"We aren't one of those bands who put up an ad on Craigslist like, 'Bassist needed; must love metal,'" says Prairie Spies keyboardist Evan Skow. The Spies got together almost by accident—Skow and singer Max Brooks didn't even know guitarist Ben Fong, much less plan to form a band with him, when their mutual friend Bridget Love hooked them up as roommates in 2005. Of the six original members, only three had ever even been in bands before. But Love wanted to play in a band for her birthday party, and she talked the roommates into being in it—along with bassist Paul Guilianelli, whom she'd met at a party, and drummer Ryan Collins, who'd been in her MFA program at Columbia College. Calling themselves the Sharks, they played what they assumed would be their first and last show at Ronny's in February 2006.
But after the party, says Skow, "we just kind of kept doing it." Nobody in the band had gone into it with a preconceived idea about what their sound should be, but what came out was scrappy, uncomplicated, punked-up pop. The joyously sloppy songs had plenty of hooks, but what made the Sharks special was their hyperactive playground energy—they had the we-don't-give-a-fuck attitude of punk rockers, but without the nihilism.
"We really didn't take it seriously," says Fong. "We just played whatever songs came up. We really didn't practice anything more than three times before playing it at a show." When Skow left for a year in 2006 to do post-baccalaureate work at Montana State, the band just started writing songs without keyboard parts. "Like, we could look for a keyboard player," Fong says, "but that would be too difficult."
"For better or for worse, we were playing for people that we knew," Skow says. "I think it's natural for any band—you start playing to people that you know, people that will show up and like you anyway, you know?"
But then last year the Sharks took a baby step toward legitimacy by recording an EP, which they released themselves on CD-R. Love had left the band in June 2007, a couple months before they recorded, so they decided to title the disc Bridget Quits. By turning it into a sort of tribute to their departing bandmate, though, they inadvertently gave themselves a reason to approach the project almost soberly. "I think it was conceived as a joke," says Fong, "but once it became Bridget Quits it was, at least for me, a serious thing. It did signify a change in the band with her leaving, because she brought a really intense dynamic to the band. I kinda see it like a serious joke, almost."
And then there was the band name. The Sharks hadn't heard from any lawyers, the jokes on the Prairie Spies Web site notwithstanding, but the fact that dozens of other bands were also called the Sharks had stopped being so funny to them. They were actually developing some ambition, and they wanted to be more findable on the Web. "A friend of ours, her dad's an apple farmer in Wisconsin," Fong says. "A Prairie Spy is a type of apple—it's a big, delicious apple, but it's not grown very often because it pops off of trees. It has a short stem, so only 25 percent of the crop is serviceable. The way he told the story, though, was really glamorous."
The Prairie Spies shortly began to attract attention from outside their circle of friends. They'd gone from playing basement shows and Ronny's gigs to getting booked at the Empty Bottle, and more than once. "We definitely transitioned into playing shows where there were, you know, strangers," says Skow, "and you can't get by on 'You like me, you're my friend.'"
And so, in a show of professionalism you wouldn't expect from a group that went a year without a keyboard player out of sheer laziness, they tightened up. They decided to ditch the Sharks' repertoire along with the name, and Fong and Brooks, the band's main songwriters, buckled down to come up with new material, working more seriously at music than they ever had in their lives. The fruit of their labors is the band's recent full-length debut, Surplus Enjoyment.
The songs on the full-length are more complex than anything on Bridget Quits—you might even call them mature—but the qualities that made the Sharks so appealing haven't been lost. Though the Spies are all in their mid-to-late 20s, they play with the undiluted enthusiasm of kids a decade younger, crashing through broadly hooky rippers like "Who's Been Gettin' High" and "Blackout." The way they leave their influences lying around in the open makes them sound like a high school garage band that never grew up. If they were concerned that Brooks's yelpy voice might make him sound like Rivers Cuomo, they probably wouldn't pair it with riffs so sweet and heavy they sound like they could be outtakes from the Blue Album. They're equally shameless about borrowing the Pixies' tension-and-release pattern on "Murder, She Said," and the melody of "Vigilante" actually sounds a little too much like "Lost in the Supermarket."
Surplus Enjoyment came out in May on Comptroller Records, also home to the Fake Fictions (and Boner Jams, which includes members of both bands and put out a CD last year in an edition of two). The Prairie Spies are currently on a nine-date tour to support the album—the first tour anyone in the group has been on—and they'll stop at the Bottle for a free show on Monday. They plan to lose money on the trip, but they're fine with that. They may not be quite as casual about the band as they were two years ago, but their primary reason for playing together hasn't changed.
"When we play I still... I don't want to say that I'm ignoring the audience," Skow says, "but I'm mostly paying attention to these guys. That to me is what's fun."v
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