Luke Spiller and the boys turn the clock back decades for Pamela Des Barres and their fans

It’s a very rare moment when I wish I was a young woman again. Sociologically, musically, spiritually, sexually, I spent my youth cavorting through the most expansive free-lovin’ era; a never-comin’-back timeframe that many younger people wish they could have experienced first hand, mouth, mind and genitals.

Happily, I’ve held on to my youthful attitude and endless desire for music in all its glorious forms. I never miss my longtime faves – Dylan, Sparks, the Old 97s, (seeing them next week!) Bruuuuuce, Paul, Todd Snider and a few others, but it’s been a couple decades since I actually wanted to get my hands, etc. on a rock & roll frontman. (In fact, it was Jack White who aroused that need in me. My heart says yes indeed, but alas…)

Certainly, there is good new music being made these days, but it’s often difficult to discover as it’s mostly a do-it-themselves operation. A&R folks have gone the way of flower crowns, and today’s groupies meet their faves on Instagram. So when the buzz reaches my ears, my curiosity is piqued, and I perk up, ready to rock. I saw Greta Van Fleet at the Troubadour and swayed with the youthful groovers as the wailing Josh Kiszka climbed high into Robert Plantsville, but I found myself wanting to shake them into a bit of charisma, and dress up the entire band in more eye-popping splendor, like the GTOs once assisted the Alice Cooper lads. And, of course, I’ve been down front for all of Jack White’s various band incarnations. As mentioned, Mr. White was the last rock-god I’d have turned back time for – until recently.

I remember standing with my darling mother as she dressed in front of the mirror at around the age I am now, as she studied her reflection. “I still expect to see a twenty-one year-old staring back at me,” she sighed wistfully. I can dig it, mama. My beloved music and my delightfully young pals are like a continuous elixir transfusion, keeping my love-pump well-oiled and nourished. And they too will eventually find out, the spirit doesn’t age, decay or disappear; I believe it lives on eternally somewhere in the Great Beyond.

Back in 2016, my sagacious son Nick insisted I listen to his favorite new band, The Struts, a quartet of dashing British dandies, possessed with glam glory and excellent swagger. The singer, Luke Spiller, had exceptional cheekbones, the perfect amount of smudgy kohl eyeliner and shimmery lipgloss, (like my long-ago Yardley Slicker) and the devil himself peering through his twinkling peepers. Their first album, Everybody Wants, had recently been released. Nick YouTubed me through their various vids and live gigs, and I was equally enthralled by their smashing, thrashing rock and bloody roll – clever lyrics combined with just the right amount of grandiosity, foolishness and cacophonous JOY — missing in the mainstream for way too damn long.

Nothing wrong with the mainstream. That’s where I first heard Elvis, Dion, the Beatles and the Stones. But in the days of long-play FM radio, Top 40 was snubbed by hipsters lost on the Dark Side of the Moon or climbing that tattered Stairway to heavy metal Heaven. The mainstream nowadays is all over the damn place and, thankfully, features more female divas than ever, but not much actual rock & roll unless you subscribe to Sirius XM and stay tuned to Little Steven’s Underground Garage.

The Struts - Photo by Anna Lee

The Struts – Photo by Anna Lee

When the Struts video, “Primadonna Like Me” (from their latest Young and Dangerous) appeared a couple months ago, I must have watched it a dozen times in a row and played the album over and over like I did with Revolver, Beggars Banquet and Blonde on Blonde. I’m chuffed to see Alice Cooper making a cameo, throwing darts backstage with the band, giving the Struts his Billion Dollar Baby seal of approval.

Luke’s large, wide-open voice and spangled visual has created copious comparisons to Freddie Mercury, whom he admits to adoring, but this frontman is not emulating anyone. He’s blessed with that untamed, creamy roar, glint of amused knowing and just the right touch of sultry savoir faire.

Guess what, dolls. The Struts reminded me again that spirit doesn’t age, and the groupie heart is always in bloom. I wanted to meet this band. And my handy dandy Please Kill Me column came in very handy indeed. I was invited to chat with Luke and the boys before their upcoming concert in Ventura, a mere 45-minute drive up the coast, so I invited my dear Nichole, another Struts connoisseur, to come along for the joyride. Nichole is like a daughter to me and has been in my LA writing workshops for ten years, but that night she came as my “assistant,” at the ready to hold the mic, ask a pertinent question and just make the interview a more festive occasion.

Nichole and The Struts

Nichole and The Struts

From what I’ve been able to discern through the years, many musicians have read my first book, I’m with the Band, or have at least heard of my classic shenanigans, and warm up pretty quickly, but as we entered the bus, parked in front of the theatre, Luke was folded into himself, wearing opaque glasses, blank and unreadable. The rest of the band, guitarist Adam Slack, bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies, were gracious and welcoming, but I could tell I was just another journalist in a long line of blatherers on a supremely long-ass tour.

We all sit around together and as an ice-breaker, I pull a copy of I’m with the Band out of my bag as a gift, and ask if perhaps they might have heard of me. Gethin opens the book and begins to read: “The Landmark Motel was in the throbbing heart of Hollyweird on Fountain Avenue…” I tell him that’s when my group The GTOs lived alongside the Alice Cooper band, then Jed asks about my diary entries. “Yeah that’s what made the stories so immediate – ‘I just got in the limo while Zeppelin play their fifth encore to 20,000 screaming fans…oh, here comes Jimmy…’”

The Struts with Pamela Des Barres

The Struts with Pamela Des Barres

“That’s incredible,” Jed remarks, “I mean, we’ve had conversations about you—that’s why I was so embarrassed when you came in, because we’ve all chatted about your book so many times.” Gethin shakes his head, “No one tells us who’s coming to interview us.” Finally, Luke sits up, intrigued, “My girlfriend is reading this book right now,” he marvels, “She’s read sections to me…”  Whew. Suddenly all is well in the Struts bus, even though Luke keeps his sunglasses on.

Photo by Anna Lee

Photo by Anna Lee

When Nichole asks Luke what his fave rock bio is, he heavily praises Queen Unseen by Peter Hince, as a voice comes over the speaker in the bus: Sunday, November 4th, in Ventura California, at the Ventura Majestic Theater, doors are now open; have a mediocre show! “Do they really have to remind you of where you are?” I query, and the band members all agree that after many moons on the road, they indeed need a reminder. “Actually, Luke’s got quite a good hobby,” says Adam, “The other day we had a hotel room and I went in to get a shower and Luke’s in there, high, painting a guitar.” How fascinating,” I muse, “What a cool thing to keep you from going crazy on the road!” Very different from the way Keith Moon used to entertain himself.

“I started doing it for myself, then started getting loads of commission requests,” Luke says, “So in the last couple of years I’ve done into the thirties.” Of course, I have to see these pieces of art, and ask Luke to please show me examples, and for a while Nichole and I ooh and ahh over the beauty and meticulousness of the artistry appearing on Luke’s phone. They are astounding. “Yeah, people want them for certain times of year, people’s birthdays, and… it’s a lot of work. Now I’m gonna just start doing them in my spare time then basically auction them off.” When I mention that one of the beauties looks like it was made for Waylon Jennings, he smiles, “Yeah!”

Hand painted guitar by Luke Spiller

Hand-painted guitar by Luke Spiller

When I tell the band that I’m mad for them, haven’t been this excited in way too long, and need to turn my Please Kill Me readers on to their spectacular music and how it all began, Jed says, “That means a hell of a lot, given your history! Well, I started because my dad played guitar, and I was playing clarinet at the time. Then I thought, ‘The clarinet isn’t quite as cool as guitar,’ So I started a school band, and I remember having a moment when I played the first song in a talent competition, and it sounds corny as hell, but afterward, this girl came up and asked for my number. And I was like, ‘wow, this is hilarious.’  I mean, that’s not the sole reason I started a band, but it certainly helped.”

I mention that Gene Simmons told me he started KISS to meet girls, and no one is surprised, “I started drumming so I could miss maths lessons,” Gethin says, “My uncle was a drummer, so he gave me his kit, and I was like, yeah, let’s do this. So I started a band and got to miss an hour of math lessons. And then I actually fell in love with it, which was handy.”

“When I was really young I always wanted to be on stage, singing things at school and stuff like that,” Adam recalls. “And then I saw Green Day on TV and I was like, ‘I want a guitar, I want to start a band. Then I just begged my dad to buy me a guitar. I got a bass first and I was like, ‘…nah.” You can’t write songs on a bass, really’.”

Hand painted guitar by Luke Spiller

Hand-painted guitar by Luke Spiller

Jed chimes in here, grinning: “I beg to differ, sir.”

Luke says that Michael Jackson was a huge early influence, and that at age eight he auditioned as MJ in a school singing contest, but I sense a cosmic depth in his songs, and my assessment turns out to be correct. “The first music I was introduced to would’ve been my dad singing at church, Sunday Service, and my first experience of a live band playing, a pretty big band; drums, keyboard, flute, two guitars, bass. My mum would sing backing vocals, dad would lead the praise and worship… and it was actually my first introduction, as well, to the world. Because we would go to America — I’ve been to Australia like seven times. When I look back at it now, what I learned was passion, I wasn’t one of those kids who went to live concerts, and to be honest, I still do not enjoy them now.”

“Really?” I wonder, “That’s surprising.”

But Luke shrugs, “I mean, I don’t go out of my way to go see bands; I barely watch anyone. But what I got from that childhood experience, especially from my dad, was this unshakable belief in what you’re doing. So when you combine religion and faith with music, it’s not an act. It’s not like they’re performing, as such, but when worship bands are good, I mean, they’re GOOD, when they’re really believing. It’s the same with preachers. There were times I’d sit in church and I’d hate it. Then someone would come on who was extremely engaging and charismatic, and I’d be pulled into the stories and their testimony, and I’d really enjoy it.”

Aaaahh, so this is where the insightful lyrics come from. I knew Luke’s capricious vision sprang from a deep well.

“I’m a real optimistic believer in positivism,” I insist, “and you say things so beautifully.” I quote from Freak Like You: “’We all sing from the same pages of books/ you can’t judge by the cover.’”

Adam smiles, “Wow. When you read it out like that, it sounds… yeah, it makes it sound so… different.”

“With that song in particular, I think a lot of the time, musically, lyrically, I’m kind of drawn to the outcast,” Luke says.

I knew Mr. Spiller spoke my language. “Oh God, I was such a freak myself,” I exclaim, “I’m still such a freak! And we all are, like you said. And that is really deep shit too! I think you’re touching all kinds of oddballs out there.”

He agrees, “That’s what makes me laugh. Everyone’s the same. And that’s really what that song is about. So I’m glad that you picked up on that.”

Another song I’m touched by is the poignant, “Somebody New,” and after I rave on and on, the conversation about songwriting that followed is so spirited, I’ll just continue here verbatim:

Believe me, I’m speechless

I wish that I could say those words

You whispered so sweetly

And maybe I’ll regret this but I’ve gotta be honest

‘Cause we made a promise, I won’t break it now

I wish I could hold you

But how could I be so unfair to lead us to nowhere?

We’ve both been down that road before

And if this should end us please know that I’m helpless

I’ve made up my mind

 

[Chorus]

It’s not that I don’t care the way that you do

It’s just my heart’s not ready yet

For somebody new

It’s not that I don’t feel the feelings you do

It’s just my heart’s not ready yet

For somebody new

If only this started when love was something new to me

I’d never have questioned, rejected what we could have been

But when you’ve been broken, some wounds remain open

That no one can heal

 

It’s not that I don’t care the way that you do

It’s just my heart’s not ready yet

For somebody new

It’s not that I don’t feel the feelings you do

It’s just my heart’s not ready yet

For somebody new

The Struts “Somebody New”, live in Hollywood, May 2018

Luke: With that one, I think— the chorus came to me while I was on the toilet.

PDB: A lot of creative things happen there.

Luke: I knew it was special because it’s something as a songwriter that you just crave and crave, when you know in your heart of hearts that it’s good and you’re not having to second guess it. Me and Adam had that loads of times, where you’re playing back a song, and convince yourself it’s fucking great. And the best feeling in the world is when everyone’s looking at each other, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s minds. I had that feeling as I was typing it up, and I love the fact that the whole chorus, when it came, is so conversational. I mean, it’s not like “I don’t care.” And I thought, “This is actually gonna be really good.” And when we started to work on it and finish it as a band, working on the lyrics, the conversational element had to carry on. And I think that’s why the message has been put so well, because it’s not poetic, it’s more like… you can hear people saying it. You know what I mean?

PDB: Yes! I think people will use those lyrics when they’re trying to get that certain message across to someone. That’s how important the song is.

Jed: We actually joke about that song, because Adam was going through something like that at the time.

Adam: I broke up with my girlfriend, and it was one of those cases… I had met someone on tour while I was with my girlfriend, but I was like, “I’ve got a girlfriend.” But that ended, so after a couple of weeks being single, I started talking to that same girl, thinking, “Ah yeah, this is cool,” and then she liked me, so, “Shit, I’m back in this situation where I have to tell someone that I’m not ready to be with them.” But that was the conversation. So, Luke, whether or not that situation influenced you while you were having a shit, I don’t know.

[much laughter]

Adam: We were talking about it at the time, so when it came time to finish the lyrics, it was really like a good therapy session for me.

Jed: We used to joke that if something was going down with a girl somebody was dating, we’d be like, “Should we just play them ‘Somebody New’?” That song says everything you need to say.

PDB: It does!

Nichole: No joke, I have a friend who got broken up with by her boyfriend sitting her down and playing “Free Bird” for her. Looking deep into her eyes, going, “Do you get it? Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?” She’s like, “I fucking don’t. I surely do not.”

[general groans of sympathy]

Luke: She got out lucky.

Nichole: Yes. She’s very happily married to somebody completely different now. Can I ask how you approach song-crafting? Do you begin with lyrics, or does somebody say “I have a killer riff,” or…?

Luke:
It depends, really.

Adam:  A few of them are like, a chorus that’s Luke’s brought to the table…

PDB: Oh God, they’re ANTHEMS! Your songs are fucking anthems.

Luke: Thank you. It’s cool that you hear that in the music. The thing with the songwriting, which is really kind of individual, is that not a lot gets brought to the table that’s been very premeditated. In the dynamic of me and Ads, (Adam’s nickname) I’d say that lyrics are my strong point. Because I think mostly it does fall on the singer.

PDB: Because you’re gonna be singing it; you gotta feel it.

I love, of course, the opening line of Primadonna, the statement — “Don’t you know who I think I am?” It makes you like the band immediately.

Luke: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re touching on the fact that you can tell straight away that there is an injection of slight humor into what we’re doing, and it makes us all the more endearing.

PDB: Exactly. That we know you’re not pompous, even though you’re acting like a very pompous fella. We’re in on the joke.

The Struts at a Victoria's Secret fashion show, photo by Anna Lee

The Struts at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show – Photo by Anna Lee

Luke: Even the UK press were talking to me about that, and I said, “Well… What you have to understand is, if I was to stand up there and pretend that this was all completely unique, these sounds, this look, the lyrical content, was thought out of the absolute genius I was putting into the ether — one, it would be a fucking joke; two, there’s no way you can take that seriously.”

PDB: So you just lay it out there before the song even plays.

Luke: Right. I think it’s really important to do that, especially if you’re pulling influences from the past, that line, for example. With everything we’re doing, it’s an open acceptance of, “hey, these are our influences; we’re not totally original. Can we entertain you for the next two hours? Yes. Will we survive the next five years? We don’t know.”

PDB: Oh yeah. There’s so much in your music that gloriously stems from whatever you love musically.

Luke: I think that’s what it is. We’re really fortunate and lucky to have all this fantastic stuff that’s happened before us that’s now, more than ever, at our fingertips, that we can listen to and draw from, and we are a result of all of that. And I don’t think we’re gonna be the last, either. I think we’re gonna be the first of many in the next ten-plus years that will start doing the same thing.

PDB: Do you feel like you’re spearheading real rock ‘n’ roll again?  Or are you just doing what you like?

Adam: I love that you added that, because that’s the truth. We’re just doing what we love.

Luke: Yeah! I’m just doing what I like, honestly. I hear so many bands that are these hilarious carbon copies of what’s happened before. When they take it seriously, I can’t take it seriously. You know? Because you’re literally standing up there pretending that you’ve thought of this, and you’ve never heard of these bands before. Give me a fucking break! You know what I mean?

PDB: Yes. Yes!

At this point, the road manager pops in to tell the band it’s time to get ready for the gig, but since it’s felt like we’ve been just hanging, having a groovy conversation, no one seems quite ready to stop chatting.

photo by Anna Lee

Photo by Anna Lee

Luke: Let’s do two more questions.

PDB: Well, I’m a lyric whore, a Dylan freak, and that’s one of the reasons I love this band, too, because, yes, you have all the other trappings, everything a rock band needs, but it’s the words, too, that move me. And so many bands don’t. It’s not really a question, I’m just commenting.

Luke: I’m glad you pick up on it, because it’s one of the things I’ve noticed about the initial reaction with this band; it’s always how much I sound like Freddie Mercury…

PDB: I don’t even think you sound that much like him.

Luke: No, I don’t, either! Or, how great the live shows are, which is fantastic. But I’ve always thought that one of the proudest things I’m about is the lyrical content, and the song titles, and the meat that you can literally, y’know, get your teeth into, when it comes to some of our songs, most of them… actually, pretty much all of them.

PDB: I agree. All of them. I’ve listened to your songs a lot, and as a writer, I think, “Wow, they get that point across in two lines!”

Luke: That’s when you know you’re onto something, if you can say the most while saying hardly anything.

The Struts - Photo by Anna Lee

The Struts – Photo by Anna Lee

Aaaaaannnd… an hour after we trotted up the bus steps, it’s over. We all happily pose for pictures (although Luke remains steadfastly stone-faced in the photos) and I remark that I never got to ask him about his incredibly vivid (thank God) fashion sense. Oh no! Zandra Rhodes! But he assures me that we will talk again, and my groupie heart can’t help but skip a beat. Or two. There’s no stopping it, my love-pump has been well-trained. Then after hugs all around, Nichole and I head into the venue on a very heady Struts high.

We wade through the energetic teeming crowd, wriggling all the way down front to await the spectacle that would surely come, and when Luke leaps onto the stage, all bravado, constant zig-zaggy movement, demanding full attention, I revert to my youthful heart-thrummy self, and fall into a total swoon. As he cavorts across the stage, full-throttle and full of fun, I am ageless, I am starburst, I am fucking golden, aflame and entranced like it’s 1968 and I just turned twenty years old. The band is so damn good, so connected, keeping up with Luke’s constant motion, tearing it up, ripping it up, ROCKING THE FUCK OUT. Nothing else exists for the almost two hours the Struts claim the stage. This band doesn’t need smoke and mirrors, props or fireworks. Luke is a flesh and blood Roman Candle.

So despite the furious fun, the teen dream passion the Struts evoke in me, at the end of the night, I have to tamp down a raging longing to be back in the thick of it, to be that girl on the side of the stage, the one who most assuredly, would be wrapped in the arms of the singer, guitar player or drummer. In this case, definitely the singer.

I’m left with a surprising ache that carries through the next few days, which slowly subsides because I’m a grown woman, right? And not one to long for long or dwell in what was or what never shall be. I love who I was and who I am. I enjoy being myself right here and now, while somewhere out there, Luke Spiller’s girlfriend is reading my words aloud to him.

http://www.pleasekillme.com

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