Interview: DJ Le Spam (of The Spam Allstars)

You might have heard of the Spam Allstars if you frequent music festivals. You might have heard of them if you like to dance at bars. You might have heard of them if you’re into jazz. Really, you might have heard of them if you like a primo jam blend of jazzy Latin beats and funkadelic synths.

The Spam Allstars have been delivering a unique neo-tropical funk sound for over ten years, taking their hip-spiking show to the four corners of the world and back. All the while, the colorful ten-piece ensemble has maintained residency at Hoy Como Ayer, a revered salsa club located in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.

Rolling Stone mentioned them as “Afro-Cuban progressives” when they collaborated on Vida Blue’s The Illustrated Band, side project of Phish’s Page McConnell. Spam Allstars are complete with full brass, woodwinds, and killer percussion sections; and they pull off a new sort of experimental Latin funk, breeding in their albums an unprecedented Miami sound. Not only do they conjugate Latin vibes, old school funk, and jazzy breakdowns; they also concoct a sweet mix of electronic hip-hop dub beats. That mouthful right there is what they like to call an “electronic descarga”, meaning discharge, and I couldn’t think of a better word for it.

Their ability to sail through a variety of smooth waves of funk and jazz, ranging from the soothing percussive to the wail-out dance ball, is by far their greatest attribute. On their 2000 release, Pigs In Space, they open up the jam with a soft percussion piece allusive to Sound Tribe Sector 9. Then, in 2007’s Electrodomesticos, the ‘70s-‘80s warped funk carries a Latin kick via timbales, trombone, and sax. In those seven years, they covered everything in between.

They’ve collaborated with an extensive number of artists from different genres, including John Medeski of Medeski, Martin, and Wood fame, members of Phish, the Fania Allstars, and Daddy Yankee, among others. At their shows, the predominant demographic is… none, because music lovers from all posses and places can join in front of the Allstars’ stage as one solid crowd.

DJ Le Spam, the mastermind, has stated that the dominating influences are old-school Latin players of the Caribbean, and he likes to convey a 1970s style of funk that seriously paints the colors of disco on a dance floor. Overall, the Spam Allstars are a jazzy, sometimes-lounge band that can transcend listeners to a state of flowing malleability. Make sense of that? They’ve got that effect on people.

A few minutes before he and his band took off to Tampa to play Ybor City’s Crowbar, DJ Le Spam aka Andrew Yeomanson took a few minutes to talk with CoS.

How long have you been making music together as the Spam Allstars?

I guess the name has been in existence since around 1994 but the current lineup and way of doing things, with beats and all that, I would say since about 2000, maybe.

Where does the name come from?

When I first started the group it was like a little recording project that I started. I made a song in a little studio I used to go to. Every week I’d go to record ideas, and I made a little Cuban rumba, but over the top of it – I had found this record in the thrift store, that had a commercial for spam, and it was just a really hilarious bad commercial. I was just goofing around, so I took parts of the commercial and I cut it up and I layered it over the music that I made. You know it was just this funny tune that I made just like, for my friends. And then I just started calling the project that, you know.

In as few words as possible, tell me what your band sounds like.

Well, I call it almost electronic Latin jazz, or electronic funk. You know, somewhere in there.

How did you find this sound?

I was working with another band of guitarists in the 90s. That all ended around 1998 or so, and then I was living in Miami again after being three years out on the road. Well, I’ve always been a record collector. And I was really into sampling, there were samplers that you could get and sample stuff. So around 1998 – 1999, I bought a real cheap sampler and I started making beats, and I started making beats like crazy. All those first, like, 4 years I was really into sampling my records and going in there and so that was kind of like where we started to form the kinda stuff that we do now. And it’s been a progression, you know. At some point there, I tried to get away from the idea of always having to sample something from a record cause, there’s some music that we released that people wanted to use for other purposes and I couldn’t license it because there were all these samples in there that I never cleared. So I started thinking well how about if I just start playing the sounds myself and sampling those, and so that kind of was part of the evolution, I guess.

You grew up in all sorts of different places. What is your background?

Yeah, my dad’s English and my mom was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. They met in South America, got married there, then moved to Canada. Me and my brother and sister were born in Canada, and then we lived in England, we lived in Colombia, and Florida. But I’ve been in Miami close to 19 years now. So I guess Miami probably had the biggest impact on my growth. […] Every time we moved we’d experience sort of this new culture, even coming from England to the States was a shock. You don’t realize it but it’s just a whole other way of doing things and, I don’t know, all the little small things that you take for granted. As far as the Latin culture and stuff, I really wasn’t interested in Latin music as a kid. I had records that were my grandmother’s that I discovered later on. Stuff like Benny Moré and Perez Prado, mambos, she had a lot of like, Venezuelan folk music, tangos. But that was something I had to discover on my own, I guess. It was something that, although it was around, I just kind of wasn’t too into it, till later on.

How many CDs do you have under your belt?

We’ve recorded 5, and then we’ve licensed music for a sick CD last year that was released on the World Music Network. So there’s a total of six titles out there, but only 5 albums of original stuff.

You’re constantly playing shows and having events all over the place. Would you say you’re satisfied with your success?

I’m very satisfied with what we’ve accomplished up to now. There are some things that frustrate me about the music business in general, you know. The touring, I kind of feel like I need to hang back from for a while. We’ve had four years of playing anywhere we could and going all over the place and we spent a lot of money doing it, and a lot of energy. Right now I’ve reverted back to a phase where I wanna, you know, be working on things here in the studio. [Being] here in the studio working on new music I guess is what you would call the most satisfying thing for me right now. Just accomplishing something new and getting a new record out there, that’s what gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment.

You’ve played Langerado before. Are festivals like this something that you like to do often?

Well yeah, we’ve played every Langerado from the beginning. The first Langerado, whatever year that was, I DJ’d only. From the second one on, the band played every year. Those types of situations are great; Langerado was kind of in our backyard so that was a little bit different. Probably the best festival we’ve ever done would be the Montreal Jazz Festival. We played there in ’07 and this year as well. Those are great because you get the chance to go out and show yourself in front of a completely new audience, so that would be your best opportunity to bring in some new people. Langerado was great because we just got to show our stuff in our own backyard and be sort of on [a nicer] production level. Things like the Jazz Festival and some others, those are the types of things where I don’t mind losing a little money to make it happen. I think they’re worthwhile, but some of the club stuff gets a little weary.

What other festivals outside of Miami have you done?

Let’s see… in 2005 we played the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, which is one of the biggest festivals in Europe. That was incredible. We did a couple other events in Europe at that time, and those were great. We played uh… what’s the one out there in Kansas? All these festivals and their stupid names, I can’t remember them all. We did Bonnaroo with Vida Blue before. What’s the—Wakarusa! That’s the one in Kansas. We did High Sierra Festival in northern California; that was real good too.

Have you heard anything about Langerado 2010, or in the future?

I’d be surprised if we ever have another Langerado down here in Florida. I think the production team is split up, so as far as I know, that’s it. Unless somebody buys the name, I don’t imagine it’s gonna happen again but you gotta ask those guys. As far as how things ended up, I don’t think we’re gonna see another one. It’s sad that it worked out like that. It was sad for us because this year, we actually had a wicked slot. So we were kinda like gearing up; we had something like Saturday night, 10pm, on the big stage… we were all excited about it, and then they pulled the plug.

What are some upcoming projects we can expect to see from the Spam Allstars soon?

We’re working on our next album. We have some nice shows coming up here locally, for the end of the year. Arts in the Park and Sleepless Nights on Miami Beach are some of the better shows coming up. And I’m in the final stages of finishing an album of Cuban rumba, recorded here at our studio, which is just pure percussion and vocal. Very traditional stuff. When we play at Hoy Como Ayer, that’s usually how we start our set: with just the drums and the voice, and then the rest of the band will come in and all the electronic stuff afterwards. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a project like this for a few years now and I’ve got two songs left to make. We’ve got the artwork already, and I’m trying to put that out there before the end of the year. That’s gonna be the first album, and then we have to put out our next Spam record, whatever that’s gonna be. We’ve got probably five or six tunes in the works right now, but we’ve got a lot or recording to do. Then I’ve been recording an album of 1974-style analog old-school funk. It’s all the guys in the band, but it’s uh, kind of retro. That one’s coming together quite nicely as well.

How would you describe your relationship with the band?

Well, we’re like a family. We’ve been doing this together so long, and you know, and as families go, we can get on each other’s nerves and, you know, have issues with each other sometimes. But generally we work it out. You gotta keep a certain level of respect, and I think there’s always moments where people will push on each other. [That happens] in any kind of work situation, whether it’s a band, whether it’s an office. I think when you work in an office, you got rules, but when you’re in a band, it’s much more loose and there’s a lot more crazy stuff can go on. But nonetheless, you still have to maintain a level of respect for each other. The fact that we admire each other musically, I think that helps.

What about your relationship with your fans?

We have some amazing people that have followed this band over the years, and it’s humbling. Right now, it’s different—all this technology that we have at our fingertips now didn’t exist when I started this band. Even in 1998, when we put out our first CD, we didn’t have a website, it was very difficult to connect in a tangible way with your audience and get that sort of direct feedback on a daily basis. But now, everybody’s used to that. You post a song and then you got people telling you about it within an hour. That didn’t really use to exist ten years ago. Things are moving so quickly, now we sort of have this sort of direct communication with people that are into the band. We’re gonna go play a venue, people are asking about this, that, the other, requesting [about a musician] going, whether we’re gonna play a certreat pull. One of the things that has allowed us to survive so long and grow, is that it’s a word-of-mouth thing, you know? We don’t have advertising budgets, and we don’t have a lot of money to spend on PR so, part of what’s driven this project along all these years is that people are sharing the music with their friends and bringing their friends to shows, and things like that.

Where do hope to be with the band in about five to 10 years?

Hopefully still working and making music. Right now, like I said, my main, obsession would be recording and producing music here in the studio. I really hope to have at least three more albums under our belt. Unfortunately it’s taken me three years between albums, for the last two albums. I’d like to kind of make that a little bit of a shorter gap. And, you know, if we’re working I’ll be happy. It’s a very unstable career to have. You could point at guys that have been way more successful than we’ve been and see how their careers have totally dissipated. And I think of musicians that I idolize, and they had to go through the same struggle. So I don’t know what the future’s gonna hold for us, but I hope that in five, ten years’ time we’ll still be making music, we’ll still be performing. I’d like to get back on my guitar a little bit, so I don’t know if that would be in this band or within the context of another type of project, but I’d like to get back on my instrument a little more. And, more than that, I can’t say. All I try to do is just make the best decisions I can, business-wise and as long as we’re making, creating… you just don’t know. You record a song, and you don’t know where it’s gonna end up. That’s what’s amazing about recording music.


Follow Consequence