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Interview: Pavement’s Scott Kannberg Becomes Spiral Stairs

Mike Greenhaus | May 12, 2017

“I just want to keep putting music out,” Scott Kannberg says with a sense of slacker ease while Skyping from his current home in Mérida, Mexico. “I’m having fun doing it.”

It’s been a while since Kannberg—known as Spiral Stairs since co-founding Pavement with fellow singer/ guitarist Stephen Malkmus in 1989—has been so prolific or really even played music on a regular basis.

After Pavement’s acrimonious 1999 split, Kannberg recorded a few Preston School of Industry LPs before stepping out under the Spiral Stairs name with 2009’s The Real Feel. He participated in Pavement’s 2010 reunion, but the voice behind classics like “Painted Soldiers,” “Passat Dream,” “Hit the Plane Down,” “Kennel District” and “Date with Ikea” has remained unexpectedly quiet since that victory lap.

Yet, with his latest solo release, Doris and the Daggers, the 50-year-old Kannberg finally seems ready to embrace his next act as Spiral Stairs. And, if Pavement’s world tour has taught him anything, it’s that time and experience have made him a better musician, without losing the loose, garage-rock swagger that’s long served as his calling card. “Playing those Pavement songs again was really cool because we had such a long break that they felt a lot different,” he admits. “We were also able to play them a lot more proficiently, so that helped— maybe that filtered into the way I’m more proficient on the guitar and with my singing now.”

It’s been more than seven years since you released a solo album, and you’ve experienced a number of personal and musical changes during that time. When did you start working on Doris and the Daggers?

Right after I finished The Real Feel, we started talking about the Pavement reunion and I put most of my energy into that— which was amazing and so much fun—but, unfortunately, I didn’t get to do much touring for The Real Feel. I was living up in Seattle and I had just completed moving in with my now-wife, who’s Australian, so we moved around during that Pavement tour and didn’t really have a home. And when the tour was over, we decided to move to Australia. We set down roots and had a kid and just kept it real. I lived in this town 45 minutes north of Brisbane, and it was pretty rural. We had an acre of land and just grew a lot of vegetables, mowed the lawn, hung out at the beach. It was pretty fun, but boring at times.

I didn’t make much music while I was there. I had all my records and all my musical equipment, so there was no real excuse, but things just got in the way.

We eventually got bored and moved to the eastern part of LA ‘cause it was halfway between my parents in California and her parents, who were living here in Mexico. We put our kids in school, and I started getting the bug to write again and started on these garage-rock snippets, so I booked some time at the studio up in Seattle where I did The Real Feel. My drummer was living in Vancouver and my bassist was in Seattle, so I said, “Let’s record really quickly like we did in the old days.” [Both drummer Darius Minwalla and bassist Matt Harris are veterans of Kannberg’s Preston School of Industry sessions.]

And, about a month before it was set to happen, Darius died unexpectedly. That threw everyone for a loop, and I put it of again.

Then I met Dan Long, who has this great studio in LA. We just started talking about doing songs there. In the meantime, Justin Perof from Broken Social Scene offered to play drums. He was also really good friends with Darius.

Did Darius’ sudden passing shift the focus of the record?

When I started thinking about the record again, I started writing different types of songs—dealing with him dying, dealing with other people dying, dealing with my life, really. Some of the songs [from the earlier studio attempt] were still around, like “Dundee Man,” “No Comparison” and “Always Wanting More (AWM).” The last song on the record, “Doris and the Daggers,” is the way I originally wanted the record to sound, and I think my next record will sound a little more like that. I probably have an album’s worth of songs I recorded with Justin and Matt that I haven’t released.

In addition to Justin, you also drew heavily from the larger indie-rock community that Pavement helped set the stage for.

Kelley Stoltz was a big part of the record. We’ve been friends for a long time and I originally wanted him to produce, so I went up to San Francisco and jammed with him and his band and fleshed out some of the songs a little bit. It just gave me more confidence as to what songs I wanted to include. When I came back to LA to track the record, I knew of all these different musicians who lent some great vibes to the album. Matt Berninger sings “Exiled Tonight,” which is a pretty heavy song that I envisioned for his deep voice. I channeled him a bit when I was writing it. Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene was also hanging out in LA for a couple of months, and “Emoshuns,” which he plays on, is a song that we had done together a really long time ago at this music festival up in Canada. We made up a bunch of songs and played them live, so that’s been hanging around for a while, and it was great to have him finally sing on it.

Many of the songs that comprise Doris and the Daggers were written during an emotional time that followed both the intensity of Pavement’s reunion and a period of creative decompression in Australia. Do you think that ebb and flow of energy influenced your writing approach?

Totally—I was living in my own cult out there in Australia. [Laughs.] We had originally intended to go to Melbourne, which was much more cosmopolitan—and had moved all of our furniture and records there—and then we ended up moving to this country town. And going from there to LA, which is just massive, there were all these upheavals. It’s weird because, when I was in Pavement in the ‘90s, we would make records quickly and then we would tour intensively for eight or nine months and then we wouldn’t do anything for two years. So I would go home and relax, and it was great. And then you get back into this cycle again. So it was kind of the same thing, just a longer cycle.

LA has become something of the new hub of the indie-rock scene that you helped shepherd. What led you from there to Mexico?

Northeast LA was really cool— a lot of my friends from San Francisco were moving there, so that’s what brought us there. In the three years that we lived there, things just exploded. People from New York and all over started moving to LA because it was pretty affordable and the weather was good. It just ran its course. We needed to put our kid in school, prices started going up—just the hassle of LA made us go, “Let’s go live in a cheaper locale and have our kid learn a different language. Maybe I’ll learn one, too. Let’s move down here for a few years, see how it goes and then figure out the next place.” That seems like my life.

Part of Doris and the Daggers’ rollout includes a PledgeMusic pre-order. At what point did you decide to go the fan-funded route?

I started going through all these old boxes in my storage space one day before all this happened, just to see what I still had, and I got pretty excited about it. If you’re a fan of me or Pavement or whatever, there’s some cool stuf there. It just brought back a lot of memories and, as a fan of different bands, I thought it would be cool to get a poster that was signed by the band 25 years ago. The big-ticket item is going shopping with me at Ikea, but no one has bought that yet. [Laughs.] But somebody in Boston bought a solo show. I’m gonna go play at his house for him and his buddies, so that’ll be kind of funny. I’ve never done that before.

After Pavement broke up in 1999, you released a few albums under the name Preston School of Industry. What led you to release your last two records under your Spiral Stairs moniker?

I did the Preston records right after Pavement, and a bit of time elapsed after that. Even though I still consider the Preston records my solo records, The Real Feel felt like a different band, and I was a different person. And even though a lot of time has elapsed between this record and The Real Feel, it still kind of feels like a Spiral record. Preston is the link between Pavement and Spiral. [Laughs.] It’s still got some very Pavement-y elements in it. If you go to the Monsoon record [Preston’s 2004 release], it’s kind of getting away from that a little bit. I don’t know if you hear any Pavement in The Real Feel, though in some ways you do because I was in Pavement.

The first Preston School of Industry song you released was a version of Phish’s “Axilla (Part II)” on the charity album Sharin’ in the Groove. How did that cover come about?

A buddy of mine was a huge Phish fan, and he was putting together that compilation. The only contact I had with Phish at that point was that I knew they were huge Pavement fans and had covered our songs. So I asked my buddy, “What’s the weirdest Phish song ever?” And he was like, “‘Axilla (Part II)!’” which is kind of cool ‘cause it’s one of the easiest Phish songs and one I can understand. It’s sort of Captain Beefheart, Zappa. I did it with the guys in the band Oranger, who I recorded a bunch of stuf with early on. I tried to sing it like a Butthole Surfers version of a Phish song. [Laughs.] I’ve never tried to play it again, though, because it’s so tough.

This fall, you celebrated your 50th birthday with two wild shows at San Francisco’s The Chapel. They also morphed into quasiPavement reunions when you and drummer Gary Young joined Stephen Malkmus and his band the Jicks for a few songs. How did those shows come together?

The big 50 is pretty nerve-wracking. Originally, we were going to have The Clean, one of my favorite bands of all time, and Kelley Stoltz was going to play. And first Kelley canceled on me ‘cause he went to play guitar with Echo & The Bunnymen on tour, which I’m so fucking jealous of, and then The Clean canceled because, unfortunately, their mother is very sick. So we were like, “What are we going to do?” So I called up Stephen and asked him if he wanted to do the show, and it turned into two shows, and it was great. I had this Roxy Music cover band, and I played a bunch of songs with this band the Dirty Ghosts. This great San Francisco band called the Peacers played, and I got up with the Jicks and we played a bunch of songs together. They did a bunch of covers from my youth—some Stranglers, some Echo & The Bunnymen, some Meat Puppets, a Clean song—and Gary got up and did a song with them. We were gonna do a 51st birthday show as well with The Clean, but they canceled that, too. [Laughs.] Maybe I’ll get them for my 52nd and, hopefully, I’ll get over to New Zealand and play some shows with them. There’s some talk of Hamish Kilgour, the drummer, playing some shows with me on the East Coast in June, so that’ll be fun