Perfect Sound Forever

Spiral Jetty

By Martin C. Bricketto
(September 2006)

In the mid-1980's, the fanzine Matter gathered several bands associated with Hoboken, N.J., posed them on one of the city's decaying piers and snapped a yearbook-style photograph that was published with the tag "Hoboken's Next Generation."

Yo La Tengo would be the star of any class reunion, with appearances in national publications and albums one can find in Best Buy. The dour-faced figure next to Ira Kaplan and the two men in the picture's top right corner dressed like extras from The Buddy Holly Story are less recognizable. Their group, Spiral Jetty was at best what singer/guitarist and principal songwriter Adam Potkay called a "New Jersey band" that thrived in Hoboken and the college town of New Brunswick. During the course of an EP and three albums, Potkay, bassist Andy Gesner and drummer Dave Reynolds were at their best performing a kinetic brand of indie pop that moved with the speed and anxiousness of a driver braving the notorious traffic between those cities. They peaked with 1989's Dogstar, a collection of murky, dynamic songs that showcased the band's ability to churn influences like The Feelies and Sonic Youth into something independently great.

Spiral Jetty had its beginnings near the shore. Potkay and Gesner began playing together as high school students in Seaside Heights in the late 1970's, inspired by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Talking Heads and Velvet Underground.

"Andy was outrageous," Potkay told the fanzine Chrome on Fire in 1988. "He used to have this stupid little Fender Mustang bass with this dumb little practice amp, and we would be sitting there, grooving... and then Andy would come and everyone would be bummed. He didn't know how to play." Ironically, Gesner's melodic bass playing would become a tenet of the band's sound.

The pair connected with Reynolds while Potkay was attending Cornell University in New York in 1981. It was around that time they began using the name Spiral Jetty after the earthwork sculpture by Robert Smithson in Utah's Great Salt Lake.

"It's really beautiful, I've always found it inspirational," Potkay said. "And we early on wanted our music to be 'spiral' (repetitive, mounting riffs)."

In 1984, Gesner and Reynolds moved to New Brunswick in central New Jersey, where Potkay joined them when he enrolled at Rutgers University to pursue a doctorate in English Literature. All at once, the city is a college town, white-collar hub and neighborhood to a population near the nation's poverty level. The band would make it a sort of home base, but also put its foot in the door of an already established independent music scene 35 miles northeast.

The aggregation of punk and shimmering pop which critics labeled as the "Hoboken Sound" sprouted in the early 1980s with bands like the Bongos, The Individuals and The dB's, according to Jim Testa, who founded the fanzine Jersey Beat in 1982. The epicenter was the club Maxwell's, and Spiral Jetty began performing there once the scene had coalesced and grown, Testa said.

"I don't know so much that I would use the word unique, but (Spiral Jetty) put a really interesting spin on some things other people were doing," Testa said recently. "The whole thing about rock and roll is that you're supposed to be cool, and Spiral Jetty weren't. They made no bones about the fact that they were nerds from the suburbs."

Spiral Jetty's 1985 debut EP, Tour of Homes, literally wears its influences on its sleeve. Glenn Mercer and Bill Million of The Feelies, an iconic Hoboken band, are listed as producers and musicians on two of its standout tracks, "All of This" and "Tour of Homes."

"I approached Glenn one night at a Jetty show that he had come to and asked him straight out, that, ah, you know, we'd like very much for him and Bill to consider, you know, our music, you know, maybe to produce us," Gesner told Chrome on Fire. Outside of his own band and its side projects, Mercer said Spiral Jetty was the only band that he and Million produced (though Million himself later produced a Speed The Plough album).

It had been roughly five years since The Feelies released the frenetic landmark Crazy Rhythms, and Potkay described the "wall of guitars" and airy background vocals Million and Mercer brought to Spiral Jetty's songs as a sneak peak at what The Feelies would do on their pastoral second album, The Good Earth. The progression between those two albums was "a result of wanting to explore other moods and rhythms and to cover more ground," according to Mercer.

"Most of the songs (on The Good Earth) were written prior to our work with Spiral Jetty and they reflected a move toward a more relaxed approach to making music," Mercer said. "A lot of our biggest influences, like the Beatles, Stones, Who, and even the Velvet Underground, often exhibited a softer, quieter side," he told me.

Potkay said a lot was accomplished during the recording process, but not always in the most expeditious manner.

"Glenn is a great guy, but he doesn't have banter, so any time a take was done, it was just silence," Potkay said. "After a somewhat uncomfortable silence for ten seconds, he would say 'What did you think?' directed to Bill, who would then say, 'I don't know, what do you think of that?' and then more silence, and then they'd say, 'What do you guys think of that?' It would kind of go on like that."

Mercer recalled everyone working hard with a strong desire to get the tracks right.

"I think we achieved the objectives we wanted and I remember being happy with the results," Mercer said. "I think, today, the music stands up and the songs fit well with the whole package. I think that particular time period was an important step in the band's development."

By the time Spiral Jetty released Artís Sand Bar in 1987, New Brunswick had become a larger part of the band's identity and the city's prime venue, The Court Tavern, had come into its own, according to Brad Morrison, who produced all the band's albums after Tour of Homes. The band regularly packed the dingy bar's lower level where the stage was located, playing to a crowd largely comprised of "bespeckled female grad students."

"Adam was very powerful on stage and the audience knew their material inside out," Morrison said recently. "It would climax with the whole audience storming the stage and doing a sing-a-long of 'I Wanna be Your Dog' or something like."

A transitional album, Art's Sand Bar was greeted by one local publication as "Adam, Andy and Dave systematically shedding the Feelies/Talking Heads overtones of Tour of Homes to develop their own sound." The song "Where the Sun Is" grows from an ominous, tribal beat to a ringing chorus propelled by Potkay's mostly wordless vocals. Gesner and Reynolds rip through "Suburban Optimism" like two men on trucker speed. The guitar is glaringly thin on many of the tracks, and Reynolds noted conflict with one engineer who "reset knobs and settings on the board." In turn, "The Beat Goes On" may be the best realized song on Art's Sand Bar. With the troublesome engineer absent from the studio one day, the band decided to add to the noisy, fast-moving song by opening the man's prized grand piano and recording themselves beating its strings with their fists, Reynolds said recently.

Spiral Jetty grew in at least two ways during its heyday in New Brunswick. Morrison said the band was taking more chances and experimenting with found sounds and feedback. Reynolds said the rowdy, "leather-clad" rock underpinnings of the New Brunswick music scene spurred the band to develop more of an edge from Tour of Homes forward. Maybe those were the reasons 1989's Dogstar dwarfs the band's preceding efforts. The band recorded the album with Martin Bisi, whom Potkay admired for his work on the Sonic Youth album EVOL.

"I liked the sort of neo-psychadelic, murky sound that Martin Bisi gave us," Potkay said. "The whole thing has some kind of manic, painful energy." A second guitarist, Ed Ryan, was also brought onboard.

Strange hushes appear in the middle of songs like "The Hour" and "Queen of Her House," where Reynolds pulls back on the drums and layered, overdriven guitars gradually build to a din before the band roars back into a verse or chorus. The back porch, acoustic beginning of "Lonesome Catfish Heart" over which Potkay gently repeats the question "John, why don't you stay?" gives way to an unrelenting rave up. Potkay said the songís title and lyrics are a surrealistic tribute to the brother of his then girlfriend, who designed fliers for the band as well as the cover of Dogstar (a collage of K-9's, blood cells, and organs which one writer described as "one of the ugliest sleeves I've ever seen").

After five years as a local act with occasional forays up and down the I-95 corridor, the band seemed to harbor some hope of breaking nationally with Dogstar.

Gesner told one writer at the time "I hope that after this record we will be able to live off our music. Adam has his scholarship, but Dave, Ed and I all work 9 to 5 jobs, so it would be nice to get some money for a change."

Tour of Homes and Art's Sand Bar were technically released on Incas Records, a Connecticut-based "cooperative" run in part by Morrison and associated with acts like Miracle Legion. The band's relationship with the label was nil beyond the use of its logo, according to Reynolds, who said Incas had ceased to be a "working proposition" by the time of Art's Sand Bar. Dogstar was issued on Morrison's new label, Absolute A-Go-Go, with a distribution deal through the American division of Rough Trade. What appeared to be a promising arrangement turned sour after that arm of Rough Trade went bankrupt six months after the album's release.

In support of Dogstar, Spiral Jetty participated in a CMJ-type showcase in New York with other Rough Trade acts, including Lucinda Williams. In front of notables like Geoff Travis, Seymour Stein and Winona Ryder, band members said they played at top form, winning over a 500-person audience that called them back on stage for an encore after their set was finished. Besides the feeling of a job well done, nothing came of it.

"It just kind of says impressing people and doing things well doesn't translate into the idea of traditional success," Reynolds said.

What Reynolds called the "last hurrah" was two shows in England, a trip that was too short to call a tour but still full of meaning. "It was just, hey look, our music got us across the big pond and this is the end of an era," Reynolds said. "It was a really nice way to end the idea of the band as a day to day concern." Shortly after they returned stateside, Potkay moved to Virginia to become a professor at the College of William and Mary. "I think it had always been understood that we got some major deal or Adam got a teaching job, whichever came first," Reynolds said.

Spiral Jetty's final album, Band of Gold, was released in 1993 on Brake Out Records after years of stop/start session work. The album is devoted to divorce and failed romantic relationships.

It's hard to view Spiral Jetty as irrevocably defunct given the members continuing friendship and propensity for reuniting, doing so once in the mid-1990s and on a semi-annual basis since then for one-off shows at Maxwell's. In 2000, the band self released a retrospective entitled Begin Responsibilities.

"We're very close. It's not only a band, it's also those friends that you make when you're in your college-age years," Reynolds said. "We have that option of, at any point we choose, making music together and on occasion, to this day, we decide, yeah, that would be fun to do."

Still, the band likely won't be touring anytime soon. They never ventured far from the East Coast anyway, one of the reasons Morrison suggests the band never made it beyond regional notoriety. Ultimately, those involved with Spiral Jetty seem OK with that legacy, possibly because it's the most quirky rock acts living in a world before Nirvana hoped to achieve, at least initially. According to Testa, purchasing a home with the money an indie band earned was unthinkable, meaning the only people playing that kind of music were those passionate about it.

"I think I mentioned that book Our Band Could Be Your Life, well Spiral Jetty were one of those bands that embodied that whole ethic," Testa said, referencing the 2001 book by Michael Azerrad about 1980s underground acts like Mission of Burma and Minutemen. "They took what they did seriously, they put out good records, they played good shows. They just did everything right."

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