Jeremy Spencer, once known as the shaggy-haired slide guitarist in the original lineup of Fleetwood Mac, has returned with a new album that boldly expands his musical reach.
Yet, the new Bend in the Road still illustrates his debt to Elmore James, and even — during his fiery exchanges with youthful collaborator Brett Lucas — recalls his memorable musical tangles with Peter Green. Their edition of Fleetwood Mac, from 1967-71, produced four well-regarded albums — including the band’s 1968 self-titled debut; Mr. Wonderful and Then Play On from 1968-69; and Kiln House in 1970. By then, Green was gone and Christine McVie had begun recording with Fleetwood Mac, signalling the coming shift in the group’s focus from the brawny blues of its early years toward a brand of smooth California pop that would sell millions in the coming decade.
Spencer would abruptly exit a year later, after issuing his own self-titled debut, but would spend much of the following years — with the notable exception of the troubled big-label offering Flee in 1979 — following religious pursuits, rather than recording. Since 2006, however, Spencer has made a triumphal return to the studio, issuing Precious Little and now Bend in the Road.
Spencer, in the newest SER Sitdown, says another album project is already in the works: “Besides sporadic gigs over the next few months, there are no concrete touring plans, but I am very excited about a recording venture coming up with a team of young French musicians that I recently worked with,” Spencer says. “It’s a chance to explore some fresh ideas.”
Spencer also talked with us about his stirring new album, the early years with Fleetwood Mac, his abiding passion for James’ gritty slide work — and a newer interest, art …
NICK DERISO: Bend in the Road explores an amazing sweep of musical styles, considering most people associate you solely with the 1960s British blues explosion and perhaps its most storied band, Fleetwood Mac. Do you find that variety liberating nowadays?
JEREMY SPENCER: Absolutely, Nick, and — except for the obvious rollicking rock ’n’ rollers — blues is still at the root of my best musical output, and I want it always to be present in its heart and emotion even if the manifestations or fruits appear different in style or genre.
NICK DERISO: Brett Lucas, the young Detroit guitarist who also co-produced your new project, seems to be playing the role Peter Green once did for you — that of musical foil. How did you meet?
JEREMY SPENCER: I heard about Brett through a slide-guitar aficionado friend from Detroit, Mark Grigorian. He sent me a live video clip of Brett playing a slow, sensitive blues solo, I was impressed, and at the beginning of 2010, we met and endeavored to realize a recording venture together.
NICK DERISO: What convinced you he would mesh with your sound?
JEREMY SPENCER: After meeting him and sharing our musical sensibilities, I knew it would work.
NICK DERISO: Elmore James has been a lasting influence for you. Can you take us back to your first experience with his music?
JEREMY SPENCER: After a friend of mine named Acker rescued me from a cruel student prank at art college one evening in ’64, he invited me for dinner and put on a blues album while we ate. It was a British Pye records compilation from Chess called The Blues, Vol. 3. It had Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon, etc. — good stuff, but it wasn’t grabbing my ear while we chatted, as I was preoccupied and down about the incident earlier. Suddenly “The Sun is Shining” by Elmore came on. I jumped up and stood mesmerized at the record player. I had never heard of him before and I couldn’t believe my ears. From that point on, I was determined to play and if possible sing like that. Problem was, that was the only available song of his in England at the time until Sue records issued an album called The Best of Elmore James, which I obtained at the time of my fractured leg accident about nine months later. I think what got me was Elmore’s singing and the answering of his slide like one voice — the perfect vocal call and guitar response. It sounded so anguished and powerful. When it comes to blues, I have always preferred these two elements to be combined in one artist — even if there has to be some compromise of skill in either one or both areas. I never went too much for supergroups, blues or otherwise!
NICK DERISO: What happened next? Did you lock yourself in a woodshed, trying to learn his licks?
JEREMY SPENCER: After art college, I took a job as a clerk in an accountant’s office and during that time, a fractured leg accident providentially laid me up from work for six weeks. A long-awaited copy of The Best of Elmore James arrived on the very first day back from the hospital, and so, with my electrified Futurama acoustic guitar on my lap and my leg up on a poof, I devoted that six weeks to learning every lick and nuance of that album! As a point of interest, I took that job as a clerk because in order to buy a guitar on time, it paid more than my preferred choice, which was taking on an apprenticeship in bookbinding.
NICK DERISO: A classic moment for blues lovers from the early days of Fleetwood Mac is your interpretation of James’ “Dust My Broom,” on 1968’s Mr. Wonderful. James compositions appeared on your newest project, too. Are you happy to have shared his legacy with future generations?
JEREMY SPENCER: Yes, I am, although I wish I hadn’t worn down that poor old ‘Broom’ riff on that album. To this day, I cannot understand why I didn’t take advantage of such a wonderful opportunity to record other blues stuff — a Blind Willie McTell, Homesick James or Son House number, for instance. Anyway, it’s water under the bridge, and I am looking forward to recording lots more in my remaining years, God permitting.
NICK DERISO: The sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 release Then Play On also included your hilarious takes on doo-wop, acid rock and country blues. Where did you get that unique sense of humor?
JEREMY SPENCER: I was born with it!
NICK DERISO: So, it was part of your family life?
JEREMY SPENCER: Yes. I have always been a bit of a clown and I would do imitations of my teachers, TV personalities and actors for my family.
NICK DERISO: You were known back then as an expert mimic, too, doing Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and John Mayall on stage. Your first solo album also included some similarly engaging impersonations. Do you still indulge in that kind of thing?
JEREMY SPENCER: To an extent, although not quite so acerbic! I don’t want to be unkind to people and I am not especially proud of some of those bygone impersonations. Like I have said on occasion, I found that some of my good impressions left bad ones.
NICK DERISO: Stories, long since debunked, circulated that you had been kidnapped while on tour with Fleetwood Mac in the early 1970s, and were then forced into a cult. Decades later, you’re still a member of the religious group Family International, right?
JEREMY SPENCER: Right.
NICK DERISO: Do those old rumors bother you?
JEREMY SPENCER: Not anymore. A funny thing is, though, I wonder if some people still believe those stories! At a recent gig in France, an older British fellow — a vintage Fleetwood Mac fan — approached me and thought I had joined Jim Jones’ suicide cult! Maybe he thought he was seeing a ghost.
NICK DERISO: Even back then, you had a much quieter persona off stage, which in retrospect probably makes your eventual turn toward a religious calling more understandable. Do you regret the way things ended with Fleetwood Mac?
JEREMY SPENCER: I regret having left them in the manner I did. But regarding my decision to leave, I would like to present this quote from Steve Jobs, taken from his excellent recent biography written by Walter Isaacson: “If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.” This quote rings so true for me! All that to say, even though I remain true to my blues roots, I enjoy and need to keep moving forward musically, and I hope and believe, by the grace of God, that I have re-emerged a lot differently!
NICK DERISO: “Refugees” from the new project was a reworked version of the title track from 1979’s Flee. It brought me back to that album’s hit single “Cool Breeze,” one of only a handful of songs that weren’t ruined by overthinking from label management. Were the struggles associated with that process part of the reason you stopped recording until a few years ago?
JEREMY SPENCER: Yes, it was when it came to recording for a big commercial label, but I never gave up playing music, and I did a lot of recording in those intermediary years starting with an international radio program.
NICK DERISO: I’ve noticed that you’ve altered your approach on the guitar since the early days. Gone now is the plectrum. Instead, you’re playing finger style – very much like Albert King. Why the change?
JEREMY SPENCER: I dropped using a plectrum — a Fender heavy — in the mid-1990s after exchanging my Les Paul SG of 25 years for a PRS. Because it had a 24-inch scale thin neck and the frets were closer together, I found I could play more accurately by picking with my fingers while deadening the strings I don’t want and eliminating unwanted harmonics. I’d always liked Albert King and Albert Collins and later, Mark Knopfler, because they didn’t use a plectrum. I don’t know why, but all those years I didn’t feel I could do it! But I took the plunge, and a new vista opened up for slide. It helped me to improve my phrasing, to wheeze notes when necessary and vary the tone of each note by how I plucked the string or slapped it with my thumb! No two notes sound the same. Consequently, my passion for playing slide guitar skyrocketed to the point that, except for creation and chording, I rarely pick up a guitar to play finger-style licks.
NICK DERISO: You’ve also developed a passion for painting and for drawing. Did you find that art helped fill a creative need for you during what turned out to be a lengthy time away?
JEREMY SPENCER: Actually, my gift for art showed up before my musical one — when I was about 3 years old! I wanted to have a career in art, but by mid-teens, even though I attended art college for a while once I left grammar school, my interest in music had taken over. Nevertheless, it’s true that art has satisfied a creative need over the last 40 years or so, and I have engaged in much illustration work, some of which can be seen on my website, where I pay tribute to blues musicians and influences and recount stories of my interaction with them. I have majored on creating black and white comic strips using brush and ink in the style of Will Eisner and Terry and Rachel Dodson. She is an amazing inker. I also like to work in pastels, colored pencils, watercolor, and Alkyd — a substitute for oil or acrylic. I enjoy doing portraits too, and on my website portraits of musicians, I used graphite pencils and sepia tones. During that lengthy time away from the music business however, like I said, I was never away from music. I was always getting, developing and, whenever possible, recording new ideas.