Rusty Spell has done it again. After almost swearing to work totally alone after the problems encountered making his 100,000 Fireflies record, Rusty has flipped and decided to not only work with others, but with six others. Rusty agreed to this interview with me today (23 May 1997) before album is even technically finished. I barged in right before he was about to go to sleep, so most of the interview Rusty spends with his eyes closed on his bed.
JW: Okay, let's get at the heart of this thing by backing up a bit. Tell us about what you've been doing between 20th Century Literary Problem and now.
RS: Well, as you know, I made a little Rusty Spell supplement-type deal album called Covers by Casio where I just, you know, covered tunes on my Castiotone MT-100. I did it in two hours, in sort of an on purpose contrast to the three months it took me to get Fireflies completely done.
JW: What do you think of that album, the covers?
RS: A lot of the stuff is really nice, or at least really funny. It's the only Love and Letters Music album so far, though, where there are a few tracks I'm not happy with. But that's expected when you do something in two hours, so I guess I really am happy with it... and it's not like it's a real album anyway, not the followup to Mailbox or anything.
JW: It almost seems that you can't make followups. Want another album, make a new band is what you seem to be doing. Going from your solo to Fireflies and now to The Mnemonic Devices, not to mention your mentioning your interest in forming Paint My Scum and the like.
RS: Well, it's not like I'm scared of the sophomore jinx. It's just that the music I want to make, to me, requires these specific bands. My solo can be anything basically, but it had better be just that. If I had done 100,000 Fireflies and just called it Rusty Spell and friend, that would have been wrong. Fireflies was more specific. And with The Mnemonic Devices, I had to do it again, since I couldn't very well call it 100,000 Fireflies when I wanted someone other than me and Lori. Fireflies will always be me and Lori, and that's all there is to that, whether we never make another or we make twenty more.
JW: All that being understood now, let's talk about The Mnemonic Devices. The idea, as I understand, came from Stephin Merritt's The 6ths where he recruited fourteen indie rockers to sing one song apiece.
RS: Yes, I loved the idea of being able to write music for all these people, to try to write something that I thought they could sing better than anyone.
JW: Besides the vocalists, then, what would you say is the difference between Fireflies and TMD?
RS: Oh, a lot, you know? Sure, I'm still using the computer and keyboard in much the same way, but the music is much different. For one small thing, I'm using samples in some songs, which has proven to be a pain in the butt, and something I doubt I'll do unless it becomes easier and actually works on the system I use. For another thing, the songs--at least to me--seem much more thick and complex. It's like, I heard Fireflies the other day after working with TMD for a long time, and I was like, "Man, this sounds thin!" I didn't realize I had added all that depth.
JW: Well, let's talk about the lyrics. On 20th Century, it primarily concerned boys and girls and their relationships and ideas as shaped by a juxtaposition between old fashioned natures and the modern world. What about on I Don't Remember?
RS: Well, you're sort of trying to compare albums, Johnny, as if they're by one band, but I'll answer anyway. I haven't quite pinned it yet, to be honest. Um...
JW: What if we do the song-by-song routine?
JW: The first song... "Forgotten Muse," which is sung by you. What is it all about?
RS: I haven't quite pinned that yet, either. I wrote it so that I could have lots of "verses," and no chorus, so I could just ramble over the groove. The verses make perfect sense by themselves, and they actually have some kind of something to do with each other, but--again--it's hard to pin down.
JW: "I Like You" should be easier.
RS: I wrote that one for Lenny Ferguson, who I met last August. She was the bridesmaid for Lori Burton (then Alexander) and I was the best man for Tommy Burton. The Burtons are on the album, too, so that section of the wedding party takes up the first four tracks. I only heard Lenny sing sort of under her breath. I've heard the rest of the people on this album. But I knew she would be great to have on a record, and I knew that she used to be in bands and that she still plays guitar and things... and that we often have similar taste in music, even though she calls mine "keyboardy." I'm not sure if that's an insult or not.
JW: Well, you were the one who said the keyboard is the most important instrument in music.
RS: True. Anyway, I wanted to write a song about a person who cuts past all the load-of-bull games people play with each other, the acting they do, and who just comes out and says what he or she freakin' means. It's real hard to do, but it would be nice if everyone did it. So, "I like you." That's the most to-the-point thing you can say to someone, cheesy as it might be.
JW: Speaking of cheesy, the bridge in the song mentions the fact that someone might think the song should have been a duet, as it's one of those songs where the characters take turns on the verses. But then you explain, I believe, one of your philosophies of music...
RS: Well, it's not a philosophy so much as how I sometimes write songs. Where to really reach the heart of something, you skim around the borders of total cheese, total suckiness and crap, but don't quite hit it. It works two ways: The listener who gets sucked in by the cheese is punched with the actual heaviness, and the listener who starts to maybe hate the cheese is punched by the same thing. And that's when it rocks... but I doubt I do it successfully all the time.
JW: What does Lenny think about the song?
RS: I don't know yet. I'm doing the out-of-state things (she's in Alabama) by mail, and I haven't talked to her since I sent her the tape to karaoke to. Rumor has it she thinks it's "cool." I do have a story, though. When I was singing my guide vocal for her, I just started cracking up in the middle of recording because the song was suddenly so funny to me.
JW: "Anyway," to me, seems like the sequel to the Fireflies song "Please."
RS: Not quite. They remind me of each other, too, but it's because they're both songs sung by women about their mates who aren't as great as the used to be. In "Please," though, it was a clear-cut sad song. This dude wasn't taking proper care of her, and she needed to get out of it, but wouldn't, just let it take her down so she felt she would die. In "Anyway," though, who knows? The dude sounds like me might really need help or something, and that the chick just doesn't understand what he's going through. I don't know who to feel sorry for.
JW: And that's the Lori Burton song.
RS: Yes, Lori has a real pretty voice, and I wanted to show it off with something slow and with not a lot of instruments. This just has a piano and like a whistle. Some percussion just to keep the beat. She's recording for me tomorrow here at the studio.
JW: And then her husband Tommy Burton, who recorded today, his song "Crazy."
RS: "Crazy" is my attempt at synthetic country. I always call Tommy a big ol' hick because he likes people like The Bottle Rockets and Asleep at the Wheel and especially Mike Nesmith. He doesn't think it's any kind of country, but he likes it a lot. Anyways, he got the number four track spot, which is usually reserved for the "hit," so we'll see.
JW: I don't forsee any one big hit on this one, no "Swinging London" or "No Way of Knowing."
RS: [rising up from bed] Thank God! Nothing annoys me more than someone playing one song over and over when there's an entire album before him. [lies back down]
JW: Tommy, I notice, is the only other male on the album. Can we stop for a second to talk about how you chose your personelle?
RS: Sure. Originally, I just wrote this big, huge list of all the people I could think of. I started really locally, and was grabbing at straws trying to think of people, putting down my brother and sister and things like that. Then I remembered that Julia and I talked about doing a song or two a while back, so I thought I'd do it now... and then I went nuts with the mail and got Julie and then Lenny. I wanted new people, so that's why I got Tommy and Lori, too. I used Lori Berkemeyer again because I thought it was fitting. But I wasn't too concerned with rousting up the old 'nikcuS gang once I got enough folks.
JW: So let's go to Julie Scott, from Wisconsin. How do you know her?
RS: We met on the Twin Peaks newsgroup back in 1994 and have been writing almost every day ever since, which I guess means we've been writing for about three years. We ended up sending each other things, and she sent me a tape which included one of her vocal performances. I thought she had a great, great voice, so I wanted her to do this for sure. She was the first one I wrote a song for, and I wasn't sure if she'd like a fast or slow song, so I did both. It's funny, Julie said she was once in a relationship like the one described in "Perfection." Where everything's so hunky-dorky that it's boring and makes you sick.
JW: There's a insane looseness about the song I really like, where you're not sure if it's supposed to be funny or not, then you feel for sure that it's not, but you'll probably laugh anyway.
RS: Thank you?
JW: "Missing You."
RS: The second song I did. I wrote Julia when I first thought of the Mnemonics, and she said she'd love to do it, but I haven't heard from her since I made the song, so I haven't even mailed it to her yet, and I hope she'll still be able to, because I'm really looking forward to her song. She's got an almost perfect female voice as far as I'm concerned. Perfect in this type anyway. I have two of her albums, so I was familiar enough with her to write what I thought she would sound good singing. That's why I can't wait to see if I actually did it right.
JW: Any autobiography in this song?
RS: Probably. I'm a minor insomniac, but it's mainly because I just sleep late. It's not like I don't sleep at all. The character in this song "stayed awake too long and slept right through the morning." I like the lyrics to this song. I actually do puns and things.
JW: Well, you've got a cover on the album...
RS: Yep, I like to have at least one cover. It was odd when I just had original stuff. So, I did "Take Me In Your Hand" by the Rheostatics, my first real attempt at one of their songs, if you don't count my horrible version of "Dead Is the Drunkest You Can Get" from Covers By Casio. I'm rather pleased with it.
JW: And Lori sings it.
RS: Yep, and she was thrilled when I asked her to do it. She loves the song as much as I do. I still think it's the prettiest song ever written. Actually, I wrote the next song, "Living Forever," for Lenny, then thought against it and gave it to Lori, then fell in love with it myself and wanted to sing it. So, I wrote Lenny's "I Like You," and thought I'd give Lori a real treat. Lori, as I've said before, has this angellic little voice--all cracky and beautiful--and so I think this cover will be very nice indeed.
JW: So... "Living Forever." I take it it's just a song about a boy and girl who help each other appreciate life and living it, in two ways: living it in the sort of figurative sense, and then living it as opposed to, you know, suicide. But other than that, there seems to be this narrative that tells unconnected clips from a story that no one's actually heard of. Like dialogue that doesn't make sense by itself, or things they do. What's up with that?
RS: Oh, well, it's sort of based on a very long story I'm working on right now, but only very loosely.
JW: Fair enough. We end the album with "On the Tip of My Tongue," an instrumental. Anything special about this less-than-a-minute piece of music?
RS: Well, "Living Forever" does that little cut thing, so I thought it might be nice to have a little denoument-type song to wind things down. A little "Sunday Morning" sounding piece with a celesta. There's this twistedness in the song, though, if you listen for it. An uneasiness. Almost as strange as the feeling you get when something is on the tip of your tongue.
JW: Yes, and I'm a very bad rock and roll journalist to do this, but let's talk about some basic things right here at the end instead of the beginning.
RS: You're not a bad rock journalist, Johnny. Break the rules, it's the only way.
JW: Okay, well, I never asked you how you came up with the name The Mnemonic Devices.
RS: A misunderstanding, really. A story that's not too long or anything, but that I'll just maybe tell at another time if you don't mind. Sounds cool anyway, huh?
JW: To me it does. Well then, what about the name of the album?
RS: Um, it just sort of went with the band's name, more than anything. And then I was able to weave the forgetting/remembering theme throughout. There are these mixing of extremes in about every song, and most of them have to do with not knowing something... typically something that might have been known at one time. Lots of fear in this album, possibly panic, like when people realize they're losing pieces of their minds, and--hence--their lives.
JW: Great stuff, Rusty. So let's--oh, crap. I meant to ask you about the album cover you made tonight. It's got this sixteen year old-looking girl on the front, with all these blurs in the background, and yellow blurs on the spine, and dark blurs on the back, and you on the insert wearing a tie and eating--what, french fries?--superimposed on a woodland scene.
RS: That's my old, stolen bike in the background. I took that picture at USM in 1993. The picture is also 1993, but from high school, in the cafeteria. The chick on the front is from a Delia's magazine. I love alterna-chicks. You could hypnotize me if you really wanted to get at what my cover art means, but I'm not sure if I could tell you in words. Suits the album great, though, I think.
JW: Well, Rusty, I think we have one of your greatest albums here, just based on the Spell Vocal only "B-side" that's released. I guess it'll be just wonderful when it's the real thing, with all the right people singing.
RS: I hope so.
JW: So, what about the future? What's next for Love and Letters Music?
RS: Nothing. Well, I say that... Truth is, I'm kind of sick of doing all this music, putting all this time into it, and only like eight people hear it, and maybe two like it.
JW: Two outta eight ain't bad.
RS: Seriously, though, Johnny. Sure, essentially, I did this record in three days, and now I'm just waiting for the vocals to come in. But I don't even know if that three days was worth it. By the time I finish, I barely want to hear it anymore myself. And I've already realized that I'm not even a musician... not really, I mean. I'm a writer, and I can drum, but I don't have much business making records.
RS: So at least for a long time, I don't want to do any more Love and Letters stuff. I'm going to help Tommy with his music by producing his solo album and playing with him, and I might pull off Charles Grodin, my second Rusty Spell album in the process of being around guitars and drums and things for a change. But all this crap for nothing, I don't know.
JW: [a little silence] Really, though, what would you like to do, if you were doing it for a reason?
RS: [perks up] Well, Paint My Scum, my drum-loop band. And a Fireflies cover album, Bedsheets. And I want to do experimental stuff, Red Krayola Frederick Barthelme type things, recording sounds of dishwashers and junk. I want to figure out how to make that kind of audio listenable and enjoyable.
JW: Good luck, Rusty. And good luck with finishing the album for real. When do you think it will be?
RS: Waiting on everybody... as usual. But not waiting impatiently. I have the Spell Version, and that's great, and if no one sings a drop, I'll still be okay. They can take till Jesus comes if they want (which won't be long). I don't mean that spitefully either. I told everyone to really take their time. I'm happy. I'm slap happy sappy.
JW: Oh, and enjoy seeing Stephin Merritt in person next month in Atlanta...
RS: Oh, thank you. Yes, I am going to see him perform. I hope I get to meet him.
Addendum: (1 May 1998) Rather than interviewing Rusty again, I will simply write all the relevant information pertaining to the change of plan for The Mnemonic Devices: The only songs that were recorded by the intended vocalists were "Crazy" by Tommy Burton and "Anyway" by Lori Burton. Julie Scott recorded "Perfection," but it had some synch difficulties. All three of these (the latter in less-than-perfect form) were included on Rusty Spell's supplement album, Experiments and Outtakes.
Rusty thought hard about what to do with the album since not everyone was quite participating. He thought about using the existing songs and singing the rest himself. He thought about singing them all himself. He thought about having Lori Burton sing them all. Then Debi came along (he met her right around the time the album was finishing up): they became The Mnemonic Devices.
Debi was the album's biggest fan, enjoying it more than anything Rusty had put out. Early on (still in Noby's House Studios) they recorded a duet of "I Like You" (also now on the Outtakes album). Rusty knew, at least, that he wanted to record stuff with Debi. When Rusty bought his Yamaha keyboard and officially began Love and Letters Studios (and had access to his songs again; they were all in Noby's House, out of reach), it made sense to record I Don't Remember (on 24 Apr 1998) with Debi. The Mnemonic Devices are finally formed, and the album is finally released (just in time, too--there was an order for it on the newly-formed 'nikcuS Productions web page where music could be bought... one day before the album was recorded).
Rusty says he loves the album anew. It sounds great, much better than the demo version, with slightly redone instrumentation and sequencing. All-out better.
When asked about his future plans, Rusty says that Charles Grodin (the name) had to be jettisoned. The reason? "I was going to name it that because Charles Grodin embodied a sort of comedic-moral-drowsy sort of strange ideal I had. I lament that I'm losing that great name, but that time has passed; I can't do it now. I imagine that if I can a hold of some traditional music equipment (mainly a guitar), I'll finally do the followup to Mailbox, however."
The new album is great.
Copyright (c) May 1997 by The Mnemonic Devices and Johnny Winters