Below, you can read our interview with Allan Spencer of The Allan Spencer Mallet Choir, and listen to their album Saturday Morning Coffee. Check out our full music review of Saturday Morning Coffee, HERE.
Q: Great to be speaking with you, Allan! You’re from central California. Did spending your youth in an area known for a rich musical culture influence the musician you’ve become?
A: Well, I started at such a young age so I don’t really remember what kind of influences were around me. I’ve spent most of my life playing music and never really gave it much thought. My main genre influences at a young age that I can remember were classical, oldies rock and roll, jazz, gospel, and a small dash of west coast hip hop. Most of my friends growing up were also musicians and we spent many days rocking out in garage bands or traveling around with school orchestras/marching bands. So, to answer your question…yes, I suppose it did influence the musician I became.
Q: What is the origin story of the Allan Spencer Mallet Choir?
A: The group actually kind of formed by mistake. The Allan Spencer Mallet Choir are players who all met in college (CA state university Fresno) where we played together in the music dept. This group started out as kind of a guinea pig project, where my friends (Michael and Sara) would help me play through the tunes that I arranged in my composition/arranging class (the pieces heard on this album). We would set up the marimbas outside in the foyer and practice through them to see if there were any errors in the notation and such. What we discovered was that after 20 minutes of playing we would usually be surrounded by onlookers who were walking back and forth to their classes and stopped to listen to us. It basically became kind of an impromptu daily concert. After a few weeks, we had hundreds of fans…people who would even skip classes just to come watch us practice. After a while, we said to ourselves, “Hey! People are really getting a kick out of this! I guess we should start an official ensemble.” That’s how the group was born.
Q: You’ve been a musician since the age of 5 and have picked up quite a few instruments along the way. How did you progress from a young violinist to a marimbist?
A: I seem to have been blessed with a natural understanding of how music works. I started violin at a young age and my teacher was always pleased with the fact that she didn’t have to explain the subdivision of beat, or how scales worked, or how arpeggios are formed, playing in time, etc. I just seemed to understand it all intuitively…even if I didn’t know what it was called. There was a piano in our home too. So I’m sure my family wasn’t surprised that I put all the puzzle pieces together shortly after starting violin and started noodling around on the piano as well. As you know, the main advantage of the piano is that all the notes are lined up nicely for you, just waiting to be played. Since my young mind only understood treble clef, I didn’t know what the bass clef was. But I assumed that it worked the same way as the treble clef (and when someone told me that the bottom space was “A” instead of “F,” I was a little annoyed but eventually said, “Ok,” and followed the same logic as the treble clef and Ta-da…I started playing piano). This happened around age 6 or 7. And as they say, once you start on piano, everything else falls into place pretty easily.
In elementary and middle school, I was involved in orchestras and would play bass or guitar in garage bands with friends. Since my division of beat and rhythm understanding was pretty strong, I joined drumline in High school with little problem and also played in the pit. I didn’t know what a marimba was but I was at the time, of course, one of the VERY FEW drummers who could read piano notes. So, I was perpetually “volunteered” to play mallet percussion. And that’s how my mallet career started. By the time college rolled around, I was basically playing whatever anyone told me to play. I can play most horns at a semi-decent level, but my main focus in college was percussion and piano. After college, I picked up a few little odds and ends here like upright bass and banjo, but spent most of my newfound efforts on ukulele. I have several videos and musical projects that involve extensive work on the ukulele now today available on youtube and other platforms.
Q: You have both solo and group works in your discography. Do you prefer the freedom that comes with a solo project or the collaboration of a multi-musician effort?
A: That is a tough question to answer, but if I had to give a Short answer it would be the former. Not that I don’t love collaborating and all. But dealing with schedules and budgets and all of the other matters that come with collaborative projects, I would say that the solo projects are less stressful.
Q: How long did “Saturday Morning Coffee” take to record?
A: 2 days laying track in studio, and about 2-3 full days mixing and mastering.
Q: “Saturday Morning Coffee” features classical music, and your previous release “A Merry Mallet Christmas” features holiday tunes. Are there any other genres of music you’ve considered exploring on the marimba?
A: My solo album “The Master and the Apprentice” branches out a little bit. It tinkers around with a little bit of Latin-style pop, jazz/fusion, easy listening pop, mild avant-garde, reggae-ish flavors.
Q: The Spencer Allen Mallet Choir consists of yourself, Michael Downing, and Sara Basiletti. What is the arranging and recording process like working with three percussionists as opposed to a more traditional band or orchestral lineup?
A: Well, I don’t know if I really see much difference in the recording process between a large or small group. I would say the main element that makes the difference in studio is the quality of musician. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with team members that are highly professional, well-rounded musicians. I send them the music a few weeks before we’re scheduled to record, we rehearse 2-3 times together, and BAM!…when it’s time to lay down tracks, we’re always producing high-quality material. If you find high-quality musicians that are always prepared and stylistically sensitive to the spirit of the music, you really can’t go wrong. I suppose I would say that the main difference between this small group and a large orchestra is that the setting is much more intimate and casual with a small group. With a large orchestra, there’s not much room for letting your hair down or talking to each other over cups of coffee. There’s just too many people in the room. With this small setting, we’ve forged a nice relationship and friendship beyond just the professional duties.
Q: Perhaps in some unspecified amount of time, your musical career explodes in the best of ways. What does that look like for you?
A: Well shamefully I must admit, I haven’t thought that far ahead. Perhaps going on another tour. Perhaps another album. This group started kind of by mistake and even though we’ve been playing for many years, I kept my focus narrowly on arranging the music, cutting albums, trying to get them available on platforms like iTunes and such, and then I feel overwhelmed at all the work that goes into managing a music career. So then I pretty much sit back and relax. It would be nice if we ever had our music played on the radio like NPR or something like that. But at this point, I’m just putting it in God’s hands. My long term dream has always been to have some kind of private music academy of my own, where students can come to learn in a facility that offers courses in just about everything under the sun (drum set, orchestral percussion, piano, jazz bands, drumline, ukulele, audio/video engineering, composition, theory, etc)
Q: You get to collaborate with anyone of your choosing. Who is it?
A: Probably Bela Fleck or Vic Wooten
Q: Your favorite album of all time? (Yup, you gotta choose one.)
A: Guilty pleasure…Green Day – Dookie
Q: Your favorite song of all time? (Again, only one!)
A: Long Black Veil
Q: What would you like fans to know about you that they’re most likely unaware of?
A: Other hobbies/projects in which I accel: Archery, Martial Arts, Mathematics, Law, Dance
Q: Any shout-outs you wanna make?
A: Mom and Dad; Suki (my wife); Aria, Noah, and Elijah (my kids); Dr. Matt Darling, Dr. Gary Gilroy, Dr. Michael Caldwell (my teachers); Luke Waters (my pastor); God
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Audio and sheet music available for sale at www.allanspencermusic.com
(Want to be interviewed by The Ark of Music? Click HERE.)