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Heartbreak, noir and surf guitar

Green Bay’s Spencer Smet conjures debut album, prepares for next live performance

By Matty Day

Smet performing live. He will play at the Lyric Room on April 27, as he opens for The Schizophonics. Tiffany Fellenz Photo

“Abandoned mills,” “burial vaults” and “cold, wicked winds” – Green Bay musician Spencer Smet has a way of setting the stage for his songs, penning lyrics like unwritten monologues from never-released horror films.

Released at the end of 2020, Smet’s debut album, Gray & Night, should’ve made a s(p)lash in the Green Bay music scene, with its surf guitar riffs, fascinating prose and a vocal performance evoking a Bryan Ferry/Richard Hell/Bobby “Boris” Pickett-headed beast. 

“I didn’t have too high of expectations for it,” Smet said. “But I love that those songs exist in some capacity, so I can give them more life and depth for live performances.”

That’s exactly what happened in late February when Spencer Smet & The Die Hard on VHS Band played at The Tarlton Theatre.

Smet & (The Whatever He Calls His Band That Week, which he said he plans to rename for every show) will again look to entertain a crowd full of musical enthusiasts April 27 at the Lyric Room as the opening act for San Diego’s The Schizophonics.

Smet’s live band features Jack Kispert on drums, Jake Phelps on keys and Eric Coppersmith on bass.

Though Smet said he doesn’t necessarily believe people are haunted by ghosts, he said he believe people are haunted by experiences. Craig Fiedler Photo

‘Gray & Night’

On his debut album, Gray & Night, Smet sings about messy desire, gloomy solitude and bittersweet revenge with the same conviction as lines about vampires, phantoms and ghosts, begging the question: Does he believe in supernatural monsters?

“I believe people are haunted by experiences,” Smet said. “But not so much ghosts.”

Literal specters and gloomy introspection co-haunt the album’s 10 tracks, which, despite the nocturnal bent of Smet’s lyrics, amount to an upbeat garage-rock affair.

Different from the live band makeup, Gray & Night features Julian Routheaux and Travis Pashek of Green Bay’s gloriously rowdy blues-rock duo The French Irish Coalition.

“We loved how it turned out,” Smet said. “I was originally going to record just one (song) with them, but I asked them if they wanted to do the rest of the album with me.”

With Routheaux on bass, Pashek on drums and Smet on guitar and vocals, the trio finished the final session in September 2020, with Routheaux engineering the tracks in his home studio.

“We burned a CD (of the songs), and I drove around and listened to it in my car,” Smet said. “And that is one of the happiest times I’ve had, ever.”

Smet said the songwriting process was “satisfyingly challenging.”

Not only was he relatively new to playing guitar and completely inexperienced at writing full songs, Smet said he used the process to work through a bad breakup. 

“Being in a dark pit, or whatever,” he said of his headspace at the time. “I had a tape recorder, I’d play guitar – just play some random riffs. Over the course of two years, they evolved into some more structured elements, and when I felt comfortable with how a song was going, I put some words to it.”

Those words, Smet said, largely came from “tons of weird, scattered notebooks of unfinished lyrics.”

“I’ve always liked writing, like little, short horror stories with an ounce of ridiculousness to them,” he said. “As I got older, it got a little harder to write stories, but I started getting more into music.”

Reeling off musical inspirations, Smet said his favorites include Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Dick Dale, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Rick James, Talking Heads and Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry. Not exactly what one would expect from a millenial’s playlist.

“I would rather listen to Dionne Warwick than whoever’s popular these days,” Smet said. “I’ve always been like that.”

He said he draws from atypical influences, but his music’s all his own, and his emerging presence in the local music scene is a welcome one, particularly with the relative dearth of local acts, as COVID-19 exacerbated what had already been a trend of dwindling original music in Green Bay.

Smet is nothing if not original, and with his promising debut album and his band’s compelling live shows, his brand of garage-rock is a boon regardless of the state of the scene.

“I do it ‘cause it makes me happy, and makes the people around me happy – gives people some escapism in their life,” Smet said. “I’d like to be used as a reference, like when people listen to Springsteen or Bowie and need some kind of weird guidance. If that’s the impression I can leave behind, I’ll be happy.”

Matty Day is a freelance writer and musician, performing with Cory Chisel, Muddy Udders, the Foamers?, the Priggs and more. You can reach Matty via email at [email protected], on Twitter @pollutedmindset or on his website matthewtday.com.

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