Today we finish up with the interview with Gleaming Spires’ David Kendrick. Touching on the late history of that band as well as the group’s concurrent existence as Sparks live and studio band for the first half of the 80s.
THE SPARKS YEARS
PPM: They were definitely a band that had pockets here, and pockets there. At different times in the span of their existence, they had different pockets of support that see them through. It is amazing.
D: And because we were being Sparks as well as Spires, from the Spires point of view we didn’t always necessarily have the best time to do a whole national tour. Sparks took precedence in terms of scheduling. That was the drag with the last record. Where we finally had the chance to go all over the country and it kind of didn’t happen.
PPM: It’s so disappointing and soul crushing when something like that happens. [Lead guitarist Bob Haag abruptly went AWOL before the first national headlining tour by Gleaming Spires at the time of their third album, when their involvement with Sparks was tapering off] But that was the interesting thing in that you had this dual existence. You had your “day job” in Sparks which must be like the best compromised day job ever.
D: You know I really liked them before it became real. Honestly, in my professional life, Sparks and DEVO are both unique, iconic, inspiring acts. The fact that I’m in part of their history is something I’m really proud of.
PPM: Oh yeah, I’d say that Sparks and DEVO are possibly the premiere two American bands of their generation. Just from my perspective because this is the stuff that makes the most sense to me.
D: [laughs] I’m really happy that Sparks are having such a banner year. This year. I don’t know if you saw the documentary…
PPM: Oh yeah! Absolutely we saw the documentary and saw that you and Les were in it.
D: …It’s so great because they just look forward to their next thing. They are genuine artists. No “plan B.”
PPM: They are totally committed to their art.
PPM: They do not compromise and they’re here to show the way through a life of compromise.
D: Yeah, I mean they were a nice sort of lesson to learn from for me. When I was working with them, ’til now. They both live in the same place. Their needs are relatively modest. Everything about them is their craft. They’re dedicated to their work. To their art. Then that’s like…yeah. I respect that greatly.
PPM: Definitely. I’m a huge Sparks fan and seeing this year has been very gratifying to see these guys get their due. In more ways than one.
D: Yeah, definitely. And I’m happy for my personal taste for them, too. My first couple records I did with them I think is their first or second best period, so I’m really happy with those.
PPM: Right. The first Sparks I ever heard was “Tips For Teens,” right?
D: Oh, wow.
PPM: So that is your band in there. I remember at the time I thought I’ve been reading about Sparks for about two or three years…but you’d never hear them being played on the radio in Orlando, Florida. It’s just not going to happen. It’s a conservative…very conservative, radio environment. And Sparks was just so daunting back then. Because …“oh my god, ten albums…! Where do I start with this band?”
D: [David laughs]
PPM: I was frozen for nine years! And finally I saw a copy of “Interior Design” in a used bin, so I picked it up. Possibly the worst Sparks record… [David laughs] but that was my start. But the first that I heard was “Whomp That Sucker…” which I still don’t own. Which is sad. I’ve got a little over half of their albums now.
D: “Whomp That Sucker” and “Angst In My Pants…” I always think they’re worth it.
PPM: Oh yeah… “Angst In My Pants.” I have “Angst” and “Outer Space.” Were you still playing on “Music That You Can Dance To?” Or was that all…?
D: Most of that was done when I was still in the band at that point.
PPM: All that studio stuff was just them working with machines?
D: That was them mostly. I think there’s some tympani playing, but there wasn’t much. But I played up until then. I was with them longer than anyone else from Bates Motel. I stayed with them until they stopped playing live. And the very last thing I did with them was the Mael brothers and I went to Europe for like a month, just doing television. Right before I joined DEVO. So I was with them a pretty long stretch.
Yeah, it definitely had an effect on Spires in terms of nationally being know. We could only commit “x” amount of time in that period.
PPM: It was almost what I’d call a “walled garden” approach. Because you got all the nurturing and fertilizer you need to grow into a healthy Rock and Roll plant, but you didn’t get to go out of that garden too much. Sort of like “good, on one side, bad on the other” but ultimately you can say it was good because it worked for five or six years.
D: Yeah, yeah. And I mean they were supportive. They were fine. It worked. If one of us was available, we were all available to be Spires. It’s just a complete band. It made sense.
PPM: Exactly. It made a lot of sense, and of course Sparks’ liner notes to your first album were hilarious. [laughter]
One thing I like of course, which is a definite characteristic of The Spires is that Les really puts his heart on the line performing these songs. He changed his vocal delivery all of the time, but not the intensity so much. He’s always totally committed to communicating the depth of whatever the feeling is, and that doesn’t waver. And “Act Together” on “Well Lighted Streets” …that was performed with such a relentless operative intensity. It sort of reminded me of Philip Glass in a way.
And then on “Brain Button” he adopts what I can only call a Jaggeresque delivery a Zappa Funk track. As if the song wasn’t weird enough coming from a street person.
D: [chuckles] And then ultimately, the very last things…I don’t know if you got to hear the Eleven Blue Men…
PPM: Oh yeah.
D: That kind of did him in.
PPM: Yeah, it’s shredding his vocal cords… you can hear it in the song.
PPM: Les was such a committed vocalist.
D: I think that “Hypnotism” was one of the tracks where it’s just so… it’s like, “man, oh man!” I can see it being too much for some people.
PPM: I like dark things, but it’s almost too much for me. [David laughs]
The “Party EP” was where you switched to work with Greg Penny. Greg had produced the “Sparks In Outer Space” record. And going back on his CV I also noticed that he produced some tracks on the “Sharp Cuts” album you did on Planet Records, which had the only previous track from Bates Motel.
D: Oh, okay. Yeah, he worked with all those singer-songwriters later on.
PPM: He’s had a very interesting career. I’ve got some of his with k.d. Lang, but what I first noticed from him was when he produced the Martini Ranch album. That’s where he sort of came into my consciousness. I’m guessing he got jobs like that on the basis of stuff he did with you, because “Funk For Children” is just so delightfully bizarre I mean, you’ve got the kids doing emphatic grunts instead of James Brown. [David laughs]
D: Using real kids doing James Brown’s “hunh!” makes me laugh to this day. [laughs]
PPM: But you know, I can still hear about how you can talk about listening to The Gap Band and “Early In The Morning” and I can definitely hear traits of that in there, but The Gap Band doesn’t have toys on percussion.
D: I’m a collector of many things, including all of the drumming animals we used in the video. Percussion stuff from all my career, and so it’s great to be able to turn those things into a usable element now and then.
A LITTLE RESPECT FOR ABBA®
PPM: I absolutely love…I’m in love with the covers you put on the “Party EP.” I always felt that “Does Your Mother Know” was an overlooked ABBA® deep cut.
D: Oh man, yeah! I agree. It’s definitely the most rocking cut but it’s just undeniable. [laughs]
PPM: Yeah, but you took it to the next step. You’ve got Power Pop perfection on this.
D: Well, thank you.
PPM: I always thought that this song was their “answer song” to “Dancing Queen” from the “teased guy’s” point of view. But what made you think that “this was the one to do?”
D: I think for them it was like… you’re absolutely right, they’re actually doing like a Power Pop Rock song. Like we should just take that idea and just run with it. ‘Cause I really like, to me, their very last album …that was pretty dark. Both couples were divorcing and “The Visitors” was sounding Spires-esque. They were in a darker territory.
PPM: In their own way that’s for sure the truth. You listen to a song like “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” isn’t that the most adult breakup song you’ve ever heard?
D: They are. There’s a maturity there. They had pap like “Fernando” that’s actually unlistenable for my tastes, but yeah. Knowing Me, Knowing You,“ absolutely that is like an adult song.
PPM: A very adult song.
D: A grownup adult song.
PPM: I liked it as a twelve year old, but I was absolutely nuts over it by the time I was thirty.
D: Well, I think that was one thing we saw in ABBA®. Their music can be extremely bubbly and light but lyrically, they could delve into real emotional pain.
PPM: They deliver on that level.
D: So I think that was one thing, plus the fact that they were so huge and most people didn’t take ‘em very seriously. We genuinely loved their craft and that lyric…adultness to them.
PPM: And the “Christine” cover, I swear, that’s been sticking with me like glue.
D: The Equals song?
PPM: I had to look that one up and I saw that was an Equals song. I thought, “this sounds vaguely familiar…have I ever heard another cover of it?” Or has it only been an Equals song?
D: I don’t think so.
PPM: I might have heard The Equals Song without knowing it was The Equals. For years the only Equals song I had ever heard was “Baby Come Back.” And that was it. it was the only thing I had ever heard. I might have heard “Christine” before as it sounded reeeeeeal familiar. I might have heard it playing on the radio. There used to be a weekly Ska show on the college station in Orlando. I might have heard it played there. Maybe.
D: I don’t think it ever was like big single. But we picked up on it. It’s infectious.
D: And the storyline is also kind of misbehaving people.
PPM: At first I didn’t realize it was a cover because the storyline is credible as a Gleaming Spires song. [David laughs] It’s not phrased in exactly the way you guys would have phrased it, but…it had a continuity there, somehow.
GLEAMING SPIRES AT THE MOVIES
PPM: It was also interesting hearing the hit soundtrack version of “Sex Girls” because we got to hear what the first album would have sounded like if your first plan had followed through.
D: Yeah, it was always the idea that it was kind of played like that. And that version got movie play, too. [In the “Revenge Of The Nerds” film]
PPM: It didn’t suffer for it. You guys had a lot of crossover with the movie industry, and when you’ve got the budget of a major film like that, it a whole different ball of wax from the finances of recording a rock album. So when a soundtrack offer comes through like that, “we need two songs for this soundtrack.” Is that like a real lifeline for the band, financially?
D: I would say sure. Les and I have made far more money from film usages than sales of the actual records. Live things did fine, but film and television rights are a lifeline for sure. To that point, doing a lot of “teen comedies” in the 80s, “Revenge of the Nerds” became a huge deal. It was a big, great budget for us. They didn’t know they had a huge hit on their hands. They were happy to accept that.
PPM: It was the zeitgeist for “Revenge of the Nerds.”
D: Yeah, oh for sure.
PPM: Just ahead of that curve ever so slightly and then “bam!’ it hit. And really, “revenge of the nerds” was almost a subtext for Gleaming Spires as well.
D: Well yeah. Part of The Spires thing was “we’re at the wrong party.” [laughs]
D: It’s like, “hey, wait a minute… maybe we’re hosting this one!” [laughs] It was good to do that song for that movie, too. That seemed to be apt. And then oddly, also in “Revenge Of the Nerds” they even dressed up like the DEVO guys, the other outsiders.
PPM: Oh they did? I’ve never actually seen the movie.
D: In the context of the movie.
PPM: Oh, wow!
D: It was kind of funny.
PPM: Well, DEVO is nerd-rock. Let’s not beat around the bush here. [David laughs] This is why I listen to them. This is why it spoke to me. These guys have a very strong point of view and they’re doing art. And oh my gosh, it’s also pop music. How lovely.
THE THIRD ALBUM [Welcoming A New Ice Age]
PPM: So for the third album, “Welcoming A New Ice Age,” so you self-financed that record? That was a very smart move.
D: Essentially, we had ups and downs with Robbie. I really don’t like to dwell on that stuff. We never had really accurate accounts of how much stuff really sold.
PPM: It’s so hard. It’s hard to get from anyone. It’s hard to get from the majors much less a guy running a small business out of Southern California.
D: The second album did get more distribution because it went through PVC to other countries.
,PPM: With PVC having much bigger distribution, for sure.
D: So the third album we did we had some money, and kind of financed it. We always got to use decent studios, and when we tried to do as good as we could. And it was still in those days of 2” tape. It was expensive.
PPM: It was not cheap in those days before the desktop revolution. So Greg Penny produced the “Party EP” and you worked with him on “Sparks In Outer Space?”
D: Yeah, we knew him. He lived close by. The “Party EP” was supposed to be lighter. A quick one-off thing. And “Funk For Children” we thought, again, this song was super catchy, and even though the lyrics were kind of grim… if people like it for the wrong reason…fine. It sounded like that could have been some kind of popular radio song, too. By mistake.
PPM: “Whip It” was a hit. That’s the thing that astonished me because I remember when “Freedom of Choice” came out, it was very weird. Because I was at my high school, which had a radio station, and I was one of the DJs on the high school radio station. And when that record came out, I started playing “Whip It.” Immediately. I’m not staying I’m the guy who broke it out with ten watts of power. [David laughs] It sounded like a hit to me. And six months later, there you go.
You’re always moving in new directions on each record. On “Ice Age” you start out with “Mercy” and it’s like optimism coming from Gleaming Spires. And you pointed to Big Country as an influence here. How did it feel to switch gears in the songwriting to that degree?
D: I don’t know if we consciously felt that it was really that different except that kind of stretched out a little more. Again, we were in service to the song. Some of that was maybe reactive to touring and how grim Top 40 radio actually was. Driving around the country and stuff. Big Country we just sort of like the fact that this sort of optimistic thing could exist on Top 40 radio. It was just pretty grueling to hear what most people were listening to. But that got tethered immediately to the dystopian “Welcoming A New Ice Age!” [laughs]
PPM: Like you said. You didn’t take up a whole new leaf because the very next track was anthemic music with typically grim Spires lyrical matter. As you say, I think you pointed out to J.G. Ballard…yeah. Dystopian.
D: Yeah, I was a big fan of his 60s disaster novels. “The Wind From Nowhere.” All the different ways that the end could arrive.
PPM: Unlike the one we’re having now. [sardonic laughter all around]
D: I don’t take any particular joy in thinking I was ahead of the game.
PPM: “No One Coming Over” again, I like how you pulled Jagger, Bowie, and Ferry into reconciling the distance between the projections of your heroes and the fragility of your own ideals.
D: Right. And kind of trying to impress anyone with your own set of stuff. It’s like “they are not coming over…I’m sorry.”
PPM: And way back going to the early demo of “Real Love” from Bates Motel with “The Secret Room” and “Blowing Up My Life” here it is. Three years later we’ve got country music and with your penchant for emotional misery, it almost made perfect sense to hear Spires producing country music. [David chuckles] Did you ever think about maybe writing for Nashville, or was that swimming against the tide too much?
D: I think Les might have tried a song or two. That was never my mode.
PPM: I didn’t know how far you would have felt about that, but it could have worked because that’s the material.
D: At a point, yeah. Very depressing songs, pre-Bro Country.
PPM: But I loved that song. “Your Secret Room” was great! If you did a whole album of that, I’d be signing up for that. On the first note I expected to hear a melodica solo but after the second note, that’s when I realized, “oh my god… they’re using bagpipes!” That’s crazy! [David laughs] And then I read about how you were using your friends recording because he could not make it to the session.
D: It was a drag because we didn’t know, never having worked with bagpipes before, that there was just one key that they could play in. And so we figured that out and modulated it at the point that we could do that.
PPM: Even I didn’t know bagpipes only had one key. [David chuckles] My musical knowledge on planet earth is still that limited. That’s news to me as well. But it worked out pretty good, though.
D: Yeah, it did.
PPM: You got more new features. “Bigger Than Life” was your Motown pastiche. There was a lot of things happening like that. Like the fourth album of The Undertones. That would fit right in on that, if you’ve ever heard that. The Undertones started out playing like Ramones punk rock, but by album four they had the full brass section. It sounded pretty good and you had the brass section as well. By the mid 80s, when you started revisiting your musical past like that, did you feel that it was somehow more acceptable? Or was it more like something new?
D: I think it was kind of more something new. The third album kind of stylistically jumped around more than some. And then “Harm” was…[sardonic laughter]
PPM: Oh my god…
D: …About as far away from pop music as we could get.
PPM: You’ve got the varispeed backing loop and you’ve got the frayed nerve cello playing. It’s like a bad Ingmar Bergman nightmare soundtrack. And we don’t care. That’s the beauty of this album is that you’re really sprawling all over the place. The first one’s pretty tight and coherent. The second one spreads out a little more, and the third one really spreads widely. And I’m a guy who likes eclectic music. I’m not one of those people who says “oh, it’s too bad it’s mort more coherent.” I’m always interested in hearing a much different stuff as I can.
D: I don’t think everyone appreciated how diverse we were. I guess the one thing that worked with this group is that, it’s the old axiom, but a successful, good band is more than the sum of its parts. It becomes something else and it absolutely worked with Spires. It was like whatever was going on when we were all involved, even though it jumped all over, it was something else.
PPM: It’s the “third mind” process. You’re creating something larger than the individual. And man, do I love “Unprotected!” If Les was trying to do a “Roy Orbison” he hit it smack on. I’m a big Roy Orbison fan and I could easily imagine that making the song list for “Mystery Girl.” Unfortunately, that never happened. It would have really worked.
PPM: I also liked “The Things I’ve Done To Our Love” which was fantastic. To me that sounded like what The Smithereens were just getting ready to do.
D: We did get that song placed in a film.
D: A movie called “The Horror Show.”
PPM: I saw reference to that [in the press kit] but I wasn’t able to find a soundtrack so I couldn’t tell what was in it.
D: That was one of those where I don’t think there was a soundtrack, but they played the entire song.
PPM: Well, that’s not bad. But “Harm” was so disturbing. [David laughs] That’s how the record ended. Fortunately on the CD you’ve got a little more. So you’ve got the Eleven Blue Men stuff. It’s actually sympathetically painful to listen to Les singing on that one. [David laughs]
D: I think some of out angst was showing by the end. Stuff wasn’t really working out. On the Eleven Blue Men few things it was us pushed about as far as we could go, I guess.
PPM: I would have thought that even before that was the breaking point with your guitarist going AWOL like he did.
THE DEVO YEARS
D: Yeah, that turned us towards trying something with Paul Cutler, but he ended up joining Dream Syndicate pretty much right after that. And then I ended up joining DEVO pretty soon after that.
PPM: And I loved the “Total DEVO” album. I thought that was a fantastic record. In fact, one of my big regrets was that I did not buy that record immediately when it came out, because I thought that “Shout” was so poor. I never owned “Shout” until only recently. Because now I’ve got to the point where I have to have everything, right?
D: When I joined, the reason why Alan was gone was the drum machines. For me as well, I did not want to be in the group that did “Shout.” The thing that was amazing about DEVO the first time I saw them was just these five guys in uniforms just doing the job. And it wasn’t a huge show, it was just committed to playing. The period I was with them, they weren’t large stage productions but it was back to actual playing. There’s real drums. “Smooth Noodle Maps” is all drums. There’s one track with some drum machine parts, but it’s all playing. That’s what I liked about them. I’m glad they came back to it.
PPM: Unfortunately, the one chance I would have had to see DEVO was the tour for “Total DEVO.” [Editor’s note: This is not strictly true… your scribe had forgotten that there was a 1990 appearance at Disney’s Pleasure Island on New Year’s Eve that was skipped out of sheer horror at the night and venue – and the high two figure ticket price.] It came to club called Visage in Orlando [where yours truly saw the bulk of any live Rock shows in the 80s] and I was 25 at the time and felt that I thought I knew everything. And I thought, “awww, DEVO… I missed them when they were on their game and I’ll pass this one up!” And I’ve subsequently learned that this is a bad move to make. [David laughs] Every time I’ve almost had a chance to see them over the years, it has never worked out. They were going to come to Moogfest in 2010, in my town so, great. Then I can’t remember which Bob it was, cut his hand on a broken bottle.
D: I think Bob 1.
PPM: And then they could not play so it was like “aww, geez…” I will never see this band and I’m just doomed here. I really should have seen them in 1988, and the irony was two years later whenever I got a copy of “Total DEVO,” I loved it. I thought the songwriting was fantastic. I thought that was some of the catchiest songwriting they had since “New Traditionalists.” I love that record and the deluxe remaster on Futurismo was… I wanted to get that but it’s so expensive ordering things from overseas.
D: They’re expensive but both of those sets… “Smooth Noodle Maps” and “Total DEVO” as objects, are beautiful.
PPM: Oh yeah, you’ve got all of this gloss varnish printing that presses all of my graphic designer buttons big time, I’ll have to admit it. [David chuckles] But paying as much for the shipping as the product slays me these days.
D: I guess that’s one thing I’m happy about with these Spires discs. A lot of people are getting all of them, but they’re individual and these aren’t ridiculously priced.
PPM: Omnivore run a tight ship. I very much love the stuff they’ve done with all of the L.A. New Wave bands. The Three O’Clock were another favorite band of mine and I was very happy when they put out that collection of rarities [“The Hidden World Revealed”]and I need to order that when I order all the new [Gleaming Spires] discs in one fell swoop. And I’ll be giving copies of these as birthday presents to my friends in the upcoming year. When I find a reissue label that’s doing great work, I definitely support it.
D: Oh good. Yeah, I’m happy the Bates Motel stuff is existent, and all of the movie work is getting out. Each record has as much bonus stuff as the regular stuff.
D: And there was a lot floating around.
PPM: I mean. if I were compiling these things and I knew all of this material was out there, this is how I would have it done. So all I can say is that this was absolutely done to the Monastic standard. [David laughs] I can’t ask for anything more than that. So I’m very impressed. All I had before was the “Hypnotism” single.
D: All right. Well, yeah. This was something new, so thank you.
PPM: And thank you for the great work. Not only of course with Gleaming Spires, but also a tip of the hat for Sparks and DEVO as well. Like I said, two of the premier American bands for me.