On Monday afternoon, Eric Schenkman found himself heading east through western New York, just south of Buffalo, taking in his surroundings on his drive to Brooklyn.
“It’s actually really, really beautiful,” he mused. “I’m going through these rolling hills with cornfields.”
Once he reaches his destination, the guitarist will settle in with Chris Barron and Aaron Comess, the frontman and drummer, respectively, of the Spin Doctors — the band he co-founded in the late 1980s, only to leave five years into their stardom and eventually rejoin seven years later.
“When you’re into a heavy thing, it becomes difficult to see the forest through the trees, and that is dysfunction,” he said. “And you’re lucky in life when you get enough distance to see the forest again — and that’s what happened with us.”
For the next few days, the three bandmates will eat, write, play and, on Friday, link up with bassist Mark White before getting back on the road — this time to play a concert at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, bringing to the stage a cohesive mix of new and old.
At age 57, Schenkman said he does not take any of this for granted.
“It’s really nice to be back playing again. It really feels great — especially the first couple of times when you have an actual audience,” he said. “I’m much more of a live guy than a studio guy, and the first gig that I played, it was actually a club and the people in the crowd were just freaking out. They were thanking the band, but the band was actually thanking the people more.”
There is no part of Schenkman’s life that hasn’t involved music, starting from his childhood in Toronto, Canada, where his father was a concert cellist and his grandfather a conductor and violist. By age 2, he had already picked up a guitar — raising an eyebrow of the two classically trained patriarchs.
“It was a natural thing I wanted to do — a natural thing that my mom didn’t want me to do — which is the perfect cocktail for a rock and roll musician,” he said. “My mom was like, ‘You’re gonna need something else to do,’ and then my father’s people were like, ‘That’s not a real instrument.’ That’s perfect for me; I was pretty much a rebel. To be told those two things at the same time, it pretty much secured it.”
Mostly self-taught, Schenkman moved to New York in the fall of 1988 to attend The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, founded two years earlier by saxophonist and iconoclast Arnie Lawrence, who encouraged musicians of all stripes to experiment together.
“If you’ve ever been to a school that just started, that’s the only kind of school I like,” Schenkman said. “There’s not many rules and it’s forming and they need the student body to be maverick and not so much like sheep.”
Half the students were bebop kids, the rest funk, rock and blues — which is where Schenkman fell — and all “sweat hogs,” he said with a laugh. There, he met harmonica-man John Popper, who introduced him to Barron. And, together, they formed Trucking Company.
But it wasn’t long before Popper quit to focus on his other band, Blues Traveler, prompting Barron and Schenkman to add Comess and White to the mix, entering the music scene in 1989 as the Spin Doctors.
It was a special era, Schenkman recalled. In his Chinatown apartment, they started writing music together right away, piecing together songs that would appear on their debut album, “Pocket Full of Kryptonite,” in 1991 — now celebrating it’s 30-year anniversary — and testing out the tunes in clubs across New York.
“We weren’t just sitting in an apartment trying to put stuff together to get a record contract — I’ve never been that kind of a player,” Schenkman said, adding, “We did have an idea that the material was good because we were gathering an audience at the same time and they were responding positively. You can really sort of tell if the stuff is floating, if it’s levitating.”
It did more than that. It skyrocketed.
The band’s first two singles, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” peaked at numbers 17 and 7, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — the latter earning them a Grammy Award nomination. By June 1993, the album went Triple Platinum, selling over 5 million copies in the United States and another 5 million abroad.
The international renown was nothing short of “intense,” Schenkman said — a mixture of sheer luck and the goods to back it up.
“It’s not the kind of thing that you expect to happen, because it usually happens to somebody else,” he said. “It was just surprising, but not that surprising. I think we knew that we had a good thing, I think it was just surprising that it actually happened.”
But the fame eventually backfired. The road got bumpy. Schenkman and Barron were at each other’s throats and the guitarist said he no longer recognized the band he started.
“It was very difficult to deal with, actually,” he said of the swift rise to success and what came with it. “It was just getting too ridiculous. We had this huge record and I almost don’t even remember that period. It was a lot of pressure and there was just a lot of ‘me, me, me’ going on.”
On Labor Day 1994, Schenkman chose himself. In the middle of a concert in Berkeley, California — while promoting the band’s second album, “Turn It Upside Down” — the guitarist walked off the stage and left the band.
“I felt like it had stopped being what I thought it was,” he recalled, “so I just got off the train.”
He and Barron didn’t speak for seven years. In that time, the band quickly unraveled. Its third album tanked, the lead singer lost his voice due to a rare form of vocal-chord paralysis — the cause still unknown, though he has since recovered — and they were dropped from their label.
By that time, the bandmates had dispersed.
“Nobody stopped being a musician that entire time,” Schenkman said. “We all stayed at it, individually and then together.”
In September 2001, the powers that be at Wetlands — a nightclub in New York that was about to shut down — asked the Spin Doctors to play a reunion show before they closed their doors, but only if it had the band’s original members.
“Everybody sort of said, ‘Well, I’ll do it if he’ll do it’ — that’s what I said,” Schenkman recalled. “And we have a great chemistry, and so it was really obvious sort of right away. Then the Trade Center fell down, four days later, and all this really made it pretty obvious that we should keep doing this.”
Twenty years later, Schenkman’s time with the band post-breakup eclipses the early days three times over, and he said the group “has, really, never been better.”
“I would say that this band was always at its best when we had to fight for it, and it was never at its best when we were just getting a whole lot of accolades for free,” he said. “It’s almost like we don’t know what to do with that energy. But when we have to fight an uphill thing, we’re very happy. In a way, it all worked out for the best.”
With much of the dramatics and dysfunction in the rearview mirror — “I love working particularly with Chris,” Schenkman said, “We’ve had a little Renaissance, me and him; and for Aaron, it’s the same” — the musical brotherhood is strong and ready for what’s to come.
“I don’t think we take anything for granted,” he said, “and I think that we have a lot of integrity, both in terms of having to fight for stuff still, and being thankful for what we’ve got.”
As published in the Southampton Press and the Sag Harbor Express