Detroit’s Sponge might not be the band that most people immediately grab for when they consider ‘90s alt-rock. They’re not the group that hundreds of other groups cite as a major influence, and they’re not sitting prominently on bills at arenas and major festivals.
But the reasons for this aren’t necessarily clear. They never split, even though frontman Vinnie Dombroski has recruited a variety of different musicians into the Sponge ranks over the 26 years that the band has existed. Nobody died, or had a highly publicized battle with drugs. Perhaps therein lies the problem; Sponge has been excruciatingly stable and drama-free in this TMZ world.
But the albums have been intensely good, and remarkably consistent even if the commercial success of 1994 debut Rotting Piñata (and the “Plowed” and “Molly” singles) was tough to duplicate. 1996’s Wax Ecstatic was a dark and brooding though gloriously melodic masterpiece and, in recent years, records like Galore Galore and Stop the Bleeding have forcibly proven that Dombroski can’t not write a killer tune.
The guy is, in fact, a force of nature. Sickeningly talented, the multi-instrumentalist is a celebrated session drummer in Michigan. He’s also 54 now, but looks half that. His speaking voice resonates as charmingly as his vocals, and he’s impossibly charismatic. That Sponge didn’t at least rise to Stone Temple Pilots’ level nationally is a travesty. That said, the current version of the band sounds great as it prepares to tour last year’s The Beer Sessions album.
“The band to me sounds fantastic,” Dombroski says. “The way this band sounds now, it represents the music that the guys that were in the band used to do — it respects what they did. But by the same token, we’re pushing forward with this group of guys and this particular sound. I feel that the lineup is stronger than ever. The music’s represented correctly and, to me, there’s no better thing that we can put forward than that.”
He’s right too; the current lineup has breathed new life into old favorites an, in that respect, Sponge is on top of its game. On the flip-side, they ain’t spring chickens anymore. Getting out and touring a new album presents its own challenges — on the body and the family.
“Years ago, when I was much more career-driven or ambitious, it was easier for me to go out,” Dombroski says. “I’d be gone for a year. My older sons are in their mid-30s now, but these days it’s harder for me with my young kids to justify being gone. Fortunately, how I describe it is, Sponge built a road years ago. All the hard, no-money gigs, all the vehicles that we toured in, all this crap. Now we’re riding on that road, and we’re doing what a lot of bands do which is to go out, and do three or four-day runs. It’s harder to be crammed in a vehicle these days. We fly, and we’re in buses on occasion. It’s tough when your knees are all f’d up and you’ve got tiny bladders.”
Fortunately, Dombroski doesn’t have to remain on the road for extended periods in order to stay busy. Back in Detroit, he has an outlaw country group called The Orbitsuns (with Patti Smith’s son Jackson in the ranks), and an industrial metal band called Crud. Both showcase different but key aspects to Dombroski’s songwriting, and personality.
“The Orbitsuns are still out there, hitting it hard,” he says. “That hasn’t changed. It’s been probably 18 years going strong with that band. A lot of fun. We’ve got a great lineup of guys that kick ass. And I get out there with Crud every once in a while. We’ve got a gig coming up in December, but that thing is just occasional.”
But Sponge remains Dombroski’s career-defining venture. And while the band hit its glass ceiling years ago, they’re ultimately comfortable at that level. After all, enough people come to see them and but the records to make touring and recording worthwhile. Hence The Beer Sessions.
“It was a record made more for us, going back to the old sound, than for the fans, but the fans seemed to get it,” Dombroski says, before discussing the fact that the album was financed using a Pledge campaign. “We’ve been doing that for a few years now, because of the way the industry is. I know some people don’t like to do it, but we have a lot of fun with the campaigns and new things come out of them.”
On Thursday, September 28, Sponge will perform at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, before playing a show at the Whisky on the Sunset Strip the following night. Dombroski is excited to get back to Southern California.
“It’s a whole different pressure though,” he says. “We’re out here in the Midwest playing Detroit, but then you go out to LA and I still get intimidated, thinking that’s where the business was — al that kind of crap. But it’s just a bunch of bullshit in my head. I kinda enjoy it now. I have one cocktail and it takes all the butterflies away.”
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The shows are being billed as performances of the Rotting Piñata album in its entirety, but it might not be that simple. Sponge has recently been performing Wax Ecstatic too, so anything could happen.
“We’re gonna play songs from both and field requests,” Dombroski says. “There won’t be any requests too stupid apart from “Candy Corn” from somebody. That tune is Sponge on mushrooms so it’s a little tough to get that one on the deck on any given show. But we’ve been playing tunes from both records, so that’s how we’ll roll with it. Plus, we’ll play some of the new shit from The Beer Sessions. We usually play a song from that record called “The Whores are Closing In.” We’ll play a couple of new tunes too.”
When this tour is over, the cycle will likely start over for Dombroski. More Sponge dates, more Orbitsuns dates, perhaps an annual Crud show, and then it’ll be time to think about the next Sponge album. Whether he sells a million units or not, the man is a workhorse and he’ll keep creating. The music will be great, and those paying attention will be rewarded. That’s just how it is, and how it’s always been.
Sponge plays with Dolan Brotherhood and Dreams of Vertigo at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 28 at The Coach House; 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano; 949-496-8930; $15.