Reader, roughly one thousand years ago, this writer was in a band. This band was named Speedwell and, regardless of how awesome or not awesome it was to listen to or watch live, it was awesome to be in.
Primary reason being that we were all, first and foremost, friends. And, though I had been various bands with friends in high school whose names differed but all fell well within the territory of Terribly Absurdly Named—Hippies for Hatred, Louder than Rob, Disco Circus Wonder Kult (yes, with a ‘K’)—this was the first band I was ever a part of who, not only had an un-cringe-worthy name, but also produced some decent music.
Though we had a short, erratic, start-stop life as a band, only touring a few times and producing an EP, a 7″, and a demo or two, this short, erratic, start-stop life as a band is now being captured sonically and spiritually with the release of Start to Finish, a posthumous discography comprising 17 re-mastered songs, from official releases to 4-track demos.
Such an occasion clearly calls for one thing—a band interview discussing the pitfalls of having three song-writers and four singers, what we did to our drummer when he slept, outlandish tour stories, and why we weren’t quite the next Radiohead…conducted by me. Obviously.
We’re also posting a previously unreleased, exclusive track from the discography immediately preceding the interview (because we can do that)—”Night Cares”, a song that seems apropos given that:
1. It includes the full band in its latest incarnation;
2. Along with the two additional songs embedded below, it showcases all four of our singers + three of our song-writers and the resulting crazy scattershot sound;
3. It was recorded by our friend Archie Moore of seminal indie bands Velocity Girl + Black Tambourine; and
4. It’s a song I wrote about how much I love Katie + how it sucked to leave her for the Peace Corps after college. True story.
Without any further ado, I give you
AN UNFORGIVINGLY LONG INTERVIEW WITH THE NOW-DEFUNCT BAND SPEEDWELL, AS CONDUCTED BY A FORMER MEMBER OF THE BAND SPEEDWELL
Troy (guitar/keys/bass/vocals/interviewer): Okay, guys, I’ll keep this as brief + hard-hitting as possible as I know we’re all super-busy, important adults these days and the merits of interviewing your long-defunct band for your little-read blog are questionable, at best. So, first off, in your most accurate, telling words, describe the spirit + sound of Speedwell?
Brian (bass/keys/vocals): Must…try…not to be…stupid….
Jonathan (drums): I can’t remember. It’s been 10 years, after all.
Troy: Ooh, related question—is it too late to change the name of this anthology thing to The Spirit + Sound of Speedwell?
Brian: Well, I would describe Speedwell’s sound as “incoherent”, to be honest. We wanted to do and be too many different things. We lacked the discipline to commit to a musical idea, I think. We couldn’t even pick a single singer. We had FOUR singers.
Troy: Well-put, Brian. Also, Jon, why didn’t you sing? You missed out, man.
Jonathan: I sang! On “Kuma”. And then I wasn’t allowed to sing again. I was watching this documentary on the band Karp recently though, and someone made a comment about bands being the sound of the friendship of the people involved. I think that accurately describes Speedwell.
Troy: Aw. Jon. That’s nice.
Meredith (guitar/vocals): To put it in a better light, I would say that we were friends who had instruments and liked to play shows, so we wrote some songs.
Troy: Those are my favorite bands to be in. So, for whoever wants to take this and for those few out there not familiar with the band, how + when did it form?
Jonathan: Fall of 1996. It was Troy, Meredith, and I. Well, actually it was Meredith and I at first. And we practiced at Troy’s house. And Troy heard it and liked it, so he joined.
Cheryl (vocals/keys): We are old.
Jonathan: Soooo very old. But, yeah, I was desperately trying to start a band at JMU, and Meredith was the first person who I jammed with whose songs I really liked. Plus, we had a place to practice, so that helped.
Troy: You’re welcome. So, then after Speedwell v.1.0, the band went through various incarnations, bringing in Brian to play bass and, after our first break-up, Cheryl for vocals, keys, and fashion sense.
Brian: Yeah, I was forced to join Speedwell b/c Troy was borrowing my bass guitar, and playing it so violently and spastically that I was afraid he would break it.
Troy: Again, you’re welcome.
Brian: Also, it’s not like Cheryl dressed super-fashionably. She wore homemade dresses with bugs on them and raggedy hems.
Troy: To be fair, that was pretty fashionable back then. No, but I feel like, in addition to Brian’s comment on never really committing to a sound, the whole evolution and various versions leant to us not really defining ourselves or settling on a gestalt for the band. Would you all agree?
Cheryl: I agree with that.
Brian: I agree, both about the gestalt and the fashion.
Troy: Also, I totally used ‘gestalt’ in an interview. WIN!
Jonathan: I liked the fact that we were diverse (relatively speaking).
Cheryl: But not only did we have four vocalists, there were three separate songwriters with three totally separate styles.
Jonathan: That’s a fact.
Brian: That kind of diversity makes for a confusing band to listen to. It’s diverse, but in a bad way.
Jonathan: I like bands that don’t have just one sound, though. I like to be surprised by each new song on an album.
Troy: Like watching a horror movie….
Brian: I think if I could go back in time and give Speedwell some key pieces of advice about focus, it would have been a better and more successful band. But it was still super fun.
Jonathan: Most bands are messes, though. Everyone has lives, and they get in the way of being a band.
Cheryl: I think it can be good to have different sounds as a band, but it’s harder to keep people interested when things change all the time and there’s not much consistency.
Meredith: I’d agree with Brian. This was a fun college band that tried to be more. It was fun. I have good memories. We have some good songs and even better pieces of songs. But it is a bit all over the map.
Troy: I’d say that’s accurate. Alright, now this next one might touch on some sore spots—exactly how devastated would you say you all were when you learned that I was joining the Peace Corps and moving to Poland, thus dashing Speedwell’s hopes + dreams for a major record deal/tour shirts with wolves on them/tricked-out tour bus? Cheryl, I realize you weren’t in the band then….
Troy: …just OUR BIGGEST FAN!
Cheryl: Hell yes!
Meredith: I would honestly say that I wish you had stuck around. That summer would have been a fun tour.
Brian: Oh yeah. I think at the time, I was genuinely disappointed about the impact that would have on our band.
Troy: Well, now I feel bad all over again.
Jonathan: Honestly, at that point, I wasn’t that devastated, because my life was so uncertain—graduating college, not having a job, not sure where I’m going to live, breaking up with my girlfriend. I was otherwise preoccupied, so it didn’t really bother me.
Meredith: Wow. The tables have turned. Jon not upset the band is breaking up and Brian and I lamenting the loss?
Jonathan: This could be revisionist history, mind you.
Cheryl: Yeah, it was 17 years ago….
Meredith: Which is why I am only sobbing and not openly weeping, Cheryl!
Troy: I was totally in that ‘gotta save the world’, post-college mind-set. Turns out, Poland’s fine. Do you all honestly think the path of the band or how things turned out would have been drastically different though?
Meredith: Yes—we likely would have broken up sooner and not gotten back together. But that summer would have been rad.
Jonathan: Right. I think being a successful band means everyone having to put all other things on hold and just committing to the band. I don’t think, as a group, we ever would have done that. Of all my friend’s bands who I thought were awesome, very few have had any “success”.
Troy: Good point, Jon. Remember Swank, Brian?
Brian: Poor bastards.
Troy: We all thought they were going to be the next….what Jesus Jones, back then? Oh, Jesus Jones….. I feel like, in a way, me moving to Poland made my relationship with Katie stronger through the absence + commitment to stay together through it. The band didn’t stay together, but I do think getting back together was something I wanted to do as soon as I got back for that reason—that we broke up kinda because we had to, not because we wanted to.
Jonathan: Yeah, I think I was mainly just bummed we didn’t get better recordings of the songs we had written before we broke up.
Brian: Yeah, I sure wish we had better-quality recordings.
Meredith: We didn’t have any money to record!
Brian: To be in a band for YEARS and have only one EP is a great example of straight-up being bad at the business of being a band.
Meredith: Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever paid my dad back for the money he let me borrow to record the 7″.
Troy: …er…I gave Jon the money to give to you…. Okay, next question—so, then we ended up calling things quits for final time—in, what, 2003?—when Cheryl + I moved up to NYC. It seemed like things were starting to wind down at that point though and various ‘grown-up’ pursuits were pulling us all in different directions. That said, I feel like those last songs we were writing were totally some of our best. Would you all agree?
Meredith: I think we peaked at “Pacifique”.
Jonathan: Yeah, I don’t know, I think some of the early stuff was also awesome.
Brian: Those recordings from the Black Cat that Jon shared sounded terrible, but the songs buried under the sonic detritus were pretty decent.
Troy: No, but listening back to stuff, I do kind of feel most compelled by the earliest stuff—when we were a trio and much more simple in our song-writing—and the very last stuff that we only had live recordings of.
Cheryl: I think i was added as a last ditch effort to keep it going.
Brian: I think Cheryl, you were added to re-energize the band. We were at a loss.
Cheryl: Same diff.
Jonathan: We added Cheryl because Chad Clark told us to, and you do what Chad Clark says.
Brian: We should have added MORE people, all of whom would sing and play new instruments.
Meredith: And write different songs.
Brian: The Polyphonic Speedwell! God, even the lyrics didn’t match at all from song to song.
Brian: Meredith always wrote in first person (“I”) and I always wrote in first person plural (“we”), for example. Lord knows why.
Troy: Huh. Wonder what that means ABOUT YOU‽‽‽ Okay, next question, and this is a deep one—can someone explain to our readership the what Twang Pickle is and how it impacted our career/influenced our sound?
Brian: Well, according to this review I just found, Twang Pickle “is DELICIOUS—what a wonderfully perfect mixture of pickle and salt flavoring. This is awesome on popcorn, on veggies, fresh and cooked, perfect right out of the shaker, I even tried it with a Apple Dum Dums lollipop and it was fantastic. You definitely have a perfect product for my household…I plan to order for many years to come.”
Troy: Someone from Twang Pickle Corp. wrote that review, 100%.
Cheryl: Twang Pickle was part of one of the most fun road trips I ever went on.
Jonathan: We should have gotten sponsored by Twang Pickle.
Troy: Speaking of tour though, who can succinctly recount an entertaining tour story—preferably one that involves guns and/or fast boats?
Brian: Two-star review: “It’s pickle lime salt, and it’s a lot of it!”
Cheryl: Favorite tour story—my parents enjoyed watching us.
Brian: “If you love dill pickles, then you may very well love this dill pickle flavored salt.” “Sometimes, if I eat a lot, I get dizzy.”
Troy: Brian, no more Twang Pickle. We’ve moved on.
Brian: Okay, no more. Yeah, playing for just Cheryl’s mom and dad was a career highlight. That was the “No Witnesses” tour. Because no one could prove we’d been to their town.
Meredith: Right. Good tour stories though—making Troy go into Hooters for some reason; putting peanuts on Jon as he slept in the van; lots of vegan pasta.
Jonathan: Remember the crazy lady who told Troy she had an angel in Savannah?
Troy: Angel in Savannah?
Jonathan: We got out of the van in Savannah, and this lady walks up to Troy and says, “I have an angel” and he says “Oh yeah?”
Meredith: I have video, Troy.
Troy: Oh, yeah, I remember-ish that. Meredith, we have to get a digital version of that! Alright, next question—what are you all doing these days musically, if anything at all?
Cheryl: Ugh. Too depressing. I miss singing!
Cheryl: Totally. Though I am very active in the world of karaoke…at least I was before I had a baby….
Jonathan: Still playing drums in various bands/projects/just jamming. I was in a band called History Repeated before I left DC that should have a full-length out soon with some of my drumming on it. John Stabb—ex-Government Issue; old-school DC punk guy—sings in that band.
Troy: Stabb is a tough last name.
Jonathan: It’s his “punk name”. His real last name is Schroeder.
Troy: Schroeder? Not as punk.
Brian: We got a piano from the Salvation Army. I sit with Elliott (my daughter) in my lap and play slow chord changes while she bands random notes at irregular intervals. The effect is very avant garde.
Troy: That’s cute, Brian. And very John Cage.
Meredith: Yeah, I pretty much play guitar for my three year-old.
Brian: Up until, like, half a year ago, I was still playing music with Meredith, but then everyone in the band had babies.
Troy: Yeah, Meredith, any plans to write/record or is that on hold for now? What with all the babies?
Meredith: I’m still writing songs in my basement. Eventually I’ll want to put out another record, I’m sure.
Brian: I’m actually thinking of getting The Shirts back together to record an album of kids songs. But Edward (drums) keeps breaking limbs. For real.
Cheryl: Shirts reunion!
Jonathan: I would buy a Shirts discography.
Troy: Yeah, a Shirts reunion would be excellent. Alright—favorite Speedwell song? I know, I know—it’s like choosing your favorite child…who you left abandoned in a dark warehouse for the last ten years.
Jonathan: Wow, tough question. I’m going to go with “Kuma”, because I scream on it. And it’s just a pure fun 90’s indie rock song. Also, it has the “my eyes burn” line.
Cheryl: To sing, “Your Atlantic”.
Yeah? That one was fun to sing. Too bad the lyrics are so hard to listen to.
Troy: Hard to listen to?
Brian: Ugh, Christ, yes. I think i only remember the ones that were recorded, but i’m sure my real favorites are lost and forgotten. “This is Us” is my favorite from the EP.
Troy: See, that was 100% one of my least favorite songs and what I thought was a good example of us exploring too many sounds publicly.
Jonathan: I liked “This is Us”. It was our brit-pop song.
Troy: Exactly, Jon.
Meredith: “Pacifique” is one of my favorites simply because it was the first song I ever professionally recorded and I think people liked it.
Cheryl: Great song.
Brian: It did have a long life. We were still playing it for years.
Troy: Alright, and the inevitable interview question for long-defunct bands these days—any plans for a reunion and short run of overpriced stadium shows?
Brian: I will 100% reunite if i can play my banjo. BALL’S IN YOUR COURT BITCHES!
Cheryl: I would get together and sing the songs but there is no way I would ever remember the keyboard parts.
Brian: A capella speedwell reunion FTW!
Troy: Totally agree, Cheryl—I’ve thought before about how, even if the desire was there, I’d have NO WAY of remembering how to play any of the music. I don’t know how the scores of bands from our youth are doing it these days. Alright, finally, and most importantly, what should Meredith name his new baby? I think the band should be able to decide.
Meredith: Oh, god.
Brian: Speedwell Bragg, clearly.
Meredith: In true Speedwell fashion, someone should just start calling the baby a name and no one else should have any say. Whoever steps up the mic first gets to write it. The rest of us will just figure it out at the show.
Brian: DONE. One final note—we once discussed getting speedwell tattoos on tour. While I don’t regret not having one, if I had one, I wouldn’t mind.
Troy: Was that an inspirational limerick?
Cheryl: What would the tattoo be? We’d have to have five different ones in five different styles….
Start to Finish can be listened to in its entirety + purchased via Coolidge Records + the record’s bandcamp page. You can listen to Meredith’s solo work (sometimes with Brian + Jon) over at Kora Records.
Below, very seriously playing a record store in Jacksonville, FL; posing with rather poorly in Roanoke, VA; thumbs down; three very rough dudes (yes, I toured on crutches); Cheryl getting sporty; the flyer for Speedwell’s final collegiate show (with photos of the then four band members’ windows); and a flyer for a late DC show at the Black Cat (with a photo by Katie).