Vibrations from the West: An exclusive interview with Colleen Coffey of The Spires (Ventura, CA)

The Spires’ cool, churning indie-rock is a lot like the refreshing ocean breeze that washes over the band’s hometown, Ventura, CA, during hot summer days.

Though much is attributed to swirling, driving guitar and calming faux British accented vocals by Jason Bays, Colleen Coffey underestimates her rhythms – marching high hat, and swooshing ride – which are timed just right, and add to the overall “shimmering” quality of their songs. (Think Luna, The Wedding Present or a mellow Pavement.) Listen to their new recordings, and you’ll be thankful Jason, also her husband, gave her the initial push to try out the drums five years ago.

Joined with new bass player Catelyn Kindred, The Spires’ released the lovely full-length “A Way of Seeing” in May ’09 (Beehouse Records), and have been playing around California non-stop ever since. During a notable show in LA this June, they performed as their idols The Velvet Underground for the second time with Colleen as the awesome Moe Tucker. Below, the drummer humbly gabs about the benefits of counting, what it’s like being married to the lead singer, and the trials and tribulations of recording drums. (No punch-ins, for us!)

Colleen Coffey with husband Jason Bays of The Spires.
Colleen Coffey with husband Jason Bays of The Spires. Photo by Mark Regester.

Name: Colleen Coffey

Age: Private

Hometown: Born in West Los Angeles CA

Lives in: Ventura, CA

Past bands: None

Current bands: The Spires

Day job: Legal Assistant

“I don’t know as I chose to take drums up so much as Jason strongly suggested (decided) that I should.” –Colleen Coffey

Colleen Coffey_The Spires_awesomefemaledrummers_tomtommagazine
Colleen Coffey

Tom Tom Magazine: First, tell me a little bit about your drumming history. How long have you been playing and why did you choose to pick up the drums versus any other instrument?

Colleen Coffey: I have been playing just about exactly 5 years now. I don’t know as I chose to take drums up so much as Jason strongly suggested (decided) that I should. In early 2004 he had some songs and was wanting to do something more with them. He got in touch with a drum teacher in town and I pretty much started with lessons right away. A couple months later we recorded the “Amplifier” EP. I had played bass as a teenager but not very seriously. I never would have thought I would end up playing drums.

Tom Tom Magazine: What kind of drum set do you use?

Colleen Coffey: I have a Gretsch Catalina Club kit. It is a small, jazz style set; its bass drum is only about 18 inches. To be honest, I didn’t know enough when I picked it out to know what I was buying. I went with a friend of ours who knows about such things to Mike’s Drums in Santa Barbara and they had the whole set with a silver sparkle finish—hardware and everything—for only $700. It was also the one kit that would fit in our Honda Civic. So I put it on layaway and a couple months later it was mine.

Tom Tom Magazine: What do you love best about playing the drums?
Colleen Coffey: I don’t have to remember any notes or chord changes.

TTM: What has been/is still one of the biggest challenges for you as a drummer?

CC: Honestly: tuning the drums. I kind of assumed early on that I would just lean on my drum-playing friends to help me out but they have proved no help at all. Even the best drummers in my circle of friends will swear they don’t know what they’re doing. I’m figuring it out, but it is still such a huge pain in the ass. Fortunately, I’m not a hard player so once I get them where I want them, they’ll stay that way at least for a little while.

TTM: Who are your musical inspirations? The Spires makes me think of an airy version of The Vaselines, which is awesome.

CC: I would have to say Guilded By Voices stands alone for me as an entirely life-changing kind of band. That probably sounds so corny but it is so true. This might be why (as Robert Pollard put it): “GBV showed the world that you can suck and still rule.” There is no one that can touch them for songwriting and performance genius. They really did change my entire perspective on music. They are also responsible for the funnest shows I have ever been to over and over again. I remember when Jason was first getting into them and it seemed like every time I heard him playing a song I liked and I would ask him: “Who is this?” The answer was always: “GBV.” So after awhile I clued in that I must really like this band. It was all pretty much downhill from there.

“I have heard from other couples that play music and they seem to experience it as some kind of deep connection. It has not been like that for us—we compartmentalize playing music from our regular life.” –Colleen Coffey

Colleen Coffey_The Spires_awesomefemaledrummers_tomtommagazine
The Spires at the Pink Mailbox in Isla Vista. Photo by Mark Regester.

TTM: What’s it like being in a band with your significant other? What are the positive factors? Are there any challenges?

CC: We get this question from time to time. I think Jason and I might be peculiar in this respect. I have heard from a couple other people that play music with their boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, whatever and they seem to experience it as some kind of deep connection or experience between them. It has not been like that for us—we seem to just compartmentalize playing music from our regular life. When we’re playing, I barely remember that we’re married and I know Jason is the same way. When we’re home, it’s different. I think the biggest plus of playing together has been that we’re almost always available to play at the same times, so I think we play more often for living together than we might if we lived separate lives. The challenge might be that the band is not such an equal partnership as marriage—as the songwriter, Jason exerts more creative influence ultimately than either Catelyn or I.

TTM: When you first started playing, did you face any criticism/sexism? Did you ever get the whole “Oh, his girlfriend is in the band” thing? As a drummer in a band with my boyfriend, I was always worried about that starting out – that people wouldn’t take me seriously.

CC: That is an interesting question. When I think about it, I may have actually benefited from a kind of reverse sexism. What I mean is: I played so poorly when we started (listen to the “Amplifier” EP—it’s so rudimentary, I couldn’t even hit the cymbals yet). But I think I got a pass on it to a certain extent because I was a girl. I suspect audiences would have been less forgiving of a guy in that situation.

TTM: What bands are you digging on right now?

CC: All three of the Spires have been on a Joy Division/New Order jag for the last couple months. Catelyn has also turned me onto Little Joy, which I really like. And she and I listen to the Parson Redheads in her car at least twice a week (they have a great girl drummer, Brette Marie Way, and she has a beautiful voice besides). And we both love Franklin For Short (another Ventura band).

With the Velvet Underground show coming up I have been listening to perhaps an inordinate amount of VU but I love them under any circumstances. And my drummer friend Tim recently turned me onto Band of Horses—they’ve been a daily listen the last few weeks. And, of course, I have for a long time loved Pavement (their drummer is so rad) and Luna/Galaxy 500 and Built To Spill. And I’m crazy about The Flaming Lips and in awe of their live shows (even though I haven’t seen one for awhile).

But, you know, all of that said: When I’m at home, I rarely listen to rock music. That’s more when I’m driving, or hanging out with friends, or when I’m stuck doing something boring at work. 90% of the time at home it’s John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Johnny Hartman, Django Reinhardt, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, etc. I’m absolutely crazy for that stuff. Of course, I’ll never drum like Jimmy Cobb—never (not a hope in hell!!). But I love listening to him and I’m completely in awe of him and others.

The brain is a more reliable metronome than the arms. ” –Colleen Coffey

TTM: If you could give advice to a girl looking to pick up drumming, what would it be? Is there a good practice method you can recommend?

CC: I really think the critical piece is to take lessons from a competent teacher. Maybe a lot of other drummers would disagree with that and surely some people have such innate talent that lessons are superfluous, but for me, lessons were critical. My own drum teacher was a kind of real hard rock guy, you know, he didn’t play Jason and my kind of music at all. But he really knew what he was doing. I didn’t even play on a drum set for the first few months because he had me just playing patterns on a pad and learning to read drum music. The other thing he taught me that I still use and recommend is to always be counting. The brain is a more reliable metronome than the arms. By always counting to myself, I think I am able to keep the beat more reliably. That seems obvious but I don’t think I would have thought of that on my own. Fortunately, I’ve learned to count with my mouth closed so it’s not so obvious to the audience anymore that that’s what I’m doing—that took some time though.

The Spires A Way of Seeing
The Spires' newest LP, A Way of Seeing

TTM: Give me all of the juicy details about A Way of Seeing. (Which is awesome, by the way!) What are your favorite memories of the recording process?

CC: Thank you so much. I think I am funny when it comes to recording: I can only begin enjoying it when my drum tracks are done. To be honest: recording my drum tracks stresses me out. Over the course of a couple albums I have gotten Jason and our engineer to realize that with me it’s diminishing returns: I need to get the song in the first or second take or we have to move on. After that, I just start thinking about it too much and it gets worse and worse.

The one exception to that on this new record is the song “Famous Last Words” (track 5) which I had originally played very differently—you wouldn’t recognize it from the song that ended up on the album. We went in the studio to record it and I just couldn’t pull it together that night. We were on the verge of scrapping the whole song as unworkable—in fact, I think we had pretty much decided that we would scrap it. But the engineer (Craig Costigan) really liked it and persuaded us to give it another shot. That last time through, I dumped the part I had planned and just played it off the cuff (something I never do in recording) and just really straight, right with the rhythm guitar. And that was the take we stuck with—really, an entirely different song from what we started with.

Overall, I think the thing about this record is that it is a bridge between two versions of The Spires. Jason and I recorded half of it with Craig Costigan at Garage Majal [Santa Barbara] starting in January 2008. Then in June 2008 Catelyn started playing with us. From that point on, we just started writing a whole crop of new songs (and the old ones started sounding a lot differently). Toward the end of last year, we got Justin to bring his gear to our practice studio over two weekends and we recorded “TAM,” “Lowercase,” and the others. What we ended up with I think is a hybrid of sorts. I’m excited to see what the next album brings.

Colleen Coffey_The Spires_awesomefemaledrummers_tomtommagazine
The Spires with new bassist Catelyn Kindred on KCSB 91.9 FM (Santa Barbara). Photo by Mark Regester.

TTM: Do you have an all-time favorite personal drumming moment?

CC: So far, the most fun I have ever had drumming was April Fools Day 2007 when The Spires and half of the band Franklin for Short joined forces and played as the Velvet Underground courtesy of Part Time Punks at The Echo (LA). Fortunately for me, Moe Tucker is the one drummer of a major band that I could hope to emulate. The sound guy at The Echo (Scott) is a genius. I told Jason later that my whole frontal lobe must have just shut off because it was pure pleasure for 40 minutes without a thought in my head.

TTM: What’s next for The Spires?

CC: The Spires are already at work on the next record believe it or not. We have shows planned through early summer and more (hopefully) on the way but we want to get back in the studio by August so that we’ll have another release at the end of 2009. Our plan is to play everything pretty much live—a little more ’60s garage I guess you would say. That’s fine by me since I’m only good for one or two takes anyway 🙂


More on Colleen Coffey and The Spires:

-Melanie B. Glover

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