Article/Interview By: Lisa Occhino
The incredible success of the Spin Doctors can’t be denied. Pocket Full of Kryptonite sold over 10 million albums throughout the world, reached #3 on Billboard’s Top 200 Album Chart, and made the magazine’s Top 100 list of the Best-Selling Albums of the Decade. “Two Princes” was essentially the soundtrack of the ‘90s (it was the most-played rock song in the world in 1993), and the hit single has achieved such longevity that it’s still played on the radio today.
On August 30th, the double-disc 20th Anniversary Edition of Kryptonite was released, which includes remastered tracks, rare demos, and live concert recordings – a must-have for any Spin Doctors fan. The band is also embarking on a U.S. tour this fall, and for the first time in America, they will be performing the entire album straight through from beginning to end.
I got the wonderful opportunity to chat with Aaron Comess (drummer and founding member of the Spin Doctors) about his time at Berklee, his experiences with the band, and his unique perspective on the definition of success.
Berklee Groove: So I hear you went to Berklee?
Aaron Comess: Yeah, I was there from ’86 to ’87 and I loved it. I grew up in Texas and went to a performing arts high school, so it was a great transition for me. I practiced eight hours a day and did two to three sessions a night, went to classes, and pretty much didn’t leave the building for a year. I had a great experience there, it was very valuable.
BG: How do you feel that affected your career as a musician?
AC: Berklee created its own little real world. There were thousands of great musicians everywhere learning off each other and playing with each other. There was also a lot of competition, especially with the rating system, and there was that percentage that just didn’t want to go to a real school. The serious musicians find each other and go on to have a career. Berklee prepares people for what’s out there. I intended to stay longer, but I moved to Dallas to work [as a musician] and then to New York.
BG: Looking back, was Berklee more valuable for the skills you learned and the knowledge you acquired, or the connections you made?
AC: The skills I learned, and just getting in that environment. I’ve always been a really serious musician and I went there to work hard, to get myself to the next level. You get out of it what you put into it; everything you need is there. For me it was about working on my music and practicing ear training and [sight] reading.
BG: How did you get your start in music?
AC: I went to an arts magnet high school in Dallas. Half the day was academics, the other half was music. I started playing drums when I was nine and piano when I was five. I knew since I was really young that I wanted to do this. I remember a conversation with my friend in junior high school. We were walking off the bus and he said, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And I said, “I wanna be a professional musician.” And I really meant it.
BG: How and when did the Spin Doctors form?
AC: I moved to New York in ‘88 and went to The New School a year after Berklee. I met the guys in the Spin Doctors shortly after. I was practicing in a practice room, and Eric [Schenkman] knocked on the door. He asked if I wanted to play a gig with them that weekend, and from there we just started playing New York a lot. Our approach wasn’t to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; our goal was to be a working band playing original music. We played five nights a week in New York City. We did it for three years, built a following, and kept writing songs. We developed our sound pretty much live. Then we got a record deal, it happened real organically.
BG: How has the dynamic of the band changed (or stayed the same) over the years?
AC: We’ve been together for 20 years. We’ve had our ups and downs and our differences. We split up for a while, but today it’s all the same guys in the band. Now that we’re older we’ve grown up a bit; we understand and appreciate what it means to have a real chemistry. We worked really hard to get gigs and make a living. Now we realize you take that for granted when you’re younger. We appreciate that a lot. Our goals our still to be really good and make a living, and to try to have fun. I started taking drum lessons again. I wanted to give myself a good kick in the ass, so I found Michael Carvin in New York City. My feeling is you never stop learning – it’s a constant thing.
BG: What was the writing and recording process for Pocket Full of Kryptonite like?
AC: We were together for three or four years before that record, so we had played those songs hundreds of times at live shows. We had so many songs, so it wasn’t difficult to figure out which songs to put on the record. There was a little pre-production but not a lot. We wanted to make sure we retained the sound of the band, but we didn’t want it to be over-produced. We were lucky to get hooked up with great producers – we basically just went in there and did it. I got to listen to it again after not hearing it for so long, and it sounds really fresh to me, it sounds great. I like how everything sounds on that album; we never tried to be anything, were always just ourselves. That’s why we’re still doing it 20 years later.
BG: What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
AC: “Shinbone Alley.” It really represents what the band is outside of the poppy thing. “Shinbone Alley” is a little darker, more on the rockin’ side. Everyone in the band has a really unique voice on their own, and together we have the voice that is the Spin Doctors. We never sat around and said, “We wanna have a hit, we wanna be rock stars.”
BG: What’s special about the 20th Anniversary edition?
AC: There are some alternate takes, and we’re including cassette demos that we would sell at our shows way back. You can hear the songs before they were fully developed. There are some different guitar hooks, and some changes were added. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard it. I actually like it. It’s a cool, raw way to hear the band developing. It’s great for fans.
BG: How has the tour been going? What was the biggest highlight so far?
AC: We were in Europe a bit, and this fall we’re doing a month run in the U.S. The biggest highlight is seeing younger people discover the music. I love meeting drummers. It’s so humbling for me when they say I inspired them to learn drums. Besides playing the music, I enjoy meeting new people and having music mean something to them.
BG: What do you feel is your biggest achievement in your career so far?
AC: For me, it’s about trying to be the best musician I can be. I don’t judge my success on records sold, the people I’ve played with, or the number of gigs I’ve played. I’m proud of it, but I’m motivated to do better. For me it’s all about the growth. I’m 43, and I’m really focused on getting better now. There’s some Berklee kid in a practice room right now coming up to New York to kick my ass.
BG: What’s your favorite part of being a musician?
AC: The creative aspect. Having something you can put your soul into and express yourself with. Any art form is a blessing to have. I’m fortunate to have found something that I love to do. We have good times and bad times, but for me music is something that consistently makes me feel great. Most people aren’t lucky enough to find something they love. You can still be happy, but it’s such a major part of my life. I feel blessed.
BG: What’s your best advice for aspiring artists and musicians?
AC: Keep an open mind, listen to as much different music as you can, practice really hard, and work really hard. You gotta have fun but just like anything, it’s a lot of work whether you’re a natural or not. You gotta put the hours in. Get out of the practice room and play with other musicians too – they’re two totally different things. The biggest thing is to respect the song and the music. Never get in the way of melody or vocals. Play for the music, not yourself.
BG: What’s the biggest lesson the music industry has taught you?
AC: To be yourself, don’t be afraid to do your thing. You don’t have to try to be like everyone else. You turn on the radio and everyone sounds the same. That’s one way to do it, but you won’t have any kind of voice. The artists that make it are the ones that are new, unique, fresh.
BG: What’s next for the Spin Doctors?
AC: We’re doing this tour, then we’re going to Europe for a while in January. We’re having a really good time, and we’re all happy to be healthy and alive together.
You can catch the Spin Doctors in Boston at the Brighton Music Hall on Saturday, October 15th.