By Sean Moeller
Hockey Night lead singer Paul Sprangers doesn't put much stock in the beginnings of his Minnesota-based band interesting many people.
"It was just me doing four-track stuff and these guys helped me out. We also had a band in college called The Renegades. We just played spazz punk rock," Sprangers said from his New York residence last week. "It doesn't really make for good print."
It was just another of those recording projects that started with some stray hours here and there and gradually turned into one of those land-gouging, maniacal beasts that are run from in nightmares and do the best business when those nightmares are written into screenplays and the characters are involved with a lot of product tie-ins.
Oh, but there's nothing so glamorous about Hockey Night that there's ever been a merchandising scheme forged on its behalf. They aren't Buzz Lightyear or Ziggy Stardust or My Chemical Romance. They're just a bunch of dudes - and you can read about these kinds of dudes all the time, I'm telling you - with wild appetites for burgers, pizza, beer and the most wickedly great, face-freezing guitar lines this side of the apocalypse or the pearly gates, whichever you might find most staggering and jaw-dropping. Sprangers and fellow guitar slinger Scott Wells could be accused of selling their souls to the devil (in this case the fiery Lucifer would be a collaboration of various Stephen Malkmus, Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg, Thin Lizzy guitarist - Eric Bell, Gary Moore, Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham, Snowy White and John Sykes—fragments) for the licks they deliver, in serpentine revolutions and chase scenes, but they've still got souls, quickly ruling that out. It would have made good print or humming, glowing computer screen lettering, in this exception to the standard phrasing.
Sprangers and Wells turn themselves into jockeys somewhere in each song on last year's "Keep Guessin'" and in all of the new tracks the band's been showcasing on its last two tours (two of which are exclusively available here, in rare balls-out form). They become a two-man Kentucky Derby with each other, romping behind and following each other around the oval. It's an excitingly creative, mutually silent gesturing that they play out, speaking like springtime robins and foghorns on thick nights, always making a connection and then fluttering off to do something different before lolling back around to find one another again. To think it could work with a singular guitar attack is a futile thought. As good as Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones were, they couldn't have done what they did without those other thoroughbreds huffing alongside and behind them.
"Right now, I consider us to be just starting out. It's just a notch of where the band is," Sprangers said. "I don't know what it is man. It's just kind of what (Scott and I) have been doing all along. I think it's a testament to us listening to each other. I'm not as good at listening as Scott is. Every time we play a song, it's always going to be different. It gives it this kind of loose, free-wheeling feel. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't work. Then, it sucks and we know and there are some people in the place that know it. But when it does work, it's going to be powerful and everyone knows that."
The band unavoidably conjures comparisons to Lizzy and Pavement, for its carefree triumphs of lyrical language and the movement of asses thanks to the dueling percussion of Alex Achen and Adam Harness (fittingly corroborating with the interplay of Sprangers and Wells) and the essential push of Zach Rose's bass. With its newest material - the demoed and the unrecorded - Sprangers said that the band's blurring the line between its heroes and itself.
"I think we're past all the Pavement and Thin Lizzy stuff. It's starting to change and get more…I don't know. You'll just have to hear," Sprangers said. "It doesn't bother me at all (that people always compare the band to the former two bands) because those are great bands. We were inspired by (Pavement) to play by listening to them as opposed to the way you are when you're listening to Yes or Rush, where you play anything they did. We used to really try to be like them. We still think about them, but now, they're sort of in the backs of our brains. I think I can speak for everybody in the band, but I haven't really listened to them for a long time.
"There's some late-70s kraut rock that we've been inspired by lately. We listen to a lot of 60s African guitar pop too. I guess we're just finding different music types that are - oddly enough - built into what we do. We're listening to music from other cultures and it's kind of strange how close it is to what we do. We also listen to a lot of ZZ Top though. I don't want people to think all we're listening to is 60s African pop music. Fuck that."
Sprangers and Wells aren't placing special orders for guitars made out of shag carpeting, as popularized by the Top, but the production values and the quality of its albums is something they're striving for.
"That is definitely what we're doing. When you listen to their records, the production is actually pretty impeccable. It's the same with Def Leppard. I tend to get mocked when I bring it up, but I'm kind of blown away by Def Leppard. There's nothing like it," Sprangers said. "I don't think we're completely there yet. You can hear what's good and what needs work on 'Keep Guessin.' We listened to the Stones a lot before we recorded that album. They made everyone of their songs sound like they were all done in one take and that's what we kind of aspire to. It sounds lively."
That record was the last one that Lookout! Records released before closing up shop last summer and after a lengthy U.S. touring schedule in support of it, the band wanted to make its first trip to Europe, knowing that the fall would work well. It just so happened that it was able to hop onto Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's first European tour as well, playing sold out shows every night, joining in the feeding frenzy.
"We were touring really hardcore and we had planned to go over there in the fall. We found a guy and we started booking it. Those guys asked us to open up the dates they were doing," Sprangers said. "It was completely wild and unreal. We were playing these sold out shows every night and we were getting paid nothing because they were doing us a favor by taking us out with them. There we were playing to packed houses and we were asking for places to stay from the stage. Tons of kids came up to us and offered us places to stay. We're still paying for that tour. We did it all ourselves. We booked the tickets. We rented the van. We took both drum kits with us on the plane. I took my Orange (amp) head on the plane with me as carry-on. It was real ghetto. We were over there driving around in a van and people were surprised we didn't have an entourage."
Some of those friends that they made in the UK are getting e-mails from Sprangers these days, telling them to get out and support their Twin Cities buddies and smoking hot buzz band Tapes 'N Tapes when they get there in a few weeks.
"A lot of kids over there are angry that more American indie rock bands don't come play over there. They're fanatical over there. I think the NME is a testament to that," he said. "We're e-mailing people we know over there to go see (T'NT). I hope they do really well."
Taking the next step, making the next notch for a band that promises to always redirect itself, Sprangers is touching on more political-minded subjects very mild, unobtrusive ways, asking the questions and shaping thoughts that he's been dwelling on over the past few years. He's gotten more comfortable with the idea of talking about war and its consequences.
"Those political thoughts have always been there, but they've just been more subtle. Even on 'Rad Zapping' there's some of that, but the language is more abstract and stylized. You don't want to hear some dude you don't know telling you to impeach the president or save the whales, especially a dude like me," he said. "I feel strongly compelled to do anything with what I'm doing that might contribute to peace and I feel more confident using language I wouldn't have felt confident using before. I feel like singing about people fucking getting sent off to war. I've always been more inspired by bands that are the whole deal and are creating something that's them - from the albums to the packaging to everything. I think that can be really radical. That's what differentiates some knucklehead with a guitar from a group that's always trying to be innovative. I think that can be an important message. The whole package will inspire people. It's how we've seen them and it's how they've lived their lives.
"That's my whole view on shit and shit."
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