More to the Story:
Howi Spangler, Ballyhoo!
By Taylor Harrington 2/4/2021 11:00am ET
I think fall is gonna be the time for live concerts. Fauci says 70% vaccinated and we will be able to get back to that stuff. So rock on, vaccines! Let’s get this done. I want to get back to work. I’ll take the shot right now, you know? Give it to me. I’d even take it as a body shot.
We sat down with Ballyhoo! frontman Howi Spangler for an intimate conversation about his life and what it takes to still be making hits after 25 years in the music industry.
How did you get started in this industry?
I always wanted to be in a band, so when I was a kid, my dad took my brother and me to see Rat, Poison, Def Leppard, all those 80s glam bands, and I was just blown away. I was six years old when I saw those bands play, and my dad was always in bands growing up. There was always gear around the house; drum kits and stuff. He would buy us things like keyboards and little drum pads and guitars. So we were lucky to have that and kind of be exposed to that sort of lifestyle, and it just stuck. It wasn’t until Green Day came out with Dookie in 1994 when I was like, Oh, this is great. I’ve gotta learn how to play guitar.
My first concert ever was the Green Day and Blink 182 Pop Disaster Tour!
Oh, shit! I didn’t get to go see that tour. I didn’t go to a lot of big shows. I guess I did, but it was always like, by chance. It was, Hey, I got this ticket, you want to go?. I wasn’t buying tickets. I was broke. My friend works at a radio station, so I got to see Korn and Incubus, and a friend took me to see Metallica and Linkin Park. I saw Green Day for the first time when I just turned 15, and my mom waited on the phone with Ticketmaster for hours and got me tickets for my birthday. Remember having to call Ticketmaster if you wanted to go to a show? You could try calling and it would be busy for hours. Try again. Right? Yeah. These kids don’t know how good they have it these days.
Timeout. You don’t know how good you had it! Your mom was calling to get you Green Day tickets for your birthday. That’s a pretty badass move!
Yeah, it was! I was grateful that she was supportive. She wanted us to have things. She worked like two or three jobs. She worked really hard. But yeah, so Green Day came out with Dookie in ’94, and I decided that I wanted to play guitar and start a band. So with my brother, who is the drummer to this day, we started playing. We played our first show, March 1st 1996, so almost 25 years ago, and it’s been history ever since.
What has kept you guys together throughout the years?
When you found Ballyhoo!, we were already a band for 16 years. Which is in my head, wild!
I think that for me it was just the love of it. I started the band the summer before I went to 10th grade. So it was, you know, 11th and12th grade, you get grandparents and parents saying things like, “You’re going to go to college, You need something to fall back, You can’t just do this, it’s going to be impossible to be a Rockstar”. Back then we just wanted to be on MTV.
With Carson Daly?
My gosh, I’m dating myself. I’m talking pre-Carson Daly. He didn’t come around for another two, maybe three years. We wanted to be all that stuff- on the radio, playing on a major label. Everything is just different now. Back then it was much harder, in a sense, to get noticed. These days, because of social media and everything, not that it’s like, easy by any means, but the tools that we have now; if I was starting a band right now, for the first time, there are all these tools at your disposal. Back then, it was like you really had to get out and make it on your own- play over state lines, playing out of town, swapping shows. Trying to get on the local radio station was always fun like their nighttime local show was big here in Baltimore, Noise in The Basement, Matt Davis, shout out for supporting the band for all those years. In the early days, we would just do whatever we could to be heard and seen. It wasn’t till the early 2000s when I really started getting out to the Baltimore scene and meeting other bands, other artists and hanging out on a weeknight for Noise in The Basement or Tuesday nights at The Stone cellar. What that did was kind of create the community network, so that’s kind of how I did it. Then MySpace came along, and that really excelled things. You got to really connect with people all over the country and the world. It was always the thrill of, What’s next? How can I get to the next level? What we had was good. I knew that the songs were good enough. Everything we did was exciting and fun, and it was everything I’ve ever wanted. Then we were playing shows and people are singing along and having a great time. We’re having a great time. We’re getting wasted. Yeah, it was the life man. It’s not like I didn’t have moments of like, fuck it, I quit, you know? But there was definitely passion and drive, and the fire was strong. I live and breathe it.
It must be a totally different experience, going from first stepping on stage when you didn’t know if anybody would clap once, to what it feels like walking onto a stage when there is a crowd that knows all the words to your songs.
It’s the first show, March 1, 1996, at Aberdeen High School in the gym, and we charged two bucks. I made the flyer and I was so pumped, you know? It’s all punk rock. I remember feeling so stoked to get my first photocopies of like, 200 flyers. I was nervous, and I’m sure the other guys were nervous, but it was a happy nervous. We opened up with a Green Day song, of course, and 30 seconds in everyone is rocking, I was like, Oh, yeah, confirmed. This is what I want. You know? Yeah, fucking amazing. I remember just being so loud. It felt like 500 people were in that gym, but it was probably less than 100 kids. So that was a night I’ll never forget. Fast forward. You know, let’s say 2020, our last show. So 24 years after that first show, we’re playing all these shows, we’re going on tours with some of our favorite bands and friends that we’ve made over the years, and playing in front of lots of people that sing the songs and we’re very, very tight these days. Just from doing it for so long, I guess that part’s expected. I would hope we’d be tight and good at what we do as far as you know, playing and stuff playing live. The difference is monumental. We were definitely tight for being a high school band. I feel like we were like, the tightest of all the bands that played. We worked on it every day for eight months. I remember, we started practicing in July of 95, in my mom’s basement. July 1995 is when we say we the band started. Eight months later we did our first show.
What would you say was your breakthrough or defining moment?
We played in Baltimore. Our first club show at the Ottobar, the old version, for you Baltimore kids out there. It was our first club show. It was 1998 when we played at the Ottobar, and we were like 17 years old. Another bands promoter gave us a case of Coors Light. Yeah. Well, this is pretty cool. Clearly we had made it.
Let’s fast forward to the 2000s. You guys have done 311 day, 311 Cruises, huge festivals, and filled massive venues. What is that like to now be on the same playing field as these other bands that you maybe looked up to?
I wouldn’t say we’re on the same level quite yet, but we’ve been earning the respect of bands like 311. That makes me very happy. Our first show with 311 was March 15, 2008 in Missouri, and then March 16, 2008, in Columbus, Ohio. The night before that we played with the Slightly Stoopid March 14, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Then we drove overnight out to Missouri, and played with 311.. I was pretty sure that was that weekend. Who knew Missouri had the capital for like, St. Patty’s celebrations. There was a huge parade and everyone was destroyed from drinking all day, but it was a dry show. So you couldn’t get any drinks and everyone was passed out because they pre partied too hard. It was like six o’clock, and you were ready to go to bed. Yeah. And that’s what happened. So that was kind of weird, and we didn’t get a soundcheck. And it was Story of The Year they played right after us. We didn’t get a soundcheck. We just walked on stage. It was like there was just enough time to set up. So, I was even worried that the gear wasn’t even going to work. When we get up there, we start playing the first song and the kick drum is so loud in my monitor and that’s it. Pop pop pop, blow my face off. Apparently, it was kind of a shit show. The next night in Columbus, that’s when it really came together. We destroyed it and the crowd ate it up. That’s when I knew and was like, Okay, 311 nation is the shit. We’d actually hung out with the band after Raleigh show that that night before. Chad texted me and said to go to the bus. It was me, Chad, Nick, and Tim just hanging out. It was fun, man. It was awesome to just talk to them, you know? Ever since, they call us back for stuff and you know, we’ve done some tours and the cruises. It’s been great.
I bet there is another band that is telling the same story of “I got this text from Howi, he wants us to come to the tour bus”.
Happens already, I mean we’re at a point where we’ll be out with new bands and I feel that same feeling that I’m sure I was giving to 311 and whatever other favorite band we have played with. Reel Big Fish is another one. There’s that vibe of, Play cool, play cool. Don’t be, don’t, don’t, don’t be a fangirl, don’t do it. And I definitely failed the first few times with those guys. I definitely feel that play it cool energy from some of these younger bands. So that’s cool, you know? It definitely hits the ego. I hate to say it, but at the same time it’s like, Oh, that’s cool, man. They respect us.
The world needs more music, and they need more music that they can relate to, in a way that is welcoming and fun, and Ballyhoo! just brings the jam every time. Your music also helps people think about real issues that are going on and emotions they are going through. I was in a really low spot when I heard “Ricochet” for the first time back in 2011, and that’s why Ballyhoo! has been on my top five playlist ever since. I was in such a deep spot of, you know, depression, and I just wanted to let you know that the words that you put into that song saved my life. I was like, You know what? You don’t have to be heading down the road in a hearse. It’s going to be okay. I’ll be alright. So, Howi, I just want to tell you thank you.
No, thank you very much. That kind of stuff to me is huge and makes me feel amazing and awesome, but it’s also very heavy and weird to process, you know? Its hard to process the fact that I can write a song that affects someone like that in a positive way. So I’m glad it’s been helping all this time, and I appreciate you listening and that’s really nice to hear. I hope everything is feeling better these days.
I’ll tell you this, whether it’s a band, or your favorite coffee shop, or whatever it is that you’re into, if you want to support something, and you feel like this band, or this company, or whatever has given you enough value over the years, and you want to help them out, send them a Venmo.
How did you write “I’ll Be Okay”?
I was sitting right here, and I think I was trying to write something, or I was just feeling really down. I was having one of those moments where it’s like the dark cloud is over you. It’s only on you and everybody else has sunshine. I’m thinking of myself, Why am I even doing any of this? Like, what does this matter? Why does anybody care to see or listen to my next podcast or hear the next song, or watch a video, just all the other dark evil feelings that keep you from doing good stuff and things to express yourself and the things that make you happy ultimately. I was just really down, you know, and so I think I was strumming my guitar, and I just started messing around and kind of humming something, and it just kind of came out. I wrote it in like 20 minutes. That hasn’t happened very often. The last time I did that was when I wrote “Close to Me” and that was in 2006. When I wrote that I was on our first tour. Same thing, I was really down and depressed. I thought to myself, This is really different. I’ve never really sang like this as far as the releases go. I just thought This is really tender and just different. Maybe people need to hear this. So I just let it happen. I tracked it out, and yeah, people ended up digging it.
It touches people just like Ballyhoo!’s “Ricochet” had touched me years ago. People being vulnerable in their own craft, sometimes they don’t see that they genuinely are helping so many more people beyond the scope of what they even realize.
Every time you put out one thing, you know, even just me doing a podcast where I feel like I’m rambling. People actually get some value from it, and it’s interesting, but it’s encouraging at the same time. It’s like, Oh, wow, so I can just get on here and just talk, you know? Or I could just put out a song and people are gonna connect. I don’t know, it’s interesting, and I guess it’s fun for me too. I’ve always been kind of an open book, where I haven’t really been afraid to talk about how I’m feeling. I’ve definitely put things out there and I’ve said some things lyrically, over the years, where it seems kind of dark and weird, but I’ve even had management in the past, like telling me, “You’re just going to ruin it and make people all dark and sad.” Fuck that. I’m gonna put it out, you know? This is how I feel, and people are gonna connect with this, right? Yeah. You don’t realize the good you’re doing sometimes.
If you could perform with any musician, living or not, who would that be?
I know that I would definitely like to sit down with Billie Joe Armstrong and write a song or play a song together. That would be great. Dave Grohl would be another one. If I could somehow sing with Brad Nowell, Sublime, that would be killer. I think that’s probably some of some of the big ones.
So Ballyhoo! went through a transition in bass players. What was that change like for you?
Anytime you change personnel in a band it’s weird. It’s like, it’s sad when they tell you, and then it’s the stages of grief, you know? But then it gets exciting because you’re like, Okay, what’s the next guy gonna bring? How’s it gonna be different? Stylistically, you know, we try to find people that are going to work in match with what we’re doing. Of course, it’s got their own flavor, but and, you know, every guy that we’ve had has had a different personality and different vibe about them. We still remain friends with all of our previous bass players, and it was cool how it happened. At a show in 2014, we played in Baltimore, so it was perfect. All our friends were there and everything, and then so J.R. played half the show, and then right in the, it was either right in the middle of the song, or right after the song and middle set, Nick came out and they switched. J.R. left the stage, and we finished the show with Nick. It was it was a nice peaceful transition. Like I said, man, we just got drunk together and had a good time. J.R., after he said it, that he was leaving, I was like, No, you’re kidding. I think it was the next day or later, I don’t know, maybe later that night, I was like, Okay, yeah, this makes sense. He was over it. He had his reasons, and he’s an amazing bass player too. He’s great, but we don’t want to try to keep somebody that doesn’t want to stick around, you know? If they want to go, we’re not going to hold them trapped here. We don’t want that energy; we’re not here to lock anybody down. So Nick’s been in the band since then, and it’s been great. He fit right in and he keeps us young. He’s like ten years younger than us, he works out, and he’s handsome.
You really know how to get in touch with what people are going through and you connect to them on a musical and mental level, which is major. So thank you for your music.
I just want to say thank you very much for listening because I don’t think it gets said enough, but we wouldn’t be here without people listening to us and consuming whatever it is that we’re doing. So thank you to you for finding us 10 years ago and hanging in there with us. Then big thanks to everybody else out there that that comes to the shows, buys a ticket, buys a shirt, listens to the band on Spotify and Apple, and buys merch every time we do a stream. What a weird year this has been. The fans have kept us afloat.
How has this past year affected the band?
Look, it’s it sucks that we can’t tour. That blows. Our jobs went away. March 13th and 14th, we were supposed to have these two badass, ridiculous shows. Everything was ramping up, ticket sales were crushing like they hadn’t ever before. 2020 was the year, you know, to level up, and then those shows went away. Then the next week, we were supposed to go to Florida and do like five shows, a few festivals and other things, and everything was great. Then just one after one, after another, I started losing them. So you’re watching your job just fall apart and fall down the line. Okay, maybe July? No, those aren’t happening either. Okay, maybe we’ll do some in the fall, and then it gets to be July, August, then falls not happening. It’s, the weirdest thing ever, man. So what it did was, if you were smart, and this goes for anybody that has an entrepreneurial spirit or is doing something for themselves. If you’re smart, then you learn how to navigate the waters, you knew everything is being transitioned online and need to be streaming. We’re really lucky to have Harford Sound twenty minutes from my house. We put on these big productions every couple of months that stream out to everybody. We’re lucky to have that, but there are a lot of bands that don’t have that, but that’s no excuse. You have your phone in your pocket. Put it on a tripod or leaning up against something and go live on Facebook. You have no excuse to not do anything. Props to the ones that are feeding the fan base. I feel like there was a time, and I get all passionate about this part, but I feel like you get in a band, you go on tour and things become automatic, like, okay, this is how it’s supposed to happen. We go see people play, they come to see us, they go home, we go to the next town, right? Then the minute that the shit goes down, and we got to put in a little extra work, get everybody together, rehearse, then go do this production, you know? Create, merge and do all the things. There are bands out there that aren’t doing that. They just don’t realize they can do it. They’ve got to realize it by now. Are you just gonna wait until it’s time to go back on tour and expect your fans just to come out and pay to come see you again? They’re kind of counting on you right now. They love your music, give them some new music, you know? Yeah. I just like to see bands hustling. All the bands out there hustling and working, you know who you are. I think it’s just a great thing to see. I think the fans, they need the tunes, and we need each other. It’s like a symbiotic relationship. Every time we did a stream, we started realizing donations were going down, which is understandable. People were losing their jobs and people donated when they could. And then it was like, well now what do we do? Let’s create some value, let’s make some rad merch that’s limited, create some demand and get people excited. Fans will support that way. That’s how it’s been. We’ve been supporting ourselves by the streams and the merch sales. You were touring band. Now you’re not. Now you’re a merch company. That’s really what you should be going for.
How do you feel about bands that have been performing live through COVID?
I think it’s a tough call, to be honest. We are a band that we’ve been doing this so long to where we can support ourselves, year round without; we’ve learned how to do that. There’s enough in place to where we can take care of ourselves. A lot of younger bands though, they can’t just sit on their hands. This is just like any other small business like hair salons that were open when things are supposed to be locked down, but it’s like, what do you want? It’s like you have to survive, and people are going to do what they’re going to do, and I think that goes for for these. So I can’t be mad at people that need to go get some work. Promoter, the crew, everybody needs work. There’s a whole behind the scenes of people that lost their jobs, and they can’t, you know, necessarily go on and do a live stream and sell merchandise. They don’t have a brand to like, it’s just kind of like they depend on us to take them out and to make money, you know, so they’re picking up jobs and stuff wherever, whenever they can. Everybody’s trying to make it. So yeah, for the bands that are out there doing shows, obviously then those states are open and available. It’s kind of it’s like people are just gonna make their own decisions. You also can’t be mad at bands when they don’t want to go on tour. It’s a weird area to be in and even really discuss because you’re not sure how to feel about it. Right now I’m in a position where I can support myself and what I’m doing. These other bands have got to go to work. They have to make some money. I can’t hate on that. Support the arts in any way that you can. Support your local bands, support your local musicians, support your local coffee shop. I’ll tell you this, whether it’s a band, or your favorite coffee shop, or whatever it is that you’re into, if you want to support something, and you feel like this band, or this company, or whatever has given you enough value over the years, and you want to help them out, send them a Venmo. If it’s a band, go to their merch store, buy all their merch. Meanwhile, you’re streaming the crap out of their songs on Spotify to get those streams up, because that creates revenue as well. Watch all their YouTube videos, like all the things. I think bands should get creative and figure out interesting ways to monetize without looking spammy. The only way to do that is when you over deliver with the value.
Here’s to 2021 just bringing back live music, right?
That’s it, that’s going to happen in 2021. I think fall is gonna be the time for live concerts. Fauci says 70% vaccinated and we will be able to get back to that stuff. So rock on, vaccines! Let’s get this done. I want to get back to work. I’ll take the shot right now, you know? Give it to me. I’d even take it as a body shot.
How can people find you and Ballyhoo!?
Wherever you listen to music. Search Ballyhoo! or Howi Spangler on YouTube, or you can subscribe to my podcast Tales from the Green Room!.
Podcast: Tales from the Green Room!