Formerly the front-man of Preston School Of Industry, and guitarist, singer and founding member with Pavement, Scott Kannberg returns to our turntables with his first solo album, The Real Feel, credited to his long-running nom-du-rock, Spiral Stairs. “I guess Spiral Stairs is my name now,” he laughs. “It had been so long since the last Preston School Of Industry album, it made sense to call this a Spiral Stairs record. Everybody knows me as Spiral, it’s weird when someone calls me ‘Scott’. I’m not sure anyone knows who Scott Kannberg is."
Despite the pseudonym, however, The Real Feel is, lyrically, Spiral’s most personal and honest recording yet, the songs’ loose, late-night vibe, soulful ache and charmingly vulnerable optimism very much shaped by his experiences in the years between the last Preston School Of Industry album, 2004’s Monsoon, and today.
It’s an album heavy with haunted blues and bruised soul, with a soused late-night ambience that perfectly fits both its scuffed and sad-eyed ballads, and its more strident rockers. ‘Wharf-Hand Blues’, closing the first side, is a standout, with stricken slide guitar and ghostly backing vocals, and Spiral’s smouldering, sad refrain of “What was wrong for you / might’ve been right for me”; the lyrical, pedal steel-gilded country of ‘A Mighty Mighty Fall’ is a sunnier glide, and easily charms. Foot-stomping opener ‘True Love’ and the brooding, blistering ‘Subiaco Shuffle’ rock out with the ragged glory of Neil Young and his Crazy Horse, unkempt and heartfelt, while the sunshine jangle of ‘Cold Change’ offers more of the lilting, beguilingly-unkempt pop Spiral’s spent a career perfecting.
“People who’ve heard the album told me they weren’t expecting it to sound the way it does,” says Spiral. “It’s been a few years since the last album, and I’ve heard a lot more music in that time, and been influenced by it. I was listening to Richard Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights a lot, and mid-period Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan records from when he was in his mid- to late-thirties. I was listening to those records at home, with my guitar in my hands, and thinking, I want to write songs with that same weird vibe.”
While the album sounds like the work of a group playing in simpatico, camped out in the studio together some way past midnight, the recording sessions actually spanned months and oceans. Spiral first recorded the bare tracks with some of his former bandmates in PSOI, including bassist Matt Harris and drummer Darius Minwalla, before hooking up with friend and fellow Seattle-ite Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star), who helped Spiral record further overdubs and background vocals, and added touches of organ and mellotron to the proceedings. Next, Spiral took the tapes with him to Australia – where, of late, he’s been spending his winters – and recorded further instrumentation and backing vocals with friends out there. (He has become so enamoured with Down Under that he will soon be emigrating there, and marrying his Australian fiancé).
Spiral ascribes the five year delay between Monsoon and The Real Deal to the personal upheavals he experienced after touring the last Preston School Of Industry album, experiences which fed the mood and lyrics of these new songs. “I split up with my wife,” he says, “and went through some dark times here in Seattle. I had some songs written, but I just never really got out of my doldrums enough to get it together. It’s weird how five years can go by so quick: a lot of shit went on.”
Spiral wrote the songs for The Real Feel during this period, in Seattle and in Australia. “I was just playing music with these guys, making up these songs. It’s a more personal record than I’ve made before; they’ve all been personal, but this one’s pretty dark. The song material was very emotionally-tinged, very personal, all about what’s been going on with me. I knew that I wanted to deal with what was going on, what with my break-up, and the lost years after that. I wanted to deal with that in the songs.”
The result is an album that’s dark and potent, vulnerable and unflinchingly honest, an album unafraid to rock and to roll. Spiral describes it as having an “Australian” sound, and says it reminds him of the Bad Seeds and the Go-Betweens. Cathartic and powerful and uplifting, it’s the sound of Spiral making sense with that which makes no sense, making peace with his demons, and celebrating the life that follows. Certainly, despite the emotions that fuelled the record, making The Real Feel was an experience that proved entirely positive for Spiral.
“This is the best record I’ve ever made,” he says. “I spent so long on it that, once I finally listened back to the completed record, it was exactly how I wanted it all to be; that was a good feeling. There were moments in the last five years when I thought I didn’t want anything to do with music anymore… But you hear a good record, and it pumps you back into it again. It takes a lot to make a record, but it feels so great, and makes me want to make another, real quick.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Ellenby