us. His band has been around for 20 years or so, they opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Replacements, and REM on the Document tour.” McCaughey’s connections aside, it was a casual musical gathering with singer/songwriter Jack Logan’s brother, Mark, that led to the band’s rescue from mid-to-major label ruin.
Logan’s breakthrough album on Medium Cool, 1994’s Bulk, had just been released when the band moved to Athens, says Spires, and they were lucky enough to catch him and Liquor Cabinet playing around the area during that era. “We’d also been listening a lot to Vic Chesnutt, and were into Redneck Grease Deluxe, The Twigs, and Hayride.” By the late ‘90s, Logan’s major label deal had fallen through, and he’d retreated to the relative sanity of the Deep South. Meanwhile, his band, Liquor Cabinet, was disintegrating. Lead guitarist Kelly Keneipp and his musician wife, Nikki, began forming the indie label Backburner as a means for Logan and friends to release their music without the hassles of the system.
“We started playing with Logan around that time,” recalls Bob. “Jack’s brother started hanging around, and he said, “Jack should just come over and record with you guys, just have a good time.” Come over and record he did, and that fateful jam session led to The Possibilities hooking up with Backburner to release a self-titled, 1999 album, and some serious touring with Jack, who’d scored a one-off (Buzz Me In) with Capricorn Records. The band eventually backed Logan on his BB album Tinker, as well as his superb collaboration with guitarist Bob Kimbell, Little Private Angel, and Spires works as PR man for Backburner to this day.
“We wrote a lot of songs with Jack,” chortles Spires. “Around 30 of ‘em, I’d say. One of them was a rap song called “Then I Saw You Kickin’ It,” and there was a funk song, a country song, and a kind of rock song. But we did end up doing a decent tour, got to play live on Fox News in Austin! [laughs] We had a really good time, we learned every %@!#$&ing Jack Logan song, man! Then Kevin did the Three Men In A Car Tour with Jack and Bob Kimbell, and they toured Europe and stuff.”
The band had rushed into recording another 14 songs for their Backburner debut, ostensibly so they’d have something to sell on the road as they backed Logan. Spires says now that he wishes they could’ve taken a bit more time on those tunes, which were recorded all live in one day. Though he may feel it was hurried, the band’s last effort as a trio (Kelly Keneipp played on two cuts, but the majority of the tunes were recorded as a three-piece) definitely laid the groundwork for the sound they now produce as a five-piece. Songs like “You Don’t Mean It” and “Lost Times” foreshadowed the layered, wall o’ sound approach they’ve adopted on their latest release, and their earlier, roots-y drawl was relegated to rare, and subtle, appearances.
Spires is clearly relieved to have left those sparse trio days behind. “The stuff with the five-piece just sounds so much better. Jason, the keyboard player, is the best musician in the band.” He stops himself, then jokes, “He doesn’t know it, though, because we don’t want him to get the big head. But he’s phenomenal, he can sing, he can write songs, and he knows when to back off, and that’s really the key to playing keyboards. We’re just so much more excited about our new record than we’ve ever been about anything. We’d been trying to work on adding a lot more harmonies—like Teenage Fanclub, those guys can %@!#$&ing sing—and just listening to The Beatles, Guided By Voices, catchy, rockin’ songs as well as some weird %@!#$& like Polvo. We tried to work on it a little bit more rather than just throwing it out there.”
The addition of Gonzalez and Grehan, says Spires, actually came about almost by accident. “Those guys were in a band called Love Apple, kind of an alternative pop band with a female singer. We’d been buddies for awhile, they were just the coolest guys, and we knew they were good musicians, but we’d been a three-piece for three or four years, so we weren’t really thinking about adding anybody. It just sort of happened. We realized, after a lot of live gigs, that it would just be so much easier with some help. Chris, at first, was just engineering, and Jason was playing keyboards.
“Then, one day in 2000, it just hit us that we needed to snatch these guys up! And there we were, we’d been recording since day one, since before we were even a band! We started trying new stuff and letting everybody throw their ideas in there, and it started to gel. We recorded 23 songs [12 of which made Way Out, including “Wouldn’t Take Nothing,” a Logan song, and “What Makes You Run,” a Del Shannon cover] but the last session was the best, because we’d been playing together for two years.” An interesting side note to this flurry of activity is that the band was also simultaneously collaborating with Logan on his sublime 2001 BB album, Monkey Paw, bringing that innovative, inventive spirit to both releases.
The most startling musical twists on the band’s latest are their use of those soaring keyboards and their triple-lead-singer attack over absolutely heavenly harmonies, something Spires says they enjoy immensely—especially when people try to discern which performer is doing what. “I’ll give you an example of how it works,” he confides: “I’m the lead singer on “Coming In Waves,” and Kevin and Matt sing backup harmonies. The three of us, Kevin, Matt, and I, sing lead on “Invisible,” I sing lead on the verses and they sing lead on the choruses. Then, Matt and Jason are the dueting lead singers on “Everywhere I Look,” and all five of us come in singing different harmony parts on top of that!”
The album really does conjure up visions of a young, alternate-universe Beach Boys crooning over the sweetly bizarre, layered grooves of a Teenage Fanclub or Guided By Voices. From the dreamy opening track, “Invisible,” (“You’re livin’ in a dream/You’re invisible...”) to the uber-catchy pop crackle of album centerpiece “Braintree,” (“In Braintree/They all die/The boys laugh, the girls cry/The old ways come crashing down...”) right on into the Beatles-esque pop snap of “Everywhere I Look” and the bibulous, punk-y energy of “Downtown Dream,” Way Out is exactly the kind of genuinely exuberant, soul-deep pop masterpiece that monumental Possibilities influence Brian Wilson might get up and play with the volume on ten every morning—that is, if someone hid his copy of “Be My Baby” long enough for him to start jones-ing for an honest, modern-day ode to the classic, Spector-ish rock n’ roll he holds so dear.
The Possibilities’ first wave hits the Twin Cities on Thursday, 7/18 at St. Paul’s Turf Club, (651-647-0486) with local openers Spikedriver, and Saturday, 7/20, at Lee’s Liquor (612- 338-9491) in Minneapolis. Call for details.