Trans Am’s Nathan Means talks to Spiral Stairs, who plays in Auckland next month, about his attraction to NZ culture – and NZ cricket
“I’m in Merida.” Spiral Stairs’ words are not rushed. “Mexico.”
Stairs, AKA Scott Kannberg, a founding member of Pavement and Preston School of Industry, goes on to explain that he and his family moved to a house with a pool in the cheap, relaxed and hot colonial city a year ago. Kannberg is now a few weeks removed from a European tour – “the food and drink side is good; sitting in a van with five dudes for six hours a day isn’t the best” – and has the conversational flow of someone who is also watching a cricket game. Which, it turns out, is entirely possible.
While living in Brisbane a few years back, “I got into all the sports,” he says. “Cricket, League, Aussie Rules. When I first got there, I asked my friends what the most ridiculous Aussie Rules team was. They all said Freemantle, so I decided to be a Freemantle fan. We get Sky Sports here, so I also get to watch all the New Zealand cricket matches.”
Kannberg’s first exposure to the joys of Kiwi culture was less immediate, limited by the time and distance of the 1980s when music was trapped in physical media. “I first heard The Clean on a compilation record, so the songs were probably eight or nine years old.” The Clean entranced him with their “post-punk killer pop songs – it was a step forward from the Velvets and Television.”
Musical discoveries like The Clean were exciting for Kannberg, as obscure international bands were more difficult to discover in the United States at that time. “In those days there was a mystery to music – they’re from a small town in the middle of fucking nowhere. It made you wonder.” On a later Pavement tour, Kannberg met members of The Clean. “I always wanted to be like them,” he says.
And perhaps he has drawn from The Clean in his performance: On stage, he has a practised, unpretentious showmanship – taking his hands off the guitar to gesture at himself or raise his hands in the air. He talks like his music, alternately dreamy and direct. And, though he has toured and lived around the globe over the past 30 years, Kannberg has always played slightly off-kilter guitar pop. “I don’t really know how to do anything else.”
Kannberg also has a strong internal sense of direction. “The last time I went on tour  we had cell phones but nothing like today. So you used an atlas. You know, maps. I come from those old days. All my band members they look to their phones for directions and I’m like, ‘Guys, we’re going the wrong way.’ Most of the time the phone was right. But a few times it was wrong.”
With streaming services cutting into sales of his back catalogue, he has a few tenuous backup plans in case “Pavement never gets back together again”.
“My buddy in Brisbane has this great record shop – he’d told me he’d give me a job. I’ll probably work in record shops. Or actually – no! – Queensland Rail is hiring train drivers. I might do that. I’ve never done it and they pay you 100 grand and all these benefits just to drive a train for four hours a day. That’d be fun.”
I ask Kannberg, who is constantly moving and studied city planning in college, to rank a few of the many cities he’s lived in: Stockton, California (where he and Pavement grew up) Brisbane (where his wife is from and daughter was born) and Merida (the Mexican town where he lives at the moment):
“The musical history from there is awesome. The weather was great. We only left because we wanted to travel a bit while our daughter was young.”
“It’s cool and super cheap, but it’s 100 degrees (38C) outside. Actually, it’s supposed to get down to the mid-60s tonight (17C), a bit of a cold snap.”
“It was OK growing up there. But once you kind of got into high school you started to figure out how bad it was. My parents don’t live there any more. I went back for my mom’s funeral, so it was one last stab in the heart of Stockton.” This is kind of a gimme: Stockton has consistently ranked among the bottom ten in a number of US statistical categories, including tenth most dangerous, eighth most miserable, seventh most auto thefts per capita, third least literate and tied for first most obese metro area in the United States.
For his return to New Zealand, Kannberg has a slightly vague list of to-do items between his soundcheck and show:
- “Find a good café. There’s one that I remember from the last time that I was there in 2010 that I’m gonna try to track down. I can remember where it was but I can’t remember the name. Maybe it had white chairs?”
- “Try to find a really nice bottle of wine from Otago. That won’t be hard, right?”
- “Track down some old friends from bands – like the 3Ds or Chris Knox. Talk about the old days with them.”
- “Watch a cricket match if one is on.”
- “Struggle to understand my Australian bandmates backstage. I lived there for so long, but I sometimes don’t get their accents and they tell these inside jokes all the time.”
Post-show, Kannberg is flying to Adelaide to see The Ashes with his friend. “The tour,” he admits, “is kind of planned around that.”
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