By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
By Chaz Kangas
By Allison Babka
By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Tef Poe
By Mabel Suen
Since its inception in February of 2009, Spelling Bee has played a role in nearly every aspect of the St. Louis DIY community. The duo, comprising Joseph Hess and Mabel Suen, has been a whirlwind of activity, booking shows, running a radio program, recording and touring.
Worshipping at the church of Deerhoof and Cheer-Accident, Spelling Bee's sound is as dynamic as it is volatile. Created by reverb-drenched guitar and hyperactive percussion/drum triggers, its bombastic spazz-rock wavers between disjointed melody and fragments of post-hardcore squall. "We incorporate aspects of no-wave skronk, melodic post rock and post punk," Hess says, "in hopes that we can produce as wide of a range as possible, while retaining intensity." He continues, "We thrive on a feeling of being off balance, being challenged and constantly changing." Spelling Bee counts Sine Nomine, Orion Pax, Egg Chef and Yowie among its contemporaries.
Born out of the disintegration of Sleep State and the Ultraviolents, Hess and Suen began formulating a new brand of chaotic reverberation. "Spelling Bee was formed because we wanted to tour, see the country from the perspective of an experimental artist and to experience as much music at the ground level as possible," says Hess.
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In its infancy, Spelling Bee's artistic growth came in waves. "Joe did not have a band at the time and we lived together, so it seemed like the natural thing to do. We actually started off early on writing some simple drum and saxophone songs and realized that the sound wasn't full enough. So I tried my hand at guitar," says Suen. "We realize that we're not exactly the most proficient musicians, so we try to be as creative as we can be to make something that's unique in its own right but still raw and real."
In a short period of time, Spelling Bee's rapid musical development and furious work ethic has allowed the band to play well more than 100 shows, often in support of big names including Lightning Bolt, Polysics, JEFF the Brotherhood and Zach Hill of Hella.
In addition to the band's rigid schedule, the seemingly inexhaustible duo continues to hold down the oddball corner at the left of the dial on KDHX (88.1 FM). Their program, Wrong Division, evolved out of Suen's volunteer work with the station. "I took on an audio-production internship at KDHX to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of community-based radio," says Suen. "Sherri Danger offered to let me sub for her show, Dangerous Curves, so I went through the process to get approved as a DJ. It was a lot of fun, so Joe and I decided to put in an application for our own show."
Wrong Division explores the sonic universe hovering between the skulls of Hess and Suen. Playing everything from St. Louis legends Dazzling Killmen to lesser-known post-post-rock outfits like Tigon and Narwhal, the show serves as both a tastemaker and an inadvertent promotional tool. "The aim of the show initially was to share our favorite music with anyone willing to listen, promote local shows and get as many awesome bands into the live recording studio as possible," says Suen.
The radio program allows the couple to influence and promote bands that are often under the radar, which makes for a strengthening of bonds between artists and new audiences. "On Wrong Division we are focused on spotlighting everything that we find wonderful and intriguing about music," says Hess.
Despite its relative newness, Spelling Bee has a number of audio outputs under its belt. Last year's Sweet Dreams, Strange Animal was released on Apop Records. An exploration of start-stop riffery and shout-out-loud vocals racing atop triggered blasts of precise, warped percussion, Strange Animal marks the band's first full-length recording. Since then, the band has released a split seven-inch with snot punks Glass Teeth, and Strange Animal has also seen a remixed and remastered version on the band's own label, HiFiOctopi Recordings. Having recently spent a few hours in the studio with Jason Hutto of Warm Jets USA, Spelling Bee can look forward to a few select tracks making their way onto several upcoming comps and splits: New American Noise Compilation on Blu Noise out of Germany and the six-way split To Think, It's All There. Most of the bands' music can be downloaded for free on its Bandcamp site.
Touring is a huge part of Spelling Bee's ethos. In an effort to spread its hedonistic, feedback-stenched gospel, Spelling Bee sees touring as a multifaceted vehicle. "There are so many benefits to touring that it just seems like a no-brainer to us," says Hess. "You get to see great music, share your craft with others, meet your counterparts in different cities, share ideas, see the world, have unforgettable — and sometimes hilariously traumatic — experiences, eat great food, have an excuse to visit faraway friends and family, get the hell out of St. Louis for a while, and on and on..."
Touring not only allows the band to expose its music to new audiences, but it has also been a consistent source of inspiration. "Touring is a completely enriching experience. It's easy to get stuck in your own little world, and visiting other music scenes inspires us, humbles us and reminds us to always work toward bringing something new to the table," Suen says.