Following SXSW, James Smith, James Cleare and Heather Robb—former schoolmates who now comprise the singing/songwriting core of Brooklyn folk-rock band the Spring Standards—can officially check “perform an unplugged encore for Bill Murray” off their bucket lists.
“We’re playing the last song of our showcase, and people are applauding and want us to play another one, but we couldn’t go over the venue’s curfew,” Smith says. “And all of a sudden, out of the crowd, from nowhere, Bill Murray just comes over and sort of whispers, ‘Can you just play one more?’”
A consummate Life Aquatic lover, Smith responded as any Murray fan would in that situation:
“Oh, son of a bitch!”
Chance encounters are largely responsible for the band’s body of accomplishments since moving to New York City from the Pennsylvania/Delaware border. This includes releasing three self-financed albums of upbeat folk feasts, indulging a filmmaking friend’s pitch for some metropolitan cowboy cosplay, covering country icons with anywhere from two to 20 of their local band buddies as Dill Dotson And the Chupacabra Kings and choreographing fan-crafted puppet versions of themselves in one of several off-kilter music videos. The band’s newest project is a pair of EPs called Yellow and Gold, two Kickstarter-funded collections written and recorded six months apart, though unified by a vision of complementary colors.
We sat down with Heather and the Jameses to talk about Yellow//Gold on the patio of Brooklyn’s Qathra Cafe, which is within walking distance of Heather and James Cleare’s Brooklyn homes, as well as friend and producer Dan Molad’s apartment studio, where the Spring Standards wrote and recorded most of the new album.
Where did the concept for Yellow//Gold come from?
Heather Robb: It was actually an idea we briefly thought about when we were sequencing our last record. We were on our way to a gig and were like, man, these songs are so hard to sequence because some of them feel so specifically in one direction and some of them feel so specifically in another direction—maybe these should’ve been two EPs? When we talked to [producer] Danny [Molad] about it in the fall before we started recording, the distinction between the two EPs out of the gates was vivid in our minds, and connecting those songs to colors was vivid in our minds.
James Smith: The first color we attached to our music was yellow. We all knew that was the vibe, and we all had similar, subtly different ideas of what the sound of yellow was. So when we were writing Yellow I wasn’t writing [emits heavy metal noises through clenched teeth] “dugga-dugga-duh, dugga-dugga-duh-duh.” We were all writing for the color.
So how did those colors end up sounding?
James Cleare: On Yellow we’re more introspective, focused on the acoustic tones and spacey, Beach Boy harmonies. But on Gold we used a lot of organs and gnarly bass guitar and electric guitars and noise and stuff that you haven’t heard on our other records.
HR: A lot of the material, particularly for Gold, was written in the studio, which we’ve never done before. The confidence we gained in tracking Yellow offered us more freedom and the audacity to make bolder choices, which we needed for Gold. We wouldn’t have been able to make that record two years ago. We also learned a lot of songs after-the-fact, out on tour and at SX, which is the opposite of how we normally write and learn songs. It worked really well.
How many shows did you guys play at SX this year?
HR: I think it ended up being nine. We basically just said yes to everything, ’cause we wanted to play as many shows as possible in support of the new record. The thing about SX though is that for every one good show you have at least three terrible shows. You have like—and this happened to us this year—shows where the bar isn’t even open, and the bartender finally gets there and is like [adopting a husky, apish voice], “I don’t know who booked this, but my orders are this…”
JS: His exact words were, “Well Richard isn’t FUCKING here, so everyone get the FUCK out if you’re not the band!”
HR: It was noon, kind of an early show, but some fans came out, so we just played on the sidewalk.
There’s a video of you playing a song in the middle of the audience at Bowery Ballroom. Do you guys go off mic often?
JC: That Bowery show was our first album release. What a great show! It’s not rare for us to play off mic, but it is rare for us to go into the middle of the crowd and make a triangle.
HR: Once in Wisconsin we brought a whole audience into the men’s bathroom to do a song because the acoustics in there were so amazing. Everyone just followed us!
JS: People kept leaning the wrong way and setting the sensors off [laughs]. Then one time we were playing a show in Kentucky, and the power grid went down, and the whole block or 10 blocks just lost electricity. It was crazy—all the streetlights and everything was just out, and it was pitch-dark in the venue and hot too because it was summertime. There was one spotlight from an emergency light in the middle of the room, so everyone circled around us in this one spot, and we ended up playing another 20 minutes.
I really like the puppet versions of the band in the video for “Queen Of The Lot.” Did you make them yourselves?
JC: We did not make the puppets. That would be very weird to make puppets in our own image.
HR: We were approached by a fan who was a puppet maker.
JS: This guy’s actually amazing. His name is David Valentine. He’s really sweet, and he’s one of our most supportive fans. But I will say, before I got to know him, it was kind of creepy when I picked up these puppets. He came to us and was like, “Would you guys you like puppets of yourselves?” And when someone asks you that you don’t say, “No.” You have to be like, “Yeah. Give me a puppet of myself.” So he made these puppets, and he was like, “Let’s pick a place to meet.” So I was like, “Great, what should I bring to transport these puppets?” And he was like, “Just bring a duffel bag you can fit three toddlers in.” And I was like “…We’re meeting in an incredibly public place, right? Union Square? At midday?” [laughs] So this guy made these puppets and we had to find a use for them. Thus the music video for “Queen Of The Lot,” which took forever to do.
HR: We worked with a group called Story Pirates, a theater company and creative education program based in Manhattan but with schools in all five boroughs, and they just started another in L.A. I’m actually a teaching artist with them! But they have amazing puppets, and they donated a bunch of puppets and puppeteers for our video.
JS: A lot of the puppeteers had to be in these weird crouched gremlin positions to choreograph the scene with the dancing birds, and our good friend Seth Kirschner directed it. He’s actually a really accomplished actor who’s been in a few episodes of 30 Rock—he’s always the director dude who’s yelling at Tracy Jordan to learn his lines.
What became of the puppets?
JC: After the video I had all three of them at home. They were in a plastic bag, but one of them would always fall out, and I’d be staring at a likeness of myself. That was kind of disturbing.
JS: The puppets were at my house for a while when I lived in Queens. One night when my friends came over and we had a couple of drinks, we decided to make videos of these puppets before the “Queen Of The Lot” video, and we’d make Heather and James’s puppets just make out intensely on camera. We’d be filming them dancing and having a great time, and all of a sudden two of them would stop, turn to each other as the music played and just violently make out. That’s probably the most fun you can have with puppets that look like your friends.