Posted March 25, 2004

FULL HOUSE: BACK IN SPADES HOLD ALL THE CARDS

It's early days yet but there are undeniable sounds of greatness in Back in Spades, a four-piece from Detroit, Michigan. They've released just one item - a mini-album, "The Time is Now" - and it's brimful of energy, raucous guitars, heartfelt melodies and a string of great songs. Heady stuff and worth tracking down via the only online retailer to stock it, Subterannean Records of New York City.

Back in Spades have been around less than a year but have already attracted big wraps from Michigan notables, among them Scott Morgan of Poweretrane (and too many other great bands to mention) and Wendy Case of the Paybacks. With those wraps has come press coverage. Admittedly, some of the local column centimetres has dwelt on 21-year-old guitarist Jackson Smith - or, more accurately, his bloodlines. Smith is the son of Fred "Sonic" Smith and Patti Smith (if you need to ask, you're in the wrong Bar). If you think that's a big burden to carry you're probably right - but there's more to the story than a common surname. Back in Spades collectively don't play up the heritage line and no one member receives star billing.

"The Time is Now" sounds remarkably developed, considering only two memebrs (drummer Joe Leone and guitarist-singer Steve Palmer) have much gig time with a previous band under their belts. It's also a democratic affair with Palmer and Smith sharing the guitar limelight and working in together a treat.

Rock and roll's a poker game and there's no telling what hand Back in Spades will be dealt. We decided to ask JACKSON SMITH (pictured below left) and STEPHEN PALMER into the Bar for a few virtual brews. Questions flew right, left and centre from THE BARMAN.


Q How many shows has the band played and how long have you been together?


JACKSON: I lost count but it's about 20 shows we've played since August 2003.

STEVE: We played our first gig last July (2003) with steady gigs ever since. I’d guess we’ve played somewhere in the figure of 30 shows in total.

Q What are the musical backgrounds of all the members? I know, Stephen Palmer (guitar/vocals) and Joe (drums) are formerly with the Fletcher Pratt.

J: I've never really been in a band before this, honestly.

S: Fletcher Pratt was very different from the new band. FP started in a completely different vibe and in almost an entirely different scene. You never hear it mentioned anymore; however, a lot of the Detroit “scene” in those days (’96-’97) was caught up in the Canadian indie sound (Sloan, Superfriends, Eric’s Trip, Jale, etc.) . Fletcher Pratt was really at the front of that whole thing in Detroit. We played with most of the bigger Canadian bands that passed through the border and had quite a following across the bridge in Windsor. We eventually went for a sound that was of our own distinction and soon, a handful of great retrofitted, like-minded bands started to develop. Waxwings, The Sights, Mood Elevator, Moods For Moderns, Atomic Numbers and countless others emerged out of this movement. Some of these bands have gone on to become serious contenders in the city.

Q We hear a lot about a new Detroit scene and there are obviously a lot more venues than was the case a few years ago, but is it hype? Is there a cohesive scene or a media invention?

J: I think there is a scene there but you gotta weed through the crap to get to it. But I could be wrong, I don't get out much.

S: : For the record, there are actually fewer venues in the city than existed a couple years ago. The Eastside lost almost all of it’s proper venues in the mid-to-late ‘90’s. The Gold Dollar is no more and it’s becoming more common for smaller neighbourhood bars to fill the void by taking live bands in. There’s always been one great music scene or another in Detroit. The current hype is just a question of who’s paying attention and who wants to get excited over it. I think the media en masse would avoid Detroit altogether if they could. The most recent “scene” exploded and became something they couldn’t ignore. That phenomena had everything to do with great bands putting out great music. However, keep in mind, we’re well into a second or third wave of a “scene” that’s almost changing into something completely different as we speak.

Q You have some big wraps from everyone from the Paybacks to the Sights. Is that a big burden to carry? Are there any established bands that have been especially helpful in your relatively short time together?

S: The Paybacks have been great and very helpful. Scott Morgan’s been very cool. Everyone’s been very supportive of the band and we really appreciate it. We’re hoping to play with The Sights soon; that’s a busy band that’s on the road alot. We have some out-of-state shows with the Electric Six coming up in May that we’re excited about.

J: I don't think it a burden at all, its all just spreading the word. I completely feel confident of our ability to live up to our rep'. As to your other question, There have been many bands that have been very cool with us And many bands have been great in spreading the word and helping to get people out to see us.

Q I understand you played a support to Patti Smith at the Bowery Ballroom. What was the roll-up like (it being hard for supports) and is that the biggest venue Back in Spades has played to date?

J: They usually never have openers on those New Years gigs, but Mom let us open up and it was a blast. That was the biggest venue we've played to date, for sure.

S: The New Year’s Eve shows were a great success thanks to great NYC audiences, Patti, her band, crew and the good people at the Bowery Ballroom. It was a very comfortable experience for us and we really played well. The energy was high throughout all three nights. The crowd was a complete mix from all walks, though everyone was into it. A definite highlight was performing Television’s “Double Exposure” with Tom Verlaine in attendance.


Q I heard you did SXSW in 2003 as well. How was that and who did you share a bill with?

J: We actually didn't do it last year but are doing it this year. I can't think of the other band's names off the top of my head, but the Paybacks are on our bill.

Q What's the usual circuit of venues you play in Michigan? Who do you usually play with?

S: The Detroit venue circuit has been reduced to a small handful of bars and other non-specific places. Magic Stick, Lagerhouse & Smalls (Hamtramck) are the places we play the most. Sometimes, we’ll play Alvins or the Tap Room on the Eastside. We play with bands that compliment our sound to make the bill more of an event. Sometimes we’ll have a bit of a mixed bill but not often. Many shows are often held in unconventional spaces around the city. Art studios, warehouses and store fronts are holding gigs in lieu of actual venues in recent months.

J: We play the Lager House, Smalls, The Magic Bag, The Magic Stick, Alvin's, all the good ones. The Muggs, The Nice Device, they're regulars you'll see us with. But if the bill is good we'll play it.

Q If you both had a choice, drop the names of three bands you'd love to share a stage with?

J:
1. Bon Scott-era AC/DC, Nothing against Brian Johnson
2. Cactus
3. Joan Jett

S: Any band that has good energy and stage presence always makes things more interesting.

Q Is music a fulltime thing for any of you? Any plans to make it so?

J: Not for any of us, we all got .....jobs. But if we were given a chance to change that so music was our full time gig, you wouldn't have to ask us twice.

S: Currently, music is not paying my bills. The aim is to make music a full-time thing.

Q What was the story with the recording of the mini-album? I believe it was recorded pro bono...

S: We did the demo with the help of local producer Rob Shelby, who graciously recorded us for free at Harmonie Park in Detroit. We wanted to record something right at the start to get people familiar with the band and to have something to pass out at shows.

Q It’s quite a raw recording with nice, loud mastering and enough leakage to make it sound live. Was that the way it was recorded and did it turn out as intended?

J: Steve...?

S: The recording process was pretty standard, nothing too complicated. We pumped it up in the mastering phase and almost fried a compressor doing so.

Q What are the plans for an album? Any producers or labels in mind?

J: I'd love to be on a big gun label like Atlantic or something and have Mr. God of producers produce it.

S: The plan is to go bigger and better in everyway. We’d like to sign with a label that can accommodate our endeavours in the studio and on the road.

Q Jackson, I don't want to dwell on the family connection but is it true you were largely unaware of what your parents had done musically until after your dad's passing? Was there much music around the household as you were growing up?

J: Yes it's true, though I at least knew they were musicians. There was a lot of music around but not much in the way of Rock n' Roll. Mostly Beethoven and Wes Montgomery.

Q I suppose I have to ask you this ...I can't help noticing you NOT overplaying the family connections thing. Is that deliberate and how do you feel about people who are attracted to that aspect of Back in Spades?

J: We look at it like this, if people know that's fine. If they write about it in an article that's fine. If its mentioned in an interview, that's fine too.

I understand that to a lot of people it's a point of interest and can help bring people out to see us. But if you see us live or out and about you won't see me with a big sign over my head. Its not something we're gonna go out of our way to advertise.

Q One more question for you, Jackson: I know you worked in Subterranean Records in NYC for a couple of years and the owner, Michael Carlucci, is tight with a lot of the CBGBs scene veterans. Did you make connections with many of those people? Anyone you can give us any insights about?

I would answer that but I don't want to get myself in trouble.

Q You close your sets with "City Slang" and it ís the hidden track on the mini-album. Was it a big call to decide to attempt that one? And of course I have to ask where did you get the lyrics and are they true to the original?

J: It wasn't really a big call, Its a great song and I kinda wanted to do it in tribute. Lyrics-wise Freddie Brooks (former Sonic's Rendezvous Band road manager and MacAborn label owner) was a huge help.
He (from when he remixed the song) had the vocal track separated from the music. So we were able to listen to that, slow it down, etc. But as we develop more songs of our own, we will eventually phase the song out of our set. Not to say we'll never do it.

But if we want to make it anywhere we'll have to keep new songs coming and keep things fresh. I don't want us to turn into aside show, "Hey! lets go see Sonic's son play city slang." That gets old real quick.

S: “City Slang” was the first song we learned together when we first started playing. We thought it would be a good song to set the scene for whatever else we’d end up doing down the road. It’s also the real deal and a killer song. Jack had the individual tracks of the original 1978 recording for the 1999 remixing sessions done by Freddie Brooks. We isolated the vocals and figured out the lyrics. So, it’s pretty much there.


Q Since we're in a bar, what are you drinking?

S: Something light and cheap.

J: Johnny Walker Blue Label and Coke.

 

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