The four original members of the Spin Doctors sat around a poker table at Acme Studio in Williamsburg last week. A blues record spun in the background as they smoked cigars and drank hard liquor, surrounded by a gregarious group of hangers-on dressed in Jazz Age attire.
If this is not the image you associate with the upbeat ’90s-era rock band best known for their multiplatinum album Pocket Full of Kryptonite, which bore that infectious earworm “Two Princes,” you are probably not alone.
But the image is not entirely off base. The Spin Doctors recently released their first album in eight years, a straight-ahead blues-rock endeavor in the vein of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and they were shooting a music video for its title track, “If the River Was Whiskey.” Under the direction of the SNL photographer Mary Ellen Matthews, the shoot was largely improvised, much like the album itself—it was originally intended as a demo and was recorded in live sessions at the East Village studio of Aaron Comess, the band’s drummer.
If the River Was Whiskey (not to be confused with the Charlie Poole tune of the same name) may seem like a departure from the band’s signature pop-rock style. But hard-core fans will know that the Spin Doctors—now middle-aged—found their footing in the late ’80s as a fixture on the East Village blues bar circuit.
Back then, the band was expected to play blues covers, but to keep things interesting they wrote their own tunes—passing them off as standards and amassing an estimable catalog. The new album contains a smattering of pre-Kryptonite offerings, like “Scotch and Water Blues,” “The Drop,” “So Bad” and “What My Love?” along with a few new songs.
“It’s a return to our roots,” Mr. Comess told the Transom between shooting scenes. “The hits have kept us alive, but this record, if anything, makes me feel like we’re a fresh band again.”
In 2011, the Spin Doctors embarked on a 20th-anniversary tour to promote their first hit record. What they found, though, was that many fans were calling out to hear even older material, songs from the late ’80s. So they went into the studio and spent a few days jamming, emerging from those sessions with this latest offering.
The Spin Doctors have put out four studio albums, not including their latest, in the 22 years since the release of their multiplatinum major-label debut, which sold more than five million copies in the United States alone. That success, however, was apparently as much a burden as it was a blessing, as is often the case for bands that struggle to define themselves beyond the popularity of one hit song or album.
“In one way or another, we were always trying to make the next Kryptonite,” said Eric Schenkman, the band’s guitarist. “This is the first record that wasn’t made with that in mind.”
That comes off on the album. If the River Was Whiskey is an unself-conscious thing that knows what it is: a casual compendium of blues numbers produced by a band with not much left to prove.
“We made it in three days,” said Spin Doctors front man Chris Barron. “But it took 25 years to get there.”