For Travis Spillers, change is good. From his days playing guitar with seminal punk-rockers Los Federales, and co-fronting pioneering garage-rockers the Knockout Pills, he's kept moving artistically. With the Freezing Hands, the 40-year old has hit his creative stride, crafting what will surely be one of the year's finest albums. And now, the story:
"Everything happened within a year. I met my wife, the Knockout Pills fell apart. I was really jazzed and into the band at the time, but I said to myself, 'I'll just keep going and do something else.' That felt fine. For a year, I stopped playing music."
This hiatus was short-lived. Married, with the first of two sons on the way, Spillers caught the music bug again, filling his time with the bands FANNS, and then the self-described "dumb-rock" act the Creamys. By the summer of 2011, he was a full-time student and father, but the musical ideas that would become the Freezing Hands were beginning to take shape.
"How great would that be to write an album a year and keep up that pace?," he says. "I had a vault of 20-second beginnings to myriad songs," and he brought those fragments to his friend and ex-Knockout Pill Matt Rendon, who plays drums in the Freezing Hands.
"It started out going to Matt's the occasional Saturday night, 'cause I don't get out very often, and we'd just drink beers and see if we can rip through some parts of songs. A lot of times, I had a whole melody; we'd think of a refrain for the song, and if we could do it, we'd get it down within an hour and lay down the basic tracks because I have another one! A lot of times we'd get two songs done in a night," he explains.
Inspired by the Raspberries, Badfinger, Sparks, and other '70s power-poppers, Spillers and Rendon were tracking mostly on an old analog cassette 4-track machine, an anomaly in this era of Pro Tools computer recording. At his Coma Cave Studio, Rendon, who also fronts The Resonars, records everything this way, preferring the warmer quality that real tape lends to music, despite it being a rather arduous and time consuming process. "It's simple for me. It gets natural compression that makes clean sounds a little dirty," Rendon says. There's also another reason: "I'm just stubborn. I'm more concerned with the making of music rather than the nuts and bolts of learning new gear."
Spillers' increasing responsibilities as a family man forced him to focus on songwriting and recording on the fly. "I'm lucky to get out twice a month and get over there [to Coma Cave]. I had no time to sit around and work on the songs. That's why it happened over there." So a routine developed: "It's my Saturday, put the baby down, and get over to Matt's. Let's get drinking and eating some food. Hop in the pool. I've always had that little handheld recorder on me. Something gets in your head, and you're, like, 'I'd better get this down.'" After several songs were completed, Rendon and Spillers began adding musicians, starting with bassist Jeremy Schliewe, also a member of The Resonars. And with the excitement came some self-imposed pressure.
"We invited Jeremy to lay down a bass line on a track," says Spillers. "That guy's awesome, and the next thing you know he's there every other Saturday, too. But it was also after we added him and then Scott (Landrum, keyboards), there's three guys sitting around, and I gotta write this shit faster. 'Just give me 10 minutes!'"
After several months, 20 songs were completed and ready to be mixed at Waterworks Recording Studio by Jim Waters. Unbeknownst to the other band members, Rendon started spreading the word about the Freezing Hands. Among those who received recordings was Sean Bohrman of Burger Records, an independent label based in southern California that specializes in releases on cassette tape. (Burger releases albums by The Resonars, among other Tucson bands.) Rendon says he sent out the recordings because, "I thought it would be fun, and funny." Says Spillers: "Matt sent it to Sean without even telling me. He just said, 'I figured I'd do that. I hope you're not mad.'" Bohrman was extremely impressed with what he heard, and informed Spillers the following day that Burger Records wanted to release the band's music as an 11-song cassette. "I wouldn't have sent it out in the first place," Spillers says. "But that's good. That'll be 150 more people that get it."
So what do we get? Eleven tracks of great, soulful rock and roll, informed by, but not anchored to, the classic British Invasion groups and American garage rock bands of the mid-1960s. The songs run the gamut from the deceptively bouncy rave-up "Pretty Ann" to the don't-take-the-brown-acid psych nightmare of "Old Grey Mare" back to the surreal rock 'n' roll portrait "Cake & Doughnuts Awesome!"
"Lyric-wise, I haven't changed a lot over the years. They're typically funny, and some songs are about friends who have died, and there's stuff about how ridiculous people are. Life is pretty funny to me, so it's pretty natural." says Spillers.
There is, however, nothing funny about the album's high point, the moving "Numbers for Sale." Lowering his voice a few octaves below his typical helium-huffing range, Spillers gets serious: "Every Good Friday we want to spend following parasite people who don't give a shit about love, and it's tearing us up like a hurricane blowing us into the sea," he intones. Why, what, who, where, and how? "You could point it at hippies; you could point it at anybody that's like 'this is what love is' and they jam it down your throat ... especially people that you need to care about, for whatever reason, for whatever banner you want to carry," he explains. "You're like, 'Why do I have to expend so much fucking energy on people who don't give a shit about me, and that I can try to care for, and it's like spinning your wheels.'"
The major changes in Spillers' life in the last few years have indeed changed his perspective on everything. "Having kids drastically changes your life and how it operates. It's a whole different sort of love that you feel. Do I think I would've made the same record without those kids? Probably so, 'cause a lot of the same kind of feeling was happening in my life. That period of five or six years ago, I had all sorts of little epiphanies happen at once [that helped inspire the songs]."
While Spillers writes the songs, with Rendon, Schliewe, and Landrum essentially backing him up, he does not undersell their major contributions to the Freezing Hands' debut. He says, "They're enablers and co-writers. I feel extremely fortunate ... and I hope we keep doing that, 'cause I have a whole digital recorder full of another album."
"I can make something entirely different each time and feel pretty good about it. Following whatever sort of fancy you have at the time." And then Spillers laughs and says, "Whether it sucks or not doesn't really matter."