Like all things Sunspot, my interview with the wayfaring Madison rock trio was just another stop on their crowded weekend itinerary.
We met at noon Saturday in a Verona coffee shop. Hours earlier, the Sunspot van was burrowing its way through a snowstorm in Walworth County. There, bassist Mike Huberty, guitarist Ben Jaeger and drummer Wendy Lynn Staats had spent Friday night rocking the Elkhorn Saloon. Hours from now, the van would be heading east on Interstate 94 to a Saturday night gig in Waukesha.
Sunspot are Madison's musical road warriors. Since chance-landing a show in Baltimore nearly eight years ago, they've arguably logged more tour miles than any other Madison band.
But that's not all that makes Sunspot unique among local music groups. Sunspot Road Mania sets them apart. It's a collection of 82 video and audio clips that document the quirks of their road life.
The Sunspot blog is one-of-a-kind, too. It's an online diary of the band's musical mileposts.
Then there's the Sunspot drummer cam. It's a panoramic view of Sunspot audiences near and far, as seen from the onstage eyes of the band.
At its core, the story of Sunspot is a tale of two same-aged friends (Mike and Ben) who grew up together in Big Bend, Wis. They played in a band together in high school called Nevermore.
Ben met Wendy separately. They performed together in the Milwaukee Youth Symphony. Ben played tuba. Wendy played violin.
Their friendships merged during their college years at UW-Madison. Initially, Ben and Mike maintained Nevermore. When they needed a new drummer, Wendy joined. Sunspot as we know it was born. "We never planned to be a road band," says Staats. "It just kind of happened that way."
"We started sending out press kits willy-nilly in 2001," says Huberty. "We didn't really know what we were doing. We just sent them everywhere."
A club owner in Baltimore was the first responder to their mass mailing. Thinking they were a local Maryland band, he booked them. The experience was so positive, Sunspot began planning to tour both the East and West coasts in the fall of 2001.
The band describes their own sound as "arena rock for geeks." Their well-honed songs are classic bar-band fare in the best sense of that genre. Their emphasis on entertaining crowds has earned Sunspot loyal followings in destinations as disparate as Eau Claire, Merrill and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Since July, Sunspot has released one original MP3 single on their website each month. The post is accompanied by an original video. The download is free (donations welcome).
Even Sunspot cover charges have their own twist. At their Madison show this Saturday, Sunspot are offering a drink, a shot glass and a three-song EP, all free with your $10 admission. If you've been to a Sunspot show before and you bring along "a Sunspot virgin," that, too, will earn you a free drink.
Earlier this year, when gas prices spiked, Sunspot's tour radius shrank considerably. The band emphasized weekend dates in small-town Wisconsin. It was a schedule that paid dividends.
"A lot of small-town bars, they're not having issues with live music," says Huberty. "People in small towns are keeping live music alive."
With their 15-passenger van and insatiable urge to tour, so it seems, are Sunspot.