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Spanish For 100 reunites for two shows in Wichita

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Courtesy photo
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Seattle band Spanish For 100 broke up in 2016 but is reuniting for two shows this weekend — in Wichita.

Seattle-based Spanish for 100 may not have become a household name from coast to coast in the United States, but fans of a particular brand of indie rock that thrived in the early aughts will likely celebrate the band’s return to Wichita this weekend with deep enthusiasm.

The group — guitarist Aaron Starkey, bassist Ross McGilvray, drummer Chris Crumpler and vocalist/guitarist Corey Passons — will perform at Kirby’s Beer Store on Friday, June 24, as part of the venue’s 50th anniversary. It will then knock out another show at Barleycorn’s on Saturday.

The group was initially named Cien. But bookers at venues — speaking on crackling phone lines and over loud bands and jukeboxes — couldn't quite make out the word, which stands for one digit north of 99 in a language spoken by more than 500 million people globally.

And so the moniker, Spanish for 100, was born.

The group released a series of recordings between 2003 and 2013 that fused adventurous, dual-guitar passages with the purity of Passons’ voice in a manner that at times recalled the braver moments of Minnesota’s The Jayhawks but left few clues to direct influences.

Passons’ lyrics were often enigmatic and always deeply poetic. Songs heard on releases such as “Metric” (2006) and “Say What You Want Me To Say” (2007) were as easily enjoyable on first listen as they were deeply rewarding 100 or 200 listens later. (A 2003 debut, “Newborn Driving,” contains the should-have-been-a-hit “Put It To Ya” that exemplifies the quartet’s knack for crafting deep-reaching hooks.)

Though Spanish for 100 called it a day in 2016, the members were persuaded by Kirby’s owner, Alex Thomas, to reunite for a show at the venue and one at Barleycorn’s this weekend. It’s something that Starkey, in a recent conversation with KMUW, said was fitting for the band. Wichita and Kirby’s became one of the places the band stopped regularly while on tour and patrons came to embrace the band as if it were homegrown.

The band has also just issued the new single, “Blackheart,” which will air on future episodes of “Strange Currency.”

Interview Highlights

I want to talk about the band’s history, of course, but there’s a story from probably 2005 that’s always stuck in my mind. I drove over to Kirby’s to see you play and you were all out in the parking lot and talking about how your van [dubbed Sangria] had broken down. I’d seen bands have transportation problems before, but you guys were actually pretty calm about it — it was the transmission, if I remember correctly — and you said, “It’s going to be fine. Ross is a mechanic.” And, the next day, he went to an auto parts store, got the parts and fixed the van. That was always memorable because I couldn’t think of another band I’d seen there where one of the members just fixed the tour vehicle.

That’s what made it all possible, honestly. Later on, we picked up a bus on eBay that Ross basically rebuilt, and we drove around in. Every tour presented some sort of mechanical dysfunction. There was never a time where we didn’t have one moment, where we didn’t stop and say, “Is this it? Is this where we’re stopped?” I think we had a fuel pump issue in Kansas, too.

Ross was a legit mechanic. He could really just rip open and do things, and he could talk mechanic talk.

The band stopped being active in 2016, but you’d played Kirby’s a lot in the time you were together. Was it really just a matter of Alex asking you to reunite for Kirby’s 50th anniversary?

Ross lives in Maryland now, Corey is in Olympia, and Chris and I still live here in town. I think it was a number of things, but the main factor was Alex asking us to reunite for the 50th anniversary of Kirby’s. We have a huge affinity [for the venue]. I think there was the fact that we just went through a pandemic — we’re still in a pandemic [actually]. But this was just weird enough to do. If we were going to play some shows this seemed the way to do it.

More than just booking a show in Seattle or Olympia, why not do something like flying to Wichita to play two shows and get out of our comfort zone? That sounded right to us, that felt like us. It felt like the right energy for us to get together. It’s just weird enough that it makes sense. It’s not that Wichita is weird, but for us to fly from all over the country to play together for the first time in six years? That’s weird. Let’s do that.

My recollection of seeing you at Kirby’s — and I think based on the fact that you came back somewhat often — was that it was a good room for you.

We felt appreciated when we were there. When you play your hometown, you have people that you connect with and that makes sense. It’s right where you live.

But when you go on tour, you play places where you don’t live. The context is different. The first time we played Kirby’s, it felt like, “They get us. They understand what we’re doing.” It was really warm and engaging.

We always made sure — even with my other bands after that — we always made sure to play Kirby’s anytime we were remotely close.

“Metric” [2006] was a big record for me when it came out. I listened to it all the time and listening back to it now, it doesn’t feel like it’s of that moment. It sounds like it could have been released last week. Do you feel that the band was, on some level, just a little bit out of sync with the times and that you’re one of those groups people will catch up with as time goes on?

That’s kind of you to say. I appreciate that. I think we were just very much ourselves and whether that was in sync or not in sync, it’s hard to say. We played to great crowds in Seattle, and we got played on the radio. I felt we were part of the zeitgeist but maybe not as cool, if that makes sense. I have no idea if it would make more sense to people now.

I do think that [producer/engineer] Phil Ek recording those records did give them a little bit of a timeless quality. It doesn’t sound sonically dated to me. Musically, I think the songs are strong.

I haven’t even thought of the notion of new people listening to the records. But we are putting out a single. We actually have one EP that we never really put out. We’re putting out the single and maybe the rest of it later this year. It still sounds like us.

The playing was also great. Even though it wasn’t like there was guitar hero stuff going on, the guitars were still really interesting, nice layers. The lyrics were always fun because you could kind of figure out what was going on, but then maybe not, so there was something to pick apart. That’s what it was for me, that I could go back and hear different things. What do you think people latched onto?

I think part of that was Corey’s voice. Ross did high harmonies, and Chris, who played on the later records, they were able to do three-part harmonies and that was kind of rare. It’s still kind of rare. I think that live, the songs translated better than on the records in a sense, like the energy and dynamics of the band. Maybe the lyrics weren’t always as discernable live, but I think we’re pretty unique and powerful. We had breaks and pauses where things would pop through.

From a guitar perspective, Corey and I both came from different guitar traditions. We really committed to playing something that wasn’t cliché when it came to having two guitars. It wasn’t too heavy, it wasn’t too mathy. But if you were into guitars, you could connect with that.

You kept on growing musically. There’s signs of that on the EP you put out in 2013.

We were never really interested in writing the same song twice. I think the first album had a similar palette to it. It sounded like it was recorded by the same band and a lot of it had the same vibe. As we kept playing we said, “Well, we’ve done that kind of song before. What’s a different style we could play?” It wasn’t so much about it being a country or reggae tune, but maybe we could mess with the structure. Those were things that were interesting to us.

The band came to an end in 2016, but there have been other projects that you’ve been involved in, and from everything I see online it seems like you were able to keep your friendships intact, which doesn’t always happen.

We have a group text thread that’s probably eight years old. Ross and I went on to play in another project called Long Dark Moon after Spanish for 100. Corey moved to Olympia. There was some physical distance, but absolutely we’re all still friends.

You had a run of 13 years as Spanish for 100. Some bands don’t last two, so it’s clear you had a passion for it.

We all had roles, and we all respect each other’s skills and positions. We definitely had moments of disagreement, and we worked through them. We were committed to the relationship. Nobody was a jerk. We all had moments where we were less than perfect humans, but we’re all pretty grounded, somewhat boring people in a way. We really wanted to do this thing, and we recognized that [we had roles within that].

Ross took care of the van and transit; I did all the booking and dealt with press and PR. Corey did the mailing, like back when you had CDs. He did that and production stuff. When we were touring, Chris was really impactful in terms of keeping things running and moving. We all had these roles that were supportive and equal. It didn’t feel like there was anybody who wasn’t pulling their weight. We were really lucky like that.