The four members of Three Man Cannon are rarely in the same place at the same time. They’re busy folks — so busy that we could only pin one of them down for this interview. Spenser Colmbs, Matt Schimelfenig, Pat Brier and Dennis Mishko were still teenagers when they formed the band in Scranton, PA, and the decade since has brought countless moves back and forth across the region, not to mention changes in their sound and their approach to songwriting and recording.
Yet while distance can be an issue — 100 mile trips up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike aren’t exactly conducive to frequent band practices — Three Man Cannon is still going strong. The band braved a snowstorm last winter to convene for ten days in a cozy converted-barn studio in the Poconos, and, day by day, song by song, made what would become their new self-titled LP. Tucked away from the city and their hectic everyday lives, Three Man Cannon brought a new clarity to their music, filling in the pieces that were once missing with a sharp focus and collaborative spirit. The result is their best record yet.
Three Man Cannon is out now. Read our conversation with bassist Spenser Colmbs below.
The Key: Since you’ve been a band for about 10 years now, I was wondering why you chose to self-title the new record. That seems like a thing bands would do when they’re just starting out.
Spenser Colmbs: I feel like titling, especially of songs, that’s always one of the last things that we do before we put the songs out. And this album, when we got to the point where we were talking about what we were going to call it, nothing stuck the way that we wanted it to when we were tossing ideas around. One of the big contenders for the album name was going to be “Building Broken Steps,” which is the second song on the album, and in the end we decided not to go with it and just call it Three Man Cannon. I think a lot of that, other than being indecisive about it, has to do with [how] the album feels very us. It feels like an embodiment of what we’ve been, what we’ve done before and where we’re at now, and I feel really good about it. So just call it after ourselves and call it a day.
TK: You started the band as teenagers in Scranton. What was that like? Was there a big scene there?
SC: There was. I can’t say that there is now; it seems that the scene has died down. When we were coming up as a band there was a little bit of an older group that was making things happen, like the people who ran Test Pattern, which was an art gallery in downtown Scranton that would put on shows. And there was this awesome club in Wilkes-Barre called Cafe Metropolis where people would go and play. I feel like the scene was kind of made by the people that were in it, and then around 2008-2009, everybody moved to Philadelphia.
TK: As they do.
SC: And just brought it here. Everybody played together back then, it was always us; Tigers Jaw; Captain, We’re Sinking; The Menzingers; Okay Paddy was a big band, and another band called The Swims. Sometimes when I’m talking about Scranton and back then, I feel this tendency to become a bit of a historian and try to include as much as possible. But the scene was great there. We would all hang out and play each other’s shows, and hang out after the shows, and go get food the next day, and it was just what we did all the time. We just kind of naturally progressed into something else.
TK: Even though the four of you don’t all live in the city right now, you’re part of the Philly scene and part of the Lame-O Records family. What’s your relationship to the scene like?
SC: The Lame-O Records family is the best. I can’t say what we would’ve done if it weren’t for Eric [Osman] and Emily [Hakes]. They just happened to be hanging out with the people in Kite Party, and I guess the Kite Party people were talking about our record that we were recording, and they reached out to us and asked if they could hear it, and then said they wanted to put it out. And we were very much not, like, we weren’t sending our demos to labels or anything like that, we were not that band. They took a chance on us, they liked what they heard, and wanted to put it out. Really good people to work with, and in an industry that, for other artists that we know, can be awful. So that’s been nice.
TK: I know that your songwriting process is really collaborative. Who contributes what and how do you put it all together?
SC: Basically whoever you hear singing on a song is the person that wrote most of that song. We’ve never done a thing where somebody writes the lyrics and then another person is the main singer on that song; it’s always like if you wrote that song, you have this idea in what you want to say and you’re the one that’s gonna sing it. There are songs in our catalogue that each one of us have sang primarily on. I think Dennis has, like, two songs in our catalogue that he sang on and wrote. Primarily it’s Pat and Matt that have contributed the most songs. And I think I’ve done two songs, too. But also it’s not the finished product, it’s always like, “Here, I have this song, this is how the guitar’s gonna go, or how I want the guitar to go, or how I feel like it may go.” And then we all sort of collaborate on it. There’s a lot of trust that goes into it.
TK: You wrote the song “How A Mouse Could” on the new record. What’s the story behind that song?
SC: I was living in a house in South Philly, like summer 2016, about five months before we recorded the album. And we started to develop a mice problem. I lived in the basement of this house, which I started to call Spider Kingdom because it had a lot of spiders in it and I had a very real fear of spiders. So I was in this weird place where I was living in this windowless basement, and every night wondering what I was doing with my life. And then all of a sudden there were these mice that wanted to encroach on my space and were very much a part of my life, so I started to think about what that mouse would think of me. It kind of just boils down to cohabitation and how it feels to live with another presence.
TK: Does the inspiration for most of Three Man Cannon’s songs come from real experiences like that? Or more abstract things?
SC: I feel like I’ve always asked Matt. I always feel like I have a grasp on what he’s talking about when he’s singing, like, “This song’s about this, isn’t it?”, and he’s like, “Well, no, not really.” It depends on who’s writing. Pat’s songs always feel like a story to me; very personal. Pat’s one of the most personal and feeling people I know, and I feel like his songs translate that way. For me, when I write songs I try to just describe moments in time along with some imagery of what’s going on, just to try and capture the moment.
TK: Even after a bunch of years as a band, it seems like you guys are still pretty low-key. No huge social media presence or big marketing push.
SC: I feel like we had a sponsored Instagram post for this record, but yeah. We have all the things but it is pretty low-key. We’re not pushing it. And I feel like some of that can come from us being kind of defeatist; [we] don’t want to shove our music down anybody’s throats, like “Listen to this!” It’s not really our style. But I also feel like by having that mindset we never even reached anywhere near that tipping point of it being too much. If people want to listen they do. And it’s really nice to hear from people that do listen and take it in and enjoy it, because i feel like that’s kind of how we are, too. Like when people reach out and say that a song has done something for them, it’s really cool.
TK: If someone listens to your new record for the first time, and it’s the first time they’ve listened to Three Man Cannon and they don’t know anything about you, what would you hope they get out of it?
SC: I would hope that they just enjoy the ride. Each song is meant to be its own thing; that’s why we decided to do one song a day. Every time we sat down to record, or stood up to record, it was like, “The focus of today is this song. And that’s what we’re going to do.” And I feel like that translated in the songs; each one is very much its own thing to be enjoyed. Or not enjoyed. Experienced?
TK: Your bio on Lame-O’s website says that this is the first Three Man Cannon record written by “honest-to-goodness adults.” Would you agree with that?
SC: It depends on who you ask. If that’s how it comes across, then I’m happy with that. You know, the only time I ever feel like an adult is when I, like, write something down that I need to do and then I do it. Other than that, I still feel like the same person I was 20 years ago. With the same bad jokes.
TK: Where do you see the band in ten more years?
SC: In ten more years? Who are you, my parents? I can’t say for everybody, but I don’t think I could ever stop playing music. Ideally we would, as a band, still be putting out records. Maybe more people would be listening to them then. Ten years is really not that far away, when I think about it, because it’s already been ten years since a time when I thought about what I’d be doing in ten years. And here we are.
TK: So your release show is at Johnny Brenda’s this weekend. Do you have anything special planned for that?
SC: Yeah, we do. We’re gonna look good. And put on a good show.
Three Man Cannon plays a record release show this Sunday, April 15 at Johnny Brenda’s with Yowler and Bobby Barnett. Find tickets and more information on the XPN Concert Calendar.
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