Shut Up and Listen: A Lesson in Jam with Spafford February 3, 2018 16:07

Interview by Brett Hutchins: Brett on Bands

Photos by Brian Hensley Photography

Spafford is on fire. The four-piece Arizona experimental funk rock band set the jam scene ablaze last year, with opening slots for Umphrey’s McGee and double dose day and night sets at Suwannee Hulaween that garnered them fans from across the country. Those sets were a prime example of a band primed to take every opportunity thrown their way.

They’re already riding that momentum into a strong 2018 with sellouts of small rooms across the South. Sandwiched between a sold out Atlanta debut and a string of Florida dates dubbed the “Fourida Tour” by its rabid fans, keyboardist Andrew "Red" Johnson chatted with us about traveling at breakneck speed into uncharted improvisational waters. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, but improv remained the theme throughout this interview.

You can count on one finger how many other bands do it as well as Spafford does. 

The band’s motto is “we jam”. Define that magic three-letter word.

Red: It’s our goal to create something brand new every night. We don’t want it to get stale for the fans or us. We’re interested in creating something on the spot rather than the cookie cutter show with the same chords and the same jams every night. It’s a lot more fun to explore new avenues with everything, with each instrument, vocals, and every facet of the music.

As much to keep you guys sane on the road as anything, I’d guess.

Red: It’s never boring on the road, but it’d be a lot less interesting if we played the same show every night.

I’ve read that sometimes you’ll even do songs in different keys just to keep it interesting.

Red: Sometimes it’s that, but sometimes, especially with covers, we’ll forget which key to play it in, and instead of taking the time to look it up, we just play it however we feel like it. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting it to fit better in my vocal range.

How does the band recover if a jam starts to plod along some of the members might be lost musically within it?

Red: With the type of music we play, we’ll inevitably run into those ripcord moments where it’s not going anywhere, but we aren’t a band with a bunch of hand signals or visual cues. I’m not over there talking to Jordan about what we’re doing next. We just feel it. That’s the thing about improv music. Sometimes you go out on a limb and it works, but sometimes that limb breaks. There’s no set way we do it. Sometimes we just pull the plug and get out of there.

Risk and reward is something you guys must be experts on.

Red: You have to find balance, but we definitely aren’t afraid to try anything. Switching modes and chords within a jam is nothing foreign to us. It’s something we look forward to. We love the risk. That’s the gamble, and we’re going to give it a shot. The payoff is great, but there’s something special about being in the moment and working to that together with a common goal.

How much impact does the crowd have on the show?

Red: 100%. Because of the style we enjoy playing, this truly improvisational style, if the crowd is really raging and throwing down, chances are the music will be more aggressive. If they’re more laid back and grooving, then the music probably will be, too. It’s not an intentional thing, either. It just seems to happen.

How does the spirit of improv bleed into how you live your life day to day?

Red: Life on the road is not like it is in the movies. I’ve never met anyone who wants to throw a TV out of the hotel room window. The truth of the matter is that life on the road can sometimes be quite dull. The best times we have are on the stage. We find something to occupy our time. The guys went disc golfing the other day to pass the time. That’s not for me, but they had fun I think.

So there’s a whole lot of “hurry up and wait” on the road?

Red: You get done playing and have that high. You get that rush every time, but when you get done, it’s a matter of “oh, I guess I’ll get back on the bus for the next however many hours.” Then you play the show and it’s rinse and repeat. But it’s still the absolute best job in the world and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Has the release of improv-only sets to different outlets been purposeful?

Red: We’re really proud of the Abaculus record we just put out. It’s an hour straight of improv we did in our rehearsal space without even having the intention of recording it. Our bassist Jordan was actually the only one who knew we were recording. I’ve listened to it a million times and remember immediately thinking we should release it. At the risk of sounding artsy, I’ve got nothing to prove. I’ve played enough shows, some of them to just the bartender, to not depend on what other people think too much. If they love it, awesome, but if they don’t, I hope they vote with their feet and know that we committed to doing something original together.

Did Jordan have ulterior motives when he hit record?

Red: No. We all love to record everything we do. I listen to almost everything we play. It’s similar to an athlete watching game film. We’re always looking and listening for ways to get better. Hitting record is just what we do.

How do you feel about the jam band label? How do you differentiate yourselves from others in the genre?

Red: Oh man, that’s a debate that’s been going on for years and probably will live forever. What does that term actually mean? Yes, we are a band that jams. But we’re also four guys in a band. Does that make us a boy band? Do all jam bands have to have fans that wear tie dye? Do you have to be stoned to enjoy our music? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s totally undefinable. In the end, we hope we make people dance.

Last question. My beautiful girlfriend wants to know if you like cucumbers. So I must ask. Do you like cucumbers.

Red: Who doesn’t like cucumbers? Or at least who is less than neutral on it? It’s like eating water. I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus, but we might have a couple guys in the camp who refuse to get in with the cucumbers. I refuse to name names. But yes. I enjoy cucumbers.

Watch Spafford performing to a sold out crowd in Wisconsin here: