Dollars to Pounds: Kirk Spencer

April 04, 2013

San Francisco-born Kim Taylor Bennett fled to Europe at 11, lived for a spell in London and once played guitar onstage with Green Day. She’ll report on new British music every other week.

Kirk Spencer loves Gold Panda. He gets excited at the very mention of the Essex-born electronic composer. It’s cute. “When I was playing the BBC Introducing Stage at the Reading and Leeds Festival in 2011, I snuck backstage and gave him a CD,” says the Nottingham native. “For me he’s definitely one of the most inspirational artists.” If you’re a fan of Gold Panda’s sun-dappled, cut-and-paste electronica, keep reading. Spencer is only 22, but with four EPs already under his belt, including the lately released Wonderland, his music puts him up there as a Gold Panda peer. Already a favorite of Brit DJs Gilles Peterson and Nihal, Spencer’s take on dance glides between airy dreamscapes anchored with fuzzed-up bass throbs—check “Kukcu” at 1min19 for the gratifying drop—and lolloping, laidback grooves (“In Treatment”). Soulful vocals courtesy of newbies Louis Scott, Marita and Safia May seal the deal. Stream his Wonderland EP in full and read my interview below.

Stream: Kirk Spencer, Wonderland

In the past year you’ve talked a lot about going to India. Have you been there yet? I haven't, but it's something that I’m definitely going to do at some point. I want to document the whole experience, get some samples, take a mic and my laptop over and just make as much music over there as I can. 

Where does your fascination with that country come from? I think it comes from my mum and dad. My mum's a yoga teacher and my dad is also and he does karate. They both had quite big CD collections just for teaching yoga. Some of those CDs were people like Ravi Shankar. When I was young I’d listen to the radio and somehow I managed to mix between two radio stations, one was an Asian station and the other was Radio 1. I got them both in the middle so it was basically Robbie Williams singing over the top of a Pagan track. It was before I even knew anything about music really, so that was been pretty inspirational.

This Wonderland EP is your fourth, but it feels very different from 2011’s Enter The Void. In fact despite your enduring interest in India it seems like there’s less of an Eastern influence. Yeah, it's the first in a new kind of sound that I'm going for, something that's taken me a while to get to, so it almost feels like my first EP. It does feel like a departure from those first three. It embraces more dance elements. I didn't want to use any samples on this CD, I wanted to create everything myself.

The In Treatment artwork depicts electric shock treatment. Pretty dark. Whose idea was that? Originally I wanted to do a whole concept album instead of an EP. I made a lot of tracks but ended up picking the best five. All the tunes were based on a guy who’s in mental asylum on an island. It's all kind of a metaphor for me feeling a bit trapped in Nottingham and wanting to escape.

Where's your head at right now?I definitely feel a lot less trapped, the fact that I've got a few gigs coming up and there's a small possibility that I can go to USA as well.

You collaborate with several different vocalists on the EP. How does that work? Is each song quite self-contained? Each song's kind of different. With “Kukcu” I planned it all out in my mind and then started writing it on an acoustic guitar, wrote the lyrics and the melody. Then I gave it to Safia May who I was living with in a big school, like an old abandoned disabled kids school in Nottingham. There were eight of us, all musicians or video artists. “In Treatment” features a singer called Louis Scott, a local Nottingham singer who I met at a gig, so I got him to sing the lyrics.

Are you still living in the school? No, it's been sold on. We had this amazing opportunity, the eight of us had it for eight months.

That must’ve been a sweet environment to live and work in. Yeah, we could make loud music all night. It was near town as well so we got to experience the nightlife really easily. It was a great, great experience, something I've dreamt about doing and would definitely do again at some point.

Are any of the people you lived with part of the STRANGERZOO collective? At the moment, STRANGERZOO is only just beginning. My release is the first one, and I'm heading it up. We'll have other artists coming out this year too. We've got a guy called Joe Le Huquet, who did the video for “Kukcu.” That was his first music video and he’s been great to work with. We've been friends since we were kids.

You started off playing the guitar. Were you in a bunch of bands when you were younger? Yeah, I was inspired by all the bands that were in my village, punk bands mostly. So I formed a band with my brother called Odd Socks. He was nine and I was 13. We found a local community recording studio and I became interested in songwriting with other artists and then gradually I learned production.

The community recording studio was a real turning point, right? Yeah! It was really exciting, and it was like nothing I'd done before. It was a little bit urban. I'd be writing, making rap beats or playing acoustic guitar songs with rappers, then gradually making rap instrumentals. I've always wanted to make music that's quite psychedelic and I guess that's where the Indian classical side fits in.

Is that how you hooked up with Nottingham rapper Scorzayzee ? That's right, he goes to the community recording studio. It's a great place where young people can go and learn skills. I used to spend a lot of time there.

I’m not sure I’d necessarily associate Nottingham with being a thriving cultural hub, but it seems like stuff is really happening there. Yeah, it's supposed to be one of the most thriving scenes in the country. There's people like Jake Bugg who are doing amazingly well. But it’s not just musicians, the artist Jon Burgerman is a very big influence, then there's Shane Meadows, the film director. It's a really creative place and people are starting to do a lot more.

You’ve got a song called “Life on the Island.” If you had to take five things on a desert island, what would you take? Definitely my laptop. 

What? There’s no power outlets on this island. Maybe a generator as well then. My KRK speakers and probably my friend Foxy.

Who's Foxy? Foxy's the guy with the crazy hair in the “Kukcu” video. He's my best mate. We snuck into Glastonbury four years ago, which was one of the best days of our lives. We were up against a million pounds worth of security and somehow we did it. I'd definitely take him, because he's a very funny guy. Also maybe I’d take my sampler.

So basically you're not cut out for island life at all. No, I don't think I am!

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Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Kirk Spencer