MONROE — He’s a librarian who had shelved his rock star past.
What’s up with that?
Phil Spirito is back on the music circuit playing bass with his 1990s East Coast indie band Rex. Not to be confused with the 1970s English band T. Rex.
Rex’s music is downbeat and bleak. Chances are you haven’t heard it or had any inkling that humble, silver-haired guy running the library had it in him.
Rex is short for the glassware Pyrex, which a band member suggested after looking around the Brooklyn loft and spying a measuring cup. And it stuck.
It was the ’90s, remember.
Fast forward to December 2021, more than two decades after Rex disbanded. Spirito, 57, is living in Monroe, a library manager, married to a farmer. As a hobby, he strums weird moody tunes on guitar and his wife Libby Reed plays cello in a studio on their 15-acre homestead, Orange Star Farm.
She is well known in the Seattle area for duck eggs and organic vegetables. He’s the nice small-town librarian.
The days of Rex are decades and miles away. In a box, somewhere, are the vinyl proof of the band’s three albums, titled “C,” “Waltz” and “3.”
And then, that day in December, Spirito got a call.
“This label contacted us and said, ‘We love your old music,’” he said.
And, get this, they want Rex to perform at a big event with other bands in L.A. in February 2023.
The three band members immediately start practicing on Zoom. Drummer Doug Scharin lives in California. Singer-guitarist Curtis Harvey is in New York.
The trio decides to make the 2023 L.A. gig part of a two-week West Coast tour that will start in Seattle, with stops in Oregon and other parts of California along the way.
As a trial run, Rex members reunited in person in August for four shows in small venues on the East Coast, in New York, Connecticut and Maine. Each had a turnout of a good 80 to 100 people, some who were cult-followers back in the day and others who’d heard them on YouTube.
One show was at Sun Tiki Studios, a studio and live music venue in Spirito’s hometown of Portland, Maine.
Ian Smith, the club’s owner, knew Spirito and the others from the 1980s Maine music scene. Smith was the road manager and soundman on the recent tour with Rex.
“It was like a fantasy land for me to just go off on the road with them and hang out and do the roadie thing,” said Smith, who got back into the music world after a 25-year break to raise a family.
He’s going with Rex on the 2023 West Coast tour.
The irony, Spirito said, is that it was all pretty ludicrous to begin with, 28 years ago when Rex was formed. He, Scharin and Harvey were just three guys who’d met in the 1980s Maine scene playing in different bands and years later connected over music in a Brooklyn loft in New York.
“We always considered it a caper. It was a joke. We were all just having fun,” Spirito said. “None of us are virtuosos, we just do our thing. We can just play our music well. We didn’t imitate anybody. We did our own thing.”
The music was minimalist, part of the melancholy ’90s zeitgeist found on albums by Red House Painters, Pedro the Lion and Low.
“Rex was its own kind of music but was labeled as slowcore to make it into a genre that people can relate to,” he said. “It has grunge, and some elements of classic rock. It builds. The tempos are slow and it has a lot of dynamic changes and it’s also kind of moody. Rex has a tinge of Americana. Two of us had a background in bluegrass a little bit.”
On the tour circuit, the Rex guys were the old dudes.
“In the ’90s we were a little older than the bands we were on tour with and some would call us ‘professor’ and we were barely 30,” Spirito said.
The records were a fluke.
“A woman saw a show and signed us to a record label,” he said.
It put Rex on the trajectory for bigger tours and a cult following. They did five years of tours, about two a year, including one in Europe. Some shows drew 500 people.
“Rex” wasn’t plastered on the side of a tour bus.
“We had the crappiest vans,” he said.
An example of a tour: “We’d start in Chicago, go to Madison, Milwaukee, Minnesota, maybe play a show in Montana but probably don’t. Drive to Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, L.A., San Diego, then you drive to Texas.” With gigs in Arizona and New Mexico along the way.
Then, the band members got even older.
“We didn’t have a big breakup,” Spirito said. “We all kind of wanted to do our own thing.”
He moved to Chicago and started his own band, oRSo. (It looks like a typo, but isn’t.)
“My whole goal was to take that band to Italy. My family’s from Italy. I did it twice. I never made a penny. I was able to make enough to pay to do it,” he said.
The music by oRSo was even bleaker than Rex.
“I had an I.T. job so I could support myself, so I could do my music and do my own thing,” Spirito said. “People still knew me as ‘Phil the musician.’”
He decided to pursue a library career, but didn’t want to start at the bottom.
“I was already 45, so I kind of had to be a manager,” he said.
He and Libby moved to Washington because she wanted to start a farm and be near family members in Seattle.
Spirito took a job running the Monroe branch of Sno-Isle Libraries. People knew him as “Phil the library manager” and as a board member of the Community Foundation of Snohomish County. In the farm studio, he made music as oRSo.
“I’ve told people for years I’m a musician and they’re like, ‘Uh-huh.’ They only know two kinds of musicians. There’s a guy who plays in the bar and then there’s the pop star,” he said.
“They’d go, ‘Oh, that’s good, Phil.’”
In September, Spirito was promoted to be the library’s south district manager and works out of the Marysville administrative center. Few know about his double life, or the story behind the two framed oRSo posters on his office wall, or anything about Rex.
“People don’t think of me that way,” he said.
The Rex comeback is an aging indie rocker’s dream.
“We’re excited to make new music together and rekindle that flame,” Spirito said. “It’s like running away with the circus at 57.”