It’s an easy shift from past to present to future for Eric Schenkman.
During our conversation, the Spin Doctors guitarist discusses (with dry humor popping up throughout) the band’s creation, his departure, the original line up’s reunion and current slate of activity that will include recording its seventh studio album early next year.
Of course, the reasons to discuss those subjects and others are two-fold – the Spin Doctors have a 30th anniversary concert on Nov. 8 at Brooklyn Bowl to celebrate Schenkman, frontman Chris Barron, drummer Aaron Comess and bassist Mark White forming the band as well as the forthcoming release of his third solo album, Who Shot John? on Jan. 11.
Listening to Spin Doctors’ material, particularly the 2013 album If the River Was Whiskey, there’s a noticeable connection between the band’s music and his solo work. Schenkman acknowledges that while making his way through this interview and a meal at a Thorold, Ontario restaurant, a little over an hour from his weekly gig at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto.
JPG: 30 years. That’s quite some time. What are your thoughts on celebrating this anniversary?
ES: It’s pretty fantastic that the band’s been around for 30 years. It’s amazing. I’m into celebrating the fact that we’ve been around for 30 years. I can’t even believe it.
JPG: Now, Spin Doctors have been playing select dates throughout the year but this has been dubbed the 30th anniversary show. Is this around the time of when you first got together or first performed together?
ES: Well, it actually is the 30th anniversary. We basically started in November 30 years, pretty much.
JPG: And it’s kind of completing the circle in a way because you’re playing Brooklyn Bowl, which is owned by Peter Shapiro who once owned Wetlands Preserve, where you used to play…before he owned it.
ES: It is cool and it is good. I’m glad we’re doing it there, too.
JPG: And Wetlands closing is what got the Spin Doctors to reunite back in 2001…
ES: This is true, and arguably we’re successful because of Wetlands, pre-Pete. We were there in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
JPG: Do you recall when you first got together with Chris Barron, Aaron Comess and Mark White? Was it one of those rock-and-roll moments where you felt something in the room when you started to play?
ES: It kinda was, actually. The final piece of the puzzle was…I approached Chris and then I approached Aaron. Then, we went through about six bass players over the course of a few months. We played with Mark for all of two seconds and it cemented it. The three of us were that way already. It was like that but it took a little while.
JPG: And you were gone for awhile because you were sick of everything and everybody…
ES: I quit for seven years. Then, I came back in 2001 when we got back together again. Mark quit for a little while, too.
JPG: I imagine it was one of those things where success was great but success also wasn’t so great.
ES: Yeah, it was a lot like that. You have to understand what it’s like to have that kind of success to understand what it’s like to have that kind of success like that. It happened fast. We got really big really fast, a little too fast for me, I would argue. So, I quit because that’s the kind of person I am.
I quit out of passion for the group more than anything else. It worked out for all of us in the long run more or less anyhow.
JPG: I interviewed Chris a couple times and I brought up how I saw the band near the end of the tour supporting Pocket Full of Kryptonite and it looked like everyone just wanted to go home and sleep in their own bed.
ES: Yeah. Yeah. It was kind of a fucked up time. Definitely. It’s like I said before you have to understand what it’s like to have that much success to understand what it’s like to have that much success in a short period of time. Would I have done things differently? You know…maybe Chris would have made a different decision. He might have chosen to keep me in the group for that time if he had a second chance, maybe. I don’t know.
I was just never un-loyal to the group. I just didn’t think we were going in the right direction. My gut feeling was to scale it back rather than keep it in the same place. End of the simple story is the powers that be — management and booking — they always want to make more money.
But, eventually, we got back together again and as it worked out, the time did us good. It’s not only hard to socially manage that kind of success but it’s also hard to manage it artistically. We really needed to make an album after Pocket Full of Kryptonite that we were happy with. That was always my feeling. Now, we’ve made two of them. As soon as we did that, where it was back in the fold…everybody learns the same lesson in this kind of situation. You could have a quartet that works together and you can break it up and it absolutely, almost 100 per cent of the time, it doesn’t work that way for any of the remaining parts of it. You either have to find another thing or get your own thing together.
The four of us are a pretty special musical union. We play very easily together. We write really easily together, and we’ve known each other for over 30 years. (laughs)
JPG: What’s funny about you saying that is I saw you play at the beginning of the tour supporting Turn It Upside Down and you totally kicked ass. It’s unfortunate that it was a bad time for you but you and the rest of the band were very good that night.
ES: No, it was a bad night for the band, actually. That’s just what you heard but it was actually a bad time. We couldn’t have sustained it. There was too much pressure from the record company and from management. Just way too much. It wouldn’t have worked out. Look what happened to Kurt Cobain. That was the same year.
You have to put these things in perspective. Shit like this kills people. Me personally, my dad was a musician, his dad was a musician. I knew then that I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to necessarily not be around or have the band not be around. That was the intuitive right thing to do. And it was…maybe not financially but certainly creatively.
Playing-wise, we are a force to be reckoned with. We’re better than we’ve ever been together and we were pretty good to begin with.
JPG: Was your dad and/or grandfather a guitarist, too?
ES: They were both string players. My grandfather was a viola player and my dad was a cellist. I added two strings. (laughs)
JPG: Well, you’re all in the string family. Did they care that you chose guitar rather than violin or some other classical instrument?
ES: Yeah, it wasn’t a good choice. Classical musicians don’t really admire the guitarist much but they accepted it, God bless ‘em. They were pretty happy with…they accepted me. It took a little while. (laughs)
JPG: Speaking of doing things yourself, I was listening to your new solo album, Who Shot John? and listening to the last Spin Doctors album, 2013’s If the River Was Whiskey, and even including “Hard to Resist” from Pocket Full of Kryptonite, I hear the variations of the blues. For you, transitioning from the blues of early Spin Doctors to something that was funky and danceable and then going back to that, was that a result of countless gigs and rehearsals or was it something that came about naturally?
ES: I think hard work, gigs, working, listening to music, expanding repertoire, expanding ability. I sing a lot more than I used to. I’m working on that…and then writing for me takes a long time. I didn’t collaborate on a lot of this stuff. I usually do. It’s mostly frustrating for me, writing…but it is interesting what you’re talking about. It is true. It’s transformative because you go from the blues and back again. Actually, on Who Shot John? you can hear it. It happens on that record a couple times – out then back in, out then back in.
There has to be a bit of blues in everything for me to really like it. I need a little bit of blues in my jazz. I need a little blues in my rock. I need some blues in my hip-hop. I just need a little blues in my rhythm. I’ve expanded. As a guitar player, I may be a frustrated jazz musician but I do like to concentrate on the blues to try to express myself through the instrument, often through the lens of that. There’s such a huge psychic debt in the blues to blues guitar and that’s my instrument.
And the stories, the way that stories can thread through the blues is just fascinating to me. I will never stop being amazed about what even your own mind can come up with when you’re not even thinking about it.