When Chris Barron, lead singer for Spin Doctors, calls from his New York home to discuss the band’s upcoming NYC-area shows, he really wants audience members to know one thing.
“We really take pride in our live performances. If anybody comes out and they don’t feel like we gave a good show, tell them to ask me for their money back and I’ll take care of them.” It’s a promise he repeats during the course of this interview, so it’s apparently an earnest offer.
A few days later, drummer Aaron Comess, calling from his home in Brooklyn, seems equally secure in his prediction about these upcoming concerts. “You can expect a really good high-energy show. You’ll hear all the songs that you probably want to hear, but there’s also going to be some deep cuts and some of the blues stuff and us stretching out. It’s a fun, good time. I can honestly say that everybody sounds great. I’m really proud of how good the band is playing.”
Their confidence is likely well-founded. Even before their 1991 debut album Pocket Full of Kryptonite spawned the massive hits “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” Spin Doctors had already earned a reputation for being one of the more popular and accomplished jam bands on the touring circuit.
Giving audiences exactly what they want is still something the members take very seriously. “We play a different set every night. We go through some of our deeper cuts and try to do a bit of something from most of our albums, [but] we always play the hit songs,” Barron says. “If you come out and you want to hear “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” you can be certain we’re going to play them.”
According to both Barron and Comess, being expected to play these same particular songs at every show is not a burden, and they do try to respect people’s wish to hear them played in a familiar way. “A song like “Two Princes,” for us to go out and play a different version, it would be mean!” says Comess. (But he recommends that anyone who is interested in a very different take on one of their familiar songs should search YouTube for “Spin Doctors Two Princes Jam in the Van” to see them do a reggae take on that hit, along with their friend John Popper of Blues Traveler.)
Barron adds that the band’s improvisational style also helps them find fresh ways to approach these familiar songs. “We’ve always had this musical conversation onstage, even when we play a song that we’ve played many, many times before. We wouldn’t go out and play “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” as a bossa nova, but a little musical reading between the lines gets done.”
Barron thinks it is this unpredictability—even for the members themselves—that makes Spin Doctors music so enduring. “I think people are fascinated by improvisational music because of its spontaneity, but also because it’s this extraordinarily pure form of communication that lives in the moment. There’s a mystery to it. People who don’t play music are astonished at the idea that the musicians aren’t exactly sure, from moment to moment, what exact notes are going to be played. To know that it’s coming at you in this spontaneous way is deeply exciting and stimulating for people. I think that the task for musicians like us and Phish and Blues Traveler [is that] we’re really trying to be spontaneous with the music.”
This approach can sometimes be risky—having no “musical map” to follow means that sometimes things can go awry. “We call that a ‘full band clam!’” Barron says with a laugh. “But it doesn’t happen as often as you would think. Because even when we make mistakes, we’re trained to correct it with the thing that you do next, and nobody knows that you’re kind of fucking up.” Comess agrees. “I’ve realized, there’s really no such thing as a mistake, it’s how you react to it and doing something with it.”
Gracefully handling any musical challenge that arises is something that Spin Doctors members were formally trained to do. Barron and Comess, along with guitarist Eric Schenkman, met while studying at the New School’s jazz conservatory in New York City. Bassist Mark White, who had played with Comess in another band, completed the lineup. Bonding over their love for the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, as well as sharing an interest in playing improvisational music, made it clear right from the start they were creating something captivating. “I think it’s definitely a special thing when you get a certain sound with a certain group of people, and that just organically happened with us,” Comess says. “It was obvious after about nine months that people liked what we were doing, they were reacting to it.”
It wasn’t long before they dropped out of school to pursue Spin Doctors full-time. Things weren’t always easy establishing themselves in the New York City music scene, though. “We did crazy stuff to get the band off the ground,” Barron says. “Back then, there was no Internet, so people went out. We would play six, seven, eight nights in a row, and then take a day off, and then just start playing again. We called it ‘The Manhattan Tour.’” He and Comess agree that this hectic performance schedule, while grueling, played a huge part in helping the band develop its distinctive sound and performance skills.
This work ethic served them well, resulting in their phenomenally popular Pocket Full of Kryptonite album. But unfortunately for them, by the time they released their next albums (1994’s Turn It Upside Down and 1996’s You’ve Got to Believe in Something), grunge had fully overtaken the music scene, and Spin Doctors found their mostly upbeat sound was suddenly out of favor. Tensions arose in the band, resulting in lineup changes that left Barron as the only constant member.
Looking back on those difficult years, Barron offers a frank explanation for why they couldn’t keep things together. “Most bands form because the members are friends. But we weren’t friends when we formed. Each guy in the band thought the other three guys were the best guys around. I thought those three were the best drummer, bass player, and guitar player around. And those guys thought I was the best singer around. And as a result, there was this current in the band that’s like, ‘Listen, I don’t care what you’re going through, get onstage and play.’ And so the music has always been the absolute most important thing, and our interpersonal things have always taken a back seat to that. And so we broke up.”
As fraught as things were, though, Comess says that there was never any discussion of changing the Spin Doctors sound to try to fit in with this new scene. “People can see if you’re really doing something that’s real and you’re not trying to do something just to be successful. Trying to copy what’s popular at the moment, to have that same success, usually doesn’t work because somebody’s already doing it. We never did that—we were always completely honest with what we do.”
By 2005, grunge’s stranglehold on the business was long over, and the original members saw that the time was right reconcile and give Spin Doctors another shot. They released an album that year, Nice Talking to Me, that received positive reviews. “When we got back together, we realized how great the music was,” Barron says. “It began the process of us putting aside our differences and just playing together. And I’m glad we did.” But even so, it wasn’t until 2013 that the band released If the River Was Whiskey, which remains their latest studio album.
Barron is candid about the band’s struggles to find their footing again. “We’ve had our ups and downs, like anybody would over 30 years working closely together. Honestly, to speak really frankly with you, there’s been times where there was really serious acrimony in the band, and it is a bit of a miracle that we were able to get back together. I think it’s because each guy in the band knows that we’re never going to play like this with any other group of musicians. And now, we all know each other very well, and we take each other as we are. Everybody in the band is a good, funny soul.” He also adds that they are, in fact, good friends now.
With their difficulties finally behind them, the members are determined to build up Spin Doctors once again. To this end, they plan to make a new studio album around the time of the three NYC-area shows. They will record it at His House Studios, the recording studio that Comess runs in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. “It’s time we did something,” Barron says. “I’ve got a bunch of lyrics laying around that I’m sure will be cool. And I know those guys will be sitting on a bunch of riffs and pieces of music that they want to fool around with. Then we sort of Frankenstein things together. ‘What if we took that riff and this lyric, and can you make that a little longer so this line fits?’ It’s a lot of fun working with those guys, because they’re such great musicians.”
Comess is also excited to see what happens in the studio, and he concurs with Barron that, true to form, the band will be spontaneous with the new material. “We’re starting completely from scratch,” he says, noting that they don’t even have an album title in mind yet. “We have nothing.” But this doesn’t worry them because, as he adds, “We’re going to know right away whether something we’re doing feels good. And if not, then we move on to something else. In our case, it’s really about capturing that moment, more than getting the perfectly tight performance. But there’s absolutely no pressure. It’s my studio, there’s no record company breathing down our backs, there’s no timeline. It’s really just coming from a total creative place. I’m optimistic—it’s gonna be fun!”
As he contemplates the upcoming shows and recording sessions, Barron becomes reflective about everything that being in Spin Doctors has already given him. “I had a really difficult time as a kid, my family life was really rough, and I always retreated into music—music was a safe place in my head. I could use music and singing and writing songs to synthesize the more difficult emotions into something more productive. Singing in this band gave me the opportunity to be a professional musician. “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” set us all up to do that for the rest of our lives. So I’m definitely grateful.”
Be sure to catch Spin Doctors on January 24 at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, NJ, on January 25 at The Paramount in Huntington, NY, and January 30 at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, Brooklyn!