Spencer’s Wild Ride

Spencer’s Wild Ride: An interview with a California indie pop, surf, rock star

Santa Barbara native son, Spencer Barnitz, is one of the Central Coast’s most well-known, well-liked surfing musicians. From his years in the surf’y 80s pop sensation, The Tan, to his long-running Santa Barbara-based band, Spencer the Gardener (and about a half dozen other side projects in between), he has written and produced seven Spencer the Gardener albums. A tireless performer, he has rocked audiences in his home town of Santa Barbara, and up and down the California coast for thirty plus years. A regular in the Santa Barbara music and surf line up since the late 1970s, he has flirted with major success throughout his career. He is at it once more with the release of his latest Spencer the Gardener album, Breaking My Own Heart.

Breaking My Own Heart is a contemporary and innovative sounding record that features modern surf guitars, soaring horn sections, Latin beats, and Reggae stylings. It takes the listener on a musical ride across a California landscape of  love, loss, and triumph — from the the coastal mountains to the deep blue sea and all points in between. We spoke with Spencer about the new album, surfing, and keeping at it after all these years.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Santa Barbara at St. Francis Hospital and grew up on the Mesa. “Idyllic” is what I would call that time on the Mesa (60s and 70s). Although, I think most people, no matter what the era, think of their upbringing as idyllic.

How and when did you get into surfing?
Growing up across the street from the Pit  (Hendry’s Beach) is for sure what started me surfing in the early 70s. Environment shapes desire for sure — that and my Mom could leave me at the beach and know I was taken care of.

At that time, “The Pit,” Hendry’s Beach was a land unto itself. Coastal California has changed dramatically in my lifetime. The beach has become way more popular, as has surfing. I would say it was all a bit edgier at one time.

I am super stoked to be back into surfing again… As with most things you go through phases and when we started touring a bunch, I fell out of the rhythm of the surf experience (touring and a few injuries as well). It feels so good to be back in it and makes me wonder how I could have ever stopped.

When did you start playing music?
I started moving towards music at the end of the 70s when the first “Punk/New Wave” movement started. The first Do-It-Yourself scenes started popping up and we started a band called, “The Tan.”  We put out a couple of records — one with Robbie Krieger of the Doors. We had a number one single in South America, did a movie soundtrack for the first Central California surf release “Off the Wall 2,” started a record with Robbie Robertson of “The Band” and moved to England in 1985. The Tan started my long lasting flirtation with success on a major level.  I’ve continued flirting with it ever since.

Spencer, Santa Barbara, Calif. (Photo: Morgan Cox)

When and how did your long running band, Spencer the Gardener, get started?
1988/89 saw the beginning of “Spencer the Gardener.” [After England], I had returned to SB and took a job landscaping in Montecito. I was a bit tired and disillusioned with music. I was working and surfing and playing lots of basketball until an injury forced me to the sidelines and into writing songs again. I put a group of guys together and we recorded The Boy with the Two Big Heads. I had planned on giving this recording out to people for Christmas under the moniker of “Spencer the Gardener” but everyone involved said, “Let’s play a couple of shows!” We did and we took off fast, and suddenly I was back in music again. Brushing up against success yet again.

Six records and twenty years later finds us putting out another, Breaking My Own Heart. So I guess I would have to call this a long successful career — up and down for sure, but most everything in life is a bit like that.

Did you always plan on music as a career?
Strange to think this is and has been “My Career”… And hopefully will be for a bit longer. Music is a funny thing to do as there are lots of easier ways to make money. Many different factors have combined to keep me involved: Art and commerce and the ability to work for yourself. I suppose, like many others, the initial reason was girls … followed by applause, which is addicting on many levels. Independence has always been a big key for me (Good and bad, sort of a blessing and a curse). And of course music in general; songwriting, putting people together to create a sound, the powerful feeling of a band on fire, all part of the creative process. Then again , I have been lucky enough to make money at it  and without that little aspect, I doubt I’d still be in this perplexing , eye-opening, soul crushing , and ultimately rewarding business of music… Lots of positives but you have to be ready to deal with an extreme amount of negatives as well. And I always feel energized by putting out new records! Hopefully this one buys me a few more years before I move into the next phase of my life: Crossing Guard!

How does the new record sound to you?
The new record has all the elements of the whole STG catalogue which is to be expected, I guess, considering I write the songs and through all the various changes in my life I am still inherently the same — at least similar. I think the biggest difference is the guitar playing of Rob Taylor, who, besides being in the upper echelon of guitar players in general , brings a bit more edginess and indie style, yet still with a melodic and musical twist.

Clever lyrics are a hallmark of your tunes. How would you characterize your song writing on this record?
Some of the lyrics that I have written for this record I couldn’t have used at a younger point in my life. It’s funny because a line like, “Some things weren’t meant to be” makes perfect sense to me now, whereas at one time I would’ve thought it very corny. Now I see it as very real. Perceptions change constantly through life. The same thing that makes you happy one day can make you sad the next. Although the whole happy/sad theme has always been a big part of STG. I think I somehow find it more poignant now.

Where did the name of the album, Breaking My Own Heart, come from?
The title track “Breaking My Own Heart” comes from a few different places. In 2008 I had open heart surgery so without that I would have never uttered the phrase but as I was thinking about the past and relationships, I realised that a lot of times when you think someone has broken your heart, often you have done it to yourself. Or at least I have. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

The theme of this record is about the ups and downs of loneliness and the thought of being alone. Lots of people stress that it is a bad thing [to be alone] but I don’t think that is necessarily true. There is joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, trials and tribulations. No matter how you go through this world – be it by yourself or with another, or with a pack…!

On the rocks, Santa Barbara (Photo: Morgan Cox)

Do you have a favorite song off the new record?
One of my favs is “Bye Baby – Cant Wait to See You Again”…. About being in Love for the first time and thinking so much about someone and later reflecting back on that thought and realizing you may never see each other again….There is a line : “Mesa , that’s where we watched the world just go by, never too many questions,” I could have only written this now.

What inspired you to do this record?
I think the theme of the record fueled my inspiration to finish it. I was a bit sad, a bit lonely, but, as is often the case, delving into the whole topic brought me out and to a better place! Music does that constantly!

And so now here I am … Poised for my next brush with success.

"I was born to roam." Spencer, Santa Barbara (Photo: Morgan Cox)

For more, visit SpencerTheGardener.com. To purchase the new album, download it at Band Camp site, or get the CD at CD Baby.

All photos are courtesy of Morgan Cox.

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