(Photo: Tracy Ketcher)

If you listened to alt-rock radio in the mid-90s, you should have this gig circled on your calendar and tickets in hand. Detroit’s Sponge is rolling into the A&R Music Bar on Thursday night to perform most of the material from their 1994 debut, Rotting Piñata, although, as singer (and lone remaining founding member) Vinnie Dombroski told me when we talked on Tuesday, it won’t be played in sequential order (more on that in the interview below).

While Kyle Neely (guitar), Andy Patalan (guitar), Tim Patalan (bass) and Billy Adams (drums) didn’t play on Sponge’s three major label albums (’94’s Rotting Piñata, ’96’s Wax Ecstatic, ’99’s New Pop Sunday), most have been in Sponge longer than the original members. And, as evidenced by their appearance on the Summerland 2013 tour (alongside Everclear, Live, and Filter), Sponge looks and sounds as good as ever. Vinnie mentioned during our conversation, they never took a break from releasing music with their most recent release, The Beer Sessions, coming out in the fall of 2016.

When you’re in Columbus on Thursday, will you be playing Rotting Piñata front to back?

That’s kind of the idea in a nutshell. We’ve since done the second record – Wax Ecstatic – which just hit 20 years back in July. So, it’s kind of a combination of the two. What we’re doing, we’re playing songs off of both records and also fielding requests and playing some stuff off the new record. It’s a lot but we found that playing those records in the order they were put on the discs – or the records – is not too good for a rock show so we tend to split it up a little bit. It makes sense if you’re sitting there listening, perhaps, but if you’re at a rock show, it’s not so conducive.

Was it the reaction to the old songs while you were on the Summerland tour that inspired you to go out and do a tour playing a full set of old songs?

In a way, I suppose you could look at it like that. We played such a short set during Summerland. It’s a lot of fun to do those tours however we’re playing a 25-minute set so we just barely get warmed up and we’re pretty much done. So, to go out there now and play 90 minutes, it’s a lot of fun.

I saw you on the Summerland tour at the Columbus stop and Sponge didn’t show any signs of aging. There are some bands from the ’80s and ’90s that tour and it looks like they are just going through the motions – they look tired and sad. You seemed totally relevant, like a regularly touring modern band.

sponge2I appreciate you saying that. What people don’t realize about the group is that we’ve been out touring and releasing records since we kind of went off the radar after the third record. I suppose back in ’99 when we released our third record, New Pop Sunday, that was kind of our last major label release. After that we were kind of doing indie label releases, self releases, all so we could go out and have a new record, a new story to go out and tour with.

So maybe some of these groups that you’re speaking of that don’t seem quite as into it or relevant, maybe they take time off. I don’t know. We’ve been out there doing this since the beginning and people go, “Well, we hear the songs on the radio” and we go, “Yep, we know what songs those are,” but we’ve continued to write and record since. And the brand new record was released last year in June so we’ve been at it and I’m glad it shows.

I listened to The Beer Sessions on Spotify and the songs aren’t a huge departure from your early material and sound very much in line with what a Sponge fan should be expecting from the band in 2017. It might be harder to discover that a new Sponge record exists in 2017 but it’s never been easier to listen to the songs with Spotify or YouTube.

Yeah, without a doubt. The awareness came years ago with terrestrial radio and MTV so folks are apt to find the stuff if they are aware. If they are out there saying, “I want to hear ‘Plowed’ on Pandora or Spotify”, maybe some of these newer Sponge songs come up.

It’s not as obvious that we’ve released new stuff, that’s kind of the trick. People can find it, for sure, it’s easy to find even if you go to YouTube, it’s getting the awareness to people. This brand new record, we made it a point to do some things that were very old school, first record Sponge which was to not overthink it and not spend a ton of time recording it. The day would start in the studio with an idea, we’d have the song plotted out, bed tracks done by two in the afternoon, and then we would start cutting guitar solos. We were doing like a song a day. We weren’t overthinking it.

Did you ever think 23 years ago that the songs you were writing and recording for Rotting Piñata would be songs you’d still be out playing today?

I don’t think any of us ever thought that, to be quite frank with you. We certainly wanted to do the best we could but I don’t think that we were going, “‘Plowed’, that’s an obvious radio hit” because, at the time, the songs you heard on the radio are the songs you still hear on the radio today – “Back in Black”, “Stairway to Heaven”, REO Speedwagon, Nugent. Metallica was on the radio but “Plowed” didn’t sound like any radio song back then so I’m not certain we were thinking we were writing hit songs and quite frankly we didn’t think we’d be alive, let alone playing music 25 years later!

How quickly did Rotting Piñata come together from writing and recording to releasing?

I was writing with Loudhouse, certainly my fair share, and when that band started … really, the group didn’t fall apart, the singer, who I worked very closely with, left the group. I always feel like if the band had stayed together, we’d have had a bright future but given the fact that the singer left, we thought about maybe hiring somebody else or finding some one. We were like, “let’s keep writing because that’s what we do”.

We just kept writing and I was singing on the demos and from there things just started to roll. But all the while we were out there doing shows, we wanted to do this thing, do it right, do it real and that’s what we did with Loudhouse and that’s what we started to do with Sponge.

It came together organic, I suppose, organic enough and it started to roll. It just felt right. The writing process was always a quick process. It seemed like everything we did, if you had a decent idea, it was going to come together pretty quick, it was going to be completed pretty quick. That’s just how we rolled, we didn’t think a lot about it.

I’ve been interviewing bands since the early ‘90s and when people ask me for my stories, one I always tell is about driving to Cincinnati with the Sony college rep to see Sponge at Sudsy Malone’s before Rotting Piñata came out. There were only a handful of people at the show and I think you asked somebody in the audience to call their roommates and friends and get them to come to the show. You even paused between songs so she could use the pay phone. After the show, I must have given you my address because weeks later you sent me a handwritten letter and a cassingle. That’s something I’ll never forget and a good reason why I’ve continued to follow Sponge throughout the years.

I never should underestimate what that kind of stuff does and we don’t do it just to do it. That’s why we’re still out doing it. Some of these guys may have not been in the band since the actual beginning of the band but Tim our bass player – he has to stay back in Detroit for this trip so we have Jeff Hayes on bass – but Andy Patalan, Tim Patalan, these guys were around helping us make our records at the time so they’ve been in the band a long time. They are great guys. I just think they are always willing to go the extra mile at the end of the gig as well, hang out, sign stuff, just interact. That’s something that we’ve never forgotten about.

We don’t do it because we go, “well, it’ll come back in spades to us in a good way”. That was never the intent. We just do stuff like that and always have a great time doing it. And sometimes we fuck up and some people might look at us like “Those guys are assholes” but it’s not because we were being dicks, it’s just because maybe we couldn’t hang out after the show or something like that so I’m glad it works out when it works out. Our hearts are always in the right place, I think.

When we were growing up, there was a wall between band and fan. I never in a million years would have thought that I could actually hang out after a show and talk with any of the guys from Motley Crue. In the ’90s and forward, it seems like bands took that extra step and started interacting with fans and that makes a world of difference.

Here’s the thing, these days the way a concert experience is set up, certainly you can go and purchase a ticket. Most concerts these days have a VIP thing added. And groups that I never thought would do this – and it’s no assassination on their character at all – when we were on Summerland, Alice in Chains was playing down the street at a casino. We played early and I called (Mike) Inez (AIC bassist) and he got us some tickets for the show. We were hanging out with those fellows afterwards and they had a whole VIP thing set up. I know it’s structured within the ticket thing and those guys were happy to do it. They are good guys but I don’t recall that kind of access to that kind of group years ago. You just didn’t see it.

But these days it’s more prevalent that those things occur – I think people demand more of that interaction with a group because the labels are different, getting a record is different, everything is emphasized within the concert experience these days which I’m happy to say – and some bands still won’t do it, they want nothing to do with it – but some bands surprise the shit out of me.

You toured with a pretty wide variety of bands – you didn’t fit squarely into one slot and could do everything from opening for Iggy Pop to opening for KISS. Not too many other bands could have done that.

Oh yeah, we toured with Iggy for 3 months. We toured several times with Everclear. We shared second stage on Lollapalooza in ’96 with the Melvins and The Cows. We played after the Melvins and I would watch their set every night and I thought it was great. I would think, “What are we going to do after this?” but we always seemed to have a nice crowd there. It always seemed to work. I was always thrilled about those kind of things. We went out with Sevendust and Reverend Horton Heat and it would always seem to click, it would always seem to work and I’ve always been very pleased with those experiences and how they surprised me.

I remember you going on a tour with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Letters to Cleo and Fig Dish. That seemed to be the epitome of an MTV 120 Minutes bill. Do you remember much from that tour? Whose brainchild was it?

You’ve got a great memory. I’m trying to think if there was any type of sponsorship angle with that thing. I think Ned’s may have been on Columbia at the time so I think that may have been it, Ned’s and us kind of anchored the thing. I think doing anything like that, getting these groups together to go out and hit the road is always a big, big plus. Each band is different and I can’t think of any cooler thing – when people get it and appreciate the show, I go, “That’s fantastic”.

The guys playing with you now, I think, have been playing with you for a while. I grew up on ‘80s hair metal and I frequent a few websites and message board and there are so many “if it’s not the original members, it’s not the same band” comments. Is there any chance you’d ever play another show with that lineup?

There’s been no serious talk about it. Some Sponge fans would like to see it. I do speak with most of the fellows, even Jimmy, the original drummer, we have a group – we play a lot locally in the Detroit area – so I see Jimmy all the time. But, Mike, I talk to on occasion – we have business, publishing stuff we’ve got to deal with, and I speak with Mike. The old bass player, I haven’t seen since he got off the bus – it may have been in Cleveland – in ’98! I don’t know what happened to the guy.

We’ve been out here doing it – [the current members of Sponge] have been out here doing it, they know how to do it, we know how to do it. And, we have a good time doing it. I suppose if there was some big show that somebody was like, “This has got to happen with the original guys” … I don’t know what the catalyst would be to try to put something like that together. But, it would be interesting, I just don’t think it’s practical only because all these years down the road, the kind of shows we do do, we’re doing everything from large concerts to small clubs, I just don’t know how it would work.

Everybody has a different life now. I’m out doing music but everybody else has moved on, they are doing other things. I go, “Good for you guys, enjoy your life. I’m still out here doing this stuff.”

You have a few other bands, right?

I have CRUD, but we don’t play that often. I’ve got a couple records with that group. The Orbitsuns, which is my club band, my outlaw country group for lack of a better definition. I’ve really enjoyed that experience because we’ve played with a lot of killer bands and we’ve seen a lot of killer bands come up. Whitey Morgan out of Flint, for example. We were doing shows with Whitey back at the Machine Shop when he just started doing that thing and to see him just develop over the years and become the outlaw country beacon is really cool. We’ve played with a lot of great folks over the years and that thing has always been a great thing to develop and write and meet folks. I’ve played with the Deadstring Brothers and Shooter Jennings. I did a festival outside of Detroit and we got Shooter to come in and play. It’s a great stew of music that’s always cooking and if I wasn’t doing that and all the other shit, none of the other good shit would come so it’s just a constant pursuit.

Have you started looking into 2018 Sponge plans?

There’s some stuff booking right now for the summer that we’re slated for. It’s always nice to do a nice, organized tour. We’ve already got dates booked – I tend not to want to be on the road in January and February out east because of the weather – but we have dates starting right at the top of February. At the end of February we’ve got Vegas, Phoenix, some Florida dates. We already have some stuff booked. We’re already hustling. As long as we’re out there playing and not being a bunch of assholes, everything is cool!

And, finally, what band would you love to see a front-to-back album tour?

Good question. As a matter of fact, it’s obviously not possible, but … and I know people have said good things and bad things about the most recent Bowie record, but that’s one record I just couldn’t stop listening to. That record to me was a big deal. I would love to have had the opportunity to see that record performed front to back. His consistency regarding being an artist, the visuals of that record were not pretty and I think it was obvious in some of the sound of some of his vocals what was going on with him. He wasn’t trying to be anything but what he was at that time. It was just unapologetic and it’s exactly where he was. The record’s not pretty, he wasn’t pretty and I think that’s why it had such a huge effect on me. It was no holds barred Bowie. He wasn’t sugarcoating anything, not his artistry, not that he was on his way out. I just couldn’t applaud that record more, just couldn’t enjoy that record more.