The Spin Doctors’ devil-may-care attitude toward music, the music business, and life in general has translated into some unholy platinum success for the four-member band. “Image Schmimage is my personal business motto,” lead singer Chris Barron told Rolling Stone’s Jeff Giles in 1993 as their debut LP, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, was climbing the charts. Its tracks highlighted the band’s funky blues-based rock, a sound that has sometimes been compared to a more-alive Grateful Dead. Another Rolling Stonewriter, Alec Foege, termed them “the most successful of a recent crop of tie-dyed-in-the-wool neohippie groups [who] have tapped into the untroubled, feel-good vibe of a bygone era.” The video for Kryptonite’s first single, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” pushed the Spin Doctors into heavy rotation on MTV nearly overnight, and with the LP’s follow-up cut, “Two Princes,” the songs became two of the most-requested radio tracks of 1993. By the end of 1994, the Spin Doctors were getting advice from former Who vocalist Roger Daltrey and opening mammoth stadium shows for the Rolling Stones.
Members include Christopher Barron (born February 5, 1968, in Hawaii; attended Bennington College and the New School for Social Research, mid-1980s), vocals; Aaron Comess (born April 24, 1968, in Arizona; attended Berklee College of Music and the New School for Social Research, mid-1980s), drums; Anthony Krizan (joined group 1994), guitar; Eric Schenkman (born December 12, 1963, in Massachusetts; son of classical musicians; attended New School for Social Research; left group 1994), guitar; and Mark White (born July 7, 1962, in New York), bass.
Group formed in New York City, 1988; signed with Epic Records, 1990, and released live EP, Up for Grabs, 1991; released debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, 1991.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., 22nd Floor, New York, NY 10022.
The Spin Doctors formed in New York City in the late 1980s when three of the four original members were students at the New School for Social Research. Vocalist Barron had been a military brat, spent several formative years in Australia, and then attended high school in Princeton, New Jersey. Original guitarist Eric Schenkman, who left the band in late 1994, was the progeny of two classical musicians and grew up in Toronto; he also relocated to New York to attend the New School. Drummer Aaron Comess, who hailed from Dallas, was enrolled, like Barron, in the New School’s music program.
At the time of the Spin Doctors’ inception, Barron was rooming with high school friend John Popper. Popper was gaining success with his own band, an outfit called Blues Traveler. His growing commitments to it effectively grounded a second musical project called the Trucking Company that counted Barron and Schenkman as members. The two continued to work together without Popper anyway, and the Spin Doctors were formed in 1989 when Comess entered the scene. Comess, in turn, recruited bassist Mark White, its sole native New Yorker. White missed out on the group’s first-ever gig, a fraternity party at Columbia University.
The group began writing original music and playing New York City clubs like CBGB, the Bottom Line, Nightingales, and the Cat Club. During these formative years the Spin Doctors built up a legion of dedicated fans around the Greenwich Village scene. They never played the same set twice, promoted bootlegging of their gigs, and returned the appreciation the fans showed them. “In the Eighties, everybody hated music,” Barron told Rolling Stone reporter Giles in 1992 about what inspired them in those early days. “So we were trying to make this new kind of old kind of rock & roll. That whole aesthetic had been lost. Everything sounded like fake drummers and synthesized bullshit, and we wanted to make something human and real. We wanted to bake some pumpernickel, as opposed to all that presliced stuff.”
It was at a New York bar called the Mondo Cane that the group attracted the attention of music-industry insider David Sonenberg, who once represented Meat Loaf. Sonenberg invited some record company people to hear the Spin Doctors. Despite the band’s rather uncooperative nature on such nights—they often refused to play any of their more accessible tunes—they were signed to Epic Records in 1990. In 1991 the label put out the group’s first release, a live EP called Up for Grabs. In the promotional materials accompanying the release, Epic enclosed a photo of, inexplicably, a six-member Spin Doctors, not realizing that there were actually only four of them. Later that year the full-length Pocket Full of Kryptonite was released. Initial sales were targeted at a modest 50,000, and Epic gave the group a corresponding promotion and tour budget.
At the time, Epic was devoting its considerable resources to marketing Seattle grunge rock band Pearl Jam’s debut release. The Spin Doctors began a road trip that literally went on for years, spending most of 1992 on tour. In London they traveled to shows by subway, and back in the States hooked up again with Popper and Blues Traveler for a HORDE (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) summer tour. “A lot of the time we hid from Epic how hard this stuff was,” Barron recalled in 1993 for Rolling Stone reporter Giles. “We’d be like ’We’re out in the van! It’s no problem at all!’ We put up a front because we wanted to be their… band. But the van was death, man. A slow form of death.”
The Spin Doctors’ numbing tour schedule, in its attempt to magnify their grassroots New York-scene success on a larger scale, eventually paid off. A Vermont radio station began playing “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” and its program director even wrote to Epic, chastising them for virtually ignoring the band and its debut release. Things began to look up. The band funked it up on-camera for a “Little Miss” video shoot, sloshing buckets of bright paint all over themselves and a white sound-stage during the take. By the end of 1992 it had become one of MTV’s five most-requested videos. Homebelly Groove, another live LP that communicated the band’s well-honed performing persona, was released in November of 1992.
Kryptonite eventually sold over six million copies—well above what management at Epic had ever imagined. Serious success on the U.S. charts and its perks—television appearances on the late-night shows of David Letterman and Jay Leno, Grammy and MTV Music Award nominations—were followed by respectable showings in Europe and Great Britain. Roger Daltrey, former lead singer of the Who, invited the Spin Doctors to play with him onstage for his Carnegie Hall show.
The Spin Doctors, however, remained rather unfazed by the success. “Don’t be asking me no dumb questions, man,” bassist Mark White told Vox interviewer Max Bell. “I wouldn’t know anything except that we’re exploiting the kids. I’m just a useless, talentless, no-good musician.” White also likes to remind autograph-seekers that he used to work at McDonald’s. Barron was also nonchalant. “I’m thankful that our world has the space for people like me, who aren’t working in a field or a factory and don’t put food on the table, but are good for morale. My position isn’t necessary. We are lucky clowns,” he told Vox’s Bell in 1994.
Still on the road through 1993, the band attempted to relax in a Memphis recording studio for a few days. This was unsuccessful, and they instead waited until March of 1994 to head back in front of the mixing boards for a follow-up to Kryptonite. An unusual blizzard in New York City helped ground them inside, and at the end of two days they had recorded 22 tracks. The resulting whit-tled-down LP, Turn It Upside Down, was released in June of 1994 to mixed reviews. Stereo Review’s Parke Puterbaugh contended that “Barron’s capricious, stoned-cutup wordplay and the band’s colorless, automatic funk quickly wear thin over the course of an album.” On the other hand, John Swenson of Rolling Stone praised the sophomore effort, noting that the group’s “popularity is based on universal rock & roll virtues—the tuneful grooves and the neohippie charm of vocalist Chris Barron. Turn It Upside Down delivers those qualities once again.”
Unfortunately, the release meant that the long-suffering band was again back out on the road to support it. They spent the summer of 1994 in both the United States—where they played Woodstock in August—and Europe.
They returned stateside to open twelve dates for the Rolling Stones at the end of the year. “I have this theory that when you live on a bus travelling at 70mph, time goes by differently,” the 26-year-old Barron told Bell in the Vox interview. “That’s why I’m ageing quicker. I’ve spent a third of my life travelling at 70 miles an hour.” The success of 1994 had one casualty for the Spin Doctors: guitarist Eric Schenkman, who left the group in September because of creative differences. He was replaced by New Jerseyite Anthony Krizan.
Throughout their career, taking the slower—albeit more grueling—road to success has seemed to pay off for the Spin Doctors. Sales for Turn It Upside Down climbed steadily, and the band remained philosophical about their image, or lack of it, as well as their future. Rolling Stone writer Foege queried Barron late in 1994 about the singer’s attitude toward their success and general alternative-scene relevance. “We’re just another rock band coming down the pike,” Barron responded. “I don’t know if we’re a one-hit wonder or what. Six months from now, I may not even be able to get you on the phone. But I just want to carry the banner along for a little while—not by myself but with all these other great musicians. Just take this music down the street our little way and then give it up to some younger person.”
Singles; on Epic
“Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” 1991.
’Two Princes,” 1992.
“You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast,” 1994.
“Cleopatra’s Cat,” 1994.
EPs; on Epic
Up for Grabs, 1991.
Albums; on Epic
Pocket Full of Kryptonite, 1991.
Homebelly Groove, 1992.
Turn It Upside Down, 1994.
Detroit Free Press, August 5, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, June 17, 1994.
Guitar Player, February 1993.
Music Paper, August 1994.
People, June 20, 1994.
Q, July 1994.
Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992; January 7, 1993; June 16, 1994;
July 14, 1994; November 17, 1994.
Stereo Review, October 1994.
Vox, July 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Epic Records publicity materials.
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