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Interview with Spencer Brewer, May 1997
Interview with Spencer Brewer, image 1
I have had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know some interesting people in my life, but I can think of only a few who come close to Spencer Brewer in talent, dedication, and heart. In an age of specialization, it is amazing to find a Renaissance-man among us who is willing to try just about anything at least once and who doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the words “inhibition” or “can’t”. He is a prolific and multi-faceted composer who is constantly giving back to his community and the world at large with arts programs as well as environmental projects; he is also involved with many educational and humanitarian endeavors. As a performer, few others have his ease onstage both playing the piano and sharing often wildly funny stories about himself and his music. His early classification as a “new age” composer indicates only one of Spencer’s many composing styles, as his performance here on October 5 will show. For those who are lucky enough to already know Spencer, here is an update; for those who are new, you’re in for a real treat!

Spencer Brewer was born on June 21, 1954, in Dallas, Texas. He is a sixth-generation Texas native and has two younger brothers. Spencer’s mother is a leading dyslexia therapist. She was also the dean of six universities, specializing in communications skills for people with learning disabilities; she is now in private practise. Spencer’s father is an attorney and corporate risk-manager. The only other musician in Spencer’s family was his grandmother, Alma Loveless Gertrude Brewer, affectionately known as “Doody”. She was the person who really turned the young Spencer on to boogie-woogie and blues piano. As children, Spencer and his brothers took turns spending the night at Doody’s house, and when it was Spencer’s turn, he and his grandmother spent most of their time at the piano. It is interesting to note that Spencer inherited and restored Doody’s piano when she died, and then gave it to one of his brothers for his nieces to learn to play.

Spencer started piano lessons when he was eight. His mother and grandparents scraped up enough money to buy an old upright, and a composer was born (Spencer has also restored this piano, and it is with another set of nieces in Arcata, CA). By the time he was twelve, Spencer says he was sick of piano lessons. He didn’t have good teachers, and was much more interested in improvising and writing his own songs than in learning classical music. He made a deal with his parents that if he continued to spend at least an hour a day at the piano - playing whatever he wanted to play - he could quit taking lessons Spencer wrote his first song when he was nine, and started improvising when he was ten. By the time he was twelve, he was writing lots of songs, and he started playing professionally when he was sixteen.

Spencer played in several rock bands in high school and college. He attended Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas for about a year and a half. His original major was forestry, but he quickly changed to music. He took some music theory classes, and then dropped out and moved to Austin, Texas, where he started working full-time as a professional musician. For three years, his routine consisted of playing the piano in restaurants at lunchtime, in fern bars in the afternoons, and various other gigs at night. From the ages of 19-22, he played the piano an average of 10-13 hours a day. He also did a lot of travelling at that time. Spencer’s parents never supported his becoming a professional musician, and his father thought he should stay in college and get a “straight job” like everyone else in the family had done for generations.

From that point in his life on, it is amazing that one person could do so many different things and still stay so focused on his music. A few of those endeavors included importing antique clothing, blankets, and rugs from South and Central America; exporting hundreds of pounds of puka shells from Costa Rica in the early ‘70’s; being a carpenter, floor layer, housepainter, caterer, chef, and restaurant-owner. He has had a piano tuning and restoration business for more than twenty years, and still owns The Mendocino Piano Company, where he services pianos in the Ukiah area about twenty hours per week. (Very sadly, his piano shop burned to the ground on September 9, and he lost all personal possessions that weren’t in his home. What a tremendous loss!) Spencer says that he has played the piano in every kind of establishment imaginable; some of the more interesting ones are in an airplane, on a cruise ship, at Miss America and Miss Alaska pageants, in vineyards, at a nudist camp, and in a redwood forest. For awhile, he was a chef and piano player on the Mississippi Queen riverboat. More recently, he built a state-of-the-art recording studio on his property, and founded Laughing Coyote Productions.

During the 1970’s, part of Spencer’s life was being the pianist for three different modern dance troupes. In Austin, he worked with Deborah Hay, who started “touch and contact improvisation” in New York in the early ‘60’s. Her approach was completely spontaneous - the music and dance were to happen without conscious thought. There were no rehearsals, and no one was the leader or follower. Spencer says that was the most difficult thing he has ever done - playing without thought - anything that happened worked. For two years, he also worked with Suzanne Grace in Columbia, Missouri. He often went to junkyards to find odd and unusual materials for making musical instruments to accompany performances with her troupe. Spencer invented things like the “Sawzall”, “Enzymlchymlzyl”, and the Musical Coatrack. He and a few other people would play these strange-sounding instruments for the dance concerts, and got great reviews.

Spencer founded Perfect Pitch Music in 1978 while he was in Missouri. He also started Willow Rose Records in 1981. He had eight or nine albums on that label when he sold it to Narada in 1984. Spencer moved to California in 1981, and had a piano shop in Pleasant Hill from 1981-1984. He specialized in pianos that were in recording studios, old player pianos, and European pianos from the 1700’s and 1800’s. He also did a lot of work in concert halls. In his work as a piano technician, Spencer has worked on more than eight thousand different pianos (including mine!); he has even worked on the pianos in the White House! Spencer has also owned at least six hundred pianos.

Spencer, his wife, Esther Seigel, and their son, Dorian moved to their ranch in Redwood Valley, CA in 1984. Esther is a marriage and family counsellor, and also teaches horseback riding to high-risk and handicapped people. They have twelve horses, and also open their home to troubled young people as an emergency foster care home. Dorian is now an adult.

As diverse as his life has been, it is no wonder that Spencer’s musical inspirations have also been varied. Some of his musical influences include the early electronic musicians as well as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream; and the early jazz players such as Memphis Slim, Meade Lux Lewis, Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum. He also really enjoys the music of the French Impressionists such as Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saens, and Satie.

To date, Spencer has played on forty-one recordings - fourteen solo and duet albums as well as many compilations from Narada and other labels. He no longer records for Narada, but continues to be included on some of the label’s compilations. Spencer left Narada so that he would be free to record some of his other musical styles such as rhythm and blues and boogie-woogie, not just the new age genre. Spencer is currently working on a new album that will include some of the music he composed for the upcoming feature-film, “Heartwood” (starring Jason Robards, Jr.), as well as other new work. My own favorite of Spencer’s albums is last year’s “Torches On the Lake” with double-reed player Paul McCandless. It seems to capture the spirit of Spencer’s live performances more than the albums on Narada did.

Spencer’s music is being heard all over the world on a daily basis. It has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Barbara Walters’ specials, the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, on nearly every airline, and in dozens of TV programs internationally. He wrote the theme songs for the National YMCA, The Japanese Postal Service, and The National Big Brothers/Big Sisters; and composed the soundtrack for the award-winning film on racism, “The Color of Fear”. He has also written two musicals: “Cinderella Once Upon a Time” that was staged several years ago in Missouri, and “Willamancefoot and the Mugakillawomps” which became an animated film. He was the Musical Ambassador for The Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America for five years, and did benefit concerts all over the country for that organization. He has done in concerts all over the US, as well as Canada and Mexico, and will perform with Paul McCandless in Texas and Arkansas later in October (after his blockbuster concert in Hercules!).

When asked what his most exciting musical moment has been, Spencer says there have been many, but the best was “seeing my music on the big screen on the film ‘Heartwood’. Also, writing some of that music was very high as well as frustrating. I wrote 47 tunes in 4 1/2 days with only 6 hours of sleep the entire time.” Some of his other memorable moments are when he went bungee jumping over the Allegheny River after a concert in Pittsburg, PA at midnight, while 500 members of the concert audience watched. He was still in his silk suit! In the past few years, he has headlined National Nude Weekend (“dressed” appropriately for the occasion!) and played at a nudist camp near Los Gatos wearing his hat, sunglasses, and bollo tie! On another occasion, he and some friends moved a piano onto a beach and filmed him playing while the piano sank into the sand bar! The greatest high of his life was a concert he and violinist Steve Kindler did in Mexico for about 3,000 people. They were on the second or third standing ovation, and they were still “ripping up” the audience.

When it comes to composing, Spencer knows no restrictions or boundaries for his inspiration. Sometimes he dreams the music, and if he can wake up and get to the piano fast enough, he can sit down and play the whole song. A few of the pieces that he dreamed are “Dreamgift”, ”My Sweet Elijah”, and “Perj Neuf”. Spencer does most of his composing at the piano, and then gives his tapes to other people to write out. He has written hundreds of songs, and some of his favorites are “Quintessence”, “Marcel and Claudette”, “Caravanserai”, “Tellurian Rhapsody”, “Tonto’s Revenge”, and “Satie’s Lost Dream”. I asked if there was a philosophy behind Spencer’s composing, and he said, “Yes. Be the most creative person you can in life.” He continues: “I really believe, with all my heart that everybody is born with a talent or ability, and if each of us was to search out this gift, I think there would be true harmony on the planet.”

An arranger from Italy named Tyler Lincoln is currently arranging 1 1/2 hours of Spencer’s music for a 65-piece orchestra. The Ukiah Symphony will perform the music with Spencer in February 1998, and then he hopes to take the music on a “pops” tour to other symphonies around the country. Spencer promises to keep me informed about this project. If we aren’t in the process of building Noah’s Ark next February, maybe we can get a field trip together to attend the concert in Ukiah!

When I interviewed Spencer two years ago, his goals were built around doing more concerts in bigger settings and doing lots of composing for films. I was surprised when I started hearing and reading about the state-of-the-art recording studio he was building on his land, and how he was putting all of his resources into it. I asked what brought about the change, and he said, “It just seemed like the right thing to do. I’m a gear-junkie, and a lot of the people in my world needed a place to record.” This also gives Spencer complete control over his own work. Reading about the expertise that went into this studio is amazing - to control the sound waves, none of the walls are plumb; the floor was “deadened” by laying a concrete pad, then putting 1/4” roofing material over the pad, placing 2x12’ boards on end, filling the spaces between the boards with sand, then laying 3/4” plywood and 3/4” particle board over the boards, and then covering it all with tongue-and-groove oak pieces all glued together! The walls are 20”-thick and don’t meet the floor, etc. Then there is all of the equipment! This is no “microphone and tape deck on the piano in the livingroom” studio! Spencer produced sixteen recordings from the studio last year; he has completed eight this year with three more in the works. Having done one film soundtrack, he really isn’t interested in doing more of that right now. He has also lost the personal need to tour and perform on a regular basis, and has been putting more of his energy into community issues. He is setting up a series of concerts to benefit the local National Public Radio station; he just finished his 6th season as the promoter for Ukiah’s Summer’s in the Park series, which has been voted the best free entertainment in Mendocino County the past four years; he helped found the Outdoor Education Center for county schools; and is very active on the Ukiah Education Foundation Board which raises money for scholarships and arts programs that have been cut out of public school budgets - they plan to raise $80,000 this year for the school district.

Although free time is something of a rare commodity, Spencer collects monster models and memorabilia from the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s. He also collects old Mad magazines and Mad memorabilia as well as extremely rare coins and music. He like watching old movies, and loves to cook and work around his house. When he does have free time, he loves to have friends over for dinner and to travel with his wife. They enjoy going to the mud baths in Calistoga and to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. His favorite colors are green, purple, and deep blues. Spencer loves life in a very intense way, and feels that he has a wonderful life.

When asked if he has any words of advice to young people studying music now, Spencer says, “Continue to explore your own music while practising the technique. A well-rounded student is one that can and will always improvise, read, compose, and have theory down so that music us a ‘known language’ instead of just something one reads or interprets.”

You continue to be an inspiration, Spencer! Thank you! Very best wishes from all us in getting your life and your shop back together after the fire, and we’ll see you on the 5th!!
Kathy Parsons
May 1997