TAS Interview: Spencer Stephenson of Botany
Botany's Spencer Stephenson
Texas electronic artist Spencer Stephenson has drummed for experimental rockers Sleep Whale, performed alone as Abacus and now works solo under the moniker Botany, dipping gently into the chillwave movement, but giving it his own sample-heavy spin. Earlier this month Stephenson released his debut EP, Feeling Today, on Western Vinyl. But as he told The Alternate Side's Alisa Ali, the five-track sampler is just a taste of what Stephenson has planned for his first Botany album:
Alisa Ali: You’ve got a new EP out right now and you've played CMJ too.
Spencer Stephenson: [It was] my first time in New York. I flew up here for CMJ and played a couple of shows there. My schedule was fairly relaxed. One day, two shows, same building. But I’ve been the SXSW thing before with another band and it can be a little intense.
Alisa: That other band would be Sleep Whale? What happened to them?
Spencer: It’s not really my position to say. All the guys are really good friends and we keep the project loose. Members come and go as they want to and contribute ideas when they feel it’s appropriate. My two friends, Joel [North] and Bruce [Blay], are the guys who are in charge of that band. I was just exclusively their live drummer for about a year and however long they needed me. And if they need me in the future. [Recently] I played a show in Dallas under the Sleep Whale name and it was a mashup of completely non-Sleep Whale ideas and songs performed under the Sleep Whale name. That’s how we keep it; it can be anything.
Alisa: Are you doing any drumming for Botany?
Spencer: In the studio, of course. I do record some of the drum parts live, but the plan is to eventually format the live show so that I can incorporate a drummer or possibly play drums myself at certain points in the set. The first part of the set is this DJ mashup of a bunch of little ideas that were intended to demo the full-length album as well as the EP. But I trail off at the end into completed, fully formed songs and I think the first song I play in the set, the first complete song, was called “The Grains” which is a really slow, sedated, bassy track that I’m really proud of; it’s going on the full-length in the spring.
Alisa: You used to go by the name Abacas. Are you very into art and science?
Spencer: I guess so. It’s kind of studious music, I guess.
Alisa: Why did you change your name?
Spencer: Well, Abacus is a 70s prog band, I think it’s a hair metal band from the 80s and it’s also a band, I think, that played with Pink Floyd. My information is completely vague here. I know that there are enough Abaci for me to want to change my name before releasing anything.
Alisa: So there’s a lot of found sounds in your music. What are some of them?
Spencer: I sample a lot of Eastern-based psychedlic music from the 1960s. There’s a lot of times where I sample library or stock music. In the 70s or 80s if someone needed a jingle for a commercial, they’d go to a library record and it’s this free reign stuff that anyone can use.
Alisa: You’ve probably be collecting sounds for a while.
Spencer: I’ve been doing a good job of it since I was sixteen or so. You can also collect them in your noggin.
Alisa: You keep that information in your head?
Spencer: I don’t always have a turntable and sampler around when I hear a piece of a record that I want to use. Or I can hear a piece of a song that I’m listening to on headphones on a bus. It seems like I hear the sound initially, maybe a couple of months before I actually sample it, I remember the spot in the song or the phrase and I let those ideas build and do that with more songs, memorize more spots in other songs. I end up doing my sampling at the end of a two month period.
It’s a really inspiring process. You get a stack of records together and just go to town, and start taking these sounds off that you’ve had in mind for a while. It’s extremely inspiring because you’re building your instrument collection, but it’s different from the conventional bass, guitars and drums. I’ll probably never really stop making music that way to some extent because a lot of times that’s the most inspiring part of making it for me.
Alisa: Were you going to a bunch of record stores?
Spencer: Yeah, I’ve got a local record store in Fort Worth.
Alisa: You’re lucky. There’s so few left in New York.
Spencer: It sucks, but if nobody else is buying records, that means I’ll have more stuff!
Alisa: Are you going to release your album out on vinyl?
Spencer: Yes, the EP will eventually; the full-length album will be pressed on vinyl immediately upon its release date. We’re postponing the pressing of the EP on vinyl because we had to get something out there to let people know existed before I put out a full-length record.
Alisa: So the songs on the EP will also be included on the full-length?
Spencer: Maybe one or two but a lot of the ideas on the EP are maybe based on old ideas I’ve had for a long time. Track three in particular, “Waterparker,” was made for the EP but a couple of others were tracks that I probably would have shelved otherwise. They weren’t exactly what I wanted to do. It’s not that I hated them, but it’s not saying exactly what I want to say; it doesn’t really meet that vision as appropriately as it could.
Alisa: Do you have a total vision for the full-length?
Spencer: When I try to speak of it, it’s a little cloudy. I got it in my head.
Alisa: We’ll be dissecting your brain shortly. You have Ashley Rathburn on vocals on the EP. Will she be on the full-length too?
Spencer: More than likely. She’s on more than one track on the EP. I’m going to be featuring [Fleet Foxes'] J. Tillman on the full-length, tentatively due out in the spring, contributing vocals and percussion. His bandmate in Fleet Foxes, Casey Wescott, does a little piano on the same song. It was really awesome to see more songwriter-based artists go to town with a track like mine. It was something that I made a couple of days before and gave to them and they turned around a really complete, almost perfect pop song with full vocals and harmonies. It was crazy how fast they did it.
Spencer: When you make most of your music on your own it’s nice to have someone come in and tell you that an idea that you think sucks is worthy to be a song on the album.