Hooks ‘N’ You: Splitsville, “Let’s Go! The Best of Splitsville”

Written by Hooks 'N' You, Music, Popdose Interviews

Before I start talking about the Baltimore-based power pop band known as Splitsville, I should let them start talking…and I’ll do so by offering up the very first track from their very first album, which provided at least as good an intro to the group as anything I could compose:

“Splitsville Spirit Song

I’ve had a relationship with Brandt and Matt Huseman, the brothers who were 2/3 of the founding members of Splitsville, since before there even was a Splitsville. If you’re a power pop geek like myself, you already know that the Huseman boys made up half of The Greenberry Woods, whose exploits will be further discussed in a future column…but, for the record, if you don’t own their two albums, Rapple Dapple and Big Money Item, then your collection is all the poorer for their absence. Anyway, I was such a fan of The Greenberry Woods that I’m pretty sure I caught every performance they ever did in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia (including a show which remains the most bizarre double bill I’ve ever personally witnessed, where they opened for Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine), so when the group broke up, I was always going to follow its members wherever they went.

Splitsville Let's Go

I spent years waiting for Ira Katz to release something by his subsequent band, Lovefool, but I don’t think they ever actually committed anything to disc. Fortunately, the Husemans have released quite a few albums as part of Splitsville…so many, in fact, that they’ve warranted a best-of collection called Let’s Go, after its opening track.

As it happens, “Let’s Go” was also the opening track of Ultrasound, the band’s second album. Unfortunately, the band’s first album, Splitsville U.S.A., isn’t represented on this disc (the reason why will be revealed later), but this song is such a perfect call to arms for the collection that it’s hard to argue against it as a perfect starting point. The musical callback to The Knack’s “My Sharona” says, “Yeah, we’re power pop,” and, indeed, that’s certainly a valid description for a certain amount of the Splitsville sound, but as Let’s Go shows, there’s far more to the band’s music than can be contained within a single niche.

I realize I’m totally partial to the group, but after listening to Let’s Go in its entirety, I’m left wondering why the hell Splitsville never took off commercially. I’m sure the band members themselves feel the same way, of course, but even just stepping outside my guise as Music Critic and trying to listen to it as Joe Consumer, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t pick up a massive following during their time spent as road warriors, touring the States and beyond. The material from Ultrasound is as punk as it is pop, but when you listen to the material from their groovy foray into Beach-Boys-tribute territory on The Complete Pet Soul – the best example being the appropriately-titled “The Love Songs of B. Douglas Wilson” – it’s clear that their songwriting gifts are considerable. They’ve never been comfortable sticking to just one sound, with Repeater (“Manna (You Say You Believe)“) proving more mature than Ultrasound, and their most recent studio album, Incorporated (“Sasha“), not only showed that they weren’t going to succumb to the Pet Soul temptation of sticking with aping someone else’s oeuvre but, indeed, proved to be the most consistent album of their career…which is saying something.

Although the band’s fans (as well as the band members themselves) may argue about its inclusions and omissions, there’s still no question in my mind that the track listing for Let’s Go finds a compilation which will come to be held up by power-pop historians as a must-own…but with that said, don’t feel obliged to wait.

If I were you, I’d run out and grab it right now, just to avoid the rush.

And, now, we move into the interview portion of our column. Brandt and Matt were kind enough to do a conference-call interview with me about the history of Splitsville, and I’m pleased to be able to share the results. It was a lot of fun to talk to the guys again (I haven’t actually seen them in person in almost a decade), and it was educational as well.

Popdose: So when Splitsville first started, the Greenberry Woods were still a going concern, correct?

Matt: Correct.

Popdose: And since Wikipedia is 100% foolproof…though, for the record, the Splitsville Wikipedia page is remarkably detailed for an indie band, but the Greenberry Woods page isn’t bad, either…

Brandt: I think that was (Rob) Toomey. Did Toomey do that?

Matt: No, he did the Splitsville one, which is why there are all these citations on there and stuff. But, you know, whoever wrote the Greenberry Woods one, it had to be someone who knew us really well, because they got a lot of it correct.

Popdose: Well, based on how it reads, I’m led to understand that the existence of Splitsville led to a rift within the Greenberry Woods.

Brandt: You know, I don’t remember it that way.

Matt: You don’t?

Brandt: I mean, I know they weren’t nuts about it, but it was just one other nail in the coffin. To be honest with you, Will, I’ve been playing with Miles and Ira recently, because I’m still in Baltimore, and we’re taking some trips down memory lane and stuff, and that has never come up as a bone of contention.

Matt: I was going to say that it was a bone of contention, absolutely, but I think that on the laundry list of bones of contention…

Brandt: …it wasn’t top 5.

Matt: …it definitely wasn’t top 5. We had bigger fish to fry, as it were.
Popdose: So was it more to do with the merging of Sire into Elektra around the time, then?

Brandt: You know, I think we felt that there wasn’t really…well, we knew we weren’t going to get support on the second album. They made that perfectly clear. And…you know, it’s a really, really long story to explain it, and everybody’s going to have a slightly different take on it, but some of the relationships in the band had started to deteriorate at that point, and if we all could’ve taken a step back and decided to work together, we could’ve gotten through the whole move to Elektra, but we weren’t in that place at that time, so that just sort of sealed our fate. We kind of felt that if the record company wasn’t gonna work for it, then we weren’t going to work for it.

Matt: Yeah, I’d say that’s probably the most accurate assessment. I mean, you had these kids…we thought we were so mature, but you look back now, and we were kids…who had been together for awhile, and we learned a lot of things about ourselves as people and musicians from touring, but the whole glamorous rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle only exists in fits and starts. Most of it is a grind, just like anything else you do. And especially at that point, we just weren’t well-suited to work together. I think that’s what it was.

Brandt: You’re definitely right.

Popdose: So how did you guys first meet up with (Splitsville bassist/keyboardist) Paul Krysiak?

Brandt: We drank with him. He was a drinking buddy at a bar where we used to hang out, and he had a guitar, and he played R.E.M. songs or whatever. But we just hung out with him, and we knew he played music.

Popdose: So with the Splitsville U.S.A. album, was the original idea just to have fun on the side?

Brandt: Yeah, I…do you mind, Matt?

Matt: No, go ahead!

Brandt: Okay, because I remember this distinctly. I remember it was between the Greenberry Woods albums, it was November, we were sitting around, and we had heard from the record company that we weren’t even going to be able to get started working on the next album for, like, two months.

Matt: They delayed us, right? Because of something to do with Paley?

Brandt: Yeah, it was something to do with our producer, Andy Paley, some conflict. So we knew we were going to have these months of just sitting around. So I said, “All right, screw this, Matt! Let’s start another band!” Just for fun. I mean, this is what we’re supposed to be doing, so let’s start another band! It’ll be completely for fun, no pressure. It’s too easy to say that the band split into Matt and I versus Ira and Miles. Matt and I weren’t getting along, Ira and I weren’t getting along…nobody was really getting along, so this was an opportunity for us to really reconnect. The whole purpose of it…I know we say this all the time, but it really was just to have a good time. And you can hear it. It was completely low pressure, and it was just something stupid to do, because we’re musicians.

Matt: And, frankly, the idea of releasing it, while I’m sure it was in the back of our minds, I question in hindsight whether we…I believe that I thought at the time that it was just going to be sort of like a demo for us, and not something that we were going to release. I mean, literally, when it says that we did it in three days, we did it in three days! We had had three practices. One of them was after we went to see “Pulp Fiction,” and we just kind of came back and decided to practice a little bit. I wrote, like, half the songs the first practice. Well, we wrote them.

Brandt: Yeah, we pretty much wrote them on the fly. I mean, we were completing the lyrics while we were singing them, you know?

Matt: Seriously.

Brandt: As Joey from Love Nut used to say, “It took longer to play that song than it did to write it.” (Laughs)

Splitsville Let's Go

Popdose: There’s nothing from Splitsville USA on the Let’s Go compilation. Do you have a definitive answer as to why?

Brandt: Probably because most people would look at it as demo quality and not really representative of the band. Or they can’t handle the raw power of “Trini Is My Favorite Power Ranger” (a.k.a. “Trini ’93“).

Popdose: Was it really that hard to listen to the early stuff for consideration for the disc?

Matt: Well, I’d say that the Let’s Go compliation…I don’t want to spill candy in the lobby here, but some of the Let’s Go compilation was…well, I think that each of the four of us would have a different line-up of stuff.

Brandt: It was hand-picked by five people: the four guys who are now in the band, and the guy from the record label. And because we’re so close to the music, it’s hard for us to say, “Oh, no, this one’s better than that,” so we deferred to him on some of that stuff.

Matt: Yeah, that’s fair to say.

Popdose: I know it’s arguably different from the other albums, but, really, you don’t think anything from there can sit beside the other material?

Brandt: Well, I mean, it’s hard for us to put it in context, because we lived through it. It depends on how you define “best of.” If you define it as the very best-crafted songs, then no. But if you’re talking about a full snapshot of a band’s history, you wouldn’t leave it out. We’re still shocked that we’ll play shows today and people will come up and say, “Aw, man, why didn’t you play anything off of your first album? We love your first album!” And this isn’t people we’ve known for years. This is people we don’t know!

Matt: Actually, what’s funny is that there’s a song on the first album called “Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Larry Storch, Larry Storch,” and they’re doing a documentary on his life, and I just got some information that they’re trying to license that song from us for that. So it still has legs. We had someone a few years ago…I can’t remember when, but I want to say it was in the Repeater era…contact us about “Atari 2600,” because they’d just discovered the song, and it was a computer convention or something that wanted to use it. It was so bizarre!

Popdose: To jump back to your Wikipedia page for a second, what’s this 17-minute opus called “Amateur Hour” that you recorded after Splitsville USA but before Ultrasound? I’d never even heard of it before!

Matt: Really?

Brandt: Do you have a copy of it now?

Popdose: No!

Brandt: We’ve got to get a copy of it for you.

Matt: If you’d heard it, it’d be a lot easier to talk about it.

Brandt: It was one of those things where, basically, we got access through a friend of Paul’s to some major recording gear, 16-track tapes and stuff. We helped this guy build a studio in his garage, and in return, we got to use the space. So we were, like, “What are we going to do?” I think at this time we already knew where we were going to record the next album (Ultrasound), and so we had the time, and…I don’t know, we were just really into Guided By Voices at the time, and we had this concept…

Matt: I can tell you where it came from…and, again, I’m kind of spilling candy in the lobby here…but the song “Amateur Hour,” the original blurb of a song, is actually a “fuck you from The Greenberry Woods” song, if you remember, Brandt, because I was so pissed off about the Greenberry Woods.

Brandt: Uh-huh.

Matt: When we did the second Greenberry Woods album, we sent the record company…

Brandt: Wasn’t it something like 24 songs?

Matt: Yeah, it was twenty-some songs! One of the songs was “Super Geek,” another was “Parachute,” so there were songs that would be, in a perfect world, considered to be “singles.”

Brandt: They could’ve been hits.

Matt: The problem was that Andy Paley had gotten a copy of the first Splitsville album, and that’s when things got more contentious, because the label said, “We want more stuff like this!” And I was, like, “Well, that’s not The Greenberry Woods. Listen to what we just sent you. You don’t hear any singles in that…?” But they didn’t. Actually, “Amateur Hour” was one of the songs that I sent them, too, as kind of a “screw you, guys.” So, anyway, that’s kind of what it came from. We tried to make a concept album…and it really is a concept album. It’s technically 23 songs, and the average song length might be 38 seconds or something like that.

Brandt: But, overall, it’s 17 minutes long, and it’s super catchy. It has a beginning and an end, and it flows. Looking back, we probably would’ve tweaked it…in fact, we were talking about doing that at a certain point…but then we decided that maybe we’d put it out one day just it’d be obvious what we did. But, anyway, that’s what it is. We were basically just trying to please ourselves on that one.

Matt: Totally. After you hear it, I’d love to hear your feedback on it, because I think it still holds up. Sound-quality-wise, it’s still a little rough…

Brandt: Medium-fi, maybe.

Matt: …but, actually, you can tell that it improves as it goes on, as we were figuring out how to actually record!

Popdose: So, from there, it was on to Ultrasound. Obviously, it took longer to record than its predecessor, but did you feel like you’d captured what you wanted Splitsville to be?

Brandt: I think at the time we did. Don’t you think, Matt?

Matt: Yeah, I think that’s who we were at the time, absolutely. I think that’s a very good snapshot of us at the time.

Brandt: And, again, I remember the touring we did for that, and people were…it was right for the times. A lot of people were, like, “This is pretty cool.”

Matt: When we toured, we would surprise ourselves when we’d be booked at a punk club, and we were doin the three-button suit thing years before it was cool to do it, but we’d blast the hell out of the joints. There’d be so much jumping up and down, and it was three of us singing three-part harmonies, and the playing style that we’d developed sounded a hell of a lot fuller than just your typical three-piece. We’d have punks fans coming up to us after the shows, and we thought they wanted to kick our asses, but they’d say, “We thought you guys were fantastic!” So we thought that, commercially, we really had something going.

Popdose: What were some of your favorite songs from that album.

Brandt: In a perfect world, “Yearbook” would’ve been a huge hit.

Matt: And I think you have to say “Ponce de Leon.

Popdose: If I was to look at the stats, I’d say that song probably turned up on 73% of the mix tapes I made in the late ‘90s.

Matt: Right on, brother!

Brandt: Awesome! I had a co-worker of mine call me up just the other day, actually, and she said, “I just heard that song on Pandora!” I guess we’re on the Ben Folds Five channel. We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us because of that. I think “Ponce” is a strong song. It’s fun.

Matt: Yeah, as far as singles, I’d say “Ponce” and “Yearbook.” “The Misfits,” I always liked.

Brandt: “The Kids Who Kill For Sugar” is also a fun song for us because it was the first one…well, it wasn’t the first one that all three of us wrote together, but it was the first one where we really sat down and said, “Let’s write a song together.”

Matt: What’s funny, though, is that I don’t think the recorded version of that song is nearly as good as what we do live.

Brandt: Oh, I agree.

Matt: I don’t think it captures us live. What kills me every time I hear Ultrasound is the little untitled thing at the very end of the album. That kills me. And I think that actually hinted at the production values that we were going to bring to the next album, and certainly to Pet Soul.

Popdose: And, actually, the next thing you did was the Pet Soul EP.

Splitsville Let's Go

Matt: No, we did Repeater next, didn’t we?

Brandt: He’s talking about the EP.

Matt: Oh, the four-song EP. Yeah, sorry, you’re right.

Brandt: Yeah, we did the four-song EP, and then we also did the Bacharach cover (“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again“).

Matt: Why did we do that? Oh, right, for the label (Big Deal).

Brandt: Yeah, the label gave us some money to do the Bacharach cover. But we also wrote some jingles for the Baltimore city paper in exchange for free studio time. They were, like, “We’ll pay for more studio time than you need, and you get to use the leftover, but you have to record these jingles for us.” So we wrote and recorded two versions. This should end up on an album somewhere sometime, but we did a rock version and we did a country version.

Popdose: On the cover of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” I love the inspired touch of adding “Video Killed the Radio Star” to the ending.

Brandt: That was my idea. Paul’s idea was…I thought the big harmonies on that song sounded like ELO, but he thought it was more like Sweet, like “Love Is Like Oxygen.” But, anyway, it was his idea to do that, and for some reason, I don’t know why, I thought about throwing in “Video Killed the Radio Star.” I don’t know why it stuck in my head, but I said, “Let’s just throw that in there.” Again, this is a case of just trying to please ourselves.

Popdose: Which is more or less what Pet Soul was as well. That was decidedly different, sound-wise, from what you’d just been doing.

Brandt: Completely different. And that’s the thing that I’ll stand by with Splitsville: even if you say that some of the stuff is derivative, that we were winking or nodding toward something, we were always trying to do something different. So it really did come from us saying things like, “Hey, I’ve got this song about Brian Wilson.” Of course, we’re all fans of ‘60s pop, so we just said, “Let’s do a ‘60s pop EP!” So everybody came up with something, and we just threw in the kitchen sink on all of the stuff.

Matt: Yeah, I mean, as commercial as all of our stuff arguably is, there’s really never been a thought process where we said, “Let’s do it because of the commercial aspects of it.” Certainly, you don’t do a four-song EP sounding like ‘60s pop if you want to be commercial. In fact, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot by doing that! We’ve always just followed what amused us at the time, and we tried to do it the best that we could and hope that someone actually dug it.

Splitsville Let's Go

Popdose: As for Repeater, PopMatters suggested that it was a lead forward on the level of Radiohead moving from Pablo Honey to The Bends.

Brandt: “Shit sandwich? Are they allowed to say that?” (Laughs)

Matt: (Laughs) Well, as a Radiohead fan, from Pablo Honey to The Bends, I can accept that…but certainly not from The Bends to OK Computer, though. I don’t think we’ve ever made that leap. Even with Incorporated, which I think sounds very professionally done for the most part, it’s not like we did something that you can sit back and go, “Jesus, where did this come from?” It’s still kinda straight-ahead pop stuff. But I love Repeater. I think it’s probably the strongest Splitsville album. Well, maybe not “strongest,” but it’s the one that resonates the most with me. You can tell…or I can tell, anyway…that we were at the top of our game and hungry back then.

Popdose: There’s definitely considerable maturity between Ultrasound and Repeater…well, for those who hadn’t heard the Pet Soul EP, anyway.

Matt: Absolutely.

Brandt: The drums were in time, too.

Popdose: Favorite songs off that album? I know, it’s the worst question in the world, and I hate even asking it, but…

Brandt: No, no, it’s cool, but I’m just trying to remember which songs from it are on Let’s Go! (Laughs)

Matt: I think Side 1 doesn’t stop…which in my mind goes from “Dayjob” through “Dixie Liquor and Beer.” I just think we kind of bludgeon you with great song after great song. And, then, Side 2…hell, I just think it’s solid. I think it’s a solid album. We hit the straight-ahead pop at the beginning, then…I think, in our minds, we were very much thinking, “Let’s do what The Beatles did on Revolver and not just stick to one thing.” We tried to make each song a different genre, and I think we did that for the most part. I’m not sure we achieved it completely, but…

Splitsville Let's Go

Popdose: And then you expanded on the EP and did The Complete Pet Soul. Was that because you had been approached by Air Mail (the Japanese label who released the record), or had you already been considering expanding it to a full album?

Brandt: Hey, Matt, you lied earlier when you said we never made a commercial move. (Laughs) Because, honestly, what happened was that Repeater was our last album for Big Deal, and they fell apart, and we said, “Hey, what do we do now?” We were sitting around, licking our wounds, and…if you remember that when the EP went out, it was a freebie, but people just kept going nuts over it. And we had more songs that had that kind of mindset to, so we just said, “Let’s do this,” and we wrote a few more songs for it. I gotta tell ya that, from a fun and laid-back point of view, that album…in fact, the EP was fun, too…but recording the rest of the material for the album was great. It was quick, we were playing really well. Okay, some of that was just me, because I felt like I was playing drums really well, so it was easy to go in and record them. But we just had fun with it. When you do something like that, it’s…well, it’s like The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper or something like that. You go, “Let’s pretend we’re other people and make an album.” And, that way, you don’t get stuck in a box with stuff. We were able to go in and have fun with stuff, and instead of being so emotionally attached to parts, we could just go, “Okay, sure, we can try that!” Even setting aside the fact that the songs were good, it turned out really great, in part, I think, because it was just so much fun to make.

Matt: Yeah, and, y’know, any of the knocks that we get…like I really should care about this shit, but…

Brandt: You care. Don’t pretend that you don’t.

Matt: Oh, of course I do. It’s me: I’m wound up tighter than a drum! But I think it was on Amazon where someone wrote, “I heard a lot about this album, and it was good, but it’s trying to be the Beach Boys, and it doesn’t really get there,” or something like that. And I was, like, “Dude, c’mon, they kind of invented this shit. If you had any expectations that this was going to be the Beach Boys but better, that’s impossible to achieve.” C’mon!

Brandt: And we kind of shot ourselves in the foot with the title, too, because…the last thing we wanted to do, and the reason our next album wasn’t that way, was to become The Dukes of Stratosphear or something, XTC didn’t do those albums because they wanted to become The Dukes of Stratosphear from then on out. We were just taking that era and recording a loving homage to that era. We weren’t trying to specifically be a certain thing. That’s boring. When The Rutles did it, it was funny, but you don’t want to make a career out of being The Rutles. It’s funny, though, because I can remember talking to one of our friends, and when I was explaining to him what the album was, he was, like, “Really? It just sounds to me like your stuff.” He didn’t get that it was an homage to ‘60s rock. He just thought it was more Splitsville stuff! I thought that was great, actually.

Popdose: You mentioned that Big Deal had fallen apart. What was your experience like on the label?

Matt: Typical. Typical of any label. My thing is that those guys talked a good game, but when it came time to execute it, I thought they had major issues, which time proved to be true.

Brandt: I think their hearts were in the right place, but they ended up making some things more difficult than they needed to be. I don’t know. I just started a label, which is more like a collective, and my whole bit is that there’s always going to be some sort of conflict between the artist and the label. There just is. It’s the nature of the business.

Splitsville Let's Go

Popdose: When Incorporated came out, was it an intentional response to The Complete Pet Soul, where you were trying actively to not sound like that record?

Brandt: No. We knew we didn’t want to do another Pet Soul…though we could’ve…but it was more to do with Tony (Waddy) coming into the band. It was really the first album where he was involved as a full member. We had been playing with him for a year or two already, but when we went in to record the album, that was just the direction we were going. They were the songs that best represented us at the time.

Popdose: I’ve heard it referred to as an anti-conceptual album.

Brandt: That’s true.

Matt: Actually, what we said to ourselves was, “Let’s go back to the next logical progression after Repeater, as if Pet Soul didn’t happen,” since that wasn’t really Splitsville as much as it was Splitsville Presents. If there was a concept for Incorporated, it was to do an album of singles. I think that was the thought process.

Brandt: There wasn’t a narrative arc to the album. It was just, “Let’s write great songs.” That’s it.

Popdose: So where is Splitsville now?

Brandt: Physically…? (Laughs) I’ll tell you where ¾ of Splitsville is going to be next week: in Nags Head, relaxing at the beach. But…what is our scoop? I just bought a bunch of recording gear, so we’ll probably end up recording some stuff.

Popdose: So the band continues to exist?

Brandt: Absolutely. We’re doing a show in Chicago in October, and Matt’s coming into town to run a half-marathon with me, and we’re going to play a gig that night. Somehow.

Popdose: So at this stage, you’re just picking gigs as they make sense?

Brandt: Yeah.

Popdose: And, lastly, do you ever hate getting stuck with the tag of “power pop”?

Brandt: Well, I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds, but, y’know, who wants to be put into a box like that? But I guess when people ask me what our music’s like, that’s how I’m most likely to describe it, so I can’t really argue.

Matt: I mean, I think Weezer and Green Day are power pop, but I also think that some bands that I really can’t stand are power pop, so the question is, where on the spectrum of power pop do we lie? That’s where I would have a problem with it. It’s, like, shit, what’s your definition of power pop…? (Laughs)