On Aug. 23, 1991, Epic Records released the first Spin Doctors album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
Flash forward exactly four years later: Kryptonite’s sales in America had reached 5 million copies.
There’s much more to the story of the Spin Doctors and the success of their debut album, which will be reissued Aug. 30 as a two-CD deluxe edition to mark its 20th anniversary.
On a sweltering midsummer night in New York, Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess was as cool as can be, sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of his recording studio and talking about the early days of his band and what it took to make — and eventually break —Kryptonite.
Medleyville.us: When and how did you meet your band mates Chris Barron, Mark White and Eric Schenkman?
Aaron Comess: “Well, I had been in town just a couple of months. I came here [from Dallas in the mid-to-late 1980s] specifically to go to The New School. They had just started a new jazz program there. … So I’m there about a month, and I specifically remember I’m in this room practicing some stuff, and I get a knock on the door, and it’s Eric Schenkman. I had never met the guy. He said, ‘Hey, man, my name is Eric. I’m putting a band together. We got a gig coming up at a fraternity house at Columbia University in a few weeks. I was wondering if you want to play drums with us?’ And [I gave him] the typical drummer answer — ‘Sure’ (laughs).
“It turned out that he and Chris had already known each other for a while. They had played in a band called the Trucking Company with John Popper from Blues Traveler. When they re-met at The New School, Eric approached Chris about putting a band together, so they found me.
“We literally went through about 10 different bass players before Mark joined on. About nine months after I had been in the band, I brought Mark in. I was in another band [with Mark] called Spade — it was a funk band. … I didn’t think he would fit necessarily because we were these three white dudes who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. We were also really into R&B and funk and blues. Mark was just this total funk bass player black dude from Queens [New York] — a whole different type of dude. But as soon as the four of us got into a room together, the sound was there, and we thought, ‘OK, we got it.’ ”
What was the New York rock scene like in the late 1980s, and how did The Spin Doctors fit into it?
Comess: “There are so many different scenes going on in New York. … But there was a really cool scene around a bunch of different clubs that we kind of fit into. There was this bar called the Nightingale bar, which is on Second Avenue and 13th Street. It’s still there … It was a great rock ‘n’ roll dive bar back then. There was a band called The Worms; they had all these guys who were kind of like mentors to us. They were a few years older, and they played great, funky rock ‘n’ roll. There were a lot of country elements in there. … Also Blues Traveler, who were friends with Chris from Princeton [New Jersey]. They had been around for a few years, so they kind of had a scene.
“So we kind of fit into that scene and made the Nightingale our home base. … It was a fantastic scene, and it really grew from there. As we started up and built a following, the next three to four years in New York [before Kryptonite was released] were incredible times.”
The first Spin Doctors release on Epic was the Up for Grabs … Live EP, then came Pocket Full of Kryptonite in August 1991. What were those recording sessions like? I know you guys recorded the album in two or three different facilities in New York.
Comess: “What we did was originally when we got our deal with Epic, they wanted us to put out an EP. So we went into the studio at the Power Station with a producer named Frank Aversa, and we cut ‘Two Princes,’ we cut the ‘Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist’ segue — those three songs ended up making it on [Kryptonite]. We did about three or four other songs, too. And that was all cool, but then we decided before we put that out, we [thought], ‘We’re this live band, and we a great reputation as a great live band,’ so let’s put out a live EP and hold off on [more studio recording].
“So we went into the Wetlands. At this point, we kind of graduated from the Nightingale. We were playing the Wetlands, which was a bigger club [in Manhattan] — you could put about 900 people in there. … So we brought a [mobile recording] truck in there, and we recorded the show and ended up making the live EP out of that.
“After that, we went back into the studio with Peter Denenberg and Frankie La Rocka — they were the guys who did the live EP — and did the rest of Pocket Full of Kryptonite at RPM Studios, which is no longer [around] but was just down the road [from here] on 12th Street. At the end of the day, we ended up using those three original cuts from the Power Station and the stuff we did at RPM.
“The sessions were great. We were a young band; we were hungry; we were having a good time. 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.
“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.”
It took a while for Pocket Full of Kryptonite to really take off. What was the band’s relationship with Epic like before the success started to happen with the album?
Comess: “That’s a great question. They were cool; we were happy to have a record deal. We were happy to finally have a little money in our pocket to go out and buy some new instruments and this and that.
“It’s funny: When we put out the live EP, we got a little tour support. So we went out in a bus for about six weeks, and that ran out real quick. And that’s where, for most bands, it’s over: OK, you’re done when you run out of money — you go home, you’re dropped [from the label].
“In our case … we got back in the good ol’ van, you know, and just hustled it on the road. That’s really what broke the band was the constant touring in the van. Because what a lot of people don’t know about that record is that it came out in August ’91, but it didn’t really start to break until about a year and a half later. It was just based on our grassroots following and touring.
“By today’s standards, it did pretty well. It sold about 60,000 records in the first year and a half. And I’ll never forget: The pinnacle moment was we were finished with this tour; we had come back from like a year and half slugging it out on the road. We’re doing really well; we’re packing clubs all around the country. And we have a big meeting with all of the heads of Epic Records and all of the band members and our management, and we’re sitting there at this big table on the top floor of the Sony building or whatever, and the head of Epic [says], ‘All right, guys, time to get off the road and make a new record. This record is dead, and there’s no hits on this record. … You need to write some hits and make a new record.’ And we were like, you know, ‘Listen, guys, you’re sitting in your office looking at your numbers or whatever. We’re out on the road, and we’re feeling this buzz that’s happening.’
“I remember specifically us saying, ‘Why don’t you try “Two Princes”? Or “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” or “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”?’ 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.
“So we decided, well, [screw it], we’re going to go back out on the road. And that was one of the best decisions we ever made, and our management stuck with us on it. We went back out on the road, and about three or four months later, a station in Vermont called WEQX — this guy named Jim McGuinn, great guy — started playing ‘Little Miss.’ 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’ (laughs).”
Now was that guy who spoke in the meeting and said you should go back into the studio — was he the stereotypical guy with the stogie sitting at the end of the table, wearing a three-piece suit?
Comess: “He was a guy named Richard Griffiths. He was a nice guy, an English guy. He was a good guy. … He was the guy who signed the band, and he believed in us. It’s just that it was a different time [in music].
“At the time, they were putting all of their money into Pearl Jam. Nirvana had just blown up; Pearl Jam was blowing up. We’d be driving around the country in our little van, and in every record store we’d see, every town we’d roll into, it would be Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam — and nothing on us. And we’d call our manager, ‘What the hell is this Pearl Jam? They’re on our label; why aren’t we getting any love?’
“So I think they just saw us in a different light. We weren’t the hip thing. … It was either you were covered in tattoos, or you were a grunge band at the time — and we weren’t either of those. … Ultimately, when [the label] got on board, they did a great job for us.”
You touched on grunge and Nirvana. About a month after Pocket Full of Kryptonite came out, that’s when Nevermind came out. And as everyone knows by now, that really put a dent in the heavy metal scene, but it opened the doors for whatever was considered alternative rock and underground rock at that time. Did the success of Nevermind and Nirvana and the other grunge bands afterward open any doors for the Spin Doctors that may have been previously closed?
Comess: “We were doing our thing in New York; there was that other scene going on in Seattle. We didn’t know anything about them; they didn’t know anything about us. But I think there’s no doubt that when Nevermind came out, it definitely broke everything wide open. It opened up a lot of doors, I think — I think it definitely opened up doors for us. All of a sudden, all of the pop stuff and the heavy metal stuff that had been kind of ruling the airwaves was pushed aside. It opened up the door for more real, organic rock ‘n’ roll — which we are.
“I always found the label things ridiculous. [We were] called neo-hippie or whatever, and then [other bands back then were called] grunge. The truth is, it’s all just a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll, you know what I mean? The grunge stuff might have been a little heavier than us, but our stuff was a little funkier. … There was a little window there, about a three-year window, when it was a really good time for music, for sure.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Pocket Full of Kryptonite facts and figures
* Release date: Aug. 23, 1991
* Recording Industry Association of America gold certification: Sept. 30, 1992
* RIAA platinum certification: Jan. 4, 1993 (Kryptonite reached five-times platinum certification on Aug. 22, 1995)
* Kryptonite‘s Billboard Hot 100 entries, their peak positions and years they charted: “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (No. 17, 1992), “Two Princes” (No. 7, 1993), “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” (No. 78, 1993)
* Kryptonite‘s Billboard Album Rock Tracks entries, their peak positions and years they charted: “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” No. 2, 1992), “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” (No. 8, 1992), “Two Princes” (No. 2, 1993), “What Time Is It?” (No. 26, 1993), “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?)” (No. 28, 1993)
The Spin Doctors on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Oct. 7: Visulite Theatre, Charlotte, N.C.
* Oct. 8: The Pour House Music Hall — Raleigh, N.C.
* Oct. 9: Birchmere Bandstand — Alexandria, Va.
* Oct. 11: Rams Head On Stage — Annapolis, Md.
* Oct. 13: Bowery Ballroom — New York
* Oct. 14: World Cafe Live — Philadelphia
* Oct. 15: Brighton Music Hall — Allston, Mass.
* Oct. 16: Higher Ground Ballroom — Burlington, Vt.
* Oct. 18: Port City Music Hall — Portland, Maine
* Oct. 20: The Town Ballroom — Buffalo, N.Y.
* Oct. 21: The Westcott Theater — Syracuse, N.Y.
* Oct. 22: The Ridgefield Playhouse — Ridgefield, Conn.