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Low down swing
The sounds of the End Times Spasm Band
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
So way back in 1995 I was this lowly cretin working a sad 9 to 5, chugging away at life and not really sure what I wanted to do with it all. Clock in and clock out. Eat and sleep. It was a cycle of monotony that would lead to nothing but paychecks and paid bills. Okay, I guess. Just nothing truly satisfying. No wild oats were being sewn. No barriers breached, if you will.
On one trip home from the daily grind I heard a story on NPR about a band called Squirrel Nut Zippers. They were this band out of North Carolina; a bunch of Chapel Hill freaks that made a dirty, dark sound with a mixture of delta blues, gypsy jazz, and swing music. While they were eventually tossed into that generic wicker basket with the rest of those "swing revival" bands (a huge mistake, btw), for that afternoon it was like a spiritual awakening for me. I immediately snagged their album The Inevitable and obsessed for months. It felt like a reprieve from all the "alternative" rock I'd been gulping up to that point. I wasn't necessarily a newbie to the likes of blues and jazz. I'd dabbled in some Chick Corea, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock by that point. I also owned the Robert Johnson box set and had marveled at Django Reinhardt's scratchy recordings. But the Squirrels were different. While their songs were definitely steeped in jazz and blues, they added darker elements. There was something eerie about them. Like they were all possibly ghosts. Or just modern freaks dabbling in the dark arts and Klezmer. There was also something very organic and earthy about them. Hands on.
Imagine my surprise when I first heard Fort Wayne's The End Times Spasm Band. It was like being transported back to 1995, sitting in my Nissan Sentra and being utterly amazed. Bart Helms and Lyndsy Rae are very much steeped in that same spicy and quirky musical jambalaya that the Zippers were in, but put their own twist on it. They swing hot, pull inspiration from both the dark and the light, and name drop french poet Charles Baudelaire on their newest E.P. Baudelaire. They even cover Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose". They're not messing around. Or maybe they are.
Currently the band includes Lyndsy Rae on vocals, Bart Helms on all things stringed, Ryan Holquist on drums, and Andy Rice played bass on Baudelaire, as well as covering bass duties for the local release shows. I sat down with Lyndsy and Bart and talked to them about the band and the new e.p.
EA Poorman: So for the uninitiated, give us some background on The End Times Spasm Band.
Bart Helms: Lyndsy and I met in 2008. We started performing as The End Times Spasm Band a year later. Ryan and Andy started performing with us in 2013.
Lyndsy Rae: We saw Ryan and Any playing our songs at Locals Doing Locals at the Brass Rail as part of The Illegitimate Sons. Andy had a sparkly jazz twinkle in his eye.
Bart Helms: And he was adding Mingus riffs to our song “High Wire Lover”, which was actually based on the chord progression to “My Jelly Roll Soul.”
Lyndsy Rae: So we had to snatch him up.
Bart Helms: So many drummers do only one thing, but Ryan has such a range and a subtle touch. These guys just understood what we were after instantly.
EA Poorman: Talk about some of the influences here. I hear some Django, early Louis Armstrong, and some Billie Holiday in the vocals, with some modern touches thrown in. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Squirrel Nut Zippers, as they were the gateway band for me at 21 years old in 1995 that introduced me to this world. Who were the artists you all connected with in the band?
Bart Helms: I'm glad you said the Zippers. Hot and Perennial Favorites are two of the best produced albums of the 90s, and it's a shame critics lump them into the otherwise forgettable swing craze. On this EP, I wanted to experiment more with tone and layering in my parts, so I was definitely listening to those. Bringing back the baritone uke for the chord melody lead on “Little Bird” is an unabashed nod to Hot.
Lyndsy Rae: Lyrically, I think we get inspiration from a lot of sources outside of jazz. For me, it's Edith Piaf and Zaz. I know Neko Case inspires Bart. For “Archaeologies,” I knew it was weird to insert tap and scatting, but I was inspired by Zaz, who uses her mouth and hands to make music outside of the norm. If Bjork can be weird, I can be weird.
Bart Helms: “Baudelaire” was meant to be a Django tune from the start. Estock (producer Josh Estock) was skeptical about doubling the rhythm guitar part, but knew it was the only way to get that sound. Louis Armstrong's Hot Five recordings are just all-round inspiration for me. That band is the sound of pure joy.
EA Poorman: Tell me about the newest EP, Baudelaire. Where was the ep recorded?
Bart Helms: We recorded it in Champaign Illinois with Josh Estock.
Lyndsy Rae: Estock is one of Fort Wayne's greatest treasures. His ears are fine-tuned to find details, and he hears things I will never hear. As a musician you get to a point where you don't want to hear it anymore, but he doesn't have that. When he recorded with Lee Miles, he became another member of the band. He gets more passionate about the recording than the band. I can't believe he's in Fort Wayne and my friend.
Bart Helms: It had been so long since we recorded last - all our previous attempts fell through - that even though we didn't have the funds for a full-length, we knew we had to record something and get it out there. Lyndsy and I had learned so much on the road those two years, and with the addition of Ryan and Andy, we just had to capture what we had as quickly as could to let people who maybe hadn't seen us in a while know what we were up to. When you aren't immediately accessible on a stage in someone's town, you can be quickly forgotten.
Lyndsy Rae: We said we wanted to get snowed in at the studio, and sure enough we did. We were all together, sitting there together, listening to each others' parts, exchanging ideas. I'd never experienced that, and that's probably the most memorable thing for me.
Bart Helms: One of the failings on “High Wire Lover” was we kind of cookie-cuttered the arrangements. We spent a lot of time getting the sounds right for each song individually this time.
EA Poorman: Are the songs on Baudelaire ones you specifically wrote for this ep? How long did it take to record this album?
Bart Helms: One weekend in Illinois. A couple of afternoons trying kazoos.
Lyndsy Rae: And how to record tap shoes. With the song “Baudelaire,” I wanted to explore the concept of how he's this dark, infectious writer. It's enchanting to see how he's able to infect people throughout time. In that way, there's a parallel between his poetry and the music we perform and write.
Bart Helms: The rest had been in our songbook for a while but were specifically chosen to fit with “Baudelaire.” I actually wrote “The Figure of the Dance” before I met Lyndsy. We tried to record it for High Wire Lover, but that version just didn't work. We specifically chose these six around a couple of themes. Bones pop up in some of the lyrics, for example. These were also the songs that we thought worked best without horns. We saved a lot for next round when we hopefully have a bigger budget.
EA Poorman: Tell me a little about the songwriting process in The End Times Spasm Band. Does someone come up with a riff or melody and you all get together to hammer it out in rehearsal? Who handles lyrics? Where do your lyric ideas come from?
Bart Helms: Obviously we leave a lot of room for improvisation, but End Times songs tend to be compact in a way that you can't reach while jamming on a riff. The melody and words have to hit hard and direct, and after that it's just details. How do you start, how do you stop, who takes a solo.
Lyndsy Rae: Another thing that's amazing with Ryan and Andy is we present them with a framework, and it ends up being very Ryan, very Andy, very Bart, and very Lyndsy. There's a lot of individual style. It's fascinating how that always seems to peek through.
Bart Helms: The inspiration for my lyrics tend to come from what I read, which can be anything from poetry or a book on the history of mathematics.
Lyndsy Rae: It's totally the same for me. Whether it's a book you're reading or an artwork your seeing - if it's a vulnerable day, it turns itself into a song. Writing “Baudelaire,” I was lacking adjectives. They don't surface naturally in another language. I was looking at an art book by Bacon, with a lot of exposed bones and rib cages, and I tried to visualize that.
Bart Helms: To write End Timesy material, we both benefit from setting ridiculous songwriting challenges. I think this year one of the rules is no more love songs because those made up two-thirds of our Nosferatu score.
Lyndsy Rae: We both subscribe to being a scholar. We need deadlines. We were in college too long.
EA Poorman: The band covers Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose" on Baudelaire and I have to say it's an extraordinarily beautiful rendition. Lyndsy Rae did a fantastic job on the vocals. How did the band decide to cover this song?
Lyndsy Rae: When we were on the road, people kept asking which album had the French one on it. Supposedly in America, people want you to speak American, but here they were asking for the French song. Keeping that song alive is important to me, and that's what we do. We couldn't really skip over that one if we were including other French songs. Besides, if we're going to sing a long song, it's good for it to be in another language so nobody will know.
EA Poorman: What's the future hold for The End Times Spasm Band? Could there be another full-length at some point?
Bart Helms: I hope we get to do a full-length soon. The original intention for the EP was to help raise funds for a full-length and to teach us more about using a studio. As performers, we can't wait to bring in more collaborators next time, and as songwriters, a full length would be fun because it would let us explore some more complex themes.
Lyndsy Rae: Expect to be unexpected. Expect for the experiences we create to pop up out of nowhere. Anything from busking to another orchestra performance.
Bart Helms: We try to surprise each other with ideas. Hopefully more of them see the light of day in 2015.
Expect the unexpected on May 9th at CS3 when The End Times Spasm Band plays songs from Baudelaire for the masses. They'll also be playing The Phoenix on June 6th. You can keep up on future shows and all things End Times Spasm Band endtimesspasmband.com/tour/.