Recycled Percussion Interview

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Justin Spencer and his group, Recycled Percussion, have made the American dream a reality. They started from nothing back in 1995 in rural New Hampshire and slowly built throughout the years, always sticking with their vision. After years of shows they finally hit it big. Now they’ve traveled the world, played almost everywhere, starred on primetime television, and have their own headliner show on a nightly basis on the Las Vegas strip. They’ve literally come from playing on upside down trashcans, to playing on upside down trashcans on a multimillion dollar set. Not bad… Are you done searching through your closet for that old guitar yet?

You guys got started in a high school talent show. Were you always into music and can you tell us a little bit about that, the beginnings?
Yeah. The band or the group started in 1995 at a high school talent show in New Hampshire, a small town in New Hampshire and it was just basically… I’ve always had a love affair with drums. My dad was a drummer and I was looking for a way to one-up my performance from the year before. I had seen a kid in New York City performing on some five-gallon buckets. This is way back in the day before these Stomps and YouTube brought the recycled drumming to the mainstream.

It was being popularized by the urban kids in the subways, really. I took their idea and just embellished it for a high school talent show with the thought of only doing this one-time performance. Somebody in the audience saw the performance and thought it’d be a really cool idea for us to go perform at their local elementary school in the State of New Hampshire, so we did that. Then another school saw us, and as you can imagine, we started performing more and more shows as time went on.

The first couple of years were really predicated around performing at the high schools and things around New England. What started as a joke, turned into, as a high school kid, a way to make some money.

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Wow. Now you guys obviously stuck with it for a long time, and it was a long road but, how long was it before you realized that you guys were truly going to make it as a group?
In 2001, we had that moment. The moment that, in the industry you always hear about the right time, the right place, kind of the overnight success story and after six years of $300 a gig here, $500 a gig there, all of sudden it just blew up into a college sensation, so we started breaking records left and right and went from making hundreds of dollars a show, to what ended up being thousands and thousands a show, and hundreds of those shows.

In 2001 is when the light switch went on like, “Okay, this is the real deal, time to start paying taxes and taking this seriously.” So, it was then that I dropped out of college, where I had aspirations of becoming a lawyer and just thought it’d be much cooler to follow this journey. For many, many, many, many years we spent traveling the world and creating a very successful business.

Is it true that you’re the world’s fastest drummer?
Yeah, that’s a very conflicting way to put it, I think. There are a few people that claim to be the fastest drummer and I have just taken the high road and said, “You know what? There is no way to really measure this.” For years and years it was a claim to fame for about half a dozen of us. It got competitive and controversial and there is a thing that I can do playing drums that nobody else in the world can do and there are some things that other guys could do playing drums that nobody else in the world can do. At the end of the day it just comes down to an opinion, and it shouldn’t really be something where one person should hold that title.

For many years that was what we used though. It was a great marketing tool and it has certain legitimacy to it, it wasn’t like we were just throwing something out there. There’s a lot of guys that’ll be like, “I can play something really fast for 19 seconds.” Another guy can go, “I can play something really fast for two minutes.” It’s just a matter of, if I say, who is the fastest guy in the world, the marathon runner or the sprinter? They couldn’t do each others job, so we’ll just say that I’m really f*cking fast.

You guys have a regular headliner show at The Quad in Las Vegas where everyone gets to participate in the show. How does that work?
It’s one of the things that make our show so unique. When we came to Vegas and we designed the show here a few years ago, we wanted to break down the barrier of performer and audience member. We thought the coolest thing to do would be to give everybody that comes into our show a drumstick and recycled instruments like pots and pans, mufflers, carburetors, anything you can imagine. We give out hundreds of these things every night, and drumsticks, and let the crowd perform along with us, with instructions through multimedia and video screens. It’s a lot like a recycled Rock Band, the video game, if you will, live. Nobody has ever done that. We have a full orchestra of people in the audience that perform with us every night and that really adds a whole other dynamic to our show.

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Where exactly have you guys toured and is there a favorite place?
We’ve toured everywhere. From Europe to Asia, all the way to Canada. Some of our best crowds are in the Midwest. A Vegas crowd is certainly a good show, so there is some, okay play for me monkey, type of thing going there. They appreciate the subject as much but there is certainly, “I’m in Las Vegas, I expect to see a Vegas show” and you deliver that experience, but there is something different for playing in Dubuque, Iowa where they don’t see this kind of level of show, day in and day out. You get a reception that is a much higher feeling than you’ll feel in Las Vegas.

I think from a crowd perspective, the Midwest is great, and from a touring standpoint, from a culture standpoint, places like Egypt, we just got back from Singapore last week and we were in Paris three weeks ago. I mean, it’s kind of cool to experience different cultures, you see how they respond to our show, and because there’s no speaking in our show, there’s no language barrier.

I was going to ask you about Singapore. What was that trip like? I know you guys just got back from there.
Singapore was really cool. It’s a super modern city and it’s crazy. It’s like going to China but everything is super safe, super clean, very modern, very small. When you squeeze five million people into this teeny little island that is 20 miles across, I mean it’s like the third most populated region in the world. It’s different because, and adversely so, it can be like, “Wow, they thought that was funny.” So if you tried to joke and it didn’t work, we would just say onstage, “That works in America”, and when we go back to America we would just say, “That works in Singapore.” So it’s a different culture for sure.

Do you guys ever make it back to your home state of New Hampshire?
Yeah, we go back there once a year and do about eight to ten shows there. We do independent shows there, like every winter for holidays we go back there, and just do a bunch of the sold-out shows all over the region. That’s our favorite place to play. We get to go home and see our friends and family and show what we’ve been working on and the shows are always different because by the time we get back there, we’ve done other big performances, we do 400 shows a year. So you can imagine, after every single show we have a band meeting and go through every note, what we’re going to change. So, if you saw us tonight you might not see big changes, but when there is 400 in between, there is a big change.

Do you find a lot of new instruments while on the road or during the course of the year for the show, do you add a lot of new stuff?
Yes, finding of instruments and more finding of inspirational ideas. We might see something that’s, like ”Wow, that would be really cool” so it’s so much more than just finding recycled objects in our shows, they’re big, big productions. We’ve spent millions building these shows with props and the whole show comes down from the ceiling upside down. It’s more like, ‘Wow, imagine if we could do this really cool thing because I saw something in another place,” more so than listening to what this sounds like. Back in the day, that was it, “Look what this sounds like.” Because that’s what we were, a band that was playing for 500 dollars a day at high schools and we put our stuff in the cars and would go unload it, and the heartbeat of the show was what sounds we could come up with. Now that has changed. You can now go, “Whoa, we have big budgets, we can build ideas and concepts that would wow people.” And that’s more like what we’ve transcended into.

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You guys were on America’s Got Talent and even China’s Got Talent, what were those experiences like and was there a lot of crazy stuff, a lot of bullshit going on behind the scenes?
Oh yeah, America’s Got Talent was a really cool experience for us because it really did, from a creative standpoint, challenge us because we weren’t a singing act, or a comedy act. We didn’t have the material. If you’re a singing act, all you have to do is think, “What’s the next song I’m going to sing next week?” So every time you advance every week on America’s Got Talent, you had seven days to come up with another wow factor because that show is based on wow factor. So we’d be like, “Okay.” So, it forced us to really dig down deep and to think what’s really cool that we can do and that’s what’s cool in Vegas and now we’re headliners in Vegas. We’re one of the hottest shows on the strip, but if it wasn’t for the experience of having a couple really creative ideas going and thinking, “We can do these things,” I don’t think we’d have the same impact here that we’ve had.

Still, from that standpoint on any TV show there’s going to be “say this and say that because the producers know what’s good for TV,” and Americans like to have their heartstrings tugged if you know what I’m saying? But from a creative standpoint and a show standpoint, I think it’s legit, it was truly us.

Your show now is super active, involves power tools, ladders and all sorts of stuff, it’s a crazy, crazy setup. Has anyone ever been seriously injured in/during a show?
Oh yeah, broken bones all the time. Ankles, fingers, nose, got hit in the eye hard with a drumstick just four days ago and had blood in my eye the entire show. We’re jumping off ladders backwards, so on and so forth and we’ve got a bunch of days in a row. I was playing with a really bad flu a few months ago on stage, where I was playing with a 103 temperature for like six to eight days and getting fluids in the day and then playing the show at night. Because you really can’t cancel the shows, so from that standpoint it’s very physical.

Each of us spends at least 90 minutes in the gym every single day, or train or mountain bike and just stay super active, that kind of thing. That all transcends on stage as well and we have to do those kinds of things to keep the show energy up. I mean you’ve seen the videos; it’s like an athletic event more than a concert.

Totally, it’s crazy! What do you think is the most unusual aspect of the show?
I guess a little more surprising is the humor of the show. There’s a lot of humor in the show, people go out to the show, and after 80 minutes you don’t feel like you’ve been watching guys drum. It’s the really edgy, cool, sexy, comedic factors of the show that you wouldn’t normally expect. You’re like, “Oh it’s just guys banging on stuff,” except it is anything but that.

What’s in store for the future of Recycled Percussion?
Still doing the Las Vegas show, I mean that’s a full time mission control situation. That’s the heart and soul of the brand, as we continue to build that, and we’ll see what comes next. That’s a good deal, having your own band and your own show in Las Vegas and between PR events, writing stuff in studio, doing private events and headlining every night, your schedule is really really full. It doesn’t get better than headlining in Las Vegas, it really doesn’t.

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No doubt, that’s awesome. Lastly, so many people are making music these days, what do you think the key to success is?
I do this speech every night on stage before my drum solo, I talk about when cassette tapes were around, that was the last time that marked when f*cking music was still music, not this computer-generated stuff, and once in a while a good band comes along and you go, “Oh yeah.” And it doesn’t come down to vocal processes; it didn’t come down to tricks or samples. It comes down to an artist, like, just being an artist and believing what they’re doing. When you’re doing that nowadays, it’s completely against the grain because everything is the opposite, everything is, we can all make an album with our Mac laptops in our bedrooms, right? So now you just got a few microphones, and buy a four-hundred dollar drum kit, and just make music. That ends up being something that is much more pure because it’s becoming, “Did you see this guy? Have you seen this band?” “Yeah, that’s what f*cking Zepplin sounds like. Wake up. That’s the real shit. That’s when music was music.”

So to me it’s not going, “Wow look at what this guy’s doing on YouTube.” It’s already been done. It’s about going, “I want to be an artist and make something on my own.” And usually that tends to get recognized. I think it’s better to try to be a trendsetter than to follow the trend, because trends are moving so fast, it’s almost impossible to keep up with them, so you might as well go for your own thing.

Just don’t over think the process. Just go for it and believe in it, and if you believe in it, you’ll keep going. Nothing guaranteed. If you told me 10 years ago we’d be doing a multimillion dollar deal in Las Vegas headlining, I would have laughed because I was playing drums for free lunches at cafeterias in high school. You have to believe in what you’re doing and stay the course. It takes time but you’ll be surprised how people abandon that course ahead of time when they have no idea what the future would have ended up like.

Photos
Courtesy of Gabe Ginsberg

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