Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Mnemonic Devicette and storytelling master, interviews Carrie Hoffman and Rusty Spell of The Strawberry Explosion soon before their upcoming Christmas single.

PIA: Hi, you two! I have listened, I have laughed, I have cringed, I have loved. I have questions.

I'm thinking that in talking about your music, we will also be talking about the glory of your relationship, so I thought I might begin by asking Carrie this: when I knew you back when, you seemed very shy about recording in Rusty's closet. I'm wondering when and why you decided to go in there and sing?

CARRIE: A couple of reasons.  One is that I liked Rusty's music.  He'd made me a CD of MP3s of all his songs--every single song he'd ever done, not just Mnemonic Devices--and I'd listened to most of it by that point and thought it was cool.  So I didn't want to miss out, especially since "everyone else" from the English department who was my friend was involved.  Also, by that point Rusty and I were good friends and so, even though I was shy, I was also comfortable around Rusty.  Plus, he'd told me that I could do as many takes as I wanted so I was pretty much assured that I wouldn't embarrass myself without my consent on the CD.  Then, the biggest factor is probably just the unconscious, can't-control-it Rusty-Carrie vibe that I can't explain, where we've been sort of pulled together by tractor beams.

PIA: Rusty, when did you start writing music? There's -- what seems like -- an intentional unpretentiousness (there's as mouthful) to how you put your songs together, and I'm wondering if you can talk a little about your aesthetic?

RUSTY: I started making music when I was fifteen, and everything back in those days was adlibbed.  I made music for five years before I ever wrote out lyrics.  Every song I ever made to that point was performed one time, and that was the time it was made up and recorded.  So that make-it-up-as-you-go background has stayed with me, sometimes to the point of what some misunderstand as laziness--meaning that I still do things quickly, in one take, sometimes sloppily, etc.   

I'm not sure what "intentionally unpretentious" means.  Unless by that you mean "unprofessional," which I'll agree with.  Everyone complains about the way I record things, especially vocals, but no one ever complains about the songs themselves.  They like the songs, but think I screw them up with the way I record them (or sometimes perform them).  But I'm not being intentionally unprofessional.  I'm not rebelling against some professional sound.  I used to sound unprofessional out of necessity back in the days of cheap tape recorders, but now that I have somewhat more sophisticated equipment (and the means to get even more sophisticated if I want to), the unprofessional sound comes from what happens to sound good to my ear...which isn't apparently what sounds good to others' ears.   

So it's the usual aesthetic of "what sounds good to me," just like everyone has, except that not everyone actually follows through with it, and some only fool themselves into thinking they do.

PIA: By describing your music as unpretentious, I meant what it says in the dictionary -- not making a great display, simple, modest -- because when I listen to your work it feels kind of pure, immediate, freshly made--like it just happened.

RUSTY: Diction-whoo-see?  What-shun-ary? Yes, that's what it sounds like to me too... which is why I think that also translates -- in some people's ears -- as unprofessional, since the more "professional" something sounds, the less pure, the less immediate, and the less freshly made (moldily made?) it sounds.

PIA: And with Carrie singing, now, it feels intimate, something between the two of you, which you let other people hear. Not all the songs, but many of the songs. Which makes sense when you talk about how you used to adlib your songs when you were younger. Now you're doing this together.

RUSTY: That's how I feel about almost everything I do.  That it's some kind of personal thing. With Carrie I suppose it's more so, since she's my gal and we're doing lovey-type songs.  But everything I've made almost feels like some kind of inside joke, which is why I'm a little surprised anytime someone that wasn't involved likes it.

PIA: I never meant "unprofessional," but since you talked about people's misconceptions, what does sound good to your ear? What music do you like listening to?

RUSTY: The first time someone made me a tape of what's now loosely called "indie rock music," I said to the person, "This sounds unproduced, like demos."  Even though I'd been making stuff that was incredibly unproduced for five years or so at that time, I'd always just placed my music in the category of music that wasn't "real," where everything on the radio or whatever was.  So up to a certain point, my ear was used to hearing semi-slick-sounding stuff.  You know, I listened to a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and stuff back then.   

Listening to indie rock music kind of legitimized what I had been doing all along, so it felt like I'd been a part of some movement without actually knowing I was in it.  I always say that if my first band 'nikcuS had been known beyond just me and my friends, we'd be considered influential.  We were right there with Sebadoh and Ween and Pavement and stuff, even though we didn't know who they were.   

So now almost anything sounds good to my ear, a large range of production styles.  The only way I know anymore if something sounds "bad" or not is if someone tells me, and then I don't believe them.  So like I can listen to the Shaggs -- a band that people meet with violent reactions because they're supposed to be so un-musical and horrible -- and enjoy them as much as Destiny's Child or whatever the most produced thing is you can think of.  Or something in between, like Belle and Sebastian.   

I'm not one of those guys, though, who says they like "a little bit of everything."  I actually have kind of narrow tastes.  I think Carrie's is even more narrow than mine, though.  We both like bubblegum pop, but I think she likes it even more than I do.  When we do Strawberry Explosion songs together, any criticism she's ever given has essentially boiled down to "it's not bubblegum enough" (not that she ever used that word).  My favorite band is The Magnetic Fields.  Stephin Merritt's music has been my biggest influence for almost ten years now.  And he does almost exclusively bubblegum, but Carrie says he's too depressing-sounding, so there you go.

CARRIE: What sounds good to my ear, I guess, is anything that gets stuck there.  I like catchy stuff.  Often stuff with an edge of humor.  Hip-hop is also good.  I go through phases where I listen to the same CDs over and over. Here are some recent favorites: ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, William Shatner, the B-52s, Modest Mouse, De La Soul, and Cake.

I would also like to clarify about Stephin Merritt--I don't dislike him and I understand he's very bubblegum.  I actually enjoy him, but sometimes only in theory.  When Rusty wants to listen to his albums in the car, I'm usually resistant because even though the lyrics and music are sugary, he sings it all in this sort of depressing way that makes everything seem so layered with other, despairing meanings.  Like every "I love you" also means "I want to cut your eyeballs out with a spoon."

PIA: Do you do a lot of rehearsing before you lay tracks down?

RUSTY: I don't do a lot of rehearsal.  Carrie does, or a lot of takes, which is the same thing. As you know, Pia, I write these songs and then tell my girls, "Okay, here's the lyrics. Listen to this once or twice  Now... go!" And expect them to get it right.  Carrie takes longer with me than any other girl I've recorded with, but that's fine of course because recording is fun. I'm mostly concerned with the girls being happy with their performance; it doesn't take too much to make me happy with it.  I just try to get them to hit roughly the right notes and the correct rhythms and get all the lyrics in. Anything else they can bring to it is bonus.

CARRIE: I practiced "Baby, Baby, Boo!" a lot at home before I went to Texas, but usually I haven't heard the song before I sit on the "recording stool."  I just kind of show up to do the song and the recording process becomes "rehearsing" for me.  I tend to get a lot better as I go along, so after a few hours of recording different verses, I've figured out how to sing it. The fastest song we ever did was "Then He Kissed Me" since I'd been rehearsing by singing along with that song all my life.

PIA: Do you write your music down? Do you read music?

CARRIE: No, man. I wrote the lyrics to "Kissy, Kissy" down.  The rest is all Rusty's deal. I consider myself involved in music in any form as purely an accident of having found Rusty.

RUSTY: I can read and write music (well enough anyway), but it's not very practical for me to do so.  The only time I've ever written any of my music out in notes is when singers have needed it for their vocals.  But for me it's just something that takes up time.   

I write music by performing it.  It's like I'm putting up a fake Christmas tree then decorating it. "Okay, here's the base.  Stick this here, this here, this here.  Okay, put on some twinkly stuff.  Mm hm, some little streamy things.  Oops, there's something missing here.  Oh wait, I'll move this over here."  Etc.  And in the end, you can either look at it as one big pretty thing, or you can analyze an individual part and enjoy it too.   

PIA: I love "Kissy, Kissy." It stays stuck in my head for days. Who wrote this wonderful song?

CARRIE: Yay!  I wrote it!  Well, the lyrics and then Rusty helped with all the backing stuff.  It was the first song I ever wrote, and the only one so far.

RUSTY: I rearranged some of the words to make it fit a song structure better, but didn't change any of the essence.  She gave me hints as to how the music should sound, then I wrote the music.  The first attempt was too dismal for her, so I brightened it up. I consider it Carrie's song.

PIA: Rusty, do you ever get guys to help you sing your songs?

RUSTY: My first band was 'nikcuS, which was me and two other guys.  My friend Noby and I have done lots of stuff together, as have my friend Tommy and I. They've sometimes sung things I've written, but usually with them it's more collaboration on our collective stuff.  The Mnemonic Devices is only for me and the ladies:  that's the rule.  And with other things I do, I rarely think, "You know, I really want some other dude besides me to sing this." Girls voices, like girls, are more pretty.  I'd like to get some famous people to sing my stuff, but that'll probably never happen.

PIA: I'm speaking from personal experience, but it really is a novel and nice way to cement a relationship. You know, lasting moments and all. I'd never sung in a bar until I met you. I missed my son's sixth grade speech night to honky tonk there in Hattiesburg, but I'm not one bit sorry. Singing feels good.

RUSTY: That's one of the major reasons I needed to do an album back then in 2002, because I was leaving lots of good Hattiesburg friends and wanted something on disc with you guys.

PIA: Carrie, when you sing with Rusty, do you feel a little like you're in a musical?

CARRIE: No, I've never felt like I was in a musical really--since the music is different-sounding enough. Rusty said that what I did with the Chipmunk version of "Baby, Baby, Boo!" sounds like a musical number and I can see that.

But it feels just kind of like the two of us goofing around more than anything, especially with all the ad-libbed versions of TSE singles – like other people get to eavesdrop on moments of us playing around and acting silly.

RUSTY: Though one day I plan to write a full-blown musical.

PIA: How do you decide what songs you'll remake?   

RUSTY: The Strawberry Explosion has only done one cover so far, which was "And Then He Kissed Me." For that, we just wanted to use Phil Spector as a template for what we did, so we just figured we'd start with one of his actual songs.  I like it better than "Be My Little Baby."   

I've remade a number of songs, though, in other groups, and there's usually just something about the song that makes me want to do it.  Often it feels random.

CARRIE: Also, I'd already written "Kissy, Kissy" but we didn't have much time (it was spring break) and we weren't getting the sound of that song down right away... so I think we went to Phil Spector since that's what we wanted our stuff to sound like, but we chose "Then He Kissed Me" partly because it was another song about kissing.

PIA: What about "The Monster Mash"?

CARRIE: We overlooked this one -- and the Shaggs and Daniel Johnston -- because it wasn't an "official" single.  With those, we were just looking for Halloween-themed songs that we liked.

PIA: I love the many versions you do of these songs. It gives me a chance to see you two in action, stretching your muscles, messing around. Not unlike hanging around with you for thirty or so minutes, which I don't get to do anymore. I'm wondering what kind of reaction you get from people who listen to TSE and have never met you.

CARRIE: I have not had any reactions from such people.

PIA: Who's your audience?

CARRIE: Our audience is our friends, mostly. Micah Stack from the USM English Department is a fan. Shauna McKenna, internet extraordinaire, has our first single, as does Jared Hegwood. The famous Rie Fortenberry can't get us out of her head.

PIA: Do your families listen to your CDs?

CARRIE: My parents listened to and liked "And Then He Kissed Me," but haven't heard any other of the singles due to explicit content on the ad-libbed songs.

RUSTY: My folks listen to some stuff, some not.  They tend to like some things and ignore others.

PIA: So would you like to continue to share your songs among the Glory cognoscenti, or do you want to expand your audience?  

RUSTY: I always want to expand the audience.  I doubt there will ever be an expansive one, though.  I never thought of GLORY!blog viewers as our audience, but I guess it sort of is.

CARRIE: I would like a bigger audience, but I don't really see how it's possible unless some random powerful person happens upon Rusty's website.

Also, thanks for using the phrase "Glory cognoscenti."

PIA: What's TSE doing for Valentine's Day?   

RUSTY: I'm sure we'll have some sort of Valentine'sy single.  We like holidays around here.

CARRIE: As far as Valentine's day, I don't really think (despite Rusty's answer) that we'll end up with a song because we only release songs when we've been able to be in the same place--spring break, summer, fall break, Christmas--and there's no school vacations around Feb. 14th. If we were together, of course, our Valentine's single would sound like candy conversation hearts.

PIA: So, then, what's next for The Strawberry Explosion? And when can I get a T-shirt?

RUSTY: Next is the song I just finished yesterday, tentatively called "It's Christmastime (War Is Really Over)," which is me ripping off ABBA.  But we don't want people to get the impression that we're "the holiday band" or anything.  The first twelve songs (or so) that we release as singles are eventually going to end up on a full-length album, and we don't want it to be the holiday album or anything, so we'll make sure that this and the Halloween song are the only two.  On the next cycle, though, we might have an Arbor Day song or whatever.   

I need to get on the ball about more Love and Letters merchandise in general.  We'll try to design a shirt soon. Later, skaters.

Copyright (c) Jan 2005 by Love and Letters Music