Jun 2024 24

Spahn Ranch is long gone, but shades of the band’s impact remain as ReGen speaks with Athan Maroulis and Matt Green following the recent reissue of The Coiled One.
 

 

An InterView with Athan Maroulis and Matt Green of Spahn Ranch

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

During the band’s run from 1992 to 2000, the L.A.-based outfit Spahn Ranch established itself at the forefront of the burgeoning electro/industrial underground of the period through rigorous touring and recording. The band was helmed primarily by producer/multi-instrumentalist Matt Green and vocalist/lyricist Athan Maroulis, with several lineup shifts occurring over the years, along with continued experimentation with the style. Nevertheless, the band’s sophomore album, 1995’s The Coiled One, would go on to become one of the most beloved releases in the scene, with shades of its darkly invigorating blend of danceable electro/EBM rhythms, darkly industrialized and pseudo gothic atmospheres, and provocative lyrical themes still resonating to this day – so much so that 2024 saw the release of a deluxe reissue, remastered by Die Krupps’ Jürgen Engler, and supplemented with additional mixes and demo tracks. Now, ReGen Magazine speaks with Athan Maroulis and Matt Green about the legacy of Spahn Ranch, touching on memories of The Coiled One, its enduring impact, nostalgia, as well as some insight into Maroulis’ current activity with NØIR, and finally laying to rest the question of a Spahn Ranch reunion.

 

Cleopatra Records has just reissued The Coiled One in a special deluxe edition. First of all, tell us about the process of revisiting this album; what about it did you find yourself reconnecting with after so many years – in terms of lyrics, musical style, production, how the remastering made you think about the content in a new way, etc.?

Green: The album was never properly mastered in my opinion, so I look at this reissue as the first time that it has been. Jürgen did a great job on it (as usual). I went through the various DAT tapes from the sessions and found the unreleased tracks for the CD version. For me, the album overall is a nice snapshot of the time; late ‘94/early ‘95. It brought back good memories. The musical style for us was fluid over the years, so I can easily reconnect with most of it.

Maroulis: For better or worse, revisiting places that I’ve already been to is a common theme in my life. However, when Matt first suggested the idea, I had not revisited The Coiled One in ages. In ‘94 and ‘95, we were having the usual internal band struggles, complicated by my own personal crap. Ultimately, it could have easily been our final album. I adored the decaying Los Angeles of the early 1990s; it was like living in an abandoned gilded movie palace. I was a human cliché, the hand to mouth struggling artist, driving with no car insurance, no healthcare, working a series of denigrating jobs while trying to pay fines for a run in with the police back in Philadelphia. Throw in my petulant thirst for dramatic tangled webs and, collectively, I was starting to crack. All of this deeply impacted the lyrics. I was fusing together a lyrical diary of biblical images, medieval torture devices, greed, pimps, gods, films, conmen, tyrants, machines, futuristic cities, madness, and the daily hammering of feeling like a trapped urban pawn. I became fond of Bergman’s lone horror film called Hour of the Wolf. I began sympathizing with the lead character, an artist with warped visions who slowly slips into madness. Luckily, I remained somewhat grounded. We were a signed band making a record, which brought with it some promise and helped me get through. After listening to Jürgen Engler’s stellar mastering and seeing the artwork resurrected, I am pleased. Revisiting feels like a moment encased in time, like some ancient insect frozen in amber. Something positive did come from that time, after all.

What do you feel you’ve improved upon as an artist since this album’s initial release?

Maroulis: Well, I’m a better singer now and know more about what I’m doing. Ironically, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I am fond of a number of artists who were better in the earlier part of their career when they didn’t really know what they were doing. In some ways, naïveté forces you to be more creative and fearless.

 

 

What would you change about The Coiled One now if you had the opportunity?

Green: Nothing that I can think of. I’m pretty happy with everything after revisiting the album.

Maroulis: I don’t have many regrets on this album. There are a few minor vocal mistakes, maybe I should have doubled this or that. Perhaps I drag a bit behind here or there, or my phrasing or pronunciation is off, but I think some of the vocal imperfections are part of the charm and rawness of the album.

I see that you, Athan, were also credited for the art direction on The Coiled One. Looking back on both the original cover and the subsequent represses, what was your philosophy around the visual presentation of Spahn Ranch for this album, and in what ways do you feel it complemented the musical and/or lyrical themes?

Maroulis: I am a very visual person. I had delusions of being a film actor or director in my teens, so album art direction is the equivalent of making a little movie for me. The artwork for the very first pressing of The Coiled One on compact disc was a failure. Nicole, a very talented graphic designer and I had good intentions, but silver foil was printed in gray, and it looked like ass. We did not have the toys we have today to see these things in advance. Then, as we prepared for a second pressing around early ‘96, we submitted the reinvented artwork from the bones of the original, which is the same artwork as this new pressing. I wanted a collage of old film clips with cold futurist images in an effort to showcase the past and the future in the present. So yes, the aforementioned lyrical topics are indeed reflected and ghosted into the artwork. Matt did a great job of working with the Cleopatra graphic designer to shuffle things around while maintaining the integrity, simultaneously retrofitting it all on vinyl LP for the first time.

For just a bit of gear talk, technology’s moved a long way since the album was recorded. What sorts of developments have excited you the most over the years that you wish you could’ve had when The Coiled One was recorded?

Green: We had a very minimalist setup. Not being trust-fund kids with unlimited money for gear gave us challenges that we weren’t aware of at the time. It wasn’t until years later looking back that I realized this.

On the flipside of that, what changes have happened that you’ve not been particularly keen on?

Green: Personally, I prefer hardware, a rack of outboard gear and of course, a real mixing board. I always mixed records hands-on. Once everything went software-based, it didn’t appeal to me as much.

Are there any specific pieces of gear that you feel were essential to Spahn Ranch’s sound on this album?

Green: The Juno-60 was my favorite; the initial writing of my tracks usually started here. All my basslines came from this keyboard.

 

 

We’ve been seemingly living in an age of nostalgia for several years now, with many bands reuniting, remasters and re-releases of past albums, older styles being given new makeovers, etc. Why do you feel this is?

Green: I think nostalgia has been around for a long time. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s a neo-rockabilly scene developed (The Stray Cats, etc.). At the same time, Brits rediscovered ‘60s Jamaican ska and you got the two-tone scene (The Specials, etc.).

Maroulis: I have to agree with Matt, nostalgia has always been with us, and humanity seems drawn to it. Although, right now there appears to be somewhat of a heightened thirst for nostalgia. Maybe socials and the internet give the appearance that nostalgia is more ubiquitous than it really is? As a crazed enthusiast of music and films from the earlier part of the last century, I regularly revisit bodies of work of both obscure and legendary artists. This is commonplace for me, although it is refreshing to see neophytes taking interest in the innumerable rereleases of late, especially on vinyl.

On that note, has there been any discussion or even interest for you in possibly reviving Spahn Ranch?

Maroulis: We are asked to play a festival on occasion. We all get along, so it’s not any problem like that. We did most of our touring as a trio. These days, the trio that we toured with the most all live in different corners of the country, so it would be a logistical nightmare and prove challenging. Most reunion discussions begin and end with that. We did hundreds of shows in quite a few countries as Spahn Ranch from 1993 to 1999, but we’re not kids anymore and simply cannot do the crazy things we once did. For example, we once drove from Los Angeles to Asbury Park, NJ in 44 straight hours in a van, stopping only for fuel, food, coffee, and pissing. We arrived at the club on Sunday night just in time, we loaded in, did a line check, and played our set. We never complained, we knew the deal.

Bringing things into the now, NØIR’s last release was 2023’s Fallen, and you most recently appeared on Coitus Interruptus Productions’ tribute to Talk Talk in a collaboration with Silver Walks. First of all, what can you tell us about new NØIR material – is an album or EP in the works?

Maroulis: I try to work on a few different releases at the same time. Whichever comes to fruition first usually gets released. Right now, I am fairly close to completing an acoustic NØIR EP, along with an album of new and newish material with the working title of The Telepathy of Wires. I have a few other NØIR ideas up my sleeve, like a collection of the best of the remixes and a live EP. I am also excited about a slowly building side project called The Shimmering with members of a Pittsburgh band called The Garden; we’re working towards an EP. I’m also toying with the idea of doing a collection from my time in Executive Slacks.

 

 

Regarding the cover of ‘Talk Talk’ by NØIR and Silver Walks, how did the collaboration come about between the two of you, and in what ways do you feel it strengthened your take on the song?

Maroulis: I think of NØIR as a collaborative revolving door of members. It’s a good way to keep things fresh. I did some publicity on the last Silver Walks album. Dan from Silver Walks and I became friends. My main collaborator, Erik Gustafson, was tied up with a few projects, so I asked Dan if he was interested in knocking out a Talk Talk cover, and he did a nice job with it. I must say, Talk Talk were an interesting band; time has also been kind to them, and their material has aged well. The singer, the late Mark Hollis, was a clever writer with great vocal phrasing. He sang with a unique quiet scream of sorts, so reinterpreting it was tricky. Dan and I are working on a few other songs, and he also played keyboards at our recent show at QXT’s in Newark, NJ.

In 2018, you compiled a definitive anniversary edition of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Would you tell us about your first encounter with Welles’ work, particularly this legendary broadcast, and what about it has continued to resonate with you to today?

Maroulis: I’ve always been a radio enthusiast. When I was a kid, I watched a mediocre made-for-television movie called The Night that Panicked America, that told the story of how frightened listeners of The War of the Worlds 1938 broadcast responded. It then became an obsession of mine after I purchased a used double LP of the original 1938 Welles broadcast and was able to listen to it in its entirety. It seemed that every year, the media would dust it off on the Devil’s Night anniversary, and I would read about it. In the late 1990s, I was running a vintage label for Cleopatra called Stardust. There, I finally got the opportunity to work on rereleasing and writing the liner notes for the CD of the original 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Welles was a brilliant, complicated man of excess who surrounded himself with great talent he himself discovered, and in the process, made some of the best art of the 20th century. One of my most cherished possessions is an autographed photo of Welles from the 1940s.

I’ve asked this in other InterViews. A quote I love from Orson Welles, ‘Every work of art is a political statement. When you deliberately make it, you usually fall into the trap of rhetoric and the trap of speaking to a convinced audience, rather than convincing an audience. I don’t think it is the duty of every artist to change the world; he is doing it by being an artist.’ Especially in the modern era when everybody is able to communicate and share (or reinforce) their views and opinions, what are your thoughts on the role of politics in art (or vice versa)?

Maroulis: I do agree with Welles. I think some artists are far too outspoken about politics, although it is usually with good intentions. Hearing John Lennon’s point of view is one thing; hearing a realty TV star, cheese factory celeb spouse, or an influencer clown riffing on politics is another. I myself prefer to keep some of my views of the world embedded in my lyrics, where I think they belong. That’s me. Others can do as they please.

 

 

Circling back to Spahn Ranch, the band began in the ‘90s and is named after the movie ranch that was known to be the Manson Family’s base in the late ‘60s. Since the ‘90s, we’ve seen many social and cultural changes – views and opinions, ways of behavior, word usage, etc., some of which might see such naming as insensitive or of questionable taste. What do you feel is the responsibility of artists and musicians from previous generations to adapt to – or at least address – the changing demands of the audience on a societal and cultural level?

Green: I don’t see anything wrong with taking people’s feelings into account. Certain words have been removed from usage since I was a kid, and it doesn’t bother me. Some people get shit on enough in life, why add to it?

Maroulis: I think it would be difficult to use something controversial as a band name these days, which is both a blessing and a curse. That said, at the time, I think we just naïvely thought of it as a name purely for namesake and nothing else. Like the Dead Kennedys or The Stranglers, we were not trying to be literal. Because we are now a defunct band, the point is thankfully rather moot. It does seem to be fairly routine (or should be) for older artists to consider all sides and try to adapt to the ways of the world.
As for my responsibilities as a veteran artist, I view those in a more useful way. I don’t necessarily see my role as a way to educate or address issues. I see it as a way to try to elevate young promising talent. I don’t believe that boasting what an open-minded FDR-influenced progressive I am really helps anyone. Again, others can do as they please.

You’ve also for the past few years been a press agent for various artists on such labels as Metropolis, Distortion, and Cleopatra. Has working in the realm of PR given you a different perspective on the art/music industry vs. being an artist?

Maroulis: I have a few different perspectives. When I was in my first band, Fahrenheit 451, I couldn’t find anyone to do publicity, promotion, or help elevate the band, so at age 20, I had to learn how to do it myself. Now, all of these years later, I apply what I learned to doing publicity and A&R for scores of bands. Since I am an artist, I think I understand artists a bit better than most record company employees, although I have my limits. Like anything, most artists, as well as labels, are a pleasure to work with, while others can be the polarized opposite of that. I do what I can to keep them all content. The game of the music industry can be frighteningly ugly at times. When it comes to art and commerce, from the makers to the takers, there’s plenty of ugliness and bullshit on both sides of that coin.

 

Spahn Ranch
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp
Cleopatra Records
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram

 

Photography provided courtesy of Athan Maroulis and Spahn Ranch

 

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