New World Spirits | Always Magic

prof_nws_sm.jpg"Most all of my decisions in life have been made on the experience I had in the band."

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Photos from the Concert

Sitting down with Mike Kociela and J. Chambers is like sitting down with my twenties. Memories and experiences come rushing back, nights with people I loved then and have lost touch with now. I took John to The Other World, the only time he went to a show with me; he went on to become a huge part of my life for the time that I needed him to be. Kim and I, then musically inseparable, were at the Galaxy more weekends than not; these days we keep touch only sporadically via Facebook. And my leaving my then-husband at home on his birthday to join New World Spirits at Streetside Records for the midnight release of Fortune Cookie—well, you can guess how that turned out.

Back in the day, a New World Spirits show was a guaranteed good night out—and if they played twice in one weekend, well, there were two good nights; never mind all the other things you could be doing that did not involve smoky bars and loud music. New World Spirits is the only band I've ever followed so closely, the only scene I've truly been a part of, and I know it's something that will never happen again. It's hard to explain to people who weren't a part of it. You just knew, for that one night at least, your life was going to be all right, no matter who you were with, no matter where you went, no matter what was going on outside of the music.

That same sense of magic seems to have returned to the four—in addition to Mike (bass) and J. (vocals, guitar) are Danny Drabb (guitar) and Steve Hunt (drums)—playing together again after ten years apart. (Their reunion show is January 16 at The Pageant.) And not just apart; until J. flew home this fall for the first practice (he left town after the dissolution of the band), he says, "We hadn't even seen each other in ten years.

"I thought there was going to be an element of this whole thing that's a bit like riding a bike," he continues. "I mean, I can play a wrong chord and go, ‘I screwed that up,' but the feel and the vibe in the room—"

"The band is totally there," interrupts Mike.

That it took such a successful and well-loved band ten years to reunite is hard to believe; how it came about is even more strange. "The Pageant called and said, ‘Hey, someone said you were doing a reunion show here over the holidays,'" says Mike. "I shot J. an email, and two emails later it was a go. I called Pat back and said, ‘I guess we are!'"

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The thing people may not remember is that there was no farewell show, no flameout; New World Spirits simply was, and then it wasn't. "We never broke up as a band," says J. "There was never any fighting, there was never any animosity. We just didn't call each other. It wasn't because of anything anybody did. We were just tired."

"I think tired's a good explanation after a decade of beating it," Mike agrees. "We just wanted to try something, feel something else for a while."

In their heyday, New World Spirits seemed to be living the dream. They were adored by their hometown, regularly playing shows in front of thousands of people. Their highly successful self-released debut, Creeperweed (the band moved some crazy number approaching 20,000 copies on their own), led to a signing with Universal Records. "It was like, ‘OK, million-to-one shot,'" says J. "Everything we'd worked up to." After recording Fortune Cookie in Seattle, the guys returned to St. Louis for a triumphant homecoming in front of over three thousand people at the Miller Lite Music Blast on Laclede's Landing. "The only thing that could happen at that point was just playing the show and having fun," he says, "because whether you went up or down…"

"That was the most neutral show we ever played," adds Mike, "and that's probably why for me it was the best. It was a validation of what we were doing. We didn't have to do anything; we got a little breather in the scope of our career."

In October 2006, Fortune Cookie was released, and within two short months, the band's dreams were yanked out from under them. "The president of the company was forced out," explains J. "All the new people come in and they don't have that ownership of ‘we found these guys.' So basically, the message we got was ‘We're not going to promote your record anymore'—after eight weeks and being on 100 stations—‘and if you want to do some new demos, we'll listen to them and decide if we want to put a second record out or not.' There's a five-year window where they retain the copyright. So you give us eight weeks, we're on 100 stations, now you want to hear demos again and maybe burn 12 more of our songs that we can't do anything with for five years? No thanks."

"We had the opportunity to walk away, and we did," sums Mike.

prof_nws_poster.jpg"We were like, ‘Fuck you, we're going to put another record out, and it's going to be awesome,'" says J., "and we did it, and in a lot of ways I think [Spark] was better. As much as it was all about getting a record deal to further our career, we played music because we loved it.

"We got some interest from RCA and Arista, but nobody kind of wanted to pull the trigger because, even though we weren't dropped and we walked away, it was like, ‘You've been with a company and now you're not.' It felt like we were a little tainted or something."

With all the ups and downs, the almost making it and the ripping it away...does the band have any regrets? Both guys shake their heads. "It is what it is, you know?" says Mike. "It was a humongous learning experience. Most all of my decisions in life have been made on the experience I had in the band. Surrounding yourself with the right people is the most important thing in the whole, wide world. I learned that, and ever since it's been successful for me.

"And now, for whatever reason, we're getting a chance to go back and enjoy it and appreciate it, and look at it totally differently and much more maturely. You get so caught up in the whirlwind, blinded by trying to make it, that you don't realize you're hanging out with cool people and making great music, and I'm trying to enjoy that."

"All that shit that happened with Universal," says J., "no one in the band would tell you they would change anything or have any regrets; life just happens and you go with it. That experience not only taught us so much, but we really, really grew as people; it was an amazing life experience.

"The thing about the band is it is always going to be there," he continues. "To be able to come back and get in the same room together again, and know why you love these people and the music that, for some reason, just the four of us can create…"

Looking ahead to January, the band has another gift for the fans. "We're putting out an album," says Mike. "Unreleased stuff. B cuts from [the Fortune Cookie recording sessions in] Seattle."

"We've got a chunk of new material, plus some live stuff here and there that we can pepper in," says J. "At the very least, there are a handful of songs that never came out and that should be on there." [The band has posted two such songs—"No Shame" and "Ride"—n the music page of their Facebook site, songs instantly recognizable from their live shows.]

With all the old chemistry back in place, it begs the question: Any new material? "Jury's still out on that," J. says cryptically. "At the end of the day, this is taking a Herculean effort to pull off, especially with me being out of town. There are a few little things being tossed around, back and forth, rips and lines and whatever, and if something were to fortuitously come together, that'd be awesome. But we're not putting any kind of—"

"Expectations on it," finishes Mike.

Now, 20 years after they formed, seems as good a time as any to ask about the name, coined when Mike and J. met and joined forces while in college. Despite the simplicity of the question, it turns out to be a good one—and a good way to end the interview.

"I had a collage on the wall that I made," begins Mike.

"A girlfriend at the time had made it," J. corrects.

"Well, we made it together," Mike admits with a laugh. "For some reason, I was making collages. By hippie decorating stylings, I was really kicking it out. I was on some heavy-duty hallucinogens and those words kept popping off of the collage."

"And little did we know we would regret that over the course of the band," J. says. "But after a while, it became what it is. Who we are."

"I guess you could add that monkeys flew out of the closet," suggests Mike.

J. sighs. "Don't encourage him," he says with a grin. | Laura Hamlett

 

New World Spirits play The Pageant on Saturday, January 16. Tickets are $20 (with a $2 surcharge for minors). Doors 7/show 9.

 

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