Though they've often been unfairly characterized as strictly a "jam band," The Spin Doctors were in fact one of the more underrated acts of the '90s, particularly as a live unit. The group's 1991 debut, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, proved a commercial smash with songs like "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong," "Two Princes," and "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" on the charts and their fun, frenetic videos in constant MTV rotation.
And though subsequent albums like Turn it Upside Down and You've Gotta Believe in Something didn't deliver the same numbers, a dedicated fan base (which you might also encounter at shows by Blues Traveler or the Black Crowes), followed them through lineup changes, periods of inactivity, and singer Chris Barron's bout with a rare vocal-chord paralysis that might have prevented from talking - much less ever singing - again.
The four original members - Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, bassist Mark White, and drummer Aaron Comess - are back together as a unit, touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pocket with an eye towards recording new material. When Rocks Off discovered that White actually lives full-time in Houston, he seemed like the right Doctor to place our house call to.
Mark White: Houston Press! What's up!
Rocks Off: I could ask you. How the hell did you end up in Houston?
MW: My father came down here in the '80s, and it was the only place they would give you a house and a gun at together. In New York City, you're only allowed to have a butter knife and an emergency phone that dials 911. Plus, it's freezing in New York City.
And we did a gig in Houston one Halloween, and all the girls were dressed in jeans, or as Princess Leia, or Jungle Jane. In New York, they were all dressed as gorillas because of the cold! So I knew I had to come here. My uncle was also a sheriff here. So I lived in Katy, and now I'm in downtown Houston.
RO: So you don't have to travel far for the gig this Friday?
MW: No. And I love Rick Springfield!
RO: What's the band up to these days?
MW: It's the 20th anniversary of the record, and they're going to be re-releasing it with bonus tracks. We doing a tour this fall, and we just came back from England where we played the whole record from start to finish and just jammed it out. We may play the same songs, but they're never the same. I just prefer playing live than in the studio.
RO: When you put together the set list, do you have to balance playing all the familiar material with deeper cuts?
MW: Naw, we just play what we want to (yells away from the phone to someone) Hey, I'll talk to you tomorrow! We're going to Dallas then New York. Hey, I'm doing an interview with the Houston Press right now! I can't talk to you!
RO: I didn't know that this paper wielded such power for you to diss your friends.
MW: No, he's the owner of [Houston music store] Rockin' Robin. I give bass lessons there, and also in my home. I don't really play with anyone here.
RO: The band has had some lineup changes. Tell me about the synergy that the original four of you have.
MW: I used to be in about five bands at the same time, but I've had such chemistry with these guys from the first day, that I just quit all the other bands I was in. This felt right, and we just clicked. All four of us had the same thing where we could just improvise on the spot and not worry about what the other guys is doing, we just know it's going to be good.
Take "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong." Aaron just came up to me one night and said that we were going to be playing this new song, and he showed the chords to me right before we went onstage. I never got to practice it! And I came up with that bass line in front of everybody. Same with "What Time Is It?" We just all started jumping in.
With "House," Chris would just make up the lyrics on the spot every night. I'll be honest with you. I'm spoiled with this band.
RO: So if you do finish a new record, getting the music out is a lot different today than it was in 1991. How would you promote the Spin Doctors to a new audience?
MW: Well, I don't call them records, I call them files now! (laughs). I don't buy CDs anymore, I download everything from iTunes. When we go in the studio, we're recording on a hard drive. So it's not "we're rolling" anymore, it's "we're scratching."
And you know, that's just like the old days when [musicians] would record live right onto the [vinyl] and the grooves were cut. I remember back in the early '90s, this kid, one of those hippies, came up to me and said soon we'd be getting all our music digitally, and I told him he had to be lyin'!"
RO: And as for radio stations, terrestrial radio wouldn't touch your new music, but satellite radio would.
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MW: Hmmm. Well, technically, it's not satellite radio because it's beamed from down here up to a satellite in space and then bounced back down to Earth. Satellite radio would be a radio station actually up in space. Hey, I'm a stickler for words!
RO: Are you sure you didn't move here because you're really involved in a secret mission for NASA?
MW (laughs): Ha! No...but if this is the Matrix, then I'm Neo a lot of times!
The Spin Doctors open for Rick Springfield Friday at the Arena Theatre.