Power pop meets paranormal: Sunspot at the Majestic, Sept. 29.
When Mike Huberty, Ben Jaeger and Wendy Lynn Staats met as freshmen in 1996 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they formed a band they eventually called Sunspot. The trio began making epic-sounding power pop and never stopped.
The music is sunny on one side and dark on the other. Quirky songs ripe with metaphors blur the lines between the paranormal and pop culture, finding inspiration from the likes of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke and occultist Aleister Crowley.
“We wanted to play in front of thousands of people and make it big,” says Huberty, who sings lead vocals and plays bass. “We never thought of the songs as quirky, really. We kind of figured that out later: Why doesn’t anybody else have songs about werewolves?”
Sunspot soon learned to embrace its charming weirdness, and almost two decades later, the band members are making some of the best music of their career. New album Weirdest Hits is an aptly titled compilation of songs culled from Sunspot’s popular paranormal podcast, “See You On the Other Side.” Each week’s episode is punctuated with a Sunspot song. Originally released in the form of several EPs, these songs are now available on Weirdest Hits.
Ghosts, aliens and ancient prophecies populate the album, which also includes three new songs: “Mother of Time,” “Don’t Shoot First” and “Messiah Complex” — a sing-along thrill ride about aliens, early Christianity and survival.
Sunspot knows all about surviving.
The trio embraced digital technology long before many other bands of their era, resulting in an international fan base. Talking about the old days with Sunspot is like taking a crash course in the history of the Internet.
First, there was the band’s vintage GeoCities website with psychedelic colors and RealAudio song samples in 1997. By 2000, members of Sunspot were personally sending emails to fans and inviting them to upcoming gigs. They also frequented Yahoo Chat, a free online chat room service that allowed participants to play songs for each other live on the Internet and then comment on them.
From 2005 to 2014, the band recorded about 250 podcasts from a touring van, and in 2012, Sunspot hosted Google Hangouts on a regular basis.
Then there were the letters they wrote at the turn of the millennium to members of Congress, urging their support of Napster. The pioneering peer-to-peer file-sharing system wreaked havoc on the music business, but it worked to Sunspot’s advantage, says Jaeger, the band’s bass player. People halfway around the world who would never attend a gig in Madison were able to hear Sunspot’s music. Some became serious fans, even sending band members gifts from overseas.
Rock essentially vacated the Top 40 after grunge flamed out by the late 1990s. Surrounded by Lilith Fair-style artists, Limp Bizkit imitators and awkward ska and swing resurgences, Sunspot managed to keep shining well into the new millennium, outlasting many of their peers — both locally and around the country.
One reason for that longevity is the fact that band members have always treated Sunspot like a business. For two of them, Sunspot is essentially a full-time gig. And because the band doesn’t fit nicely into one specific genre, it never had to live up to the expectations of a fickle audience.
The band members, all now 38 years old, are not ashamed to admit that their musical influences range from Queen and Iron Maiden to Brad Paisley and Weezer to Green Day and Social Distortion.
"We enjoy the process of trying something new,” says Staats, Sunspot’s drummer. “We’ve been working together for so many years that when we go to write and record, we have the process down and can focus more on the creativity. We’re like brothers and sisters.”
Sunspot will perform at the Club Tavern in Middleton on Nov. 20 and the Brink Lounge on Dec. 4.