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vol 6 - issue 11 (jul 2004) :: interviews
SPYMOB'S JOHN OSTBY
Interview by Night Watchman

SPYMOB FIRST CAME TO THE ATTENTION OF THE WORLD AS THE BACKING BAND FOR THE PHARRELL WILLIAMS AND CHAD HUGO PROJECT KNOWN AS N.E.R.D. NOW WITH THE BAND’S FIRST ALBUM, SITTING AROUND KEEPING SCORE, SPYMOB STEPS TO THE FRONT WITH THEIR OWN BRAND OF SEVENTIES' ROCK AND FUNK, CITING DIVERSE INFLUENCES LIKE STEELY DAN, BURT BACHARACH, AND STEVIE WONDER. NIGHT WATCHMAN TALKED TO JOHN OSTBY FROM THE ROAD TO FIND OUT HOW THE BAND GOT STARTED AND WHERE THEY’RE GOING NEXT.

Night Watchman: Are you sick of talking about N.E.R.D. and the part Spymob played in that band?

John Ostby: No, not at all.

NW: Can you tell me a little bit about how everything came together? I know you were already a band and had cut a demo and done some backing vocals on a project for Pharrell Williams, but how did the whole thing come about?

JO: What happened was-- some years back-- unbeknownst to us, somebody at our publishing company had given Pharrell and Chad some music that we had done, and they became big Spymob fans. They listened to our music pretty regularly. This was a time when we didn’t even know who they were; before a lot of people knew who they were. And it turned out that we shared a lawyer who was representing us on some business stuff, and the lawyer ended up introducing us. That led to us becoming involved with their record label, Star Track, and then they asked me to sing on that Kelis track, "Mr. U.F.O. Man". Eventually, they hired Spymob to be the live band on In Search Of..., their first record, and then we just started touring with them. So that’s how it came about.

NW: Did you guys have any input in the music on In Search Of..., or were you replicating what they had already constructed?

JO: For the most part, we were just hired guns replicating what they had started. But there were definitely some subtleties, like how things were played. I know I didn’t write too much, but Eric [Fawcett, drums] definitely contributed a lot in terms of coming up with some drum parts, and Brent [Paschke, guitar] and [Christian] Twigg on bass and guitar. So there was definitely room for input, but we were pretty much doing what their vision was.

NW: What was the vision of Spymob to begin with? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to be?

JO: I grew up playing in rock bands, as well as playing in big band, jazz, and jazz combos, so I was always interested in bringing rock together with more involved chord progressions. I was interested in things like Steely Dan and Burt Bacharach and Stevie Wonder, where people sort of brought that jazz influence into it. So that was definitely an early goal. And also just putting a big emphasis on really good songwriting. Probably every person in this band's favorite band is The Beatles-- just a really big emphasis on good songwriting and lyrics. But besides that, it was just about making music and seeing what happens.

NW: The music that Pharrell and Chad had heard, did any of those songs make it onto Sitting Around Keeping Score?

JO: The song “Sitting Around Keeping Score” and the song “Walking Under Green Leaves”. We kind of went back in later on and remixed those. They were not going to be on this album, but those songs always got such a response from people, they were always such favorites, and we were trying to pack as much juice as possible onto this album. We ended up just saying, “Let’s remix these and see how they would sound with these other songs.” And they sounded cool, so we were like, “Let’s give the people what they want. They want to hear these songs.” So we decided to put those songs on the album.

NW: Was it a good experience to go on the road with N.E.R.D. on a big tour to get an idea of what it would be like to tour as Spymob?

JO: It really has, and we’ve done so many different types of performance situations; we played TV shows all over the world, whether it be Letterman or Conan or Top of the Pops in England. And then playing really big arenas that Spymob wouldn’t be playing at this point. It’s been great and fun, even outside of the music; just traveling to a bunch of countries we’ve never been to. So, yeah, it’s been absolutely positive.

NW: And you also didn’t have to worry about as much of the business side as you would have if you were touring as Spymob, because you were the hired band on the N.E.R.D. tour.

JO: Exactly. It was totally free.

NW: Did that make it a lot easier when it was time for you to embark on this tour? Did you know how you needed to approach it?

JO: I think so, yeah. You gain experience being on the road. Even outside of the logistics of being on the road, I think there’s a real adjustment you have to make to it mentally and physically because of the weird sleep schedules. It’s just a weird lifestyle that takes some getting used to. Just getting your equilibrium doing it. So I think we’ve all definitely benefited from the experience of being out on the road.

NW: Did you already have all the material written for this album before you went out on tour with N.E.R.D., or did you do most of the writing after the tour?

JO: This album is a bunch of stuff from the last four years, so it’s stuff that was all recorded at different times. We’ve done a bunch of different tours with N.E.R.D., so I’m trying to think of when things exactly happened. For the most part, most of the album has been complete for a long time.

NW: Are you guys already itching to write for the next album?

JO: Well, we already have, and we’ve made a lot of recordings since then. I think that’s how you stay happy playing songs that you’ve had around for a long time; it’s about continuing to create new stuff so you’ve got your creative juices going, and still growing creatively.

NW: Right. That makes it easier on the band, as well. I’ve often heard people say that a band has their whole life to write their first album, and six months to write their second.

JO: Right. We definitely believe in keeping a bank account of songs so we’re not in too much of a jam having to write.

NW: I know this is the worst question to ask a musician, but if someone asks you what Spymob sounds like, how do you describe the band?

JO: I tell them it’s a combination of a lot of different classic influences. Some people hear old school R&B and funk and Motown combined with more of a modern rock aesthetic. And people definitely hear that we’ve got some Seventies' influences, like Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren and Steely Dan. And we don’t shy away from that. There is no way to avoid talking about influences, so we don’t have a problem with people citing other bands they hear in our music.

NW: I’ve often found, from being in bands myself, that it depends on who you ask in the band as to what they think the band sounds like. Like, if Brett or Eric get asked the same question about what they think Spymob sounds like, do you ever hear an answer that makes you go, “Where did that come from?”

JO: You know, I think we would probably pretty much answer the same kind of thing. I mean, we do all have different things we listen to, but I think we have an understanding of where most of our sound comes from. We have groups we’re really influenced by, but... like, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. But I don’t think anyone would hear that influence in our music. We all have very different influences, but I think we would all pretty much answer similarly. We’re partially basing that answer on what people say they hear in our influences.

NW: In your press release, one of the bands that was listed as a band that sounds similar to Spymob was Jellyfish. Was that a band that you personally were into?

JO: You know, I was never into Jellyfish. I think that was written into the bio by the writer because other people have heard that. I never really listened to Jellyfish much, so that would not be an influence of mine. But people do occasionally site them as a band that comes to mind when they hear us.

NW: What are your favorite tunes to play live? Are there songs that are much more personal to you?

JO: We think of the standards as being “Sitting Around Keeping Score”, “It Gets Me Going”, “Walking Under Green Leaves”, and “2040”. Those songs go over well live because of their energy, so those are definitely favorites. We don’t always play “I Still Live At Home” live because sometimes we don’t feel like playing slower songs at certain gigs. But that’s a song that I think is one of our best songs, lyrically. I like that one.

NW: And you guys are getting ready to go overseas to tour. How long are you going to be there?

JO: We’ll be out of the country for about four weeks. We’re going to Australia, Japan, and then around Europe.

NW: How has the reaction been to the album over there? Did it come out at the same time it was released here?

JO: It has not been released overseas yet. I mean, people can get it as an import or order it online, but it’s not readily available yet. But when we’ve played overseas it’s been very positive. It seems like people overseas are less locked into what genre something falls into. They’re a little more open for something to sound more random and not fit exactly into a format. I think that mentality helped us, because we don’t necessarily fit into a typical, narrow radio format, like the United States has these days. It’s been real positive for us, in terms of playing Europe and Japan, so we’re looking forward to going back.

NW: What’s on the agenda once you get back? More touring?

JO: Yeah. We’re pretty much touring through the summer, and then we’re scheduling things for the fall. I think we’re going to take a few weeks off in September, but we're pretty much staying out and playing live as much as possible.

NW: You guys really like being out on the road?

JO: We do, yeah. It’s fun. I mean, it’s tough being away from your home or your family for a long period of time, but we enjoy it.

NW: Well, I've got just one last question. It’s a question we ask everyone, and it has nothing to do with anything we’ve talked about, but it’s what we do.

JO: Okay.

NW: In your professional opinion, do you think dogs have lips?

JO: Do I think that dogs have what?

NW: Lips.

JO: As an owner of several dogs in my life, I would have to say I think they do not have lips.

NW: Okay. Because they don’t pucker at you?

JO: That, and I’ve just done a lot of intense romantic kissing with my dog, and I don’t usually feel lips. It just feels like a snout that I’m kissing.

NW: (laughs)

JO: Yeah. It’s all snout and tongue.

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