Spirits Having Fun is a New York and Chicago-based four-piece comprised of vocalist-guitarist Katie McShane, vocalist-guitarist Andrew Clinkman, bassist Jesse Heasly, and drummer Phil Sudderberg. The group emerged in 2016 out of a need to maintain a long-distance collaborative relationship between friends; its members had played together in various arrangements over the years, with McShane, Heasly, and Clinkman having met in the Boston underground scene in 2013 and Heasly and Clinkman having collaborated in the free jazz-inspired outfit Cowboy Band. Spirits Having Fun released their promising debut, Auto-Portrait, in June of 2019, and spent the following month recording most of its follow-up, which was indefinitely delayed due to the pandemic. The aptly titled Two finally arrived last Friday, and it’s an exhilarating showcase of the band’s dynamic capabilities: they’re an experimental rock group whose Bandcamp description reads “rock band making music,” which is to say that simplicity and directness sit right alongside compositional complexity and a fondness for mathy, angular riffs. Two is every bit as adventurous as its predecessor, but it also finds the band honing their approach and relaxing into a more contemplative mode that gives each individual element the space to shine.
We caught up with Spirits Having Fun for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how the band got together, their collaborative process, their new album Two, and more.
Do you mind sharing how the four of you first met and also the first impressions that you had of each other?
Katie McShane: My first impression of Andrew was, “Oh, very cool person.”
Andrew Clinkman: Aw, likewise, Katie.
KM: And same to Jesse and Phil [laughter].
Phil Sudderberg: [laughs] Okay!
KM: Well, with Jesse it’s different, because we’re married. But we met Phil – Andrew and Jesse and I knew each other as a sort of friends group, and Jesse and I and didn’t know Phil at all. So, when we went to play together in Chicago with Andrew, Andrew invited Phil to experiment playing drums with us. And we were like, “Phil’s amazing!” He learned all our songs and everything, we were so impressed. Like, “Everybody, we met this person, Phil!” [laugher]
AC: So, to flesh out the story a little bit for you, Jesse and I went to music school together, and Katie also entered the Boston zone around the same time that we were all there. Actually, Katie and I kind of traded places in Boston – right around the time I left Boston and moved to Chicago is when Katie arrived, but we had still known each other a little bit from playing shows on the East Coast. And Jessie and I had had a band that we used to play in and we’re very close, and then when I moved to Chicago I was playing in bands with Phil. So yeah, that first meeting between Phil and y’all must have been like winter 2015 or so when Phil and I were on tour with a different group. And then a year and a half later, Jesse, Katie, and I decided that we really missed playing music with each other and that we felt like we could overcome the distance between us, with me living in Chicago and them still living in Boston. And Phil was someone who I had grown close with here from playing in different groups, so that’s kind of how the foursome got together.
How do you think the local scenes you’ve been involved in separately but also together have shaped your musical identities as well as the dynamic of the band?
Jesse Heasly: Cowboy Band was the first band that Andrew and I collaborated on, and that was all about taking old cowboy standards and playing them with a free jazz, no-wave kind of mentality. And I think there’s something really fun about having that freedom and letting the songs be different every night that has been a part of every band we’ve been in since. And certainly, I think it’s part of the spirit – [laughs] spirits. So yeah, it seemed like a pretty strong connection, and maybe it comes out of being really interested in free music and studying that, but also just the music scene in Boston at the time had a lot of really out there, really interesting and novel stuff, like free improv, noise rock, heavy noise – all that was stuff that Andrew and I were trying to soak up as much as we could.
AC: I think there’s an element of being really, really serious about the creation of the music, and simultaneously never taking ourselves too seriously and always being able to have fun with whatever we’re doing. Like, when we play shows, there’s a lot of kind of musical jokes that are woven into the fabric of the songs as we’re doing it. As much as we are super serious dedicated about what we do, there’s never a point at which it’s not totally fun and acceptable to completely mess with one element here or play around with the form of everything. So I think that yielded a thing for us in our approach where the songs are never completely set in stone, and I think that was born out of those scenes.
KM: And like, the way that we play on the continuum from silliness to truth-seeking…
AC: Katie, that’s good, I like that! We gotta write that down.
Well, it will be written down, so…
AC: [laughs] Thank you, Konstantinos.
KM: Yeah, but I think the main feeling that our relationship – our relationship with Phil only started when we started playing in Chicago, but before that, our relationship with Jesse and Andrew was very much born out of that Boston music scene. And that was part of why I ended up moving to Boston, is because I met them and Cowboy Band and I was like, “That’s not like anything I’ve ever heard before.” And then it just sort of felt like the natural thing to do was like, make bands and try different things – it was almost like a given that we would be trying new bands all the time. And I think that spirit definitely defines my musical experience as a performer.
I wanted to touch on something Andrew said, which is the sort of musical jokes that are layered throughout your performances. That actually made me think of something that’s more to do with the lyrics of the new record, because there’s obviously a lot of natural imagery there, but it’s also combined with some references to music as well, particularly on tracks like ‘My Favourite Song’ and ‘Am There’. With a line like “I can agree to be a song forever,” how much are you reflecting on your identity as an artist?
KM: That’s really good. I’m literally stunned by your really great question. [laughs] I feel I always try and make the lyrics come from writing that I do when I’m feeling a certain kind of way. So, rather than writing stream-of-consciousness every day, there’s sort of like a moment when I know it’s good or not – I kind of have this gut feeling that I’m hitting on something when I’m doing some writing. And probably what I’m hitting on is like, learning about myself and my experience with the world. And I think that all the words that I use in the songs I pull from those little stream-of-consciousness poems where I knew I was feeling connected to something when I was writing it. So I think what you said makes a lot of sense, if I reflect on being an artist. And also, you get to a certain point where you’re thinking about other things – like, you know, people have kids and stuff, and I wonder if I’ll do that kind of stuff.
AC: If may jump in, as someone who did not compose those particular lyrics but who identifies with a lot of what Katie just said, music is such a huge component of my life – and I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, but there are moments where I feel like I literally couldn’t do anything else with my life. When I’m playing music, it’s the time when I feel like the most able to be a person and function at my best. And so I think it feels natural that if you’re writing about your experience, that would gravitate towards the experience of playing music with other people.
KM: I do think that a lot of my lyrics are about that feeling of playing music with the right people, that sort of magical experience of playing with people you connect, which I don’t feel in anything else in my life.
AC: To take it a step further, and Katie, I don’t know if this is something that you would also identify with, but this is something that I feel personally, is that I frequently feel like I have an easier time accessing musical language than I do, like, spoken language. And so I think there’s a way that the text of the songs ends up serving more of a role as a musical element than it does even as a spoken direct meaning thing – it’s like, it seems sometimes easier to jump into the musical language of what we’re doing and communicating with each other than it is to use words, and so it feels natural that the words would end up serving a musical purpose more than like a direct literal language purpose, if that makes sense.
KM: That makes sense, and I also realized that the thing I was saying about having that connected feeling when I’m writing and then drawing from those words that somehow I felt were getting at something, I feel like using those words makes me feel more bold about performing them. And I don’t even really know maybe quite what I’m saying, but I feel confident about sharing it, because it has that feeling. And I feel that way about the writing I’ve done on the songs – I’m confident about sharing it when I’ve gotten to that sort of connected feeling. With the music, too, I think it’s the same experience.
JH: The feeling the music and the lyrics create, they seem to support each other, and they help me enter the world of performing and get me into the right mindset to live inside the song.
I know that kind of goes against the idea of musical language, but could you talk a bit about how you experience that musical language as a group? What do you feel makes it unique to this band?
KM: It’s just like a big specificity-and-then-freedom thing. That’s a big part of the language, is really learning something together, and then the important thing about performing is just to really know this potentially complicated thing and then really be listening to other people. We all know the core thing, and the core thing is unique because it’s something that we all created. And then we also know that the way we’re going to play is going to be that, but it’s also going to grow into something else.
AC: I’d like to think there’s a looseness and a really intense trust that we have in each other, that we can learn the premeditated written material together but then hopefully transcend beyond just playing the parts. You know, play the parts but also give life to something new that is different every time and fun and exciting. And I hope that people feel that excitement when they listen to it, that they see that this is a group of people that care about each other very much and trust each other and that generates something fun and exciting.
KM: Compositional language is excitement. It’s that same thing – it’s like, “Oh, that made me feel like there’s something.” And then you got to just remember and notice and appreciate those things that are like, “There’s more.”
JH: If you’re wondering about the origin of the musical language that we’re using, I think it just comes out of long friendships and long histories of collaborating. It’s sort of hard to put a finger or a label on what exactly the language is or where it’s coming from, but we have so much shared experience and shared interest that there’s enough – like, the Venn diagram between the four of us is, I guess, big enough to make a band out of [laughs].
There’s all these different layers and moods on the record, and excitement is definitely one of them, but then there are these more meditative, nostalgic, and even just romantic songs, like ‘See a Sky’, ‘My Machine’, or ‘Picture of a Person’. Was that a deliberate contrast to the more fun and boisterous side of the record?
JH: It’s interesting, because two of those songs are more from me. Like, ‘My Machine’ and ‘See a Sky’ are more ideas that came out of my notebook – the bulk of it is from Katie, and a bunch of it is from Andrew and Phil as well. And maybe it’s just a tendency of mine to be reflective and quiet, and just write music from that kind of place. I don’t think it was like, “We need to have some chill stuff on the album.” I think it was more like, “We have this idea and feeling pretty good about it, let’s see what we can make with it.”
AC: And also, I think being more experienced as a band and being a couple years further into the project, we were able to slow it down and explore some of those different moods and zones, whereas maybe early on in the band we would have been overwhelmed with the excitement of playing with each other and developing new songs.
Katie, I know you also have a very important role in bringing together the different fragments of a song. Could you talk about what that process was like for you, especially during the early stages of the album?
KM: Everything that I wrote, it was in like a two week period, and then we went and recorded. It was a classic sort of thing, you know, imagining maybe a form or experimenting with clips and then putting them together. And some of the songs which are more composed by me, that’s just more… I guess I haven’t really thought about my process for how I wrote those songs in a second.
JH: I mean, I’ve seen Katie’s writing process a lot of times, and I think sometimes, Katie will start with just a form. Like, A-A-B – almost like a rhyme scheme, it woud look like. And Katie will just fill that out with different ideas, and I think that maybe sometimes it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from, maybe it comes from a recording from one of these two out of Chicago or a little snippet that I had been kicking around with. And Katie has this ability to sort of massage stuff into place and stitch things together.
AC: If I’m remembering back to that time when we wrote some of that stuff, I had a handful of riffs and scraps that were sitting in a private SoundCloud, and Katie kind of had to bug me to send them over so she could make something out of them. Because the way that my musical brain operates, I can kind of get the spark of a raw idea, but I often have this anxiety about piecing things together in a more formal sense. And Katie kind of comes from the other direction and has such a brilliant way fitting pieces together and dealing with the proportions.
KM: Andrew played something and I sneakily recorded it, and then I was like, “Re-learn this! I want it to be a part!”
PS: What was that? I forgot what that was.
JH: It was the ending of ‘Hold the Phone’, right?
AC: Oh, yeah, you’re right. That chord progression.
KM: Yes! Just being attuned to when stuff is really alive and good.
JH: I think it’s about paying attention and being present, yeah. I guess everything is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Spirits Having Fun’s Two is out now via Born Yesterday Records.