Chances are, if you’ve gone to an End Times Spasm Band show, you’ve tapped your toes or danced a boogie to the idea that humankind could soon be extinct. “I prefer not to write straight-up protest songs or love songs,” said Bjart Helms who not only serves as the quintet’s head songwriter but also does his part on the guitar and kazoo. “Those kinds of songs bore me, so instead I tend to approach songs the way John Linnell from They Might Be Giants does. He likes to make his songs into puzzles, and then it’s up to the audience to solve them.”
Helms, who is on the verge of earning his master’s in linguistics at Indiana University and has done extensive coursework in the philosophy of science, penned six of the seven tracks on End Time’s latest LP, 2, a follow-up to, you guessed it, 1. And while the band’s sound is straight out of the roaring 20s, the lyrics are not necessarily the stuff flapper dreams are made of. Consider track three on 2, “Bertrand Hustle,” a hot jazz tune that draws inspiration from and pays a little homage to Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, mathematician and historian who helped found the analytic philosophy movement.
“I love the fact that Bjart will bring in a song for us to play and I might have no idea what it’s about at first,” said frontwoman Lyndsy Rae Patterson in a recent interview with the band at Old Crown Coffee Roasters. “I have to go home and research stuff, and then it’s like, okay, I get it. Awesome. People are going to be dancing to disaster. It’s a blast.”
Disaster or no, people do indeed dance when End Times – Helms, Patterson, Zach Wright (upright bass), Erik “Babyfingers” Stillabower (banjo and ukulele) and Eric Stuckey (drums) – play at local speakeasies such as the Brass Rail and the Dash-In, headlining their own shows and opening for the likes of Two Man Gentlemen Band and Christabel and the Jons. That’s because this group, whose members came together in 2008 during a particularly rowdy party (the cops eventually broke it up, but they managed to get a nice jam session in all the same), have taken the old time jug and spasm band aesthetic of the early 20th century and made it their own.
They’re able to work such time warp wizardry thanks to years of training, playing and studying. Helms, 29, started his musical career playing the saxophone, a fact that surprised Patterson who apparently disses the sax every chance she gets.
“I’ve insulted the sax in front of you so many times,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
Helms shrugged, even though he credits the Snyder High School jazz program with getting him to where he is now as a musician. “Don’t worry about it. I’m used to people insulting the sax.”
He’s also used to being a part of the local music scene, having played not only in an old-timey country act with an unprintable name with fellow End Times mates Wright and Stillabower, as well as in the Sods and The Staggerers. He grew up surrounded by music, much of it introduced to him by his parents whose record collection is truly eclectic, covering everything from 70s folk rock to Weird Al and Christmas classics.
Patterson likewise came of age in a musical family. Her mother is an accomplished country star who moved Lyndsy, her sister and father to Nashville so she could pursue her dreams of becoming a star.
“We lived down the street from Johnny Cash for a while,” Patterson said. “I thought the whole thing was really silly. I guess I kind of rebelled against it at first, but I did the show choir thing in high school, and that exposed me to a different side of music from the whole chasing fame thing. I saw a side of music I could respect.”
And then, two summers ago and at the instigation of her mother, the 22-year-old auditioned for “American Idol.”
“I couldn’t take it seriously. People were crying around me and I just wanted to laugh,” she said. “It was just a gorgeous experience.”
The for-real gorgeous experience is listening to Patterson take Helms’ witty lyrics and infuse them with a beauty that is one part Billie Holiday, one part Ella Fitzgerald and all parts heart and soul. Then there’s the hum of the upright bass, courtesy of Wright who began playing the electronic bass at age 13 because his father told him to. Wright doesn’t like to talk about himself, so Stillabower did it for him.
“Zach’s just thrown himself at the bass. He’s gotten so phenomenal it’s a joy to hear,” said Stillabower. “I mean, with the [old band] he could kind of hang back and pluck, but now that we’re doing jazz, he’s got more fancy stuff to do, more walks, and he’s really mastered it.”
The same could be said of Stuckey, a self-taught drummer and the newest member of the band. He came on board in August and almost didn’t make the cut.
“I was really resistant to the idea of a drummer,” Patterson said. “I thought we were perfect without one and that he’d pretty much ruin us, but the opposite’s true. Eric’s absolutely essential to what we’re doing. He’s given us a classier touch. It’s like he’s put the bow tie on our sound.”
Stillabower agreed. “We handed him some brushes instead of sticks and told him to do what he wanted. Luckily, what he wanted to do was incredible and exactly what we needed.”
If Stuckey’s the bow tie, then perhaps Stillabower, who started playing the violin when he was 11 and didn’t pick up the banjo until a few years ago when he was snowed in with Helms and Helms’ roommate’s five-string, could be said to be the, well, suspenders?
“I just kind of taught myself the banjo, and the ukulele, that came about because I found this really cool, antique baritone ukulele and I bought it and started playing,” said Stillabower, a graduate, like Wright, of Elmhurst High School.
End Times have a full slate of gigs coming up, including a Friday, March 26 benefit at 816 Pint & Slice that will raise funds for Patterson’s friend who is traveling to Ethiopia soon to adopt a baby. It seems that, despite the fact that people often don’t know exactly how to label this unique five-piece, they’re getting more and more recognition, both locally and regionally. But change is on the horizon. Patterson, a French and anthropology student at IPFW, will travel to Marseilles this summer for a year-long study abroad program. No one in this low-key outfit, however, seems to be sweating it. Stillabower said he’s pretty confident that Patterson’s trip does not spell the end for End Times Spasm Band.
“By the time Lyndsy gets back Bjart will have written a whole new songbook and we’ll be working on a whole new set,” Stillabower said. “Actually, this could be a really great thing for us, to not get too comfortable like a lot of bands do when people love their music and soon everyone’s sick of hearing and playing the same old thing. This could be just what we need.”