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Q&A: Luke Spiller on the Struts’ Quarantine Album ‘Strange Days,’ Working with Def Leppard, Tom Morello, Robbie Williams & More
Luke Spiller tapped into the zeitgeist of the current pandemic when he wrote “Strange Days” on tour last summer. During the title track to The Struts’ vivacious third album, he sings (alongside guest Robbie Williams):
In many strange ways, science fiction, I believe, has become reality/Oh, these are strange times/Lost in our minds/We don’t know/It’s unclear/Where we’ll be this time next year
“It just goes to show that if inspiration hits, you’ve got to capture it, because a year down the line, you might end up listening to a voice memo you left on your phone or a video that you recorded and it can come [into good] use,” says the singer, in a phone interview from England. “That song definitely applied. It’s funny how the journey goes.”
Formed in 2012, The Struts provided a vital injection of Seventies-styled glam rock spirit, not to mention a riveting front man in Spiller, who often seemed to channel Freddie Mercury onstage. They emerged with full-length debut Everybody Wants two years later and have notched five Top 30 hits at alternative radio in America since.
This past September, The Struts served as halftime entertainment at Soccer Aid for UNICEF UK. They performed “Strange Days” with a larger-than-life hologram version of Williams (a co-founder of the annual charity benefit game between athletes and celebs).
But due to COVID-19 travel and visa restrictions, the Los Angeles-based group was holed up in its native country due to another COVID-19 lockdown.
“Obviously, it was a really big deal, and we couldn’t say ‘no,’ explains Spiller, 32. “We went to leave and now we’re kind of stuck.”
Soon after, Strange Days entered the national U.K. album chart at No. 11 — the highest placement of The Struts’ career.
Last spring, Spiller, guitarist Adam Slack, bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies tested negative for the coronavirus. Then they entered the Southern California home studio of producer Jon Levine and crafted all the new songs in a whirlwind. The thoroughly engaging effort is among this year’s strongest releases.
Get the lowdown below.
Rock Cellar: What is the early consensus among fans about the album?
Luke Spiller: For anyone who’s ever wanted to hear The Struts in slightly more of a raw setting, with attributes that come with us playing live, then Strange Days is the album for them. Admittedly, it probably doesn’t have a collection of the most well-crafted, massive songs. But it was a moment in time that was captured. The whole point of the album was that we weren’t going to spend four or five days on one song, which is normally what myself, Adam and our producer would typically do. It was a very different process and therefore gave us a different album.
Rock Cellar: Congrats on the title track to the new album being your biggest debuting single to date in the U.K.
Luke Spiller: Technically, it was our only debut out of the U.K.
Rock Cellar: You did an Instagram Live with Robbie Williams and hit it off so well that you immediately decided to collaborate. What was it like going to the front porch of his Los Angeles home to record the duet and video while being aware of social distancing?
Luke Spiller: I’m glad it paid off. You just never know how these things are going to turn out. Robbie was so gracious with his time and so enthusiastic. We were able to shoot an incredible video. That was a lot of late nights drinking over the phone with director Chris Applebaum trying to come up with a concept.
Rock Cellar: While this album was made under unique circumstances, it ended up working to your advantage and sounds like a revitalized Struts. Do you agree?
Luke Spiller: Well, the whole entire thing was a giant experiment — whether it was the circumstances in which it was made or the fact that it was just the band members and one producer, one studio, one set timeline. That was it. All of the [guest appearances] and everything were stuff that we collectively wanted to do.
Then I had a very strong vision on how it should be presented and how it should be approached. I think it’s gonna be a little bit tough for the band to step backwards and make a record in the same way that we have done in the past — which has been very arduous and normally done in between the touring and whatnot. I think there’s something to be said [about giving] people a small space of time to achieve something and the fact that you know you have these parameters. Having a deadline to work towards definitely helps.
Rock Cellar: In the liner notes to Strange Days, you wrote that you had a creative breakthrough in part because you guys weren’t under any obligation to make a full album and everything flowed more naturally as a result. Do you think that sense of freedom is evident throughout the album?
Luke Spiller: Yeah, definitely. I remember there was one very special moment, I think it was maybe the third day in, where we wrote ‘Cool.’ It’s amazingly upbeat and exciting, but towards the end, it sort of just goes off on this jam, which in the studio, felt right. We were all playing together and it was a lot of fun.
I think if we were under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have done that. We would’ve been like, ‘Radio’s never going to be able to play it’ or ‘What are people going to say because it’s got some real potential? Maybe this could be a single.’ Normally, we would chop fat off when it comes to songs. But with this, it was like, ‘Yeah, it feels good, man. This is our moment. This is our ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking.’ This is our ‘L.A. Woman.’ Let’s have some fun and show everyone else what we can do.’
Rock Cellar: Since the four of you lived and recorded this album together at the same time, did it have any effect on the band dynamic? Did you learn anything new about each other?
Luke Spiller: We know each other very well and it’s kind of hard not to when we’ve toured as much as we have together. What I would say is it was the first time in a very long while where the band was pretty much by themselves. We didn’t have any tour managers, there were no girlfriends, no managers, no one else from our exterior entourage that we normally break away and do things with. It was very much the four of us and John and the engineer. We hadn’t been that close, probably since before we came to the United States about six years ago.
It was a refreshing experience.
Rock Cellar: Jed has referred to the process of a making the album as like being at summer camp.
Luke Spiller: I’d like to know how many summer camps Jed has actually been on!
Feeling very grateful this year despite the wild ride it has been. Thank you to each and every one of you for supporting us and allowing us to do what we do, even in these #StrangeDays. Much love x pic.twitter.com/owB9mY4bje
— The Struts (@TheStruts) November 26, 2020
Rock Cellar: You’ve also said this batch of song lyrics seemed to fall from the sky. Did you find it easier to write since there wasn’t any pressure?
Luke Spiller: Yeah, lyrically, I had worked tirelessly a few weeks leading up to the sessions … I did a huge amount of work and prep before going into the studio with titles, concepts, mountains of lyrics. Even melodies and stuff. But I think what was different this time around was that I chose to write lyrically from a much more personal perspective — something that I’ve rarely done, because I felt that I’m not very interesting.
But I’m getting to an age now where I can really draw from my own experiences and make them relatable. I hope I do, anyway.
Rock Cellar: “I Hate How Much I Want You,” with the gang chant chorus featuring Joe Elliott and guitar by Phil Collen, is tailor made for audience participation in concert. Does that spirit ever come into mind when you’re writing choruses?
Luke Spiller: Sometimes I tend to sit at the piano and wave my arms in the air when I’m singing [laughs]. It does help. I imagine it. I channel it. If I can imagine a big crowd singing it, then yeah, it tends to stick.
Rock Cellar: Were you really excited when Joe and Phil agreed to contribute to the song?
Luke Spiller: The entire process was unreal. Being in such close contact with people like that — all of them. The writing process as well. It was all a bit of a headfuck. I remember waking up about five days into it and I literally couldn’t believe the amount of material that was being made and the quality on top of that. I was also texting Tom Morello, Albert Hammond Jr., Robbie Williams, the guys from Def Leppard, and giving them little updates. They were like, ‘Can’t wait to hear it.’
It was all very surreal.
Rock Cellar: Did everyone you asked agree to participate right away?
Luke Spiller: Some things had to be ironed out ever so slightly, but for showbiz [sake], I’ll say it all went absolutely smoothly.
Rock Cellar: I know you’re a Harley-Davidson enthusiast. On the Deep Purple-meets-Stones riff rocker “All Dressed Up (with Nowhere to Go),” you sing “Headlights glowing like the sun/all revved up with nowhere to run.” Is that your homage to motorcycles?
Luke Spiller: Yeah, it’s an homage to two things. The song’s written about my motorcycle. Then it’s also a little tip of the hat to Jim Steinman who wrote “All Revved Up with Nowhere to Go” [from Meat Loaf’s 1977 hit album Bat Out of Hell]. I know that he’s a motorbike enthusiast as well … Normally, I might have second guessed it and thought, ‘Oh, it’s a little to close to Jim and Meatloaf.’ But I think it’s cool. I’m a huge fan of Jim. He’s probably one of my favorite songwriters of all time.
Rock Cellar: The band did a fine job on the stomping KISS cover, “Do You Love Me.” I read that you were actually more inspired by the 1980 version by glam metal band Girl with Phil Collen. When you record a cover, do you find it hard to walk a fine line between keeping the spirit of the original intact and making it your own?
Luke Spiller: Yeah, this is why we tend not to really do a whole lot of covers unless it’s live. We recorded a version of Van Halen’s ‘Dancing in the Street,’ but that was for the paycheck. We’d been approached by Dodge and they asked if we could give it a go. We were like ‘Yeah, sure. It’ll keep food in our mouths for another six months.’
With this one, I genuinely felt inspired to throw it into the mix. Originally, I wanted Joe and Phil on that song. I thought it might be really nice for it all to come full circle. But they politely declined. I’m glad they did, because ‘I Hate How Much I Want You’ became so much better of a song once they got their parts on.
Rock Cellar: The jangly “Another Hit of Showmanship” with Hammond is a real earworm and the slinky album closer “Am I Talking to the Champagne (or Talking to You)” is a standout. For the latter song, were you going after a late 1970s, Stonesy, “Miss You”-type vibe?
Luke Spiller: Of course! I mean, I’m a massive Stones fan. I’ve always been interested about what the band can do in terms of The Struts’ wheelhouse. I’ve always described The Struts as having the sophistication of Queen mixed with the swagger of the Rolling Stones. By the time we had started working up ‘Champagne,’ it went [into] a couple different styles and took awhile to massage it to get to where it ended up being.
At that point, we definitely wanted to have something that was super sexy and had that kind of groove to it because we can do it and get away with it. I think we can do it well and put our own spin on it. I love it and am really proud of my lyrics on that one.
Rock Cellar: Last August, the band did a pair of drive-in gigs in Pennsylvania. How was that experience?
Luke Spiller: It was different, but it was better than doing nothing. If we get the chance to do them again, I’m sure we’ll jump at the chance because it’s nice to get up on the stage. It’s great to be around our crew, which is our family away from home. And it’s nice to see the fans, even if it’s at a distance. It was a really cool experience. Obviously, you can’t beat the real thing. But it’s strange days.
Rock Cellar: Because the band has toured steadily throughout its career, do you think everyone is a lot tighter musically than when you started?
Luke Spiller: Absolutely. I think the album is a testament to that. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we had without all of these years underneath our belts and the experience we’ve gained through endless touring. I’m talking about 120-150 minimum shows a year. It’s been like that for six years. You can definitely hear it in the music — the way we all play together. We have all these sixth senses of what we like to do, where to go and how we like to communicate.
Rock Cellar: In the past, you’ve opened for legendary acts like The Stones and The Who. Did you learn anything about stage presence and keeping a crowd in the palm of your hand by watching those legends?
Luke Spiller: I think I had [all the fans] in the palm of my hand before we opened up for [those acts]. A lot of that is because I’ve always approached being a quote-unquote front man the same way ever since I was 15 or 16 years old.
I’ve always wanted to get peoples’ hands clapping. Of course, I wasn’t the great singer I am now back then. But I had the tenacity — some might call it cockiness — to dance around like a maniac and have this high-octane energy as soon as I hit the stage. From every group, I do observe. There are different things I’ve learned from all of them in little ways. It’s proven to be great for us and educational, for sure.
Rock Cellar: What goes through you mind when you hear people like Dave Grohl, Joe Elliott and Robbie Williams saying they are Struts fans?
Luke Spiller: It really is great and never stops to be surreal. My mum and dad have a printed canvas — a really amazing picture that a photographer we had when we went out with the Foo Fighters took of Dave Grohl hugging me onstage after we did a show. It’s up on their wall. I walked past it and I’m like, ‘Hell. I can’t believe that actually happened!’ [laughs]
It’s a lovely distant memory.
April 12, 2021