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Interview with Artis the Spoonman

topic posted Thu, May 4, 2006 - 3:44 AM by  Vash
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Spoon-taneity
The Spoonman Speaketh
Interview by Ken Strong

He's a familiar figure to many in Seattle, especially those who frequent the Pike Place Market: the muscular, middle-aged man with the mohawk, standing on the sidewalk, usually accompanying singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim Page, with his huge array of spoons of different shapes and sizes and materials spread out on a blanket, furiously playing against his face and body, eyes closed, lost in the performance. Pete Seeger called him "the best damn spoon player in the universe." Frank Zappa told him, "You haven't got a commercial bone in your body." The Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart said, "Finally, some real music." He's played on sidewalks and in bars all around the world, played with Zappa, Aerosmith, and k.d. lang; appeared on Broadway with Itzhak Perlman; on David Letterman's show; and in a Grammy Award-winning song and MTV video by Soundgarden. Artis the Spoonman has taken his silverware skills far.

Real Change: When did you first come to Seattle?

Artis the Spoonman: I've been in Seattle since 1949. I was born in Kodiak, but I only lived there the first five months of my life. My mother left my father there and brought me down here. I never met him-as a matter of fact, a friend of mine just found him this year. I haven't verified or validated it. He died in 1994. This other guy became my stepfather. In a few months, she was pregnant by him, with my sister. Then he legally adopted me and changed my name to Artis.
I legally changed my name to just "Artis" when I was 40 years old. I just have the one name; it wasn't my thing to carry anybody else's bloodline, it's just not my bag, and I don't really know my own bloodline, so I didn't feel attached. And Artis is my name, so I use it. The only time having the single name is a problem is when some computer geek can't figure out how to put it in his damn computer. I'm actually responsible for the Washington Department of Licensing in Olympia changing their databases to accommodate single names, because of me. This happened about five or six years ago.

RC: When did you first develop your interest in silverware?

Artis: I was 10 years old when my mother bought me a pair of musical spoons - she bought my sister a pair as well. I broke mine. They were made here in Seattle - the man who built the Fiddler's Inn, in Wedgwood [north Seattle] had a little cottage industry making musical spoons. This was back in the 1950s; Lawrence Welk funded it. They were two spoons with a plastic handle holding them together.
After I broke mine, I took my sister's from her and never gave them back. I wasn't really into it at that time; I played along with my mother's swing tunes. I was into Elvis at the time, but whenever a swing tune, or a Latin tune, came along where the spoons would fit, I played along with it.
But it wasn't until one day in the Navy - I was the youngest guy in my squadron, and I wasn't very well liked, I was a thief and a loudmouth. One day when I was about 19, it was late, I saw these two guys standing by a table with a couple of spoons on the table, and one of them was playing, so I picked up the spoons and started playing, and put them back down and walked away. And as I walked away, I could feel through the back of my head that these guys were looking at me with respect now.
I got out of the Navy, and I went into the Post Office, and I quit the Post Office, my daughter was born, and my wife and I were divorced, it was 1972, and I went to live in Fremont. I lived upstairs in that historic building they moved [recently home to the Red Door Alehouse], above three bars. It was $36 a month, and I was drawing $72 a week unemployment, so I really had it fat. I went to work at Tommy's Café downstairs-I saw Tommy this year for the first time in 25 years - I worked for free, he'd feed me and give me money if I needed it. I started playing the teaspoons along with the jukebox, when there wasn't anything else going on. And people liked it, no one ever told me to quit, and finally they stocked the jukebox with what I wanted so I could play along - Mantovani, Peggy Lee, Elvis, the Kinks, the Stones, Wes Montgomery, King Curtis, Eddy Arnold, all stuff that I liked.

RC: You've played with an astonishing range of people. How did you get in touch with all of them?

Artis: Oh, it just happens, it's a career, you just fall into it. The only one I ever pursued was Zappa, because of a dream. One night, about 1975, I had a dream that I was playing with Zappa and Dr. Hook. In early '76, I was living in Portland, and Dr. Hook came to town. I went to the sound check in the afternoon, and they had me play with them that night. So I knew that I was going to play with Zappa, and five years later I met him, and he immediately asked me to play, I didn't ask him. In 1992, Zappa invited me to his house and recorded and sampled my playing, and we hung out for a few hours. It was like being welcomed to the club. I mean, I'm broke. I'm not successful as a businessperson at all.
I lived 20 years on the road: 1974 to 1994 - lived in a car, slept under bridges, hitchhiked. In '81 I bought my first bus, lived in it until '94. Now I live in a basement in West Seattle, and I cannot see the sky. But, it's $100 a month rent. My finances are fucked, except when you come to me to do business, I am professional, I have respect. But I don't know how to go out and say, "Yo, I'm the man, you need to hire me."
I'm going to Cuba in February - I have to pay $1,000 to do it, but I went through my address book and raised $1,000! In $20-$50 increments, from my friends and associates, you know.

RC: At least you're doing what you want.

Artis: No, I'm not doing what I want! I want to produce! I've got five CDs that I have the material and ability to do, if I could hire the musicians, if I could pay the engineer. I've got a rock one, I've got a live one, I've got a children's one, I've got a ballad one, and a completely instrumental one. It'd probably be $20,000 at the very minimum to master them, and that's still not manufacturing them. But I've got to survive in the meantime, trying to stay off the fucking street, trying to eke a goddamn meal. I'm serious; I hate this fucking shit. I wouldn't be on the sideline anymore if I didn't have to be. Thirty fucking years of this. I can't seem to get my funds together. I'm dysfunctional, bipolar, medicated, angry, and an alcoholic.
The only thing I'm not sick of is the show itself - when I'm doing it, playing it.
I wouldn't play with anyone but Jim Page, as far as the sidewalks. There's very few who write on a level with the stuff Jim writes - Zappa, Pete Townsend, Sun Ra - and Jim doesn't even know these people, he won't "get" Sun Ra or Zappa. He's totally the folk person, for lack of a better word.

RC: Have you always been a natural performer?

Artis: Yeah. When I was 19, even on the ship in the Navy, I was entertaining the guys by dropping the splits, singing along with Jackie Wilson. Just like the hip-hoppers today - I love it!
It's ironic, though - the glamour stuff, the stardom stuff is bullshit. It really is. I mean, it's pathetic, like you had this N30 event [celebrating the second anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests last Nov. 30] which drew a couple of hundred people to Town Hall, and yet they'll come out in the thousands for some rock star. This is twisted, when it comes to citizen awareness.

RC: There'll be one hundred thousand for a football game.

Artis: Yeah! That's rock stardom, too. I can see the appreciation there, but not when it's just that, when all the common social consciousness is just vacuumed out, so that they don't even pay attention to how jeopardized their common condition is.

RC: You went to Japan, too? How was that?

Artis: Three times I've been to Japan. Everywhere I go it's the same - everywhere I go people appreciate the show. It crosses all language barriers. Certainly one of the most outrageous times was playing in Bali, because it was a completely different culture. They're not completely westernized, there's some pretty remote places. I'd just pick somebody to play to, and the next thing you know, they're coming out of the trails, I'd get this big crowd around me, they're all watching me. When I'd quit, they don't applaud, it's not that they didn't like it, but they just don't do that there. But when I'd pick up my stuff and start to leave, they'd all go, in their language, "Again! Again! Encore!" I've seen tears in elders' eyes when I'd leave them.
Because the crackers that visit in these places, they bring their goddamn video cameras and plastic and they argue over fifty cents! The difference between a tourist and a visitor is that a tourist never leaves their house, they're only gone two weeks or six weeks or whatever, and they're only thinking about how they're going back to their front room and showing the video. They never take the one eye, at least, off the camera, and the other eye is usually shut, so they don't see anything on the periphery. All they got is a narrow little frame.
But the visitor goes, and they take their talent, I don't care if they're a mechanic, a linguist, a cook, a musician, a poet, whatever, and they share that. And the next thing you know, they're eating the food, from the leaf, on the dirt, with the people, and the people can't afford to give it to you, so you sure do pay them, but you don't argue over fifty fucking cents. And then you find out, in a short period of time, the difference between the tourist and the more at-home visitor, you go buy a shirt or something you do like, they will give you, maybe not the local rate, because the locals don't buy it, but not the tourist rate, either, because you ain't arguing! Although, haggling is also part of the tradition.
But playing there was just fabulous! Fabulous!

RC: What other interesting places have you gone to?

Artis: Seattle! I love Seattle. I love Seattle! Fabulous place. I like the expanse of Texas. Santa Cruz. Australia. I've been to 30 countries. Flying into Tripoli while I was in the Navy, it gave me a perspective when they were bombing it with billion-dollar planes, bombing $100 stucco huts. You put it into perspective, standing behind crowds of people - I remember hearing a blue-hair say to his wife, "Well, it must be for our own good, after all, it's the President doing it." And I'm thinking, people really believe that!
Citizen awareness is so important. Less than 10 percent of the American citizenry have a passport, so even less than that ever leave the fucking country. They could walk from here to Canada; why don't they? Go to Canada for the weekend! Go to Mexico! You can fly to some island in the Pacific for some dirt-cheap price! Go! You can always go to Europe for $300. We are a country of individuals. We haven't got a clue. We're so afraid of everything.

RC: Do you think people in this country are, in general, less informed about things?

Artis: I think, in general, yes. I hesitate to make any general statements about that because I could easily find my foot in my mouth. But the English-speaking places, like Australia, they are more determined to be isolated. Australia is a country of bigots-the whites are the complete dominant race, it's like being in the U.S. in the late '50s.

RC: You're a pretty familiar figure around here, aren't you?

Artis: Some people would say this is a vain statement, but it's not, it's fact: I am the most famous spoon player ever. Ever. On the planet, in history. I've played to millions of people. There are other spoon players - there are great, more proficient spoon players than me, fabulous spoon players, but I've become the most famous.

Real Change News
2129 2nd Ave. Seattle, WA 98121
Tel: 206.441.3247 Email:rchange@speakeasy.org
posted by:
Vash
Oregon
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  • Fucking awesome

    2 1/2 years in Seattle, I've never managed to catch Artis anywhere. I'll have to look him up
    • All though I met and recorded with Artis many,many years ago for the first time, I haven't seen him in
      forever until he graced our Y2K6 International Live Looping Festival with a wonderful performance.

      He used a spoon oriented triggering device to trigger samples and then loop them and then
      gave up in the 2nd half of the performance and just dazzled us with his non-looping spoon brilliance.

      A wonderful poet, an amazing multi faceted performer, one of the more unusual human beings on the planet
      with a wonderful heart.

      There is no one like him. don't miss him if you get a chance to see him play.

      He's just a gem of an artist.

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