Courtesy of Theo Welling
Guitarist and lead singer Mabel Suen and drummer Joseph Hess make up the band Spelling Bee, but ironically, their website misspells the band’s name: spellngbee.com.
By Jonas Weir
Spelling Bee was famous for exactly forty-eight hours when the rock duo toured Boston.
“We had a run-in with the Boston police over email that went viral,” drummer Joseph Hess says. “We were still out on the road at the time the story broke and was getting spread, so each show on tour was a pretty wild experience. We were internet-famous for exactly forty-eight hours.”
To wrack up noise violations, the Boston Police Department allegedly posed online as punk rockers to infiltrate do-it-yourself concerts hosted in private homes. Boston musicians were suspicious when police were arriving before the concerts, but it took some investigating from Spelling Bee to break the story.
Before the show, the band had received a strange email that asked for the address, which had been kept secret. The band replied. Hours before the concert started, an officer showed up to the house and said that they couldn’t host a show.
The email chain made the fishy emailer look foolish. Slate, Spin, and Gawker posted stories online about it, referencing the band’s email. Plus, the band moved the location and still performed. That night, they were heroes in Boston.
The duo’s roots, however, are in St. Louis, where they are devoted to independent music. Both Mabel Suen, guitarist, lead vocalist, and occasional saxophonist, and Joseph are music writers for the St. Louis alternative newspaper the Riverfront Times, so they are journalists, but not the investigative kind. To add to their busy schedules, both Mabel and Joseph are DJs at the nonprofit, community radio station 88.1 KDHX FM, and they run their own music blog called Wrong Division. From the media to the mosh pits, Mabel and Joseph have a hand in every aspect of the music community.
In fact, they played in public for the first time in 2009 because the owners of Apop Records, a local record shop that recently closed, concert venue, and label, pushed the two to perform. Since then, the duo has been finding time to practice, record, and tour together.
“We’ve done more than ten tours through the United States since 2009, so songwriting has always been a sort-of rushed affair between tours,” Joseph says. “Because we live, work, and play together, band practice tends to come whenever we can get around to it, so it took us until early 2011 to really focus on writing.”
When they formed, Mabel and Joseph were too swamped to even agree on a band name that had staying power and reflected their music.
“We wanted to settle on a name that was ambiguous, so we could take the music in whatever direction we wanted,” Joseph says. “We’ve never had an attachment to the name; it was always a placeholder.”
The band members’ hectic schedules are also reflected in the restless tone of their music. Technical drumming, off-the-wall structures, and math-like guitar riffs create the soundscape of the band’s only full-length vinyl record, Caterwaul, an appropriate title for the noisy, yet melodic album.
They have been playing raw, energetic concerts for close to four years, and Caterwaul has been out for more than two years. But neither has garnered much attention outside of a community of underground music fans. It makes no difference to Spelling Bee.
“There’s a great quote that goes something like, ‘If you think a small impact means nothing, try sleeping with a mosquito,’ ” Joseph says. “It’s in reference to making a change in your community no matter how big or small. Simply existing and making something that’s true to you and challenging to others makes an impact. We could just stay in the basement and play for ourselves, but I think the drive to diversify and ultimately give back to the community we take so much from is what keeps us playing out.”