Peter J. Richards: It Takes a Village To Make Records Interview
First Hand Accounts, Theories, and Their Repercussions CD

The Mnemonic Devices' "Young James" and The Strawberry Explosion's "Baby Baby Boo!" to appear on the first CD sampler of It Takes a Village To Make Records, entitled "First Hand Accounts, Theories, and Their Repercussions."

Announcement Bulletin Email About the Interview

Mnemonic Devices/Strawberry Explosion REVEALED

Hi, fun folks,

There's a new interview posted in the blogs at the ITAV profile page--this time around with Texas musician Rusty Spell, principle songwriter of The Mnemonic Devices and The Strawberry Explosion. Rusty is a guy who toils away in semi-obscurity on his music, living on the Texas-Mexico border and teaching writing at the university in Edinburg, Texas. In many ways, he is like an outsider artist (except that he has a doctorate and that his music is highly literate and lyrically intricate)--he does not seek the approval of the masses, nor is he seeking a recording contract. He's doing it because he has a passionate drive to write and record music.

So pull up a chair and eavesdrop on the revealing conversation I had with him the other day. May I suggest a cold beverage to accompany your reading? Or two?

--Peter

The Interview

Interview with The Mnemonic Devices/The Strawberry Explosion's Dr. Rusty Spell

I had a chance to sit down (figuratively, over the internet) with Edinburg, Texas resident Rusty Spell, a prolific songwriter whom I stumbled on by pure chance a couple years ago.  Rusty epitomizes someone who makes music for the sheer joy of it -- or perhaps because he's compelled to.  Or maybe a little of both.  With a string of bands and solo projects, a wide and deep discography of CDs and singles released on his own Love and Letters label, and an obvious love for crafting pop songs, Rusty and various talented collaborators have amassed quite an impressive catalog of work.  Check it out at www.loveandletters.com.  Two projects he is
involved with show up on the forthcoming ITAV compilation CD: The Mnemonic Devices is a synth-only group with a rotating cast of female singers.  The Strawberry Explosion is a joyously infectious expression of his relationship with artist Carrie Hoffman.


Peter:  I first stumbled onto your music a couple years back while Google-searching Magnetic Fields lyrics.  I was surprised to find that someone (you) had recorded a full cover version of 69 Love Songs.  How do other musicians influence your writing or singing style?

Rusty:  Like Stephin Merritt, I plagiarize.  I want to sound like music I enjoy listening to, so I rip-off their sounds or structures or singing styles.  Most often, I do this while writing an original song -- the most extreme example being my two Plagiarism albums where I write songs in the style of another artist without actually doing their songs -- though of course I enjoy recording covers too.

The good thing about plagiarizing is that not only is your sound instantly endearing to someone because of their associations with the other person, but also you sound different from song to song.  I have no idea what my real singing voice is.  Comedians who do impressions often have the same experience.

Peter:  Does recording with the Mnemonic Devices and the Strawberry Explosion differ for you?  Or are they facets of the same type of expression?

Rusty:  They are different.  They both have their own rules, as do all the groups I'm associated with.  For the Mnemonic Devices, the music is only played on keyboards, and the songs are different based on what girl singer I get to sing for me.  TMD also has a certain literary style associated with the lyrics.  The songs are often like short stories, or at least character sketches.  Every song can
have a different mood.

The Strawberry Explosion is more of a doo-wop band: "doo-wop" in the most abstract sense anyway.  And it's more about sugar and pop and joy.  The main difference between TSE and TMD is that Carrie Hoffman is 50%.  I'm the pimp daddy in The Mnemonic Devices and everyone does what I say, but The Strawberry Explosion is an expression and celebration of mine and Carrie's couple-ness and loviness and we're equal partners.

Peter:  Do you mainly write and record for amusement, or do you have other ambitions?  You seem quite prolific.

Rusty:  I have no ambitions because I'm not willing to do the things that real musicians do.  However, I don't feel comfortable saying I record simply for amusement either.  It's amusing, of course, but I feel compelled to do it and take it seriously.  I am sad that my songs aren't being listened to in the world at large, but if they were I'd have to pay the price of doing the things real musicians do, and I
wouldn't be as prolific or as happy as a result.  I don't like what I know of the music business, and I don't like musicians much either.

Peter:  Can you talk a bit about your working method and/or your studio set-up?

Rusty:  I almost only work on songs when I have a larger project in mind.  I don't write songs for songs' sake: I write them for the sake of putting a package together.  I don't like things to "float."  I like to stick them somewhere.  I could never be one of those guys who scribble lyrics on yellow paper and strum chords and let the song remain in that state for years.  It's not real unless it's recorded, and even then it needs to fit within the context of a larger idea.

I record at my place on my computer.  I use Cakewalk.  Everything fits in one room, all the instruments and equipment, and it's neat.  I record fast and cheap, but things sound the way I want them to.  An entire project for me takes anywhere from an hour to two months.  If I had to work on something for more than a few months, I'd die.

Peter:  What kinds of situations do you perform in?  Can we anticipate tours in the future?

Rusty:  I do perform live on the rare occasion that someone asks me to.  I tend to perform maybe two to four times a year, usually as an opening act or if I'm doing a short story reading and they want me to sing too.  I don't actively seek out shows.

I'm no good in live situations because, for one, I don't have any of my songs memorized: music or lyrics.  I go on stage with a music stand, sheet music, and my Iddy Biddy Book Light.  My live shows have nothing to do with the records, since my records sound good and my live shows sound like a guy who can't sing or play guitar (which is usually the instrument I choose for stage), and I tend to turn the experience more into a comedy act than anything.

So no tours.  But sometimes I drum for people, and I'm good at that.  Drums are the only instrument I'm good at.  I fake everything else.

Peter:  Is there an independent music community around where you live?  Any other notable Texan artists we should belistening up for?

Rusty:  There is a community around here in the Rio Grand Valley area of Texas, but it consists of kids who wear black and play loud music and make distinctions between "real" and "fake" music.  That isn't me insulting anyone, if that's what it sounds like.  That's me saying that the music here has nothing to do with what I do, which is really me saying that I don't actually play music, and if I do then it's certainly the "fake"kind.

I was asked to play at one of the festivals here, and everyone was really great and seemed to like what I was doing.  This is a superfriendly part of America.

I don't know of anyone you should be listening for.  I'm not in the loop.

Peter:  You seem to be having a lot of fun!  Songs range from deranged ("Shotgun!") to bouncy ("Angela") to handclapping fun
("Baby Baby Boo!").  Yet "Young James" strikes me as kind of dark.  What sorts of experiences feed into your songs?  Are any of them autobiographical?

Rusty:  The songs are seldom autobiographical, and even when they are, it's only in the same way than an author's short story is autobiographical: taking certain elements from your life but fictionalizing and exaggerating them and changing everything around.  In reality, the ones that are the most autobiographical are probably the ones that don't seem to be about me at all, but the ones that seem to be about me probably aren't.

I do like to have fun, even with the serious stuff.  Life is at least 90% jokes, seems to me.  The funniest jokes don't make you laugh, at least not right away.  "Young James" is pretty funny in its way.

For the most part, experiences don't feed into my songs.  I just write them.  I write lots of my songs for women to sing, so I'm almost always doing characters.  I mean, in "Baby Baby Boo!" the song is a dialogue between a girl and a British vampire, so there you go.  I'm not like, you know, John Lennon with confessionals and stuff.

Peter:  I gather that you have an academic or educational background.  How does Rusty Spell the musician relate to other aspects of your life?

Rusty:  I have a PhD in English and I teach writing and literature at the university here.  I've had students who went on to become music pals, but there's not too much overlap.  It would be nice if everything I do could work together in harmony, but often I just feel like twelve different people.  Luckily, no single aspect has taken over.  I like doing everything.

Peter:  What's in your stereo these days?

Rusty:  I discovered last year that Erasure is one of the best bands in the world, so I bought all their albums.  My favorite album of last year was Mezmerize by System of a Down.  Some other stuff I've been listening to lately: ABBA, Jens Lekman, Gwen Stefani, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Frank Black, OutKast, and ye olde Arcade Fire.

Peter:  Any upcoming releases?

Rusty:  The Strawberry Explosion should have a new batch of singles over the next few months, which will eventually be compiled into the most perfect album you've ever heard.  I have plans to make an album designed to play at dance clubs.  Everyone should listen to the cover of "My Humps" that Carrie and I did that will appear as a B-side on the next single.  It's online at carriehoffman.com.  That was one of my favorite songs from last year.

We're really glad to have The Mnemonic Devices and The Strawberry Explosion on the "First-Hand Accounts" CD.  Music has many guises: as an outlet for all sorts of emotions, as a way to hone wordcraft, as a way to invert our inner lives and let listeners dissect them.  I think a lot of the projects coming out of Love and Letters Music have a quality which is elusive to a lot of bands and solo artists -- fun as the controlling motive.  I'd hazard a guess that Rusty never aspired to be on a compilation put out by some guy in Michigan, yet here he is, and it's because of the obvious enjoyment you can hear in the details of the songs and in the level of craftsmanship that goes into the songwriting.  "Baby Baby Boo!" will most certainly be THE Halloween anthem by October '06!

-- Peter


Copyright (c) Jan 2006 by Love and Letters Music