Support Local Journalism. Join Riverfront Times Press Club.

Spelling Bee Sets the Example For 21st-Century DIY 

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.

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.

The duo is preparing to embark on its sixth overall tour and second to the East Coast. The process has become smoother with each successive trip — these shows were booked just two months ago. "The tour was easy to book only because we have come in contact with so many wonderful musicians and artists who show an exuberant amount of enthusiasm for what they do and what others are trying to do," says Hess. The band's inner workings in a grassroots network across the country have afforded them a solid string of shows, even scoring a Providence, Rhode Island, date with Black Pus — a project of Lightning Bolt's Brian Chippendale.

"We really believe in the pay-it-forward mindset. We're always happy to help out bands because people are so kind and generous to us while we're on the road," mirrors Suen. "It's amazing because we've made so many great friends out of otherwise complete strangers simply because of blind messages to bands and proactive music supporters on the Internet."

Spelling Bee will be kicking off its tour with a show at DIY venue Pig Slop Studios on Friday, July 29. In keeping with the band's school of rock, the show is composed of bands and friends from all across the country: Ugh, God from Philadelphia; Fat History Month from Boston; and High In One Eye from New Orleans.

"We toured with both of these bands [Ugh, God and FHM] last summer, so we wanted an opportunity to perform with them again. It will be a warm-hearted reunion of weirdos," says Hess.

"Summertime can be pretty magical because bands are out and about all over the country constantly. It always makes us remember that it's a really freakin' small world," Suen says.

Even as they perform in DIY communities across the country, Hess and Suen do not take their home for granted. By using local media resources and booking at underground venues like Apop Records and Floating Laboratories, the two have brought countless acts through the gateway city. However, as some spaces, like Cranky Yellow are getting cracked down on by the city, Hess and Suen see the bigger picture. "While venues are obviously an important part of keeping the DIY scene alive, people who care are really the ones that have to be around to make it thrive," says Suen. "I think that as long as there are people in this city who are passionate about bringing in great music in from out of town, there will always be something worthwhile happening," says Suen.

Hess, who headed booking at Cranky Yellow before it closed its doors, says, "When you are helpful and enthusiastic, help comes more easily in one form or another. It's about giving more than you take."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.

Related Locations

Read the Digital Print Issue

December 8, 2021

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

© 2021 Riverfront Times

Website powered by Foundation