This F-stop goes to 11
Photographer Jay Spooner still takes a lot of pictures, but these days, he’s also known around town as a key tastemaker and champion of new bands
As they say, a picture tells a thousand words.
In this one, the guitarist is floating in the air, his eyes ablaze, a guitar held at his shoulder, his feet tucked up under his body. He is like a ballet dancer caught mid-leap—but caught with all the fire of rock energy coursing through his veins. One can almost hear the sound of that ringing guitar through the act of looking at the photograph.
Next in the stack: another mid-leap shot but a different guitar player. This time, the guitarist is doing the splits center stage, his black leather pants pulled tight around his straining legs, his head cocked back, punk-rock hair like a bristle of spikes atop his head. Again, one can almost hear the thudding drums and churning guitars, the wash of sonic torture emanating from the stage.
Next, a singer throws his head back and screams into the microphone, his neck muscles bulging, his tattooed arms and clenched fists grasping a guitar as if it were a poisonous snake. Again, there is a voice rising from the photograph, a voice of rage and triumph, of redemption through rock ’n’ roll.
Welcome to the world of Jay Spooner. These images celebrate what is perhaps the most pure vision of what rock music can be: musicians performing live onstage. Spooner catches musicians at their most incendiary moments, creating documents that ultimately serve as historical flashpoints for the local music scene. Here is Magnolia Thunderfinger rocking the stage at The Distillery. There are the Knockoffs in all their manic punk posturing. And here is Mike Farrell, launching himself through the air in another of his trademark airborne guitar-god moves. Simply put, this is Sacramento’s live-music scene in all its glory: raw, hyper and, perhaps most of all, loud.
If Spooner were only a photographer, his impact might be less noticeable than it is. But Spooner’s love for local music goes beyond the lens. A tall, blond man with a good-natured smile and a friendly, quiet demeanor, Spooner’s projects have extended to helping newer bands get the exposure they deserve, through both booking shows and simply getting the word out the best way he knows how: by telling his friends, many of whom are bookers, club owners and fellow musicians, about up-and-coming bands he likes. It may not seem like much, but when Spooner has a band recommendation, people important to the local music scene perk up their ears and listen.
Although many know Spooner primarily as the man behind the camera, his background ultimately revolves more around booking bands than photographing them. Spooner spent years as a booker in Southern California, working with such bands as W.A.S.P., Great White, Eric Burdon, Fishbone and the Untouchables. When the booking agency where he was working fell apart, Spooner decided it was time to make a geographical change. “I came to Sacramento on a vacation,” Spooner recalled. “I saw trees and nice houses, friendly people. I was hooked, and when I wanted to get out of L.A., I came here.” After that initial move, Spooner completely removed himself from the music scene for three years, focusing on re-establishing his life in Sacramento.
But for some, music is in the blood. It didn’t take long for Spooner to join the ranks again, this time as a musician, performing locally as a bassist for Cherry Murmur, with Tom Bixby; Scott George, now of Seventy; and Jimmy Brasier, of Natalie Cortez and the Ultra Violets, Toadmortons, Carquinez Straits and numerous other local bands.
But it was legendary local guitarist Farrell who helped Spooner make the change from music performance to music documentation. “There was a particular photo I took of the Tattooed Love Dogs with Mike Farrell on guitar,” Spooner remembered. “That particular photo made me go, ‘Wow! This is cool!’ Mike’s a great subject. I’ve got hundreds of photos of him.”
Indeed, there may be no more photo-worthy subject on the Sacramento music scene than Farrell, whose onstage antics practically beg for a photographic record. Spooner’s Web site (www.jayspooner.com) features a selection of Farrell photos, every one of them caught mid-leap, Farrell’s guitar in hand. Indeed, the live stage is where Spooner feels rock ’n’ roll’s magic can truly be felt. “I’ve done lots of promo shots for really good bands like Magnolia Thunderfinger,” Spooner said, “but the fire and energy is onstage. Musicians tend to be at home the most onstage, and that’s where I can get the best photos of them.”
Photography quickly became Spooner’s primary function, eventually becoming a full-time job that fulfilled a need he’d had to be an integral part of the music scene, so much so that the breakup of Cherry Murmur did not push Spooner into another band as a musician. “The thought was that I’d always try to get back into a band,” he said. “But being a photographer makes me feel like I’m in all the bands, not just one.”
Spooner has photographed most of the big acts in town, particularly those with fiery live shows, and he is one of the most sought-after photographers for local musicians. However, Spooner’s involvement with the local music scene eventually returned to both booking and shepherding younger bands. Call Me Ishmael, Rock the Light, Electric Flood and many other local bands may not even be aware that Spooner has helped them, but he has in what is perhaps the most important way: word of mouth. As someone who has been involved with local music for a number of years, Spooner’s take on local bands form the kind of opinions that bookers, promoters and local media agents pay close attention to. The first time this writer saw Call Me Ishmael perform, it was at the behest of Spooner. Since then, that band won a 2001 Sammie for Best New Band, and Call Me Ishmael is now one of the area’s most popular live acts.
Spooner’s desire to help new bands has come to a new focus with a monthly “Jay Spooner Presents” night at The Distillery. Held on the third Thursday of each month, Spooner uses this night to bring three new bands to The Distillery’s stage. Like most of the popular live-music clubs in town, The Distillery can be a challenging club for a band to get into. “Jim Barr has been booking that club for five or six years,” Spooner said. “He works his ass off there. He’s turned it from a steakhouse to a really good club. It tends to have a harder edge than Old Ironsides or the Blue Lamp. But he doesn’t get a chance to book too many newer bands there.” Spooner uses his third-Thursday shows to do just that, allowing new and upcoming bands to play a venue that might be inaccessible to them otherwise. “I try to give three bands a chance to play and be seen,” Spooner explained. “I get a lot of CDs, and I listen to them all and try to put together shows that make sense. This is an opportunity to help bands that I like.”
Spooner’s interest in booking also has extended to facilitating the longstanding Distillery Songwriters Showcase, a series that has run for several years on the second Thursday of the month and has featured virtually every noteworthy songwriter in town. Spooner uses this night in a similar capacity, although here he might shift the focus to center on sideline members of established bands. “I might book some band’s drummer as a singer-songwriter,” he noted. “It’s a way for musicians to be heard in a different kind of setting than they usually are.” The series is also interesting for the reason that The Distillery otherwise does not book singer-songwriters; the only way for a solo acoustic performer to play the venue is through the Songwriters Showcase, and Spooner is the showcase’s gatekeeper.
As for the future, Spooner seems both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. “I think the music scene here is in a low point. There are a few really good bands in town, but the rock scene … apart from Rock the Light, there aren’t many rock acts in town right now. My hope for the future is more rock.” Spooner paused a moment, before adding, “But I have seen quite a few new bands that I have a lot of hope for, if they can stay around for two or three years.” He then named a half-dozen bands, including Sunshine Smile, Sacramento, Army of Trees and Electric Flood, the latter of which has become one of Spooner’s new favorites. “I really love what Chris Horton and Electric Flood is doing. He’s at the top of my list right now.”
Needless to say, if Electric Flood is at the top of Spooner’s list, then local music fans can expect to hear a lot more from that band in the coming months.
The band must be good. Spooner says so.