Walter Spencer: I play “Old-Time”, which I guess is music from the civil war. I play a lot of banjo when I play that. I play traditional bluegrass, which I play mostly on the upright bass. Outside of that, when I started playing music, I was playing punk rock. So when playing original music that I write, it’s a mixture of all that stuff combined with elements of Leonard Cohen or Neil Young. So, I guess I fall under the category of Americana.
It’s a pretty broad category…
Well, it used to be called folk music and I liked that category, but that seems antiquated now.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Canada close to Toronto, and I came to Los Angeles in the late 70′s during the punk rock scene that was happening here.
Did you come here to play music?
I’m not exactly sure why I came here. We were cleaning boats, pulling them out of the lake because it freezes. My friend was talking about going to California and the beach every day for 6 weeks. Then he left, and I followed him a few days after.
You were playing punk music in Canada?
I was playing punk and going to shows. I had a crappy Japanese electric bass.
How did you come to this music that you’re playing now?
I bought an upright bass, and I started looking for music that you could play on it. I tried playing Jazz for a few years. Then I came across Bluegrass. I realized that I could play with the energy of punk rock, and it had the solos and improvisation that I really liked in Jazz. Then there were the songs. Also the musician-ship of the bluegrass players is infinitely better than your average rock and roller or country musician. I probably shouldn’t say that.
Well, bluegrass pickers are often awesome players.
I went to Bluegrass festivals for a long time before I tried to bring it into the bars in Hollywood. In the late 90′s I had this band called The Bluegrass Bastards and we fit the name of the band. I had quite a few players back then that we know well now. Mike Stinson, Dean Thomas, Jesse Harris and Ramsey Midwood played with us. That finally fell out and I started playing Old-Time and hanging out in Portland. There’s an Old-Time scene up there. It reminded me of the punk rock, do-it-yourself vibe.
You were in a band up there called The Water Tower Bucket Boys.
I was in that band until recently. They were kids that kept calling me and begging me to join their band. Now they are on their sixth album. I toured Europe with them a couple years ago, but they are in their 20′s and I’m old. I thought I could out play, out drink and out party them. That proved to be wrong.
Laughs. Did you live in Portland?
I had a place up there, so I would work in LA and play music in Portland. I pretty much concentrate on LA now.
Yes, it came out in January of this year. It is an experiment to take what my music is, which usually has drums and electric instruments, and scale it back. It was fun. It’s still kind of punky, but with acoustic instruments.
You still seem to think of your music as having elements of punk even though most people would consider it Folk or Americana?
Yeah, my dad would listen to Johnny Cash in the house and I liked that, but punk music was my rebellion, and I guess it hasn’t left me. Punk ignited me and made me want to learn to play music. There’s something about my music that still has the spirit of punk, even if it doesn’t sound like punk to most people.
I was reading through some of your press and saw that a writer had labeled you as a “non politically correct” artists. Why is that?
The funny thing is that I’m playing the patio on The Grand Ole Echo, and I want to introduce kids to the patio. I’m pushing a kid-friendly environment, but when I look at my set list most of the songs I write are inappropriate for children.
Laughs. Are they inappropriate because you use naughty words?
Well, I do use naughty words. I sing about sex. I sing about drugs. I sing about people who get into trouble.
What are you going to do, write a bunch of new songs between now and show time?
No. I think I’m going to start the set playing traditional bluegrass and then get into my music. During the last year, I’ve been thinking about being a songwriter. The last three records of mine have been all original. The Water Tower Boys did an Old-Time record, a Bluegrass record, an all-original EP and then an all-original full-length. I’ve been concentrating on song-writing.
Are these songs you’d like other people to perform?
There have been a couple songs that other people have performed. I wrote a song called Gone With the Wind and Amy and Joe from The Whispering Pines sang it, and that made me feel honored. They asked for permission, even though they didn’t need to. I thought that was really sweet. I really dig both those people on our scene.
Speaking of the Americana scene, are there any thoughts you have as you hear new artists coming up?
One main thought, and that’s about melody. I hear lots of new bands and they sound great. Somehow I just feel like younger people don’t consider melody to be as important as they should. They’ve got riffs, and they’ve got tone. They’ve got vintage threads, but the melody is lacking.
It’s almost like it’s not cool any-more.
Amy has the melody. I leave her shows singing her songs in my head. It’s interesting to see a band that has everything, but no melody. No one wakes up with riffs in their head. We need a melody to connect to the song.