Spottiswoode crosses genres, mixes moods with new CD & concerts

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 20, 2011

This month, Spottiswoode & His Enemies celebrate the release of their fifth CD, "Wild Goosechase Expedition," by playing different sets every Sunday at 9:00 p.m. at The Living Room, 154 Ludlow Street, in New York. "Wild Goosechase Expedition" marks the band's first release since a double-release in 2008, which was their tenth anniversary.

Frontman Spottiswoode (born Jonathan Spottiswoode) writes all the songs and, with his six-piece band, performs genre-crossing rock 'n' roll that moves from jazz to r&b to folk and even cabaret-style music.

Born of an English clergyman and American opera singer and teacher, Spottiswoode grew up in London but moved stateside to attend college in Washington, DC (where he met most of the band), before moving to New York in 1997. The band's first album was released a year later.

Gay audiences may be familiar with the bridge-building musician from two songs: "That's What I Like," which has not only become a popular video with a theatrical flair, but became a regular part of lesbian lounge singer Wendy Caplan's repertoire; and "Chelsea Boys," a moving musical ode to the beauty of boys frolicking in the snow. A few members of The Enemies are also openly gay.

EDGE spoke with Spottiswoode about his career and the current residency.

13 years together

EDGE: It's been three years since your last album, but here you are, still together after thirteen years.

Spottiswoode:: For our 10th anniversary, we put out two records and I was exhausted after that. I'm approaching my life a little differently now. I told the band a few years ago that we're like the Rolling Stones now-at least in our own mind; we don't have to play together every week to prove we're a band. Last year we did a musical. I don't know what will happen at the end of October.

EDGE: It sounds like with your clergyman father and opera-singing mother that you have this marriage of art and morality, in the best possible way, that comes through the music.

Spottiswoode: Exactly, it's right there. That's well put. It's the tension.

EDGE: Being both a Londoner and an American, how do you see the world? How does that tension play itself out?

Spottiswoode: There's a word I recently heard called a mis-matchup, which I believe is somebody who always sees the other side of something. I feel I have a sort of multiple perspectives; it's kind of the essence of what I do but it's also sometimes a big problem for me. There is always a tension as to whether it's something I should fight or something I should accept. I don't know how a Londoner sees the world. Of course, I was growing up in a post-imperialist country in the '70s so I'm influenced by that. I think we were disillusioned at that time and patriotism wasn't exactly trendy in the '70s. [Laughs] Samuel Johnson said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." I have both contempt and envy for it, and that applies to most things in life!

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Watch Spottiswoode & His Enemies perform "All in the Past" on WNYC's Soundcheck:

About paying dues

EDGE: Now we have all of these contests on television and instant stardom. I think some people might get the impression that success can come easily or quickly. What would you say to someone who was coming up about the paying-your-dues part of the process?

[Laughs] I think if you can avoid paying your dues, why not? I think we all have our journey and different priorities and we all pay our dues in the end. There are different exits and entries in the journey. There are some people who worked really hard when they were young. I loathe those programs, but that's a different thing. It's just not my cup of tea. But what would I say to young artists? It varies, what you want. Some people want to be famous and if that's what you want, take a shot at it. I'm a bit of a romantic. I think we all have an instrument and learning how to play yourself as an instrument is part of the journey and the career game.

EDGE: What is behind the name The Enemies?

Spottiswoode: It reflects where I was 13 years ago. I never imagined that the band would stay together this long. Never. But at the time, it was kind of college humor. Sooner or later, people start to get on your nerves, so I thought it was clever to predict what it would be like from the beginning. Like you get a badge of honor for being a Cassandra. It's a rock 'n' roll band and we go in different directions and they are incredible players and sensitive musicians but in a way it kind of indulges a side of me that may not be in my interests. I decided to put my name on it at the time because I didn't expect it to last this long.

EDGE: The music is rock 'n' roll but it's also all over the place. For example, the video for "That's What I Like" is almost like old Berlin cabaret. I wonder if you could say something about this ability to cross genres.

Spottiswoode: I like to express myself and there is a huge palette out there and I also have six other players who are very versatile instrumentalists. And over time, you accumulate a lot of songs. I do feel that I'm a songwriter first and foremost and that's really it. I've tried to be a little savvy and even tasteful about it, I suppose. This last CD is kind of like the first one. It's kind of all over the place intentionally. It's fun to play with genres and concepts and sets with songs. There's a huge canvas and there's a lot to express. It's like yoga, you try to find a position that's going to help you breathe in a different way.

Bucking the trend?

EDGE: I was interested in the quote you said in describing the new album, which is in many ways a homage to the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour." You said that you feel like a general leading his troops into battle. What is the battle you are fighting?

Spottiswoode: That particular battle is a very real battle: leading a band and how you make decisions-keeping up morale, making money. It wasn't me trying to be clever, it's very palpable. Promoting this album is like a tour of duty, in a sense. It can be exhausting but there are also moments of grace-that's the magical part.

EDGE: You don't see a lot of concept albums anymore, albums that take you on a journey. What do you think of the state of the album these days? Do you feel that you are bucking the trend a little bit?

Spottiswoode: I'm very confused about all that at the moment. I'm not trying to buck trends, I'm just trying to make music. In a way, it's one of the great justifications for making eclectic records because you can download individual tracks-I love that aspect of digital music. I just think that as every year goes by and we get more used to iTunes, our whole relationship to entertainment and media is completely changing.

The ramifications are really hitting me now. We see it with books also. I don't know. [Laughs] Frankly, I don't think the world needs a concept album right now. Everything is so disposable. I grew up listening to records and in a way it's a dream come true that I get to make records. I love it but at the same time I'm not convinced it's in my interests to keep making them! But I will keep making them. I want to make some beautiful records. I'm very proud of this record, but I also feel that I'd be even prouder if this were the late '60s and I were in my late twenties.

EDGE: Do you really believe the sentiment of "All Gone Wrong," that when you were young everything was better?

Spottiswoode: Well, part of me is like that. I mean, anybody over the age of six feels that way. But no! I'm making fun of the guy who does that. He's an old fart, he should shut up! It's like some of the debates on TV lately: you think, I thought we got beyond that issue already.

Watch Spottiswoode & His Enemies perform "Beautiful Monday" at a Philadelphia appearance, in May, 2011:

Dark and cynical?

EDGE: You have dual citizenship and your band is American and I understand you have some gay members of your band. All of these dualities. I must say I was blown away by your song "Chelsea Boys." As a straight guy, you caught this magical moment that brought tears to my eyes. You saw beauty in an everyday winter scene that most of us fail to see.

Spottiswoode: I'm very proud of that song. I feel that song is when everything goes right. On the one hand it's a novelty song but I hope it's also beautiful and moving. My ideal DNA is in that song. That stands out for me as one of the best.

EDGE: Maybe as an outsider, you could see the beauty of something without trying to push a message. Where does that bridge-building side of you come from?

Spottiswoode: That's the great thing about this world, this country and this city in particular. On the one hand, there's all this homophobia and it seems that the right wing gets louder and louder, but at the same time, gay rights are expanding. Not as fast as we'd like, but it's a strange thing.

We live in a fascinating time. This island was founded by the Dutch and the Dutch were tolerant. The Dutch deserve more credit than the British. The Dutch are the engine of this country and they founded this great city, which is tolerant. I grew up in London in the '70s and was not even that aware of homosexuality. But it's life; you collide with people. It's great because [out band members] Kevin and Tony sang back-up on "Chelsea Boys."

EDGE: Someone wrote a comment under your video for "Beautiful Monday" that said, "Thanks for taking the time to write something positive." I'm not sure that person was getting you. Do you see yourself as more dark and cynical?

Spottiswoode: I'm most moved by a combination of sweet and sour. I like Billie Holliday's voice, something with a sadness in it singing something joyful. I don't really think of "Beautiful Monday" as a positive song. It's peppy and in a major key, but there's a battle in the song because there's a general desire of someone who wants to transcend the day to day stuff and make a difference. Compared to a lot out there, I'm generally darker.

EDGE: Who are your influences?

Spottiswoode: There are lots at this point. I love Simon and Garfunkel, but I'm not sure how much they've influenced me. Dylan, Leonard Cohen. Tom Waits has been a big influence, but he's almost too good that I can't listen to him anymore.

EDGE: "Wild Goosechase Expedition" was an ambitious project. Are you looking toward the next project?

Spottiswoode: Musically, there are records I would like to make. I'm doing a residency this month and we're trying different things. One is a set of pastoral songs and another is more of a jazz/blues sound and I envision them both as records. I'm hesitant to embark on recording just yet, though. There is a literary agent who is a fan and I've just finished the second draft of a novel. So there are a lot of things up in the air. The recording and promotion always takes longer than you expect.

EDGE: What can people expect from your shows at the Living Room?

Spottiswoode: Each show is going to be very different. The first is pastoral, the second is rock 'n' roll, the third is a songwriter night, the fourth is the jazz/blues set, and the last is a Halloween show. It's exciting that we do all these different things.

Spottiswoode & His Enemies continue their residency at the Living Room on October 23 and October 30. The Living Room, 154 Ludlow Street, New York, NY. For more information visit the Living Room website. They will also be performing on October 28 at Helsinki, 405 Columbia Street, Hudson, NY and on October 29 at The Chapter House, 400 Stewart Ave., Ithaca New York. For more information about these dates or about the group, visit the group's website.

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Watch Spottiswoode & His Enemies perform "That's What I Like":

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).