Punk rocker brings different perspective to arts students

Rebecca Gates sitting in a chair in a VCU classroom, speaking with students.
Rebecca Gates in her Sound II class at The Depot Annex. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

When Stephen Vitiello became chair of the Department of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University this past summer, one of his biggest concerns was who would take over his classes.

“I have some maybe unique representation of what I taught primarily as a sound artist, but also in the history of media arts and someone who's between sound, music and the art world,” said Vitiello, who is best known for his sound installations. “I do have my own kind of niche.”

Nancy M. Scott, associate dean for academic administration in the VCU School of the Arts, suggested Vitiello look beyond Virginia to find an adjunct who could bring similar eclectic experiences to the position. 

“I started thinking about who had the skill set, who had a real reputation, and who also would have the availability to relocate,” Vitiello said. “Rebecca [Gates] came to mind as someone who was both in the art world and the music world. Someone I know and I trust and someone that each time I mentioned her name to friends, colleagues, curators in New York, they were like, ‘Wow, that would be incredible.’ … She has a really important, exciting indie rock history.”

Rebecca Gates performing onstage, playing the guitar.
Rebecca Gates onstage. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gates)

The Spinanes

Gates entered the music scene in the early ’90s with her Portland-based band, The Spinanes. It was a time like no other. Underground and indie bands began influencing the mainstream. Punk rock became accessible with major labels courting acts such as Rancid and Green Day. And then there was Nirvana, which broke the mold (ironically creating a new mold, which other bands imitated to lesser effect). 

Bands like The Spinanes were getting a lot of notice.

“We were just playing shows in Portland and then going up to Olympia and doing … a lot between Eugene and Seattle,” she said. “And then just sort of through that, someone asked us if we wanted to be on a compilation and then, from the compilation, someone heard that and said, ‘Do you want to do a [record]?’ I mean, we were getting good feedback and we were having people come to shows and we were growing as players and performers. … There was a lot happening in the northwest end and we were part of that.”

That was how Pacific Northwest music operated at that time. Bands would play shows nonstop, building community and helping each other, Gates said. 

Rebecca Gates performing onstage, playing the guitar.
Gates performing onstage. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Gates)

The first record led to another. Then Sub Pop records came calling with an offer that ultimately turned into a three-album deal. Gates and drummer Scott Plouf, the other half of The Spinanes, signed with Sub Pop in 1993 without ever making a demo. 

“You could argue that at that point we'd been playing off and on for a year and a half and booking our own shows and stuff. So we did a kind of real-world demo,” Gates said. 

“We had other friends who were also getting signed. That part of the country was having a moment. Nirvana had already been signed from Sub Pop to Warner's. Punk rock bands from Portland were also signed to Sub Pop.” 

Since the last Spinanes album dropped, Gates has enjoyed a solo career as well as gigs as a curator, consultant and activist. At VCU, she is teaching Sound Communications I and II and co-teaching a graduate class with associate professor Pamela Turner. 

“One of the things that I offer — and I'm not the only one — is that I do have really multifaceted things that I've done in my life,” Gates said. “And so being able to really try and think about what I can bring from that to [the students] … I'm conscious that I want them to hit marks that they need to hit, but I also have an elasticity to my practice. And I think that just reminding them that there can be an elasticity, even to a project.” 

Cover of The Spinanes reissue of its first album, "Manos." The cover image is a woman holding and kissing someone's hand.
The cover of The Spinanes reissue of its first album, "Manos." (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gates)

‘Weird and wonderful’ 

Throughout her career, Gates has sung with the likes of Willie Nelson and Elliott Smith, and toured with rock luminaries including Fugazi and Mudhoney.

“I love singing with people,” Gates said. “It's fun to meet Willie Nelson and sing with him ’cause you are in the same room and you're looking at him and there's that voice.”

She said others she has enjoyed singing with are The Decemberists and Colin Meloy, who “has really specific vocal arrangement ideas,” Gates said. “But I really like singing with my friends.”

Gates was a punk rocker from an early age, she said. Her earliest memory is of listening to records with her dad. While her parents were interested in music, she never had formal lessons. However, her parents did have a piano and guitar and she taught herself how to play the latter.

Her interest in playing organically evolved from listening to music and wondering how musicians did it.

The Pretenders’ song “Brass in Pocket” by Chrissie Hynde, “it actually changed my life,” Gates said. “I could say the four minutes of seeing that as a trailer before ‘The Kids are Alright,’ The Who movie screening … it was great. I don't write at all like her, but she's written some songs that are just weird and wonderful.” 

Gates said she read countless interviews about all aspects of music and one day it got to the point where she wondered what it would be like to sit down with a guitar and write a song. 

She played her songs for Plouf, a musician who thought they were good enough to play in public. They played one show, then another, then another.

“And then suddenly, the next thing you know, you’re like actually spending a lot of time doing this,” Gates said.

Rebecca Gates standing and lecturing during a VCU class with Brendan Canty, a musician.
Gates teaching her Sound II class. At right is musician Brendan Canty from The Messthetics and Fugazi. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

A fresh perspective

Gates writes elliptically, often circling back to unfinished projects, and has some rules for songwriting.

“One of the rules is that recorded songs should work. This is an old person’s rule because it’s referring to record speeds. They should work at any record speed — 33, 45 or 78 — structurally and melodically,” she said. “I think that it should be able to be played by an acoustic solo and then a full band.”

While this semester at VCU is coming to an end, Gates will be back next spring. Before then, she needs to do some touring to promote the reissue of The Spinanes’ first album, “Manos,” for its 25th anniversary.

Her time at VCU has added clarity to her work, she said. 

“One of the things that's great about what I'm having the opportunity to do here is to look at some of the things that I care deeply about from a different point of view,” she said.