Who will replace Chicago, Styx, and Toto on the summer county fair circuit when no original members remain? A nation's lonely eyes turn to the '90s. While grunge has kept medical examiners busy, many onetime indie rockers are still kicking — if they can be lured away from their slacker slumber.
"Someone has to fill those amphitheatres," cracks Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs, aka Scott Kannberg. "REO Speedwagon and Yes will be dead."
Potential classic rock replacement Kannberg ended an eight-year recording hiatus in March with Doris and the Daggers, the follow-up to 2009's breakup album The Real Feel. Pavement reunited in 2010 for a year of intermittent touring, and afterward Kannberg joined his new wife in Australia, her native home. There he spent the next several years on the beach, mowing the lawn, and mostly just hanging out, not even making music.
However as the children reached school age, the family heard America calling. Back in Los Angeles, Kannberg's musical juices began percolating. He planned to bang out an album of garage rock nuggets quick and dirty in under a week before the sudden death of longtime collaborator, 39-year old drummer Darius Minwalla (Posies).
"That kind of threw me for a loop and in six months or so I started writing other types of songs, and then I was just like, 'I can't still do a garage rock record,'" Kannberg recalls from his new home in Mérida, Mexico. (Los Angeles proved too expensive; who knew?)
He bounced some ideas off his friend Kelley Stoltz, who plays guitar on the breezy track "AWM," and enlisted the help of Broken Social Scene drummer Justin Peroff. His bandmate Kevin Drew also lends a hand (vocals on "Emoshuns"), and the National's Matt Berninger sings on "Exiled Tonight."
"I called up all my friends; 'I need help guys,'" Kannberg laughs. It was a hootenanny. "Some people were just starting AA, others were like on a 10-day bender. It was like The Gong Show! It was hard to have to keep it together and have to push one way, now the other way."
The result is an alternately catchy, slightly woolly album with debts to the '80s and art rock. Early tracks like "Emoshuns" and "No Comparison" ride punchy rhythms and throwback synths recalling acts like Echo and the Bunnymen and the Wedding Present. The second half turns more psychedelic, evoking the stylish baroque sway of Roxy Music, particularly on numbers like "Trams (Stole My Love)" and "Angel Eyes."
"My favorite records are where you can only sit through a side of a record at a time," Kannberg offers, flashing his old school roots. "When I sequence a record I try to think of it that way. You have 15 to 20 minutes to kind of sit with something, so the first side is very much kind of a happier vibe and then it gets into kind of more personal and a little more into issues."
When Pavement first broke up, Kannberg initially founded a band called Preston School of Industry. When it came time to put out The Real Feel, using the moniker Spiral Stairs felt more appropriate, as it was more of a solo effort, as well as a reflection on moving away from his old band's approach.
"The early Preston stuff was more rooted in my Pavement songwriting thing, where it's like, 'Oh here's a riff, I'm just going to work around it,'" he explains. "Now that I'm a lot older, I still have those kinds of songs. But you know, the other kinds of songs interest me a little more."
This isn't to suggest displeasure or even boredom with those old songs. Indeed, Kannberg plays several Pavement tracks in his set. He's never been particularly precious about his legacy.
"The legacy thing, yeah I'm totally comfortable. I've always been comfortable with it," he says. "I'm pretty thankful that people have liked my bands and there is nothing wrong with celebrating that. Like, fuck, you're 50; in 10 years people might not even know who you are."
We talk about the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, and Kannberg suggests it's perhaps different being the guitarist rather than the frontman, the one everyone's looking at, always expected to be "on."
"The other day, someone asked why Malkmus came off as a jerk, and I was like, I don't think he was a jerk. It's just that being a frontman is a lot of stress and sometimes people deal with it in different ways," he says. "I don't think you try to be one, it's just that sometimes you come off as one because of nerves."
But time has a way of softening the hardest attitudes. The members of Pavement have already discussed reuniting again in the next couple years, as "the 2010 reunion was pretty fun for everyone in the band, even Malkmus."
In the meantime, Kannberg's excited to get back out on tour and start releasing music at a more regular clip.
"That's my attitude with the digital world: Nobody is telling you that you can't release a song. You can put out three records in a year. Some people will care and some people will go, 'That's too much,' but at least you're doing something," Kannberg says. "You're 50. You might as well try to do it while you can."
Spiral Stairs plays Third Man Records with Outrageous Cherry on Tuesday, June 20; doors at 7:30 p.m.; 441 W. Canfield St., Detroit; thirdmanstore.com; $12.