Spygenius ‘n’ Me

Long before I knew them as, y’know, actual people I was already well acquainted with the musical riches of Spygenius. It was mid 2020 when I first encountered music by the sophisticated pop group out of Canterbury (a city well known for its, well, sophisticated musical character). I reviewed Man on the Sea, and summed things up by observing that if one could imagine “a less quirky XTC or a slightly more idiosyncratic Squeeze,” one might begin to approach the character of Spygenius.

Spygenius ‘n’ Me in Liverpool
(L-R: Matt Byrne, Alan Cannings, Peter Watts, Ruth Rogers, me.)

A mere 18 months later, another Spygenius album landed on my desk. Blow Their Covers is exactly what its name suggests. But in the hands of this creatively fertile quartet, a collection of covers is an opportunity to give the songs of others a distinctly Spygenius rethink. I actually used the word brilliant to describe the album, and enthused that I was ready for another album of original music from the group.

Fast-forward another six months, and my wish was granted. Jobbernowl showcased Spygenius’ “knowing way with ear candy tune creation.” Jump ahead six months again and we arrive at January 2023. That’s when I found out that not only had my friend Steve Stoeckel released a superb solo debut called The Power of And, but that he had been invited to play a high-profile festival date in Liverpool, at a little place called The Cavern Club. And he needed a band for the gigs. Wonders being unceasing as they are, I was enlisted as the ad hoc band’s keyboardist, along with Steve on lead vocals and bass plus his Spongetones band mate Eric Willhelm on drums.

That, of course, left the guitar chair unfilled. And here’s where the two stories converged for me: on guitar would be the superlatively talented Peter Watts of – you guessed it – Spygenius. Peter learned Steve’s entire set of songs (a set and a half, truth be told) on his own, and once we all convened in the upper room of the Beatles Shoppe on Mathew Street, the four of us in the same room for the first time ever, we ran through the songs once. Then it was off to play what turned out to be three gigs.

The view from my “office,” 31 May 2023

After ironing out a few inevitable kinks (fifteen minutes to set up, and then “sound check” is the first song of your set as thee things) the whole thing came off beautifully. We were initially booked to play two shows – one at the Cavern Club, another across the street at the Cavern Pub – but they went so well that our quartet was invited to play a third show, back at the Club.

Which we did, with aplomb. But here’s the thing: in addition to all that – and on top of finding that rehearsal space and bringing along a practice keyboard (with its own amusing back story and dodgy mien), Peter also had two festival shows to play with Spygenius! That’s a lot of work, and if you know anything at all about the financial setup of this particular festival impresario, you know exactly how much cash that netted Peter for his above-the-call-of-duty efforts. (Here’s a hint: it’s a, er, round number.) He did it all because he’s a right gent.

And as I discovered, Peter’s sterling character is also a defining feature of Spygenius as a whole. Ruth Rogers is a razor-sharp wit and a blazingly busy (in the best sense of that word) bassist. Alan Cannings combines rock-solid drumming and a sparkling, inventive approach to his instrument. And dazzling keyboardist Matt Byrne, well he’s a hero in my estimation as well: he not only provided his own pro gear for me to play onstage, but he roadied the beasts (with assistance from Ruth) up and down those multiple flights into and out of the depths of the Cavern(s).

So kind and helpful was Matt that I couldn’t help but joke with him backstage: “Since you’re basically doing everything for me,” I suggested, “how about a ride back to London after the gigs?” You see, there was a well-justified rail strike at the time, and I wasn’t quite clear as to how I wold get from Liverpool to Gatwick for my upcoming flight back to the former colonies. To be clear, I really was kidding about a car ride.

Spygenius onstage at the Cavern Club, 1 June 2023

But Matt said yes! And so the next morning, after a delightful breakfast with the whole of Spygenius, I piled into his car along with him and Alan, and off we went. Thanks at least in part to the strike, there were (shall we say) many vehicles on the road. So many, in fact, that a drive which would customarily take some four hours ended up extending to seven-plus. Yet thanks to the wonderful company of Matt and Alan, the time blew by quickly.

The point of all this being that not only does Spygenius make some of the best music out there, but it’s unanimously populated by some of the nicest people one could ever meet. I’m honored to count them as my friends.

But wait: there’s more! Ruth kindly supplied me with the complete Spygenius back catalog. Yes, I had already been won over by the charms of the three most recent albums from these clever Cantabrigians, but I had yet to hear anything they had done before those releases. As it happens, Spygenius already had four albums to their credit before Man on the Sea. So once I arrived back home, I gladly dug into listening to those albums. And in my next installment, I share my thoughts. They’re here.