The HUM: Up for a Grammy

Visible Cloaks' Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile. Photo by Joshua Bean for Pitchfork

Forgive me if I veer away from Humboldt for a moment and tell you a local-boy-makes-good story. The message from my son, Spencer Doran, was short and to the point. “Hey I got nominated for a Grammy!” he wrote, adding a happy smile emoji with sunglasses, meaning I suppose, this is so cool. 

What could a dad reply, aside from “Wow! Amazing!” with a request to “call when you can.” His job as a sound engineer in Portland has kept him busy since then, along with trying to absorb the praise that comes with the honor of entering into the ranks of Grammy nominees. 

If you know anything at all about Spencer, you probably know he’s a musician. Thus you might guess that his band, Visible Cloaks, was nominated. Born and raised in Humboldt, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon and plays in that duo with his longtime friend Ryan Carlile, another former Humboldter. They’ve been friends since the days of the Placebo. But actually, Visible Cloaks was not nominated. Spencer was nominated for his work as a music scholar (and record collector). The category is “Best Historical Album,” for a box set (and book) titled, Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990. (Music by “Various Artists.”)

Spencer got the Grammy nod alongside of his Japanese record collector friend Yosuke Kitazawa, who also contributed artist bios for the set. There’s also compilation producers Matt Sullivan (founder of Light in the Attic Records, who put the album out), and another of Spencer’s record collector circle, Douglas Mcgowan (of Yoga Records). And importantly, mastering engineer John Baldwin. All that said, this über-cool album is Spencer’s baby, something he’s been working on diligently for over a decade. 

Incidentally, the tough “Best Historical” competition includes, the 38-CD boxset Woodstock: Back To The Garden - The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, also Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, a Bobbi Gentry collection, The Girl From Chickasaw County - The Complete Capitol Masters, and The Great Comeback: Horowitz At Carnegie Hall. 

You’re probably wondering, what is “kankyō ongaku”? The definition is buried in the album title; the phrase translates roughly as “environmental music,” which is to say (often dismissively) as musical wallpaper, or elevator music, or by the dreaded brand name “Muzak.” Of course in Japan, it’s oh-so much cooler than that. 

With kankyō ongaku, music is treated as part of architectural design. In an introductory essay for the book/boxset, Spencer initially traces the roots back to calming music played in the athlete’s dining room during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, drawing on pieces by the French composer Erik Satie. 

For the liner notes, he notes, “A whole new generation of Japanese musicians would find influence both in his calmly spacious piano pieces and [Satie’s] visionary (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) concept of furniture music—a music made to intermingle with the sounds and environment of everyday life.”

We have long lived in a world where there’s background music everywhere. Some realize this and try to elevate “elevator music” to a higher level. As Spencer noted, that aesthetic was further expanded and explored in the ‘70s when British musician/deep thinker Brian Eno started making what he called “ambient music.” The Japanese loved Eno. 

Spencer grew up in a house crammed full with records. Eno and Satie played in the background along with classic rock and various esoterica. He preferred punk rock and hip hop and such. He eventually became a record collector par excellence. 

While studying at UC Santa Cruz, and sometimes spending summer with us in Arcata, he started making his own records. He had been exploring sampling since he was a kid, and somehow his refinement of that semi-hip-hop style resulted in a couple of 12” singles for Female Fun Records, and landed him a record contract with a Japanese label, Easel Music. The cover for his first album, Puzzles, shows the window to his garage room in Arcata next door to his grandmother, Jean. 

In 2007, he traveled to Japan with Peter “DJ Thanksgiving Brown” Agoston, the impresario of Female Fun, who was finishing up a business degree at Humboldt State. Peter checked in with me when news of the Grammy nod (of course he “LOVES” the project). He noted, “You know some of these songs/albums used were originally bought by Spencer when I brought him out to Japan for his first time for our tour around the Puzzles album.” 

Of course his first trip to the mysterious East included some serious crate-digging. Spence was particularly interested in offshoots of the famous Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Tokyo-based electronic music band led by Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Being an ace crate-digger, a scholar and an experienced networker, Spencer eventually became known as an expert when it came to Japanese electronica. 

After graduating from UCSC (with a degree in philosophy, not music) he relocated to Portland. In 2010, the PDX label Root Strata asked him to assemble a mixtape for a free download. Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo- Fourth-world Japan, years 1980-1986 was very successful. (The “Fourth-world” reference came from an album by Eno associate Jon Hassell, a jazz/new age trumpet player.) That spawned a “Part Two,” and later a collection Spencer titled “Music Interiors.” 

Somewhere along the line he developed a relationship with Light in the Attic, a Seattle label specializing in often esoteric reissues. Kankyō Ongaku was green-lighted, but not that easy to put together. Spencer had to become conversant in the complexities of licensing law, here and in Japan, and some artists he would have liked to include on his perfect collection, well, let’s just say the rules got in the way. Nevertheless, the end result is more than superb, of course I’m prejudiced, but the Grammy nomination says I’m not the only one who feels that way.

I think some the coolest things that came from the Kankyō project are the connections that it spawned. Spencer has created his own Light In The Attic sub-label, Empire of Signs, working with a friend/partner, Maxwell August Croy from Root Strata. They’ve released records by Hiroshi Yoshimura (Music for Nine Post Cards), Inoyama Land (Commissions: 1977-2000) and Masahiro Sugaya (Horizon, Vol. 1), all of them artists who were also on Kankyō Ongaku.

Meanwhile, Spencer and his Visible Cloaks partner, Ryan Carlisle, have developed a relationship with Yoshio Ojima and the pianist Satsuki Shibano. Spencer met them through writing the book/album/liner notes.

As he explained in an (excellent) interview for the blog Aquarium Drunkard, Yoshio was emblematic of “environmental” music. He explained, “The piece he did that’s on the comp was this environmental music/sound design for this post-modern building called The Spiral, which is in this big shopping district in Aoyama in western Tokyo. That building’s still there and they still play his music in there.” And Satsuki, well, one of her specialties is Satie’s music.                  

The makeshift quartet recorded an album together, serenitatem, for the NYC-based RVNG Intl. It’s the 15th installment in a series called FRKWYS that pairs musicians for “intergenerational” projects. 

After trading music across the Pacific, Visible Cloaks, Yoshio and Satsuki toured Japan this summer then followed up with a fall European tour, where they focused on major festivals like Le Guess Who? in the Netherlands, with Spence DJing along the way, spinning music from his international music collection. I wish I could tell you they’re coming to Arcata to play, but alas, the Grammy nominee probably has bigger fish to fry.

What’s going on this Thanksgiving weekend? It’s mostly quiet with the students gone home to visit their ‘rents. Of course the Xmas holidays are officially here, and I traditionally celebrate Buy Nothing Day the day after Turkey Day.  

The peeps at Outer Space suggest, “While Black Friday is traditionally a time when folks are throwing their money at big corporations, we want to encourage you to support those in your community! Because community > corporations!” They’re celebrating with a Black Friday Swap Meet, welcoming assorters, crafty vendors and tablers. Join them. Set up a table at 5:30 p.m. Sell, meet and greet 6 to 9 p.m.

At the Logger Bar, Black Friday, Tia Martini and Leon Elam, aka The Pickin’ Pear from Colorado play “folk ‘n’ roll’ on banjo and ukulele from 9 p.m. on. 

Saturday, Nov. 30, it’s Soul Party time at Humbrews with “jive turkeys” DJ Red, #jaymorg and Funky T-Rex, as always spinning rad vinyl.

December is here Sunday and at RampArt Skatepark, DisBeatCrasher presents another evening of metal with Gatecreeper from Arizona (death metal), Exhumed from San Jose (gore metal), Necrot from Oakland (death metal punk) and Judiciary here from West Texas (hardcore). Doors at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 2, the beat goes on at Outer Space, with Lisa Prank, searching for the Perfect Love Song (he new album) on a tour with Canadian songwriter Rose Melberg, with saxophone art-punks from East Hollywood French Vanilla, and our own Monster Women. 

And meanwhile Monday at the Van Duzer, CenterArts presents the 12-piece mini-orchestra Pink Martini, “with an eclectic setlist featuring songs sung in French, Croatian, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. Note that showtime is earlier than usual: 7 p.m.

That’s all for now. Hope you didn’t mind my bragging. Thanks for reading this far…





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