Recently in Australia on their first-ever tour of the country, the band are simultaneously celebrating the release of their fourth studio album No Joy and their 10th anniversary.
It’s before doors open at Mary’s Underground in Sydney, where hundreds of fans will soon file through and subsequently raise both their voices and index fingers as Spanish Love Songs take to the stage. For now, though, lead singer Slocum and his wife, keyboardist/guitarist Van Woert, are sat on a staircase outside of their greenroom as Brisbane band Bad Neighbour soundcheck. They’re thinking about what they love about album openers, and for Slocum it comes down to two things: Playing a strong hand and getting you as a listener invested in what’s to come. “I’m sure it’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but you want something that lets you know the journey you’re about to go on,” he says.
“It’s a balance, in a way – you don’t want to lead with the absolute best song, but you also don’t want to lead with an obvious choice either. You’re setting the tone, and whatever people’s experiences are going to be with that record largely falls to whatever you choose to open with.” Van Woert agrees. “If they’re going to continually return to it, you don’t want them to start the record and then go, ‘… yeah, we’ll skip that one,’” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a song that gently takes you by the hand or if it kicks you in the teeth and is like, ‘Guess what, chumps?’ It just matters if it’s engaging enough to make you keep going.”
‘Bad Day’ – Giant Sings the Blues (2015)
At 95 seconds, ‘Bad Day’ is the shortest song in the entire Spanish Love Songs canon. It was one of the earliest songs written for the band, back when they were just a trio – Slocum, drummer Ruben Duarte and original bassist Gabe Mayeshiro. Even before the idea of making an album was a concept floating around their hive mind, ‘Bad Day’ was written with the intent of opening up their sets – the very first of which happened exactly a decade ago, circa August 2013.
“It needed to be fast, and needed to be short as possible,” recalls Slocum. “I found myself inspired by bands like Joyce Manor – they seemed to have really taken on that challenge of writing two-minute songs that are just as fulfilling as a four-minute one. It was an experiment – it sounds like nothing else on the album, so where the fuck else would you put it?” The song hasn’t been played live since Spanish Love Songs played a secret show at Gainesville punk gathering Fest back in 2019, and these days Slocum can’t help but laugh at it. “It’s kind of a terrible opening song – we didn’t write anything like it ever again,” he says. “But it works for how terrible it is!”
“I disagree!,” Van Woert says. Though the song was written well before she joined the band, she remembered seeing them play it early on and being drawn to it. “I loved it,” she says. “It really felt like a headfirst dive into the performance. For a lot of those opening sets, nobody really cares about the band or really wants you there. To rip into it with a song like that, and get people having fun… it was kind of fucking glorious.”
‘Nuevo’ – Schmaltz (2018)
For the Geoguessr fans in the crowd: Nuevo is a town with a population of roughly 7000 in California’s Riverside County. It’s where Slocum spent time as a kid growing up, so it felt pertinent to name a song about coming home as an adult after the town itself. “My dad had gotten sick around 2011, so I’d moved back home after being away for a really long time,” he explains. “I wrote it and demoed it around that time, but it just kind of bounced around as this unfinished idea for maybe six years or so before we recorded it.”
Though Slocum had originally performed the entire song on guitar for the demo, the studio recording of ‘Nuevo’ saw him give way to a different instrument: The organ. Van Woert had joined the band the same year they went in to record Schmatz, and the freshly-expanded five-piece couldn’t think of a better way to introduce their newest member. “The fact it’s the first thing you hear on the album… it’s like, ‘check it out, we have keys now!’” says Van Woert with a grin.
“It was definitely interesting trying to get the MIDI right for the organ sound. You don’t want it to sound cheesy – there’s a big difference between, like, a church organ and a baseball game organ. Dylan, Kyle [McAulay, lead guitar] and myself spent a lot of time in the studio going through all the different voicings and rotaries to find the sound we were after. I think we ended up on some sort of gospel preset, which adds to that kind of gentle lead-in feeling.” McAulay didn’t just occupy his time with keyboard tones, either: “One day we came into the studio, and Kyle showed us that he’d recorded himself playing timpani on that song,” Slocum laughs. “You can barely hear it, but he was very excited about it.”
‘Routine Pain’ – Brave Faces Everyone (2020)
It was a seemingly innocuous conversation at the bar between Slocum and Van Woert that spurred the former on to write the opener of SLS’ breakthrough album, Brave Faces Everyone. Not only was ‘Routine’ the first song written for the album, the frontman notes it was also the first time he’d intentionally written an album opener. “We’d come off tour and hadn’t gotten back to LA yet, so we stayed with Meredith’s parents in Iowa for three weeks,” says Slocum.
“I decided to start writing while we were there, and I’d go down to the basement every day and worked until I was done. I tried to complete one song a day, and that’s where ‘Routine Pain’ came in.” Slocum notes that the reason he knew the song was going to be Brave Faces‘ opener was on account of it reflecting more or less everything he was hoping to achieve with it. “It felt like a no-brainer,” he says.
“It establishes a lot, I think. A lot of the lyrical themes, and even the references, all really started on that song. If ‘Bad Day’ was the immediate drop-in, and ‘Nuevo’ was the slow drop-in, this was the sound of me kind of taking you by the hand and showing you around… so it had to be somewhere in the middle. It starts out slow, but then picks up into this punk kind of thing.” He turns to Van Woert with a knowing smile. “To think it all began at the bar between me and you!”
Van Woert returns the smile in due kind. “I loved how you took that story and figured out how to weave it into the others you were trying to tell on that album,” she says. “Dylan played me the demo one day after he came up for air from the basement, and I just remember sitting there going, ‘…that’s got a lot of words!’” The couple laugh; no doubt a recurring observation from Van Woert about her oft-prolix husband.
“I was excited by it, though! It felt like we were going to create something really cool. We did a week of pre-production, and one of my favourite memories is watching Dylan and Trevor [Dietrich] going over the harmonies on the song. It was the first time we’d tried something like that, and I liked having something that beautiful in what’s otherwise a pretty unruly song.”
‘Smile Like You Mean It’ – Doom & Gloom Sessions EP (2023)
When Spanish Love Songs added Van Woert as their keyboardist circa 2017, Duarte got an idea: The band should do a cover of The Killers’ 2004 classic ‘Smile Like You Mean It’. Why not show off their newest instrumental addition with one of the most famous synth lines of the decade? “I never forgot him saying that,” Slocum laughs. Though it took over five years, the drummer finally got some when the band compiled covers for their Doom & Gloom Sessions EP – which also saw them tackle tracks by Rilo Kiley, Jimmy Eat World and Grandaddy.
“It’s my favourite Killers song from my favourite Killers album,” says Van Woert. “We had lots of fun with that one, especially our quest to try and copy the synth sound.” As the couple explain, the sound on the original version of ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ is a specific preset on a Microkorg. Only trouble is, neither Van Woert nor Slocum own one. “We had to try and recreate it on this big chunky synth called a Moog Grandmother,” says Van Woert. “We recorded it in my sister’s old bedroom, because we were still at my parents’ house at the time.”
Neither have seen The Killers live – which is something Van Woert is hoping to rectify, but Slocum can live without. “They’re a bucket-list band, for sure,” she says. “I dunno … I can just watch it on YouTube,” shrugs Slocum. “It means I don’t have to haul my ass out to an arena, and then be in a crowd full of assholes for three hours. Every time a band I like tours, we’re on tour. Even when we’re not, we’ve probably just come home from one … and the last thing I wanna do is stand in front of a stage again.”
‘Lifers’ – No Joy (2023)
With its beds of synth strings and thudding undercurrent of electronic drums, there is a grander sense to ‘Lifers’ than their other album intro tracks – not dissimilar, even, to the kind of approach The Killers might take to kick off one of their own LPs. Interestingly, then, Slocum notes that ‘Lifers’ is the the opener that had “the least amount of thought put into it” as far as intention was concerned. “Everything that we were precious about in the past, we put to the side here,” he says.
“With that, we just wanted to put a fucking banger up front. There was no greater thought process than that. I think part of it had to do with the fact we were working with an outside producer for the first time in Collin [Pastore], and he was really encouraging for us to just throw everything we had at this album. Just do it, y’know? Get on with it!”
Even with their attempts to be more free-wheeling by nature on No Joy, however, inadvertently landed them into some classic conceptual Spanish Love Songs territory. As Slocum explains, ‘Lifers’ was not originally meant to be the opening song on the album – that honour was first bestowed upon what wound up being track seven, ‘I’m Gonna Miss Everything’. After awhile, however, the band decided to move it. “It made sense thematically, but it’s not an opener,” Slocum concludes.
“So, we moved ‘Lifers’ up to first and then moved ‘Re-Emerging Signs of the Apocalypse’ last. On ‘Lifers’, there’s a lyric that goes ‘Don’t write yourself out of the equation’, and then on ‘Apocalypse’ there’s a lyric that goes ‘I’m a part of the equation’. We’d honestly tried not to do stuff like that on the album, but there it was. When I realised, I just laughed at myself and sighed like, ‘Ugh, God!’” Van Woert laughs: “We’re a band that’s too clever for our own good,” she quips.