What makes a youngster choose rock and roll as an adult career path? Some cases might lean towards nature – the kid was just born with creativity in his blood, and he had no choice but to heed the call of the songwriting wild. Empirical evidence might prove other individuals to be influenced more by nature – their family was already rooted in showmanship, and it was all too easy to follow aesthetic suit. Then there’s Luke Spiller, the makeup-sporting, androgynous-costumed lead singer for Britain’s great new glam-trashy outfit The Struts, whose recent ‘70s-retro debut Everybody Wants is easily one of the most exuberant albums of the year. For him, it was a bit of both. And he can now clearly trace his own surreal genesis in retrospect.
Born into a Christian family in Bristol, England – Spiller always knew he marched to the beat of a different drum. As his family moved often, he acquired a chameleonesque ability to blend in to his new surroundings, no matter how initially daunting. “I wasn’t necessarily a misfit or anything — I learned from a very young age how to fully reinvent myself, with every new class that I went into,” he recalls. “So I became very socially aware, and I was kind of friends with everyone. And I had this ability to get people to accept me for who I was, so I was always comfortable in my own skin. And, uh, I guess that kind of shows now, huh?”
Indeed. The guy simply possesses that ephemeral It Factor in coliseum-grandiose spades. And his stage presence is a perfect storm of all of his arcane influences colliding, like Night at the Opera-vintage Queen starting a Rocky Horror Picture Show Time Warp dance-off with members of Slade, Sweet, and Thin Lizzy, with Suzi Quatro and Jeff Lynne presiding as judges. That’s how irresistibly great the Wants anthems are, from the opening stomper “Roll Up” (in which Spiller states his raison d’etre with “So now whatever I wear is gonna have flair so you people can stare/ And I’ll catch your eye when I walk on by, nobody will stop me”), through the crescendo-chorused “Could Have Been Me” (“Don’t wanna wake up on a Monday morning/ The thought of work is getting my skin crawling/ I wanna taste love and pain/ Wanna feel pride and shame/ And never look back and say It could have been me”), a chugging “Young Stars” (“I never gave up, I never gave in/ I kept on running because I’d win/ Because I was born for it, I was ready to go”), and the wah-oohed monster singalong “These Times Are Changing,” an autobiographical rundown of the vocalist’s achievements (“I’ve been to New York City, I’ve met The Rolling Stones.” for starters). Spiller even has an arch, idiosyncratic way of delivering his lines, rolling every R with capricious, cartoon-villain glee.
“I’ve been wanting to do the same thing sonically – and honestly – ever since my teens,” swears Spiller, who also possesses the requisite angular features, shag haircut, and prominent cheekbones of a classic rock star, which his model girlfriend Laura Cartier Millon accents by carefully applying his MAC-based makeup before every Struts gig. “So I’ve carried that, and kept my eye on the ball, and I’ve always wanted to do a career in music.” But early one, he laid out some hard and fast ground rules. “And one thing that I was clear on with myself was that if I am going to do this, then I’m going to do it on my terms. I’m going to sing the songs that I’m proud of writing, which sound a certain way because that’s the way I want to sound. And anyone who’s really with me can come along for the ride. But anyone who’s thinking I should be more contemporary? They can find someone else who they can fucking do that with.”
Then came the nurture portion of the lad’s existence. Today, he truly believes in the uplifting, even redemptive power of music, and that a great song playing on the radio on a day when depression might seem indomitable can actually save a listener’s life. His faith in rock is that steadfast, unyielding.”And that became clear to me at the age when I had the album Off the Wall by Michael Jackson,” he explains. Yes, he’s serious. Michael Jackson. “I just listened to it so much that I got obsessed with it, and I completely wore that CD out. I’d take it everywhere – when I was going to school, or into different rooms of the house. It took up a lot of my time, so I guess it all started with him.” That was at age seven. Later, he discovered the operatic Justin Hawkins and his old-school metal combo The Darkness. Again, he was mesmerized.
“The Darkness came at a really important time in my life, where I was coming out of Nu Metal and a kind of a rapping stage that was going on in the United States,” chuckles Spiller, slightly embarrassed. “I didn’t find a lot of U.K.-based rock really inspiring, and they just burst onto the scene. So sonically, I thought The Darkness was fantastic – his voice and the sheer energy of the songs. I just felt like I could really relate to it at the time – it was literally the soundtrack to my mid-teens.” Naturally, he enrolled in theater courses and developed a fascination with makeup and costuming, including women’s clothes. When he first showed up at high school at 15, wearing eyeliner, other students simply shrugged. They had already started referring to their classmate as ‘Luke the rock star.’
Which certainly sounded better than PK, for preacher’s kid, which was what Spiller actually was. And therein hangs another formative tale. He reckons he either learned or inherited his flashy performance chops from his fire-and-brimstone father, whom he would study every Sunday when he watched him sermonize at their local church. What his dad did in the pulpit wasn’t selfish, he noticed then. Stirring the congregation with both words and musical numbers, he says, “had nothing to do with him, it was to do with something else.
“It was about tapping into something which requires faith and whatnot. So I guess he taught me the art of sincerity in performing, and passion. That’s probably what I learned the most from him. I wouldn’t say that I consciously studied him,” he clarifies. “But definitely subconsciously, a lot of his attributes rubbed off on me. And he was a guitar player, and he gave me my first guitar. Then he gave me more guitars, and some of them were models that he played when he was my age, like this beautiful Ovation. But watching him work was what first introduced me to live music, and to watching a big band.”
Oddly enough, Spiller’s mom – despite running a Christian household — was a dyed-in-the-wool rock and roller from way back. She once saw The Who perform in Bristol, with a then-little group called AC/DC opening. “She’s not really a hard rock fan now – she just appreciates good songs, but more like an established artist type, like Neil Diamond,” he says, hastily adding, “But so do I, as well. But it’s funny, you know – parents kind of grow up with their children, and looking back now, I know that mine probably would have done a few things differently. But you go from thinking that a certain type of music is a bad influence to realizing that, ‘Okay, my son does this and that, so I guess there’s something to be learned from all this.’ So they have always been 100% supportive. Uhh, as long as what I’m doing is tasteful!”
It was the artist’s mother, in fact, who made one of the most crucial suggestions for The Struts. Knowing that her son was a huge fan of classic Queen and its late foppish frontman Freddie Mercury, she urged him to get in contact with Zandra Rhodes, an English designer who once created stage togs for Mercury and his guitarist, Brian May. It was 2014, and The Struts had just booked the biggest gig of its career – opening for The Rolling Stones in Paris, for a crowd of 80,000 – and Spiller knew that he wanted something to wear that would make a lasting impression. Or, as he puts it, “I wanted to get a couple of outfits made that really suited the occasion.” Rhodes hadn’t agreed to work with a musician in years. But she readily agreed to get her shears out of mothballs for him. “And she designed four separate outfits for me,” he marvels. “And I just adore Queen’s debut album, and I discovered marijuana around the same time, so you can guess the kind of journeys I went on in my psyche with that as the soundtrack.”
Australian designer Ray Brown – whose work for Cher, AC/DC, and Judas Priest is displayed at New York’s Smithsonian Institute – also agreed to craft wardrobe pieces for Spiller, when The Struts were invited to open a string of dates for Motley Crue. These days, he estimates that roughly 80% of his clothes are women’s, including his signature white kimono from Max Mara. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. “I tend to not really listen to a lot of people, and I’ve done pretty well so far,” he says, confidently. “I just like doing whatever I want, really. And that’s the bottom line – I do what I want.”
Of course, none of this might have happened – nature and nurture be damned – if Spiller hadn’t met his perfect musical foil in guitarist Adam Slack, whom he met in 2009. They were both staggering out of failed combos, so they moved in together in Slack’s hometown of Derby and wrote steadily for three years, until they had achieved the perfect rabble-rousing sound they wanted. Eventually, they added bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies and issued their first single, “I Just Know,” in 2012, then a Kiss This EP, and an early version of their now-retooled debut album in 2014, containing five extra songs not featured on the original. The band has even temporarily relocated to Los Angeles, the better to launch its assault on America, which it should conquer by Christmas. Along with Dorothy and Spain’s The Parrots, The Struts is easily one of the best new rock groups of this ho-hum year. No joke. One listen, and you’ll be hooked.
And Spiller loves paying tribute to his influences through Struts cover songs. He can’t bring himself to croon any Queen cuts, he sighs – he never wants to be that blatantly obvious. Instead, he’ll do David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” or something new from English peers The Vaccines. But there is one rather unexpected re-do that’s quickly becoming the band’s trademark. “One our favorites is our version of “Royals” by Lorde,” he reveals. “We wondered, ‘How would Oasis play that song? Or if Queen had Noel Gallagher ding a cover of it, what would it sound like?’ And I think we really hit the nail on the head, and I just love doing that song.”
Spiller’s own compositions are equally striking, and they boast many of his life philosophies, lurking just beneath the jagged riffs, handclap percussion, and anvil choruses. Especially “Could Have Been Me” and the prophetic “These Times Are Changing.” “Those two were both written at these certain points in our career, and I definitely draw on social experiences a lot of the time,” he admits. “”Could Have Been Me” was before we signed to Interscope and before we came to America, and we were like, ‘Shit! We are at a crossroads!’ And “Changing” is all about the present moment in time, and the feeling that there’s a change in the wind. The lyric goes, ‘I’ve been to New York City, I’ve met The Rolling Stones – things you cannot buy with your weight in gold’ — stuff like that.” And what wisdom did he acquire from The Struts’ summit with Mick and Keith? “Nothing I hadn’t known already – I’ve been studying them for five years before supporting them, so it was just great to finally see them in the flesh, you know?” he says.
Now, Spiller is glad that he chose music for a profession. Or that it chose him. Just look at the career of a professional athlete, he invites – there’s a built-in life expectancy that usually grinds everything to a halt way too early. “By the time you’re 40, you have to stop and then you go and do talk shows, but if you’re a musician, you do your job well until you drop dead,” he says. A technique he’s finessing as the days pass. If you had met him two years ago, he wasn’t physically up to snuff, he concedes. “But I’ve learned to take myself – and the job – a lot more seriously. I’m in this for the long haul, so I’m trying to take care of myself more, so I’m trying to stay off burgers and all the fatty stuff. I’m doing a lot more things to make me slow down and not be so wired, so I’m making the most of every day.”
But mainly? Spiller swears he’s simply over it – the fast-lane life that’s synonymous with his style of music. “You know, the good thing about all this is, I’m approaching my late 20s now,” he concludes. “So in terms of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, I’ve had more than my share of STDs and staying up ‘til 8:00 a.m. with a ten-pound note sticking out of my nose. So I’ve been there, done that. And I’m in a lucky position where I can learn from my heroes’ downfall. And not mistakes – if they wanted to party like that, fine. But I think it’s something that they themselves would advise me not to do, if they were still here….”
Appearing 7/28 at Bottom Lounge; 7/29 at Lollapalooza, Chicago
– Tom Lanham
Read more at Illinois Entertainer