Spanish Prisoners
by Kevin J. Elliott

Even though it’s been a full five years since Leo Maymind released his debut as Spanish Prisoners, the criminally overlooked and under-heard Songs to Forget, with the recent release of his second record, Gold Fools, it seems fitting that he and his band be reintroduced to the world. Migrating from the fickle small-pond music community of Columbus where Maymind cut his teeth to little applause to the endless opportunities that awaited him in Brooklyn truly advanced every aspect of Maymind’s meticulous songwriting. Where once his songs were mired in melancholic folk singing and traditional instrumentation, Gold Fools shows Maymind looking towards the future by including the atmospheric use of synthesizers and guitar effects, machine-built beats, and brighter harmonized vocals. Still, the dark corners that defined Songs to Forget are present in “A Cadillac from Yesterday” and “Know No Violence,” even if they might be mistaken for Pet Shop Boys–like sophisticated disco. Such a shift might be shocking for anyone who’s followed Maymind in his evolution, but the same gentle and hard luck qualities remain on the surface. It’s just now he’s found life in the big city to be an inspiration which can’t be contained to just voice and acoustic guitar. Gold Fools sounds like the buzzing of the creative hive that surrounds him, indie rock hijacked by the lure of neon lights, social interaction, constantly bubbling melodies and the sinister edge of a 24/7 lifestyle. I recently talked with Maymind via e-mail about these changes and about adapting to the bustle of Brooklyn following his move.

Were you in any other bands before Spanish Prisoners or have any other recordings we should know about?

Leo Maymind: Spanish Prisoners has been my only musical endeavor since I started seriously writing music. I played the saxophone in high school, but it was listening very intently to Tom Waits and Neil Young records that deepened my interest in music. That first album was mostly an excuse to learn how to finally use some recording software I had sitting unused on my computer.

I remember you telling me once how you had an interesting childhood and how music was something you picked up at an early age. Can you refresh my memory?

LM: I was born in Latvia back when it was part of the Soviet Union, and my family immigrated to New Orleans when I was three. After that we moved around a few times, so I had to make friends in new places, and I think I often got lost in my own head. A lot of people talk about how they were influenced by local garage bands or the area punk scene, but that wasn’t really the case for me. I was influenced by a few small, random incidents that became really engrained in my memory. In 8th grade, for example, my friend Glenn would play electric guitar in his attic and I was totally transfixed that he was making these sounds and how in control of the instrument he was. Ironically, he now lives in Brooklyn and often does sound for us. I also worked as a camp counselor throughout high school and the music instructor and I became great friends. The experience of watching her lead sing-along sessions of these super cheesy camp songs really impacted me because the kids really dug it and looked forward to it, and you could tell that a lot of them sort of lost their inhibitions and let loose.

I compared the first record to recordings by the Palace Brothers, Califone, and Silver Jews. Were those things you were listening to back then?

LM: I was listening to all of those, but I was also listening to a lot of music that I felt was pretty direct musically and complex lyrically: Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison. Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Master and Everyone was one of my favorite records. That album is the definition of “vibe” and hearing the music being made in a room. In general, I used to listen to music that was much more lyrically driven.

And now, the new album is a big departure from that. It has been about five years. What have you been listening to in the in-between that influenced this album?

LM: In general, I became much more interested in sonics and the sounds of things: drum sounds, guitar sounds, how records are mixed, etc. Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House was huge for me. So was Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs. I could listen to Spoon records on repeat forever. I don’t think I gave more than 10 seconds of thought to the snare sounds on that first record, whereas on Gold Fools, there was a lot of very deliberate crafting of the sounds and individual layers. My bandmates had a big part in that because our bassist and drummer both have excellent ears. I’ve also gravitated to recordings that have elements that you don’t really understand or appreciate right away, layers that you have to peel back after listening over and over.

In that same review, I had you leaning on Appalachia. Now that you’re in the big city, how has the change of atmosphere skewed the music and your songwriting?

LM: Well, one of the first jobs I had after moving to New York was working in a gigantic nightclub. This was right around the time that I started thinking about new music and scribbling down ideas. I became kind of obsessed with these little snippets of conversation and interactions that I would witness on a nightly basis. I was surrounded by literally thousands of people and almost none of them had any sense of self. It was a classic example of de-individuation, everyone just losing themselves in the dark amongst a huge crowd while music was literally blaring as loud as possible. I would see people doing a lot of pretty shameful things that had they been in public and in daylight, they would probably not do. And then I would get out of work and immediately enter an empty subway car at 4am and I would scribble down lyrical fragments that later evolved into a lot of the songs on Gold Fools. That job definitely colored my experience of New York in a very specific way.

Songs to Forget is certainly darker than Gold Fools. I tend to hear more color and hope in the arrangements and the instrumentation. What has prompted the shift?

LM: There’s definitely more color. One thing I’ve worked on is utilizing a more interesting and individual choice of timbres, as opposed to referencing something so directly like “Song for the Weary,” which has very standard banjo, slide guitar and upright bass sounds. But I think a lot of the songs on Gold Fools are pretty dark lyrically. There’s a lot of violence hidden in those songs.

I think a lot of that comes from the songs becoming more synth-based. When did you start veering towards those types of compositions and away from melancholic folk?

LM: It’s been a slow gradual change that started many years ago, but in many ways, I was always interested in electronic sounds and synths. The first song I wrote was “Some Among Them Are Killers,” which is oddly similar to a lot of songs on Gold Fools—electronic drums mixed with acoustic drums, various layers of synthesizers, a fair amount of atmospheric details, and fairly simple, melodic guitar parts. Songs to Forget was largely about just throwing things against the wall and seeing what stuck, and this is the stuff that stuck and continued to resonate with me. I can’t really see myself returning to writing on banjo or acoustic guitar. If anything, I’ll keep moving further in the same direction and try to refine using those electronic timbres in a way that I find human and moving and that I think resonates.

What’s been the biggest adjustment between Columbus and New York? Has it been logistically harder to do things like record and recruit a band?

LM: The biggest adjustment was just figuring out how to live in a city where I didn’t know anyone. My girlfriend and I moved here together and we literally didn’t know a single person here. We had to totally start from scratch, which in a lot of ways was very refreshing. I’d say that it’s actually easier to record and recruit bandmates here just because there is such a vast pool of resources. There are tons of real studios, tons of small home studios, tons of freelance engineers, tons of other home recorders, tons of everything. Ultimately, we ended up mostly recording in my apartment. Same thing with bandmates: there are so many people here that I met who have wildly creative ideas about music and presentation. I didn’t leave Columbus because I didn’t like the music scene. There were a lot of great bands that were super supportive and I met a lot of great people. I moved more because I was ready to live somewhere else after spending more than 10 years growing up in Ohio.

What do you miss about Columbus the most?

LM: Well, my parents live there and a few close friends, so I miss them the most. I miss German Village, the North Market, and Donato’s Pizza.

Have you found any sort of community with any other Columbus ex-pats?

LM: There are a few people here that I keep up with. Ahmed (Gallab) from Sinkane, as he and I were buds before we both moved here. We did a DJ set together not long ago. Rimar, who you interviewed recently, is doing a remix for us, and he and I just started hanging out. He’s a super chill dude.

Are there any bands in Brooklyn these days you think people in Ohio need to know about?

LM: There is an endless crop of bands from Brooklyn, but some that I like that maybe aren’t as well known are Jeane, Tiny Victories, Monogold, Zambri, Tony Castles, North Highlands, and many more that I’m forgetting.