25 Years Ago: The Spin Doctors’ Hard Work Pays Off With ‘Pocket Full of Kryptonite’
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Their debut studio album might have been called Pocket Full of Kryptonite, but for the Spin Doctors, it was a mix of hard work and seemingly never-ending perseverance that would eventually bring them a stack of popular tracks at modern rock radio and two Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
In fact, as frontman Chris Barron revealed during a recent interview, things were pretty quiet for a long time after the album was released on Aug. 20, 1991. Their record label was ready to throw in the towel and send the band back into the studio.
“Sony was way more into Pearl Jam and Michael Jackson when we signed,” he recalled. “We were the redheaded stepchild of the label, even though we were signed personally by the head of Epic Associated. We toured really hard. They wanted us to come home and make a record, and we decided to stay out on the road.”
Kryptonite had been out a year and a half at that point and, as drummer Aaron Comess noted, when compared to the level of album sales that are typical these days, it had performed very respectfully, selling about 60,000 copies.
Beyond that, they were seeing good results and “feeling the buzz” from the time that they had spent touring, as the number of people coming out to see the band kept increasing. “We’re doing really well,” Comess said. “We’re packing clubs all around the country.” They lobbied for the label to release a single from the album and threw some ideas out there.
“I remember specifically us saying, ‘Why don’t you try ‘Two Princes’? Or ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’ or ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Blues’?'” he continued. “And [their response was], ‘Nah, those aren’t hits. You guys don’t have enough tattoos, or it’s not grungy enough,’ or whatever the crap was.”
The road was a place that the group had come to know really well. Even before the major label deal came around, they had already logged a lot of miles outside of their native New York area stomping ground, thanks to Barron’s dad, who had cosigned on a loan for an Econoline F250, which they filled with their equipment and drove to play shows at any club and college that would have them. Even if the turnout wasn’t there on the first go-around, they continued pushing.
“We just kept going back,” Barron said. “We were also a really good live act. We would go to a new town and play for the bartenders and servers and three or four people. Then we’d go back and play for 15 people. The next time, we’d play for 45 people. By the third or fourth time, we would pack it.”
“We kind of approached it as, ‘Hey, here we are.’ We had a bit of a reputation as a good band. The word of mouth was usually really good. There were also tapers at a lot of our gigs, so tapes would get around. We really believed in the act, and people who saw us play were impressed enough to bring their friends back the next time. We’d walk into a place and blow the roof off.”
Watch the Video for “Two Princes”
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Their strong command of the stage was something that Epic highlighted in early 1991 with the release of Up for Grabs…Live, an EP which arrived months before Kryptonite hit the stores and offered an intriguing sample of what the Spin Doctors were all about. It showcased a half-dozen standouts from the group’s song catalog at that time, including the sprawling 11-minute medley of “Freeway of the Plains/Lady Kerosene” and a scorching take on “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” which illustrated something that was very important to Barron — the importance of writing good songs with hooks that you would remember.
Barron had met guitarist Eric Schenkman and Comess while attending Arnie Lawrence’s New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in the New York area (bassist Mark White was a later addition to the group, having jammed with Comess in a funk band called Spade). “We were always really interested in improvisational music,” Barron told author Peter Conners in the book JAMerica. “But we wanted to have great songs; we wanted to improvise the tunes that were great. I came into music and my dream was, number one to make a living at it and not necessarily be rich, but live comfortably, not have to work for ‘the man’ and, number two, I wanted to write people’s favorite songs; that was always important to me.”
Interestingly enough, the idea to release Up for Grabs…Live first came about after the band had already begun work on recording songs for a planned EP release of studio material that would come out first to set up the full-length record. They put down a number of songs with producer Frank Aversa, including versions of three tracks that eventually found their proper home on the Kryptonite album — “Two Princes” and the combo of “Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist” — before having a different idea of what to do with the EP and they made a decision to change gears.
As Comess shared, “We [thought], ‘We’re this live band, and we have a great reputation as a great live band, so let’s put out a live EP and hold off on [more studio recording].’”
They brought a mobile recording truck to the Wetlands club in Manhattan, which had become a popular regular gig for the group and recorded a show in late September 1990 that provided the source material for the EP release.
It ended up being a wise move and after they had the EP in the can, they resumed studio work on the album, this time heading back in with a new team, Peter Denenberg and drummer/producer Frankie LaRocka (both of whom had been involved with capturing Up for Grabs), to complete work on the record.
“The sessions were great. We were a young band; we were hungry; we were having a good time,” Comess remembered. “We really had our sound together because we were literally playing 250 shows a year. So by the time we got into the studio, we had been a band for [about] four years and we had played a lot of those songs hundreds of times. A lot of times bands go [into the studio], and maybe they’ve only played a song a few times, and that’s a great way to do it, too. But you can’t beat that chemistry that happens when a band plays live in front of people as much as we did. And that’s really how we developed our sound — in front of people.”
Watch the Video for “What Time Is It?”
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Part of Pocket Full of Kryptonite’s appeal is that it captures that feeling and the sound of how the band played live, something that he says was not surprisingly, by design.
“We didn’t want to go in and make some overproduced record. We wanted it to represent who we were. And you can feel that: The basic tracks are a live band on the floor. We did some overdubs … but we didn’t get carried away with it at all. So when you hear the record, it just sounds like a four-piece band.”
“We were this really weird jam band who happened to have great songs,” Barron said in the 2011 liner notes for the anniversary edition of the Pocket album. “And a couple of our songs were so great they ended up being hits. ‘Two Princes’ wasn’t a hit when we wrote it. It was just a really good song that made your girlfriend want to bone you.”
It was a song which had evolved, according to Comess, who commented in the anniversary liner notes that it was still a “work in progress” at the time that they made a demo of it. “We consciously made a decision to slow the tempo down and let the groove fatten up [on the album version]. I honestly think if we hadn’t made those changes, it wouldn’t have been the hit that it was.”
Longtime band associate and friend, John Popper of Blues Traveler, shows up on the album, contributing a gleeful harmonica solo to the buoyant “More Than She Knows” and snags a co-writing credit on “Hard to Exist,” a track he had worked on originally outside of the Spin Doctors with Schenkman — Blues Traveler had, in fact, started doing their own version. Schenkman eventually brought it back into the Spin Doctors fold where Barron penned his own lyrics and it was merged with “Shinbone Alley,” mirroring the segue that normally occurred during the band’s live shows. “Refrigerator Car” is yet another example of the lightning in a bottle energy that was captured again and again on Kryptonite, described by Barron as being “a Southern Pacific five-mile-f—in’-long freight train going by a truck stop in the middle of the night.”
It’s a heckuva ride and one that, when listening to the completed album as a whole, you can tell that each song, each moment was carefully considered — not overthought, or overly produced as Comess detailed earlier, but it was clearly a body of work that was conceptualized as a proper album and not just a few singles and a bunch of other songs. The album takes you on a journey and the members of the Spin Doctors worked hard to make sure that it would be a good trip.
And instrumentally, it’s so rare to hear a band’s sound captured in the studio in a way that reflects what you heard in the audience from the stage. At a time when a lot of the albums coming out on the edge of the grunge era were overly glossy, Pocket Full of Kryptonite is delightfully stripped back, with the sound of Comess’s drums providing a solid and precise engine, White’s basslines thump extraordinarily high in the mix and Schenkman’s guitar riffs are gloriously unfiltered and in your face. Barron is the wiry, whirling dervish tying everything together and as it all unfolds, spinning through the speakers, you can picture him twirling across the stage.
Watch the Video for “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”
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All that was left to do was to find a spot for the Spin Doctors on the radio dial and while the band had certainly done their part, logging hundreds of thousands of miles in the first year and a half that the album was out and building a fanbase, they weren’t getting the airplay that was at the time, the much-desired payoff for all of that hard work. Back on the road, three or four months after the label tried to persuade them to come off the road and start working on the next album, they got a lifeline.
“A station in Vermont called WEQX — this guy named Jim McGuinn, great guy — started playing ‘Little Miss,’ Comess remembered. “And it went to No. 1 on the station. And he hand-wrote a letter to the president of Epic, saying, ‘You guys should really go after this band. You’d be crazy if you didn’t. This is an incredible reaction we’re getting here.’
“That’s what lit the fire. And then [Epic] put it on rock radio; they made a video; they got behind it. And then everything blew up, and of course they were like, ‘We knew it all along,'” Comess said, with a laugh.
Six months later, according to Barron, Pocket Full of Kryptonite had gone platinum. They had made television appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show With David Letterman and snagged the cover of Rolling Stone. “Two Princes” went onto grab a Grammy nomination and more than two decades later, the album has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
“I actually like the album more now than I did then,” Comess said, in the liner notes for the anniversary edition. “We recorded the album about a year before it came out and when you’re 21, a year can seem more like an eternity. By the time it came out, I was over it. I felt like we’re better now, that was a year ago and you should hear us now. Now, I hear the record and I’m like, this is a great record! All the little mistakes, the cool stuff that gets mixed out of so many records being made today, are my favorite parts. It’s good organic rock and roll.”
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