Spotlight Band: Sunspot
Sunspot, with Mike Huberty on lead vocals and bass, Ben Jaeger manning the guitar, and Wendy Staats womanning the drums, has been cranking out quirky rock beats since they got together at the University of Wisconsin all the way back in 1996. Don’t be fooled by their Midwest roots – Sunspot has not only received accolades locally, but has shared the stage with some pretty impressive national names over time, including Death Cab for Cutie, The Flaming Lips, Sponge, SevenMaryThree, Hot Hot Heat, and Sick Puppies. Even iconic Punker Milo Aukerman of Descendents fame has performed with Sunspot on live TV. Nearly 15 years later and showing no signs of slowing down, the energetic trio has embarked on a new concept tour they’re calling “Major Arcana”. I recently had a chat with frontman Mike Huberty to discuss band longevity, the fleeting nature of goatees, and Scott Bakula.
Interviewed by: Dorise Gruber
For those unfamiliar with Sunspot, how would you describe your sound?
Our latest tagline is Singalong Rock with Big Guitars, Smart Lyrics, and a Sense of Humor. It’s guitar-pop with some metal and punk influences and we sing about a lot of geeky stuff. Our influences range from Cheap Trick and Green Day to Weezer, Andrew WK, and Van Halen.
Sunspot seems to put a lot of emphasis on its live show – what makes your live show such a spectacle?
There’s something awesome about the human interaction when you’re performing right in front of people (sometimes it feels like you’re performing “with” them as well, depending on the stage and the crowd). Recording is awesome but performing live is our natural element. That’s probably how our kind of music is most deeply felt, where the bass drum is in your chest and the guitar is in your ear. Or the way a great vocal harmony hangs in the air, there’s something really pure about it.
I heard something about using a drum-cam?
Wendy, our drummer, takes a picture of the crowd at every show and we put it on our blog, (www.loseroftheyear.com). It’s a good reminder to us of all the people we’re lucky enough to meet when we’re traveling as well as just a fun thing to do for people to remember that they were there.
For a relatively small-town band, Sunspot has some serious longevity. How did you guys find each other in a pre-Craigslist world?
UW-Madison. Ben, our guitarist, and I, went to grade school together and had always been playing and writing songs. Wendy and Ben had known each other through a music organization in high school. We all came to the same place for college, so by the time we were sophomores it all worked out and our fate was probably sealed.
What’s kept you guys together so long? Are you guys as in-sync off-stage as on?
We love playing these songs for people and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it, so that means we keep taking opportunities and having new ideas. We do all hang out together a lot and we’ve even all lived together more than once. By now, we’ve spent more time together than most people have spent with their brothers or sisters, so we’re so used to each other and the whole process of driving, setting up, performing, writing songs, etc… that the time we spend “not playing” just doesn’t feel right in comparison.
Is Wendy like one of the guys or does she keep the boys in check?
A little bit of both, she still retains a really strong female identity, which is difficult when you’re surrounded by the boys’ club of other bands. But then again, she can hold her own in that club, so she definitely has moments of both.
Tell me about the Sunspot Video Tour Diary – how did it get started, and what does your average episode feature?
Well, when we started touring it was in the front of a truck and we all sat three abreast on a bench seat which was about as uncomfortable as you could get. So, we started just making up voices to amuse ourselves or to say nasty things about traffic or each other. These voices became characters and after hours and hours of driving to different cities we would start to get pretty slaphappy by the time we got out of the truck. We called it “road mania” and when podcasting came around we thought it would be fun to make a little show while we were traveling to places. What we usually do is take footage of the people we meet and the bands we play with and then just talk about the shows and what we’re up to. Now with YouTube and Facebook videos, everyone’s watching online and not just on their iPods like when we started, so it’s a great way to keep in communication with everyone out there that we might not always get to meet in person.
You guys have released 5 LPs in the last decade – if you had to pick one, which would you say is most representative of the Sunspot catalog?
Our latest album, Singularity, is our strongest because we took a month to write each song. We released a new song and video every month for a year and we still found time to release some bonus tracks! But it was a wonderful challenge and it was a lot of fun to be constantly under the creative gun. It also covers the genres that we work best with, there’s straight ahead rock, punk, alternative influences, some heavy stuff, and some funny songs in there as well. It really encompasses everything we’re about and it’s got a good variety. Plus, with the DVD that comes with it of each video, you get a great idea of us as people, so it’s a good visual and aural representation. It’s a more complete package. Putting it all together was difficult and to have it be so well received was a nice feeling.
Sunspot has won a few music awards, played some major music festivals, and shared the stage with some pretty big names – can you tell us about one of the real stand-out moments for the band?
The immediate thing that comes to mind is our first time at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, when we were playing on the stages that we all used to go to see bands when we were young. I was in the dressing room and I was looking down at the tape on the floor and it still said, “reserved for Cheap Trick” from the night before. That was one of those, “Whoa” moments where you just feel so grateful. Just sharing the space and the stage with so many great bands that we’ve had the opportunity to, just to be mentioned in the same paragraph (even if it’s three sentences down!), makes it feel that there’s an audience that’s appreciating what we do. And what’s better than that?
I read that Scott Bakula actually used your playful tune “Scott Bakula” at his 50th birthday party – did you guys send him the track as a birthday gift?
We had only released the song about two weeks prior and we had so many downloads that it crashed our website. Then Scott’s agent called us up after hearing about the song on some Internet forums and asked us if he could use it for a Powerpoint that he was making for Scott’s 50th birthday party. We sent copies of the CD as party favors as well. That was a really cool moment because it was unexpected and it was great that he didn’t just hear the song, but that all his friends did and used it to honor (and tease) him on his big day.
Can you talk a bit about your most recent endeavor, “Major Arcana”? Your website describes it as “a completely new type of experience that’s personal like a rock concert, has the emotional weight of a musical, that’s dynamic visually like a film, and has the depth of great literature.” What does that mean, exactly?
For this tour, we wanted to do more than just play a regular set. We wanted to up our game when it comes to production value and not only put on a great rock show, but add a storyline to tie the songs together in an emotional arc. And we knew we wanted to add videos and actors to make people feel like they’re watching a band play along with a movie, but also has a little depth. We know it’s a rock concert first and foremost but we think of this show as a touring Rocky Horror-like experience that we’re trying to create with audience interaction with the band and the video and even a couple of “choose your own adventure” sections where the crowd helps determine where the story goes and thereby determining what songs that we play.
How does the “Major Arcana” tour fit into the Sunspot story? Is this a glorious finale, or just a new experimental springboard?
This is just our latest idea, we’re going to tape some shows on this tour and then we’re going to release it as our first live DVD along with some of our new songs. We’ve had to figure out how to put on a show like this from scratch and to be able to do it without a big crew. Now that we have that sorted out, there’s a million different ideas floating around in our heads for our new songs, shows, and videos and more ways to interact with the audience, so this is just the first idea we’re trying. In the past couple of years, we’ve realized that since the entertainment industry right now is in a Wild West period, we have more chances to do cool things than ever, we have so many more ideas than time! When it comes to a different kind of live show, this is just the start.
If 2010 Sunspot could deliver a message to 1996 Sunspot, what would it be?
Number One, get rid of the goatees. Number Two, buy as many shares of Apple as you can get at their 1996 low. Number Three, relax and appreciate everything.
What does the future hold for Sunspot? Should I expect to see you playing my local nursing home?
Can your local nursing home fit a movie screen and a full lighting rig? If so, we set up fairly quickly. After we release the DVD and new songs in the Fall, then we’ll be starting the process again! We’re already talking about what we’re going to do on the next tour.
Catch Sunspot at Harper’s Ferry with Deadlands and Murder She Wrote on Tuesday, July 27th at Harper’s Ferry. 18+, 8PM, $10. View their full tour schedule here.
For more on Sunspot visit them on MySpace