Andrew Clinkman (Spirits Having Fun) and Ruth Garbus Are Trying to Unlearn What They’ve Been Taught

On getting over music theory, learning Steely Dan riffs, and much more.

Andrew Clinkman is the guitarist of the Chicago and New York-based rock band Spirits Having Fun; Ruth Garbus is a Brattleboro, Vermont-based experimental pop artist. To celebrate the release of Spirits Having Fun’s second record Two — out now via Born Yesterday — the friends hopped on a call to catch up. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Andrew Clinkman: I can speak for all of us in Spirits, even though I’m the only one here today, that you’re one of our favorite songwriters and musicians out there. Your music is always kind of a North Star to us, and we really love it dearly. But yeah, how are you doing? How’s your week?

Ruth Garbus: Well, first of all, that’s so nice to hear. I’m genuinely honored to hear that my music is a part of your musical world. My musical world is interesting in some ways — I’ve had some movement in the last few weeks, because I started taking voice lessons again after not having done that for, you know, a year and a half or something like that, because of the pandemic. I’m taking them with a different teacher, which has been really cool. That’s been giving me some structure, and I’ve been imposing some self-imposed structure from other places. So I feel actually just, as of a couple of weeks ago, like, Wow, I’m doing this again. Whereas for many months it was really just a tiny, tiny trickle in terms of my own output and work.

Andrew: For me, for the past year and a half through all of this, I really have only played music with other human beings once or twice, which is really wild to think about. But most of my musical activity has been teaching my lessons. So it’s kind of like a similar thing where you kind of develop this other relationship that’s different than what it was under more normal circumstances before. But, yeah, I’m also kind of excited to get back into doing this more regularly and more with other people, because that’s what’s fun.

Ruth: Is there anything about the way that it’s been over the last, whatever, year and a half that’s been cool for you, or that you’ve appreciated?

Andrew: I kind of got into a fun thing at the very beginning of quarantine, where for the first time, because I didn’t really have other outlets, I started exploring some of my listening blind spots. I got into a thing of trying to learn really wild Steely Dan guitar solos, and that was my project for a couple of months, just doing classic guitar dad type stuff. But it was kind of my first time ever going through a phase like that. It was very fun and enriching in a weird way, where I felt like a guy at a Guitar Center for a period of several months. 

Ruth: [Laughs.] I’m smiling really big as you’re talking. 

Andrew: [Laughs.] I became a riff guy, and I didn’t ever see that happening in my life because I spent a long time being the anti-riff guy. And it was fun to engage with that and be like, Oh, this is fun stuff. I like to do this.

Ruth: So what does that mean? Because part of my thing I realized thinking about having this conversation is that, even though I grew up in a musical household and my mom is a piano teacher and my parents both play folk music and all that stuff, I still have this huge gap in my musical education. I didn’t ever study it beyond taking private lessons as a as a teenager, and I quit when I was 16 and I never got any music theory. And so I always have these hang ups about people who attended conservatory, like, “I think you’re better than me.” [Laughs.] So I’m always kind of curious about, like, the walls that contain you. I’m like, “Oh, you didn’t sit in your bedroom for 16 hours daily playing riffs when you were a kid? I thought all music school students did that.” You know what I mean?

Andrew: Yeah. I feel like once you kind of enter the institutionalized music education zone, it takes on its own life that is kind of different than that simple joy of playing music to explore new things that are fun and exciting. And not that there aren’t fun and exciting things that I came across and was thrown into when I was in music school, because absolutely 100 percent that did happen. But there is a funny dynamic that happens, where you kind of get into it and you get deeper into it and you get further and further into this kind of academic, institutionalized way of approaching music. And then you kind of have this existential crisis and you’re like, We have to go back. We have to get rid of all this. You learn so much and then you’re like, Oh, I have so much that I need to unlearn about what is a kind of hegemonically established idea of what a certain type of music is or isn’t. And then you kind of have to go back and be like, Wait, that’s totally this contrived, manufactured thing. It’s accepted as this kind of, like, nature fact, and it’s not. It’s just a thing that someone thought of at some point and decided that everyone else needed to learn it. 

So it is kind of funny to go super deep into it and then be like, Oh, shit, what have I done? I think that’s a probably a pretty important thing that I felt like I had in common with Jesse [Heasly, bassist] and Katie [McShane, guitarist and vocalist] and Phil [Sudderberg, drums] when we started the band.

Ruth: I, for a short period of time, was in art school and it was the same the phenomenon, where it kind of sucks a lot of the joy out of it, and it kind of smothers the playful instinct for me. I think I saw this in my in my peers as well, just that being in that environment built up a lot of skill, and there are really important things that were learned, but it also killed something that needed to be revived later. And I almost feel like my whole life feels like it’s like a recovering from that — not from college or whatever, but like recovering from killing off the kid or something. Killing off the one who does things for just the joy of doing it without self-consciousness.

Andrew: For sure. There’s definitely an element of just trying to get everything back to the elements of what you put together to make a sound that you like, and finding complexity in using those simple tools. There’s a lot that we think about in Spirits about dealing with the idea of complexity, and just the way that complexity is presented to you in an academic sense, and realizing that there are many contrived ways that don’t end up being so complex, or the complexity doesn’t create beauty in a way that is pleasing to me. 

But then you walk outside and you look at a leaf, for example, and you’re like, Holy crap, this is this crazy asymmetrical shape. How did this happen? This is not made out of a complex arrangement of circles and triangles and squares, but this is its own thing that grew to be this way through this completely wild organic process. I think that is something that for us, or at least for me personally, is something I’m always seeking. And it’s also something that I sense in your music, too, of finding this intuitive complexity that is separate from putting a bunch of complicated pieces together, but rather just letting something flow into its purest form or something.

Ruth: That’s really cool. I love that. I’m, like, tripping out thinking about a leaf — I went for a walk today with a friend of mine in the woods, and I was noticing how beautiful it is and what a mess it is. It’s such a such a mess in this great way. I turned to look because I heard some water, and there was this water coming down the hill in this little miniature waterfall, and there was a semi-rotted log hanging over it, and I was like, That’s a fucking mess. [Laughs.] But it’s obviously something that in that context, I’m taught to appreciate as being beautiful. And it’s just interesting. And it is interesting thinking about something like a leaf, and the simple parts that make up such a complex whole. 

In terms of my own writing, it is very intuitive — and I definitely feel the limitations of saying that as a woman. I don’t know if limitations is the right word, but I feel the frustration that I have of falling into something that feels very like a gendered limitation, of like, I’m the intuitive woman and I don’t know what I think. [Laughs.] I do approach my songwriting from that place of what feels right, what’s the next thing, and not trying to control that. But at the same time, I also have to acknowledge that I did grow up with a mother who has a masters in classical piano playing and was around a lot of musicians who were very trained. So on a big level, my ear is trained very specifically to hear certain things a certain way. And I mean, I grew up listening to a lot of oldies radio and classic rock radio and the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel and Bjork — like, there’s so much. When it’s coming out of me, it might feel random, but really, it’s coming from all of these very structured inputs.

Andrew: We all have very deeply programmed things in there that, no matter how much we try to strip away from it and try to get to the pure, intuitive, whatever, there’s always stuff under the surface that kind of generates the material. I feel like everyone’s music is different, in a perfect world, because everyone has a different set of deeply programmed musical information. 

One thing specifically about your music that I love so much is just your sense of melody and how, to me, it feels like it has the sensation of not beginning or ending, but that you’re kind of latching on to this stream and carrying with it where it goes. And then you hop off and you begin another song, and you’re hopping on to another melodic stream.

A very silly short anecdote is that there’s a really great oldies station here, and they’ll occasionally insert musical facts from the artists that they play frequently. There was one once about Cat Stevens, and how the way that Cat Stevens would write songs is that he would think of a melody and he would sing that melody over and over and over and over again until the words came to him, and then the harmony would come, and then he would kind of go through this super repetitive process of repeating the melody until it was a fully formed song, or piece of musical information. I just wanted to ask about your sense of melody, because I remember one of the shows that you played in Chicago a couple of years ago — I believe you opened this set by setting a timer and improvising melisma, basically, for two and a half minutes or something. I was totally floored by that, and thought it was a really cool practice to begin a set of music.

Ruth: Well, I have to give some credit to Sam Gendel, the saxophone player — I was inspired to do that because he set a timer for an entire set and displayed the timer to the audience, and he was improvising the whole time. It was so much fun to watch the timer go down, and it was so relaxing to have it. I set timers a lot for myself, like I love being things being timed. I find them very relaxing.

Andrew: We were talking earlier about setting constraints for yourself. There we go!

Ruth Yeah, it’s a huge part of it. In fact, in the last couple of weeks, that’s been a huge part of me feeling up for this — this being music. Like, OK, I think I can actually do this, if I fucking set my timer for 10 minutes, I can do this. Also, opening a set like that— I realized my first song is always like the sacrificial lamb of the set, because I would be too nervy to sing it well. And so that’s a really good way for me to just blow through that stage without having to mess up one of my songs. 

But in terms of melody — I love that anecdote about Cat Stevens, and I’m totally going to steal that. That’s a really great method. I usually start the opposite way. Not all the time, but usually I start with the guitar, just kind of getting off on very beautiful and strange chords that hit me in certain ways, make me feel stuff. And then I write the melody on top of it. I don’t really know what more to say, except that writing music does seem like a bit of a process of channeling, and I’ll just try to feel it out.

I’ve known since I was a kid that I can’t accept just run-of-the-mill melodies. It just doesn’t excite me at all. Which I hear that in your music, too, where it’s like, “This needs to be interesting to me. This needs to be musically interesting.” I’m not someone who pays super close attention to lyrics. When I’m listening to music, that’s not the main thrust for me. It’s about the melody and the chords. I also will say to that I think my melodies are also probably informed by my sense of… well, how do I say it? I always feel like I’m the backup singer, or someone who’s doing the harmonizing. That’s sort of my natural place to be or something, musically and melodically, so I think my melodies maybe feel like they’re the harmonies under a main melody sometimes. 

Andrew: That’s a really fascinating way to think about it. I love that. I’m going to steal that.

Ruth: Cool. [Laughs.]

Andrew: With regards to that thought of making the melody interesting, there’s a thing that I’ve thought a lot about with our music, in letting the melody have agency. You mentioned channeling, and it’s kind of a similar phenomenon of seeing where this thing wants to go, and not putting a bar line on it until it feels like it’s completed itself or arrived in a place, and trying to really be attuned to what this series of notes wants to do, and thinking of it as having a mind of its own. 

There’s something also, I think, that our band has in common with you in this sort of patient approach to music. Because of the fact that we live in two different cities and we only get so many opportunities to see each other and write new music and practice, it kind of has always forced us into this very patient mode of operating. I sense that also in your work, because I know that you have your life in Brattleboro — which seems like a mystical, magical place that I’ve never been and I always wanted to go. But I remember having conversations with you about putting out a record and going and playing shows, and how that’s something that your whole life is not entirely wrapped up in, but it’s something that you can go to at the pace that you choose. I thought that that was really inspiring, and just wanted to ask you how you approach that, and how you feel that life and music balance.

Ruth: That’s a great question. I mean, think I feel like the stable thing in my life has been I have this job that I enjoy, a part time job here in Brattleboro. And then I have more free time than the average adult, I guess, probably, and use some of that to do music sort of semi-professionally. That’s sort of my stable structure, but underneath that, I’m kind of like, What the fuck am I doing? [Laughs.] I’m constantly just like, Wait a minute, do I want to quit the job? 

Andrew: Same, dude.

Ruth: I’m not about to, but I do feel what I’ve come to in the past is, I don’t need to choose. I recognize that I have parts of my personality that are very gratified and satisfied by the work, either my part time job or other stuff that I’m doing besides music, and I don’t know if music could fulfill all those things. I also feel like — I mean, right now I’m like, Oh, man, I wish I could do music all the time

But like I also feel — and I’m not saying this because I think it’s abnormal, I think it’s pretty normal — but I struggle with some kind of ego sickness around performance, and I find it challenging to stay feeling really good when I’m doing just that. I’m sober, but I find just the process of performing is somewhat drug-like. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but when I am grounded in my job and around people who I would not otherwise be interacting with, it just makes me feel better in the world. 

Andrew: I can speak for myself that any way that you can free yourself from the anxiety of needing to arrive at X signpost in your career — especially [because] intertwining music with a career is such a scary, dangerous thing, and I think anything that can give you the freedom to operate at your own pace…  For me personally, I want to do this thing of playing music with my friends as long as I possibly can. And I will get wherever I get whenever that happens, but as long as I can continue seeing the people that I care about and playing music with the people I care about, that’s what keeps me going. And I sense a kindredness with you in that regard.

Ruth: That’s really great to hear, because sometimes, especially as a solo performer, I lose touch with that basic joy sometimes. That’s wonderful. 

Andrew: Well, I really appreciate you chatting with me. It’s so good to hear from you. I hope one day we’ll be able to make it out there and and play another show either in Western Mass, or somewhere along the magical I-91 corridor.

Ruth:Yeah, I know. And how amazing would it be if I got to Chicago? Fingers crossed that those days are coming soon.

(Photo Credit: left, Julia Dratel)

Spirits Having Fun is a Chicago and New York-based rock band. Their second album, Two, is out now via Born Yesterday Records.

(Photo Credit: Julia Dratel)