Sitting at a weathered picnic table in the cactus room at the Rockefeller Green House, Extra Medium Pony singer-songwriter Rick Spitalsky looks like he could be in a scene from a Wes Anderson movie. He’s wearing a striped black and white shirt, and his shoulder length hair and scruffy facial hair make him resemble actor Jason Schwartzman, one of Anderson's favs.
And like some kind of character in a movie, Spitalsky has evolved from standard fare singer-songwriter to sophisticated indie rocker.
Extra Medium Pony’s new album, Meaninglessness
, features the kind of joyfully off-kilter tunes that Pavement delivered at its peak (think Slanted and Enchanted
). It's another leap forward for the burgeoning band.
Spitalsky, who grew up in Bedford, which he admits isn’t “the coolest place to live,” refers to his father as a “rocker” who had a vinyl collection that inspired him to want to pursue singing and songwriting.
“He had '70s rock like Neil Young and then got into heavier stuff in the ’80s like Guns N Roses,” he says. “Like a billion other people, I heard Nirvana when I was like 12. That was when I realized I needed a guitar. Girls loved [Nirvana singer-guitarist] Kurt Cobain, so I decided that I needed a guitar.”
In sixth grade, he says he stopped listening to Michael Jackson and started listening to Mudhoney and all the grunge acts coming out of Seattle.
“You always hear that when the Beatles came around, people thought they would let their hair grow long and would get a guitar,” he says. “I think it was the same thing when the grunge thing came around.”
His father nurtured his taste in indie music too.
“In the ‘90s, he listened to college radio all the time,” he says of his father. “He would take me to shows when I was in high school. We saw Local H and Tracy Bonham and Death Cab for Cutie. That’s when my taste changed from aggressive grunge-type music to lyric-based melodic music. We saw Death Cab at the Grog Shop. I think it was 1999. There were 15 people. I thought, ‘This music is not heavy but I like it.’ I was 18 at the time. It’s cool to follow a band from the very bottom.”
He subsequently wrote a few songs that he says were “horrible.”
“They were like Nirvana rip-offs,” he says. “I always thought I could write songs, but I didn’t have the life experience to write the songs I wished I could write. I felt like a songwriter, but my songs were cheesy. I started getting into the craft at age 25.”
Reading the book 101 Ways to Write a Song
convinced him he could write songs without regard for whether they were refined enough. He subsequently released an EP of tunes in 2008.
“I wrote about growing up; it was a nostalgic thing,” he says. “I wrote these singer-songwriter type of songs. I met this girl shortly after that and she changed my way of thinking with songwriting. I thought everything had to be serious, but she would write crazy songs with wacked out lyrics, and they were awesome, and it changed my perspective on writing. When we broke up, was when I had that life experience that I needed. I found my voice as a songwriter. Since then, I’ve been on a steady incline in terms of material I’ve been putting out.”
That EP informed Extra Medium Pony's full-length debut 11868
. Released in 2014, the album sounds like it might have been recorded in the '90s. Songs such as "You and Me" and "Ewe" are ramshackle ballads that adopt the lo-fi approach that acts like Sebadoh and Pavement heartily embraced. And a song like "Junk Yard" looks back even further to bands like the Pixies. With its stuttering vocals and simple guitar riff, "It Don't Feel Right" is a little more structured and comes to a proper close. And the fragile ballads "Lost" and "Lucky" don't seem tossed off even though they only check in at 90 and 120 seconds respectively.
was a very raw break up album,” says Spitalsky. “It was very spontaneous. I wrote a million songs for that album. That’s all I did. I’d get off of work, come home and write songs. I was totally in love with songwriting. I didn’t have any distractions. I had a TV that had only one channel. I’m so different now. I have so many distractions like Netflix. Back then, my source for entertainment was writing a song for myself about the way I was feeling.”
He toured behind the album and played markets such as New York, Chicago and Columbus. On his Bandcamp account, he called the album the “breakup album of the decade,” attributing the quote to Rolling Stone
. As a result, they signed him to a deal and issued the album in Japan and Europe.
“I wasn’t going to tell them that I made that shit up,” he says. “They put it out, but we couldn’t afford to tour over there. It just didn’t work out. They sent me pictures of my album in a Japanese Best Buy type of store. It was awesome and totally unexpected.”
He says he immediately started writing new material in the wake of the album’s release.
“By the time I recorded those songs, I was writing new songs,” he says. “The process never stopped, but my mentality changed over time. I had a vision of what I wanted the album to sound like sonically.”
After another breakup, Spitalsky found himself rather isolated.
“I thought that if that relationship didn’t work, I didn’t know what will work,” he says. “I mix stuff up in my brain and think I’m never good enough. I would go for weeks without really taking to anyone. I thought that if I died, people wouldn’t know. That led into the ‘meaninglessness.’ I’m not sure it’s even a proper word.”
He says recording the album by himself proved to be challenging.
“What started out being this ‘I don’t need anyone and I will l do it myself’ attitude really sucked,” he says. “What’s fun about recording is that if you have a group of friends, you can get a pizza and hang out and bounce ideas off each other. This time, I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t have anyone to make it with. It’s not cool when you want to make an album with someone and that doesn’t happen.”
Recording at his house with ProTools, he spent long hours laboring over recording details. Song such as the hiccuping “Further Along” and the Nirvana-like “Personal” suggest that approach he's precisely synced the chug-a-lug guitars and pounding drums.
“I wanted to perfect the parts,” he says. “The beats are very specific and tie into the rhythm of the guitars and vocals. Mixing it was difficult. I set up a control room in my bedroom where I did sound diffusion. It’s hard to get into doing something like that when it’s just you. I would turn my computer and sit there and fall asleep on the couch. Or I would just listen to something and not really know if it was good or not. After months and months of that process, I found myself with a decent mix.”
He says that at the time he was writing the songs, an ex-girlfriend virtually haunted him and continually showed up in his dreams.
“I don’t want it to sound weird, but I would have dreams of specific details about her,” he says. “When we first started dating, she would wear these reindeer fur boots she got from a second-hand store. I thought they were really cool. I wouldn’t be thinking about that shit at all but they would come up in my dreams. It was devastating thing for me. I was 27 and I really realized that I’m not 20 anymore. I thought I would be with this girl forever. Now that I’m 34, 27 doesn’t feel that old. I always feel like I’m older than I am. I had more invested than she did too. She was younger than me. It was the first time I ever thought I was good with someone and could live together happily. When we broke up, I felt stunted and like she had more potential in front of her, and I was maxed out.”
Spitalsky hopes to tour in support of the album and plans to play South by Southwest this year. A few years ago, he played Voodoo Fest with singer-songwriter Nicholas Megalis, a former Clevelander. Hiring a national PR firm has helped the cause too.
“I don’t’ know why someone would click a link to my music rather than anyone else’s,” Spitalsky says. “I feel like if people give it a chance, they’ll see there’s something there. The market is so saturated with decent sounding stuff whether it’s good or not. Everyone has the potential to make a decent sounding album on their laptop or even their phone. I just want to make the best music I can make and get my vision across and have it sound cohesive, and I don’t want to be embarrassed by it a few years later. I try not to think how many people will buy the album because I just want to focus on making music.”
Extra Medium Pony, Lowly The Tree Ghost, Chomp, 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, Happy Dog, 5801 Detroit Ave., 216-651-9474. Tickets: $5, happydogcleveland.com.