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SoundCheck: 22 to 22.0, The Ups and Downs of Equal Sponge

Jessica Balisle

This month’s SoundCheck episode looks at the heartbreaking and heartwarming story of the weird sounds of Equal Sponge 22.0. The duo will be on KSMU’s Studio Live Friday, October 11 at noon, followed by Studio Live Social Hour at our new location, Tie & Timber Beer Co. from 6-8 that same day.

The year is 1996. The Springfield music scene is full of classic acts such as the Skeletons and the Smarties. Big Smith is beginning to take the town by storm.

The popular band Barefoot Revolution is getting ready for a CD release show at the Juke Joint. They ask three friends – Thom Hutchison, Bryan Robby Roberts and Marcus Allen – to put together an opening group for the show.

They said yes and put together a band called Equal Sponge 22.

“We were basically broke musicians hanging around,” said Hutchison.

If that voice sounds familiar, that’s because Hutchison has spent years at KSMU, most recently on air during pledge drives, and also hosting the long-running, but now defunct, music program, Excursions.

The band played weird, fusion metal jazz and they liked it so much, they kept playing after the Barefoot Revolution show. When I ask about vivid memories of that show, Hutchison gets very specific.

“It smelled like the Juke Joint, because it was the Juke Joint.”

Equal Sponge 22 was out to make Springfield weird, or at least, make Springfield sound weird.

“We were going for obnoxious complexity. The band was basically attempting to pull of Spinal Tap. There was a point where – you know, we’re a trio – we’d be playing relatively small gigs and we had laser light show, we had multiple smoke machines,” said Hutchison.

For Hutchison, Roberts and Allen, the more ridiculous, the better.

“Robby had an electric spatula,” said Hutchison.

“Still do,” said Roberts.

Then Hutchison hurt his arm around the year 2000.

“And, you know, I spent all this time just playing and was told I had nerve damage. And, I quit playing,” he said.

Equal Sponge 22 called it quits. Hutchison didn’t play music for the next fifteen years.

“So, that’s one of your greatest fears when you’re a musician, right,” he said.

“Absolutely,” said Roberts.

Roberts and Allen kept playing together in different projects and Allen eventually moved to Las Vegas. In 2018, Roberts and Hutchison got some bad news.

“I ran into a friend, and he told me that Marcus, that he had cancer and was going to die. And we took a trip out to Vegas where Marcus was living – Robby, myself and a friend – and spent Marcus’s last weekend with him, one of his last weekends with him, just kind of saying goodbye,” said Hutchison.

“He was in really bad shape, so we just hung with him at his house. We cooked out,” said Roberts.

“Yeah, we just kind of sat there and just talked,” said Hutchison.

Despite his condition, Allen kept a good attitude about life.

“He really was ok with where he was. There was one thing that, people are, you know, ‘you’re dying,’ so everybody’s like, ‘Oooh, what’s the thing?’ And, it cracked me up, because Marcus was very matter-of-fact, he’s just, ‘Man, I’m not your guru! I’m not gonna tell – I don’t know! I’ve got cancer!” said Hutchison.

After Allen passed away, Roberts told Hutchison they were going to have a memorial for him in Springfield and wanted to do an Equal Sponge reunion. Hutchison figured he could tolerate the pain in his arm for one show.

“It was a great gig. It was a wonderful evening, and you know, really enjoyed it,” said Hutchison.

It was at this time that Equal Sponge 22 evolved into Equal Sponge 22.0.

“When Marcus was in the final stages of his cancer, he said, ‘I’m not really dying. I’m becoming Marcus 2.0. And so, we thought it would be a lovely tribute to him to call it 22.0,” said Hutchison.

With the memorial show, Hutchison also finally found relief in his arm injury. He visited a massage therapist who found it was misdiagnosed as nerve damage and was only tendonitis. Now, Hutchison is back to shredding guitars again.

“To be able to play again was probably the best gift I could have gotten from Marcus,” he said.

So now, Thom Hutchison and Bryan Roberts carry the spirit of Marcus Allen with them in Equal Sponge 22.0. It might be slightly more refined with age, but they still try to find the ridiculous and weird just as much as when they started.

“I feel like, in a world of infinite possibilities, you gotta explore as many of them as you possibly can,” said Roberts.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.
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