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Apr. 17, 2019

Uniquely Derivative: A Look Back on Spys4Darwin

By Brian Heaton

Back in the early 2000s, “supergroups” were all the rage. Chris Cornell from Soundgarden had teamed up with members of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave in 2001. That was quickly followed by the formation of Velvet Revolver in 2002, featuring Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, along with Slash and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses. The bands were an immediate hit and spawned a litany of similar mashups to varying levels of success.

One of the most noteworthy, yet under-the-radar projects of that era was Spys4Darwin. The band combined the talents of ex-Queensryche guitarist/songwriter Chris DeGarmo, Alice in Chains’ rhythm section of Sean Kinney (drums) and Mike Inez (bass), and Sponge vocalist Vinnie Dombrowski.

After touring together with Jerry Cantrell on his 1998 tour in support of Boggy Depot, DeGarmo and Kinney started jamming on some ideas. They eventually recruited Inez, and then connected with Dombrowski, who was a friend of Kinney’s. The band derived its name from a man named Darwin who lived in a lean-to near the group’s rehearsal space—Binge Studios, an abandoned paint factory in Seattle. One day, Darwin asked the band to watch his belongings, at which point DeGarmo allegedly remarked to Kinney that they were now “spies for Darwin.” The name stuck, and so did the jams.

Spys4Darwin cut a six-song EP titled Microfish in 2001. Mixed by Adam Kasper at Studio X, the songs were pulled from a week’s worth of sessions recorded by Scott Olson, with some overdubs being done at the home studios of DeGarmo and Kinney. Spys4Darwin made its live debut on August 4, 2001, at KNDD’s Endfest 10. The future seemed bright, with tentative plans for a full-length album and tour in the works.

But in an ironic twist on the clandestine reference in the band name, once the gig was over, Spys4Darwin quietly disappeared into the night, never to be heard from again.

Eighteen years later, all we’re left with is the lone EP, and if you can find it, a bootlegged live recording of Spys4Darwin’s Endfest gig. In retrospect, the band’s vanishing act isn’t surprising —Layne Staley’s death in 2002 led to a period of mourning for Kinney and Inez (who eventually continued Alice in Chains with Jerry Cantrell a few years later), DeGarmo attempted a reunion with Queensryche, and Dombrowski reformed Sponge.

In addition, while I am sure Spys4Darwin had interest from labels, the record industry was in flux back then, and ultimately the opportunities for the members’ established acts likely trumped what was on the table for a fledging upstart side project, even with Spys4Darwin’s star-studded pedigree.

Although all those reasons are plausible and understandable, it’s a damn shame Spys4Darwin didn’t continue. As the years have passed, Microfish has continued to develop a cult following on social media, with older fans re-discovering the EP, and younger fans just finding out about it through their enjoyment of Alice in Chains, Queensryche, and Sponge.

When asked to describe the band’s sound, DeGarmo told ABC News’ Gary Graff:

"It's guitar-driven, and Vin's contribution is sort of the punk-pop edge thing. He's got a nice growl to his voice. It's a fat sound; we can move from a thicker, heavier guitar base to a more ethereal acoustic-based thing, too. It's got a dark flavor throughout it, generally, but very melodic."

Listening back to Microfish all these years later, the first things that come to mind are groove and atmosphere. The electricity and power in main riff of the lead track “Submission in Love” is infectious. “Insomnia Station” features a great droning chorus, and when coupled with DeGarmo’s lead guitar lines throughout the tune, provides the EP’s most memorable hook. “Dashboard Jesus (Follow),” the band's first and only single, follows, with a bit of attitude and another great hook in the chorus.

“Chain Letter” is a Pink Floyd-inspired ballad, and in this writer’s opinion, Dombrowski’s finest moment on the EP. His delivery is so real and emotional, you can’t help but be swept up into the tune. Combined with DeGarmo’s wide-open rhythm guitar chords and haunting lead work, along with a tasteful harmonica solo that fits the song’s vibe perfectly, the cut is the epitome of the potential Spys4Darwin had as a band.

Next up is “Flood (Skill of the Kill),” an alternative number with a stop-and-start rhythm that showcases the skill of Kinney and Inez. Closing the disc is “Cold Dead Hands,” another more atmospheric track that’s driven by the drum beat in the verses and is further highlighted by some very signature DeGarmo guitar playing, particularly in the bridge.

In a nutshell, there’s no denying Spys4Darwin emulates certain aspects of its members’ primary bands. It’s impossible not to. But the sum of the parts gives Spys4Darwin a distinct vibe all its own. As DeGarmo said to radio station KNDD about bands “borrowing” from established acts:

“Everybody’s derivative. Nothing’s totally original. It’s just … uniquely derivative.”

Spys4Darwin were certainly that, and then some.

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