The Spook School on touring, safer spaces and their new album

As The Spook School ready themselves for the release of new album Could it be Different?, we chat self-care, safer spaces and the sudden closure of Fortuna Pop!

Feature by Kate Pasola | 15 Jan 2018

“I think touring is when I’m my best self.” Though the wryness of Adam Todd – guitarist and vocalist in The Spook School – is wrapped in honesty, all four band members crumble into rapturous laughter. We’ve spent the last 20 minutes discussing harassment, abuse, safe spaces and the state of the world, and it’s clear the self-defined queer-punk outfit are keenly aware of the power held in comic relief.

The topic at hand is self-care – more specifically, the toll touring takes on the mental health of musicians. “I think if you’re just getting to a place and then going to a venue, playing a show and then sleeping, and then getting into a van and going to another venue – that could be kind of depressing,” shares guitarist and vocalist Nye Todd, who co-founded The Spook School with brother Adam. While Nye’s self-care strategy involves “getting up early and making sure that you see the sun,” bassist and vocalist Anna Cory thinks they “need to get better at turning down rider drinks.” And for the irrepressible Niall McCamley, the band's drummer? “Every now and again I’ll disappear. I’ll let everyone else hang out as a group and I’ll just go for a giant walk around somewhere. And if people try to talk to me in a language I don’t understand I’ll get scared and try and find everyone again.”

But for Adam, it’s a different story: “I don’t like getting home.” Following the confetti-worthy successes of debut album Dress Up (2013) and sophomore release Try to be Hopeful (2015), the band spent the tail-end of last year relentlessly touring the UK and Europe in support of explosive NYC duo Diet Cig. “You’re just in your own little bubble…” Adam continues, “and then you get home and you’ve got so much going on.” The band’s upcoming North American tour (also with Diet Cig) is set to be even more extensive, a run of 20-odd dates in early 2018 across a geographical span of over 10,000 miles. “Longer than The Proclaimers!” declares Niall to the sound of guffaws from his bandmates.

This tour coincides with the release of the band’s new album, Could it be Different?, a vital collection of 11 songs that enlist the band’s trademark optimism and spirited lyricism to cut through society’s constructs and normative BS. Though the album mixes more explicit social commentary with personal stories, every morsel stands for something. “I think in the smaller personal songs... there’ll often be something [where] you’ll listen and go ‘oh, this is clearly not about like a straight relationship,'” says Anna. “Little things like that, I think people maybe are happy to hear anyway, even if it’s not what the entire song is about. Little hints.”

The record dropkicks listeners into The Spook School’s technicolor utopia from the off with new track Still Alive, a song penned by Nye after surviving an abusive relationship. By now, Spook School gig-goers have become accustomed to participating in cathartic chants, and Still Alive’s anthemic refrain 'Fuck you, I’m still alive' doesn’t disappoint. The song celebrates resilience rather than giving limelight to abusers; but such uncapped joy begs the question – how does the band manage to consistently transform melancholy into musical tonics? “We’re always focused on stuff that’s fun to play live,” explains Nye. “Even if a song started out really kinda depressing in all aspects, I think once we’ve been in the practice room for a while, that’s probably not that much fun to play. So, y’know, we make it more fun.”

The track’s unbridled radiance spills into the music video too – a DIY affair in which Breakfast Muff’s Eilidh McMillan uses treacle to conduct sugary voodoo on a selection of Spook School mini-me dolls. Though the process resulted in a sweetly irreverent video, it wasn’t without logistical challenges. “At that stage Niall had never heard of or seen treacle,” Anna smirks, winsomely sparring with him. “I’d heard of it, and I’d heard the phrase ‘running through treacle’ but I never put two and two together,” he offers regretfully. “I thought ‘ooh, I’ll have a spoonful o’ that’.... and what did I say?” Anna dutifully responds – “You said ‘It’s alright, I couldn’t eat a whole tin” – and we’re back to laughter.

Joy follows The Spook School wherever they go, and though live shows often feel like a knees-up, the band are also serious about protecting their fans. Channelling their astute observations on gender and privilege into gigs, they try to ensure safer space policies and gender neutral bathrooms. “At our shows... it’s often a very positive environment,” Anna smiles. “You can kind of briefly forget about other things outside that are not so good – [it] feels nice to be in those places with people who’re kind of on your side.”

Their philosophy is shared by tour buddies Diet Cig, too. “I don’t think we’ve ever explicitly said that we’re only gonna play with bands that have safer space policies,” Nye adds. “But... we tend to like and respect a lot of bands that do that sort of stuff, and that makes us want to play with them more... it kind of feeds into the whole package.”

It's perhaps such overlapping outlooks between the two touring bands that contributed to The Spook School’s enlisting of Diet Cig’s manager, Jessi Frick of Salty Management. “We never set out to get a manager,” Nye explains. “But we could see that Jessi is very much on our wavelength and shares our values. I think if just some old music industry dude came up to us and asked if he could be our manager, I think it’d be like…” the band catch his drift and chuckle knowingly as he trails off. Mindful of the bands’ intensive tour schedule, at one point Frick even hired them a large Airbnb to collectively hang out, blow off steam, and, according to Anna “give each other stick and pokes at 3am.”

Maybe this all sounds delightfully hedonistic, but the band remain pragmatic and grounded. Their knack for strategising was perhaps fortified by the knock they suffered in the summer of 2016 when the label they were signed to, Fortuna Pop!, decided to call it a day. “I think it was a blanket email to everyone on the label, just being like ‘Hey, so, I’ve decided that I’m not going to run the label anymore, I’m moving to Japan,’” Nye explains. “Which is fair enough... But I remember looking at it and being like ‘I’m not sure I’m reading this right.’” According to Niall, the band were terrified. “[It] felt like someone was letting go of our hand.”

But in swooped Alcopop! who signed the band for their third album, allowing them to focus on what they do best; writing sonic gifts for the world and creating innovative merchandise – the latter of which they refer to as “the lifeblood”, due to the fact they’re currently being paid a supporting fee for their touring efforts. “I’m the person in the band who has taken on the responsibility for setting up the merch at every show," says Adam. "I really love selling it. I don’t know if it’s maybe the little capitalist in me – there’s a bit of my head that’s like ‘Adam, what are you doing? You’re wasting your life!' And then I get to, y’know, actually sell things and people are giving me money, and I’m like 'Oh yeah, this is a bit like a job!'"

Along with a brand new album, the horizon also sees the fifth annual edition of The Spook School’s iconic calendar “spearheaded” by Niall. According to the project manager himself, the photos, taken by Anna, are “not completely nude, and they’re not completely sexy either” and there's “more skin than probably needs to be on show.” Though when Anna agrees, Niall becomes defensive: “I was sexy the entire time!” From Anna’s response – “You were holding a saxophone in your pants!” – and with the dozenth bout of laughter that this ignites, it’s clear the interview is over. The Spook School, droll and charming, are not only still alive – they're galvanised. 

Could it be Different? is released on 26 Jan via Alcopop!
The Spook School play Stereo, Glasgow, 27 Jan