SPiNRaD: Life Returns

Written by David J. Rivera | Photographed by James Moore

SPiNRaD is one of the most talented and promising groups in the area. Their music is a new breed of jazz, rock and funk that has been steadily wedging its head through the bluegrass and country roots of Northwest Arkansas. Their prominence in the music scene has begun to generate a national interest as they plan their first cross-country tour. And they are having a blast doing it. But underneath the liveliness onstage and the constant wisecracks offstage, they are serious and driven toward their passions with emotional severity. Deitra Mag’s own David J. Rivera writes.

With about a year's worth of shared experiences, Dave Styer, Jeff Repo, Sean King and Austin Farnam of SPiNRaD don’t hesitate to let each other know what’s going on in their heads before and after a show. Yet their fans haven't had the opportunity to listen in on the dialogue.

Until now.

I had the honor of interviewing SPiNRaD after their show at George's Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Their influences are obvious in their music: Dave Matthews Band, Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Sting and other greats shape the core of their writing. All of these influences have been uniquely woven into the fibers of the band.

Once backstage, SPiNRaD is ambushed by a voice recorder, a list of questions and a pen ready to record anything that sound waves can not. Farnam is the first to encounter the questions, so with the ease of a verbal Ninja, he begins dodging them until Styer, King and Repo arrive. It is apparent that they have trained together, because all three mirror Farnam's verbiage, until they are asked who does the writing for them. The unanimous answer is absorbed by the voice recorder: “Dave.”

Having mastered the piano at a young age, and writing music most of his life, Dave Styer has spent the last two years polishing his vocals. As for his skills on the piano, Styer produces jazz chord progressions and odd time-signatures that are sure to please both music buff and layman alike.

When I ask the other band members how they all react to what he sings, Sean King, bassist, looks at Styer. “[The] first thing I said to you was, ‘Your vocals are flooring me.’”

Styer responds with the deep sarcasm that is the accepted humor of the group. “You mentioned how they were wicked awesome?”

“No, seriously,” says King, “that was the first thing that I mentioned. It wasn't Jeff, it wasn’t Rob, it wasn't Austin. It was his vocals, because I was used to playing with bad vocals. [It is hard] not only to find a good vocalist, but one that has a heart. There is passion there. He has made me cry. 'Life Returns' made me cry the first time that I really listened to what he was saying.”

Austin Farnam, saxophonist, says, “There is a big energy there. That's one of the biggest things about the band for me. There is just such an energy, you just close your eyes and you just feel like you're really into it.”

Drummer Jeff Repo adds, “It is a beautiful thing to listen to Dave play. You don't know if you should play, or just sit there and listen like the people out in the crowd. When I hear the passion or anything that he is putting in the music, I try to take what I have to make him sound better. It has been a weird thing for us. The first time we played together it was amazing.”

Styer and Repo have been playing music together for years. “Dave and I have been good friends for ten years now,” says Repo. “So I know what it means to him to sing. For being a musician who has played the keyboard for the majority of his life, he's established.”

According to Styer, SPiNRaD came to be primarily as a result of the musical synergy that he and Repo shared. Prior to playing with Repo, Styer had given up on music.

“When I met Jeff,” Styer says, “I thought, ‘Am I really gonna get to play music?’”

They played together in another band for years before breaking off into their own group when the experiences of band life tainted both of their opinions of what being a musician was.

When Styer and Repo started SPiNRaD, Styer said, “You know that thing we do? Let's not add anybody unless we feel the same thing that we have.”

It was from this place Styer wrote for SPiNRaD’s debut album Long Sleep the King, with lyrics like “There’s things inside you that you thought were dead/Baby I’m your biggest fan.” Or from the song, “Time”: “Maybe I’ll find time to play my music/Maybe I should put it down/There is no time.”

Like Steely Dan, Styer and Repo decided to hire people to perform with them. During this time they recorded and performed with guest musicians, such as Styer’s father, Rob, who performed over 100 shows in 2009 as their guitarist, and Ron Miller, formerly of 70’s rock band, Kansas.

Now, with the addition of Farnam and King, a fresh page has turned. SPiNRaD’s new album Life Returns reflects Styer’s enlightenment, with lyrics such as “Coming out of the dark towards the light,” and the upbeat funk tune, “Monkey Weather,” Styer’s tongue-in-cheek look back on his former life, with lyrics like, “You sold me up the river/Got no time to change your mind/But I made out like a bandit/How’s it feel to be flying blind.”

“We had come from such a toxic band environment,” says Styer. “We were hesitant to bring Austin aboard, but we felt that same thing with him. We were actually really hard on him at first.” They all laugh. “It was the same way when we found Sean. We'd be joking, [about how] there's some guy playing Vic Wooten licks in his basement, and we found him on MySpace! He came and played with us. Each one of them was something we were looking for.”

Much of Styer’s writing has to do with life events. That being said, what prompted [title track] “Life Returns?”

“Ok, Life Returns,” Styer says. “Actually, I remember writing that song. I usually get chord structure and melody first. Then, I try to find lyrics [to match] the overall vibe I feel when I write the song. So, it is about humanity. What is real to everybody? It felt like a journey to me. What is real? Strip away the ego, and that's what's left.”

The message in “Life Returns” is heavier, thought provoking, pulling, transcendental. I ask what could be added to that description.

King starts, “What it says to me, lyrically, is finding what is important in your life, and letting everything else go. Finding what is true, what you can hold on to. It hit me on an emotional level.”

“There's a line in there,” says Repo, “[that] says, ‘We are all just the same.’ To me, it means that we all have things that are our passions, that make us tick. For us it is music, for others it is music. We're all part of a community, and we all have our jobs to give to it.”

Styer adds, “I took the questions to mean, What is it missing? Every song is missing the listener. You have that circle between performing, emotion, magic. It makes that circle. I write it at home, the guys add to it and it is really not complete until someone like you says, ‘I felt that.’ It is missing your personal emotions and experiences to it.”

“We want our listeners to feel involved” King says. “It is not look at us, It is look at you.”

Their music is not static. Like traditional jazz musicians, SPiNRaD relies upon improv in the moment, as King puts it. Though they may say so, they do not play solos. As each member feels it strike, the others follow with their respective instrument to subtly buttress the inspiration. The organic nature of their music gives the listener the ability to experience different perceptions from one performance to the other.

“It is like moving the spotlight around the stage,” says Repo. “I think it is a better way to do it. We all want to be there and experience the moment. If Austin is taking a solo, [we] are all trying to help them enjoy the ride that Austin is taking us on. It's just one of those things that it is so amazing to be a part of. You can't put a word or anything on it, you just feel like... every crowd is different, every person is different. He's most in contact with what the band is.”

An obvious crowd-pleaser, Farnam is the solo voice of SPiNRaD, throwing out improv a la Jeff Coffin and the late Leroy Moore.

“If someone feels a vibe, we all get each other's backs.” says Repo. “All we have is each other on that stage.”

“I would rather him sound good than me sound good.” says King.

Does Styer ever pull from the other guys for [musical] inspiration?

“I haven't really written any songs for this particular membership,” he says, “so it will be interesting to see where our music goes. ‘Monkey Weather’ and a couple of others are from this group, but I really haven't written anything specifically for this group. It will be interesting to see when we get the time to relax. I mean, we're still jamming stuff [but] I haven't actually written anything fresh and presented it to [the] guys.”

They all expound on Styer’s thoughts, showing their mirrored personalities once more.

“We're just now starting to try that,” says King.

“We're just so comfortable to do anything,” says Farnam.

“We're so much more aggressive now,” says Repo, “and I like that.”

“And we're still searching,” adds King.

“So, it will be neat to see where we go,” Styer finishes, as if each member were speaking from his thoughts. “Like I said, I haven't written at all.”

Behind every great band is a great woman, they say. I wonder how their families support them.

“They believe in this band,” says Styer, “to an extent that I'm even kinda floored about it. [They] are supportive. Corrie (King’s wife) said early on, ‘You guys are gonna go far... You guys need to shut up about your doubts.’”

“She saw the spark we had,” says King.

Repo expounds, “To be backed by wives and families... to be backed. There is no resistance. They breathe life to us. They were our first fans.”

“You pour out your souls to the crowd,” I observe. “So, what do you feel you need from the crowd? What keeps you going?”

“The crowd?” says Farnam. “I think we keep each other going.”

“The geography here is working against us,” says King. “It's Arkansas, it's country and bluegrass here. They don't know what to do with jazz. We're like an alien in our own town.”

SPiNRaD noted that as a whole, new bands are often under great scrutiny from the music crowd, and unfortunately as King alluded to, the crowd wants to hear a flavor of music they are accustomed to. Styer, King, Repo and Farnam discussed instances in which they had received advice on what to do to make their music better. As musicians, they noted that they are each vulnerable to each other as well as the crowd.

“To me, it is the vulnerability,” Styer says. “Everyone is supremely confident in their own right, but each one of these guys would be the best musician in their band. Each one has been a band leader in their band. We keep each other at this point of realizing it's not about us, but it doesn't matter unless people feel it. If everyone feels the music, then we have done it. All of us here are giving of the best that we are as people. We are giving of that. It transcends out. It's not just us, it is other people. It's the underlying spirituality of people. They feel drawn together. We as a group are very spiritual. We've played for audiences where, if they are absorbing it, it is a whole other experience. [For example] we started playing in this dump, smoky place... it was a dive. We went in and started playing, I opened my eyes, and more and more people were like, ‘yeah…’ By the end of the night, it was mostly full.”

Repo says, “When we felt that, we couldn't even hear ourselves, but we were filled with energy. If we felt like we mattered, it would be more of the same. We learned a lot that night. In the emotional content of that night, all of a sudden you felt value in what you pour yourself into. It is better than getting handed a thousand dollars at the end of the night.”

“That moment still drives us,” says Farnam. “Even outside of the music, that interaction drives us. It doesn't feel like it's always been.”

The voice recorder is ticking over an hour, and the members of SPiNRaD are looking tired. They look around, searching for anything they might have left out.

“You pretty much pulled it all out of us,” says Styer.

“We talked about stuff that we only talk about with each other,” says King. But he still had one final note. “I've been in music and bands for close to twenty years, and I've never been part of something like this. These guys are something completely different. I want to spend my life with these guys, doing all that we do.”

Final Word? Unanimous.

“BOOM.”   DM

Find SPiNRaD's music at www.spinradmusic.com and follow them on Facebook.

All contents property of Deitra Productions Copyright 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction is prohibited.


  1. Loved this!!! Great article. Loved the words written in this article--especially the "so with the ease of a verbal Ninja, he begins dodging them" Classic.

    Loved the layout. Loved the photos. Deitra mag is awesome!
    Looking forward to seeing what happens next with Spinrad!
    Go Jeff--best drummer in the world!!!!

  2. Great article! It's exciting to see how far SPiNRaD has come, and I can't wait to see where they are headed.


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