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Interview: At the Spine

Posted by December 9th, 2003 No Comments » Interview – At the Spine
Q & A with Mike T
Interview by Matt Ashworth

We get a lot of promotional CDs in the mail. So many that its often overwhelming. Every once in awhile we open another package from a band we’ve never heard of, pop it in the ghetto blaster, and our minds are summarily blown.

Such was the case with At the Spine’s The Curriculum is Never Neutral, a mix of Pixies guitars and earnest songwriting. One song in particular, “Sand in Your Teeth,” stands to fair well in our year-end “best song” polls.

We liked the band so much, we decided to book them for our Rendezvous at the Rendezvous series December 9th. In preview of the show, we sat down and talked with Mike Toschi, mastermind behind both At the Spine and Global Seepej Records, a local label that also released a great 2003 album by The Plains. What the hell is At the Spine?

Mike T: At the Spine is basically the rock collective I’ve thrown together to perform a few dozen songs I’ve written (and that I will hopefully continue to write for the next decade or two). I have a deep commitment to issues of social, economic and environmental justice, but I also like to rock my pants off, so this is what I’ve been lucky enough to create to do it. Adam Drew has been my steady drummer and I’ve been a little more challenged trying to find a permanent bass player so it’s been rotating.

NM: You’re embarking on a 10 day West Coast tour. Has the band toured before? Where all will you play?

MT: Seven weeks this summer all across the US. It was incredible. It was also exhausting because of the heat, the long drives and the fact that we only had two or three days off out of forty-nine. But it was just incredibly great to be able to rock my heart out every night and see the country. America can be a real pain in the ass a lot of times, but there are some really great folks out there too. Freaks. I love freaks.

In the fall we did two weeks around Washington and Oregon, and this time the stops include: Pendleton, Walla Walla, Spokane, WA, the show you kind folks are sponsoring Tuesday Dec 9th with the Malinks from Seattle and the Birds of India from Arizona at The Rendezvous in Seattle, then Portland, Eugene, Stockton, Calif., Fallon, Nev., and the beautiful city of San Francisco. I love that place but it’s too expensive to live there. I do love them cheap veggie treats in Chinatown.

NM: What should fans expect from your’s Rendezvous at the Rendezvous show tonight?

MT: Folks can expect an unpretentious high energy rock show that is DEFINITELY worth the $5. I believe when folks shell out their hard earned money that they deserve the best possible show from an artist. No egomania, no whining, or any of that crap. Just intelligent rock. I don’t care if there’s five people there or 500. I always try to light the room on fire. I really struggle with bands that can’t kick it live. I mean I didn’t come out to the club to take a nap. I coulda done that on my sleeping bag at home.

NM: Tell us about the first At the Spine record. When was it recorded? Who was involved?

MT: It was recorded after serving a year in hell in the South Bronx and East Harlem with the New York City Teaching Fellows. I came back from NYC after getting the mental, physical and political shit beat out of me during the 2001/2002 school year and holed up in a basement in Capitol Hill in Seattle. Aaron Semer, the spearhead behind the Plains, is also a great drummer, so thanks to our current miraculous unemployment rate, I was able to get him to come underground with me for a few days and lay all the drums. Then I just sat down there while everyone else was getting their precious Vitamin D and just played for ten or twelve hours a day for a few months. I would surface to eat, work on the computer a bit, ice my wrists and sleep. Then the next day was the same pattern until everything got all nice and tight just the way I wanted it. Eric Oz from Glennsound and I mixed and mastered the album at his home studio.

NM: I hear a lot of the Pixies in your music, which seems to be a popular and certainly welcome trend among people our age. Talk to us about the band’s influences.

MT: To be honest I never owned a Pixies album until I burned two albums while I was in NYC. I had heard them peripherally and I dug about two-thirds of what I heard, but I never owned any. I guess if I had to pick some music that’s been in my heavy rotation pile for the last 15 years I would say: Fugazi, early era Neil Young, Public Enemy, Built to Spill and Iron Maiden (up to the Somewhere in Time album). I’m open to almost any “genre” of music as long as it’s pure, authentic and from the heart. I can dig a solo acoustic guitar with good lyrics as much as I can appreciate the Coup or Ozomatli.

NM: You’re also the head honcho at Global Seepej Records. Tell us about the label and the bands you work with.

MT: I’ve been very lucky in my adventures over the years to come across some amazing people who are amazing musicians. I just felt that someone needed to document and expose people to this talent. The Help was a great Fugazi meets Husker Du band based out of Portland that I was involved with. The Plains do a great alt punk country tinged pop thing. I’ve been working on a solo album for Colin Spring who is writing songs that are so great that he should be winning Pulitzers, young poet awards or something of that nature. Aaron Goodrich from Portland and I play under the name Bit Part and we are trying to finish up his first recording. He is a tattoo artist and teacher with a solid mid-west working class background and beautiful voice. The songs are sort of in that Uncle Tupelo vain. I just try to find people that are authentic, sincere, talented and good people.

NM: For a young man, you’ve accomplished a lot. What drives this success?

MT: Good question. The plight of the working class and the destruction of the environment? The military industrial complex? I dunno. My great grandfather was a coal miner in Black Diamond and it’s hard to know what they went through coming to this country from Italy and trying to survive and turn the cheek on that reality. My father has busted his ass working 60-hour weeks for as long as I’ve been alive, so I guess that work ethic has just always been around me. Hard working people trying to survive, fighting for what’s right and trying to treat people with the respect they deserve.

NM: We talked the other night about what seems like inconsistent reception to new bands from the Seattle media. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with that?

MT: And alienate myself even further from these people? No way! No, it’s rough. There are people out there with enormous talent that are totally overlooked cuz they don’t go to the right parties or put their albums out on Matador or Barsuk, or because the stars aren’t aligned or what the hell ever. I mean these media folks are in a tough position in some ways. There is a flood of music out there (and I know because I was once a DJ at a college radio station), but I also think there is some pretty crooked insider trading/conflict of interest shit and laziness that goes on. It’s weird to get played two or three times a day at the indie station for two months in the Boulder/ Denver area and not get NUTHIN at all from your hometown station, a station that happens to play a very influential role not only locally but also somewhat nationally. Or to play a show in Portland where I lived on and off for ten years and get no press and then suddenly play one day and have someone write about your “legendary” live performances. After being on a seven-week tour this summer, you realize how incredibly lucky we are here with the media we have in the Northwest, but it’s also hard not to be bummed by how things work sometimes too. The pretentiousness, the cliques, etc. Seattle didn’t used to be so pretentious and I hope that previous openness can come back.

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