With its exploratory electronics and deeply reflective lyrics, Neuromonics was a landmark album for Virginia artist Nancy Kells, aka Spartan Jet-Plex, when it was first released in 2017. Today, Kells is releasing a self-remastered edition of the wide-ranging project, so it’s well worth taking a moment to trace where it came from and where Spartan Jet-Plex is headed from here.
Neuromonics was born as a set of three EPs, each named for part of the brain: Temporal Memory, Amygdala Sky, and Casual Cortex. Kells says the structure developed as a reflection of their struggles with mental health.
“I struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and that often has made me feel like there is something wrong with my brain. There are also all these different parts of who I am, and those titles just seemed to make sense when organizing the songs into three separate groups as part of a whole.”
The songs were written after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, so parts of the album also deal with the intersection of personal and political dread. The original Bandcamp release of each EP included chants recorded at the 2017 inauguration protests, and while Kells felt those segments broke up the flow of the full compilation, the songs themselves respond to the times in their own ways.
In the midst of everything else that was unfolding in the world, Kells was grappling with identity, something that comes through early on in the track list. Songs like the dark, folktronic “Another Other” dig into their feelings of social dislocation.
“There are pieces of me in this set of songs that stem from the very long process of coming out,” they say. “It’s been a journey, and I’m still on it, trying to figure out how I fit in this world–and how I want to fit into this world–as a queer and nonbinary person.”
Kells also sees Neuromonics as a turning point in their stylistic development towards a deeper and more developed sound.
“These are the first set of songs that really blend a lot of aspects that I’ve played around with in my music over the years–guitar folk, synth stuff, vocal layering, sampling, and field recordings,” they say. “I feel like I’ve blended all of that together and played around a lot with the structure and building of songs. Also, mixing different types of beats together–lo-fi with more hi-fi and hand percussion.”
“Our Kings” comes to mind, with its sampled mechanical rustling, lo-fi electronic beat, and Kells’ far-off, ethereal vocalizing. “Hold Me Steady,” on the other hand, kicks off with crystal-clear synth pads and Kells’ emotional lyrics front and center, eventually incorporating maracas and sounds of glass shattering.
Neuromonics is the third in a series of album remasters Kells has put out this year, following new editions of My Time and Touch Tone. They say the process of reapproaching old projects has been a complicated trip down memory lane.
“I hadn’t listened to them in so long, so it was strange, in some ways. It was a nostalgic adventure. In some cases, because of the subject matter, it was bittersweet.”
My Time and Touch Tone represent a particularly painful point in the Spartan Jet-Plex catalog; each sees Kells processing the grief of their mother’s passing. For Kells, the subject matter was more interesting than the timeline; they decided not to remaster their work in chronological order, but instead to follow thematic and aesthetic through-lines.
“I wanted to release My Time and Touch Tone together, since they both came out in 2016 and both feature a single portrait of my mom on their covers,” they say. “They also happen to be the first albums I released that ever received any kind of attention as far as people buying them or writing about them. I decided to tackle Neuromonics next, and I will probably skip around until I’ve remastered all of them through STFU.”
STFU came out in 2018, and it served as a test album for Kells–it was their first self-mastered release, and also their first time hand-dubbing tapes.
“I used that album to see what the process looked like, what it would cost, and the amount of work involved. I wanted to be able to put out music for myself that was better sounding, especially for physical formats. It’s expensive to have other people do it for you, and I don’t have that kind of money. It also felt like something I should be able to do myself–I’ve been recording and mixing on my own for over 20 years. I’m self-taught and definitely have improved over the years, so I figured this was the next logical step.”
It was also a test run for Kells’ work as a facilitator and manager for Grimalkin Records, an international music collective and record label devoted to raising money for social justice and civil rights causes.
“I wanted to be able to provide that service if artists don’t do their own mastering or don’t have anyone who can do it for them. It also just makes sense for Grimalkin to put out good sounding tracks digitally as well as on tape or lathe. I still have a lot to learn and improve on, but I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.”
As part of that learning process, Kells continues to press on through their considerable back catalog.
“I’m already in the process of working on Olden, Cross the Line, and Uncomfortable Quarters, and then I will still have Get Some and All the World left. I have some additional stuff, such as a covers album and some really old four-track stuff, but I don’t think they’re worth remastering; I’ll figure that out later. It’s all on my timeline and something I’ve been slowly tackling in between all my other projects and work.”
They also offer mastering services to friends and LGBTQIA+ people who need it. If you fall into that category, you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We give priority first to collective members, then to folks releasing with us, and then to anyone else who is LGBTQIA+. In that last instance, we give priority to non-white folks,” says Kells.
They don’t charge for the work, but Kells does encourage donations to Grimalkin Records’ artist and mutual aid collective and label fund.
“This fund helps us pay artists for things like playing shows, artwork for releases and posters, and other needs like equipment or travel to get to and from shows, etc. We are always in need of support. They can donate via Paypal or Venmo @grimalkinrecords.”
Even outside the technical, behind-the-scenes work, Kells keeps finding new ways to grow as an artist. Their decision to take up mastering coincides with a ramped-up effort to play out live. Despite their extensive release history as Spartan Jet-Plex–their earliest recordings on Bandcamp date back to 1998–they only started performing in January of 2019.
“Playing out has probably been my biggest challenge so far as a musician,” says Kells. “I struggle with anxiety and I used to say I would never play out, mainly because it’s scary as hell. And it still is, but it is getting easier the more I do it.”
Kells says it’s another opportunity to rework past releases.
“I’ve been writing songs for many years now, so it’s been good for me to revisit some of the older stuff. I feel like I have a lot of good songwriting in the past, and now that I’m older and have more experience, I feel like some of those songs have new potential. Remastering this older work allows me a chance to rethink their potential, and playing out has given me an opportunity to sit with songs a lot longer and develop them without the pressure of recording.”
That’s led Kells to reinterpret old songs for new albums; take the Resurrected, released on Halloween of 2019, which includes updated versions of “Meant” from Touch Tone and “Rest in Stone” from My Time. You can hear the process for yourself on the recently-released Spartan Jet-Plex Live at Wonderland record. It features throwback tunes, new material, and a glimpse of Kells’ shifting strategy for developing ideas.
“I used to write songs, record them, and then move on. It’s been good for my music to approach them in a different way, and playing them out has really helped with that,” says Kells. “I feel like when I am ready to record this new work, it’s going to be something different for me and special. There likely will be a few new versions of some of my older songs on my next album.”
Currently, Kells’ live sets only make use of their solo vocals and guitar, giving their songs a more stripped-down, vulnerable feel, but they say that could change going forward.
“Playing out was such a huge, scary decision for me, and I really want to hone my ability to play the very best pared down versions of my songs possible before trying to add anything extra to my live sets.”
In their mind, the evolution would follow a similar path to their recorded repertoire.
“I feel like the next step will be bringing some of that more experimental stuff I’ve been doing on albums into my live sets. I have some ideas, but I’m still working on how I want to go about it. My intention when I started playing out was always to get there, and I feel like I am working towards that.”
From there, the Spartan Jet-Plex live experience has the potential to grow beyond the bounds of Kells’ albums and into new dimensions.
“I imagine a phase three for me somewhere down the line will be adding some kind of visuals, through video perhaps. I need to take all of this slowly, though; I don’t feel a need to rush anything. It will happen when I am ready and it will probably happen once I feel like I’ve mastered what I am doing now and need to add a new challenge to it.”
That willingness to take risks and expand their skill set, however long it takes and however frightening it may be, is part of what makes Kells such a bold and prolific artist, in person and on record. Kells says releasing old projects like Neuromonics comes with its share of discomfort, but also pleasant surprise.
“When I first started remastering the older music, I’ll be honest. In some cases, I was embarrassed, but in most cases, I was still pleased with what I recorded. In a few cases, I’m actually impressed,” they say. “I feel like I can play and make the songs so much better now, or just different. I still very much connect with some of them, which also is a factor in me playing them out all these years later.”
And in playing live, with the help of others, they discovered an entirely new side of their identity as an artist and in life more broadly.
“I forced myself to get out of my comfort zone, and it really has helped me grow and stretch as a musician and as a person. I feel good about that and proud of myself for doing something I never thought I would. I honestly would not have had the courage to do it if it weren’t for my supportive partner and friends who’ve really encouraged me, and I’m thankful for that.”
Spartan Jet-Plex is a project that draws heavily on the work of the past, but isn’t bound by it; Kells uses it as an imaginative opportunity to keep building better futures.