Spotlights have been a force of sublime creativity on the New York underground scene for a decade. Paul Castles talks about the band, and their remarkable new album Alchemy For The Dead, with vocalist/guitarist Mario Quintero.
ZT: Hi Mario, thanks for chatting with Zero Tolerance. Congratulations on the stunning new album, Alchemy For The Dead. It sounds like an emotionally draining record to work on – How are you all feeling about it now?
Thank you! Feeling pretty good about it now. Really glad to see that it’s connecting well with people. It’s always a scary thing, putting something creative out into the world. Once it’s out, it’s out of your hands and up to everyone else to decide what it is. I always have a hard time during the writing and production process because I’m so close to it all. Being that I mostly write and produce, record, mix and manage our music, I get stuck in tunnel vision and can’t really see the big picture, until it’s finally out. So It’s a relief to be at this stage.
ZT: Were these songs you had been working on for a while or did things come together fairly quickly?
A bit of both. There are a couple of songs (Tracks 1 and 8) that were written in 2014! A few ideas that were written throughout 2020/21 and then a few that were written within the last year. I always keep most of the ideas/songs that I write, even if they don’t end up on a particular album when written. So when I’m in writing mode, I usually go through the archives and listen to old ideas. It sometimes just helps spark new ideas and in this case sometimes is the perfect time for that old song to finally be finished. Once I have all the basic ideas that will be on the record then I really go through and finish writing the songs as a whole with the intent of being part of one album.
ZT: It’s a heavy album in every sense, what kind of vibe and atmospherics were you looking to achieve?
I appreciate that. Well, the main focus when we started thinking about a new album, was to not repeat ourselves. We really didn’t want to just make another ‘Spotlights’ album. I think with our last three albums we grew a particular sound and though we’re really proud of those albums It just seemed redundant to do the same thing again. So the first way we did that was with the production approach. We made an effort to try new things while recording. I really wanted a tighter, more focused sound so we did a lot of work using different drums and drum kits. We also recorded the cymbals separate from the drums on most of the album so we could have more control over the sounds. Also once the theme of the album started to develop It felt like it called for a darker more dreary sound/vibe. A lot of the songs are pretty dark lyrically and musically so we tried to retain that ‘haunted’ sound throughout the album.
ZT: To what extent do some of these songs stem from your own life experiences?
I think all art is inspired through what you experience in life, but I rarely use specific events as inspiration. In this case the theme of Death is more of a philosophical, human look at a truly unavoidable thing. Although there are songs that come from a very personal place for me, I prefer that people interpret our music through their own experiences.
ZT: Spotlights moved to New York about 10 years ago – has the city shaped and influenced your sound?
I think our move to NYC definitely influenced us as a band. That’s really where we started to find out what Spotlights was going to be. Again, although I can’t really pin-point specifics, all the energy of the city and just being in a new environment felt like it produced a lot of music for us. Same for us moving to Pittsburgh in 2018. I think any move or major change in your life is a good way to keep you interesting and interested as an artist.
ZT: What is the biggest lifestyle change since leaving Brooklyn for Pittsburgh?
Comfort, more money, happiness. Hahah. By the time we left Brooklyn, we couldn’t wait to leave. Trying to be a small touring band like ourselves is not conducive to living there. We’re in our 40s and really don’t do too much going out to clubs or whatever, so we didn’t really need to be there. Since moving to Pittsburgh, our stress levels have plummeted, and we can afford to have a comfortable life. We still have to work, of course. Sarah (Quintero, bass/vocals) bartends and I’ve worked odd jobs if mix/recording work is slow. But neither of us have to kill ourselves just to pay rent. I never thought I’d own a house! And here we were able to do that. I was able to build a studio at home where I can work, so I’m actually working WAY more now, which is great. Ironically most of my clients are from NY.
ZT: How did things roll in the studio with the new album – smoothly?
Yeah! We don’t usually do the traditional sort of recording, where we’re all in a studio recording together. Being at home is nice because we’re not counting down the hours. Chris (Enriquez, drums) and I recorded drums over five days and then Sarah and I did bass/guitars/vocals over the next few weeks. Then I mixed on my own and just sent them mixes as I went. It can get stressful for me when mixing my own albums because I’m so close to the whole thing. This album was no exception. If anything, one of the hardest ones is my emotional state. But in the end it all came out well.
ZT: This is your fourth album; how do you think the band has grown since your debut?
I think we’ve all grown as people and musically. Of course, after playing about 300 shows together, we are really comfortable on stage with each other and with our audience. We’ve become really close with Chris too, and see him as family. Like I said before, I think what keeps us going is the fact that we are trying to push ourselves to not be boring to ourselves. We really strive to be our own favorite band and write our own favorite song. It’s a good way to stay honest and interested.
ZT: This US tour coming up is massive – a couple of months on the road, how are you feeling about that?
We can’t wait! After being stuck at home for so long it’s gonna feel good to travel around again. We did a couple of short tours last year, but now, having a new album out and a proper tour, we’re all ready to go. Hopefully people feel the same and come join us!
ZT: And playing with Melvins at some point too?
Yes, with Melvins AND Mr. Bungle! That’s the West Coast portion.
ZT: Any European dates planned?
We’re working hard to make that happen. We just started working with a new agent and it seems like he’s the right person to finally get us back there. If all goes well, we will be there later this year in the fall/winter.
ZT: The Alchemist is a brilliantly haunting song, what can you tell us about it?
Thanks! That was the first song that was written specifically for this album. It sort of set the stage for what the album would be musically and thematically. It’s a story about a deranged maniac who stalks and murders his victims with the intent of bringing them back from the dead. All in hopes of finding his one true love. In my mind this (and other songs on the album) take place in Victorian times. With the aesthetic of elaborate, decorative beauty mixed with dirt, darkness and despair.
ZT: Repeat The Silence is another spinetingling number…
This song took me a while to get into, but it’s one of my favorites on the album now. It’s about the fact that humans are a curse, and our self-induced, inevitable apocalypse caused by our self importance, and the need to overpopulate the planet. As well as the hypocrisy of internet warriors who are in a battle to out ‘woke’ each other, while consuming products made by children and eating animals raised to suffer their entire lives, only to be killed and cut into pretty little meat packages.
ZT: How serious are your aspirations for Spotlights?
I suppose very serious! I’ve never wanted to do anything else in my life other than play music. The only other thing I enjoy as much is mixing records. As far as goals for the band, I hope we can keep making music we love for as long as we are able to. We didn’t start this band to get rich or famous. Of course, being able to only tour and make records and support ourselves, would be a dream come true. But regardless, we will keep making music and doing our best to play it live for people who will listen.
ZT: If you had to name just one or two bands you really admire and respect, who would spring to mind? Can I suggest The Pixies!
YES! I’m so glad you mentioned the Pixies! They are by far one of my favorites, but I always forget to mention them when asked in interviews. For me personally, The Cure is my number one and has been since I was 10 years old. Not only musically but Robert Smith’s approach to being in a band is inspiring. Jane’s Addiction is another band that was a huge part of my musical upbringing. I know you said only one or two but I have to add Helmet and Jawbox in there as well..haha.
ZT: Thanks for chatting Mario, we’ll sign off with your video for the wonderful track, ‘Sunset Burial’.
Alchemy For The Dead is released on 29 April via Ipecac Recordings