Spence Koehler

You can thank Steve Martin for Spence Koehler’s new solo record...kinda.

“I dunno if it’s like...having the space to think about it and let song ideas trickle in, but I started having a little handful of songs that kept creeping in and...they would often come [while] I had, like, been having a dream,” he says. In the weirdest one, legendary comedian (and Grammy-winning banjo player) Steve Martin was singing to him. “At some point, I got, like, lucid enough that I realized, ‘Oh! This is not a song yet, and here he is singing me this thing,’” so I jumped up and wrote it down.”

The song Steve serenaded Spence with was “Angels,” the opening track on Spence Koehler’s new album — his first as a solo performer.

Normally, Spence makes up one half of the main songwriting team behind the Stone Foxes, a long-running San Francisco rock and roll band led by his brother Shannon Koehler. Considering how long he's spent with them, Country and Western naturally sounds a little bit like the Stone Foxes, but feels a lot more like Spence.

As a permanent member of the band, he often contributed blazing versions of old, old blues classics like “King Bee” and “Little Red Rooster” to performances. He stepped back from his Foxes duties in 2015 to focus on his other area of interest — landscape design — now only contributing the guitar end of songwriting with his brother and joining them for local dates. But in between those times, he was left without much to do. Even though Shannon was usually the driving force behind songwriting endeavors, song ideas were starting to swim in Spence’s head for the first time. "I guess in that time it kind of let my brain expand and explore a little bit musically," he says, and pretty soon he had an album's worth of material. So he compiled those songs into Country and Western, which sinks deep into his love of classic country.

Which is funny, cause there was a time when he definitely did not like country. As a kid growing up in a rural area of the San Joaquin Valley, his bus ride to school was long and the driver was always pumping the local country station. “And that was in the '90s, so we were hearing, like, 'Achy Breaky Heart' and Garth Brooks,” he says.

But it may have planted a seed — or maybe it was growing up in a part of California where his neighbors were actual cowboys and cowgirls. “The families that we grew up with, plenty of them raised cattle or rode horses or that sort of thing,” he says. It also started, as it does for so many musicians, with classic rock. As he became interested in guitar in his youth, he looked to greats like Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. He followed the thread of those bands' bluesy origins to the adjacent historical genre — country &mdash and then back to their contemporaries like Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. If anything, the bus rides of his youth helped him understand what he didn’t like. “Maybe like...‘Well, I don't love this country, but [I do like] this older country that is, like, the root of where rock and roll and blues are kind of blending.”

The Stone Foxes has always had an old musical soul, but it leans more blues than country. So he didn’t force it, and compiled his first forays into solo songwriting into a record of his own. “Rather than to try to, like, change the natural feeling of a song and shoehorn it into...what your average Stone Foxes tune is, it seemed like these were not going to be that, and it was a nice opportunity to just do kind of an experiment.”

Experiment, indeed. Country and Western is comprised of a series of stories, each song depicting a person, a setting, or sometimes just a mood. Since you don’t hear many country tunes about designing public parks, they’re all a bit of an embellishment on his own life. “That’s not really me, I don’t ride a motorcycle, and I don’t have this, like, real like sadness of being in the city,” he says of the song “Urban Cowboy.” “I love living in the Bay Area.”

He didn't embellish too much when it came to the setting, because he didn’t need to. Motorcycle riders, hard drinkers, cowpokes, and truckers — California offers plenty of space for drama. “I do like the aesthetic I guess, so it’s fun to dream in the world of the West.” And also the Midwest: “Country and Western” is a nod to a line from The Blues Brothers.

Country & Western releases tomorrow on major streaming platforms, and you can see Spence live with his band, the Dust-Ups, at Amnesia on February 22.

Spence and the Dust-Ups, Whateverglades
Amnesia
February 22, 2019
9pm, $5 (21+)

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