Interview: Anna Spence of Annuals
Annuals play the Siren Festival this Saturday, July 19 at 3:30pm on the Stillwell Stage. Be there or be an asshole.
"Bloggers are assholes [laughs]."
Keyboardist Anna Spence divides her days into two significant and demanding pursuits--taking classes towards her finance major at East Carolina University and playing music with fellow still young North Carolinians Adam Baker, Kenny Florence, Zack Oden, Nick Radford and Mike Robinson. When the group is fronted by Florence, they call themselves Sunfold (formerly Sedona--Sunfold plays Brooklyn's Union Hall on July 25th and the Mercury Lounge the following night). And when fronted by Baker, Annuals, a band with just one full-length release (2006's Be He Me) but abundantly positive Internet press.
And yet balancing two nearly full-time schedules is but one of Spence's challenges. On Sunday, July, 13, six days before Annuals will perform at the Siren Festival, she spoke about her distaste for horses, her fondness for Drew Barrymore, as well as the trials and tribulations of being the sole woman in one of the most blogged about bands of the past two years.
Hey Anna. Have you got a couple of minutes to chat?
I do. Actually I just finished cleaning my house so I'm ready to chat.
You're one of those people that actually like cleans and stuff? Yeah, yeah. I'm actually one of those people that cleans a lot unfortunately. I'm constantly in a state of, you know, crazy dirt with five boys. But when I'm at home I'm clean.
Okay, so the five boys only happens on the road. You're not all living in one house like hippies.
No [laughs]. We're not living in one house like hippies. Three of the guys live together and then everyone else kind of lives by themselves, so only half of us are hippies.
Do you practice at the hippies' house? If half the band lives, there, that sounds like a good place to rehearse.
No, we actually have a practice space that's kind of down the street from everyone except for I'm a full-time student so when I'm not touring I go to East Carolina so I live in Greenville. So I have to drive a little ways to practice.
So where do you live?
I live in Greenville when I'm in school and I live in Raleigh when like we're taking, you know, breaks from touring and stuff like that.
Isn't that just summers, though, that you're off from school?
Well, I take classes whenever I can around our touring schedule. So we had July off so I'm taking two summer school classes now and then our next tour isn't scheduled until October/November. We'll be gone both months, so I'll take classes online next semester so I can do them while we're touring, then I'll only have three classes left and then I graduate.
And what's your major?
I'm a finance major, believe it or not.
I read an interview that Zach [Oden] gave and he said, "Anna's the real brainiac in the group; she's going back to study corporate law." What's your attraction to finance and corporate law?
[laughs] Oh, well, I want to do commercial law. Well, I want to do music. Actually I thought about doing something that could tie into the band, such as be our entertainment lawyer, so I'm not really sure what kind of law I want to do. I decided to do my undergrad in finance because most pre-law people do like philosophy or political science, but those are kind of useless majors, I feel.
Well yeah, if you don't go to law school.
Exactly. So I chose something I could use in the meantime.
That'd be really helpful to everyone else in the band if you act as the lawyer but you probably couldn't charge them the same percentage if you were the lawyer for a band that, say, lived in Alaska, could you?
Exactly, but, you know.
Wouldn't everybody in the band get a bit upset if you were taking 15 percent off the top?
[laughs] Yeah, I would, you know, give them a discount, but the ultimate goal, I suppose, is to be able to play music exclusively and then, you know, everything else should fall in around that, I suppose.
A lot has been made about your band's relative youth. Can anyone in the group legally buy beer?
Yeah, actually, the youngest one, Kenny (Florence), he just turned 21 so we're all 21 now. We used to have to sit outside the clubs. They wouldn't let us in because we weren't 21 so we'd have to wait outside and then go on five minutes before we played and then we'd have to leave directly after we played. It was bad. But now we're all 21 so we don't have to worry about it anymore.
So who's the oldest?
The oldest is Zach, the little blonde guitarist/drummer. He just turned 24.
Anna, are you sure that for an interview that will run in a major publication that you want to refer to Zach as "the little blonde" one?
[laughs] Oh, you know what? Yes. Yes. I'm going to go with Zach as the little blonde one. The little blonde drummer/guitarist. And he will appreciate it.
I mean, I know that you're "the brainiac" in the group and you've got major educational aspirations so I'm sure you're good with words, but I thought maybe I would just check in that one instance.
Yeah, well [laughs], I'm into little and blonde. You can quote me on that.
Wonderful. Let's go back to industrious young people taking classes in and around their band duties. Of the other five members of Annuals, how many are currently pursuing a higher education?
Well, none. Actually Nick [Radford], the drummer, he went to school for design, I think, but he hasn't finished yet. I mean, eventually, I suppose, he may. And then Kenny started school right before we started touring and then he stopped. Yeah, everyone else . . . Kenny teaches guitar and Adam's [Baker] getting ready to starting teaching drum lessons, so they all have things that they do when we're home so they're not bored. But I'd rather go to school than work at, you know, a grocery store at the moment.
Adam's giving drum lessons?
Starting at the end of next month.
Not Zach, but Adam.
Yep [laughs]. Adam actually started off as a drummer. And he says I get to take lessons for free.
That's great. With all the extra free time that you have when you're not driving back and forth between Greenville and Raleigh and studying and doing all the band's legal work at a reduced rate . . .
I can take drum lessons.
Somehow doesn't seem like a fair trade-off.
It sounds like, from the perspective of Annuals parents, that maybe this band is a bad influence. You've got folks in school and then they drop out in order to follow their rock and roll dreams. How are the boys' parents with all of this?
Well, the boys' parents are actually extremely supportive and it's because a lot of them have been doing this since they were 12 and 13 years old. You know, they were the ones driving to shows when they were younger and buying their amps and getting them their guitars and stuff like that, so they kind of always knew that they were interested in this. And Mike (Robinson), for one, has just always wanted be a musician. Like that's all he's wanted to do his whole life. And his mom knew that. Kenny's parents, I suppose, they wanted him to go to school, and they maybe were slightly upset when he dropped out. But you know, as soon as they started seeing Annuals as something that could actually, you know, hopefully maybe make it someday so we don't have to live with our parents anymore, like, you know, be something good for us, they're okay with it now. Everyone's parents are really awesome.
How many children are in your family?
There's four of us.
And where do you fit in from oldest to youngest?
I am the second oldest.
And is your oldest sibling male or female?
He's a male.
So you are the first daughter of Southern parents.
And probably when you first started going out on dates, your mom and dad wanted to meet the young man that you were going to go out with.
And if he had shown up and had a face tattoo like Mike Tyson . . .
[laughs] I might've not been allowed to leave the house.
A-ha. Because I'm thinking that your folks, if they've done their math right, might've realized that you're the only Annual still in school, that they might see those five boys as a bad influence.
Yeah. Well [laughs]. I guess no parent's dream is to have their oldest daughter travel in a van with five guys and a mattress in the back. That's the stereotypical mother's worst nightmare. So I really had to make a decision to agree to disagree with them about it, because I loved the music that much. And I felt that I could do both, so I just decided to do what I needed to do and they have come to terms with it. Because, you know, we've gotten to do some really awesome traveling and they see that as a definite plus. And my mom likes to brag to her friends about where I've been, so I'm like, 'Mom, if you're going to tell your friends that I've been cool places then you can't give me crap for it when I come home' [laughs].
That seems fair. And is she more or less living up to the bargain?
She is. She's getting better and better.
So how is it being the only female in a six-member group? And I ask not just from a gender perspective, but because I've been in bands and it's always struck me as something akin to nursery school.
When you get a group together, and especially when everybody's in one van and you don't know when your next shower's going to be because even if you're staying at the house of an accommodating friend or fan on the road, you don't always have time to let all six people shower before you have to be off to the next show. In those kinds of situations the maturity level is liable to drop a few notches.
And you're cleaning your house right before you do a big rock and roll interview, and that kind of personality doesn't seem all conducive to traveling around with five sweaty guys.
How's it working for you?
[laughs] I mean, it's hard. It's hard and you have to let go of some of those womanly things about yourself. I mean, I have to just accept the dirt when it comes to me and realize that in a few months I'll be home and I can start being obsessively clean again. But believe it or not two of the guys are actually even slightly more girly than I am about being clean.
Well, it's kind of balanced out by some other of the boys who are actually worse than most people about being clean, so I'd say I have to put up with an average amount of freaking out over dirty dudes.
What's the hardest part about touring the country in a van full of 23-year-old men?
[laughs] I guess no matter how much time you spend with guys there's still some . . . this accepted communication barrier sort of, where it doesn't matter if a guy is your best friend and you know him well and he knows you so well, there's just still that something there that makes it so that you don't quite get each other all the time. So that's probably the biggest, the worst thing for me is that I don't have another woman there when I need to have someone just 'get it' and just get me or how I'm feeling or what's going on.
Do you have an overly large cell phone bill from reaching out to other women from the road?
No, actually I read a lot to kind of get back inside my own head when I need to. And kind of out of the boys' heads. But you know, when you're the road, I mean, if you've toured you know that you're just completely isolated and you feel completely isolated and it's better to let yourself be isolated so you can deal with it versus like calling other people. You just have to be there and let your mind be there.
It seems only fair that if I asked you the worst part of sharing the van that I also ask you about the best part. So what's the best part about being in a van with five 23-year-old men? Are they really protective of you or are you just one out of six people and kind of on your own?
[laughs] No. It is like having five brothers, and it has given me a much larger understanding of guys than I would have ever, ever imagined that I would have. You know, we really are kind of like a family and it's really nice. And I think they appreciate having a girl there and I definitely appreciate them being guys and being the way they are with me. Everyone seems to be really patient. I don't know. It's nice, you know, because the people that you experience things like this with understand you better than anyone else could. And so even if there is that barrier there, they still know me better and know where I'm coming from better than anyone else I know. So I do view them as my family and I love that I've gotten to share this with them, you know. It doesn't matter what gender they are or how they are as people, they were the ones that were there when we went through everything that we've gone through so far. And everything we're going to go through in the future. So the best thing is having gained family members that I never thought I'd have.
Great. But if the band makes a bunch of money overnight and you have to hire more crew, whether it's a merch person or lighting director or tour manager, you're going to insist on a woman, right?
Yes, actually we've been talking about that. You know, we were talking about getting a merch person, and I was like, 'Please can it be a girl?' [laughs] And they were like, 'I guess. Yes, it can be a girl.' You know, they don't have any problems with more girls being around, I'm sure.
I think that makes all the sense in the world. Let's detour into some short answer questions.
Tell me one thing you've never ever done before in your life.
I've never been skydiving.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Ridden a horse. Only once because I fell and I almost died and I don't ever want to do it again [laughs].
Literally almost died?
Yeah. Like my foot got caught in the stirrup and I could see the horse's feet coming at my face. Yeah, I almost got kicked in the head. It was scary, and I was little which made it even worse because you never forget those things.
So not only does the "get back up on the horse" homily not apply . . .
But I may be speaking to the only woman in North America who doesn't have a thing for horses.
Yes. That would be me.
Okay, tell me the name of a book that you've read at least twice.
Oh, man. Wizards' First Rule (by Terry Goodkind).
And the name of a movie you've seen at least three times.
Okay. This is something that I don't usually let people know about me, okay? Ever After is just one of the best movies. Even though everyone thinks it's really gay and not everyone loves Drew Barrymore like I do, but I've seen Ever After at least ten times.
Well, I appreciate you sharing.
Your band has made multiple commutes between Raleigh and New York recently. Have you earned on the Jersey Turnpike?
That's actually our least favorite drive to make.
Because of the terrain or because of where you're going to end up?
It's the terrain and the tolls and the stress of being in a van with a trailer. We will drive 40 hours if it means we're going somewhere on the West Coast, but up and down the East Coast is just . . .
So you're really looking forward to like five days from now.
[laughs]. I'm looking forward to playing, to being there, but the drive itself is not the most joyous. And it's also because the first time we ever came to New York we were almost arrested for . . . well, we got into the city and the cops told us to go one way through a tunnel and we had never been there before so they ended up pulling us over and threatening to call the dogs on us and everyone was frantic. Two people are crying, I think, and trying to hide it. It was just awful. And we were like, 'We're never coming back here again!' And then lo and behold, two years later . . .
Well, number one, you really need to fast forward the law degree, and number two, has it gotten better?
It has. We're definitely more experienced now. You know, we all grew up in the South and we like our grass and our trees our open, wide highways, but everyone's kind of coming to miss it when we haven't been there in a while.
You understand that there's not really any really good barbecue in New York, right?
Yeah, I know. We do, you know, like the vinegar-based.
I know. I'm not a big fan of the Carolina sauce, but I'm a huge fan of the Carolina pulled pork. What's the best barbecue in Raleigh, just in case I decide to become a travel writer?
The Barbecue Lodge in Raleigh. It's awesome.
And pulled pork is their specialty?
Yeah, and they do like the traditional Brunswick stew. You don't really order. They just give you like big barbecue and corn sticks and hush puppies and Brunswick stew and green beans. It's awesome. It's really good.
I would very much like to. You know, I'm real bad about Chick-Fil-A too because you know we don't have any Chick-Fil-As up here.
We miss Chick-Fil-A so much when we're on the road. That is our one thing. When we get closer to home we're like, 'We have to stop at Chick-Fil-A.'
Okay, so you're from North Carolina and you play keyboards but you don't like horses. Are you like Opie Taylor and you had to skip football practice for piano lessons when you were young?
[laughs] Well, yeah. Yeah, my parents had me on that whole ballerina/classical piano track. But my little brother were really close so he gave me that whole like tomboy side of myself, then my parents instilled the really girly things in me. They were very, Practice, practice, practice, but as soon as I started using my skill, they were like, 'Whoa!'
So how long have you been playing the piano?
Since I was 5.
That's quite a long time.
Did you ever rebel and refuse to take lessons?
I thought about it. You know, I came into my crazy teenage years when you just want to do what you want to do and I didn't need any more obligations. But I took off for a few months and then I missed it. And I was really close with the last teacher that I had. She was just really inspiring to me and I loved it and that was the last of my rebellion.
Is she now thrilled to death with your current musical success?
[laughs] No. Well, yeah. She's proud of me but she's sad that I can't be at home all the time to learn even more from her. But it's a different kind of thing, you know. I had to change the way that I learned and thought about and played music in order to do this, because being classically trained, you know, kind of inhibits you in a way in the rock and roll world. You know, because I want my sheet music, and for a while that's how I was, but then you just learn to let it go. You just feel it.
Does anyone in the band have a history of schizophrenia or do you have a better explanation for the whole Sunfold/Sedona/Annuals thing?
[laughs] Okay, it's not schizophrenia, and I know it's hard to understand, but here's the thing: we all write music. And it all sounds very different. And we believe in cohesiveness and we believe that an Annuals record should sound like an Annuals record, but we want to be able to support each other creatively in whatever endeavors anyone wants to take. So the only way that we saw that we could it would be to split bands based on songwriters, and based on sounds of music. Like, you know, if someone writes a song that sounds like it could fit with the Annuals sound then, of course, we would use it, but everyone is just so different in their musical tastes that it was the only we could do it without being like, 'You can't make music.' And it's cool, you know, because you already have five musicians to help you play your stuff and to create your stuff, so it's like . . . I don't know. It's kind of makes it so we can do more without causing horrible arguments and whatnot.
Theoretically that sounds like a great idea, but you just said that everyone in the band writes which leads me to believe that instead of two bands to confuse everybody we're eventually going to end up with six.
[laughs] Yeah. [laughs] There's more than two. Yeah. I mean, there's kind of already like four at this point, but the recording process hasn't really started with the other two. [laughs] I don't even know what we're going to do when we make it to that point, but right now we're just going to say that there's these two and we don't have to worry about the rest for the moment.
I'm going to let you not worry about the rest just about a minute from now. But in the next minute . . . is one of the four bands that you've kind of already started but the recording process hasn't yet begun playing the songs of Anna Spence?
Well, I actually did record a few songs for the new record that's coming out at the studio, Echo Mountain, because they had an amazing selection of pianos and microphones and I just wanted to do it while I had such nice equipment at my fingertips, so actually, I mean, yeah, I've recorded some stuff. I don't know what I'm going to do with it [laughs].
But it's not Annuals.
It's not Annuals. Actually one song was on the record that I had removed.
You know, that kind of makes it sound like a wart.
[laughs] It was not a wart.
But the phrase "I had it removed" . . . Well, I had it put in the song bank for later.
So we don't have a name for the Anna Spence-fronted group. We've just got Adam [Annuals] and Kenny [now Sunfold, f/k/a Sedona] so far.
Yep, that's it.
Okay. The Annuals have been reviewed all over the place, including Pitchfork, and almost always you're compared to three specific bands. Would you like to recite them together?
Oh, yes. Arcade Fire, Animal Collective and Broken Social Scene [laughs].
Are any of those close to correct comparisons?
You know, I guess it's really hard to see something like that when you're actually in the band. Because while I like all three of those bands, they weren't really influential in the songwriting process. So it's weird. But then when someone tells you like, 'Hey, I thought you guys didn't sound anything like Broken Social Scene until I saw you live and then Adam was screaming and it was kind of, you know, reminiscent of them,' I guess you can see where bits and pieces might remind people of them, but that's as close as it gets for me.
I mean, they're amazing bands so it doesn't bother us in the sense that we don't want to be compared to those people. It's just that . . . I mean, no one wants to be pigeonholed and no one wants to be put under, you know, another band. Everyone wants to have an original sound and everyone wants to be the band that people are compared to. So it's that feeling.
But you also know that rarely ever happens after just one or two records.
Yeah, exactly. And that's another thing. I think it's strange when bands do get upset about being compared to someone just because that's the only way that humans have to, you know, explain what something sounds like. You have to use something else. You have to use another band, so it's going to happen.
And speaking of Pitchfork . . . Annuals is a prime example of what people refer to as "a blog band." A lot of your notoriety comes from technological word of mouth. Of course, an upside is that there are likely listeners in far off parts of the world, thousands of miles away from anywhere you've ever been, who know who the Annuals are and what they sound like. Is there a downside?
I guess the only downside is the negative connotation that people feel when they hear the term "blog band." I mean, we feel so privileged that like we were able to spread through the Internet, and like places that we may not have reached before, people have heard our music. That's all we care about is people hearing the music. So we don't really care how it gets there. But some people, you know, look at bands that are found through the Internet and see them as "here today, gone tomorrow" bands. And that's not what we want obviously, and I guess, you know, for those people there's really no changing their minds about that because for some the only way to hear about a band is through friends, through word of mouth and not through, you know, it being spread like wildfire through the Internet. I don't know. I mean, to some people it's not cool or something, but I don't really care how people hear it as long as they hear it.
Well, it probably carries a connotation of temporary because of the word "blog." And the world hasn't figured out quite yet how they feel about blogs. I mean, one minute everybody wants to be a blogger and the next you see . . .
Bloggers are assholes [laughs].
Yeah. So I guess it's kind of a mixed blessing.
Yeah, blogs are scary because anyone can say anything they want to without having any repercussions.
Do you keep a blog?
No, I don't, personally. I don't think any of us do.
You're living through some literal once in a lifetime experiences. Do you keep a journal for yourself?
We take lots of pictures. That's as close as it gets.
Who's the best photographer in the band?
Well, Nick and Mike are pretty good photographers. Nick just bought a really nice camera so we use him to take a lot of our pictures, then we just make him promise to give them to us at the end of the tour.
Speaking of no repercussions for bloggers, back in September of '06, right before Be He Me came out, Idolator did some research in an attempt to find the exact moment when bloggers started talking about your band. And that moment seemed to come in February of '06 which is also the exact moment bloggers started to discuss Anna Spence's "hotness." How big a pain is it for people to conduct public discussions about your physical appearance?
People are just so bored [laughs]. When we first started playing and things like that first started coming up, it was kind of a little hard to stomach because I never expected to have to deal with something like that, with people judging me all over the place based on what I look like. Whereas, you know, it doesn't happen to the guys. But then again I'm not naïve and stupid and I don't expect things like that to not happen. I mean, it's going to happen and it's going to happen to, really, any female artist, you know. And any female in any sort of spotlight is going to be judged partially on the way she looks more than a man. And you know, it's just going to happen so I just try to not pay attention to things like that. And if people have nice things to say, it's nice to hear nice things said about you, but when they don't you just kind of have to realize that with the nice comes the not so nice and, you know, come to terms with it pretty much.
You would be much more comfortable if it wasn't out there at all.
Yeah, but that's really so idealistic of me to pretend to want to happen. It's just not going to happen.
Is that part of the trade off for getting to play the music you want and traveling to new and exciting places?
Yeah, I mean, I have to focus on the things that I really like about it and that's just something that's really, really trivial compared to everything else.
So you're playing the Siren Festival in six days. And we've already discussed your ferocious academic pursuits, so let's put that education to good use. Have you ever read Homer's The Odyssey?
Yeah, we had to read it in high school.
And what are your personal feelings about the Sirens?
Oh, the Sirens themselves? I think they're awesome.
Good role models for women everywhere?
So when you look in the mirror, not because you're vain but because you're cleaning the glass with Windex as part of your obsessive cleaning, do you ever kind of accidentally glance at yourself and say, 'Yeah, I could be a Siren?'
[laughs] In my wildest dreams.
So you don't see yourself as someone who might spend her day enticing ships to ground themselves onto rocks?
No, I don't want to help anyone crash their ship onto the rocks. I would want to be the good Siren on the other side that's leading them in the direction away from the rocks.
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