The list of St. Louis bands chewed up and spit out by major labels is long. Just ask New World Spirits, one of the last to suffer this ignominious fate, after releasing the diverse, accessible Fortune Cookie via Universal Records in 1996. The quartet — bassist Mike Kociela, vocalist/rhythm guitarist J. Chambers, guitarist Danny Drabb and drummer Steve Hunt — split with the label soon after.
Ten-plus years after they stopped playing together, the members of NWS will be onstage together once again this weekend at the Pageant. The band won't just be celebrating its past, however: Although attendees will be able to purchase a disc containing old B-sides and demos, the release also features two newly recorded songs as well. Chambers and Kociela took some time out to answer some questions.
Annie Zaleski: How did you guys form originally? What were your backgrounds in the local music scene pre-NWS?
J. Chambers: We originally met and formed while in college at SMSU, now Missouri State, in Springfield, Missouri. So, our background was more in the music scene of Springfield than it was St. Louis. I tested the waters with a few bands back in college, but prior to meeting Michael, I was studying music more than writing it.
Mike Kociela: I had been in crappy bands all through high school, but it was in 1988, my second year of college, when I set out to start a serious project. I was referred to J. by a friend of mine that worked at a music store. He was like, "You have got to go check this guy out — he's playing the Regency showcase this weekend." So I went to the show, and when I walked in, he was onstage totally crushing a U2 song. I hadn't heard a dude hit notes that high and so perfectly in tune. It blew me away.
I knew that J. was the right person for the gig, but it took a little while to get him on board. I'm not exactly sure when he agreed to team up, but I do remember that he was sitting in his fly-ass red 280ZX when he did — ha! From there, we set out to build the band. We had some pretty interesting characters in the mix throughout the first couple years. We had a guitarist with huge, Cinderella-style hair and three or four different drummers. Not to mention that we all went through some serious fashion disasters — looking back now at old band pictures, it's just hilarious.
What were your first shows in town like? Whom did you play with?
JC: I don't think people really knew what to make of us at first. Our writing style was really all over the place, from mellow to really hard. But I think the more we grew to understand ourselves, what we were and what we could be, the more the audience did as well. So it really just grew from there. And I think the fact that we didn't limit ourselves in our writing really served us well. It might have felt a little schizophrenic at times early on, but it definitely didn't feel like we were playing the same song over and over throughout a set.
What was the best and worst thing about having a major-label record deal?
JC: The best part for me was when we flew to New York, and it actually happened, knowing that all our writing and playing had finally paid off. It was that point when it was all still so pure. The whole thing, especially at that time, was such a million-to-one shot to begin with, so when it actually happened, it kind of felt like anything was possible. The worst part was to be doing so well in the first eight weeks after the release and then having the rug pulled out from under us because of a shakeup at the label. I honestly think it would have been a lot easier to take if we had just simply failed.
MK: The best thing was accomplishing what we set out to do — get a deal. It made all of the hard work, sleeping on couches and driving ten bazillion miles to the next show worth it. The worst thing was that at the time, Universal Records was a brand-new label, and they didn't have the machine in place to break a rock band. They were pretty much a disaster to work with; we didn't even have an A&R rep.
What did you guys learn from having that record deal?
JC: For me, it wasn't so much something I learned, but something that I was reminded of. And that was to appreciate the ride more than the destination.
MK: That you need to plan beyond the deal. It's like starting all over again, and you need to have a solid team in place to make it pop.
When did you guys decide to split up? What sort of led to the decision that you guys needed to not play together anymore?
JC: This is really the hardest question to answer, because I don't think any of us really understand it to this day. There was no decision to stop playing. No fight. No hurt feelings. No unresolved musical differences. It just kind of happened. I think Michael has always described it best in saying that after ten years, we were just tired and ready to feel something different for a while. Who knew that "a while" meant "ten years"?
MK: Pretty much after finding ourselves playing to seals at the zoo. Not that I don't like seals, but it raised the question, "What the hell are we doing?" So after ten years of busting our butts and going through the wringer, J. and I decided to end it that day. About three months later, our drummer Steve called and said, "Hey, are we still a band?" I guess we forgot to tell the rest of the guys.
What sort of new material or reissued songs can we expect from the album released at the Pageant?
JC: We're definitely releasing a collection of previously unreleased material. It includes everything from Fortune Cookie's B-sides to one of our very early demos to a handful of songs recorded in and around St. Louis, two of which were recorded specifically for this release. It felt absolutely incredible to be in the studio recording together again after so many years. And we're really excited for these songs to finally be heard.
Why is 2010 the right time for a reunion?
MK: No real reason. It just finally made sense for all of us, and our fans kept up the pressure for the last ten years. I just can't wait to see everyone again and to feel the sense of community we used to share.
JC: I don't really know that there is a right time. Or that this is it, for that matter. We haven't approached it like that at all. The opportunity to do this came about very spontaneously, and the decision to play was made within minutes. There was very little thinking involved.
Looking back, what sort of influence do you guys feel NWS had on the local STL music community?
MK: That is a tough question. There were so many great bands "back in the day" getting deals and working hard to get ahead, that it all was just a big storm of music, friends and shows. If we influenced anyone, hopefully it was to work hard. We were relentless in our touring, self-promotion and songwriting. It eventually paid off.
JC: Michael's right. There were a lot of bands from St. Louis during that time, whether they were signed or not, that were making some great music. And I think each of them influenced the scene in their own way. But for us, probably more than anything, I'd hope we always showed our passion for music above anything else. We were probably the poster band for how the music industry can chew you up and spit you out. But that didn't change why we were playing in the first place. We played for nearly six years before we were signed and another four after we split from the Universal. We had records before, during and after that experience. At the end of the day, your love of writing and playing together has to be so much bigger than your dreams of "making it." And for us, I'm proud that it always was.