Spencer Clark of Monopoly Child Star Searchers on brain music, The Garnet Toucan and sick jetski videos.
Interview with the Littlest Vampire
(A Story of a Boy and his Tooth)
Spencer Clark is a contemporary musician known for his work with James Ferraro in their boy band the Skaters, as well as his solo recordings as Monopoly Child Star Searchers, Vodka Soap, Black Joker and more. The Garnet Toucan is his latest release, out now on Underwater Peoples, and is the final work in the “Romance Audio Trilogy”, following up on 2010’s Bamboo for Two (Olde English Spelling Bee) and the CDr, Make Mine Macaw.
I first heard Spencer’s music shortly after being turned on to Ferraro’s own solo work. I assumed Spencer’s record would be of a similar vibe, but I was surprised to find that, while there was certainly overlap between their solo efforts, Spencer’s compositions were introspective in a different way than Ferraro’s. He’s on a much more solitary and heady trip than Ferraro, whose inspiration seems to be contemporary cultural detritus. Whereas Ferraro has been more and more interested in shimmering surface play, in internalizing and reorganizing cultural noise, Clark is more concerned with exploring his own idiosyncratic obsessions in the pursuit of what he calls “internal brain music”.
In 2011, I learned that Clark had released new music—and had been, actually, for the previous 4 years—under the Monopoly Child Star Searchers moniker. I listened to Bamboo for Two and I loved it; it was ecstatic, tropical club music. It also sounded like some of the most accessible music I had ever heard from either of the ex-Skaters, but no less bountiful or expressive for that.
While Ferraro’s work has caught on with a relatively broad audience, Spencer is still under the radar in terms of mass appeal. He puts out several records each year—including last year’s Inner Tube, a collaboration with Emerald’s Mark McGuire— and has recently taken to writing a hilarious and insightful column for the British experimental music website Volcanic Tongue. Beyond that, he’s been keeping a pretty low profile, especially compared to Ferraro, who’s made social media part of his art. This spring, Monopoly Child Star Searchers will be touring with hit-makers Ducktails, so Clark might be gaining a little more visibility, at least temporarily. It wouldn’t be surprising if he retreated back to the obscurity of his Portland, Oregon home studio just as quickly though, to get back to work on his forthcoming collaboration with Pinhead.
I talked to Spencer over email and on the phone about his present, past and future work.
Martin Lynch Hi Spencer. Thanks for doing this interview.
Spencer Clark THANKYER YUR WELKER.
ML Your new record is part of a trilogy. What binds the three albums, thematically or otherwise?
SC The “Romance” trilogy highlights the way I feel and have felt in the past few years; with dedications towards freely experiencing the world and with expeditions at every corner one can find a more inherent meaning in things that are outside oneself, like for instance nature. When one is free of worry and guilt and regret I feel as though one can see the outside world more as it is in it's own nature, and not what it has to do with you directly. So the keyboard solos on Bamboo for Two are meant to highlight the imaginary and the romantic side of the percussive nature of Monopoly Child Star Searchers. Make Mine Macaw has never been released, and it will be on LP this year.
Each album accompanies a romantic poem. Bamboo for Two's poem highlights the spirit animal parrot, and how with intense interest and visualization of the elements as personified, like Wilfredo Lam or Max Ernst, you can begin to see nature as a romantic counterpart that is its own person. It is about seeing things as they are in themselves, non-positivistic thinking that I first read about in Tertium Organum. I read a review of one of my albums this week, by Rosie O’Donnell, she thought of the parrot or Toucan as an annoying and loud bird, and I thought, For sure, the speaking bird is a reflection of its surroundings. How different it would be to meet a majestic talkative animal in the jungle, rather than in Rosie's apartment. Make Mine Macaw is about two lovers going on a journey to be married, they go to a forgotten special place, a natural place that interacts with the human. This interaction leads them to have a marriage with themselves and nature, which is entirely different from what they intended. The final poem The Garnet Toucan, which just came out, is about the dematerialization of these thoughts into constellations , or symbolic selves, and the reflection of this on the other side of the sun, facing the star Sirius. It also relates to my mother dematerializing and becoming a symbol in the sky, for me, and thinking about how beautiful it might be to have the luster of the material objects on earth turn into something very majestic in outer space.
ML When you talk about the value of seeing nature and “the world” on its own, distinct from what it has to do with you directly, do you mean that letting go of a personal attachment to “things” or nature can be freeing, or can allow us to see nature personified? Perhaps this would allow us to see beautiful things—ideas, structures or possibilities—that we can't experience when we try only to relate what we see occurring in the outside world to our own lives or thoughts.
SC Yes, but of course the active result of this, as opposed to the passive, is that one begins to be involved, to be involved with the outside world without judgment or having a necessity for it to fulfill a specific part of yourself. To open up a dialogue is not really to start talking, it’s kind of to make a gesture, and that is what the albums are. That’s active rather than passive, you know? I like to believe that MCSS's music is background music, but also quite forceful and trance-inducing. This is a dichotomy that I want the music to have.
When I was younger I would fall asleep to the loudest most active music, like Whitehouse or Throbbing Gristle. It's a really beautiful way to get with music, in the half-asleep realm.
ML You said that each album accompanies a romantic poem. Have you written these poems? Are you interested in storytelling?
SC The writing is to get an even clearer picture of what is happening. The picture on the cover of a garnet toucan in space is one thing, but with the meditative music that reinforces the color and adds to the dimensional push you arrive at the writing, which is an attempt to elucidate a clearer picture by mentioning that the toucan, for example, is seeing the champagnes bubbles as stars in its next realm. It’s about remembering what one has learned and taken in on earth. So I guess if one is talking and fulfilling their material gain, rather than witnessing to observe, they are in a material trap, and that the coolest thing about art for me was to be really encouraged to be passive and then active at a certain moment.
ML It sounds like you’re talking about the importance of observing things as they happen, rather than simply trying to use these things for some sort of material gain. A lot of your music has a meditative or hypnotic quality to it. Have you always made music that sounds like this? Have you ever been interested in making music that has a very different sound, like jazz or rock? Have any jazz musicians, like Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra or Coltrane, had a profound influence on your work as an artist?
SC Trance is a term that seems to be able to fit in any music. I definitely was mostly interested in free jazz and Sunroof! when I started making music. Often I imagine that I have made other music, like something more accessible, but it’s not really true. I make music that sounds like me and what I have experienced. To think of imitating other genres or styles of music is not for me. I don't understand that, and for that reason it's fair to say I am not a musician. It’s not some, like, daring claim, I just imagine that I should and can create what is inside me, and genres and styles are outside of me.
ML I remember hearing once of a black science fiction writer, and how he explained his interest in the science fiction genre, extra-terrestrials and other planets. He said that as a black man he is drawn to writing science fiction more than in any other genre because it is a way to imagine other worlds, or better worlds where something like race would just be irrelevant. Are you interested in other worlds, universes, or space for a similar reason? Why do you think you feel drawn to outer space or life beyond Earth?
SC That is escapist sounding, which is really cool. Escaping is real, it’s kind of a natural feeling in this world, I get that. There is nothing I would wish on anyone else more than for them to be free of anything.
There is nothing more phenomenal right now, still, than the modern myth of aliens, no matter how many times I go over it, I am in awe. But surely, it’s not because I want them to exist, it’s because I want startling intelligences other than myself to communicate with. The art and thinking that has been brought about by the phenomenon is real enough for me to move forward. It already lives. Any mention at something that far out and outside of oneself is, to me, so exotic and mysterious.
ML Do you mean that the art and thinking that has been brought about by the phenomenon of the “modern myth of aliens” has been inspirational and significant enough to give life to this subject?
SC What I mean to say is that there is so much to discover just within the realm of the modern myth of aliens. And with all the further correspondence humans have with this living topic, we now have a further life form. Like filling Frank with blood in Hellraiser, he begins to be human, the blood is the interaction, the knowledge. This knowledge can also be quite metaphorical, which I am really drawn to, and in that way, other intelligences is not sci-fi, it is you, the part of yourself that you’re not aware of. It doesn't have to be your “subconscious,” it may be a side of yourself that doesn't win a lot of conversations with the practical side of you and therefore only comes out when you feel mechanically inclined to appreciate art or whatever. If your foreign intelligence side is able to talk more in your head, than this might be meeting with an ALIEN.
ML Bamboo for Two and The Garnet Toucan, sound like two very different records to me, especially in terms of the song composition and the production. What did you set out to accomplish with The Garnet Toucan, and how was it a departure for you from Bamboo for Two?
SC Bamboo for Two was recorded in Belgium during a beautiful time in my life, and features my three favorite musicians: James Ferraro, Lieven Martens, and Eva Van Deuren (that excludes Jan Anderzen, who wasn't there). I somehow got them all to play on this record, it blew my mind, I never thought that was possible. Bamboo for Two is a romp through the jungle and Garnet Toucan is leaving the planet towards outer space. I think they sound different too; Bamboo for Two is basically live, and Garnet Toucan is one of my first forays into multi track recording.
Eva played sound effects and some rhythms on a lot of songs, her vibe is great. We both have an album called Steel Magnolias coming out, that is not about ’80s or ’90s retro stuff. We rented steel drums and made a sound that is like bamboo searching for her mother in an aquarium.
ML You didn’t work with multi-track recording on earlier albums as Black Joker or Vodka Soap?
SC All records before Spectacle of Light Abductions (2011) were recorded on a handheld cassette but with blind ambition.
ML The new record actually reminds me a lot of James’s 2011 record, Far Side Virtual. Because it seems like you guys are not collaborating at the moment, I wanted to ask—do you still consult each other or work together at all on your solo records, like on Bamboo for Two?
SC For a long time James and I would have simultaneous hallucinations, whether we were in separate countries or together. We were very close. I think we still have very similar takes on reality. I think it's really cool that you find the records similar, because it shows I don't have total control over my world perspective, ya know? I don't see much of a similarity, other than, well, I think certain sounds and psychosis we will always share. I learned a lot from him, and everything I make I dedicate to the experience we had traveling for awhile. His records are really cool and courageous. I would say mine are a bit less courageous, but very true to my head.
ML I sometimes hear similarities between your music and his in (what seems to be) your tape manipulation or cutting between tracks, the instruments and sound effects, and the melodies.
Did you guys make a lot of the early Skaters music abroad then?
SC Most of the Skaters music was made in San Diego and San Francisco. James used to say that our music sounded really Californian if you thought about it, and I agree, more and more. None of our music was recorded abroad. Every time we took to Europe we would get very involved in solo projects until finally we were solely that. For a long time when we worked on solo music we would have pretty similar stuff, as far as pedals and keyboards. It took me a long time to find out about using other stuff than what we just sort of arrived at in the Skaters. I was really happy to have found a way to put thinking before the instrument. The karaoke machine was instrumental in that, it was just something I picked up, and not an intentional music choice. It was good the instruments didn't matter. Now I have hundreds of cheap keyboards and it’s like the party during Go Dog Go, but keyboards.
ML Some of your songs sound improvised—do you sometimes record a song freely without a particular direction in mind? What do you experience when you go back and listen to what you've made?
SC I make music to listen to my brain. Stuff to bump. I can’t listen to it all the time because it’s a little intense. I like a little break after I make it, in order to see the music for what it is. I like to just spend a couple months making progress, not looking back at anything, and then to arrive back at it after I have fully gone through the process of chasing the original vision I had. Right now I am playing everything through a didgeridoo. Vodka Soap is created by using a lot of blind recording techniques and then adding into a sort of slightly random structures. It’s not what makes that music cool, but it is a process I learned from Roberto Matta and another painter Michael Hutchins (the painter of the Skaters Dark Rye Bread album cover). Matta complained that when he was in New York, teaching all the abstract expressionists, they were keen and settled with just the random strokes, and what he wanted them to do is go further into those strokes and make something. I agree with that, randomness is a way to learn about yourself, it is wonderful to add impressions of that, but not to end there.
There will be a three LP reissue box of the early Vodka Soap stuff, and I can't wait, it is truly head music.
ML I read in an article in SF Weekly that you are an academically trained photographer and that you lived in Germany after completing your studies. Are you academically or classically trained in music as well? What were you doing in Germany?
SC I studied at the Cal State Universities and graduated, so I know there is nothing classical about that sort of training. I studied political science for a while, but then backed off when I realized I couldn't be creative. I made photos of outer space and the jungle, seemingly like what I do now. There was not much response. I didn't feel very embraced or communicated with in galleries and with the photographers, but I was young too. As soon as I discovered music was a more immediate and less pedantic way to communicate the other zones of my mind, I was so happy.
I finished school and moved to Germany, so that I didn't have to go through further domestic training in the US. It was lonely and hard, and made me smarter and more adventurous. I didn't speak German, sometimes I wouldn't speak with anyone for like two weeks, but then I got a job and started to learn. I wanted to do something that made me lonely and disappear, and maybe go through something a little difficult to make me appreciate what I have. Just a bit of separation. I got so lonely I began to appreciate the world and my place in it. I always used to say I was there for two years, but really it was only a year. It seemed like forever. It was really the best thing I ever did to make myself not a clone. Cloneless in Seattle.
ML So you didn’t start really playing music until you were in your early 20’s, is that right?
SC I started making music when I met James. Before that I was pretty into traveling through the canyons in San Diego and taking pictures of flowers and then turning those pictures into impressions of outer space and floral environments.
ML I know that you did a radio show at Radio Centraal in Antwerp. How did you get involved there? Have you worked at all in Belgium with Dennis Tyfus and his record label Ultra Eczema?
SC Dennis is the man. He invited me to Antwerp once we met and introduced me to everyone. He is a uniter, he got me the radio show. The thing about Antwerp though is that everyone is cool, or like ten people are extremely cool. Lieven, Jell, Eva, Carlo and Dennis, and Wietske, they really made it happen for us. And they are all extremely sick to hang out with. His label is one of those labels where the record put out is usually the best one by that band. The Ludo Mich record is so inspiring it's insane. Dennis’ dedication is inspiring.
I tried being a uniter like him when I moved back, and quickly learned that Americans, a lot of times are more concerned about their own individual praise and accolades, that there can never be such a brilliant group vibe. But it's no one’s fault but the infrastructure we grew up with.
ML How do you think that the experience of living abroad in Europe has informed your music?
SC It’s more of a general way of being relaxed and letting planet earth come to you. I have felt, on returning to U.S. grid, that individuals are relentless to be the ones with a fresh point of view or the first to market this new downloaded sound (first to the moon). The positive side of all this is obvious. But, for me, I sometimes can’t really be around,—like in the metropolis—thousands of people that all want to do the same thing (be artists). I am not saying I am any different, but I guess what I am willing to sacrifice to be whatever it is I want to be, which leads me to want to be in a more balanced civilization. I also like not knowing what people are talking about, and love never talking about politics. That is something I have a hard time not doing in America, since it is so evident that there are so many strikingly obvious dilemmas. Europe is new earth.
ML Until about 2009, you and James seemed to remain pretty well under the radar in terms of a fan base. Since 2009 though, I’ve been surprised to see the way that gradually more and more people seem to know about you around New York and elsewhere in the States. Why do you think it has happened this way?
SC I don't know. One time, 3D DJ Dog Dick said that James and I had had a big impact when we lived in New York, but I can't remember ever really feeling or hearing that while I was there. Being around lots of musicians and young hungry metro-toids was sort of a cloud of its own. That being said, James and I were afforded a lot of opportunities and people were really cool to us, I realize that now especially. The artist has a responsibility to maintain a very intense relationship with their work in order to keep the interested parties inspired. I know the way to react to this, to knowing others are watching, is to feel even more comfortable to go further outside of yourself, and not be afraid to approach anything. It’s great to take notice of having fans and turn that into a positive situation.
ML This is just my impression, but it seems like James has, especially in the past 3 years, embraced an Internet presence. It seems to me that in some ways, you have gone in the opposite direction; you seem to rarely play in the States, and don’t participate in online communities at all. Is this an intentional rejection of that world?
SC I just go places when I am invited. I am not doing very much by accident, but there is only so much I can do. I am not absent on the Internet because I am opposed to it. No way, I am into all that stuff, I just have never been that toadied out. That might have something to do with my disinterest.
My dad told me when I was young that I shouldn't be so concerned with knowing everything, and that I should find my place, the thing I like to do, and really go into it. So sometimes the Internet seems like not what I am doing, and I let it go. I am really stoked just to have a studio to record and to practice what I do, to make brain music everyday.
ML What is one of your favorite sounds?
SC All things light. Nature sounds, animal sounds, and then the THX sound. That is the best. The toy cow that when you turn upside down sounds like a backwards voice. The sound of mirrors is what Vodka Soap is a lot. That will always be something I strive to make, the sound of mirrors.
ML Why do you think it is that someone like Ariel Pink has caught on with a mainstream audience, while MCSS or Gary War or even James—who is embracing modern culture and technology (and that is an understatement)—haven’t seen the same degree of mainstream acclaim? Are you interested in having mainstream exposure?
SC I respect all the musicians you just mentioned so much, for real. Ariel Pink is an ambassador of California, like the Beach Boys. Gary War is really cool, I saw him in San Francisco and it was super sick! That dude shreds. For me, with all due respect, I am not really the one to answer this sort of thing, but I do feel I should just say a couple things. I have too much to do with the realm of materialism as it is, and I should be less material. The art I make is personal and out there, it is about experience, that experience should include less materialism, not more. I am not trying to be idealist. The best thing about being involved in culture is to have met and experienced mind-altering stuff, in the underground especially. The worst, on the other hand, is to have seen others strive for more materialism within a realm of music that seems to be denying just that.
When thinking of the mainstream, and what that means, I like to think of nature and how it doesn't speak that language.
ML How do you think you could be a more "courageous" or “radical” musician and why would you want to be?
SC What I mean by radical is to remove myself from questions about the mainstream and materialism. I should retract more into the environment I have created, and dissect that. To be more radical, for me, means experimenting more and not rushing to put out albums. Experimenting takes time and patience. I can’t wait.
ML In what ways does your approach to making music today differ from the way you approached it back in 2002?
SC I have a lot more ideas now then I had back then. Some ideas have developed and are still just extensions of what was originally sparked back then. I miss that music quite a bit, but it's still near me, and I like to reintroduce it a bit. I recorded on hand held cassette going into a karaoke machine for six years, and since have been using a microwave tracking device that looks like it's from a fake star wars movie. It sounds great. My music is beginning to have a higher fidelity, but the funniest shit is, when it gets reviewed, it still is like, "Spencer Clark has taken his sounds, thrown them off a cliff, dragged them through the desert and taken a power drill to this tape." To me there's a difference but maybe I only hear it, that's entirely possible.
ML I've definitely noticed a change in fidelity of the recordings over the past three years. It's not as pronounced as James's shift from KFC City 3099: Pt. 1 Toxic Spill to Far Side Virtual, but I do hear a difference.
Are you interested in playing music in a group again? I know that you collaborated with Mark McGuire recently, and, as you’ve mentioned, have collaborated in the past with Dolphins into the Future and many others. Speaking of which, is that Mark McGuire playing at the end of the title track on The Garnet Toucan?
SC Yes, it is. Yeah, I am interested, although I don't think I am really good at playing with others. If Lieven and I could have a band together, I would do that. He is very interesting and sticks to his own thoughts and is a very influential person. I like his music too, and we both got the maverick vibe. I hope we do that.
ML What do you wish for your listener to take away from a MCSS's song?
SC Most of this music is landscape music. It’s supposed to be far out. A lot of people believe my stuff sounds like exotica, which is cool, I didn't really think about that. I was literally making pictures of other places, combining them, making new lands, and making soundtracks to them. Vodka Soap is internal brain music, whereas MCSS is landscape music. I think if you are gonna listen to it at your house, you should play it in the other room, and listen to its echoes. The best is listening to it outside, that’s where I make it, so that’s where I would imagine you listen to it. The music is supposed to accent the world that is already around us, the literature and visual art that accompanies the music leads to other realms of thought, and with all three elements one might see evidence of ways to see beyond.
I use central symbols to set myself off usually. I used to be focused on the chandelier. Then I blacked out and became tropical—I lived in Holland, where it’s actually pretty tropical.
To me, there are beings and objects on this earth that are very strange and alien and inspire me to imagine another world. I want my work to be psychedelic, but I don't have to try to do that, it is that way already, I am that way already. I want to work to bring meaning to the otherworldly visions I think about.
ML Could you give me an idea of what your production set-up was like for this record as far as the instruments you used and the recording equipment?
SC For Garnet Toucan I painted my studio to look like an aquarium and I brought in fish tanks and moons, trees, and paintings. The equipment is so unnecessary really. It’s keyboards that don't cost much. Any money I get from records I usually put into lots of different sound sources and not really that much into heavy duty machinery. I like buying vacations, or books or paintings, or especially movies, to make my work move forward. Granted this is not a lot of money, so it’s a wild ride. It’s mostly important to get the studio looking right, to focus on the appearance. To be allowed to look into another world. I would like to get more adventurous with this, but I think I might have to be invited into a studio or something. Garnet Toucan was supposed to be a purplish color, outer space, and tropicalish. Green even. For the fans of my music, I would just say the zaniest is yet to come. Masterpiece theater awaits!
Monopoly Child Star Searchers’s YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHTS:
For more on Monopoly Child Star Searchers, go to the Underwater Peoples's website
Martin Lynch is a writer and filmmaker.