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Spirit Of The Stairs Celebrates Milestone Anniversary, Friendship With ‘Sagas'

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Kevin Wildt
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Spirit of the Stairs releases its new EP, Sagas, at the Shamrock Lounge on Friday, April 20, marking its 16th anniversary.

Founded by drummer Aaron Fanning and bassists Josh Wilson and Jeremy Bennett, the trio recruited Torin Andersen by the summer of 2003. By 2006 Andersen had become friends with fellow guitarist Zack Roach, then of the band The Empress. They formed You'll Be A Torso, which eventually became absorbed into Spirit of the Stairs as a part of a sprawling lineup that recorded the albums Episodes and Domesticated.

Across iterations, Spirit of the Stairs has retained its singular sound. Sagas is the first recording to feature the lineup of Andersen, Roach, bassist Caleb Drummond and drummer Will Erickson.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: When I think of Spirit of the Stairs' music, I think of drama and tension. Tension and release, etc. Do you have conversations about that when you're writing the material?

Torin Andersen: We definitely talk about how to push and pull parts quite a bit, how to get more dramatic things occurring in the song without taking away from the song idea. You hope to have a drama that creates tension, and you hope to provide a tension release at some point too.

Zack Roach: I never want a song to be filled with randomness. There's always a lot of discussion. "Maybe we should shorten this part a few measures because that's going to have the most dramatic effect." With the guitar parts, Torin and I never actually know what we're playing until we get into the studio and start listening to the way that they sound together. There's a weird dichotomy with that. We pay attention to the songwriting but not so much to what each specific player is playing.

TA: We're focused more on song arrangement than the guitar parts until we sit down and put them under the microscope.

ZR: I think that Will and Caleb have a huge part in that now too. Over the last 10-11 years that I've been in the band, the songwriting process has changed. We used to have very basic basslines. When we had two drummers, it was all about power. With this group, we're pulling from a wide range of creative spaces.

TA: It's hard not to take advantage of such a creative rhythm section.

Each one of the guys in this band, at this moment, either could be or has been a bandleader. That sometimes creates tension in a band. There's one guy who's used to leading and the others don't want to follow.

TA: I think rather than anyone feeling like they need to take a lead, we've all felt like, "Oh, finally we can dial it back a little bit."

ZR: Absolutely. We recorded this record three times. The first time around, we were going to try and do something different for us, which was just using four tracks: One guitar track for me, one for Torin, one for Will's drums and then Caleb. We took a stab at that and I was not happy with the way that turned out. I really like layering guitars and that first attempt wasn't enough. The second one, we went overboard with it, I think. When Torin and I were tracking guitars, I added sometimes eight or nine harmonies on one part. The third time, we got to the perfect balance of everything coming together.

The band has been around for 16 years, but none of the current members were in the first lineup.

TA: That very first show, at The Shamrock, was on my birthday, April 20, 2003. Jeremy Bennett, one of the founding members, shares that birthday. So I went to see my friend Jeremy's band, with two bass players, play. I thought it was a stupid idea to have a band with two bass players. They said, "Maybe we should get a keyboard player." I said I'd play keyboards but showed up with my guitar gear.

ZR: That's the way to do it.

Did you really feel, like, "What are these guys doing? What are they up to?"

TA: I couldn't get a read on what their intent was. There were some really nice orchestrations going on, but it just lacked something to my ear.

I remember thinking that what was needed was a guitarist who could add just a little texture. I think what I said at the time was that it needed ketchup.

TA: I had an odd approach, and they were already covering a lot of melodic areas, so for me to come in and do basic sonic brushstrokes, trying to fill in gaps with something that wasn't obvious but which might provide uplift to some of the melodies they were already playing, was what I was focused on.

I bring that up because of one thing: Each lineup has had its own character. At times the music's been heavier than it was at first, whatever. But when I go to shows, I still see some of the people from those first days at The Shamrock. That has to feel great.

TA: To have original listeners still find what we're doing relevant? That's a fantastic wedding between a listener and a performer. You can't hope for a better relationship than that.

ZR: It's funny, there are Spirit of the Stairs historians. Justin Perkins has been there longer than I have. He knows the whole catalog. Matt Dover yells out for the song "Mantha" and wants us to play stuff off of Shape of Hope. It's still the same people coming to the shows. I think there was definitely a peak when we had the gigantic lineup with six members, around the time of the Domesticated album. I really feel like we started to carve out a good fan base then. There are old-school fans who love to hear material from all the records. We try to play old stuff now.

TA: I'm really glad you mentioned Justin. He was there when we played The Shamrock and when we'd play The Cedar with The Empress. To have Justin Perkins follow us from The Cedar to Lucky's, where he started working and booking us at his birthday shows.

The flipside of having people who have been there from the beginning is that it must feel good to have new people there as well.

ZR: When we play shows at Botanica or places like that you realize that it does reach a wide range of folks. It's great.

In 16 years has there ever been a time when it looked like Spirit of the Stairs was over?

TA: I think we've looked down the path of a dead band multiple times. This record took a long time to put out. There were times when there were hard drive failures or we couldn't get everybody together. I can't tell you how many times, over the years, that I thought, "Well, this is probably the end."

ZR: This band has always been about friendship. When Josh Wilson moved away. — he had been the member who'd been around the longest. We didn't even think about looking for a bass player. We looked at our friend Ben Wells and said, "We like him. We're going to teach him how to play the bass and he's going to be in the band." That's the way it's always operated. I didn't know Caleb and Will that well when they joined the band, but we're all best friends now. If it was just Torin and me, we could still be Spirit of the Stairs. I'm never scared that it's just going to go away. I certainly don't want it to.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.