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Spencer Owen & The Light Touch

The Light Touch was given to you by the only boy with hands so heavy they’ve gotta be remote-controlled from the moon. And that ain’t cheap, lemme tell ya.”
–Overheard at séance, not attributed to attendants.

“Life is a small price to pay for heaven.” –The Human League

THE FIRST TIME IT WAS HIS VOICE

but the second time I heard Spencer Owen it was his music.

I was going to write a review of The Light Touch focusing on the music itself, but that was when it still hadn’t been released. Now that it’s out I’ve decided to write a preview in the guise of an appreciation focusing on my original impressions of the artist and how they’ve lasted over the years, making it more like a portrait. My original title was, Enter the Light Lunch, but then only Spencer and a handful of obsessive Coen Bros. fans would dig.

August of 2002. I was in the oldest building on the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Base, the only brick structure on a bleak asphalt plot by the jet engine testing facility where the emissions tower still rises against the border between landfill and island soil. It was one of these windy placeless summers that happen through. You morphed along, college lay ahead, the sun baked your sense of the transitory. I'd spent the day tarring the roof either because the seals had leaked the previous winter or I was avoiding the editing I'd planned for this insane millionaire louse who’d invested in our company and offered me “a job on a picture”.

This meant a doomed sci-fi movie, the kind of project where the director's a Walnut Creek entrepreneur set on producing his own labor of love: a late-baby boomer’s soap filled with psychobabble relationship nonsense, lessons, rising ocean water and a dance-off at the climax—where it would turn out the world was a video game. Fantastic as this idea would have been in the hands of someone who either refused to take it seriously or follow the tenants of any and all traditional narrative, this guy was clearly never going to bring the project to watchable fruition. His direction was sloppy, defensive and combative. His end goal was to make the picture into a multimedia cash cow.

Fat chance. He started shooting on low-end digital video, planning to transfer it over to 35mm for the San Francisco Film Festival, which would have made it the first hyper-pixilated experiment in futuristic B-movie opera—on accident. It never happened. A lot of people like to plan things, spend their money on things, create things for misguided reasons. The guys who really deserve the money and attention and often times end up getting it are generally somewhere else. Basements, art centers, school studios, the backs of record stores, storage containers, tree houses, upside-down dumpsters or, in Spencer’s case, a second-story west Los Angeles bedroom with a unique combination of rock instruments, a 6-track tape machine, supportive parents and tolerant, well-wishing neighbors.

The ‘90s left quite a generation gap between folks when it came to thinking about technology. Some became more interested in staying on Earth, maybe because they’d already been living off-planet and didn’t romanticize the awe of space, while others (the older ones) tended to keep fantasizing about what they’d’ been promised growing up. There’s dispersal amongst the generations (how else would the young draw from the past) but that was the climate, and still is to some degree. Maybe we were just promised different things as kids.

So off I went to college, to live with someone whose favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was my mine too. He liked it for the awe of art, not space. I liked it for the awe of provocation. This was someone whose most beloved piece of music as a child was the Disneyland Electric Light Parade song, someone who’d recorded a rocking pop diddy about Buckminster Fuller before he’d even arrived at the dorms. And for the material he took seriously he only used the 6-track. Digital recording, like the digital cinema effects many of us had been growing out of for a few years, seemed too easy, lacked tactility and failed to represent the authentic Spencer Owen.

In terms of official albums The Light Touch is not just his first studio effort—it is his first real digital effort. And it is more than authentic.

When Spencer and his take on the world of creativity entered my life a lot of pipe dreams clogged the air I breathed, not just those of some B-movie director. CyberTran Intl. Inc. was slugging on to save the world of passenger transit with no end in sight. So was my own lofty ideal of a future in film direction.

Like one of my favorite characters Victor Vazquez had inadvertently done in high school, Spencer provided a window into working against the late-baby boomer attitude without sacrificing extremist art and ideas for the sake of maintaining a good nature. Rather, extremist juissance was a fantastic tool against becoming an interpretable human product while retaining the charisma involved in pleasing yourself and others, for the sake of doing just that and, pretty much, only that.

“Success” (whatever that means) was a bad word, something you had to get over in order to make it seem real in the future, which meant, of course, not giving the term any lip service.

Some things change; some don’t. It’s not hard to look to Mr. Owen for consistency. Six years later we’ve come to position ourselves in parallel to that original summer in that we’re both reviewing and working for startups and staring at screens.

2002 still. I was sitting in filthy coveralls at a computer chatting with Spencer online. Having been chosen to share a dorm at Santa Cruz's post-elegant/post-retarded Porter College, we were given each other's phone number. Our first conversation over the phone was our last. Spencer preferred typing to talking; I'd been moving in that direction myself. We never used the phone again. Our in-person relationship took a quarter at school or so to really reach its brightest and poorest periods. Some people learn about their friends quite slowly. We had osmosis. Chatting was online, in-person or nothing. If we weren’t working as roommates, we didn’t spend any time around each other. In a class we shared, if I wrote an essay at the last minute showing I hadn’t read the material, and was awarded for my effort, Spencer would turn in a late, well-conceived essay just to rail against this sort of behavior. Way beyond talking on the phone.

I like to think I’ve learned very little about Spencer since the spring of 2003. He’s been full of surprises, but they were surprises I’d have believed and speculated on further, had someone prophesied them. The piano on The Light Touch, for instance, having been influenced by Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan as much as Spencer’s own oeuvre of organ work, brings an old friend’s boots to the desktop and a squeak to his office chair. Spencer’s fingers had always been confident and quick, his melodies sprawling when compared to most pop, but even in its most frenetic and exciting moments the new record expresses a new power: the unspoken, the restrained.

Not only does Spencer's preferred method of online communication make him a viciously fast typer, he can be (I found from the supposed solace of my dorm cot) quite a key-masher. Online he'd fall easily into these endless discussions about films and albums and existential issues with people he knew, and he'd talk about his performance art and his videos, the music he made, his tastes in things. The clicking. Always his clicking and tapping away. I was a loud motherfucker but the opposite when it came to my fingers: I used one hand to communicate online most of the time. The way Spencer typed was like hearing someone else think.

By the same token he's an intuitive pianist and drummer, equipped with a couple heavyweight bionic arms designed for Bach and flicking around drum sticks. He'd been trained at some kind of undercover moon colony. On getting to know him it was clear he took all these things—his tastes, his output, the heavenly object on which he had trained—deathly seriously, and not without a subdued sense of animated humor with which he could have some strong opinions. I can’t say it didn’t take one to know one. It did.

His music first spoke to me at my old Alameda desk as if from a vacuum either in space, where he was to return from, or the bubble of Los Angeles (which I at the time imagined in great exaggeration). It was the world of a science video without the updated aesthetic (as with Boards of Canada). Corny, I thought, but down to Earth—unlike the majority of the SF Bay Area suburban types I was used to.

While Spencer's vocal content and typing told me a little bit about him at first, his music was more universally outspoken. And it continues to fill in a lot of gaps.

His stuff struck me as sounding like it had actually been composed, which was rare—the guy playing it was reading along or taking direction or something, or I was hearing a computer trained to play down its skills in order to sound human. As a result it was, overall, quite honestly, innocuous to me at first. No matter: I was a bit of a shit at the time. So since it eventually occurred to me that we were too young for things to sound this serious, it made a big effect on me. I eventually reached admiration. Though I didn't really like it, certainly it was clear this was not your average guy with some instruments in a room.

Sure: my aesthetic then was unblossomed and green, like my voice and work ethic now. But nobody would disagree that Spencer's old songs are crumbs to the loaves he bakes today. Having heard his mp3s, at the time I'm pretty sure I somehow or other made my respect known to him and politely laid off the subject of taste due to tact. But talk about what he does today and you've got these incredible bursts of significant work on your hands. So much has happened.

His first success to my palette was a genuinely rocking album he released the winter quarter of our freshmen year, six years ago, called Malheur Ln. It seemed the dorms were split between people that liked it a lot and those who hated how much he liked it—and how good it was—so much that they refused to accept it on some level. We won’t name names. I recall one late night having to explain this conceit to Spencer, as I had my moments with it as well. I was green in more ways than youth.

Real talk must be intriguing because that was when his music started to stick with me. It provoked things, for instance, the perpetual and thin nerve ending-like connection that keeps me hanging on some inescapable need to work with music still. Such is the curse when a short distance lies between fertile agents. You can only imagine, then, the effect Ribcage and Meredith later had on me, say nothing of what it did amongst his other music-oriented friends.

I like to think (more non-musically than not) that I made a mark on him too, but we won’t get into that. Like the man says, “My friends, it’s like trying to nail Jello to a wall”.

If we were kindred spirits in anything it was, and continues to be, capacity. When it came to mp3s I listened to my hard drive and his and anyone else's just to get volume in my head. Spencer was a voracious listener but for other reasons. He chased down his pleasures in order of intensity. I was more of a cartographer with special loves, points of interest and a category for Artists That Were Great to Make Fun Of.

Other people's albums are Spencer’s first love. At the time it seemed like his own came in at a close second. That wasn’t me. He liked some really cheesy pop and a lot of noise (things I had avoided until then, and still work to verse myself in now), and all sorts of artistically garish things (garish as one can allow twentieth century minimalism to be—personally I'm giving it a full rating) and he let it all show. I had to love that.

We had a loud room all the time. I'd leave Busta Rhymes on just enough to where we’d hear it coming out our window from the quad, just to hear it on the way to the dining hall. He’d blast the Boredoms.

Spencer wanted his interests to be heard in his music only at the cost of their sounding like he did. I took this to mean that he felt he needed at all costs to be heard within his own work. This endures today, and charmingly so.

During that year, and following Ribcage, Spencer struck out, artistic rigidity in hand, idiosyncrasies at the ready, determined to keep going without a hierarchy of goals. His home recordings over the next several years in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Berkeley explored a range of molds into which he could from then on inject his immaculate obsessive ear for harmony; soil pods into which his intuitive approach to rhythm, his tendency to landscape rather than arrange his songs could be sown.

If you want to be technical it's all pop. This says very little, but it covers the greatest range. Can you spell liberty?

As far as “pop” holds weight, he, in his own way, has hit enough of pop's out-boundaries to say he's really explored the realm's diameter, and probably will continue like Beckett’s Lost Ones shuffling around the giant room to scour the lengths of pop—a playing field often scorned for its homogenous tonal limits, that yet provides the most consistently fertile grounds for people who actually like music for what it does to you, not what it might promise to give you. In case you thought it was the opposite, consider this: pop makes itself seen in every genre, thus it’s the flagship category for diversity—not homogeneity.

This relies on how absolute you want to be. I don’t, and neither should you. Let us move on.

Within these expansive confines Spencer, as a songwriter informed heavily by performance and conceptual art, seemed intent on letting his edge show without having to actually performatively lose himself, unlike his friends (John) or his idols (Yoko). He's managed to use an incredibly confident volume of seemingly confused, tenuous...what’s the term for it...inner instability? Trepidation? Vibration? Which isn't to say he hasn't been expressive at his shows; certainly we've seen him in various moods at various times and for various reasons. Generally, however, Spencer's performance has always had a way of holding much back while still getting a surprising amount done. He continues to do this except now he can hit more bases more elegantly.

The variations in his code compose his new output; the code makes its shapes into more nuanced figures.

As an artist he can tend to be surprisingly rational (perhaps Logical) considering his often emotive presentation. But this is dangerous, natural and romantic for him, for Spencer is a man of contradictions and, at times, washes of prolonged confusion. He also loves to throw irrational things into recordings, even when he doesn’t know he’s doing it. This tendency provided the basis for Theresa Rife’s collaboration on The Light Touch.

In that way you can always count on him for new blossoms. He has been erratic only at the cost of the lasso. I think he's comfortable with this now.

The first time I shook his hand in our dorm on move-in day he had a totally different way of holding himself. The event still reflects my understanding of him: he was restricting some sort of physical, nervous energy from shaking his entire body, which took shaking parts of his body instead, namely his wrists, hands and shoulders. This isn't the case today.

While his self-imposed restrictions and active creative side still endure thematically his body adheres to the motion of another star. Maturation is an elusive bitch that makes her presence known only after she has moved on. The violent inner stasis of Spencer Owen, like a star himself, appearing solid from a distance, has a multiplicity of outlets, solar winds, flux; a wealth of coordination far and beyond his early years—a difference as stark as that between the nervy, modest mid-1960s Reich pieces and some of his ‘70s ensemble works. Space is filled, the image has a higher resolution, but it’s still fundamentally pixilated.

At worst Spencer is a wanderlust and lovable genius, and obstreperous as the rest of us can be. At best he is a sort of monk with which one can sip otherwise forbidden tinctures. Today's Spencer is Mark Three, he's calling it. A beast of discipline—to my mind a grotesque revolutionary, a cloaked outlaw in the monastery of hip values, bionic arms still working away as if radio controlled by that remote moon colony of his apprentice years, Mediterranean fur covering his thick mammalian skin, his metal limbs falling heavy.

His work has become smoother, more diverse, more careful and more stubborn than anyone could have realistically asked. Let us hope this continues. The smoothness may be a new trend, but his stubbornness continues to carry its torch through and through.

Enter The Light Touch. The bugger up and decided to impregnate my ex and name the kid The Light Touch. Imagine calling someone's child by italics all the time and you might get the right image of what this thing is.

Theresa Rife's influence is a tough nurturing. Spencer's calling this his first studio album due to strict working conditions, under which the two came together. Working with an apt engineer/recordist is a first for him. I wonder what it was like to have been there. We know that Theresa Rife's general inclinations towards sound are a different set of defaults than Spencer's, and we know that Spencer's intuition probably battled Theresa Rife's requests often. We also know that the material itself is about Spencer, from both of them and projected out to us.

Like the astronomical body and the second-decade highlights of Reich, The Light Touch maintains its own tightrope walk, its own stasis; a smooth outer shell presenting an intense inner kinesis, for reticence makes itself known in the observance of meditation and a star’s light burns its mark under the magnifying glass.

An indulgent portrait, but I tend to try and not miss the roots for the branches. And Spencer’s great at not missing the branches for the roots. Such are the cosmos and the polis.

Where did the universe start for Spencer? What beginnings, Mr. Owen? Ask him and maybe he’ll improvise something.

In the meantime I offer a concept for a Spencer Owen project down the road: a cover album of Busta Rhymes’ The Big Bang, with the same hooks but all-new verses. The re-written lyrics will loosely narrate the tale of two men. One is the subject of a séance, the other is composer Sandy Owen.

Pro Saluti Te,

Ben

November 2008, Oakland

Spencer's music is available on iTunes and CD Baby. This is his profile at the record label he's on. Much of his work is available for free download here. Here he is at Last.FM. At Amazon you can even acquire a vinyl release of the R&B-inflected Logic, and Norman Records has it too!

Now hunt him down on his blog and make him put up Meredith somewhere.