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Issue`: September 1991

Spanky Lee

333

"Our mom can sing great," Mark Maxwell said, "and she used to play the piano when she was younger, (and she) used to sing all the time in church."

"We sang in church, too," his brother Max Maxwell chimed in.

"That's how Max and I really got started, Mark continued. "They (the boys' parents, Beverly and Marvin Maxwell) started taking us to church when I was in the sixth grade. And I hated it, but we learned to sing. We were in the choir."

The four members of the band Spanky Lee were gathered for this interview in the upstairs recording studio of the Maxwell family business, Mom's Musician's General Store on Frankfort Avenue.

Max, who plays drums and provides harmony vocals, and Mark, lead vocalist and guitar player, were joined by Chip Adams, bass guitarist and harmony singer, and Chuck Mingis, lead guitarist and harmony singer.

Mark Maxwell paused between sets at Strassenfest '91. Photo by Jean Metcalfe

The guys gleefully took Mark to task for saying he hated to go church.

"Hated going to church," one said.

"I hate Jee-sus," Max teased. "That's what you said."

"No, Max, don't say that," Mark chided, then laughed as he tried to explain:

"I am a believer in God. It's just that ... I'd much rather ... go fishin'."

Max confessed, "Mark and I sat up in the choir drawing pictures of big stacks of Marshalls (amplifiers) and big double-bass drum sets, goin', 'This is what I want our stage to look like.'"

Besides minding the store, Marvin Maxwell plays drums for The Kingbees and The Shufflin'Grandads. In the sixties he filled that position in such well-known local groups as Elysian Field and Soul, Inc.

Beverly Maxwell works in the family business, as does Max and Mark's younger sister, Margot. She isn't interested in pursuing a career in music.

I asked the Maxwell brothers if being the sons of Marvin Maxwell made the music business more difficult or less difficult for them.

Mark spoke to the question. He said that in times past some people have said, "Oh yeah, those are the Maxwell boys, they've got everything."

"But," he added, "I think nowadays, more and more, it's getting away from that. I think they understand that we're working just as hard ... If your dad owns a car lot you get a good deal on a car," Mark said.

Max Maxwell drumming with Rhino Ivory and the Monkey Paws at Rascals on April 14, 1990. Photo by Jean Metcalfe

"And it doesn't mean you know how to drive it either," Chip piped in.

Mark went on to say that there are many people in Louisville whose fathers are in the music business and they choose not to go into the music business.

"We choose (to be in the music business), we enjoy doing what we do, we work very hard at it ... every person in this band .... It's not the case ... being Marvin Maxwell's sons, even though he's the greatest father in the whole world. He is really great. He has taught us everything. He has been great to each one of us, and he's a father to all of us in one way or another. It's great being his son, I'll tell you that. I'm not ashamed of it."

Mark admitted that early on he did have a bit of "an attitude" about it and didn't know what to say when it was mentioned.

"Now I say, 'Yeah, man, I'm darn proud of it.'

"We don't get anything free, believe me. We pay money (for studio time, etc.), believe me. It's not like we get off easy. It's just not."

Chip Adams autographed Shawn Abbott's jeans at Strassenfest '91

Max took his turn:

"It's harder on me than it is on him (Mark) because Marvin is known more as a drummer than anything else, and it was hard for me to get respect from anybody ... from a musician point of view.

"Most of the public, they don't know what's going on. They think Spanky Lee is this band. They understand that there's this store. But a lot of them don't even know that our father owns this store. They just think we work here."

"I've got to live up to what my father already has going on here. (People say or think) 'Oh, he's Marvin's son. He should be able to play good.' ... I just gotta keep fightin' and keep trying to learn new things in order for anybody to go 'Hey, this guy is actually pretty good.' Nobody can give you your talent. Nobody can give that to you. ... It has made me work a lot harder."

The group that was to become Spanky Lee started in late 1984 with Stuart Johnson and Mark Maxwell, who were writing songs together in the summer of 1984.

"My dad always told me, 'You're never gonna get any further than the local club scene if you don't write tunes,'" Mark related.

Although Stuart was a fine drummer, Mark told him that in their band he would have to learn to play bass because "I gotta have my brother play drums."

Chuck Mingus relaxed between sets at Strassenfest on August 10.

Very soon they started auditioning for another guitarist.

"It was really weird," Mark said, "because I was opening the door to let one guy out and here came Chuck, walked into the room, and we all just kinda turned to each other and (then) said (to Chuck) 'You got the job.' We didn't know what he could play like. We were sold on him ... I guess he was probably sixteen years old (Chuck corrected Mark, saying that he was 17). ... He wasn't like anything we'd seen ... or heard ... once we started playing with him."

After playing with the trio for a few years, Chuck left.

"More my fault than his," Mark said.

The guys had been trying to think of a band name very early on, Mark related. One night while he and some friends were at a Jerry's restaurant, one of the guys, referring to someone he knew, said, "Spanky, he plays lead guitar."

Stuart, their first bass player, then said, "Spanky Lee."

Later as they were walking to the parking lot, Mark thought, 'What a great name for a band.'

"It just kinda hit me like a door, I guess," he said.

There is no connection with Pinky Lee, an entertainer from some years back, or the character Spanky of "Our Gang" movie fame.

"It absolutely means nothing," Mark said emphatically.

"If we had known there was a Pinky Lee, we wouldn't have called it Spanky Lee," Mark said. (Later they admitted that since the name is easy for people to remember, they were lucky to have chosen it.)

HAAAIR'S SPANKY: Chuck and Mark, Max and Chip, Strassenfest '91. Photo by Jean Metcalfe

After Chuck's departure the Maxwell brothers' cousin Scott Caudill joined the group as the bass player. They played with Scott for a while and also, for a short time, with guitarist Shane Hunter. That combination didn't quite work, and the guys realized it had been a mistake to let Chuck get away.

"And so we got Chuck back, thank God," Mark said.

"So I was working on my solo projects," the usually quiet Chuck said. His tongue-in-cheek description of how he spent his time before returning to the group brought forth peals of laughter from the Spanky Lee quartet.

Chuck defined those solo projects: "Actually I cut my hair and was washing dishes for a living."

After he learned that Shane had left the band, he said, "I called them."

Finding themselves without a bass player, they took on Tim Halcomb for about six months. (Halcomb later played with the popular, short-lived group Mr. Popular, and for a while with Rhino Ivory and the Monkey Paws.)

"That's when ... we tried to go in a more alternative direction ... we were still rock 'n' roll ... but we were trying to go with what we thought was the 'in' thing at the time and that was the first mistake we made," Mark said.

"We felt like we were going places because we had such a great following," he added.

"This band has had from day one ... a really great following. And thanks to those people, they kept us alive for the last six of seven years. We're all still very young ("lower- to mid-twenties," they said) which is the greatest thing about it."

They tried several things, including adding keyboards, played by several different people, but couldn't get the right feel back in the band. They decided to take some time off.

It was during that time that Max and Chip met. They were scheduled to play on the same album project in Florida. Max offered to pick up Chip in Lexington, where he was living at the time, and together they made the trip south in Max's van.

Meanwhile, Mark and Chuck were writing songs.

Max spent about four months in Hollywood, Calif., playing music with former Spanky Lee band members Scott Caudill and Shane Hunter. The young men had gone west to pursue the music business. Max had several job offers, but he didn't take to the lifestyle there.

"I didn't really like the living situation out there. ... I liked it here better, and it was easier to survive here."

"I called them and said, 'I'm leaving, I'm coming back, I want to put the band back together, I want Chip to play, and let's do it this way. And so I came back and we put the band together," Max said.

Prior to meeting Max, Chip had also once moved to California to pursue the music business, he said.

Vintage Spanky Lee: L to R, Mark Maxwell, Chuck Mingus, Max Maxwell and Scott Caudill

"I was actually looking for players, and that's what's ironic about meeting Max ... I'd been everywhere. I thought 'If I can find a drummer that I can work with, then I can take it from there,'" Chip said.

He had "kinda gotten fed up with the scene and kinda got into New Age for a while. I was doing some recording at home and stuff," he told me, "and I had kinda given up ... (and thought) 'Well, I'm not gonna find my drummer that I'm looking for. I'll just take the next offer that comes along ... and when I met Max, it was like, wow! I'd spent years looking for this drummer, and he came right to me, in a way. ... That was my goal, to put that together, and we hit it off very well ... I knew that I'd found the drummer that I had wanted for a long time. ... We knew we wanted to do something together. We weren't sure exactly what was going to happen, but eventually (they became part of Spanky Lee)."

At one time Chip had put together a band called Contour. He also played with a band called Tangent, and others, most of them cover bands. He had wanted to have an all-original band, but couldn't find any good writers.

"Finding good players is very hard to do. Finding good chemistry is hard to do. But then finding all that in a group ... is probably the hardest thing in the world to find."

When Max returned from the West Coast the group rehearsed for about a month before reviving Spanky Lee, and that same combination has been together ever since.

"At the time that we were first starting the band the scene was different. All the bands helped each other all the time and there was a lot of teen things going on," Max said.

"That's really where it started for us," Mark added, and Max agreed.

"When we first started," Mark explained, "we were kinda a half-and-half (half cover, half originals). We did some cover tunes, but only by choice in the songs we wanted to use.

Approximately five years ago, when the guys were "probably a couple of years into it," they made an important on-stage decision:

"We had done the whole show original," Mark said, and they walked back to where Max was seated at his drums and said to him, 'Okay, what tune are we going to do?'

Mark said they wanted to "kinda knock 'em down, you know, come out and kill 'em."

Mark described what transpired:

"Max said 'No cover tunes.' And I got scared."

Nevertheless they did an original tune for their final number, Mark said, "and people dug it, and from that day on we have mainly played all original. And that's been pretty exciting for me, because I don't know of many bands who've gotten away with (playing originals at) ... major clubs."

"We have two or three solid hours of original material. Actually, we have three one-hour sets of original material. I think all of us work so hard to make this band what it is. Everybody's got their plusses. We work well together," Mark said.

Although all four of the members of Spanky Lee write songs, they don't try to play everything they write, because some of the originals don't fit their band.

"We all have our different influences," Mark emphasized. "Everybody writes."

"Mark writes the majority of the good stuff, in my opinion, anyway," Chip said, adding, "I think he's the highest caliber songwriter I've ever met in my life."

"Not that I'm a great songwriter," Mark chimed in, "I write a lot."

They write in many different member combinations, which accounts for the diversity of the tunes they write.

Said Chip, "That way you've got something different, every song that comes out."

"Chuck and I have written quite a few of the songs together," Mark said, "and he comes with an idea and I just help him finish it."

Because the band has been playing a lot of gigs recently, they find it difficult to get together to write as a group.

"If we didn't have to worry about, number one, day jobs; if we didn't have to worry about just a lot of the other hassles outside of it; if we could actually work on music all the time, I'm sure it would become more of just the band working (writing) together," Mark explained.

"When I write a song, I write lyrics and I write melody and I write a chord progression," Mark continued, "but when the groove goes in the band, man it can turn around like that, and it can be a really hit song out of something I didn't think was any good."

"Everybody does their part, and that's what matters," Chip said.

All four agreed that teamwork is what makes the band work.

"If you don't do that, if you don't do that, that's where the band's gonna get hurt, eventually," Mark emphasized. "Everybody here works so hard for each song we do it blows me away. It doesn't matter who brings it in, the rest of the guys, man, just throw in so much of themselves ... I think a lot of times with bands, people will hold back, and I don't understand that. ... My songs, in my opinion, would not be nearly as good if it wasn't for these guys playing on it," Mark said.

I commented on the high energy Spanky Lee exhibits onstage.

"I'll tell you what it is. I think it's just havin' fun." Mark asserted.

"It's not only that," Max said, "It's (because) right now, we don't care (to the exclusion of all else) ... the record label and things goin' on. Before we were so one-sided, like, 'We have to get a record deal. We have to get a record deal. We said p--s on all that. Let's just go have fun and play music. That's what we're in this to do is have fun. And now we're finally loosening up enough to have a real good time, and people like us a lot better because we're havin' a good time."

Mark said, "I think it came to me more than anybody, because these guys had ... course, Max and I ... everybody wanted it ... everybody wants a good deal. But there's been too many bands that fall by the wayside that depended their lives on that. They did. And ... now that we've said, 'Aw, to hell with that ... we're just gonna play and we're gonna be friends,' because that's very important, especially now to me. Because for so long all I wanted for was the kill. I wanted to have it. But everybody in this town wanted it that way. But for us ... we just say 'If we get the deal, great, we get the deal. It's not that we don't want one. ... We're just out there, man, we're playin' our tunes. We're writin' tunes. We're havin' a ball playin'. Saturday night we were at the Strassenfest. You were there. It was a packed place. It was great. Everybody on stage ... we just felt that band vibe ... like we've been feelin' for the last six-eight months. It's been extremely great." Mark said.

Max added, "We're playin' music that we wanna play. All of us. Most cover bands, or even a lot of original bands, aren't playing some of the material that they like to play. They're not enjoying what they're doing, and I think the only way that we're really gonna get a record (deal) like we all really dream about having ... is from being ourselves. And the only way we can be ourselves is if we can all be happy. And the only way we can be happy is doing what we want to do."

"Not to say that there is a constant happiness in this band," Mark emphasized, "because we're probably crazy anyway, and we know that. (Laughter) I guess if there wasn't that craziness here we wouldn't have survived so long. I mean, we're a band that's been together for six or seven years."

Chip said, "You only live once, you know. I see so many musician friends of mine, they spend five, six, ten, twenty years sellin' out, doin' everything they possibly can, you know, paying people off, whatever. And then when it doesn't happen, they look back and go, 'Man, I wasted ten or twenty years of my life on that, and now I hate music.'

"I don't ever want that to happen to anybody in this band. If we get nuked tomorrow, I wanna look back and say, 'Man, guys, we had a good time last night at the show, didn't we?' We had a real good time, we played good and we had fun and we did what we were believin' in.' And Max said this one time: 'You can't make somebody else happy if you're not happy yourself.'"

I commended them for having reached that conclusion so early in their lives.

"We thank God for it," Mark said.

"It's from too many people tellin' us no," Max said.

"We've heard "no" more than any other band in the entire world," Mark declared.

"It's that big roller coaster ride everybody takes. Some people get sick of it and have to get off. Man, we're still ridin'," Mark further added.

"We're also taking things somewhat in smaller steps than some people want to take them. We're not trying to do something that we know that we can't reach. We're doing things one step at a time, real small steps, because if you try to take that big leap right off the bat, it's disappointment," Max further explained.

Mark said that Chip had taught him a lot about that.

"Man, enjoy it, we got it today, we've got something happening, we have a lot of good people coming out to see us, people enjoy what we're doing, we're alive, we're well ..."

"We're getting to travel," Max added. He always seems to inject a little humor when Mark gets intense.

Mark continued, "We're getting to go out and play different clubs, and play places that most bands don't have the chance ...."

"We had never really been on the road too much," Max explained, "and we all thought that that was going to be such a drag ... and for me ... it's like being on vacation ... it's really great."

Mark named some of the places they had traveled to: Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis, where they went to Sun Recording Studios.

"We were playing a block down the street from Sun, where it all happened."

There are tentative plans to play in New York.

"It's like being kids again," Chip said. "When we get ready to leave, we all put our shorts on and get a big cooler full of stuff and scream and holler. It's the greatest fun in the world."

Their enthusiasm was contagious, as they described traveling to out-of-town gigs. I happily noted that they frequently said this experience or that experience was "the greatest thing in the whole world." There was no evidence that they had become jaded, although theirs was the voice of experience in many areas where that is an important trait.

Max, who is two years older than Mark, started playing drums when he was ten years old. Referring to his choice of instruments, rather than to his choice of a career, Max said, "I had to ... pretty much. I wanted to play something else, but he (his drummer father) wanted me to play drums, so I played drums."

At age eight Mark remembers Max playing drums, "and I just thought that's the thing I should do."

"I wanted to play drums later on, but Max was already playing drums, so I couldn't play drums."

Max: "This is all I ever wanted to do. Hell, we saw the Rolling Stones on TV and we listened to Rolling Stones albums when we were kids ... and that's all I knew.

"I knew the Partridge Family," Mark quipped, "and the Monkees. They were my first influence. And then Kiss came along."

"H.R. Puffenstuff," Chip chimed in, eliciting laughter from all who were gathered in the second-floor recording studio at Mom's.

Max: "All I ever wanted to do was play in big rooms and play for millions of people and have them all love me. (Max's almost tongue-in-cheek, sing-song tone when he suggested that he just wanted to be loved brought much laughter.

"I wasn't doing it because I wanted money ... I didn't want any girls, (we had talked earlier about how musicians seem to "get the girls.") I just wanted people to love me," he reiterated.

When the other three teased Max about his statement, he clarified, "Too young to know about girls, man."

Mark came to Max's defense: "I know Max and I, we wanted, and we still want, to play in front of lots of people. That's where it's at."

Mark: "I'll tell you the truth, if I would've gotten in this thing for money, all of us would've quit twenty years ago ... before we were born (exaggerating to make his point.)"

"We ... want ... to work," Chip amened, "that's what all this is about."

"We want to record," Mark added. "We love to record. We love to play live, but we are so into creating an idea and putting it down on tape ... that it's ridiculous."

They have recorded two albums. Their first effort, an EP titled It's Time, was recorded in 1989 around Kentucky State Fair time.

Chip remembers the time frame because it was shortly after he joined the band and he told them "we're going to do this all original ... or I quit."

According to Max, they made up only 500 copies of It's Time, all of which they sold at their performances during the ten-day run of the fair.

"And there's never going to be another copy of it," Chip said.

"We sold everything. We were sellin' our shoes ...," Chip said.

"Everything we could get ahold of ...," Mark added.