Working Retail

One of the toughest things a musician has to cope with live is an inattentive, chattering crowd. But on her recent tour Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes had very different distractions to contend with: as she strummed songs from the third Spinanes album, Arches and Aisles (Sub Pop), she was frequently interrupted by inventory-control alarms and audience requests like, “Do you have this in a size seven?” Welcome to the dawn of a new century where marketing means literally taking your act to a market–in Gates’s case, Urban Outfitters.

Gates moved to Chicago from Portland in March 1997 after the rest of the Spinanes–drummer Scott Plouf–quit, then joined Built to Spill. Arches and Aisles, her first album without Plouf, was originally due this April, and Gates, a savvy 34-year-old who has witnessed many an indie-rock sea change since Manos made her a minor star in 1993, was already antsy about how it would be received. But when a manufacturing snafu delayed its release for two months–it finally came out last Tuesday–Gates decided it was time to take matters into her own hands.

“The music business never makes much sense,” she says. “I’m in a position where I get told, ‘MTV doesn’t want it ’cause it’s not on radio, radio doesn’t want it ’cause it’s not on MTV, college radio is tighter than ever, you can’t tour in summer because school’s not in session, you can’t tour in winter because the weather’s bad.’ I’m always being told from all sides, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.’ I came of age in music at a time when word of mouth, cool bands, and good songs were making things happen as opposed to this structure that’s set upon it now.” Indeed, bands have become darts, and if they don’t hit that elusive bull’s-eye right off the bat, they’re quickly put away by their corporate keepers.

While the Spinanes were never a particularly edgy band, their second album, Strand, marked a shift toward more gentle, introspective material, and Arches and Aisles continues that progression. The smoky ballad “Greetings From the Sugar Lick,” for example, rides an earthy Al Green groove, but Gates croons the fragile melody well within her range and wisely avoids vocal grandstanding. In fact, recorded with a largish supporting cast that included Tortoise’s John McEntire, the Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop, and local jazz bassist Josh Abrams, Arches and Aisles is the most accessible Spinanes album yet. So Gates reasoned that if only people could hear it they very well might like it.

Most prerelease marketing efforts are aimed at radio folks and record store employees, traditionally a jaded lot, but Gates wanted to showcase her stuff for the average record buyer. “If they’re going to tell me that there’s a lot of people that aren’t going to come to the show and who won’t read Spin but who may like the record, then why don’t I go play Urban Outfitters where they’re shopping for sweaters?” The sweater tour hit only key markets in the northeast and California, but she’s pleased with the results. She guesses that most people who came were already fans, but she did make some converts, such as one middle-aged shopper in Santa Monica who’s also a fan of Sheryl Crow and Vonda Shepard.

Since moving to Chicago all the performances Gates has given around the country have been solo, so she’s looking forward to next month, when she heads east to rehearse with her new touring band, which will probably include drummer Jerry Busher from D.C.’s All-Scars, bassist Ted Leo from Chisel, and keyboardist Kendall Meade, who recently went on the road with Helium. The group will start a six-week tour in mid-August; it should bring them to Chicago in early September. Beyond that, Gates isn’t sure what comes next. “Everything is contingent upon whether people like it or not,” she says. “The next year of my life depends on whether 3,000 people or 40,000 people like the record.”


Robbie Fulks, whose recently completed major label debut, Let’s Kill Saturday Night, is due in mid-September on Geffen, begins a weekly residency at Schubas this Sunday. He’s got four shows planned so far, but the engagement could run longer if there’s sufficient interest. This Sunday he’ll play a solo turn (Freedy Johnston, in an acoustic duo, headlines); on July 5 he’ll play with his regular electric band (guitarist Rob Gjersoe, bassist Lorne Rall, and drummer Dan Massey); on July 12 he’ll use a bluegrass setup (Fulks used to play with local bluegrass heavies Special Consensus); and after skipping a week he’ll return on the 26th with guitarist Jim DeWan, with whom Fulks used to teach at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Fulks says he’ll play some material off the new record, but that the sets won’t necessarily be loaded with it. This weekend’s show doubles as a book release party for No Depression: An Introduction to Alternative Country Music (Whatever That Is), a collection of 37 interviews originally published in the three-year-old No Depression magazine, including one with Fulks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rebecca Gates photo by Brad Miller.