By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Today the DJ and I are supposed to discuss Contra Los Roboticos Mutantes, the new album by the Spam Allstars. Instead our interview expands into a long, occasionally intense conversation about his ten-year journey from session musician to the most important independent artist in the city.
It is a story obscured by his vivid personality. Around town he is known as a funky, fun-loving free spirit, the personification of our bohemian, multiculti Magic City, and someone who fascinates everyone he meets. Then there's his charmingly eccentric dress code -- today he's wearing orange slacks and a green T-shirt. Such details tend to obscure how opinionated he is, a voluminous talker who spouts all kinds of ideas, damn the consequences.
Many wonder why the Spam Allstars aren't better known outside the area. True, the group has built a following in New York through its monthly residency at S.O.B.'s, earning brief mentions in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and other important Big Apple publications. Locally it has two weekly residencies, at Jazid on Wednesdays and I/O on Thursdays, which regularly draw large, enthusiastic audiences. Yet somehow, the group remains Miami's best-kept secret.
When you're at the City of Progress, it's impossible not to talk about records. After all, they surround you. There are two massive bookshelves Spam built himself that are filled with funk, jazz, salsa, and hip-hop albums. There are a considerable number of records lying on the floor, too. There are records crammed into boxes, scattered throughout every room (including the kitchen), and stuffed into recycling bins on the patio.
It was in one of the house's two bedrooms where Spam mixed down Contra, a ten-song set of elongated Afro-Cuban funk (and, surprisingly, one enigmatic electro jam), with help from rapper/producer Seth "Brimstone 127" Schere and Frank Socorro. There is a noticeable improvement in the sound quality from the Allstars' last release, Fuácata Live!, and the songs, most of which are instrumental, have better structure.
In the past year and a half, the Spam Allstars has grown into a collective of musicians anchored by Spam: percussionist Tomas Diaz; batá player Lazaro Alfonso; guitarist Adam Zimmon; flautist Mercedes Abal; and horn players Steve Welsh, AJ Hill, and John Speck. The name alludes to the fact that nearly everyone who plays with the band is an in-demand session musician -- for example, Diaz played with Shakira during her last international tour. Spam's masterly direction of them all, much like George Clinton's with P-Funk; his ability to lead them through several genres, creating one boiling hot, funky stew; and even his predilection for alphabetizing a massive chunk of his record collection, which numbers into the tens of thousands, show that, at heart, he is a music fan, one who can chart his life according to his obsession.
When Spam's family moved from his native Montreal to London for a spell during his teens, he collected new metal albums by Slayer and Metallica, then Jamaican dub and reggae. After he returned to Canada to attend the University of Toronto, he convinced himself to drop out and become a professional guitarist. Once he arrived in Miami in 1990, he didn't get acclimated to the area until he found Yardbird Records on Bird Road (which has since closed) and a few other vinyl shops.
Spam formed the Spam Allstars in 1994 because he wanted to replicate the rare groove vibe he had heard on countless funk 45s. The group had a rocky start. During the mid-Nineties, Spam himself toured with Haitian band Lavalas, Nil Lara, and other stars. "When the Nil thing started, I abandoned the [original] lineup," he says. "Between '95 and '98 we didn't play a lot of shows because we were always out. When I wasn't touring anymore, I decided to do Spam Allstars again. That's when we recorded our first album, Pork Scratchings."
As the music became more loop-based, with Diaz and Zimmon riffing off various sonic elements Spam played on turntables and samplers, he abandoned the guitar in order to become the band's turntablist/ conductor. "I loved [Zimmon's] approach, so I was very comfortable with letting him handle that," he says. "I could put my attention towards mixing the instruments, fucking with the turntables, and mixing the beats."
Through various gigs at long-gone clubs such as Lola and Cheers and a second album, 2000's Pigs in Space, the Spam Allstars honed its improvisational formula. Its music turned on Afro-Cuban arrangements usually sparked by the band members' riffs and hooks -- or, in Spam's case, a cheeky sample interpolated via the turntables -- coalescing into long workouts perfect for dancing yet faithful to the many genres and traditions used to create them.
The group peaked in popularity during Fuácata, its Thursday-night residency at Hoy Como Ayer. "The Eighth Street gig, that was when we got all this hype," says Spam. With encouragement from the club's owners, he expanded the trio into a sprawling symphony of percussionists, horn players, vocalists, and whoever else happened to drop by. While the band partied onstage, the club would fill to capacity every week, turning the concerts into steamy, near-ritualistic experiences fueled by salsa, cumbia, Miami bass, hip-hop, mojitos, water, and sweat.
In 2002 Spam recorded several concerts, picked out the best performances, and put the results onto a self-released CD, Fuácata Live! It was nominated for a 2003 Latin Grammy for best pop instrumental recording. He worried, though, that Fuácata was in danger of becoming a hoary, tradition-bound institution. "So many good things came out of that gig. It was where a lot of people first heard about us," he says. "But we ran it for two years straight. It became one of those things, like, well, what are we going to do here? Is it going to become less and less? Is it just going to peter off? Or is it going to become a parody of itself after a while?"
Then suddenly the residency ended from a "snap decision," the result of a disastrous second-anniversary performance. Spam was bedeviled by problems all night -- from Hoy Como Ayer employees messing around with his carefully arranged sound equipment to the trouble his brother and sister encountered when they tried to enter the packed nightclub. The breaking point came when he got into a shouting match with a bouncer who tried to throw his sister out after the band's first set. "I never lose my temper, man, I really don't. It takes a lot. But I just blew it," he says, adding that he's still friends with the club's owners.
"I just left that night feeling so upset about everything," he continues. "I/O was about to open, I had spoken to [I/O manager] Aramis Lorie that same week, and I had seen the space. I said, 'Fuck it. I don't want to be leaving a gig feeling like this.'"
In the past year Spam has had to contend with gossip that he is about to sign with a major and take his sound to mainstream America, a result of the adulation his fans have for him: He's so good, they say, that he should be a superstar on a big record label.
Spam says the rumors are mostly unfounded. "At [Hoy Como Ayer] there'd always be people coming at you with scenarios," he says of the shady record executives who often approached him with contract offers. "You'd have some random guy with liquor on his breath, up in your face, talking shit, and it's nothing that you'd really want to be a part of. In terms of the labels that are here in Miami, most of them are asshole labels. Why would you want to fuck with them?"
For now Spam plans to release Contra Los Roboticos Mutantes on his own Spamusica label, selling it at shows and on his Website, www.spamallstars.com. He does admit, however, that he has developed a casual relationship with Sony Latin over the past several months. "If we do anything, they'll release the album outside the states in South America," he says. That doesn't mean, he clarifies, that the group will be signing with the corporation anytime soon.
In addition there are the jam sessions Spam Allstars held with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell's side project, Vida Blue, in spring 2003; they resulted in Vida Blue's The Illustrated Band. The groups toured together in the fall, which finally took the Allstars to previously unexplored regions around the country. But Spam is wary of the nuts-and-berries jam sound that Phish is associated with, even though the multiple self-sufficient bands in that scene offer lessons on how to sell CDs independently and with no media exposure.
"I'd like to keep it building the way it's been building," he says. "Each record we've done has done a little bit better than the last one. If we can maintain that, then I'll be happy." Those eagerly hoping for the Spam Allstars to blow up will just have to wait.