You could say that my musical re-education in Pacific Northwest artists began with Angelo Spencer. It was 2009 and k-records, the label releasing the self titled Et Les Hauts Sommets, was beginning to promote its up coming release. It was around this same time I discovered Karl Blau, LAKE, Old Time Relijun, and so on. The album was an instrumental affair that blended punk rock with wavy surf guitar and tribal beats. Later I would come to recognize the finger prints of many k artists on that album, but at the time the Et Les Hauts Sommets and Angelo Spencer were a mystery to me.
In the year that I’ve been interviewing musicians in the PNW one passion ties them all together; a desire to create new sounds working within and around established genre’s. Angelo is a beautiful personification of this desire. Perhaps more than any artist I’ve met thus far the word cultural magnet comes to mind, in an extreme display of polarity, music from around the world is attracted to him. The tribal music of Africa, or as I learned in our interview Bollywood.
Angelo grew up in the French Alps, a landscape which has stuck with him to this day. Et Les Hauts Sommets (the high summits) is an obvious reference to the Alps. At age four he discovered Ennio Morricone’s classic soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, an obvious influence for the music he would later create. Those two loves would blend into a love of music with a natural landscape feel.
While his French background would seem to be the perfect worldly addition to a career in the PNW surrounded by artists with similar goals, he had to overcome some serious insecurities concerning French music. In France you either listened to music in French or you pushed back and listened to American and British bands singing in English. The two groups didn’t co-mingle and you had to make a choice. Angelo chose English, and years later as he approached his appropriately titled World Garage album he accepted the challenge of integrating French into his songs. A concept he’d been uncomfortable with until that point.
This is what I most admire about Angelo; his willingness to challenge himself to do something new and unique. Once he feels he’s lived inside that challenge enough to get an understanding for it, he pushes forward to something else that’s been nagging at his cerebral cortex, and he attempts to live inside that. Name another indie musician willing to utilize the quirky art of auto-tune. It could have been disastrous, Angelo was willing to leap right in and integrate it seamlessly.
Just listening to him describe his intentions for his next sonic adventure gave me goose bumps. What would he do next? In what way would Angelo Spencer expand his sound by doing something that no one else is willing to even attempt.
Roughly a year ago I sat down with my legal pad and generated a list of musicians, artists, authors, comedians, and so forth that I would like to interview. Angelo was at the top of that list. As I began to understand, you’ve got to take opportunities when they appear, and it wasn’t until April that I drove down to his house in Olympia to interview him.
Not so coincidentally it was just a week after I’d driven down to interview his girlfriend Lindsay Schief (LAKE, Solid Home Life). Once again I set up my equipment at their dining room table, while Angelo made some absolutely delicious tea. Again with the eyes of the Papier-mâché Fox were trained upon us as we had our conversation. Occasionally the neighbor cat would casually walk in through the front door march around the kitchen like he was supposed to be there and exit out the back.
Angelo could not have been more hospitable and I relished our conversation while the tape was rolling and our lengthy discussion afterwards about recording in Anacortes, favorite lyricists, and my impending trip to Sasquatch. I’m trying something different this time and instead of releasing the podcast after the interview excerpt, I’m publishing it first. Therefore the podcast has been available for sometime now and I highly suggest you give it a listen, there’s so much that you’ll miss if you only read this heavily abridged interview. You can find the podcast on our website or in itunes.
You grew up in the French Alps (you’re our first international guest), what was it like to grow up there?
It’s pretty neat, I’ve never really been to the Rocky Mountains, but it’s probably the same as Colorado, I would say. The same environment. It’s a lot of small little towns and valleys and mountains.
How do you think that effected you musically?
I like mountains, I can’t imagine myself living in a flat part of the world. I like the feel of the desert, there’s no trees, just a bunch of rocks like glaciers… not a lot of life. And I always like music like, landscape music. Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, was my first memory of listening to music and being like, “wow, this is good, I like this.” I was 4 or 5. I like music that brings you images of desolate landscapes.
What brought you from France to the US and more specifically the Pacific Northwest?
A girl. We hung out in France and started dating, and we decided to have a kid together. I was still in France and her parents were going to move from New York to Seattle. I was like, “well, let’s move with them.” Previously I did a cross country [trip] from New York to the west coast, and I really liked it there. I went to Anacortes, Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia, Portland. I liked it way better than the East coast.
On World Garage you use English, French, and Farsi Lyrics.
I wanted to experiment with French because I was never able to write anything in French before. I was just too shy to sing in my own language. Now it feels more natural. English? I don’t know why… it was just in English, it just happened that way.
Did you listen to many French bands when you lived in France?
Not so much. There’s two groups of people, those who listen only to French music, and the other group is only going to listen to American or British music, and those two groups of people don’t mix. So for the artists it’s a statement to sing in French. Or you start your own band and sing in English. I was part of the snobs listening pretty much only to American music. I grew up in that environment, so to start a band and sing in broken English, your friends don’t understand it anyway, it doesn’t really matter.
I never really considered that there would be a bias or a divide like that.
Only a few bands do the crossover. Recently this happened to me. I have this booking agent who asked this venue for a show for me, while on tour, and the venue listened to my new album and was like “oh no, there some songs in French, we don’t want him.” They just want pure exotic American music. It’s bizarre.
How do you approach recording your albums?
I brought some ideas, and we just made things up. There was nothing rehearsed beforehand, it was just on the spot happy accidents and building things. Some really cool stuff happened, really weird happy accidents that totally made some songs. There was a plan but nothing official.
You use a fair amount of auto-tuning on World Garage, which surprised me. It’s not really associated with indie music.
I discovered that people in North Africa have been using it for years, and it mixed so well together. It has a bad rap now. All those people in North Africa still use a lot of phaser on guitars, which was popular in the 70’s and 80’s. I think auto-tune’s going to come back. When you have a weak voice like me it’s like singing keyboard. It’s hard to control, so there’s always weird flickering. There’s always a surprise in there. I don’t know what it does to my brain, but I love it.
What are you working on now?
We started recording a new album in Anacortes last July, but I got so busy. I was to record an album soon. With Lindsay [Schief] we were talking about writing some songs together. I want to do an album with a lot of back and fourth, male and female singing, kind of like Bollywood style. I want to make a really happy album, I don’t want some whiny singing, I want really full of life singing.**
Until Angelo told me so, I had no clue that his albums were essentially the product of improvised recording sessions. That speaks volumes about how talented a musician he is, as most songs sound well thought out and carefully designed. It also speaks to the artists that he has surrounded himself with over the years, far too many to list here. Angelo Spencer is a true gem of the Pacific Northwest and though not a native, he’s just as good as one, we’re lucky to have him right here in our back yard making music.
Angelo is taking a break from performing in order to work on new material and hopefully record a new album. You can purchase all of Angelo’s music at Krecs.com and you can hear him lend his talents to numerous projects including (but not limited to) Ruby Fray, Arrington De Dionyso, Kimya Dawson. You can stay up to date on all Angelo’s comings and going’s at angelospencer.com.