Spookyland have been a band on the cusp of success for a while now. Four years to be exact. Nominated in the FBI SMAC awards' 'next big thing' category circa 2010, the group has reappeared on the same list in 2014, much to the amusement of singer and chief songwriter Marcus Gordon. "It's great. It's funny. Four years later are we still the next big thing?"
The recent nomination could be construed as a bit of a downer, an oblique suggestion that all this band have done is stagnate for four years, lingering around success without actually grabbing onto it. But when you consider the development from a musical standpoint between then and now, it becomes very difficult, nay impossible, to suggest that Spookyland have gone nowhere. The 2010 jams predominantly fell into the country genre, with the notable (and perhaps ironic) exception of 'Goin Nowhere', which anomalously possesses all the shoegazing wooziness of a Jesus & Mary Chain offering.
With the Rock and Roll Weakling EP (2014) however, the songs, although obviously sprouting from Gordon's countrified roots, each move into new areas for the band musically. This apparently had a lot to do with producer Tony Buchen's urging Gordon toward a different approach:
"There was like thirty or forty songs, and most of them were flat-out country and folk," explains Gordon. "It was a discussion with Tony, the producer, that led to [fostering] a sense of diversity and presenting something that's a little more holistic. Because my instinct would be to make an Americana EP—pedal steal, and Emmylou singing on it if I could get her. But he (Tony) didn't want us to be boxed in as another revivalist band."
But although Spookyland have broken new ground musically with this EP, perhaps the greatest leap forward has come in Gordon's newfound power over words. While in 2010 he was heavily focused on simple lamentations about lost love, Rock and Roll Weakling finds him drawing heavily upon existentialism and metaphor while still maintaining a grounded dose of heartbreak. Throughout there is a prevailing sense that Gordon feels distinctly like an outsider, a freak, a weakling forlorn in a rock and roll world of macho. But saying that these songs are thematic reflections of 'otherness' is to run the risk of lumping them into a pool that is thickly teeming with banality. On the contrary, Gordon has become a writer who deals with his outsider status by tackling it with unabashed honesty and dedication, and the result is a group of songs that refuse to just float along the surface but instead go deep into what it's like to feel troubled, anxious, abandoned and fatalistic — from Gordon's perspective anyway. But when it is suggested that the title of the EP comes across like an anti-genre thing; a title indicative of the idea that rock and roll is macho and that Spookyland don't belong within that field, Gordon claims to have never thought about it like that, at least not consciously.
"Oh, that's interesting. It could be about that subconsciously, it could be. I might steal that description for next time", Gordon laughs. "[The title] came from a conversation I had with Nick (bass player). Years ago he would always tell me about his philosophy that there was either rock and roll or shit. And basically any genre could be rock and roll if it was good — that's what the words meant, the essence of conviction and integrity. I wondered about that a lot, and I guess, I thought that if I had fallen into a rock and roll category by some grace of nature it would be as a very weak kind of Frankensteinian type guy."
'Frankensteinian' is actually a pretty apt way of describing Gordon as both writer and performer. There is a fragility to his songs, and as noted, such a quality is channeled through lyrics that mark the path of an outsider in a mob world. However, it is not just through words that Gordon shoulders an ostracised, even monstrous aspect. His vocal delivery is also that of a desperate character — shrill and strained to the point where one imagines that all those like Tallest Man on Earth could do is tip a hat and walk on. Moreover, all the pops and grinds that colour Gordon's voice also mark it as the tool of an enigmatic creature whom is only narrowly avoiding complete meltdown.
On the band's most impactful single to date "The Silly Fucking Thing", for example, Gordon thrashes out lines like "and I'm a damn good carpenter" to the point where the speakers sound in danger of splitting. Such tension in the sound couples naturally with the intent of the song — to underscore the bitterness and anger incumbent upon the condition of heartbreak; a condition, among other emotional peaks and troughs, that Gordon finds himself grappling with daily.
"It's very emotional, I guess. I never understood how playing music couldn't be emotional," he explains. "How you couldn't throw yourself hard into that world. It just only seemed natural to be very serious about lyrics and the way you sing things, so the sound and feel of the vocal is a very natural thing to me."
Following on from the idea that hard-biting emotions are at play in Gordon's songwriting, he addresses fatalism as a concept heavily at work on the record. Though in doing so he stops short of saying that he actively focusses on death in the writing process, but that it flows through, again, subconsciously:
"I actually heard Bob Dylan say that the only thing we have in common with each other is our mortality, and I think about death first thing every morning," says Gordon. "I get my cigarette and think about death all morning, and then drop it for a while before I'm back thinking about it when I go to bed. And I don't want to die, but it's just a frenzy of, I don't know what it is, thoughts I can't avoid I guess. And the world itself is falling apart. It looks like it's exploding right in front of my face... But I'd say writing about death is still an intuitive thing. I'm not too sure where it's coming from sometimes. For example, I couldn't write if I was feeling bad. So I guess it all comes from memories, I'm channeling something that's already happened. I'm not the kind of guy who gets depressed and sits down with a guitar; I have to be very neutral when I write."
When people talk about death and apocalypse there is inevitably a Biblical touchstone, and it is hard to avoid taking note of such allusions in listening to Rock and Roll Weakling. Biblical-plague type motifs loom large in these songs — "crescent sun", "blood rain". Gordon connects such references to the impact of a religious education and a concomitant fear-mongering:
"I went to a religious high school and I was pretty traumatised by the full-on Bible stories when I was young. And it was just the way the teachers went about it, they were very hell-focused. I had to un-learn all that and find spirituality in a positive way, but it still definitely comes back. I do something wrong and I still feel like the devil's next to me, I actually hear him sometimes, I have this acute sense of him and then it goes away. It's something that even though it consciously makes no sense to me — the concept of hell or dooms day or paradise being selective — it still comes back, it's like a reflex or something, and I think I'm just exploring that I guess."
Alongside themes of death and apocalypse, Gordon also spends a fair amount of time exploring the animalistic qualities of human beings on Rock and Roll Weakling. And much like his reasoning behind delving into a world teetering on the brink — "exploding right in front of [our] face"—he looks into the human-animal conflation because, for him, it is a reality.
"Well that's what I observe," says Gordon. "I have to write about it because I see it in everyone. The ideas don't really take on theory or anything, it's more just images and a general feeling I have. It's like, the distance between nature and civilisation is always a huge thing for me."
It may only be a "general feeling" that Gordon takes into his songwriting, but the fact is that he covers off some areas on Rock and Weakling that move well beyond generalities and into bloody psychological subsections that, quite frankly, hurt to face up to. Saying that, it shouldn't be taken that Spookyland are simply purveyors of demoralising, even devastating effects. Rather they should serve as a reminder that ambitious and unveiled lyricism has a place within modern rock and roll.