Spoonboy moves on

Liz Pelly

Photo by Clay Rossner.

Since 2003, Spoonboy has been the songwriting moniker of DC native David Combs. The project began when Combs was spending time in Bloomington, Indiana’s then-thriving Plan-It-X folk-punk scene, the same time and place where projects like Ghost Mice and Madeline started. When Combs eventually moved back to his native Washington D.C., the project continued to evolve in sound and scope. Over the years, his songs have channeled elements of his earnest, idealistic acoustic roots into urgent, personal-political guitar-pop story-songs. The stories are simultaneously internal and external. Some are reflections on his own first-hand experiences, his family life and punk life. Others are little snapshots of friends and characters met along the way: the person you met at a punk house in Philadelphia once and still wonder about; someone whose phone number has been on a scrap of paper in your pocket for too long.

A notable portion of Spoonboy songs have typically dealt with topics like gender, feminism, and trauma, and over the years, Combs has tended to discuss those ideas on stage as well. “We’re all just like our dads / We keep learning the same shit again / and I wonder how long till it ends,” he sings on “Stab Yer Dad” from 2011’s The Papas, his album that most directly deals with ideas about navigating the patriarchy as a male. “I will be with my mom at the end of her life, but sir I will not be for yours,” he sings on “The Mamas and the Papas.” Combs’ web presence is almost an extension of that open-book songwriting: “Feel free to ask me whatever you like,” he writes on the front page of his Tumblr. “I’ll always try to answer. Keep in mind I’m just a songwriter, not a social worker or therapist or professor or anything.”

After over a decade of DIY touring; two full-lengths, both on Plan-it-X; and more recently, splits with The Goodbye Party, Martha, and Colour Me Wednesday, Combs recently posted the last Spoonboy recordings and decided to stop playing shows. Surrounding the end of the Spoonboy project, we discussed his intricate web presence, being a good male feminist ally, his roots in the Bloomington scene, the political inspirations of early 00s folk punk, and more.

How did you know it was time to stop playing as ‘Spoonboy’?

There were definitely gradual things leading up to it. I got tired of the vulnerability that comes from playing by yourself. I did a lot of touring 2014 completely by myself. Not even anybody on the road with me. I had enough experiences where it felt really hard to continue presenting myself in that kind of vulnerable way as much as I had in years previous.

The songs you write as Spoonboy are extremely personal. I imagine after a while of doing that, it would be emotionally exhaustive.

That’s a big part of it for sure. I’d be going from town to town and talking about experiences of trauma. That kind of creates a space where people feel invited, not in an unwarranted way, to share their stories. Which often is really powerful and meaningful and often was the most important part of the project for me. But then emotionally when you find yourself being a receptacle for other people’s trauma — and I know lots of other people can attest this too — you do get filled up, and you get burnt out. There would be situations where I’d just be at this shitty house show and someone would be talking to me about something really intense, in a way that was disrespectful of my boundaries. Or they’d be demanding information about me and my life because they felt like they knew me well enough to do that. In those circumstances I would leave the show being like, “I don’t want to do this ever again.”

Your Tumblr is pretty wild; you have this whole archived directory of different questions people have asked you over the years, talking about gender and inspirations and song meanings. Do you see it all as an extension of the project in a way?

It wasn’t intentionally developed to be that way. It just kind of worked out that they became, to some extent, extensions of each other. And some of that kind of emotional fatigue that I’m describing about experiencing at shows I was also experiencing on the internet.  I kind of stumbled into Tumblr not really knowing what it was at first, just thinking it was a way I could put up a website. I really found out by chance what a forum for discussion it was. And then was totally blind-sighted by how personal people could get with me and how intense people could get when they’d have negative feedback for me. Which I think is super important. I always have felt that being a male-assigned person engaging with feminism, it’s super important to be hearing critical feedback. But I have sometimes been completely unprepared for how that would actually play out.

Spoonboy songs have a specific personal-political bent to them. What has been most meaningful to you about this type of songwriting?

Far and away, I know I can die happy just from some of the interactions I’ve had with people. That, talking about my own experiences engaging with patriarchy or gender fluidity could help someone get through a hard time, or to understand their own gender identity. I’ve heard from a good number of people who had that experience and every time I hear it, it always blows my mind. Because it’s such a challenging thing. I’ve written a lot about engaging with male privilege … [if] that’s made people second-guess their relationship to patriarchy and start to step down a road of trying to fix the shit that’s fucked up in our brains because of the fucked up culture that we’re socialized in, that feels like a really positive thing.

I always have felt that being a male-assigned person engaging with feminism, it’s super important to be hearing critical feedback.

As a male artist who has dealt with feminism and gender a lot in songwriting, what do you feel are some characteristics that make a good male ally artist/activist?

I guess the big thing I would qualify with is that — I am not necessarily the most important person to be listening to in light of the fact that there are a lot of women and trans people and genderqueer people and people with less gender privilege who have written so much on this topic. That said, I do think that part of patriarchy is that people who identify as men are more likely to hear people who are speaking from the same experience as them. Which is fucked up, but it’s true in many cases.

My feeling, which I hope I’ve done well and what I hope to do better in the future, is that the most important thing to do is to be directing people to stuff that women and gender minorities are saying about how to be a good feminist ally. And trying to get people to listen to those voices as much as possible. The hardest thing I think for people with male privilege engaging with feminism is figuring out how to engage with it in a non-defensive way. How to hear criticism of your patriarchal socialization and not hear it as a condemnation of yourself as a person. And kind of looking at patriarchy as this overarching thing that’s the air we all breath. Like anybody, you need to engage with what that means for you and your socialization and your actions and your past and your future. And be able to listen and be self-critical without shutting down because it makes you feel worthless.

When you step back from the Spoonboy discography and look at all of the different records and splits and singles you’ve released, what do you think of as some defining elements that tie all of the Spoonboy discography together?

It’s probably that engagement with what it means to be against patriarchy but understand that you were socialized to be an agent of patriarchy. And if you’re a male socialized person, what that means. I think that was really most intensely something I wrote about on the record The Papas. But it’s certainly something that permeates some of the earlier songs, even if they are less coherent.

I think it’s also just that kind of personal/political idea. I think about things really politically and I don’t want to omit that. I don’t want to omit an engagement of politics through these personal songs that I’m compelled to write. And don’t want to back down from a political element, even if the song might just be a story about going on tour, or a relationship, or watching TV. Like, “I’m going to talk about my emotions but I’m also going to talk about how those things are politically tied to other ideas.”

What are some things in your life that have inspired you to approach songwriting that way?

Something I’ve thought about more in the past couple years is how my mom is a songwriter. She never performs her songs for anyone except me, my sister and her friends. I grew up around her writing songs constantly and playing her old songs. Every day I got concerts from my mom basically. And she didn’t do this in quite the same style of songwriting as me but she went through a big phase in the 80s of writing a lot of satirical political folk songs, and she wrote about her feminism and her politics. She identified as a social democrat so she was fairly to the left. To an extent I pretty undeniably inherited this compulsion for songwriting from my mom. And then had a real, every day example of somebody who was willing to write songs both about her life and her feelings and alternately her politics. I don’t give enough credit to my mom.

And also, certainly when I was going through an adolescent phase of discovering music and discovering punk, it was things like Billy Bragg, Propagandi, Bikini Kill. Bands that were very upfront about their politics but  had a story about their life experience attached to it.  That’s what I was drawn to when I started engaging with music communities.

How would you explain the music community that Spoonboy originally grew out of?

Spoonboy as a solo project was started over two years when I was in Bloomington.  Max Levine Ensemble was the band I’d been playing with in high school. We were kind of on hiatus because everyone went to college except for me. And at first I just thought, “I’ll play these songs I wrote for Max Levine Ensemble on acoustic guitar.” But it developed into its own thing. Being in Bloomington around the time that Against Me! was getting popular, and Ghost Mice was a band, and Defiance, Ohio, and all these folk punk bands were starting. They were all just the people who were living in houses down the street. Amazingly, a lot of those bands still exist, and Plan-it-X Records still exists. But at the time it felt like a pretty localized community. When I moved to DC and years passed by, it felt less like that and, the project had to evolve and find an identity beyond this small group of friends it developed in.

The hardest thing I think for people with male privilege engaging with feminism is figuring out how to engage with it in a non-defensive way. How to hear criticism of your patriarchal socialization and not hear it as a condemnation of yourself as a person … You need to be able to listen and be self-critical without shutting down because it makes you feel worthless.

When did you move to Bloomington? Did you live in a house that did shows?

I lived there from 2003-2005. We did some quiet shows occasionally. I lived with people who were in Defiance Ohio, Matty Pop Chart, Erin Tobey. Chris Clavin and I lived together in Bloominton, too, who plays in Ghost Mice and runs Plan-it-X. Madeline Adams who has the solo project Madeline was living in Bloomington then, and Theo Hilton who started Nana Grizol. It did just seem like a bunch of buddies who would just hang out and play each other songs on acoustic guitars. But because it was also happening during this moment when Against Me was getting really popular, having started out as an acoustic guitar solo punk band, there was attention from different pockets, in different parts of the country. People who were paying attention to the Bloomington scene and inviting Spoonboy or Erin Tobey or Madeline to travel around the country.

There was this folk punk network, which was not disconnected from other DIY punk networks. But it definitely seemed like a new shade of it that started happening. At the time, we weren’t even really calling it folk punk. It just became a genre and then people talked about all these other folk punk bands that would pop up that weren’t part of the Bloomington scene. It did seem like the Bloomington scene in that moment was sparking the development of that genre. Certainly this many years removed I feel totally alienated from what folk punk as a genre is popularly understood to be now, versus what we thought we were doing ten years ago.

When I was younger I was really inspired by the intensely dedicated idealism of that scene. What else was inspiring about that time to you?

One thing that I think is crucial to understanding that scene is that in 1999, activists, a lot of whom were punks, shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. You can’t really understate that event. There was a huge feeling that anarchists and radical left activists were building power and expressing power and trying to create a revolutionary movement. In retrospect there are a lot of things to be critical about. A really protest-centric political movement was quite easy for a hyper-militarized country to figure out how to squash.

At the same time, there was a lot of  idealism about what that protest movement was able to accomplish. Punks who were some of the same people organizing – I helped organize protests in DC and organized people getting from Indiana to go to protests in other places. It was all kind of intermixed, so the music we were writing was a lot through that lens of trying to be optimistic about what you can do in a DIY way. DIY shut down the fucking globalization conference. It was about enthusiasm for that kind of power we felt like we were building . It was very easy to then look at our DIY punk houses and romanticize them maybe to the point of it being revolutionary. Whether or not you think that’s true, that was definitely the feeling.

I also think it’s interesting to trace the kind of de-politicization of punk that kind of happened in the mid 2000s. There was this moment when the idealism of folk punk was pretty widely accepted. Whether you were into pop punk or crust metal, it wasn’t that weird to also have a Ghost Mice patch on your leather jacket or whatever. But then later, there was culturally a little bit of backlash against that idealism. Which makes sense, because what we saw happening politically was  the Iraq War, which kind of put the nail in the coffin of thinking protest movements could build power. At least in that late 90s way that people were doing it. There were more fucking people doing direct action and getting in the streets to stop the Iraq War than ever, and it didn’t do shit. That was then reflected. People turned away from music that was idealistic, and talking about building power.

Do you still do some activist organizing? 

I’m honestly much not as involved in protest organizing and on the ground activism as I once was. But being in DC, and being around politics, you’re also hanging out with people involved with non profit organizations, people involved in reform campaigns, people holding radical views and expressing them through their day jobs. There’s a lot of people who are working on really localized campaigns. We also have Positive Force here which is an interesting part of punk history here. It’s really ingrained in the DC music scene that punk shows can be benefits for activist organization. I definitely think of that as a part of my work as a musician, to keep in mind how to support organizations that are doing more explicit activist work. And how the music scene can raise money, raise awareness. And just be a space that nourishes people doing political work when they want to go to a punk show or a party and be surrounded by people who understand the work that they are doing.

What else are you excited about right now?

It feels pretty cool to have closure around the project, and to have it be a body of work that stands on its own. I have three bands I’m working on right now, which I am pretty excited about: The Max Levine Ensemble, the punk band I’ve played in since high school. We have a new album coming out this fall. There’s SOMNIA, a cross coastal song writing project with Erica Freas from RVIVR and some other talented folks from Olympia, who also has a record coming out. And I’ve started practicing with a new yet to be named DC band Daoud Tyler-Ameen of Art Sorority for Girls and Emma Cleveland, who has been a treasured Spoonboy collaborator.

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