October 1, 2009
‘Junk rock’ makes good
Fresh from America’s Got Talent, Recycled Percussion comes home before a stint in Vegas
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s Sept. 21, a Monday night, and Goffstown High is buzzing like the Verizon Center. Guards stand at backstage entrances blocked with crime scene tape. Only a fortunate few wearing laminated “Grizzlies” passes around their necks are allowed to pass.
Over a thousand lucky fans fill the bleachers, while a couple hundred more stand against the stage. The show won’t start for another 45 minutes.
A small but eager press corps is stage right, waiting patiently for a word or an on-camera moment with the stars.
Earlier that morning Recycled Percussion, fresh from five weeks on America’s Got Talent, announced plans for a free show to thank their hometown fans. It was to be held in the place where, 14 years earlier, bandleader Justin Spencer debuted his “junk rock” musical project at a school talent show. The band toyed with doing a bigger venue, but didn’t think they could fill it on such short notice.
That turned out to be false modesty. One to a customer seats were snapped up in 15 minutes. Some fans started lining up at Shaw’s supermarket three hours ahead of time. As the show drew near, crowds mobbed the gymnasium entrance, and police were stationed up and down Route 114, shooing away anyone without a ticket.
The can-banging, guitar-shredding, power tool-wielding band may have begun as local heroes, but now were rock stars that could play the Goffstown gym 10 nights in a row if they chose to. A humbled Justin Spencer said, “I didn’t realize how massive the support would be in New Hampshire, because we were in L.A. for the past few months and were kind of detached from all the media.”
Prior to the performance, Selectman Scott Gross came on stage and declared it “Recycled Percussion Day” in Goffstown. The City of Manchester did the same thing when the band’s flight landed the previous Friday night.
State representative John Hikel also read a proclamation, on behalf of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Then the lights went down and the crowd’s dull roar turned into pandemonium.
Recycled Percussion sprinted on stage and did an hour-plus of the material that’s made them a national sensation. Within two songs, Spencer’s white untucked dress shirt was completely soaked in sweat. Fellow drummer Ryan Vezina had done three vertical leaps over his makeshift “drum set” — stacked buckets with cymbal and microphone-festooned steel tubes duct-taped to them.
As Todd “DJ Pharaoh” Griffin spun a rock-steady backbeat, Spencer prowled the stage like a panther, delighted to have longer than 90 seconds of performing time. Guitarist Jim Magoon played a psychedelic “Star Spangled Banner” like he’d written it, not Hendrix, and Spencer fist-bumped him as he walked back to his drum kit.
After a medley that touched down in multiple musical eras, Spencer walked to the front of the stage to recall the America’s Got Talent experience for the crowd. He said that after they’d wrangled their way into the New York regional auditions, judge David Hasselhoff declared them “a five-dollar band that wouldn’t go anywhere.” The other judges split — Sharon Osbourne liked them, Piers Morgan didn’t.
So the band packed up, and got halfway through New Jersey before they got a callback — “technical difficulties,” they were told. After a debate about whether to try again or head to a paying gig — one of 300 the band does each year — they turned the van around.
They barely made it out of the second New York audition — Hasselhoff changed his mind, but so did Osbourne. Three weeks and one spinning dual drum set later they were on their way.
Then Spencer remembered his first gig at the long-ago high school talent show. On that night, his band finished in second place. “How,” he wondered, “did we go from second in Goffstown to third place in the whole country?”
Later, Recycled Percussion leader Justin Spencer spoke by phone after a show in Delhi, New York.
You must be excited about America’s Got Talent Live, the showcase opening for a 10-week run at Planet Hollywood Oct. 7.
It’s amazing. They asked us to do it, and we’re going to be one of the headlining acts on there. Our intentions are to be in Vegas for not just that show, but for many years to come.
Have you made firm plans beyond that?
I can’t talk about that, but I can assure you that we’re doing everything we can to stay in Las Vegas, that’s for sure.
Given your commitment to an anti-substance lifestyle, it must be interesting to draw your sights on Sin City, U.S.A. if not the world?
[laughs] Yeah, right. You know, I’ve been around that my whole life. It’s funny, I never got into drinking, never tried it. I’ve never really tasted beer before, never tried a cigarette. Back in the day, when everyone tried smoking dope and shit like that, I tried it and you know what? This isn’t for me. I realized that for me to succeed at what I want to do, and where I wanted the band to go, we needed to leverage every edge possible. Coming from a small town in New Hampshire playing buckets, we had every disadvantage. We said, listen, this is the way we’re gonna take it. We’re gonna work out, we’re gonna eat right, we’re gonna be healthy, we’re gonna not only play music but we’re gonna try and inspire kids as well, and that’s what we’re doing. It brings us to Vegas, and that’s fine too. Because the message goes wherever we go. Just because you’re going to Vegas doesn’t mean you can’t bring the message with you.
How did it feel to be back in your high school, knowing the tickets had been snapped up in 15 minutes, and having it buzzing like the Verizon?
That’s funny, because originally we were going to do it at the Verizon, and cut it in half and do 4,000 seats. I didn’t think that many people were going to come out. I didn’t realize how massive the support would be in New Hampshire, because we were in L.A. for the past few months and were kind of detached from all the media. Thousands would have come out if we’d been at the Verizon. We gave out 1,200 seats in 15 minutes [for the Goffstown High show] and I can only imagine how many more would have come in the next three to four hours if there were more tickets. We were turning away hundreds outside the high school, even with the signs. It was beyond flattering. It fuels us more to come back sometime during the holidays when we come home to try and give back to the fans who didn’t get a chance to see us. I mean, to go back in your hometown … when the lights went out it was ear-piercing. It was electric. It was amazing.
What was it like walking off the plane on Friday, when a pretty big crowd greeted you?
There was a crowd of fans, friends and family. The mayor’s office was there to give us a proclamation announcing that Sept. 18 is Recycled Percussion Day in Manchester. Last night, we received one from the state and from Goffstown. These honors are huge and there’s talk about getting a key to the city, and that’s cool.
What was the moment for you when you realized you really could go all the way?
You know, we knew going into it, the producers told us singers win the show, that’s just how it goes. America identifies with singers. We knew that was going to be our toughest competition. I think we didn’t think we had a shot until the first performance we gave when we looked over and all three judges were giving us standing ovations, and that went into the media. And the media went from “who are Recycled Percussion?” to “these guys are a Vegas act.” It surprised us, and it kept getting bigger and bigger and we became a favorite. Up until even the next morning after the finals were given, Associated Press was saying Recycled Percussion lost, but there was no way … Recycled Percussion was the best show on America’s Got Talent. It was really cool because Piers said to us afterwards, you guys are the most creative act in the history of this show, and you guys raised the bar for any act that comes after you guys. Think about how massive these productions were that we built. From a creative standpoint, it was clearly hard to beat these things. How could you have any more energy, or build a bigger production, and do all that in 90 seconds? I think we brought it right to the edge and that’s what kept us up there with the singers. In the top five, we looked around us — all singing groups and Recycled Percussion. And we did it without any sob stories. We didn’t need a sob story. We just went and flat-out blew people away on stage.
The first set, the one that went viral on YouTube, with the rotating stage, how did you get the engineering to make that happen on such short notice?
We came up with that idea and we gave them the specs to work on it. That was the easiest one to come up with because it was our first performance and we had four weeks to plan that with the engineers and producers and find someone in California that could build a stage like that for us. We had a week and half to come up with the van idea, then we had three days to come up with the water idea. You’re writing one show and thinking to move ahead … you’re planning one show ahead, but trying not to think that you’re going to make it. So it’s like a really, really mentally grueling show, especially for a band like us. A singing group can just say, we’re going to sing this song. We have to top what we did last time, every time we come out, and that is really hard to do. Especially when you open with a performance like the rotating stage, and when we did that. Piers said afterwards in the interview that it was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. The good news is that, the bad news is good luck topping that show.
A lot of people may think this is an overnight sensation, but you’ve been at this for 14 years. How does it feel after all that work, that one television show did so much for you, so fast?
14 years of hard work, and it all is trumped by five weeks on that show. It made us a hundred times bigger, made us celebrities and put a lot of things on our plate. But if it wasn’t for those 14 years, we never would have finished third, we never would have had the experience to be up there with those guys. All those years of practice on all those stages, that’s why we were so good in the finals. We were polished showmen. If we just came out of the gate, if we had done this eight years ago, we would have gotten laughed off that stage.
So next stop Vegas; after Vegas the world. As I walked around backstage at Goffstown High on Monday, I noticed the world “perseverance” written on a wall. Was that there when you were a student?
No, but that is something we always preach to people, it’s funny you say it. Persistence, man, it’s like we’ve almost given up so many times. It’s amazing, if we’d given up the five times … every time we almost give, we’re like oh let’s stick around a little more and see what happens, and this happens. As big as this is, a moment in your life that changes the path your career takes, we know there’s even bigger stuff than that. Maybe not for TV, but there is a streamline to wealth, fortune and creativity that’s sitting right in front of us. It’s just a matter of grabbing it. We can see it right now, we’ve never been able to see it before and that just re-kindles the fire.
The thought of going to an engineer with an idea you wanted to in the past but couldn’t afford must be exciting. Are there things fans are going to see that you always wanted to do but didn’t have the resources to make it happen?
Oh, yeah. The next time Recycled Percussion performs, in Vegas … let me say never again. We’ll never be the same ever again. What we saw in Goffstown last night is going to be the past. It’s going to be big production, big wows, and just crazy, crazy ideas. That’s what makes this thing so special for all of us. We finally get to, as an artist, create these ideas that we had, and I’ll tell you, we’ve got some great ones.
Beginning Oct. 7, Recycled Percussion will be in Las Vegas for the 10-week run of America’s Got Talent Live, headlined by contest winner Kevin Skinner and hosted by Jerry Springer, at Planet Hollywood’s 1,300-seat CHI Showroom.
The band will also play two shows at the Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St. in Manchester, in a few months — Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 1 at 8 p.m. (tickets cost $26). See www.palacetheatre.org.