Take some great vocals, add a generous portion of musicianship, kick it up a notch with a combination of smart and wonderfully witty wordplay, and you end up with the exact recipe that results in self-confessed "Geek" Rockers, Sunspot.
Recently I conversed with Mike Hubert, lead vocalist and bass player for the band, over e-mail and we discussed the band's history, their music, some of their quirky titles, and their plans for the future.
Well, the first thing I'm curious about is the name of the band. How did you end up calling yourselves Sunspot? Is there significance to it, or was it simply the first thing that popped into your collective heads?
When we were working on a name originally, it was the only one that we could all agree on. So, it was a victory of it being the least offensive name. Plus, by their definition, sunspots are the most mysterious, unknown, coolest and weirdest parts of the sun and their cycles and appearances mess with Earth and our radio waves. It sounded sci-fi and interesting to us, so we all picked it.
Who are you guys and what do you play? Sure, it's a cheesy question, but coming from someone only recently acquainted with your music (regrettably so, by the way) I'm just curious as to who's who and who plays what.
Mike Huberty – Lead Vocals and bass, Wendy Lynn Staats – Drums and vocals, Ben Jaeger – Guitars and vocals
Where did you all meet? Did you always know each other and want to (someday) be in a band together, or did your individual love for music introduce you to each other later on life?
Ben and Mike went to grade school together and started playing in bands early on. Ben knew Wendy through a performing organization and they all went to college at the University of Wisconsin. They were already friends, so when they were looking for a drummer, she said she played and they started immediately.
Having mentioned music, even a few casual listens to any one of your albums reveal that you not only love music, but also especially love being in a band and playing music. Where did that come from? What kind of music does everyone listen to? Any specific artists inspire you to want to have a go at making and playing music for a living?
We all really love performing live, that's probably where the love of being in a band comes from. You can't get the same thing on a record or in a studio that you can get when you create the sound live in front of an audience. We all love different kinds of rock music, Ben loves old Van Halen and Steve Vai, Wendy's more into songs and likes flamboyant performers like Buster Poindexter from the NY Dolls or Butch Walker, Mike loves the New Wave of British Heavy Metal but also a lot of wussy sad stuff as well.
One of the things that I've always been curious of is the transformation of thoughts and words into an actual song. Do you remember the first song that you wrote, either on your own or together as Sunspot?
Once we changed our name to Sunspot, the first song we ever wrote together is on our new album, it's the song "Morgan le Fay". Otherwise, probably "Pre-Emptive Strike" off of Loser of the Year is probably the first one we wrote with Wendy in the band. It was a riff that we kept playing off of in practice for several weeks until a chorus just kind of developed out of it. Funny, we only had one verse on it for a coupla years until we decided to record it and then wrote the second verse a day before recording the vocals on it.
What went through your mind the first time the three of you just "plugged it in" and played together? Was it an original song or a cover?
It was an original song, but I don't remember which one. It was probably "Loser of the Year" or "Change the World." Wendy had already seen Ben and I play in different incarnations of the band before, so she was ready to jump right in. The first thing that went through Mike's mind was "I hope this works out, we already have shows booked for the summer."
How about the first time you did it in front of an audience? And yes, playing for the three guys down the street and their hound-dog with the lazy eye counts!
It was Mike's cousin's college graduation party and probably the only thing going through our heads was that we hoped to make it through the set without falling apart. We were pretty green at that point playing together-wise.
Now that you've been together long enough to have a couple of albums under your belt, is there any specific part of being in a "band" that you like more than any other? Writing? Recording? Touring? Being barraged with questions via email by me?
We love being barraged by questions, always. But the favorite part is probably playing your music and enjoying it and seeing other people sing along. That never gets old, when you've affected someone enough that they've memorized the words and came out specifically to listen to you. It's really one of the best compliments anyone can get.
Over the past few weeks I've been listening to your albums, especially your latest release, Neanderthal. What was the recording process like, this time around? Has it gotten easier to work and create in the studio environment?
No, that one was a barnburner in particular. I think we've made it harder on ourselves by really limiting the amount of time that we'll allow ourselves in the studio. The first two albums we were in the studio for months and on the last two we whipped em out fairly quickly. Too much waiting around kills us, we like to get the songs in the can and get em released so that we can play them for everyone.
There are some particularly lovely bits of musicianship on Neanderthal, but when I drop it into rotation on my stereo alongside Radio Free Earth, Loser of the Year, and Cynical, vocals are what make me take notice. "Mr. Foff," for example, has some of the loveliest harmonies I've heard in a while, and the lead vocals on the title track, "Neanderthal," are super nice.
Not that the vocals on the earlier releases aren't good, by the way. "Summer Day" off of Loser of the Year, for instance, is just a great song with some lovely vocals.
Thanks, we work on vocals all the time. Actually we just finished practice and we're having a creative difference when it came to a harmony on a new song. Ben and Wendy didn't like a harmony that Mike had (this is Mike writing right now by the way, I'm trying to write it in third person. I don't know why I just thought it'd be fun) and we ended up having to change it. I mean, I complained for a bit, ha-ha. We figured it out, but the important thing is that we're all paying close attention to those details because we all love vocal hooks. That's really the kicker for a lot of our songs so we all feel strongly and do our best to make sure that the vocals sound great (at least to our ears.)
There is a confession I have to make, though. Whenever someone would ask me what band I was listening to, either at work or wherever, I'd mention your name and then proceed to describe your sound as something like the lovechild of the music and sensibilities of Barenaked Ladies, the geek-rock groove of Weezer, and the smartness of 80s R.E.M. Okay, that would be one kid in need of therapy. How would you describe your music?
We call it arena rock for geeks because we all adore the bands that you just mentioned. We love the cleverness of a Weezer or REM song and the comedy of a Barenaked Ladies' number but we also love the trappings of a great rock 'n' roll band and all the ridiculous showmanship and foppishness that come with it. There's a time to be clever, a time to be blunt, a time to sing softly and beautifully, and a time for a face melting guitar solo and a bunch of E chords banged out. We try to mesh all the stuff we love into one thing and hope that other people like it too.
One of the things I'm intensely curious about, are your song titles. Much like the eternal question that concerns the chicken and the egg, which comes first… the song or the title? Do you name a song after it's been fleshed out, or have you ever had a great idea for a song title, and then went about creating a song that brought it to life?
Little bit of both. There's been songs that seem to have grown out of their title ("Meat Market," "Prozac Girl," "Don't Tell Me I Missed The War" in particular) and ones where just the idea of the song title, like "Heidegger" or "Sisyphus" seem to put a good capper on the theme of the song, whether the title's in the tune or not.
"Sisyphus' Rock" is in close contention for my favorite title, but "The Heidegger Paradox," "Mr. Foff," "Viking Funeral," "Don't Tell Me I Missed The War," and "Scott Bakula" are very close contenders. Are there any particular favorites of the band?
We love them all, but "Scott Bakula" and "Heidegger" seem to get the most double takes.
Okay, focusing on one song in particular, as a fan of Mr. Bakula and his work on Quantum Leap, where in the heck did that song come from? I just love it and I'll occasionally find myself humming the damn thing.
Lord of Illusions was on cable one day, and this was right before the Star Trek show with him came out and we were all monster fans of Quantum Leap. So we were just wondering whatever happened to Scott because we hadn't seen him in awhile. Plus he seems to embody certain qualities of masculinity that chicks love. He's macho and sensitive, smart but not afraid to take action. He's really Hamlet and Fortinbras rolled into one.
With Neanderthal out and available for people like me to get their greedy little paws on, what are your plans for the rest of the year? Are you touring in support of the album? If you're already on tour, what kind of response are you getting to the new material?
We'll be playing out the rest of the summer and fall with Neanderthal all over the Midwest and we'll probably hit the East and South again with it too. People are really digging on the title track and "Eat Out My Heart" particularly, so it's nice to have it on record so that they can take it home. Once winter hits, we'll go back into the studio, we're already road-testing new songs and we'll probably demo a few on the website before we go and put them on the album.
(All photos courtesy of Sunspot's MySpace page. Go ahead, click on it and enjoy listening to some of their songs and then we'll get together in a few days and talk about their music as I review not only their latest album, but talk about their earlier albums as well.)