Spencer Barnitz’s unique pipes and idiosyncratic perspective have entertained music fans for most of his life. His new wave band, The Tan, began when he was barely out of Santa Barbara High School. It was eventually followed by a still-active cover band, The Wedding Band, and for the past 21 years, Spencer the Gardener, a sound the band describes as “California sun-kissed, Latin-tinged, genre-bending, big-band surf mariachi indie pop.”
Leslie Dinaberg: There’s something really unique about your music, whether you’re singing a pop song or in Spanish and even now with your kids’ album, Organic Gangster. What do you think it is that makes something a Spencer song?
Spencer Barnitz: My songs are really shaped by the ocean, the rhythms of the world and pop music from my life. As a kid, I listened to The Supremes, but I loved Brit pop, too, and Mexican stuff, salsa music, so it’s kind of a fusion in a way of a lot of those different things, which has been great and has been bad. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse in a lot of different ways.
LD: Is it different playing kids’ music?
SB: It’s funny having a CD like that. It’s cute and it has a good message. … For me, it’s such a different thing because I’ve been doing pop music for so long. It’s still pop music, but it’s just a different manifestation.
LD: How did you decide that you wanted to do this?
SB: Well, it was kind of interesting because my girlfriend sells worms; she’s the worm girl. Last year, they did a short. It was in the Green Shorts Film Festival. … I said, “You want a song? I’ll write a song for it.”
I loved it! I had done the “Gobble Song” a couple of years ago, which became sort of an Internet sensation. Every Thanksgiving it gets tons of hits. So there were a couple kids’ songs and I thought, “You know what, I should just try to keep going, because everything I wrote was really fast and fun.”
I did it very fast. Like one day I was reading the horoscope and it was talking about a mountain chicken frog. I was like, there’s no way there is a mountain chicken frog. I went and looked it up and there it was. It’s in danger of becoming extinct. I just quickly wrote a song about it and loved the song, and I love the fact that that’s how I found it. ... So it’s been kind of fun and it’s been educational for me in a way.
LD: Talking to kids you get to — or have to be — so much more on the nose than you are when you are talking to adults. You do have to really say things in a different way, and it’s not always easy.
SB: Because you have to sort of know what you’re talking about. (Laughs)
LD: I’ve been listening to your music since I was 16 or something, and now my son got to hear you sing at his school. I love that.
SB: You know there was somebody there at the spaghetti dinner at the school and the dad had been aware of The Tan since he was 14. So it was kind of like, “Oh, wow.” I don’t know if I should say thanks or sorry. Now his daughter is listening to it, so that is just an insanely long generational thing, which I like that for myself, it makes me happy. I don’t know if it makes other people happy.(Laughs)
LD: Oh, absolutely it does.
SB: I think I’m past the point of … sometimes you get to a point where they’re like, wow, they’re still here. And then you go beyond that point and it’s like wow, they’re still here.
LD: Plus you do such a wide variety of stuff. Do you write all the music for Spencer the Gardener?
SB: I do, except two years ago we put out a record called Fiesta, and I didn’t write any of that. Those are all cover songs. I’ve wanted to do that record since I was a kid. Probably the reason I speak Spanish is because I grew up singing Spanish, which has a lot to do with Santa Barbara. Fiesta was just always a part of things. So I did that record because I wanted to, and I’ll probably do another one at some point.
I remember I had a class at Santa Barbara High School. Mr. Hall was my Spanish teacher, and every Friday he would have everybody sing, which was just terrifying in high school.
SB: I didn’t do that yet. My sister was always a good singer. She’s actually on this record.
LD: I saw that.
SB: And she’s the principal at Ellwood School. So my sister had sung a lot, but I wasn’t a singer. I would surf and I was going to Mexico, so in high school on Friday afternoons you could just see everyone go, “Oh,no.” It was fun, but it was terrifying. For these young kids, it’s really fun. They’re young, they’re singing, they’re laughing. They don’t have the self-conscious thing that you do when you’re in high school.
LD: I remember your sister from junior high. That’s cool that she sang on your record.
SB: She’s got a great voice. When she got out of high school, she left Santa Barbara and didn’t come back for a long time. She went to Berklee College of Music, she sang on the East Coast and so she is a very good singer.
LD: How did you guys get so musical?
SB: I don’t know. My dad died young, so I don’t really even know that whole side of the family. But my sister and I, when she came back into town and she was singing, she was doing some weird hand movements, and I was looking at her like, those are mine. They’re not my mom’s or my dad’s, they’re mine, but they are hers, too. And she speaks fluent Spanish, she actually speaks a couple of languages, and it’s like, “Wow, this is so weird. There are two kids who do these things.” She just started to surf. We both do these things that are completely separate from both of our parents. … it’s just kind of some mix, maybe some weird hybrid.
LD: So tell me about how you got started in music?
SB: Well, Brad (Nack) went to Europe in 1978 and … he came back and said you know, we should start a new wave band. I was 18, and he was 20. … It was like we thought maybe girls would like us and it was something to do besides surfing. (Laughs) And all of those same reasons that everyone does that. … I said that sounds fun, let’s go to Mexico. I’ll teach you how to play guitar, and we’ll write some songs and start a band.
LD: Why Mexico?
SB: Mexico has been an interesting part of my life. For some reason, no matter where I go, it’s like something ends up having part of Mexico in it. Mexico is because we surf for one, so that’s always a thing. If you live in California and you surf, usually you take some trips to Mexico because it’s close. For me, it is a lot more than that because like I said, I grew up singing in Spanish and I’ve just always spent a lot of time in Mexico. Perhaps that was one of the reasons, too, is just because we started the band there. We were gone for three months and then came back and started The Tan.
We were even thinking of doing a new Tan record and going to Mexico to do it.
LD: After seeing all of those people who showed up at your reunion show last summer, I think you’d have a market.
SB: There are a lot of justifications and rationalizations for doing things like going to Mexico. Yeah, let’s go for six months. We need to do this. This is what we need to do. (Laughs.) This is really going to be a good thing for us. And it is always a good thing for me. I mean, it’s been rejuvenation, escape. It’s been all kinds of things, I suppose.
… We went to Mexico on a surf trip with the idea of learning to play guitars and writing songs, and that’s exactly what we did and came back and started The Tan. And for a while, it was fun, but it was like we were definitely counterculture at that time, and then somehow or other we got into the mainstream, and I somehow ended up being in music for the rest of my life.
LD: Did you ever think when you and Brad were wandering off to Mexico to learn to play guitar that this would become your life’s work?
SB: Not in the same way that I do now. There’s the beauty of youth, which is you just think everything you do is going to be great. So, yeah, sure, we thought we would be retired by 26 and have all the money in the world. (Laughs.) It was kind of a brutally rude awakening that that wasn’t going to happen. But it’s been a pretty fun ride. A good one. Music has given me a lot. It’s taken me all over the world. I mean it’s probably not for everybody because it is not real stable. There are highs and lows. It’s left me in far corners of the world, too.
LD: To sing your way home?
SB: Yeah. But it’s gotten me there.
LD: Have you always stayed pretty much rooted in Santa Barbara?
SB: Yeah. I lived in L.A. for a little while. We moved to London with The Tan for a couple years, but more and more it doesn’t matter where you are now because everything is so easy to get somewhere else. Santa Barbara is, I mean this is a great place. It has so much out of the world of what you want, at least what I want. It’s beautiful, it’s warm and it’s convenient. It’s expensive, but a lot of places are expensive.
LD: I read that you had a pretty serious car accident years ago?
SB: 1991. I broke all of the bones in my face. I still have plates in my face. The worst thing about that was that right after we put out two CDs, we were on fire, and everyone was just like waiting for what the next thing with us was going to be. We had a management company, and it just seemed like there was no stopping us, except for maybe a head-on, death-defying car accident, which put us out of commission for a year.
And the musical landscape changed. Our management company and us severed ties, and then we just blindly kept going because I was stubborn. So yeah, that changed, that reshaped probably a lot of my future.
LD: It’s interesting, though, to look back on things like that because you’re making very different music now than you did back then.
SB: The stuff I do is always slightly quirky, so I mean in that way if you listen to the first Spencer the Gardener CD and the one that I’m about to do, it’s still similar. Or if you listen to the first one and the kids’ one, it’s still crazy, wacky funny.
LD: Do you ever feel a kind of push and pull between art and commerce?
SB: (Laughs) Yes, I do. I wish that my stuff sold like crazy!
You know, I think it’s funny now because everything is so much easier. Everybody can do things, but there are so many more people doing it and everything is pretty good you know, and I bind myself into that. It’s not like it’s world changingly, earth shatteringly fantastic. There are a lot of fairly good bands out there, so it’s hard to sneak through and end up where you basically have broken through where your art and commerce intersect in a beautiful way.
LD: What else do you do when you’re not working?
SB: I like to surf, play basketball, salsa. Those are probably tops. Jump high, run fast.
LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?
SB: Wow, this is a really interesting question, because now you’re dealing with what do you want them to be or what are they. This is one I’m going to actually think about for a while. … (Spencer sends an e-mail to Leslie several days later.) I have been perplexed by adjectives all week, so I guess self-absorbed would have to be one of them … calm and sarcastic. Depending on the day, they change directions. Lazy, driven, witty, dull, thrill seeking, couch laden, etc. I doubt if you meant for me to give it this much thought.
I was thinking adventurous, but no, that’s not really true anymore. That was true at one time. I’ve changed over the years in different ways. That would have been something that I would have loved and would have said and would have believed and probably not so much anymore.
LD: Well, there are all kinds of adventure. You could certainly argue that pursuing a life as a musician is an adventurous path.
SB: Yeah, either that or just kind of ridiculous. If you mix whimsical, adventurous and difficult together, you might get ridiculous. … It’s funny because we used to have a song in The Tan called “young, strong and free.”
LD: I like that.
SB: Which would have been really the way we described ourselves. I would still say fun. Because that’s a word I overuse. Stubborn, determined and what does (Albert) Einstein say when you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.
LD: That’s the definition of insanity. (Laughs.)
SB: Yeah. Unfortunately, that seems to fit with me a little bit, too.
Vital Stats: Spencer Barnitz
Born: Sept. 14 in Santa Barbara
Family: Father deceased, mother Mercedes, sister Liz
Civic Involvement: “I’ve done just a whole mess of benefits over the years for a lot of different organizations. I’m not actively involved with anybody right now.”
Best Book You’ve Read Recently: God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant; Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
Favorite Local Spot: Probably still the Pit (Hendry’s Beach) and Hammonds.
Little-Known Fact: I’m ambidextrous.
Upcoming Spencer the Gardener Performances: Primavera, 8 p.m. Sunday, May 16 at the Carriage and Western Art Museum, 129 Castillo St. in Santa Barbara; and 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 23 at Cold Spring Tavern, 5995 Stagecoach Road in Santa Barbara.