Jason Spooner Interview

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The contemporary folk and blues trio from New England consists of their namesake, Jason Spooner, on guitar, vocals, and harmonica; Adam Frederick on bass and vocals; and Reed Chambers on drums and percussion. All three members are award-winning musicians, combining Jason’s folk and blues sound with Adam’s jazzy style and Reed’s knack for funk and reggae produces a fresh, energetic sound that is highly-praised. In 2002, they released Lost Houses, followed by sophomore album The Flame You Follow in 2007 and their most recent album, Sea Monster, late last year. They regularly play at festivals and music conferences, have appeared on NPR and the Food Network, and have won a line of songwriting competitions along the way. Check out my exclusive interview with Jason Spooner below…

Candace Butler: Your trio is one of the strongest bands out there today. How did you meet Adam and Reed?

Jason Spooner: I actually met Reed about 10 years ago here in Portland, ME in a fairly random scenario. I was selling some PA speakers through the local music rag. When I started playing solo gigs around New England I had purchased these monster 15 inch PA speakers that weighed a ton. I got tired of lugging them around and figured I could sell them to a band. Reed was the drummer in another local band at the time and he answered my ad. We got to talking and hit it off and he came up to my studio and checked out some of my tunes. We started playing duo gigs (acoustic guitar and drums shortly after that initial meeting) and it sounded great. Reed has a very tasteful approach that works in a variety of scenarios…everything from listening rooms to clubs, theaters and festivals. I’m very lucky to have connected with a drummer who listens musically and knows how to dial a performance based on the nuances of the songs and the venue.

We formed the trio several months later. Adam came on board a few years back. He was essentially the alpha bass guy in town and we were always fans of his playing. He subbed on a few gigs and we were hooked. He’s just an incredibly musical guy that people like to watch when he gets going. Sometimes I feel like I’m in HIS band! We invited him on board soon after and he gladly accepted.

I never really set out to do that “band thing” and it all happened pretty organically. I’m really please with how we’re developing as a live band. It’s something that only comes out of years of playing together. I must hear at least one audience member at every show take me aside and tell me that I struck gold in finding this rhythm section. I definitely feel extremely fortunate.

CB: Sea Monster embraces the instrumental aspect more than your previous albums, Lost Houses and The Flame You Follow. Did that happen because you purposefully focused on the music more, or is your music simply evolving in that way?

JS: I think it’s a result of a more focused preproduction process. We really took the time months prior to going into the actual studio to explore each tune and try different angles in various demo settings until we agreed on things that worked. I think we wanted this album to be more indicative of where we were musically as a band. There were definitely times when we’d reach a point in a song and collectively realize that we need to push harder and come at it from a completely different viewpoint. It was through this rehashing process that we came across a lot of the most interesting moments on the album…an outro, a re-harm, a bridge, a time signature change, a solo, etc.

CB: You once made an appearance on the Food Network’s “Food Nation with Bobby Flay.” Can you us the juicy details?

JS: Yeah, that was a whacky one! The visitor’s bureau in Portland managed to lure Bobby Flay up to Maine to do a culinary feature on the state. They traditionally choose a local band to be a part of whatever area they are profiling. I was actually a fan of the program so we were honored when they asked us to do it.

It was fun but far less robust & comprehensive than we’d expected. I was under the impression that they’d film some actual live footage of the band performing at a show but they ended up just getting some shots of us on the beach and whatnot. It was a little campy but I think I sold more cd’s in the 3 weeks after the show aired than I had the entire year previous to that. Orders just started pouring in from all over the country. It’s amazing what nationwide television can do for the sales.

It was also cool to meet Bobby Flay…he was smooth operator. More of a rock star than most musicians I’ve met.

CB: Do you, Adam, and Reed cook? What’s your favorite food to eat while on tour?

JS: Sure…we all dabble in the kitchen and we get together for grilling parties in the summer. When we tour, we’re pretty good about eating at interesting and respected local places. It’s fun to put in the research to find the trusted hidden bakery or the mom & pop breakfast joint that the locals frequent in a given town. The online tools out there these days make it pretty easy to find quality spots but we still ask around when we’re talking to people we meet. It’s one of the best ways to get a real feel for a region or a city. You also meet a lot of characters at the local joints, which we enjoy.

We’re all coffee fiends, so finding the best crack-shack is usually how the day begins on the road. Coffee is probably our favorite food.

CB: You used to work primarily as a graphic and web designer, and I know you designed your website. Did you create the album artwork for each of your albums?

JS: That’s true…I still do some design work here and there and currently manage jasonspooner.com, which keeps me busy for sure.

I would say that I “art directed” the album artwork in each case (I chose most of the elements and then mocked layouts up in Photoshop which were then used in the final product). I’ve never considered myself a print designer, so I generally outsource that role to someone I trust and then torture them with endless micromanagement and absurdly detailed feedback about things like kerning and CMYK values. I formally apologize NOW to everyone I’ve worked with!!! It’s tough when you hire a designer to design for a designer…ugh, that just SOUNDS bad. It’s bound to be a wrestling match and a perfectionism joust. I certainly wouldn’t want to do a project for another designer. I get asked to design websites for other musicians quite often and it’s the last thing I’d want to get involved in. Picky artists drive me nuts!

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CB: When people listen to your music and see you perform live, what do you hope they walk away with?

JS: Hmmmmm, well…I hope that they walk away with something interesting to consider…whether it’s a musical moment on record or a dynamic performance from a live show. I think being a trio really amplifies & informs this in a lot of ways. There’s just not a lot of fluff to go around, so all of the pistons have to be firing at once. With a three man band, you can’t really slack if you’re having an off night. You just have to plough through it and step up. It’s one of the things I like about the scaled-down formation…you need to “do a lot with a little” and, on the good nights, I feel like we do that and people walk away feeling like they heard something unique.

On the other side, as a lyricist, I’m trying to put ideas and stories out there that ideally allow connections to be made. I grew up listening to my dad’s vinyl and eight-track collection, which included all of the giants of the 70’s: Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Dylan, Jim Croce, Carol King, etc. I was very moved by a lot of that stuff and it just made me realize what a powerful form of art a simple 4 minute song can be. I can point to series of lines in Beatles or Neil Young songs that really gave me my first complete understanding of an emotional concept as a kid…that is heavy stuff. The lesson for me was to try to put content out there that is really delving and searching for something…again, a connection, a lesson, a truth…whatever you’d like to call it. Not everything needs to have some groundbreaking revelation attached to it, but if there’s a true focus on the writing side, it’s going to yield a more effective and relevant end result. I think listeners can immediately tell when lyrics have been “phoned in.” I get antsy when I hear tunes like that.

Let’s face it—there’s a lot of benign material out there on the radio that is actually hugely successful, but I’m glad there are still some spaces in the musical parking lot reserved for musicians who keep the writing in focus. The success of people like Josh Ritter, Mason Jennings, Ray LaMontagne, Kathleen Edwards, Patty Griffin, Mumford & Sons, and The Avett Brothers is a good indication that listeners still value lyrical content.

CB: Do you find inspiration everywhere for your lyrical poetry, or are you drawn to specifics?

JS: I’m not generally one of those notebook writers where I’m carrying a pad around jotting down words and scribblings when I’m driving or after I read something. Most of my ideas for lyrical content tend to be driven by music and melody. I generally start strumming or messing around on a piano and find a progression that starts to appeal to me. From there it’s a lot of humming and nonsensical phrases until a dominant vibe starts to take shape. The actual words come later when I have a working progression and vocal melody happening. I suppose that it sounds fairly predictable, but I tend to write a lot at the changing of seasons. That first breath of spring or the first chill of fall, the first whiff of wood smoke…all of that stuff triggers the creative side of my brain like nothing else.

CB: If you could play any venue anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

JS: Well, if we’re going full dreamland on this…I’d have to say Pompeii. Watch Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii from 1972, and you’ll understand why! Just a magical film…it would be like playing inside a dream.

CB: If you could have people remember you for one thing regarding your music and songwriting, what would it be?

JS: I think it would be pretty simple…hard work. Music (whether writing, performing, promoting, networking, etc.) requires a ton of focus and perseverance. That’s not a bad thing to be known for. I meet a fair amount of musicians at all levels and nothing turns me off more than meeting someone who emanates a sense of entitlement or smugness. I love it when we open for a big national act and you go into it suspecting that they won’t give you the time of day and then they end up being very humble and welcoming. I think those are the people who end up truly succeeding long term.

CB: Lastly, do you have any words of advice for other musicians trying to get into the business?

JS: The two best pieces of advice that were ever passed on to me over the years are deceptively simple, but they have served me and my projects well. I’ll share them without explanation:

  1. No one cares about your music career more than you do.
  2. Never be above or below any opportunity.

First published at BeatCrave, where readers voted Jason Spooner their “BeatCrave Fav” for the month of March 2011.

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