Sitting in the afternoon sun on the front porch of her new one-bedroom home at the edge of Carrboro, Wendy Spitzer smiles slightly and with a distinct touch of mischief. She has a confession to make, but she knows she shouldn't. Aside from leading her band, the elegant art-pop ensemble Felix Obelix, and working at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she spends her time—and earns her money—teaching oboe to locals. About seven years ago, though, after two decades of playing the woodwind, she was over it.
"Professors were expecting me to go to graduate school to be a performing oboe player, but I had completely burned out on classical music by that time," she says. And now, the grin takes shape. "I almost hesitate to say this, but as far as playing classical music, it just got to this point where we would rehearse these classic symphonies and perform them, and most of the audience would be over the age of 65. It wasn't speaking to me. It didn't seem culturally relevant at all."
But seven years removed from the academy, Spitzer now helms Felix Obelix, the first band she's called her own and, appropriately, a nexus of her interests and experiences—including the classical music she thought she'd abandoned. Indeed, many of the threads that wind through the first 30 years of Spitzer's life and creativity finally intertwine on the band's intriguing debut LP, The Tick of the Clock, The Beat in the Chest.
For two decades, for instance, she studied classical composition and oboe. And so, the complex stacks of rhythms and melodies, horns and keyboards reflect both Charles Ives and Philip Glass. But they offer hooks like pop songs, too, and they spring with an energy suited for rock stages. She spent much of her 20s playing bass in clubs with the four-piece band Eyes to Space. And the text combines her lifelong interests in creative writing and the narrative of her family's history—for her, made elliptical and provocative because so many of her Czech forebears were killed in the Holocaust.
"My dad's family owned a button factory, and right after World War II, the Communists took over. They took the button factory, so my family became enemies of the state. It was one political upheaval after another," she relays. Her parents fled to England and then to Canada and, when Spitzer was 12, at last to Charlotte. "As it happens with a lot of families where the negative politics of the country affect that family, it's never talked about—ever, really. There are all these mysterious holes and missing links."
Spitzer started to notice her past was different in middle school and high school, while growing up in southern Ontario and then Charlotte. Other kids had nearby cousins and grandparents, but she had no one to speak of, aside from her nuclear family. So she wondered. Questions about memory, loss and our interpretation of both began to anchor her short stories, even as she continued to master the oboe.
And years later, she began buying mementos from strangers' pasts—anonymous photos from estates, commemorating birthdays, weddings, coronations of any sort—on eBay. She sees a certain universality in these snapshots, which create their own fragmented narrative but one that didn't exist in her own family.
"Your memories of things that happen to you—that's kind of who you are. But if that's who you are, and memory is so unreliable, I think it starts to get into existential questions about who we are as individuals and a society," she says, the hazel eyes hidden behind her glasses narrowing. "Everybody in their own family has these own iconic photographs. But what happens when the family dies out?"
On "Dead Name," then, Spitzer recasts that question in a more specific, haunting context: "You have a dead person's name/ He has a grave, but there's no one there," she sings, her tender, airy voice harmonizing with itself, the vocal lines phasing in and out of one another ever so slightly. "He died in a camp with his 4-year-old boy/ How does it feel to have such a dead name?"
The song is one of only two on The Tick of the Clock to be structured with winds. Oboes hover and tessellate, their notes slipping in and out like ghosts, the fingers against the buttons providing a faint incidental percussion section.
Much of the record is played by an all-star rock cast (including members of Megafaun, In the Year of the Pig, Left Outlet and Eyes to Space) that Spitzer assembled after arranging the whole album herself on her computer. She bought a program that transcribed her compositions into sheet music that the chosen instrumentalists could read. She played bass, oboe and keyboards; they played the rest. It's a much different situation from those decades she spent retelling music written by men who died long before the 20th century.
"I thought, after playing classical music, I would never play music again," she says, brushing her light-brown hair, cut in a bob fashion, from her face. "I completely fell into it."
See, after quitting oboe, Spitzer actually didn't play for about two years. She enjoyed oboe, but the idea of pursuing music with another group of people didn't interest her. After all, the oboe could only get so loud, and she didn't know what to play in a rock 'n' roll group, so popular in her college town, Chapel Hill. Then one day, her boyfriend at the time, Jay Cartwright, redirected the money they'd been saving for a new mattress to buy a used bass guitar. Spitzer was flummoxed. But Cartwright suggested she had a bass player's personality—responsible, but comfortable in the shadows—and soon enough, she was addicted. Beginning in the summer of 2003, she practiced two hours a day, without fail. By the end of the year, she was in Cartwright's Eyes to Space, where she remained until the band broke up in 2007. That spell taught her the ropes of being in a band—booking, sound-checking, forming a rhythm section—and that she never wanted to be in one of those plain old rock bands around town.
"I am a little tired of a regular rock band. There's a disconnect in songwriting between how it gets performed in venues to make it over whatever bar talk is happening versus actually engaging with the music being presented," says Spitzer. "I wanted to create an ensemble that was soft enough to get that across and be able to still play in venues."
And so she started writing. Spitzer went through several iterations of the band. Given the structure of the music—where odd parts interlock in unorthodox shapes, no matter how affable some of these pop tunes might sound—she had to seek specialized players who had studied music. Phil Cook, one-third of the Durham band Megafaun, sang on one of those tunes. When he arrived at Spitzer's makeshift studio, he marveled at how regimented and organized she was. Whereas most bands cobble parts together as they feel right, she had it all scheduled and mapped.
"She's got a good idea and good plan about what she's doing at all times," Cook says. "When she came over to rehearse with me, she was well aware that this was a bar of 11/8. This was a bar of 7/4, followed by 4/4. She knew exactly how it was laid out because she writes that way. I'm blown away by it."
Like Spitzer, Cook went to music school, graduating with a performance degree. On the first day that they rehearsed before recording the charming duet "See the Stain Come Out with the Lye," he immediately understood that she'd taken different lessons from their education than he had.
"It brings me back to music theory and music history, and I had to memorize all that stuff just as something to memorize" says Cook, smiling at the realization. "But now I hear how Wendy puts it into a context in her music, and it makes me feel, 'Wow, she really got that.' She absorbed it and spits it out in a way that's very alive, not the way I think of it as memorizing for tests."
Of course, such individuality doesn't make Felix Obelix the easiest band to maintain. Just as the parts on The Tick of the Clock allowed for little-to-no collaboration, the live set is fairly strict and structured. Spitzer rearranges the tunes herself and, again, hands sheet music to the players involved—again, limiting the people who might join her, as well as their enjoyment of the music itself. She expects, after all, for it to be executed as it's been imagined and written.
"I need people at the top of their game, and those are the people that are in demand, anyway. Everybody wants really great players in their band," she says, speculating as to who might step into the band when the current lineup plays its last show in April. "But it's not a band that everybody wants to be in, to be honest. If the songs are going to be performable and sound anything like the way the songs sound on the record, or in my mind, there's not that much room for creative input. And I can't offer them money to learn parts that are strict and complex."
But she's got that feeling. She's moved from the kid in the back of the symphony with the oboe to the new bassist standing in the shadows to the ultra-organized and efficient composer and bandleader writing and recording her own twisted pop. She wants to find more ways to play and now, less than a week away from her first CD- release party and three weeks from her 30th birthday, to push this as much as she can.
So, if she has to, she'll build a new band, or maybe even a massive backing track that she can play along to onstage, by herself.
"I really like playing with human beings. I like the energy of it, and I like the social aspect of it. And it's less scary on stage," she says, suddenly suggesting the bass-player personality Cartwright mentioned. And then, a sudden burst of confidence: "But I'm endlessly available to myself."