Compiled and edited by Teri Barr
Sunspot hits you like a rocket.
The first time we experienced this band and its festive style, we’d just moved back to Wisconsin, and the owner of a bowling alley in the area is a friend. We received a rather panicked call from him saying, “I need help! I have no one to run lights or sound for this band and I want to make sure they have a great show!”
We love music and couldn’t find a reason to say no, so a few hours later, my husband and another friend were behind the board, ready to help Sunspot rock a good-sized crowd. Those with us, didn’t know what to expect, and were totally blown out of orbit by the creativity, stage presence, and overall musicianship presented by the three larger-than-life members of Sunspot. Mike Huberty, Wendy Lynn Staats, and Ben Jaeger have been playing together for years. And it shows.
A Sunspot performance is tight, fast, and loud. The group does mostly original music, but if there’s a cover (I’ve heard them play some mean Metallica!), they do it their own way. The talent — Mike sings, plays bass and keyboard; Wendy drums, sings and plays violin; Ben is usually on guitar but also sings and plays the keys– allows them to match their name. Sunspot is its own astronomical event.
The band is now using its supersonic energy to delve into the many new promotional options on the music scene. Most recently, they went directly to their fans by crowdsourcing for their big stage, main show at Madison’s Brat Fest. It meant asking what songs to play, and including friends via video, twitter, and the web as a part of the concert. Sunspot also shared their 2013 SXSW tour to Austin, Texas through a video blog straight from their van while on the road. Keeping in touch is part of the act!
The past decade has brought the band the local recognition they deserve, including being named the winner of Rock Album of the Year at the Madison Area Music Association’s Awards in 2012, 2010, and 2004.
I had the chance to ask them what it means to be honored for doing what you love, where the future may be taking this talented band, and how Sunspot got its start more than 15 years ago.
Teri: Share your background with me. Did you start playing music as a young child? Who was your influence?
Mike: We had an upright piano in my room when I was a little kid, but I didn’t know how to play it. I’d just make up songs on it. (Some people may say that hasn’t changed much!) I played cello in orchestra in grade school and that was fun, but then Ben moved into my neighborhood when we were 10, and after school I’d go over to his house and he’d play piano and I’d sing. We’d do whatever sheet music they had laying around, whether it was pop from the 80’s or classic songs from the 60’s.
Then when I was about 13 years old, I bought a guitar magazine because I loved the sound of “Hotel California” so much, and I decided I wanted to learn how to play it. Some kids in my gym class said they wanted to start a band but they needed a bass player. So the day after school let out for the summer, I went to the music store and got a bass. The summer band didn’t happen, but I never stopped playing guitar.
Ben: I started playing piano when I was four, and tuba when I was 11. We formed a band for the eighth grade talent show, so I got a guitar. The musicians and their bands at the time (Whitesnake, AC/DC, Van Halen) were stars and it seemed like fun.
Wendy: I started on piano at age 4, drums at 11, and violin at 12. I studied percussion while in the middle school band, but didn’t do much in the way of a drum kit, beyond goofing around with the one my dad had in our basement. It was his kit from when he was in high school. Then, I joined up with Mike and Ben in 1996.
Teri: When did you know you wanted to be a musician and in a band? How did you put your plan into action?
Mike: About 3 months after I got my bass, Ben got a guitar. Being in a band sounded like the right thing to do, so we found a drummer. We were 14 years old and got some songs ready for the Junior High Talent Show. The first song we learned was “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper.
Ben: I always knew I wanted to play music. I solidified my interest in being in a band while in middle school. And I majored in music at UW.
Wendy: I have always wanted to play music, as far back as I can remember. My older sister started taking piano lessons when she was 6, and it looked like fun. I begged my parents to let me take lessons, too.
Teri: Did you make music your focus?
Mike and Ben: Oh yeah, we kept the band going all through high school! We played parties, dances, and church festivals. (We were also the first band ever banned from Mukwonago High School for inciting a mosh-pit!) And when we got to college, we met Wendy and found someone whose musical tastes matches ours. She has a love of hard-hitting music with melodies that stick with you. Wendy also shares our drive and desire to succeed.
Wendy: I loved playing violin in a variety of small ensembles in high school. I think it gave me a taste for performing in more of a self-guided (as opposed to conductor-led) sort of group. And as for drumming, after just a few times jamming with Mike and Ben in college, I was hooked on the rock band experience.
Teri: What brought you to Madison and what keeps you here?
Mike: We came here for college. And Madison is awesome, because it’s awesomely weird! Unlike some of the major cities, Madison is a place where you can really get to know and work with everyone in the music scene, and there are plenty of artists and acts here who do exciting things outside of the mainstream. There’s also support for the stuff that’s a little left-of-center. It’s big enough so there’s a lot going on, but small enough you can make a large impact.
Ben: The University brought us to Madison. We stayed because it is a great music town.
Wendy: We all went to college at UW-Madison and enjoyed the city enough to want to stay. We love it here for many reasons– it’s large enough to have plenty of events and opportunities, but still has the down-to-earth Midwest attitude. It’s also in close proximity to other big cities, so we have access to a lot of different people, events, etc. with just a short drive. Madison has a very supportive and fun music scene we enjoy being a part of!
Teri: Can you tell me about some of your music-related experiences? I’m sure there’s good and bad, but not sure you can share all the details?
Mike: We’ve played for thousands of people, and we’ve played for single digits. I know this sounds corny, but every experience can be a good one as long as your performance makes a connection with the people who are listening to it. We’ve played all the places I used to read about in magazines, whether it’s the Sunset Strip (LA) or Greenwich Village (NYC). Sometimes it lives up to expectations and sometimes it doesn’t. The good experiences are the ones where you know the audience feels what you’re singing about, and sometimes that’s in a tiny venue in the middle of Indiana, or a skate park in Rockford, or a clothing shop in Austin, or even someone’s basement at a college party in Madison.
When the music hits, it’s the electricity of humans actually being involved in something bigger than themselves. It’s communication unique to a song and a moment.
As far as bad experiences– there are nights when you can’t make the audience care or the sound is atrocious or there’s some attitude from the other bands that doesn’t rub you the right way. In those situations, you just go and do your best to make some kind of connection with the people that are there. A lot of it is still just having fun onstage no matter what. You’re there to give it everything you’ve got every time, otherwise, why drive hundreds of miles, why bang your gear, why get up there at all?
Ben: Every gig is a good one because you share it with two other people and the new friends you’re making there. I can’t imagine touring solo.
Wendy: We’ve been lucky to have tons and tons of experiences. Mostly good ones, thankfully, but we’ve had our share of challenges, too. A lot of them are chronicled in our “Road Mania” podcasts, so we have a pretty good record of us talking about things freshly after it happens. Yes, that includes the good AND the bad! (Laughter)
Teri: Are you happy with what Sunspot has accomplished? Do you have future goals for the band?
Mike: I’m excited about all the cool things we’ve been able to do in the past. And I’m happy we’ve been able to touch a lot of people’s lives with our music. We’ve been part of many weddings of people who’ve connected through our songs. But I’m the type of person who’s never satisfied with what’s already been done. I always want more. I always want to take on bigger challenges, create new experiences, and get more people involved in our community. The wonderful thing about music is there’s no end point, there’s always more to do, there’s always more to create. The range and depth of human emotion is endless and can be endlessly explored. Yes, “it’s all been done”, but it’s never been filtered through these eyes.
Ben: We have people who enjoy our music. It is such a rush seeing people sing along to the music you’ve created. Goal accomplished.
Wendy: I’m very happy with where we are today, but there’s always room for growth and development as a band. Each thing we complete spawns new ideas for more exciting, fun, and innovative projects. Moving forward, we want to continue creating great music we love, while incorporating different aspects of entertainment into our live show so we can always have new ways to share and present our music. Our fans should know, no matter how long they stick with us, they will never know exactly what to expect, and will always have fresh new things to look forward to at our shows.
Teri: The music business has changed so much during the last several years. It’s made it more difficult to be a full-time musician, especially on the local or even regional scene. Do you all have a regular, day job? How do you balance your work with your music?
Mike: I work at a local music company called Broadjam. I am working with music all day and trying to find opportunities for songs and for the musicians who made the songs. It’s incredibly inspiring to hear what others are creating. The balance is trying to find all the hours in the day for everything I want to do. To be honest, the trick is not to sleep, but that makes me sound like an unhealthy madman.
The things that excite you are the most important. Do that first and everything else will fall into place.
Ben: My whole life is music. Night and day. I play, I teach, I compose, I record. It’s all music.
Wendy: We all have jobs outside of Sunspot, and it really is a balancing act. The keys are time management and organization, and loving music and your band so much that you’re genuinely excited to spend every minute of your “free” time creating and developing things for it.
Teri: How would you describe Sunspot?
Mike: I always say the Barenaked Ladies and Cheap Trick had a baby that read too much Douglas Adams!
Ben: We play our own music, but when we do play a cover, we do songs we love. Any song we play that we didn’t write, it’s because we liked it so much we wanted to play it too!
Wendy: Sunspot is rock music with kicking bass and dancey beats, melodic shredding guitar solos, male/female vocals harmonizing lyrics that embrace sci-fi and pop-cultural themes. Our own music is the focus of our live show, but on occasion we’ll throw in our own rendition of other songs we enjoy.
Teri: You’ve received some nice accolades as musicians. How does it feel to be honored, especially on the local scene?
Mike: Winning Rock Album of the Year at the Madison Area Music Association Awards three times is a great validation we’re doing things that connect with people. And we’re excited to support the charity of the MAMA’s. Plus, I was a film major in college, so winning the first “Video of the Year” was kind of like– great, guess that was money well spent..!
Ben: We are excited about having our colleagues in the music industry, and the fans that like our music, vote for us at those types of events.
Wendy: The MAMA’s Awards are special because it signifies the type of audience and supporters you have in the area. It shows you have people who care enough about you, both as an artist and the community as a whole, to donate some of their time and money toward the cause which works on getting instruments into the hands of children who may otherwise not be able to afford it. We are very honored to have received a few of these special awards.
Teri: The awards are wonderful. But what are you most proud of as a musician and a band?
Mike: We’ve done everything our own way. And sometimes that’s the hard way. Sometimes you stay up all night, literally banging your head against the wall trying to figure out the next “thing,” your next move, your next plan, the thing that will make you break out.
But we’ve always stuck to doing the things we absolutely believe in. We’ve put our faith in each other and what we create. And we’ve expressed feelings and thoughts other people can’t– we’ve helped them find their voice through our songs. And we’ve had fun. Damn, it’s been fun!
Ben: I am proud we’ve stayed together! We still enjoy making music together and when you find that, you don’t give it up.
Wendy: I am very proud of all our recorded works (6 full length CD’s, a DVD of music videos, and a live concert DVD) because each one was a major effort we saw through to completion. Also, I’m proud of the hundreds of live shows we’ve done, each one with full integrity, even the ones with non-ideal circumstances. As a band, I’m most pleased we continue to have fun and are excited about music and performing together every single day.
Teri: This has been fun. Now final question– what’s one thing your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
Mike: I’m a geek. A dyed-in-the-wool geek. But I tried and I really can’t get into Anime.
Ben: I’m a classically trained tuba player.
Wendy: I love origami.
Learn more about Sunspot, listen to their songs, watch their videos at: http://www.sunspotmusic.com/
And you read it here first! Sunspot is heading back into the studio this month to work on some new music with plans to release a single and EP later this summer.
Live photo credit: Matt Apps
Posed photo credit: Mary Sweeney