We’re on the back porch of Vacation Vinyl in Los Angeles when someone working in the spice shop downstairs starts cranking some Ozzy. Murder City Devils vocalist Spencer Moody nods appreciatively at the music as he gives Noisey the exclusive on his new project with former Void guitarist Bubba Dupree, Murder City Devils bassist Derek Fudesco, Grammy-winning producer/drummer Dave Way and keyboard player Buddy Ross. “It’s called Spencer Moody for now, but it might be called Spencer Moody and the somethings at some point,” he ventures. “I have no idea.”
The music is not what you might expect from Moody’s work with the Murder City Devils, Dead Low Tide or Smoke & Smoke. But his craggy barroom vocal style remains as indelible as ever. “I was interested in a Bill Withers 1972 kind of thing,” he explains. “The core of his material is really simple folk songs, but with the sensibility of the band they sort of become gospel-infused in a way. I want something halfway between that and a Scott Walker thing, with a little more of an orchestral vibe. What came out is not those things, but it’s exciting to me.”
Check out the new song “I Relent” and our in-depth interview with Moody below. Dupree joins the conversation about two-thirds of the way through, after accidentally getting on the wrong bus to meet us. Shout out to Vacation proprietor Mark Thompson for letting us get all up in his business, literally.
When did you figure out you could sing?
Spencer Moody: In my early teens, I really liked Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and I was really getting into punk stuff. A lot of the people I liked I didn’t really think of as singers. Lou Reed isn’t a singer, but I know now that Bob Dylan is a wonderful singer. I didn’t realize it at the time. So I didn’t think being able to sing was necessarily that important. The first band I was in that was playing shows was called Area 51, and I just screamed. There were no monitors generally speaking, and there were two singers in the band at the time—myself and [former Pretty Girls Make Graves vocalist] Andrea Zollo. At the places we were playing, sometimes there’d only be one microphone, so I’d just walk around the room screaming the song. When the Murder City Devils formed and we started being less punk and more rock n’ roll, basically I just faked it. I still fake it, but I’ve tried to add more texture and variation even though I’m not concerned with hitting notes.
How did you transition from listening to your Lou Reed and Bob Dylan records to getting onstage and doing it yourself?
Moody: Well, the advantage I had over other people is that I was just more obnoxious. Even though I’m clearly an extroverted person, I only know that by looking at my own past. I never feel excited to get onstage in front of people. I always feel frightened, and there’s always a high-end tone of humiliation every time I put myself in front of people. [Laughs]
You have a very distinct and immediately recognizable voice. Was that something you were cognizant of when the Murder City Devils started?
Moody: When we started, there were other people doing what we were doing, but we didn’t really know that. We were sort of directly challenging what was around us—the scene we were in at the time in Seattle. We were totally a part of that scene and totally supportive of it, but in my mind the most important thing about the Murder City Devils is that we were not a punk band. We were a rock n’ roll band. We felt like we were tapping into a tradition that was more like New York in the mid ’70s, when the idea was more about stripping down rock n’ roll. It was like trying to emulate the Rolling Stones but coming up short and having that be something special.
This scene I’m talking about was the stuff that was going on in Olympia in the mid-’90s that we were totally stoked on. Then there was more straight-edge influenced hardcore, and we were fine with that, too—that was all people we grew up with. And then there was that shoegazey, emo-type stuff. When we showed up and had access to those same venues and we were like, “Look at us. We’re rock n’ rollers!” My role models as far as singers at the time were people like Darby Crash, Lux Interior and Iggy Pop. But I was kind of a chubby child—I was not like those guys.
They were performers.
Moody: Exactly. They’re putting on an act. It’s a show. So we as a group felt like we were obliged to put on a show and to be extroverted instead of like, “Oh, I hope you like my song.” Because it was sort of uncool to be rock n’ roll at that time. But you know what? People fucking loved it right away! Even the people that we felt like we were sort of rebelling against were like, “This is great.” For the first few years of that band, every time we played I was pretty much hostile towards the audience. But after a while I couldn’t be that way anymore because they were actually a really supportive group of people. [Laughs]
So the hostility was part of the act?
Moody: Well, it was probably coming from a place of insecurity. It was also a way to force engagement. That was the one punk thing that remained precious to us—we’re all here in this room and we’re all doing this together. So a lot of my aggressiveness and hostility was—in my mind—a way to bring everyone in. It was like, “I might be onstage, but you’re standing two feet away from me and I fucking see you. And I’m here to be the center of attention.” [Laughs] So I had a totally contradictory and unreasonable idea of what I wanted from the audience. It was impossible for anyone to comply with what I was looking for, so I was just gonna be an asshole.
Now that the Murder City Devils are playing again, what’s your approach onstage?
Moody: I just really do the best that I can, especially since we’ve more or less been a band for 20 years. Mostly we play festivals now, and those festivals are really expensive and uncomfortable. A lot of the bands that play are bands that have been together for a long time, and the expectation that I have for myself is that I wanna put on a show that’s as good as any rock show that I’ve been to. I mean, you’re backstage at these events and it’s a lot of grumpy old white men. [Laughs] I can’t do that.
How does it feel to be in what has become a legacy band?
Moody: You know, I wish I had wanted more. I wish I had dreamed bigger, because everything I wanted out of a band—aside from the fact that we never really made money—was accomplished within the first five years of the band. By the time I was 24, I had gotten everything my 13-year old self had wanted. It was awesome. But maybe some people who are really successful don’t benefit from that success at all. Maybe it’s better to just feel like you’ve expressed the thing you wanted to express and were heard by the audience you wanted to be heard by. So that’s what’s funny about it. It’s kind of confusing in a way.
When the Murder City Devils split up, it seemed like everyone in the band was either already playing in other bands or started new ones right away. Did you ever have a moment of “What do I do now?”
Moody: It was more like, “Whatever I do is gonna be great. I’m just gonna start right where I left off.” But then painfully and over much time, I realized, “Oh. Every time you start over, you have to start over for real.” Which is exciting and cool, but by the time the Murder City Devils was over I was already like, “Fuck this.” Once we had an audience that was larger and really supportive, I wanted to do something completely different. I sort of actively started pushing that audience away. I wasn’t respectful of the specialness of that group of people. And I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just me that was making this thing that people liked. It was all of us.
You live here in Los Angeles now. Why did you leave Seattle, and why did you choose L.A.?
Moody: I left Seattle because I started to feel like when I was 16 and knew I needed to move out of my parents’ house. The weather was a bummer and the city started to feel kinda small. I started to resent Seattle in a way that wasn’t fair or sustainable. I have three stepkids—my wife has three kids—so we wanted to stay on the West Coast. We felt like we needed to stay within a fairly inexpensive airplane ticket distance. We have a lot of friends here, so it seemed like we could make the transition pretty easily. I love it here. It feels so nice to be in a crazy, chaotic city that has people from all over the globe.
Bubba, you moved from D.C. to Seattle to Los Angeles?
Bubba Dupree: With a few zigzags in between. I’m not committed to here just yet. I got down here in January, and I’m still figuring it out. No place has felt like home. No place has felt like a place I really wanted to dig in. I initially went to Seattle to sniff out some rock band that never materialized. I had family out there, so I just ended up staying. I was there for 15 years without even realizing it. Time just got away from me. That alone made me went to try out something else. But Spencer and I never actually met when we were both in Seattle. I met a couple of the other dudes from Murder City Devils, but not him. Which is weird, because the bus ride over here reminded me of how small Seattle is. [Laughs]
What was the inspiration for this new project?
Moody: For the past few years, I’ve been working on music where it’s just me sitting at home with my acoustic guitar. I’m not a great guitar player, but I can put together some chords and simple songs written in a poppy, folky straightforward style. So I had this idea that if I could play guitar the way I do while I’m sitting on my couch and have a band of great musicians who could take my seed of a song and make it bigger, then maybe I could cultivate a Scott Walker kind of thing. Start small but go big. Keep the simple guitar part but abandon the way I sing on the couch and do something more full-throated. I told my friend Ryan Crase, who is friends with Bubba. Ryan suggested that Bubba and I play together, so I wasn’t gonna say no to that.
Were you a Void fan before you met Bubba?
Moody: Yeah. They weren’t super-influential to me or anything, but certainly that’s a band and a time and a place the importance of which isn’t going to diminish very much over the course of the next hundred years. To me, the Void connection is infinitely cool. I don’t feel like the Murder City Devils has that kind of cache. It’s funny—when I was in the band Smoke & Smoke, it was both members of godheadSilo and me. godheadSilo fans did not need me. [Laughs] And I knew that. But if I quit, it wasn’t going to become godheadSilo all of a sudden. So they were just stuck with me.
Bubba, were you aware of any of Spencer’s previous work before you two were introduced?
Dupree: Oh, yeah. I’d heard the Murder City Devils and I was a fan of his voice and more specifically his lyrics. The lyrics on the stuff we did is like reading a goddamn book.
Spencer, your lyrics have always had a literary quality to them. Is that important to you?
Moody: I think people started saying that not because it was true but because of the literary references in the song titles and lyrics themselves. There would be references that writers would pick up on, and I think the publicists sort of pushed that angle also. It wasn’t necessarily true. You can throw the name of a book into a song, but that doesn’t make the song “literary,” you know?
To me, it’s more the way you write.
Moody: Well, I was trying. The early Murder City Devils dilemma was that we were going for this simple rock n’ roll thing and the Gene Simmons wisdom—“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”—was an idea that we sort of embraced. But it was too boring for me. I liked the idea of trying to take the space of the song to tell a story. Early on, that was probably more inspired by Dead Kennedys or something like that, where there would be a story in the song. And I always thought it was important to draw lyrical inspiration that was outside of your immediate genre. Like, if you start a Cramps-style band, you shouldn’t also try to write lyrics like Lux Interior’s.
Bubba, is it important for you to be able to relate to what Spencer—or any other vocalist you’ve worked with—is saying?
Dupree: To be honest, this is probably the first time I can think of where the lyrics weren’t completely secondary. So it’s a whole new world for me. I’m following Spencer’s lead here, and I think it definitely informed the way we went about playing the songs. I think we were all trying to avoid being blatantly bluesy—which is unfortunately a thing I fall into easily—but it can’t not be bluesy, either. It just kind of is that way.
You’ve recorded four songs so far. Is there more material written?
Moody: Yeah, there’s lots of songs. It was really important to me that those first four songs be my songs, but now that we’ve done that, it doesn’t matter. If Bubba was like, “I’ve got something,” that would be fine. I’m not sure if we’ll release these as an EP or what, though. There will be an album if someone will pay for it. [Laughs]