Nine years ago, John Spalding—guitarist for local punk band Ninety Pound Wuss and spastic hardcore act Raft of Dead Monkeys—quietly began recording some songs of his own at home. He named his new project LoveLand.
But before Spalding could fully realize his new songs, life happened. He went back to school. He met, fell in love with, and married his wife, Jody. Then, about four years ago, Spalding was diagnosed with cancer.
As his illness became more aggressive (metastasizing from his colon to his lungs), so did Spalding, throwing himself into the project he had started then let stall years earlier. He recruited over a dozen local musicians he had worked with and befriended over the years—members of Minus the Bear, These Arms Are Snakes, the Blood Brothers, Suffering and the Hideous Thieves, Pretty Girls Make Graves—and with their help, LoveLand became a reality.
Spalding spent many weeks of his final months recording songs at Red Room with Chris Common, Ben Verellen, and Matt Bayles. He named the record The Beautiful Truth. He died not long after its mixing and mastering was complete.
Since Spalding's death, those involved have worked to see his project through, throwing a series of benefit shows in his memory (the biggest of which, featuring MxPx, raised over $7,000 for the John D. Spalding Medical Fund) and giving the album a proper release. The Beautiful Truth will be out on Tigre Blanco, Minus the Bear's imprint label, on February 17.
There was ample opportunity to shelve the LoveLand project during Spalding's staggering battle with cancer—between countless chemotherapy treatments, surgeries, and invasive medication, no one would've thought any less of him had he decided to conserve his energy and concentrate on his health—but he persevered.
"The last bit of recording we did couldn't have been more than a month or so before he passed," recalls Verellen. "He was in the studio, hooked up to the oxygen, singing." As The Beautiful Truth attests, Spalding wasn't the kind of man who takes the easy road.
The record is complicated and unpredictable. More than just enjoyable pop, it's also full of interesting juxtapositions and sonic experiments. Dirty, reckless saxophones suddenly appear in an otherwise clean and bright anthem; spitting, snarly rock songs contrast with a beautiful drum-machine number layered with wordless harmonies. There's not a moment of pity, regret, or wallowing in the entire near-hour of music. There's a range of emotion, to be sure, but even at its lowest, The Beautiful Truth feels like a celebration of his life rather than a mourning of his death.
Opening track "Girl Get Pride" is a confident anthem featuring group vocals—there are some layers of spacey synth, but nothing too out of the ordinary—then, in the last minute or so, a flurry of saxophone (played by Joel Cuplin of Triumph of Lethargy and Constant Lovers) drives the song to its hard, spiraling conclusion. On "Good People," Spalding begins happily, "There are so many good people who have so much to offer." The guitar sort of dances in the background, some crisp keyboards kick in, and his tone abruptly becomes demanding: "If you don't got something good to say, keep it to your fucking self!"
"Rainbows" is a three-minute instrumental; "Father" is a heartbreaking ballad written by Spalding after Jody's father passed away; "Building Walls Through the Sky" is a forceful, driving track featuring These Arms Are Snakes' Steve Snere on vocals; "Essa-life" is the only song that seems to nod to Spalding's frustrations with his illness: "The thought of losing my wife was a weight I could not bear... I want to fight, I want to live to be incorruptible."
While the outcome may sound like the organic "come what may" result of such a multitude of musicians lending their talents to a project, both Verellen and Bayles insist it was more deliberate than that. Spalding "was definitely playing producer," says Verellen. "He was working toward a specific thing. He'd bring someone in and he'd think, 'I think that person is going to do to this,' and it'd work."
Spalding's musical background is far from the mainstream—in Raft of Dead Monkeys, his searing guitar parts had to be riveting enough to stand up to the band's notoriously insane showmanship (thrashing, fake blood)—and his willingness to be bold definitely shows up on The Beautiful Truth.
"John's sounds are completely whacked out," says Verellen. "There's a little element of punk, but for the most part he had his own take. I wouldn't know what scene to put LoveLand in. I don't know who it applies to. It's kind of its own deal."
"There are songs where, until the vocals were on them, I had no idea what was going on," Verellen continues. "I couldn't understand the rhythms, I couldn't understand how the guitar part fit with the drum machine—it was just so out there. Then when he was all done, it's like, 'Oh, that's what you were doing!"
"The fact that he could be that thoughtful about other people and the process amid the cloud... he was doped up and in pain, but he still managed to be very productive. It was awesome."
The Beautiful Truth is a record intended to remember life—there was life before Spalding got cancer, and for those he loved, there will be life after. It's his gift to those who survive, and he made sure that it was something they could enjoy, despite its tragic circumstances.
"He managed to keep perspective," Verellen says. "He's trying to tell a story, and he had the ability to step outside of what was right in front of him, which was the fact that he was hurting and dealing with a lot of crazy, emotional stuff. He wasn't trying to make a swan song."
On the last song on the album, the title track, Spalding sings gently over a calm guitar and a soft, steady beat, "Have you touched LoveLand? Can you see LoveLand? Do you want LoveLand?" And it truly feels like he's found this joyous place full of life, music, and much love.