We’ve Got A File On You: Spiral Stairs

We’ve Got A File On You: Spiral Stairs

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

It’s a brand new era, and it feels great. Thirty years on from their epochal first phase of slanted enchantment, and over a decade removed from a brief second act, Pavement are once again everywhere, doing everything: playing major festivals, de-quarantining their past, guest-editing an issue of Uncut, upping their meme game, juicing the algorithms, and even reinventing the humble pierogi. It’s almost hard to fathom a time when this band was shrouded in mystery — and Scott Kannberg was its most mysterious member. Initially identified only by his nom de rock, Spiral Stairs, Kannberg was a mostly silent partner to Stephen Malkmus on the band’s earliest releases. But if Malkmus was Pavement’s master of ceremonies, Kannberg was its chief backroom strategist, releasing the band’s first EPs on his Treble Kicker imprint, cultivating the group’s cryptic Fall-inspired visual vocabulary, and constructing the rickety, fuzz-coated foundations to songs like “Box Elder” and “Forklift” that allowed Malkmus to find his voice.

Even when Kannberg emerged from the shadows to contribute one or two lead-vocal tracks per album, it was hard to tell what this guy was all about. None of his songs really sounded like one another, and they always seemed to be swimming against whatever stream Pavement were coasting down. Kannberg’s songs could be the comic-relief rejoinders to Malkmus’ heartfelt ballads, but also the tender center in the band’s chaotic collage. When Pavement started veering toward a classically Californian sound, Kannberg maintained their spiritual ties to Manchester; then, right at the moment when Pavement were being celebrated as a corrupting influence on Britpop bands like Blur and Elastica, he started writing Byrds songs.

Following Pavement’s initial 1999 dissolution, Kannberg continued to confound as a solo artist. Where Malkmus maintained a steady recording clip with the Jicks, Kannberg has tended to work in fits and starts. After releasing two albums of amiable, ornate indie-rock in the early 2000s as Preston School Of Industry, Kannberg lay low for a half-decade before reviving the Spiral Stairs moniker for 2009’s The Real Feel — only to sideline his solo pursuits for another eight years. But starting with 2017’s Doris And The Daggers, Kannberg ignited the most prolific stretch of his post-Pavement career.

Through it all, we’ve gotten a clearer picture of who Scott Kannberg really is, as he’s applied applied crucial formative influences like the Clean, R.E.M., and the Talking Heads to wry ruminations on aging, fatherhood, the unsettled state of America, and the untimely loss of close friends. His new record, MEDLEY ATTACK!!! is is both his most musically adventurous and open-hearted work to date, fusing Squeeze-inspired soul-pop romps (“Mole”), zoned-out psych-funk jams (“Baron Please –> Medley Attack!!!”), and West African-style guitar sketches (“Hey ’70”) while lyrically grappling with the 2021 death of his long-time bassist Matt Harris (who tragically became Kannberg’s second bandmate to die suddenly in recent years — his drummer, Darius Minwalla, passed away in 2015).

Though MEDLEY ATTACK!!!’s release fortuitously falls in the midst of Pavement’s current reunion-tour campaign (which resumes Sept. 7 in San Diego), the album bodes well for Kannberg’s continued creative resurgence once his main band pulls out the plugs again. We caught up with Kannberg during his summer break to talk about the new record, the most infamous moments of the Pavement saga, and the many notable friends he’s made on his long, winding road to indie-rock elder-statesman status.

MEDLEY ATTACK!!! (2022)

Your previous album, We Wanna Be Hyp-No-Tized, came out in 2019 — right around the time Pavement was plotting its 2020 Primavera dates. Obviously, those plans got put on hold for a few years. So would it be safe to assume your new album wouldn’t exist without the extra time the pandemic afforded you?

SCOTT KANNBERG: No — it almost didn’t get made because of the pandemic! I was already planning to do the record. I even bought a plane ticket for [Broken Social Scene drummer] Justin Peroff to come to LA to record with me in March of 2020! I was living in Mexico at the time, and I was going to make the record in transit in LA before I moved to Australia. And then our producer got cold feet because he thought we were all gonna get COVID. So the pandemic made it harder to make, really.

So how did this record ultimately come together?

KANNBERG: I had Matt and Jim [Lindsay] to do the bass and drums in LA. I was in Australia, so I’d get up really early in the morning and Zoomed with them to make sure that they were doing the right stuff, and then I just overdubbed everything. But I ended up moving back to America, and I went into Kelley Stoltz’s place for a day and did a few things there. And then I got Randy Randall [of No Age] to play some really cool stuff. It was kind of a cheating record, where you just do everything on a computer. But [producer] Dan [Long] took everything I had put down on the computer and filtered it all through real amps, so it sounds more live.

Matt passed away in February 2021, after he finished recording his parts. How did that affect the completion of the record?

KANNBERG: Well, it meant I had more material to work with, lyrically. Unfortunately, it took a guy to die to do that. I do most of the singing and lyrics last, and I did all of the vocals in Australia right after he passed. So a lot of the songs ended up referencing him. And when I went to Kelley’s, we did this session where we got a bunch of Matt’s old friends and bandmates together to do backing vocals. So that was really nice.

Working With Broken Social Scene

You mentioned Justin Peroff from Broken Social Scene earlier. On MEDLEY ATTACK!!!, you have a song called “Time=Cuz” — which seems like a not-so-subtle nod to the BSS song “Cause=Time.” What’s going on there?

KANNBERG: When I was living in Seattle [in the mid-2000s], Kevin Drew [of Broken Social Scene] and his friend Stevie came to my house and stayed for a couple days and we partied really hard. And I had this girlfriend who was crazy, and so the song is kind of about that weekend and that girl and Seattle. And the song just really reminded me of a Broken Social Scene song.

How did that relationship with Kevin develop?

KANNBERG: Actually, it’s kind of poignant how that song was formulated, because Matt Harris was actually the guy that turned me on to Broken Social Scene. I was living in Seattle, and Matt had left all these CD-Rs lying around, and he was like, “Hey, Scott — here’s some stuff to listen to.” And the CD-R just said, “BSS.” One day, I just put it on, and I thought, “This is kind of cool — it’s kind of like Dinosaur. There’s a cool vibe going on here.” But I didn’t buy the record or anything, and I just kind of lost track of it. Then I went to South By Southwest [in 2003] and a friend of mine said, “You gotta come see this Canadian band — there’s, like, a hundred members.” And I was floored. They were really great. I didn’t meet them, but when Preston School was playing Atlanta the next year, we somehow got put on the same bill. We met that night and Kevin [Drew] got really, really drunk. And the rest of the band was really mad at him because he couldn’t really play the next show.

But you eventually made the jump from drinking buddies to collaborators…

KANNBERG: Yeah, we did this show together in Calgary [in 2008] where I was curating Sled Island. I asked them to do this special thing where we’d make up a bunch of songs and perform them at the festival. And so Darius and I flew out to Toronto beforehand, and we went into their practice space and made up all these songs. We called ourselves Human Milk. One of the songs we did appeared on Broken Social Scene’s next record [Forgiveness Rock Record] — “Texico Bitches.” And then “Emoshuns” from my album Doris And The Daggers came out of that, too.

Recording Pavement’s First EP, Slay Tracks 1933-1969 (1989)

This past May on Twitter, following the school shooting in Uvalde, you revealed that you recorded this EP on the same day as a shooting at an elementary school in your hometown of Stockton. Was the title some weird, morbid reference to that?

KANNBERG: No, we had the title and had conceptualized the whole thing already. But after we recorded it, [drummer] Gary [Young] came in and said, “Hey, I just heard there was a shooting at some elementary school and a bunch of kids got killed.” This was obviously before the internet, so I think it was on the radio. That was kind of the first real big school shooting.

I got robbed once working at this record store in Stockton. This guy took us to the back room and told us he was going to kill us — we were told to lay down and not get up or we’d be shot. It was pretty scary. So for years, whenever I’d go into a record store, I’d be looking around, and if I saw something weird I would totally get freaked out and leave.

Starting The Amazing Grease Label (1998)

You released the first Pavement EPs through your own Treble Kicker imprint, but then toward the end of Pavement you founded a new operation, Amazing Grease, with Mike Drake from the band Oranger. What made you want to start another label?

KANNBERG: There were all these really cool San Francisco bands that I was friends with. I was living in Berkeley at the time, and I had met Matt and all these other guys — Oranger, ¡Carlos!, Sunless Day, the Moore Brothers. I was in Pavement at the time, and we had this friend, Ben Lutch, who co-founded Excite.com — the search engine — and he had just gotten bought out for millions of dollars, so he funded our little project. [laughs] But we did all the work. It was just cool to document the early-2000s scene in San Francisco. And then I just decided to resurrect it for my new record.

And you’re still doing it yourself, stuffing vinyl into mail packets.

KANNBERG: I am! It’s kind of fun. I’ve got a little set-up in my garage. I’m just doing the Bandcamp thing. When you want to get into record stores, they’re kind of stingy about wanting you to go through distributors, but my history with distributors is that, most of the records just sit in a warehouse — and then they charge you for that! But now, if people want the records, they can find it.

“For Sale! The Preston School of Industry” (1997)

This song has an interesting history: Its first known appearance was in a Dutch TV special from 1997 where Pavement are seen workshopping it on a soundstage; you recorded a demo of it for the Terror Twilight sessions; and then it eventually became the name of your first post-Pavement project. So what’s the history of it going from unreleased song to band name?

KANNBERG: I don’t know… when we did that show, I think Steve was kind of like, “Scott, just do one of your songs!” And I was like, “Alright, I’ll do this one.” I always kind of liked it as a mysterious band name. When I look back at it now, it’s a little embarrassing, but Preston was a good bridge between Pavement and and what I’m doing now. It was a good outlet. I wrote a lot of songs then — not all of them very good, but I love some of them still. I’ve got this CD-R that I found, and it’s got all of my demos from around the time of Terror Twilight to the beginning of [Preston School of Industry’s 2001 debut] All This Sounds Gas, and there’s a lot of stuff on there that has never seen the light of day. There’s a few ideas that went on to become songs, but a lot of the stuff is pretty out there. I wanted to release it if I did an All This Sounds Gas reissue, but I haven’t done it yet because it would be a really expensive release. It was already a double record on vinyl, so if I did another with all the B-sides and all that stuff it’s going to cost a lot. I’ve got to find a record label to fund it.

But if you made it a triple-LP set, then you would truly honor the title reference to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

KANNBERG: One of my ideas is to find like a hundred of those original George Harrison records in the box and then just take out George Harrison’s record and put in my records.

Pavement’s Appearance On The Tonight Show (1994)

So you’re there to perform your big hit at the time, “Cut Your Hair,” but you add this weird intro where Malkmus starts squealing and I can only imagine less indie-enthused viewers immediately changing the channel. What was that all about?

KANNBERG: I was a little embarrassed by that intro — I was like, “What the fuck’s he doing?” He was being so bratty, like, “Wah wah wah wah!”

It’s almost as if he was saying, “You think we’re a slacker rock band? Watch this!”

KANNBERG: Maybe that’s what it was. I think it was more because he was just nervous. Doing TV is pretty nerve-wracking—when you see the red light on, you’re like, “I can’t fuck up!” Now they let you tape it, but back then it was totally live.

Did you have any meaningful conversations with your fellow Tonight Show guests, Drew Barrymore and Harry Shearer, off-camera?

KANNBERG: It’s funny — we were backstage in the green room, and all of a sudden, this hippie-looking guy comes in and he’s like, “Hey guys — I’m Poncho. I’m the musical director!” And we’re thinking, isn’t the musical director Wynton Marsalis or one of the Marsalis brothers? But he says, “I’m Poncho — I used to play with Neil Young in Crazy Horse!” And we were like, “Oh yeah — Poncho! The guitar player from Crazy Horse!” He kind of looked a little more professional, but he was still this old hippie guy. And he says, “I really love the Pavement — I can’t wait!” And so we played the show, and then he comes back and says, “I fucking loved it, man! But the jazzbos over there [in the Tonight Show band], they’re not really into you.” And we were like, “That’s cool. We’re playing tonight at the Palace — you want to come?” And he’s like, “Fuck yeah!” So we’re playing at the Palace and I look over side-stage — and there’s Poncho and Drew Barrymore rocking out. I was like, “Wow, we made it!”

Performing “Angel Eyes” With The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell (2017)

This song from Doris and the Daggers references your drummer Darius Minwalla, who passed away suddenly in 2015. Darius also played drums for the Posies and Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers — who joined you onstage in London in 2017 to perform this song with you. What sort of relationship do you have with Hugh?

KANNBERG: Darius got the gig playing drums for Hugh, and I went to see them play in LA, and they asked me to play guitar on “No More Heroes” that night, so I met Hugh then. They did a tour of Japan, and then Darius died right after they got back. I stayed in touch with Hugh on the email a little bit and he would come to Mexico every year, near Cancun, to write and chill. One year when I was there, we hooked up and hung out for a few days. He loves cricket, and I love cricket, so we bonded over that. And then when we played in London, he said he was going to be in town and would love to play on a song. He really wanted to play on this song for Darius.

Mudpalooza, West Virginia (1995)

Was this the most hostile crowd you ever faced?

KANNBERG: Probably. It was pretty insane. They did not like us, and we did not like them. It was like a Civil War reenactment. On that tour, we would play and all of a sudden the crowd would roar in the middle of one of our songs, and we’d be like, “Whoa, I guess they like us.” But then we’d realize that they were blowing up the giant inflatible bong for Cypress Hill! They weren’t there to see us!

Covering Phish’s “Axilla II” For A Charity Album (2001)

Speaking of weed… one of the first things you recorded as Preston School Of Industry was, of all things, a Phish cover. I know Malkmus is down with the Dead, but have you been a secret Phish-head all this time?

KANNBERG: When I was growing up in high school, a lot of my buddies became Deadheads, and I was more into punk rock. The Dead was kind of the enemy to me. I love them now, obviously, but back then I was just like, “I can’t stand this stuff.” So when Phish covered one of our songs, I was a little confused! Even though Pavement was kind of loose, l still didn’t like that kind of [jam-band] music. But I met those guys and they were really nice. And during the Terror Twilight tour, we would get a lot of fans who were Phish fans, and they would follow us around — and it was kind of cool.

My buddy in San Francisco was a real massive Phish fan, and then the guy who put out that tribute record was a friend as well, and they asked me to do it. But I told them, “I don’t know any of their songs.” And they said, “The rarest song that they do is ‘Axilla,'” and when I heard it, it sounded kind of like a Captain Beefheart or a Butthole Surfers song. So I was like, “I can probably do that!” I kind of did it as a joke, it took like five minutes to record. I still really haven’t heard their music — but I love their fans! Pavement always kind of mixed up our setlist just because it entertains us. But I think we’re trying to do that a little more now because we know these people come to multiple shows.

Pavement Performing On Space Ghost Coast To Coast (1995)

Is it safe to assume this song was made up on the spot?

KANNBERG: Yeah, basically! They wanted us to make up a song, and we went into the studio where we were filming it and just made it up. I think we recorded it in Boston — we had to record it separately when we were on tour. That was really fun — those guys were really nice.

Did you know that the song would eventually be used as background noise for an interview with Goldie Hawn?

KANNBERG: No. I’d watched the show a few times, and loved it, but yeah — they really fucked with that episode, for sure!

Taking The Shins On Tour (2001)

On one of the first Preston School Of Industry tours, you took this little band from Albuquerque out as the opener. This was a few months before Oh, Inverted World was released, but the “New Slang” single was already out — did you get the sense you were passing a torch to the next generation of indie-rock heroes?

KANNBERG: It was kind of right when people were hearing about them — in places like LA and Seattle and Portland, they had a much bigger crowd than we did, so we were like, “Whoa, what’s going on here!?!” But they were really, really nice guys. We played like 30 shows together, and then I did some shows with them over in Europe, where I opened for them. I was a little bummed out that the band changed as time went on, because those guys really felt like they were the Shins to me. They reminded me a lot of the Pavement brotherly vibe — you kind of lose that when you get the session guys involved.

Making The Video For “Painted Soldiers” From The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy Soundtrack With Veruca Salt (1996)

Speaking of replacing band members: In the video for your Pavement track “Painted Soldiers,” you fire the members of Pavement and replace them with Veruca Salt. First off, how did your song get chosen to be part of the greatest soundtrack album of 1996, Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy?

KANNBERG: Matador was doing the soundtrack, and I think a couple of those Kids In The Hall guys were fans, because they were supposed to do the video — I actually had a conference call with them to talk about it. Something happened and they couldn’t do it anymore, and that’s when we got Dan Koretzky and Rian Murphy to do it. But in that conference call, one one of the [Kids In The Hall] guys said, “I’ve got this great idea: Everybody in the world crawls. You wake up, you get out of bed, and you have to crawl to get your toothbrush and do all this other stuff.” So of course, I stole that idea for my “Falling Away” video for Preston School of Industry! I’ve got to give that guy a credit. I get old Kids In The Hall skits on my Instagram, and they’re so great. I love those guys.

So how did Veruca Salt wind up in the video?

KANNBERG: The original idea was to have Weezer [laughs], but we couldn’t get Weezer obviously. I don’t think they were into the idea. But Veruca Salt were into it. They lived in Chicago, and we did the video there, and they were friends with those guys [Koretzky and Murphy]. I think when they first read the script, it still said “Weezer,” and so they were like, “What?!?” But they were really nice.

“Painted Soldiers” belongs to a cluster of songs in your repertoire that center around an “ooh ooh” hook — much like the one that you sing on “Cut Your Hair.” Did you write the hook for that one?

KANNBERG: I didn’t come up with that one. Steve played it for me at my parents’ house and he was like, “Here’s another little song that I think you’d like, Scott.” And then he just did the hook — all he had was the “ooh ooh ooh” — and I was like, “We gotta do that one!” And he’s like, “No, it’s too poppy.” And I was like, “Fuck that — it’s amazing!” When we were rehearsing [for this tour], I was like, “I can’t fucking get my voice that high anymore!” And so Rebecca [Cole], our new keyboardist, is just like, “Okay, just follow my lead.” Once she gets the key, I can get there. But if I had to do it myself, I could never get there.

“Exiled Tonight” Feat. Matt Berninger (2017)

How did your relationship with the National develop?

KANNBERG: Kevin Drew was the first guy that turned me onto them, and when Pavement played in 2010, we played a show with the National in Paris where I met the guys. My wife and I hung out with them a few times in Australia, and again in LA. Matt’s kid is kind of the same age as my kid and there were a couple… not playdates, but gatherings with a bunch of people who brought their kids, so I kind of reconnected with him there. When I wrote this, I always kind of envisioned him singing the whole song. But when he came to the studio, he was just like, “Uh, I can’t sing the whole song.” So he just sang a few parts on it, and they sound great. At Primavera, they played the next night, so I went and hung out. They were being led to the stage by their security detail, and I just broke through the ranks and said, “Hey, what’s up!” We all had hugs and the security guards were just like, “Who’s this?”

This is another song about Darius, and it includes a shout-out to Spaghetti Lee’s — a Rush-themed pasta restaurant he dreamed of opening…

KANNBERG: It was always so fun to hear him talk about that, because he would get so excited. He had all the dishes worked out — like “YYZiti,” “Red Bruschetta,” “Spirit Of Radiatore.” The other day I was up in Montana with my daughter and we flew back through Seattle. And when I was flying in, I could see my old house and the house where Darius lived, and I was thinking of all the good times we had hanging out. The memory really overwhelmed me.

Playing “Harness Your Hopes” At Primavera Sound (2022)

Pavement recently played Primavera Sound, which — barring a warm-up gig in LA in May — was not just your first major show in 12 years, but also your first since the 1999 B-side “Harness Your Hopes” became a surprise hit with all the hip algorithms. What was it like to play that song in 2022 and have it be sung back to you like it was your “Bohemian Rhapsody”?

KANNBERG: The warm-up show is where we really noticed it, because everybody was just shouting out the lyrics — and these were kids! It was like, “What the hell?” I mean, I know why they know it, but it was still really cool to see. And it’s a fun song to play. I do this cool little Television-y guitar part at the beginning that I completely forgot I played — I think it was my only contribution to the song! But the Primavera shows were just a little overwhelming because there were so many people there and at the Porto show, I had just barely recovered from COVID, so I was in a daze. But thank god for that song. It’s definitely helped our… I don’t want to say “brand,” but it’s helped prolong the inevitable. [laughs] I think we’ve crossed generations now. We’re meeting original fans with their, like, 30-year old son who’s also a big fan. That’s pretty cool.

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