It was like having The Beatles in your backyard. Charlotte's Spongetones soaked up the Mersey beat so well they've served as local mop top stand-ins for the last three decades. But even though they sounded like them, the 'Tones was never a Beatles tribute group.
"It's like they were all sort of visited by aliens," Spongetones guitarist Jamie Hoover says of the music of the '60s bands that he still performs. "Bands of that time were just really blessed with fabulous lyrics, beyond what they should have been able to come up with at their age, amazing stuff, and it still holds up, still sounds great." The 'Tones are still active: the band goes in the studio this weekend to record their tenth album, and Hoover says the music still feels great to play. "We just sort of use it as our medium, as an artist would use watercolor or acrylic."
For want of a better term, The Spongetones' music is classified as pop. But since Britney Spears and Ashley and Jessica Simpson got their paws on it, pop has become a synonym for mindless trash. "Yeah, I guess we should call it un-pop," Hoover says. "What we do is not on the radio at all and hasn't been for a long period of time, but it should be. I love to write songs that people put the repeat button on and play a bunch of times."
Hoover and the 'Tones have been doing that for 27 years. But their catalogue hasn't just been sitting in a corner gathering dust. The music is still relevant enough for ABC's World News Now to use their song "Skinny," from the band's fifth album 1995's Textural Drone Thing, on their nightly broadcast.
The band's output hasn't all been upbeat Beatly beats. Number 9, a Japanese import, featured some harder-edged stuff, like the very un-Sponge-like "Cruel and Unusual Punishment." "We've never gotten rich off our recording, therefore we don't worry about it," Hoover says, laughing. "We just do what we want to do, make the sounds we want to hear."
That attitude and their mutual appreciation of the sound they make together have kept the original band together for nearly three decades. "We're just all really well matched," says Hoover. "We hang around each other when we're not playing, call each other every day. We're just like brothers, I guess."
They extend that affection to their fans. One in particular has gotten their attention of late. Pat Kitts has been following the band since she was 16. "It was just fun music to jump up and down to, get crazy to," she says. "I have a lot of memories of following them around."
Kitts has a place in Spongetones history, pictured in the crowd on the photo montage on the band's first album, Beat Music. "She was one of those people who was always front row to see us play. Once we see people for a long time we try and keep up with our fans, be friends with them," Hoover says.
Kitts, now 42, has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and her friends The Spongetones, along with other area bands, are throwing a benefit for her on June 10 at Amos' SouthEnd. Kitts says one of the main things she wants from the benefit is for people to learn about lung cancer. "Most people think you're a 70-year-old smoking man to get lung cancer. I'm a 42-year-old supposedly healthy vegetarian non-smoker that has it."
Kitts has become an activist for lung cancer education and fund raising. "I don't know how long I'll be around," she says, noting there's only a 15 percent survival rate past five years for her level of cancer. "But I'm gonna be screaming about awareness as much as I can. Until the stigma is changed that it's just a smoker's disease, there'll never be enough funding."
"We love Pat," Hoover says. "We want to help her in any way we can and support her -- she's certainly supported us over the years."
The Spongetones headline the Holding onto HOPE!: A Benefit and Lung Cancer Awareness concert Sunday, June 10 from 5 to 11 p.m. at Amos' SouthEnd. Donations accepted at door.