Interview: Jamie & Steve (Jamie Hoover & Steve Stoeckel)

Jamie & Steve - English AfterthoughtsFormed in Charlotte NC in the early 1980s, the Spongetones have long charted a rather unique path in pop music. Beginning with their debut LP (1982’s Beat Music), the quartet wrote and recorded two- and three-minute pop classics that bore the unmistakable influence of the Beatles. In fact, songs like “Here I Go Again” and “Take My Love” sounded like outtakes from The Beatles’ Second Album and Beatles VI, respectively. And on a more elaborate track like that album’s “Eloquent Spokesman” the Spongetones faithfully and convincingly evoked the spirit of the Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour era.

The Spongetones soldiered on, releasing a string of very-good-to-excellent albums on a succession of small, independent labels. The group continued to hone their craft, and gradually moved away from overt Beatleisms, developing a sound of their own. The influences are still quite evident even on the group’s most recent album, 2009’s Scrambled Eggs (their eleventh long-player). Hints of Dave Clark Five, Hollies and other bands from rock’s greatest era are worn on the musicians’ sleeves or just below the surface.

In addition to his position as guitarist with the Spongetones, Jamie Hoover has long been involved in a wide array of other projects. Hoover has recorded as a member of powerpop group the Van Delecki’s, collaborated with pop sensation Bill Lloyd, and has a long list of credits playing on recordings by Don Dixon, Marti Jones, Hootie & the Blowfish, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz and many others. Hoover also owns and operates a recording studio; one of his early productions was the underrated Emotional Geography by the Killer Whales, and he’s handled engineering duties on albums for Chris Stamey and many others. Bassist Steve Stoeckel — who, in his early Spongetones days looked like a Let it Be era bearded McCartney with his Hofner bass — has directed most of his musical energies into the Spongetones.

But in 2009, right on the heels of the Scrambled Eggs sessions, Hoover and Stoeckel decided to embark on a side project. The results of those efforts are collected on English Afterthoughts, the album credited to Jamie & Steve. “There’s nothing wrong in paradise,” assures Jamie Hoover. “We just had so many songs…Steve and I were on fire.” On Spongetones records the three songwriters (Hoover, Stoeckel and Pat Walters) divide songwriting space equally. “And we didn’t want to wait too long to have these songs come out,” Hoover says.

Steve Stoeckel notes that these new songs won’t be showing up in Spongetones set lists. “The Spongetones need to be about the Spongetones. Rob [Thorne, Spongetones drummer] and Pat are okay with us doing this CD; we told them ahead of time that we’d be doing this because we had so many songs. We were writing a song a day, at times. It was that fast.”

Since both Jamie & Steve have developed identifiable songwriting styles, it’s fair to wonder how this project differs from a Spongetones record. Steve explains it like this: “The Spongetones are a democracy. Everybody has a say in a song, whether they wrote it or not. But when there’s only two people making decisions, there’s less politicking that goes on.” He describes the decision process for English Afterthoughts simply: “Basically, this is two guys saying, ‘It’s great. Let’s cut it and do the next one.'” Jamie adds that “with Jamie & Steve songs, we both have to love it. Well, with the Spongetones, we have to all four love it.” He adds, “I suppose in a way this is a freeing thing.”

Still, the duo did agree on a distribution of songwriting duties for English Afterthoughts. All but two of the songs were co-written by Hoover and Stoeckel. Steve says, “We each wanted to have at least one tune on it that we wrote solo. It was going to be a completely duo thing, and then Jamie said, ‘we’ll just write one song apiece — we’ll keep it at one.”

Jamie & Steve The collaboration process was rarely face-to-face. “We both have recording programs in our homes,” Steve says. “So we were flying sessions back and forth. Jamie was the mothership; he’d have the master session. We’d put it on a flash drive, and he’d say, ‘I want some acoustic guitars here.’ Only a few times was I over there in his studio. Most of my work was done in my studio. And boy, is that efficient. You could be up at midnight if you feel like singing. You’re not on the clock. And the only reason that it took this long is that we both have jobs. Otherwise,” he laughs, “we could have knocked this thing out in a week and a half!”

No guest musicians were used in the making of English Afterthoughts. “I played drums on every one of those tracks,” Jamie beams. “Real drums. And I lost weight in the process!”

In something of a departure from the Spongetones sound, English Afterthoughts makes extensive use of the ukulele. “Jamie and I both fell in love with ukuleles years ago,” Steve says. “We both own ukes; they are played in some interesting ways so that sometimes they can sound like strings, sometimes like ukes, sometimes like guitars.” So on English Afterthoughts, if you hear something that’s not electric or acoustic guitar, chances are, it’s a ukulele.

Jamie elaborates. “There are also combinations of things that make different sounds. Gut string guitars mixed with the ukuleles end up sounding like pizzicato strings. We also used some mountain dulcimer; when it’s stacked with acoustic guitars, it can sound different, too.” The ukes started working their way in on the Spongetones album Too Clever by Half [2008]. “I’m totally smitten with it,” Jamie says. “It’s wonderfully easy to play, and it’s a very affectionate instrument. It makes you write differently because of the way it’s tuned, the way it plays. And,” he observes, “a lineup of bass, drums and ukulele is kind of an unusual format for a rock band.”

Throughout the album, the duo often employs a dual lead vocal approach, one that they’ve developed over the course of their nearly three decades playing together. Jamie says, “We have been doing it for years on Spongetones records. Needless to say, with the Spongetones, we’ve listened to lots of Beatles records. Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon. What we realized after hearing Steve and I singing together is that it creates a unique voice. We refer to it as ‘Stamey’. [No relation to Chris Stamey, though he’s a friend of Jamie & Steve. — ed.] We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s kind of a gut feeling: we’ll just know: ‘This should be a Stamey song.’ As a general rule, we wanted to have a lot of Stamey vocals on this record because, y’know, we’re kind of making a Chad and Jeremy record.”

The pair collaborated on music and lyrics, often emailing audio files of works-in-progress back and forth. “A lot of these songs,” Steve says, “were my music and Jamie’s lyrics; ‘Girly Girl’ was my lyrics. But for many of the songs, I would just send Jamie the music, and then lyrics would come back. Within a day!”

“We traded off,” Jamie says. “We sent each other a lot of what I call ‘la la la’ tapes.”

“Sometimes,” Steve explains, “one of us gets a ‘la la la’ tape and then instantly knows what the song is about. Even if the other one — the one who sent it — doesn’t.”

Jamie adds that “‘Emily’s Ghost’ is a good example. I literally cc’d Steve on an email with a demo, one that I was sending to somebody else for a totally different reason. I copied him on it because, really, there’s not much that I do that I don’t run past Steve. When he got it, he said ‘Oh, noooo: that’s not going anywhere! I’ve already got it done. Here it is.'”

One of English Afterthoughts‘ many highlights is “Between the Lines,” a song co-written by Jamie & Steve. Like some of the best Beatles tunes, in parts of “Between the Lines” it’s impossible to say definitively which of the two vocal lines is the lead; it’s almost as if there are two complementary songs running in tandem.

Steve says, “I’ve always liked Broadway productions where people are singing, and then other people start singing in counterpoint. I’d always wanted to do that. So I wrote the first part, thinking, ‘this is a guy talking to a girl who’s breaking up with him. And me — the sweet voice — is saying ‘I’ll let you go, because I love you that much.’ And I said to Jamie, ‘I want you to be the nasty guy, the guy that feels the rage inside.’ The ‘Between the Lines’ part is that the nasty guy is saying, ‘What the hell are you doing, breaking up with her?'”

Jamie laughs and says that Steve “pretty much assigned me to be the evil twin.”

Steve doesn’t argue. “Jamie was pretty much the hard-ass, and I was the sweet one. I left holes for Jamie to write lyrics, to fill in. And it’s incredibly hard to do. So the first verse is the sweet guy, the second verse is Jamie. And then in the third verse, it’s really hard to follow what’s happening. It becomes this other thing, this swirling thing. And that’s part of the message of the song: that there’s this constant internal communication that’s happening, and it’s really screwed up.”

Jamie & Steve Jamie observes that songwriting can be “sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes we write songs are that projects, really. They start out as an exercise, and they turn into a song.”

Drastic (but not at all unpleasant or jarring) tempo shifts are a hallmark of a pair of songs on English Afterthoughts. On “Fly Girl” — dedicated to Spongetones friend and underrated pop musician Jill Sobule — Jamie says that he “wanted to drastically change the mood of the song.”

“In the Other Life and on Another Day” shifts back and forth between a midtempo arrangement and a real rocker. “That’s another two-person song,” Jamie explains. “The older guy in the lyrics is doing all the slow stuff. And when the young guy comes in, it’s fast.” (“That,” he chuckles, “is how life is!”) “I wanted to switch to a totally different tempo — not just double time — and then go back to the slower part when the old guy comes back in.”

Steve muses on what makes their musical collaborations so fruitful, so effortless, so fulfilling. “We have complete trust in each others’ songwriting. When one of us sends a song to the other, even in its embryonic form, we know that ‘there’s a song here.’ So we don’t agonize over ‘is this good?’ When I get something from Jamie, I know it’s good. When I send a ‘la la la’ song to him and get it back with lyrics, the first thing I think is, ‘So that’s what this song is about.’ I can’t imagine it being about anything else. And we both have to be happy with it. The rule is, if he’s not happy with my lyric on a song, he’s got to come up with something better. Same with me.”

Even though the songs on English Afterthoughts are wry and clever, they’re never self-consciously clever. “Yes, we’re always trying to do something different,” Jamie concedes. “The people we like are XTC and bands like that. So we try and not repeat ourselves. But more than anything, we’re just trying to write songs.”

Jamie & Steve recently completed a video for “Between the Lines” (see below). They had to learn their own song before they could make the video. Jamie explains. “Young bands, when they’re working on their first record, they already know their songs when they go into the studio. These things were written in the studio. So now we’re in the process of learning how to play these songs!”

Steve adds, “We thought that would be a good one to do a video for, because of the vocal counterpoint. But then we realized, ‘hey, we don’t really know this song.'” He laughs and says that “the repetition of shooting the video was a great way to learn the song.”

English Afterthoughts can be enjoyed as a fun, consistently engaging and tuneful pop album in the great tradition. But for those who care to dig a bit deeper, there are some fun in-jokes. In the song “Feeling Me Watching Me Watching You,” Jamie & Steve sing the word “solo” right before the guitar solo. Just like a band might do at practice. “That was on the demo” for reference, says Jamie. They left it in because it felt right.

The song ‘Girly Girl” finds a Spongetones hallmark — the pronunciation of the title’s second word as gull. “Jamie and I both love the word ‘girl’ no mater how it’s pronounced,” Steve laughs. “We do naturally pronounce it with a soft ‘r’ because that’s just the way we sing. If you sing it with a hard ‘r’ it’s country. And we’re not country singers.”

Jamie & Steve even have the moxie to title a song “Do Be Cruel.” Steve laughs and says, “You can thank Mr. Hoover for that one!” Jamie shrugs, “I just said, ‘It’s there; someone has to do it. And that someone is me.'”

However amusing these inside-baseball tidbits might be, Jamie & Steve are ultimately making music for themselves. “At our age,” Jamie observes, “one does not make a record in anticipation of having a hit, or pleasing a bunch of people. We completely write songs for ourselves. And we know that there are some people that are going to like them for that very reason. We want people to like what we do, but it’s not the driving force.”

“I’ve come to this conclusion,” Steve says. “When you’re first learning how to do something like songwriting, you’re constantly thinking about the listener. You read Hemingway if you want to be a writer, and you listen to the Beatles if you want to be a songsmith. But once you lean how to do it — once you perfect your craft — you don’t worry so much about the audience. Because what you’ve done is, you’ve got a style, you’ve got a craft. You’re good, and you know you’re good. And you bring your audience with you.”

Jamie gets the last word. “People who ‘get’ us really ‘get us’. We’ve become friends with people who listen to our music. That’s one nice thing about the way the record biz is now. We’re sitting here self-addressing these albums, and we’re taking some time today to autograph these and send them out to the people who helped us back this record. It’s a very rewarding thing.”

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