After Long Layoff, Pavement Offshoot Spiral Stairs Return to Throw Poignant ‘Daggers’
Time was, Scott Kannberg’s strongest songs — from Pavement's iconoclastic “Hit the Plane Down” and pugnacious b-side “Stub Your Toe” to something like Preston School of Industry’s spindly “The Idea of Fires” — took flight on a riff and a prayer. These tunes were catchy, brusque and instinctually wrought, 7"-worthy wonders party-crashing the LPs or EPs they happened to come packaged along with. Doris and the Daggers is the Stockton, Calif., native’s fourth post-Pavement album and his second as Spiral Stairs, but it’s his best album because it arrives without those sonic M-80 firecrackers of yore. His songwriting here is eclectic, self-assured, mature and heartfelt, reflecting time’s unyielding march and a heavily stamped passport. A few weeks prior to the release of Doris and the Daggers, I interviewed Kannberg via telephone.
I thought you were back in California. When did you move to Mexico?
We were. We moved back to Los Angeles in 2013, I think. We’ve been here in Mexico for like the last 10 months, in Merida, in the Yucátan. My wife’s parents, we lived kind of near them. They decided to move to Mexico because they had a house here in Merida, and we had an opportunity to be close to my parents and be close to them in Mexico. Then, in the end, we wound up following them to Mexico. I’m not sure how my parents feel about that. And also, Australia’s so far away, and we were spending so much money on travel. And I wanted to make music, and the people I make music with are in the States. We wanted to move back to San Francisco, but a lot of my friends from San Francisco are moving to L.A. At that time, L.A. was still pretty cheap, and it felt like San Francisco on the east side of town. But in the three years we lived in L.A., it got so expensive.
How do you like living in Mexico?
Merida’s a pretty cool place; it’s really growing because it’s a real safe city. A lot of people from Mexico City and Monterrey are moving their families here, so it’s kinda bursting at the seams. But I don’t know any Spanish. Well, I know a little bit. You kinda have to know a little Spanish. There’s a lot of expats here. We have some friends, my wife knows a little Spanish. The food’s amazing, the culture’s amazing, the climate’s a little too hot for me. [Laughs] So, it’s okay, for a while.
I feel like, of all your solo records, Doris and the Daggers is the one that fits together best as an album. There’s normally albums where one or two songs stand out as “the singles”; the Preston School of Industry albums had that, to an extent. This one doesn’t have that; it feels like a whole.
I try to create a comfortable listening experience. I look at it as two sides, like a vinyl record; I don’t make it for a streaming or CD kind of world, because I don’t know that world, really. I don’t know how bands like the Beatles made 35-minute records. The goal is to make it so that a listener is interested for 20 minutes, and then they turn the record over, maybe revisit the other side at another time.
For this record, I recorded probably 15 songs with Justin [Peroff, drummer of Broken Social Scene] and Matt [Harris, former bassist of the Posies], and then another 15 with others, and the songs really fit together well as a cohesive kind of thing. I never really try for singles, but I guess I can definitely see the Preston records as having more singles, or “single”-type songs.
This also feels like a more personal album, like you’re really putting yourself out there.
I think so, too. There’s an emotional theme to it, I guess. I’ve been listening to a lot of those kinds of records — I really started to get into Lloyd Cole, who has sly lyrics, but they’re emotional. Maybe it comes from that. But maybe it’s that I’m older, more at ease with my songwriting.
One of my favorite songs from the album is “The Unconditional,” which conveys nicely what it’s like to be a parent as children reach that age where they can start making demands. Was there a particular moment that inspired this?
I had the riff, and I had the basic music of the song. It was kind turning into this kind of Van Morrison-y thing, with horns. I had a rough idea of some of the lyrics, but a lot of these songs I actually made up the lyrics driving, or riding my bike. Behind our house in L.A., we had this amazing hiking trail. I’d go out there every day and listen to these songs, and whatever popped into my head, I’d jot down. Basically, you’re driving your kid to school and these things pop out of their mouths. [Laughs] I’ve always liked songs people wrote about their children. Everybody does that at some point; I wanted to have one.
Has your daughter heard it?
Yeah! She loves it. She knows all the lyrics. She pronounces some of the words wrong. The thing I’m always amazed by with kids is how they retain the language. She’s saying some pretty complicated words. We let her watch little YouTube videos of people playing with toys, and I think that’s where she gets most of it from.
“No Comparison” was a surprise. It flows with the album, but it’s very staccato. It’s almost like disco. How did that one come together?
I’ve always been a big fan of the Talking Heads. That’s where it started. I like the Happy Mondays, and I’ve always liked a good dance beat. Originally, “No Comparison” wasn’t intended to be like that, but it kinda morphed into it. The synthesizer element came way late. Kelley Stoltz, when I went up to do some things with him, he added those synthesizer lines; they’re so brash and funny-sounding that I had to keep them. This was my stab at a song off of Remain in Light or something, or something off of Flesh and Blood by Roxy Music. I did that in Pavement, too; “Passat Dream” was a dance-y kind of song. They come out every once in awhile.
I feel like this album has a lot of little touches that bring something special, like how on “Dance,” every time you sing that word in the chorus, there’s a horn stab.
Yeah! The horn guys I had were incredible. That song took a real turn. If you heard the demo, it’s completely different — it sounds more like an early Wire song. It went in another direction when I got the horns on there, and I asked this friend of mine, Doug — who actually plays in a Roxy Music cover band — to play on the song and make it sound like Roxy Music. [Laughs]
I know that your longtime drummer, Darius Minwalla, passed away before recording started. Knowing that the vocal at the end of the title track was his really adds something — it’s kind of left-field without the context, but it’s emotional if you know. Can you tell me a bit about him?
That vocal was a snippet from a video we put together for a tour from maybe 2004 or so, because Darius kinda came on after [Preston School of Industry's] Monsoon. It was kind of fitting to place it at the very end of the record, because the whole record is emotionally part of him, and I wanted to have his voice in there somehow.
A couple of these songs are about him. “Exiled Tonight” is about a dream I had. It was the last song I was going to record the vocals for. I didn’t have any good vocals, and I came into the studio one day, and the engineer stopped me halfway through and said, “Those lyrics are terrible.” I said, “I know they are.” He said, “Come back tomorrow.” That night I had this dream, where Darius is stuck in the afterlife, and it was a kind of a sign that I had to finish the song so I could finish the record. Another song, “Angel Eyes,” has a verse about him, that the very last song he ever played on drums was “No More Heroes” by the Stranglers.
I think it was a freak accident. He had a bad heart that he didn’t tell anybody about; he had a heart attack and died a month before we were supposed to record up in Seattle. It kinda threw everyone for a loop. It sent me in a different direction for this album.
He was a great guy. I’d known him a long time. He seemed pretty happy in his life. When I moved to Seattle in the early 2000s, he was the Posies’ drummer; Matt Harris, who played on Doris and the Daggers, was the bass player for the Posies. After the Monsoon record, Darius started playing with us; he’s the drummer on The Real Feel. After I left Seattle, I moved to Australia, and we lost touch for four or five years. He was supposed to play on Doris.
Justin from Broken Social Scene was really good friends with Darius, too, and he called me up and asked if he could drum.
“Exiled Tonight” seemed, to me, like a touring travelogue. With Pavement, you were touring constantly. Do you miss the touring life?
I do miss it. With Pavement, in the old days, we worked it pretty hard. We did every single show anybody asked us to do. We did it on a shoestring budget. I think it kinda wore us down in the end. The reunion tour was great because it was at a much bigger level, and we had a crew and could stay in hotel rooms; it was like a nice vacation, really. This solo stuff is still shoestring, but it’s still touring, and I’m excited about it. I’m going next week to play SXSW, six shows there, then we’ll do a West Coast tour in April, an East Coast / Midwest tour in June.
Eight years separate The Real Feel and Doris. Do you have a big backlog of unreleased songs?
Sorta. I didn’t really write that many songs after The Real Feel. But the way I do things, it takes me a long time to get up and running, and when I do start writing songs, I write a lot of songs. I try to use most of them on the records or as b-sides. Most of these are from the last few years. Some of them date back to The Real Feel era, but they sound a lot different than they used to. I’ve already written my next record, and I’m ready to record that!
You’re way ahead of the curve.
I don’t wanna fool around. I don’t think you need to, anymore; you can kinda just put things out when you wanna put 'em out. I’m not gonna wait another eight years.
What does the song title “AWM” stand for?
It stands for “Always Wanted More.” It’s about my ex-wife. Chrissy was a big part of Pavement; we split up in 2003 or 2004. She’s still around, in San Francisco. She comes to shows. It was tough. It was pretty tough times in Seattle, after the divorce, but then I met Sarah, and things changed after that. I’m much happier.