No Age’s Dean Spunt On Their New Album, Navigating The Industry, & The Late Grant Hart
Ten years ago, it seemed like No Age would never stop making noise. The Los Angeles duo (guitarist Randy Randall, drummer/singer Dean Allen Spunt) introduced themselves with the one-two punch of their 2007 compilation Weirdo Rippers and their Sub Pop debut Nouns, and we named them a Band To Watch. These releases found them splicing the relentless energy and anthemic hooks of ’80s SST hardcore with free-floating, woozy ambiance for an intoxicating “dream punk” concoction. They became a must-see touring act, dropped a bullet-proof classic with 2010’s Everything In Between and alongside peers like Deerhunter and Titus Andronicus, added a necessary ballast of danger and aggression to an often overly-manner indie rock scene.
After the release of 2013’s pared down An Object, the duo took some time off, eventually parting ways with Sub Pop. Now, they are set to return to standard-bearing duty with Snares Like A Haircut, their first album for the venerable outsider label Drag City. Produced by Pete Lyman and John Sinclair, it’s a strong comeback for the group, packed with immediate hooks and swaths of pure audio beauty that wash over you one minute and knock you down the next. We called Spunt at his California home to talk about the new album, what he did with his time off, and why he tries not to pay attention to the industry. We also talked about Jenna Elfman, for some reason.
STEREOGUM: By the time your album comes out, it’ll be five years since your last one. What have you guys been up to in the last five years?
DEAN SPUNT: We were still playing. 2015 and ’16 were the years where we pretty much only played a handful of shows. I don’t know, we were just taking it easy. Since we started, we’ve been running and running. I haven’t had a chance to reflect on all the accomplishments or the craziness or anything we’ve done. I think I needed a moment — and that moment ended up being longer — to reflect and relax and just see what the landscape was instead of burying my head and just running.
STEREOGUM: Were you two feeling burnt out?
SPUNT: I don’t know if that’s the right word. Not burnt out, but definitely … I was always excited to do things and push it. But maybe the direction we were heading in or the way we were going was just a little … we were running really fast. And at certain points, it was like, “Wait, where are we going? I don’t even know where we’re going, what are we doing?” Slow down, take a breather, grab some water.
STEREOGUM: Did you not like where the band was going aesthetically or career-wise?
SPUNT: No, it had nothing to do with the band, it was more the state of music we had become a part of. I feel like we started off in this small, localized community that spread out into this other bigger DIY like-minded community. And the Sub Pop signing and that whole scenario was a big experiment for us. It was new to us. It’s funny to think of it now, because for years we’ve been known as this band on this label, and we’ve been on Letterman and stuff like that, but all that shit for us is new, exciting, and scary. All those things.
So after almost 10 years of dealing with that environment, I was able to look back and say, “Where are we going? Is this what we signed up for? Were we aware that this is what this world is?” Honestly, when we first signed to Sub Pop, Randy and I had conversations about doing a certain amount of records, and after doing a certain amount of records, we’d just continue doing our own records. Somewhere in our head, I imagined that for a couple years, we’d be like a record a year, but it didn’t work like that. So fast forward to now, things have totally changed. Nothing to do with the band or the direction. Randy and I have been collaborating on music for a long time, and the direction is our own.
STEREOGUM: Obviously music consumption and listening has changed, and the way people discover music and the way music is covered has changed a lot in the last 10 years. With the way that music is being marketed and sold these days, was it weird to try and figure out where you fit into all that?
SPUNT: Not really, because I don’t pay attention to the way bands are marketed. I ran a label for a few years, I recently stopped doing that. It doesn’t seem that different, especially with Drag City. They have a pretty old-school mentality. You know, put out a record, go on tour, make some promotion posters. But, yeah, digital platforms, social media, those things are completely relevant. I don’t subscribe to it so much because I don’t know where it’s all going. I like to think if someone makes good music, it just gets out there. I’ve heard otherwise; you need to hire a press person. I don’t know, I see a backlash too. There were a few years where it seemed like even the smallest bands, to get any recognition, had to try to be on a label or have a publicist. I think in the years of Pitchfork and those type of fluff, you know blowing smoke up someone’s ass. I’ve noticed the people I’m around, don’t give a shit anymore. There was a time where that was what everyone wanted, because that could make or break a band. It doesn’t seem like people really care anymore. But music marketing is changing. I haven’t been involved in that aspect of it for a while, so I don’t know.
STEREOGUM: When you were on Sub Pop, you were playing big music festivals, you were playing late night TV; was that a weird experience for you, coming from such an underground background? Was it just bigger than you wanted the band to be?
SPUNT: No, we all agreed to do all that. I don’t think the music changed, we were gonna do what we were gonna do. The audience doesn’t matter if it’s 10 people or 10,000 people. It is different, that being said, playing a small club versus a small festival. We got good at playing both of them, and everything in between. Not the album [Everything In Between], but everything in between those numbers. We knew what we signed up for: big label push, do marketing, MTV, see what happens. It was a surprise that they wanted us to be on there. I didn’t feel bad about MTV or anything. It just seemed like we were playing for people, they’re gonna hear it and if they like it, that’s cool. The perception of our band was a lot bigger than … like we never sold out giant shows or anything, we still played small clubs aside festivals. So all that said, nothing really has changed except we grew a little bit of an audience.
STEREOGUM: Were you disappointed that you weren’t as big as people thought you were?
SPUNT: No. Our name was beyond our band. It was like, “Oh I’ve heard of you, you guys must be huge, you were on Letterman.” But it’s just a couple of mouse clicks and someone says, “Yeah sure, let’s put them on, you’re on this label or you made this song, let’s give it a shot,” or, “I know this person, I know that person.” I was never disappointed either way. And also that being said, we’re still in the thick of it. We’re doing interviews, we’re putting out a record, we’re doing press, we’re trying to promote an album. I mean we might be on TV again, but at this point, who the fuck watches TV?
STEREOGUM: You’ve always been a weird, abrasive band, it’s not like you guys have cleaned up your sound to go pop or something.
SPUNT: That’s what I always thought when we got to do the Craig Ferguson or David Letterman. I’m a sucker for melodies, we’ve always played music that is — I wouldn’t say pop music — but catchy to us. Something you could hum to, even if it’s completely fucked up or the noise is way louder than the hummable part. It reminds me of the Fall being on Top Of The Pops or something like, “What the fuck is this doing on here?”
Again, it just felt like an experiment. If you track Randy and I’s career or the things we choose to do, being put in an uncomfortable situation isn’t something we shy away from. We like trying it, why not?
STEREOGUM: The band formed in 2005, you released Weirdo Rippers in 2007, and for a while you were having an album or EP out every year or if you weren’t doing that you were touring all the time. Did it feel odd for you to take a break and not be constantly moving?
SPUNT: No, because it felt very needed. I definitely needed to not keep moving in that direction, so for me, no. And we put out a 7-inch in 2016, we were pretty active, it’s not like we stopped for five years and didn’t do anything. We still played, we still toured, we did smaller tours, a couple songs here and there. We saw each other and practiced fairly often. I don’t know if we’ve gone more than two months without practicing, it all felt very involved in the world of No Age. I definitely stepped back from the marketing and the world of the music industry that we had found ourselves in. Being away from that was very nice, actually.
STEREOGUM: I think when a band is not constantly touring or tweeting or they’re not being written about, people wonder if they had broken up or something. You hear about that a lot.
SPUNT: Oh no, I get it for sure. This morning I thought of Jenna Elfman the actor, and I thought, “What happened to Jenna Elfman?” Where is she? I don’t know, haven’t heard her name. She must’ve moved to Mars.
STEREOGUM: Weirdly enough, I don’t know why I know this, but apparently she’s going to be on … not The Walking Dead … what’s that spin-off? Fear The Walking Dead.
SPUNT: Huh. There you go. Serendipity.
STEREOGUM: What sort of things do you do with your time off?
SPUNT: I had a child.
STEREOGUM: Oh! Congratulations!
SPUNT: Thank you. I worked on my own practice outside of No Age, which is more performance and visual-based. I didn’t take up sport fishing or anything. Pretty much in the wheelhouse. But like I said, we didn’t take too much time off, we just weren’t really thinking about records. There might’ve been a point where we were probably considering not making a record but …
STEREOGUM: So you guys were never on the verge of breaking up?
SPUNT: No, no. But after that last Sub Pop record, we got to the point where we were thinking, “Well, what do we do, man?” That run, it sort of felt like we had to get through that and get through the tour and then regroup. I think on that tour we felt … I wouldn’t say burnt out but … you know, we’d been doing it for a long time. I just needed to regroup a little bit. We both did.
STEREOGUM: So on An Object, you famously created every aspect of it, including packaging and such. And the album wasn’t as well-received critically as the two before it. Did it bum you out that you put all that work into the album and — it wasn’t a flop or anything, but it wasn’t received as well as Nouns and Everything In Between.
SPUNT: Right, right. Did it bum me out? No, no. I knew the record wasn’t as accessible, or it didn’t sound exactly like the things we did before, but I mean if you look back — I’m not saying that An Object is one of those records — I love it, but most records that are revered now, people tend to say they sucked back then. I don’t pay attention to reviews much, so it didn’t bother me at all.
STEREOGUM: So the fact that it wasn’t as popular as your other albums didn’t lead to you guys wanting to take a break or anything.
SPUNT: No, no, no. I guess I could see how you could think that, but no. That was really just the culmination of the environment that we’ve created for ourselves, essentially, with the label and the world of music. To me, it spoke more to that time, and what is a label? And what is a band? What is this that we’re doing? I mean, why not just make the record ourselves?
STEREOGUM: It’s kind of funny, the album will be coming out pretty close to the 10 year anniversary of Nouns.
SPUNT: [Laughs Yeah, right. Ten years, look at that. It makes me feel like we’ve been doing this for a long time.
STEREOGUM: I really enjoyed Nouns when it came out. I also remember at the time your band came out, Titus Andronicus came out with their first one, Deerhunter was starting to get popular and so were Fucked Up. I felt then there was a wave of bands that were rising because indie rock was getting little too sedate and NPR-friendly, and there needed to be a reaction to that. Was that something that you guys felt at the time, that you were trying to counterbalance indie rock’s new wave?
SPUNT: No Age felt like, I don’t know if it was reactionary, but it definitely felt like harnessing something more, I don’t know if aggressive is even the right word, but an energy that really felt slightly blistering. We had played in bands for years before that and, I don’t know, we don’t share a kinship with those bands, but there must’ve been something in the air. I grew up listening to punk music and I felt there wasn’t too much of an intersection between this excitement in punk music versus — punk being a loose term, hardcore, whatever, that kind of hard, fast rock ‘n’ roll music — versus more experimental music that I grew up with at the Smell. Because the Smell was around in the late ’90s, and I started going there, and I’d see bands that were way more avant-garde and experimental. So those things entered my brain. In the old band, we weren’t pushing those boundaries as much, or we did at the beginning, and it became kind of more rock band. I don’t know about indie rock, the interaction with that, but I felt like in our world, the experimental sense, it wasn’t being seen. So that’s something I wanted to see. I generally am like, “What do I want to see?” Or, “What do I want to hear?”
STEREOGUM: The first time I ever heard your band, I didn’t realize that ambient music could be this aggressive.
SPUNT: [Laughs] You know, ambient … we use a lot of those sort of like tripping tones. I remember when I was a senior in high school, someone gave me a keyboard, and I duct taped the notes to make this kind of hum, this tone that was sort of like a drone. I’d sit down, and I had this little amp, and I’d turn it up and just listen to it in my room for a long time, and it made me feel these sorts of things, and at the same time I was listening to punk music, and that music made me clench my fists and feel like it was a release. So many times you hear that type of music, ambient music or instrumental music, and it was very mellow, someone’s smoking a cigarette, and it’s very heady and intellectual, and I never really felt like that. I just felt like it made me go inside, it made me more introverted, and I felt like that could be pushed into rock.
STEREOGUM: What were the initial reactions when you started blending these styles together? Because there are certain types of hardcore punk bands that are rather conservative and don’t like when people mess around with the formula so much.
SPUNT: Our world revolved around the Smell, so that takes a lot of the posing as hardcore punk out of it because there’s no macho-ness there. The bands that played together there were all completely different. There wasn’t a ritualized style or anything. It seemed like people enjoyed it, and that’s how the whole thing started. We were never really invested in a hardcore scene. Those people are a little too close-minded.
STEREOGUM: When did you and Randy start working on Snares Like A Haircut?
SPUNT: I wanna say a year ago we started writing songs and playing them, so we came back together and said, “Alright, man let’s make a record, let’s do this. It feels right about now.” We originally started focusing on live songs we could play. An Object felt very studio-like, and the songs were so reductive, that when we did play them live we ended up altering the songs and they were faster or there were more parts or more live drums. So we just started writing songs, played drums, guitars, samples. And we came up with a whole group of songs, started playing live a little bit. It took two days to record.
STEREOGUM: So I take it with An Object you didn’t play the songs live before you recorded them?
SPUNT: We only recorded, I think “”C’mon, Stimmung” was the only one that was a live song.
STEREOGUM: So you played this one out live before you recorded the songs. Was there a direction you wanted to go or way that you wanted to make sure the album sounded?
SPUNT: I can only speak for myself, but I just let go. At this point we’ve put out a lot of records. I sat back a little bit and just let things flow. I would just write songs, smile, have a good time, play music.
STEREOGUM: Try not to overthink it.
SPUNT: Yeah, I never overthink things. I’m not too critical on myself. My role has generally been the arranger, the conductor or something. Randy plays guitar, we both make samples, we’ll come up with something. Basically, he’ll throw something at me, and I’ll sit with it and make a vocal line, and then it goes from there. I just allowed the songs to come and then I’d save my comments for later. Or just let them mature. Randy and I have been doing this a long time. We have this sort of psychic connection, musically. We don’t need to speak, we just sort of raise our eyebrows at each other and close our eyes and make hand gestures when we play live, but we don’t … when a song ends or a song starts or it’s longer or shorter, those kinds of things you can only get that from playing with someone for a long time. So anything we wrote together would be No Age, and it’d be coming out of this place, this psychic world.
STEREOGUM: I remember reading somewhere that Fugazi never wrote setlists, they just had hand gestures to indicate what to do. Are you guys the same way?
SPUNT: No. God no. I mean we have a setlist, mainly because it’s two of us and we’re triggering samples and they’re all numbered. We don’t play to a click-track or anything like that. Randy has expressed to me a couple times that it helps when we have a set that we play the same. Towards the end, we can throw a song in the middle somewhere that changes, or the last couple songs usually we just call out, but for the bulk of the set, he definitely likes it to be something we’ve continued doing. And it is cool because when you keep playing the same set, you find a little room to extend parts or to improv in certain areas. We ain’t no Fugazi.
STEREOGUM: So you made the album after you signed to Drag City?
SPUNT: We already had been playing the songs live, and then we talked to them and they saw it and said, “Let’s do this.” And it was like, “OK cool we’ve already talked about recording it, so here’s how we’re gonna record it.” It had happened really quick, because we already set up the recording session and we needed to pay for it ourselves or work with a label, and really Drag City was the only label we were thinking of, so I’m glad they wanted to do it. Randy and I both looked at each other and said, “What do wanna do? Let’s talk to Drag City. Alright.”
STEREOGUM: Why was that the label you guys wanted to work with?
SPUNT: We’ve known Dan Koretzky for a couple years, he’s always been a friend and a fan and would come out to shows. I was wondering, “why are you always coming? How good could we be?” No, it’s just over the years we’ve known Dan and respected his label. At this point in music, it’s no frills, no bullshit, and for us, that felt appropriate with where we’re at.
STEREOGUM: They’re a very respected label and they have a great roster, but they’re not a huge indie like Merge or Sub Pop where they can sometimes push an artist into the mainstream. Is this level where you are more comfortable at these days?
SPUNT: I don’t know man, I think it depends. They can push stuff if they want, or if the band’s in the ether. I’m not sure. Sub Pop is owned 49% percent by a major label, so they have those muscles if they want to flex them. I don’t know if Drag City doesn’t want to flex those muscles. They don’t need to. They sell records, they sell enough records, they’re there. I think people don’t like that they don’t have digital downloads, that’s what I’ve been hearing. People will say, “Oh that’s a great label, I wish they gave me a digital download.”
STEREOGUM: For a while, they weren’t even streaming, but I think they recently got on streaming services.
SPUNT: I think they are now too. But it’s like, you’re buying a record. I know some labels do give you a digital download, and if they did that would be nice, but to expect it or to think a label is lame because they don’t and everyone else does, that’s not why you’re buying records, to get a free mp3. I just don’t think you should expect it, or don’t be mad at the label for not giving it.
STEREOGUM: I know you guys have always been very connected to your local DIY scene. I was wondering, is the Smell still around?
SPUNT: It is! They sort of have this floating three-month agreement with the owner of the building. The owner has to give them 90 days before they evict them, so every first of the month they get another three months.
STEREOGUM: I’m in the New York area, well I’m actually in New Jersey, but a lot of our DIY venues like 285 Kent and Death By Audio have closed recently.
SPUNT: After the Ghost Ship in Oakland and gentrification, it’s hard to have a venue or DIY space these days. The Smell, shit man, in January it’ll be 20 years. Not in the same location, but I think they’ve been in that location for like 16 years. That’s a long time for a DIY, all-ages space.
STEREOGUM: It seems like there’s less and less of those these days or it’s harder and harder to keep them going.
SPUNT: There’s not a lot of money in it. Unfortunately, that’s what people are looking for these days.
STEREOGUM: I guess my last question is: I know you go deep into the history of punk rock, and you and Randy are big fans of Hüsker Dü. As a singing drummer, did you feel any spiritual kinship with the late Grant Hart?
SPUNT: Yes definitely, if you haven’t noticed [Laughs] I became friendly with Grant. And not so much that he was a singing drummer. I started playing drums and singing not because of Grant Hart, but because of a necessity and I didn’t really know how to drum, I didn’t really know how to sing, I didn’t really know how to put those things together, so for me it was important to try it as an exercise and that’s how I’ve always done things. I tried it out, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But we did become friends, and it’s heartbreaking.
STEREOGUM: I know No Age has played with Bob Mould, but I didn’t know you knew Hart. Are there any memories you would like to share?
SPUNT: Yeah, we played a festival with him in Rotterdam and he played this brilliant solo set, so moving. And we went back to the hotel we were staying at, and me and my friends and Grant, we were all in front of this hotel, and this kid walked by us. He was probably 18 or 19, and he was from there, and he looked at us and was like, “Hey, you fuckin’ Americans!” And he was super aggressive. I wouldn’t say I was frightened he was gonna fight us, but he was drunk and really angry and looked like he wanted to punch us. And Grant put his cigarette down and walked up to him and said, “Hey man, what’s your story?” The kid spoke English, he was like, “What?!” And Grant’s like, “What’s your story, man?” You know, “What’s making you like this, tell me about your father.” And we ended up talking to him for like 20 minutes. He almost brought the kid to tears, he became putty in Grant’s hand, the way he totally shaped this kid’s environment. Just his whole world had turned around. The kid left, I think we all gave hugs, me and my buddy were like, “Damn, man that was intense,” and it was really beautiful.
Snares Like A Haircut is out 1/26 via Drag City.