There seems to be a growing predicament specific to the modern mid-level band: breaking up just before the rest of the world and the record-buying public catch up with your brilliance. Be it Death From Above 1979, Turbonegro, Refused, Neutral Milk Hotel or At the Drive-In; the growing music festival industry – the ability for sponsors to use some of that $8 hot dog and $10 Fosters oilcan cash – and the growing interest in said bands can entice many groups to reunite for a one-off set, or to even give their former ensembles another go. For many of these dearly departed groups, having experienced the deterioration of pre-Internet music mediums, climbing back into the familiar outfits that they once shed and revisiting the efforts of their formative years can also be the most lucrative and/or rewarding.
The Murder City Devils (MCD) are one such band. A Seattle group spawned from the gritty yet cerebral petri dish of the cities political punk scene. Five kids, at the time of their inception, who believed that they were quite possibly one of the few bands in the States that would and could save rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly enough, for many like myself, they did. I recently spoke with singer/lyricist Spencer Moody about this conundrum that many bands, now well into their adult lives, face. That, once broken up and moved on – often wracked upon the wheel of the 40-hour-work-week or trudging along in other mid-level groups – they resurface to find themselves the victors of a struggle long forgotten or disregarded.
How does this time around differ from the first?
We can kind of just enjoy it for what it is. In the first incarnation, we were really ambitious and we were really working towards something, and we were really trying to set this thing up for ourselves that could sort of be a springboard for the rest of our lives. And we really knew that we needed to not fuck it up, and we were really trying to do a good job. Now, we benefit from that and it’s really cool. In the beginning, it was hard for us to get along. It was hard for us to see that we needed each other. Because when you do something like that, everyone has an over-inflated idea of their contribution. And then when it goes away and you see that that band, it was all of us, it was all of us together, and that’s the only way for it to exist.
Could you speak to some of the pros and cons of now being in a “successful” band?
Our success exists in its spot, but I know what you mean. It’s awesome. It’s great. Dann and Derek and Coady I’ve known for a long time. The really meaningful people in my life that I really value, the relationships and those guys, are gone all the time. They’re touring all the time, it’s hard to hang out. When you have friends that tour all the time ... you get off the schedule … it’s the only way I see those guys. So it’s nice and it’s fun and we appreciate that people continue to respond to what we do, or whatever.
Do you feel validated?
Sort of … The Murder City Devils accomplished everything that I dreamt that it would. Like, I really cared about it and I really wanted it to be like a real thing and I wanted for us to transcend the spot we were coming from. I wanted it to be bigger than when we started, and it did that and it’s crazy. It’s awesome. It’s insane. But the thing is, when you have that happen in your life, it’s such a fortunate thing to be able to achieve what you dreamed of achieving that there was no reason to think that you would actually get there. And then you achieve it and it’s like ‘Eh.’ So then you gotta figure out what the fuck you’re gonna do with your life still … And I wish that I had wanted more, frankly.
Have expectations of the band changed?
I don’t know if expectations have changed … we were known as a live band, but we played a lot of shitty shows. I mean were not good every night: we were probably entertaining most nights, really crumby some nights and really great sometimes. In a general sense, and I know people always say this, like, reunion band people say this, and it’s often not true, but I feel like it’s safe to say, generally speaking, we are much better than we used to be … We have a standard that we know is important to maintain. I also feel like I have a chip on my shoulder and I want it to be undeniable to the audience that we are up there giving it everything that we have.
One thing I feel that MCD, and you specifically as a lyricist, did well is inject a sense of feminism, critical theory and romanticism into the often stodgy, insular form of rock ‘n’ roll.
Though MCD are this, like, straight-forward, macho-element rock band, the ethics of feminism were really big in the scene that we came out of. Um, so those ethics have stayed, and I did make a conscious effort to, like … that was on my mind when I was writing those songs. There were times when I violated that ethic and wish that I hadn’t, but that was intentional. It was a conscious decision …
Like “Rum to Whiskey?”
With “Rum to Whiskey” it kinda bums me out. But it also has one of my favorite lines. The overall theme I would probably have done differently if I had it to do over again … Storytelling is storytelling … At the time, for some reason, I thought people would call me out on stuff and then there’d been an opportunity to talk about it and … work it out. But no one ever did, on anything … It was silly thinking, but I was really young. We were working within a specific genre of music and I was trying to use clichés and then, in that, craft songs and craft lyrics without abandoning the old clichés. Which is sort of a dicey area to be in. Because I wanted to have a Johnny Cash element, y’know? And I wanted to have it be connected to traditions in American music.
Why do we, as males, romanticize this wandering rover aesthetic that is so prevalent in rock ‘n’ roll?
Because that is a romantic life. Romance is Frankenstein. It’s like drama and romance. It’s … painful and traumatizing and difficult when we romanticize something. Romanticizing something is maybe taking something kind of dark and uplifting it and finding value in it. So, that idea of being a roving, traveling person is a person who’s always leaving trouble behind. And then, when we were kids, we would go on tour and it was like, ‘Whatever your problems are … fuck it. We’re out of here.’ The freedom comes from the fact that … all has been stripped from you. Your decision making at that point becomes all about survival.
It seems like this generation, people becoming adult men, there’s just less of them running around.
Well, because you don’t grow up running around anymore. It’s like the world is scary because kids growing up now, most American children, are really protected. And in previous generations kids were able at a young age to start exploring on their own, so they could test those limits … I don’t know what people do anymore, but when I was a teenager people were still hitchhiking. I don’t know if when teenagers now read On the Road, do they think of that as an attainable possibility as a way to live? … I don’t know.
If you start a new band and the band just isn’t picking up steam, how much is exercise and how much is what you want to make a living doing?
The thing I did when I left MCD, originally, was that I totally made music that was alienating for most of that fan base, and so it really just destroyed that momentum. I kinda did that consciously because I felt like I needed to move on and try different things. The thing that I’ve learned is that every time you start over, you just have to approach it like you’re really starting over ... ’Cause when you’re young you think, ‘Oh, there’s already this fan base and this momentum,’ and you think you can move forward, but momentum isn’t self-determined, really. But I’m really proud of all that music … I want to make lots of records between now and the rest of my life … I want to be making records, and making music is a way, for me, to be social. If I didn’t have bands with other people, I’d be kind of a hermit probably. It’s a way for me to be able to have relationships. I’m kinda coming back around to rock ‘n’ roll music a little bit. It’s a funny thing because I just wanna be able … I just wanna do whatever I want (laughs).
You haven’t been terribly helpful in getting a lot of your work out there. Is there a specific reason?
People that are aware of all the musical shit that I’ve done, they have to dig for that shit, y’know? And I do almost nothing to help people in that process. Cause once I make something, I just tend to move on. Like, if I play live as a solo person people never really know what it’s gonna be, and sometimes it’s something I might’ve gotten my shit together, sometimes I haven’t gotten my shit together. It’s sort of a wild card. I’m aware that I do that and there’s a degree of self-sabotage in it. In the long run, I feel like there may be benefits to making people search stuff out a little more.
Is that what drives you to sing different lyrics live versus the recorded versions?
It sort of came out of … I just never did it right. So there never came to be an expectation that I would, y’know? When I look down in the front row and there’s people trying to sing along, and they can’t because I’m fucking it up for them … in fact one of my fantasies before I was really in bands was being able to do that hardcore thing where you just, like, stick the mic in the audience. And that’s rad and I’m stoked on that, it’s just I just can’t … I’m not … there’s some songs where I can give the microphone to people or whatever, but all the time I see people trying to sing along and I just wanna be like, ‘I’m sorry.’ But, you know, in the end, it’s just like ‘Fuck it.’ But there’s some songs where it’s important to me and there’s some songs where I really push myself to get it right … but there’s other songs where I don’t give a fuck. The energy is more important than trying to get it right.
What’s the worst song you’ve ever written?
It’s a B-side to one of the 7”, there’s a song “Tokyo Gold,” that [MCD] kind of unanimously agreed was a big stinker. It’s probably the most KISS-influenced of all the songs (laughs).