The Austin-based beat maker and ambient synthesist shares some unreleased tracks in his guest mix, and answers our questions about his incredible new album, End the Summertime F(or)ever.
Name: Spencer Stephenson
Hometown: Fort Worth, TX
Current city / place of residence: Austin, TX
Home away from home: Philly
For your latest album, it’s safe to say you’ve gone further than ever, both thematically and sonically. What influences, experiences, and new musical processes gave ETSF its unique status in your discography?
Thanks for saying that… I’m glad that’s palpable! I think I agree with you. I started this album in 2017 coming off of an ambient and spiritual-jazz collage record I made called Deepak Verbera. In the time between turning that record in, and turning in End the Summertime F(or)ever, so much happened personally and professionally. I played a set at Bonnaroo as part of Red Bull Music Academy, played Marfa Myths, Levitation in Austin, Roskilde in Denmark, Low End Theory (RIP) in LA; put out a record with my good friend Lushlife as The Skull Eclipses wherein we collaborated with everyone from Laraaji to Open Mike Eagle. I was just on a roll. It all culminated in my partner Denise– who I’ve been with for pretty much the entirety of my career as Botany– and I getting engaged, and having a child in 2019. That’s not to mention the monumental shifts in global events and politics that happened in that timespan. The last official full length release I put out as Botany was on inauguration day in 2017, a digital-only B sides LP of sorts called Raw Light II.
I was coasting off career momentum that gave me the confidence, or maybe hubris, to throw down as hard as I could and make my mark on the lineage of sample-based instrumental albums I grew up loving, but do it from within my own particular set of sensibilities in a way that belongs in the modern landscape. Arguably all my albums could be an attempt at a similar thing, but I think on this one I just took the gloves off. I stopped hiding behind effects, abstraction, ambience, and saturation. I stopped making exploratory detours that beat around the bush. There’s a certain point as an artist where you grow up and things that may have been affectations or defenses in your teens or twenties are now in your marrow instead of on your sleeve… that slow shift from trying something new into comfortably wielding it in earnest. I don’t think anyone is exempt from that artistic drudgery. Some creators have a head start, and others never get out of the weeds. I’ve been making music publicly for longer than I did privately before that, so that drudgery has been on display. So, I think on Summertime I had the confidence of the years behind me to just be who I am as a composer, musician, beatmaker, whatever-the-hell, without second guessing it. I’m in my thirties. I don’t need to ping a signal off of my peers to know who I am. In that sense I came full circle back to the kind of music I wanted to make as a teenager. It was a self-affirmation that I’ve sort of always been who I am now, artistically speaking.
Thematically this album became more and more about what a beatdown the world is turning into as I worked on it. I’m a humanist, and somewhat of a reluctant Buddhist, which means I inherently believe humanity is on, or has the ability to be on, an upward trajectory to where everyone’s potential can be realized, and grand ideas can be fully explored. But if you use these times as a cross section, it’s hard to envision that eventuality. Ignorance is celebrated, and worse it is often paraded as insight. Corporate interests have so influenced politics, which in turn have so confused the public, that the commonly accepted definition of critical thinking is “don’t believe anything resembling consensus reality”. It’s fucked. Many minds are lost. I was feeling that more and more every day, and it was compounded by the seemingly endless Texas summer which can diminish any sense of change. I wanted this whole era to end, hence the title.
And by the way, this was pre-pandemic. The F(or)ever part of the title has nothing to do with COVID. Since completing the album all of this has worsened. Irrational fear, or flat out denial, of a scientific reality is now killing people en masse.
Western Vinyl has been your long time label, and you’re both Austin based. Can you say a little about working with them? They have released so much great music (Lymbyc Systym, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ava Luna, Goldmund, and the new Nubo album is fantastic) I’ve always felt they should be a bit more of a “household name.” (I’ve also received extra CDs / vinyl etc every time I’ve ordered merch from them!)
In 2009 I was playing drums for a band that had recently signed to Western Vinyl called Sleep Whale, who were an organic electronic duo called Mom before that. We were kind of a Voltron in the sense that each of us had our own individual projects that predated the band, and Pitchfork‘s long gone “Forkcast” column started picking up on those and posting about them. The label Lefse out of Sacramento started an offshoot called Waaga, in part to give a platform to us and our sphere of friends who were coming out of a really rich little experimental scene in Denton, Texas at that time. Lefse was coming off of a hot streak with the Neon Indian and How To Dress Well debuts, and they responded positively when I approached them about putting my stuff out. They pretty much said yes without hesitation. I felt hopeful about it, but ultimately wanted to work with someone in-state to help walk me through my first releases. Lefse’s ‘yes’ gave me the confidence to approach Brian at Western Vinyl with the same question, so the next time I ran into him I asked him the same question point blank, and I got pretty much the same response. That’s all the label shopping I ever had to do, which I recognize is a tremendous privilege.
Brian doesn’t like to be mentioned, but he is one of the most supportive and competent people in independent music, period. He is a once-in-a-lifetime business partner. I imagine that if I keep making albums I’ll work with him in some capacity for the rest of my career. And yeah, I don’t think people realize all the indie darlings that he helped launch: Kaitlyn who you mentioned, Dirty Projectors, Father John Misty (fka J Tillman), Here We Go Magic, Bonnie Prince Billy, the list is wildly impressive.
Tell us about the mix! There are some unreleased tracks from you, are any of the four tracks made for the mix specifically, or are they stuff you’ve been sitting on? What did you have in mind thematically / aesthetically while picking the other artists/tracks?
This mix is a welcome break from everything I mentioned above about my album. It’s a cliche for the makers of cloudy, psychedelic mind-music like myself to talk about the impact dreams and dream exploration have had on them, but this mix is totally based on my recent benadryl-induced dreaming. In the first sleepless year of my child’s life, I was jolted out of so many dreams that I started to deeply internalize the feeling that the present moment is based on the future as much as it is the past. It felt like these interrupted dreams were only happening because they were on track to be interrupted, meaning the dream-present I was experiencing was only possible because of a waking future that had not happened yet. I see all my dreams this way now, and I’ve since come to see my waking reality the same way somewhat.
The original tracks I laced in there are textural explorations from various times since Deepak Verbera. “Funeral Seisms” was made a few years back while reflecting on the passing of a friend’s father. One was made from a set of sounds I put together for a meditation set I did at Marfa Myths 2017. The others are just from the collection of vignettes I lay down pretty regularly. You could consider them little previews of whatever my next LP will become. Things are leaning in that textural collage direction once again for me.
Cory Allen appears on the mix, can you tell us a little about your recent podcast discussion with him?
Cory has become a friend of mine in the last couple of years after I ran into him at a show and recognized him from the cartoonized version of himself that’s his podcast (The Astral Hustle) logo. I listened to his podcast fairly regularly, but primarily knew of him because of his music. People who are familiar with his show might not necessarily know that he’s an incredible composer and sound designer. He actually mastered End the Summertime F(or)ever. We’ve discovered some eerie parallels between the two of us creatively and biographically… he told me that there are people in his recent family history named Stephenson, which means we might even be related! I appreciate that his approach to mindfulness and modern spirituality is fluff-free. He manages to explore consciousness and stoke the imagination without indulging the crystal-clutchers, though I’m sure he’d welcome them to listen to the show. His conversations are usually with Rinpoches or neuroscientists, so I’m not sure why I was allowed on there, but it was a good conversation nonetheless. Cory is the real deal.