Punk Legends The Spits Discuss Touring During Omicron: ‘Everybody Knows We’re All Taking Risks’

Ahead of The Spits' tour, guitarist and singer Sean Wood shares how the pandemic has affected bands who can't afford to take any more time off and how fans can best support their faves during this time.

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Image Credit: Keith Marlowe

To say that The Spits are rarin’ to go is an understatement. “So, these two tours of the West Coast and the Midwest, we’ve had these booked for two years,” says Sean Wood, guitarist and vocalist for the long-running punk band. The group – Sean, his brother Erin, Sean, and Lance – is set to hit the road in support of VI, the record they released in 2020. The first show takes place tonight (Jan. 20) at Tacoma’s Alma Mater, before the band travels down the West Coast before continuing touring east.

For some fans, these shows will be the first time they hear the songs on VI played live. The album is The Spits’ first since 2012’s VOL. V and continues the band’s high-octane, dirt-stained, fire-breathing gonzo apocalyptic rock. VI is seventeen minutes of living life with the needles in the red – which had to be frustrating to the band who wanted to play this new music and fans who wanted to see their outlaw rock heroes run a wrecking ball through their auditory senses. From the blistering opener, “Up All Night” to the paranoia-inspiring two-step of “Lose My Mind” to the closing elegy in “Wurms,” VI surges. The album gives the rush you’d get from jumping a stolen motorcycle over a canyon while escaping a swarm of cops and pissed-off bikers who want you dead.

VI arrived in October 2020. Was there any talk of maybe holding off on its release until the coast was clear? “We were,  and we did — we pushed it a whole year,” Sean tells HollywoodLife in an EXCLUSIVE interview. “People knew that there was this new record there. And so, if you don’t release it, it’ll leak out eventually – and when you do put it out, it’s not a new record anymore. So, we decided, ‘let’s just put it out.’ And then, hopefully, in like, six months, we can tour it. And that was the plan – and then the pandemic kept going on for another six months.”

With the record out, the band started to book a tour while hoping for the best. “And we kept bumpin’ it and bumpin’ it,” says Sean. “While other groups and musicians rescheduled their postponed dates for fall 2021, The Spits decided to do one better. “This last time, we said, ‘f-ck it. Let’s just go all the way to January 2022.’ We’re like, ‘it’s gotta be done by then!” And then what happens? As soon as we book these tours and are ready to head out, we get omicron, and it’s like – f-ck!”

“We just did a Texas run and month ago, and of course, three shows in, we all got COVID,” he adds. “So we had to cancel San Antoni and Mexico City – which is very painful to do.”

“I think our numbers are already peaking,” says Sean. The pandemic has forced every band to have at least one amateur virologist, someone to monitor conditions and COVID case numbers. “I’m hoping to God that by the time we get to the West Coast, [the numbers will] start coming down,” adds the guitarist. “And then, by February, unless there’s another goddamn variant, the New York shows, and Midwest shows – the numbers will be low, and we can continue that February tour.”

“You know, talking to other band members and other bands, everybody knows right now, moving forward, we’re all taking risks of canceling shows or – you know,” Sean says, with a quiet shrug. That unspoken uncertainty contains a hard, bitter reality that bands have faced for the last two years.

The COVID pandemic has highlighted how hard it is for an independent band to make a living. Streaming made up 83% of recorded music revenues in the United States, according to a May 2021 article in The New York Times.

Spotify reportedly paid out more than $5 billion to music rights holders in 2020. However, critics have blasted Spotify, Apple Music, and other platforms for using a pro-rata model for royalty distribution. This method sees all the money collected from ads and paid subscriptions go into a single pot, which is then divided by a total number of streams. If an artist – say, Adele – drops an album and has 10% of all streams for that month, that artist gets 10% of each user’s money, even if those users never listened to 30.

Plus, artists don’t make a lot off a stream. The New York Times reported that industry estimates suspect Spotify’s payout rate is a small fraction of a cent per stream, or roughly, about $4,000 per million streams. James Shotwell, the Director of Marketing and Customer Engagement of promotional music platform Haulix, wrote a guest blog for Hypebot in 2019 where he said that band with four members “would need to generate 24,250,000 Spotify streams to gross enough so each member’s family would be at or above the poverty line.” (This estimate went by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) report that a family of four would need to make $24,250 to be above the poverty line.)

There’s making money off of physical media, but that’s not so easy if you’re not an A-level artist. Vinyl sales hit a new high in 2021. Still, as Billboard points out, the top ten best-selling albums belonged to Adele, Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift (again), Prince and the Revolution, The Beatles, Taylor Swift (for a third time!), and Kendrick Lamar. The demand for vinyl has caused a well-documented bottleneck at the few remaining pressing plants, and smaller bands/musicians now face massive delays before getting their records.

CDs saw an increase in sales for the first time in 17 years, but Billboard notes that was also due to major label artists like Adele, Taylor Swift, BTS, Olivia Rodrigo, and Carrie Underwood. Plus, CDs have yet to fully experience a revival, so it’s usually LP, MP3, or stream for smaller groups.

(Keith Marlowe)

Touring remains a primary and viable way for a band to make money, and after nearly two years without shows, bands like The Spits have to make a hard decision. “You risk it. You got to risk it,” says Sean. “Bigger bands that have some money already, they can say, ‘you know what? Let’s take another year off. Smaller bands who were living off that shit, like The Spits – you know, I got to work! It’s just really difficult, man. We want to play.”

With necessity being the mother of invention, many bands devised other sources of income. There were plenty of streaming concerts, but those lost their luster. “I talked to a lot of people that at first, they were like, ‘Oh, great, I get to see a band,’ but then after a while, it’s just not the same. I can go and watch a YouTube video of Van Halen, but it ain’t the fucking same as going back to 1984, you know what I’m saying?” says Sean.

There was also a rash of COVID-edition t-shirts and merch, with bands selling masks, hats, and more items to help pay the rent. “It’s hard to say,” says Sean. “Now that people are back to work, it’s a little easier, but for us? Man, it was really hard for us to put up a special shirt and say, ‘hey, help us out,’ because I know [our fans] are hurting too.” The Spits weren’t going to release any pandemic-related merch, but after they found some success after a run of Spits facemasks, their concerns were assuaged. “I’d much rather just be out there rockin’.”

The Spits’ authenticity has always seemingly countered the corrupting taint of commercialism (“They’re here. They sneer. I’m scared,” said John Waters when introducing the band at Total Trash’s Boogaloo in 2018). “We’ve always said from day one, ‘we’re not a band, we’re a gang.’ We’re a family, and that the Spits is a way of life, not a band,” says Sean. “I just want it to keep going forever if I can. But do you become KISS and make everything? Spits Computer Screens! Spits Headphones?” He pauses. “I mean, thinking about it — shit, it’s not a bad idea.”

“But, we’re trying to think of some new stuff,” he says before explaining how the band has approached merch from a different perspective. The Spits have issued dolls, gloves, lighters – all mostly handmade by Erin. “He’ll go to sales and finds like, 20 cool old trucker hats from the 70s, and he’ll make twenty Spits hats. There’s only twenty in the goddamn world! I’m like, ‘damn, we could have sold 500 of those, dude.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I don’t want to be like that.'”

It also means that Spits merch is part of that family element. “My brother says, and he has a really good point — when somebody buys something from the Spits, he wants them to know that it’s been touched by us. And we made that. It was handmade by us. And that’s really special.”

The family will keep The Spits alive. Anyone who can do math can figure out that the group has been around for more than a minute. Yet, the kids keep showing up to the shows. “When we play shows, when somebody comes up – this younger guy or girl – and it’s like, ‘Yeah, my dad turned me onto you guys,'” says Sean. “Or they’ll be wearing a cool old Spits shirt from the mid-90s, and they’re like, ‘my dad gave it to me’ – or their uncle or aunt. I’m like, ‘wow.’ I feel really lucky.”

“And as a band, we’re still selling our very first record. We’re punk for the people,” he says, and the people need punk. The people need The Spits, and their raucous live performances, renegade attitude, and unabashed rock and roll. GenZ needs these flesh-and-blood, analog-minded mavericks offering a stiff middle finger to a digital upbringing. The Spits aren’t heard but felt.

And they’re ready to meet you during their shows, during this tour, the next, and the one after next. “We’re just not going to die,” Sean says with a smile. “Just come to the show. Rock out. Have a good time.”

 

THE SPITS – LIVE DATES
PURCHASE TICKETS HERE
01/20: Tacoma, WA – Alma Mater #
01/22: Seattle, WA – Southgate Roller Rink #
01/23: Portland, OR – Dante’s #
01/25: San Francisco, CA – Rickshaw Stop #
01/28: Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom #
01/29: Long Beach, CA – Alex’s Bar #
01/30: San Diego, CA – Casbah #
02/11: Chicago, IL – The Empty Bottle ~
02/12: Columbus, OH – Rumba Cafe ~
02/13: Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop ~
02/14: Rochester, NY – The Bug Jar
02/16: Brooklyn, NY – Elsewhere !
02/17: Baltimore, MD – Ottobar !
02/18: Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s !
02/19: Asbury Park, NJ – House Of Independents !
02/22: Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
02/23: Montreal, QC – Bar Le ‘Ritz’ P.D.B.
02/25: Toronto, ON – Velvet Underground
02/26: Detroit, MI – Outer Limits ~
# – with VR SEX
~ – with Timmy’s Organism
$ – with Dark Thoughts
! – with Night Birds

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