Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dan Webb and the Spiders

It seems suspiciously easy to pin down Dan Webb and the Spiders, especially when one limits him or herself to a mere first impression.

For example, by the time “City by the Sea Part II”, the first track on 2011's Much Obliged, finishes its first chorus, the listener will no longer find the fuzzy, grumbling guitars jarring, and the beat's thick, dull thump will start to sound more like the snare drum that is producing it. Dan Webb's tenor will seem reckless and rowdy and, since it sounds like it is being squeezed through a bullhorn, really loud. Based on this initial listen, the empty “indie” designation will come easily to the listener's mind—maybe “garage rock,” or some similar genre that interests itself in sounding unkempt—but it will likely cause the listener to stop and ponder.

It's only on the second listen—or the sixth—that the acoustic guitar shambling in the background emerges. And it's on that listen that a subtle piano, which wasn't apparent before, paints the background of each chorus with colorful and complex chords. What seemed smoggy the first time sounds more refined; each distorted guitar is, indeed, dirty, but to differing and interesting degrees, and some even seem clean. Webb's voice, which feels more focused and ferocious with each later listen, is suddenly partnered with Dan Wallace's playful and forceful harmonies, which didn't seem so before.

Suddenly, indie's ambiguous connotations seem unacceptable; suddenly, garage rock's implicit simplicity seems demeaning.

All this makes Dan Webb and the Spiders a band that's difficult for listeners, and Webb, to define. “We are a rock band,” he says, “but that has a really terrible connotation. It's a tricky question. I just direct people to [the music] and say, 'You tell me,' but I know that's a cop-out.” Webb also proposes that they play punk-rock, but is statement is peppered with a similar sense of uncertainty. “That's who we play with mostly, and the circle we operate in,” he explains, “but [my fiance] Hilary [Fiorito] would tell you that we are not a punk band. I don't know. It's the world we come from, so it's hard to understand ourselves in a different context than the one we've grown up in.”

Webb started the Spiders without a style or even an outcome in mind. Instead, he saw it as an outlet to write and record his own music. “I was playing drums in another band and had written a bunch of songs on the side,” he explains. “That's what the first, self-titled record is. I tracked everything by myself and brought it to my friends who all play in other bands that are in the Boston area.” Webb asked them to learn the parts he had written for each song to perform a one-off record release show. “I said, 'Hey, would you guys come together and learn these songs with me? We'll play one show, release this album, and that'll be that.' But it was a lot of fun and people seemed to like it, so we booked another show, and it became a real band.”

These first performances were so fun that, following the release of this self-titled record, Webb decided to bring some new songs to his new bandmates, requesting that, this time, they take part in the recording process. Because of the stylistic contributions of the Spiders, Webb says that the resulting record, 2010's Oh Sure, feels like a significant step forward for the band. “With Oh Sure, we were making a record as a band instead of just learning the songs,” Webb says. “Having Matt Kenney play the drum parts definitely helped it. He plays very differently than I do. It was a lot more high energy and faster; I feel like it's much more of a live record. The first record was more mid-tempo, a little bit stagnant, just all the same thing, but the second one's really got a lot more life to it.”

The release of Oh Sure provided Dan Webb and the Spiders some opportunities they hadn't previously pursued, including their first tour, which took the band to Germany. Likewise, after seeing a review of the record in a magazine, German-based Gunner Records expressed interest in putting out the band's next release. With this renewed purpose and sudden, unprecedented support, Webb and his Spiders sat down to arrange and record Much Obliged.

Maybe Much Obliged's blown-out, explosive sound can be attributed to the setting in which it was recorded (the STARLAB rehearsal space and venue in Somerville, MA that they share with other brother and sister bands) and the way in which it was put to the proverbial tape (live, or at least the principal instruments) but these choices and this outcome was intentional. “It was definitely an aesthetic choice,” Webb recalls. “We wanted do try to sound like we're really loud, and capture a small-studio sort of sound. It is a little bit practical in this case, but I do love how it sounds; even if the circumstances were different, I'd still probably want to work there.”

There's also something special about writing or rehearsing songs, and then being able to turn around and record them for an actual album in the same comfortable place,” Wallace, the band's bassist, adds. “The songs come out that much better.”

Despite its dinginess and dampness, despite its basement sensibility, a song like “Brothers” captures this comfort. Though Webb's guitar grunts and gurgles beside Chris Amaral's crispier chords and Wallace's low, warbling bass, their simple interplay creates a sound that's solid and simple, not convoluted. “I'd like to tell you that it's okay,” Webb growls during the chorus with an army of harmonies behind him, and a melody emerges from the mud. “Flyover Country” is similarly accessible. Droning, dive-bombing guitars cruise across Kinney's burnt out drumbeat during the song's verses, and they dogfight during its instrumental bridge, but the song never spirals out of control, never explodes into noisy catastrophe.

Webb's warm melodies and thoughtful lyrics also seem to add to this comfort. “In 'Flyover Country', the chorus is pretty clearly talking about where I'm from in Ohio, and what that means, and the preconceived notions about that,” Webb explains. “Then, the verses are random, little bits of imagery that don't really connect to that idea at all, but I think they all sound good together. The feeling I get when I hear them is consistent even if the meaning is a little different. It's very abstract in a way; they're just little assemblages of couplets.”

Of course, after a second (or sixth) careful listen to “Flyover Country” reveals that sneaky acoustic scratching away in the background behind the grumbling electric guitars, and it become clear that these songs are also assemblages, hodge-podged pieces of dissimilar sounds—shiny and dirty, dull and sharp, old and corroded and new and crisp.

And then, when one takes a second step back, it also becomes clear that Dan Webb and the Spiders itself is an assemblage of sorts—a project comprised of members of other bands, sure, but friends willing to not only execute Webb's melodies, but contribute to them.

It's why Dan Webb and his Spiders seem so suspiciously easy to pin down: Despite the melodic simplicity (and the sludge that drips from these melodies), there's a sophistication that the listener may not immediately perceive, created by pieces that fit so seamlessly together that it's surprising (and, later, exciting) to finally identify it as the assemblage that it is. Much Obliged is proof that the most seemingly simple and predictable art can be, sometimes, the most complex and impressive.

Webb and Wallace recorded these songs on one of the last days of autumn from the box office of the infamous Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge, MA. During the interview, a sound check taking place downstairs obscured some of the conversation.

"Seamless Copper" and "28 Years" appears on Band's 2011 record titled Much Obliged. "Bad Day for Breaking Up" is a Dopamines cover; the song was originally recorded for the band's 2008 self-titled album, but was never released.

Visit the band's Bandcamp page for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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