'Spam Allstars' Groove to Diverse Rhythms
MICHELLE MARTIN, host:
I'm Michelle Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Their sound has been described as a musical melting pot: a mix of retro Cuban, electronic, Latin, funk, and hip-hop. It's every bit a reflection of the diversity that infuses their home base: Miami. They are the Latin Grammy-nominated Spam Allstars. And they're with us today to talk a little bit about their music. Their fifth album, "Electrodomesticos," was released in April. We might be able to talk them into performing a song or two. And they join us from member station WLRN in Miami.
Spam Allstars, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. ANDREW YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam" (Guitarist, Spam Allstars): Hi.
Ms. MERCEDES ABAL (Flute Player, Spam Allstars): Hi.
MARTIN: First, DJ Le Spam, why don't you introduce us to the rest of the group, who you have around there with you.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": Well, starting on my left, Mercedes Abal, our flute player. Next to her is Chad Bernstein on trombone. Next to him, we have Adam Zimmon, our guitar player. And next to Adam is Tomas Diaz, our percussionist and sometimes vocalist.
Mr. TOMAS DIAZ (Percussionist, Spam Allstars): (Unintelligible).
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": And on the - next to Tomas is A.J. Hill, our sax player.
MARTIN: Okay. Hi, everybody.
Mr. A.J. HILL (Sax Player, Spam Allstars): Hello.
Ms. ABAL: Hello.
MARTIN: So why Spam?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": It's a long story. Basically, years ago I used to go to a little eight-track recording place and just experiment. Every week I would just bring a couple of very loose ideas. And somebody gave me a record that had a radio broadcast show with a bunch of commercials on it. One of the commercials was a Spam commercial, and so I did this sort of overlay of the Spam commercial - parts of it.
MARTIN: You mean Spam the ham? Spam...
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": Mm. Yeah, the one...
MARTIN: The meat in a can, Spam?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": The one that I'm not supposed to talk about, you know...
MARTIN: Oh dear.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": So anyway, I did this song, and it was just a stupid thing that I, you know, I thought was funny. And so I would play it for my friends. And that was kind of - I started calling the music that I was recording and the little things I would experiment with - I started calling it Spam Allstars after that. And...
MARTIN: Because you know, it has another meaning now, which is unwanted...
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": Exactly, which I didn't plan any of that.
MARTIN: ...e-mail. How do you feel about all of that?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": I - it's all - it's kind of one of those things where if you knew back when you started that it was going to go this far, you might have tried to come up with some other name for it. But basically, I didn't really expect that we'd go this far with this group. This was something that I started as a side to other musical projects that I was part of. And somehow it just kept going and going, and it way exceeded any expectations that I ever had for it, which was none.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": So, basically, that...
Mr. DIAZ: That's very honest of you.
MARTIN: That was very honest.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": Yeah.
MARTIN: So what's the point? Is it to get everybody together? You're mainly a performance band, right? Is to get together and see what happens? Is it...
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": Well, the weekly recording thing that I was doing became a weekly gig. And the weekly gig was something that, you know, we move from club to club, but basically in the beginning we'd have, you know, one sort of residency that we'd do here in Miami, a club that we play at every week. We would never rehearse. I would bring different - just beginnings of ideas, of grooves, of songs, and - and we would take it from there every week. And I guess from doing it on a weekly basis, we kind of learned what was working and what wasn't, and what worked for a crowd in the nightclub and what didn't. And so, over time, you know, it would sort of evolve from there and...
MARTIN: Do you still never rehearse?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ Le Spam": For the most part, no, we never have. I don't think we've ever had a band rehearsal. Yeah, it's still been that way. We, I mean we tend to play three or four nights a week. So you know, with the remaining three days, you want to let your ears stop ringing and think of about other stuff so you can come back to your gigs fresh. And so that's kind of why we've never rehearsed to this day.
MARTIN: I understand the new release, "Electrodomesticos," took 18 months?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM: More than that. It really took three years.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM: I think, you know, the first year was just basically taken up with promoting the last record. And then once we started, okay, thinking now it's time to record something else, it was the same thing that I just mentioned. Gigging three or four nights a week, you know, whatever two or three days you have left with to deal with the other aspects of your life, you know, you - you know, if we can get one of those days in to, you know, set aside for recording, mixing, doing overdubs, whatever, then that's great. But it's hard to make progress like that in a timely way. And my studio's in the home. So you know, it becomes this thing where you - there's that door you want to go through so you go to work, but you get a block about it. You know, you want to do anything else but, you know. So that was...
MARTIN: It's like laundry, right?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Well, it's like anything where you - it's deadlines I have always had a problem with, I guess. So, you know, it's just...
MARTIN: Speaking of home, the latest album, "Electrodomesticos," that means home appliances, right?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Right.
MARTIN: You spending a little too much time in the house, young man?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Well, you know, I think "Electrodomesticos" is also, you know, it's a word that you can look at it in any language almost, and try to derive some sort of meaning from it. And you can get, you know, the meanings that you can get from it are all valid to kind of what we're doing. I think that it's a continuation on the theme of robots and machines and humans. Basically we're in a place right now where, you know, we are completely slaves to our own devices, in a sense. And so that's no different for me within this band in performing. I'm using samplers for the drum loops and the baselines. And so I'm pretty much relying on a piece of electronics to execute our music. And so I think that, you know, those are the kind of themes I think about when I choose the names.
MARTIN: Okay. Can we talk you into a song?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Okay. I guess...
MARTIN: What will you play for us?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": We'll play one of the tunes from our last record, actually. And this one is called "El Lagarto." And I guess it's just inspired by our intro record today, which I'm not going to tell you what it is yet and spoil the surprise.
MARTIN: Well, that's mean, but go ahead.
(Soundbite of song, "El Lagarto")
MARTIN: How do you know when a piece is the way you want it to be? Or is that the whole point, that whatever happens when you're together is what happens - is what it's supposed to be?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Each arrangement that we come up with is more or less a road map, you know? And so from when we finish, you know, the recording and it's done, and then we have that as a reference point, and we can go back and listen to it and say, okay, now we're going to try to perform it like this live, well, that's one point. But then it doesn't really end there. I would hope that the songs would continue to evolve over time.
MARTIN: You're such a diverse group of people. I know that's a cliché, but it's so true. I mean you are Canadian-born but your mother is from Venezuela, your father is from England. Tomas and Mercedes are from Cuba. Adam is from Long Island. AJ is from Miami. Chad's from Chicago.
How on earth did you all meet? Did you just, you know, crash into each other at the airport?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": It's all - we all live in Miami and we're all musicians. So I think even though Miami is a very large city, the music scene is not incredibly large. And there's not an incredibly - there's not a lot of venues here, to be honest with you. So you know, being that we're all fairly active and we're all out there doing different things - I've known Adam the longest, I think, or maybe AJ, because AJ - I was playing in bands in the mid-'90s and AJ was fronting his band at that time. So you know, we crossed paths at that time. Adam, I probably met him around '96 or '97, when I was playing guitar in another band.
Unidentified Man: Wait. Wait. Wait. You're giving away ages now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: We can't have that.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": No, we were all in middle school then.
Unidentified man: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Yeah. So...
MARTIN: And I know you're not a political band. I know that you're, you know, you're not, you know, trying to make a political statement. But in some way, just by being together you are. And we are at a point in this country where we're talking about, you know, immigration and who do we want here and what should they do when they get here and all this. And I just wondered, do you ever talk about these things among yourselves?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Oh, we have.
MARTIN: You laugh.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": You know, I think everybody has their own take on every issue that you could name. But...
Unidentified Man: We never talk about it.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": We do.
MARTIN: Is that true now? Are you teasing me?
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": No. I think there are some things that - as far as for Mercedes and Tomas - when it comes to Cuba, they're going to be highly polarized about certain issues always. And so it's not like we don't talk about it, you know. And then when it comes down to like national politics, well, we'll all run our mouths on whatever what we think, you know? But I wouldn't want to do it for you guys right now.
MARTIN: I don't know. I don't know. That could be - come on. Does anybody else want to speak on that?
Mr. AJ HILL (Saxophonist, Spam Allstars): Basically, the way we...
MARTIN: Who's that? Who's that?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": This is AJ. This is AJ.
MARTIN: Hey, AJ.
Mr. HILL: I think basically the reason we're able to stay together is that we play together. And I think that's a way to look at the larger political issues in the world. If you focus on the positive, you're able to, you know, you're able to manage and get along with each other.
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": You know, one of the reasons why we're an instrumental band is that I'm not trying to, you know, have a political agenda with anyone. I have my own personal views on things. You know, it took us three albums to put out a song with words because it was like, it was really something that I had tried to get away from, you know. I was - I had been playing in bands that was, you know, focused on, you know, songwriter type stuff with lyrics and all that and I never - I've never written a lyric in my life. It was always something...
MARTIN: So why is that? Is it that you think the lyrics hold you back in some way?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": No, no. Not at all. I just - it's just not me. It was just something that I really was more into, you know, feeling a strong groove first and then having room to improvise around that second. So the feeling was like, hey, this is an anti-corporate thing, you know. Like, that was part of the reason why I took the name Spam Allstars. It was something that - it was like I was thumbing my nose at a corporation by doing that and whether that's smart to do or not, whether it's legally the way you want to go about things, probably not, because they'll crush you every time. But it's kind of gone way beyond that. It's not something I even really think about now.
MARTIN: What occurred to me, though, is when you start choosing lyrics, you have to choose what language to sing them in.
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Yeah. Although I mean I'd say that, you know, AJ's got a couple of tunes he does. They're in English. Tomas, when he sings, he'll either sing in Spanish or Uruba. Or he'll, you know, some of the...
Mr. HILL: (Unintelligible)...
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Yes. Some of it basically just sort of scatting. So, you know, I think - and that was something that happened in a natural way live on a gig. Like the first time Tomas started singing, it wasn't like, oh, okay, let's do a song with lyrics, guys. It was like, oh, somebody just grabbed a mic. It was just kind of like, oh, wow, this works. That was nice. Let's try to do it again.
MARTIN: Well, since you're not big on planning, maybe it's silly to ask what's next. But what's next?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Basically, now it's - I would say, you know, it's probably time to start thinking about another recording, you know, so it's not a full three years until the next one comes out. So...
MARTIN: Really. I wanted to ask - your schedule seems exhausting.
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": You know...
MARTIN: I think it's something like 200 performances a year. How do you do that and do your laundry?
Mr. HILL: It's not too bad. This is AJ, once again.
Mr. HILL: Well, we're basically back home every week. So we get a chance to, you know, take the edge off and go back out there, you know, a week or two later, so...
MARTIN: I mean, I'm just wondering how you stay creative when part of the essence of what you're doing is something new every day? Because some of the big sort of pop acts, I mean the whole point, the whole reason people go is that they want to hear the thing the same way that they heard it on the radio. Right? And it is the opposite of what you're doing. And I just wonder how you keep yourself fresh.
Mr. HILL: We thrive on the accident, on the accidental, you know. If something happens, then we pick up on it and we, you know, expand on that theme, and there are some things that we do keep and, you know, we take from the recordings that we did. But basically the show is different every time.
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": If we got four shows to do in a week, it is - I will go out of my way to not have to repeat a tune from night to night. So if we can make it through the whole week without repeating any tunes, that's ideal. You know, that way, you know, but it doesn't always work out like that. Sometimes we'll end up...
MARTIN: Well, I hear that one way you stay on top of your game was that you're obsessed with Cuban coffee. Is that true?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": It helps. It helps a lot.
MARTIN: And I hear that you bring your coffee machine everywhere you go. Is that true?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Almost every - when we got to fly. I haven't gotten around the whole flying issue, but I have...
MARTIN: Okay. Is the coffee machine in the studio with you?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Not right - I thought about taking it today when I left the house because I have to go deejay somewhere after this. But luckily, we're in Miami so there's usually a source not too far.
MARTIN: There's a fix down the street. Okay.
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": But in some places it's actually, you know, let's say you walk in blocks, you just get to the - your venue and find your dressing room, if you have one, or if not, I've set it up right on stage and, you know, pull a couple of shots right there and, you know, yeah, it sure helps keep focused.
MARTIN: I'm going to have to try that in the studio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Do you think I could get NPR to go for that?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": I - you know, I can...
MARTIN: Have to talk about it.
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": I can recommend a nice machine for you guys.
MARTIN: All right. Can you recommend a song for us to go out on?
MR. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Well, let's see, I think we'll do a vocal number for you guys. So this one, Tomas will sing for you, and it's called "Oracion Acere."
MARTIN: Latin Grammy nominated Spam Allstars. Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ Le Spam; Adam Zimmon; AJ Hill; Chad Bernstein; Mercedes Abal, and Tomas Diaz. They joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. YEOMANSON "DJ LE SPAM": Thank you.
Mr. HILL: Thank you.
Ms. ABAL: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "Oracion Acere")