“In a way, I’ve done what I expected to do,” says Spencer Barnitz, who’s better known as the frontman for Santa Barbara’s quintessential good-times band, Spencer the Gardener. As we interact and talk over lunch, I can’t help but notice a soulful, quixotic quality that’s woven through his direct manner, sharp insight, and hard-earned wisdom. I’m stunned to learn that he named his band after the main character in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There, for that book’s protagonist Chance the Gardener does remind me of Spencer.
“I had an ideal childhood, and then physically started falling apart,” he shares self-deprecatingly. He’s referring to the car crash that happened in 1991, right after his band had released two successful albums. The accident broke all of the bones in his face and took him out of commission for a year. “I have plates in my face,” says Spencer. Then 11 years ago, he had open-heart surgery to repair a mitral valve prolapse.
Spencer was born in Santa Barbara and raised on the Mesa. “I was the only Spencer growing up,” he explains. “Now there a lot of kids named Spencer.” He attended Santa Barbara High, where he really got into playing the guitar.
Right after school, he and his friend Brad Nack — “I’ve been friends with Brad since I was seven,” he explains — started a New Wave band called The Tan and moved to England. “I was really into Brit pop,” he says, but his musical upbringing was diverse. “I also grew up hearing mariachis and part of the California experience was listening to Mexican music.”
He came back from England in 1987 and formed The Wedding Band, a cover outfit that’s still active today. He also started landscaping in Montecito, and put that money into recording a record. “Spencer the Landscaper didn’t sound good,” he laughs, “so I went for Spencer the Gardener.” The original album was something Spencer thought he was going to pass out as Christmas presents. “It was supposed to be a giveaway,” he says, “but it took off.”
I point out that people think of Spencer the Gardener’s music as the prototypical Santa Barbara sound. “It’s funny to me,” he says humbly. “When we play everywhere else, people say we sound strange.” He describes their music as “a Latin Big Band Spy Movie set on a Moody Tropical Beach,” and also calls it “Surf Cumbia” and “Mariachi Indie Surf Pop.”
Spencer also made a very successful foray into children’s music with his Organic Gangster album, which he says was a dream come true. “The music business has changed,” he explains. “People used to buy music, and they don’t do that anymore. We used to sell our albums at our concerts. That part of your income is not around anymore. But kids still get in the car and put records on.” He’s recording Organic Gangster’s Volume 2 this month.
More than a decade, ago he wrote and performed the instant Thanksgiving classic “The Gobble Song,” which went viral on YouTube. I tell Spencer that, in my household, I have to sing and perform that catchy tune for my spouse every third Thursday in November. “It’s become a lot of people’s Thanksgiving tradition,” he says. “I wrote it thinking there were no Thanksgiving songs. ‘The Gobble Song’ is a side project that keeps giving back.”
As we’re saying goodbye, Spencer shares a touching moment of vulnerability and introspection. “Every year, I try to figure out how to keep going,” Spencer says, reflecting on his unique brand of moxie. “When you’re figuring it out all the time, it’s a tough road. The funny thing about the changes in your life is that, when you’re young, everything has to happen right away. As I get older, I don’t feel as much pressure about making something new.”
Spencer “The Gardener” Barnitz answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Where would you most like to live?
I like living in Santa Barbara and Mexico. It took awhile to feel settled here and I think, mainly, that’s because I’m from here — born and raised, Mesa yo!
But seriously, lots of us from here leave and can’t wait to get away. Eventually we come back to its warm embrace, saying, “What was I thinking?” and, “Thanks mom and dad, for making it here in the first place.” My mom used to say that she wished my friends and I were from somewhere else, so we could appreciate Santa Barbara for its own sake. Now we truly do. Then again , I wouldn’t mind living in California around 1964 .
What is your greatest fear?
Fear of heights, I guess. Or maybe being buried alive. Then again , the natural fall from relevance which constantly lurks in the background of all artistic pursuits is pretty scary too.
What is your current state of mind?
Calm , sunny, but with a storm a bit down the road. Personally , the storm usually comes as I start piecing together the next year (musically) and mapping out future projects. I usually enjoy a bit of thunder and lightning. The world , on the other hand — wait, let me get back on track here….
What talent would you most like?
To be able to sing. I know it is a little odd considering that is what I do, but if I could sing, I’d be unstoppable! A gigantic range would be nice .
What do you most like about your job?
I like the freedom of being my own boss as well as all the different places music can take you, both physically and mentally. Although sometimes I do think to myself, “My boss doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Surfing on a sunny day and salsa dancing that night. And being in the middle of a good book .
Who do you admire most?
An interesting question. When I was younger, I admired lots of different people for their talent and accomplishments. Now I admire anyone for just making it through the day with humility, patience, and optimism .
What is your greatest extravagance?
I suppose I live fairly simply and music often pays for travel, which probably would be the greatest extravagance. Getting whatever I want without wanting too much is just kinda lucky I guess.
What quality do you like in people?
I tend to like lots of the qualities we all like: sense of humor, kindness, optimism, passion. But I also like a touch of eccentricity with a fondness for the future. I like to look ahead rather than get mired in the past.
What quality do you dislike in people?
I’m not crazy about flaky, false, and pretentious types. Even though we can all be that way at times. Human nature really circles the whole range. “We have seen the enemy and it is us.”
What qualities do you value in your friends?
All of the above — even the bad qualities sometimes. Add in compassion and understanding and the ability to follow through. Sense of humor tops the list though.
Which words or phrases do you overuse?
The word fun, and the word actually. Especially together. “Actually, it was fun.”
What would you change about yourself?
I would like to be less sarcastic. Sarcasm can get kinda tedious when you overdo it, which I do sometimes, so much so that I get tired of it. Oh, and I’d like a falsetto but I guess that’s two things.
What is your greatest achievement?
Managing to eke out a living in music while keeping various projects together. Spencer the Gardener has been around for 8 records and 25-plus years now. The Wedding Band has over 30 years. And I have about five other things that have been going for awhile as well .
What is your most treasured possession?
That would undoubtedly be my health and the health of all those around me.
Who makes you laugh?
Truly all of my friends make me laugh in some way or another and the world in general. It’s like one great, big, brilliant novel that is always changing, sad and beautiful and funny. I realize that is a little broad, but it’s nice to find laughter in a wide variety.
What is your motto?
“Live and let live,” which I think I inherited from my mother, Mercedes.
Which historical figure do you identify with?
I kinda relate to Oliver Twist and maybe Sea Biscuit, the horse that kept coming back. Although I am still waiting for my biggest victory. Hoping , but in an older, more mature and patient way — no hurry.
When do you lie?
Whenever it saves someone from being hurt, or maybe to get out of a conversation. Then again, the world now has very much changed and it is hard to figure out the truth . And come to think of it, promotion has almost always been a lie or some kind of hype. The art of enhancing. Now I’m just starting to ramble….