Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rock n Roll Neanderthal & Card Counting Genius: The Brilliance of Spencer Robinson

Spencer Robinson is a filthy animal.

Perhaps he is best known for being the bass player for The Lords of Altamont, a band of rock and roll neanderthals from LA who, in the spirit of an outlaw motorcycle gang, re-energized a scene that had been dead since Guns n Roses dropped F-bombs on live TV during the 1990 American Music Awards.

This band of misfits was transformed from a very rare pedigree, featuring ex-members of the Bomboras, Fuzztones and the MC5. The Lords' website says that they are the "final nail in the coffin of hippie culture." Their music says that they are a loud and mean force to be reckoned with, more hideout rock than garage.

Spencer Robinson has slogged with the Lords off and on for 5 years, earning himself several nicknames throughout his tenure. Most notably perhaps, he was known as "Dealer" - a nefarious name to be sure which conjures all kinds of outlaw motorcycle gang bedlam - but to be clear, the name is more likely derived from his ability to count cards during a game of Black Jack than it is from the extra-curricular money-making illegal side job that instantly comes to mind.

He's been counting cards since his early 20's:

I had a neighbor who asked me if I wanted to join the blackjack team.  He started by teaching me basic strategy, which is the mathematically correct move to make on every blackjack hand, and also all the times you deviate from basic strategy according to the count. While I was memorizing all of that, I also learned the value of each card when it comes to card-counting.  The first thing I did was run drills for myself where I removed a few cards from the deck, and quickly counted the cards, using the removed cards to check myself at the end.  Eventually, I moved to counting the cards as somebody dealt them blackjack-style, while also playing 2 hands, using correct basic strategy."
Robinson says that he practiced this for 3 months before even attempting to take the test to get on the Black Jack team.

"When I got out to Vegas to take the test, I failed for 3 days straight before passing. After I passed the test, I was taken to a low stakes casino to try all that I’d learned in a live setting before being sent out to play for big money.  As I moved up the ranks of the team, there were more complicated tests that I had to pass. Also, every gambling trip we went on started with everybody having to pass a test again, just to make sure that we were all ready to play. It was an amazing group of really smart people."

Card counting is no small feat. A group of MIT students became famous for it when a movie was released in 2008, and in many aspects, Spencer Robinson has lived out the exact glorious and danger-filled scenarios that are featured in the movie. If counting cards is not genius ability, it's definitely one of extreme discipline; not a trait typically associated with members  of a junkyard rock and roll band.

Robinson recently released a solo recording on Solid 7 Records called Standing At The End Of The World. He says that the songs are "about drinking and dying" - and they seem to channel a melancholy Kill Bill-ish, Carradine/ Tarantino-esque vibe more than they do anything associated with the Lords.

Former Lords guitarist
 Johnny DeVilla joins his longtime friend and lends several haunting licks as does drummer Tom Hernandez from LA's The Superbees. It's also apparent that Nick Cave - at least in spirit - was lingering around the studio during this recording. Check it out on Soundcloud. It's better than anything that is being played on FM radio these days.

Robinson let me ask him a bunch of questions: 

What is the weirdest experience you've had as a professional gambler?

I guess it’s all been a little weird, to be honest. I feel like I’ve lived a few lives in this life.  When I was gambling for a living, I was on a blackjack team.  If you’ve seen the movie “21,” about the MIT blackjack team, it was an offshoot of that.

Well, we were playing at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and I started seeing the other people in the team getting backed off from playing.  Counting cards isn’t illegal, but casinos will kick you out if they realize it’s going on.  I got up, and started heading to the cage to cash out.  That’s when 8 security guards surrounded me, and told me that I was going to the back room with them.  The whole thing is so silly because they can’t legally do that, but they don’t care. The real drag of it all was that they were standing all around me, and if I physically pushed through them to leave, then they can detain me and call the cops for “assaulting” them.  It’s a stupid game they play.

They told me they were taking me to the back room, and I just said “nope.”

They tried to tell me that I had no say in the matter, and that I was going. Again, I said “no.”  I asked them why they thought I was going with them, and one of the security guards replied “prostitution,” which actually made me laugh out loud.  I had one of those “come on man” reactions.  That’s when one of these goons tried to grab my wallet from my pocket. I assume they wanted to get my ID, but I also know the law well, and know that they can’t do that.  I whipped around so fast, and snapped “now you know you can’t touch me,” so the guy pulled his hand away like he’d touched a hot stove.

By this point, I was pretty pissed off.  These idiots know that I’m not going with them, and they just wouldn’t let up.  They were wasting my time!  Finally, I pulled out my phone, and I said “ok guys; I’m calling 911, and I’m telling them that the security team at Caesar’s Palace is attempting to kidnap me.”  They parted like the Red Sea, and I headed to the door.  All of these guys trailed behind me as I walked to the door, and one of them even attempted to sort of push me out the front door as I let.  It was all pretty stupid. I’ve been kicked out of a lot of casinos, but that one was particularly memorable.

What is the tell-tale sign of any card game opponent that alerts you that you are about to cash in big time?

I played professional blackjack, so you’re playing against the house.  It’s different than playing poker.  That being said, I’ve played a fair amount of poker as well, and finding somebody really drunk is always interesting.  I was in poker room once, and the guy next to me was so wasted, he was showing me his cards.  Every hand that he didn’t fold, he flashed me his hole cards  It was a beautiful thing.  I won a fair amount of money from him before one of his buddies came to retrieve him from the table.  It was such easy money, that I even made a pretty lame attempt to get him to stay and keep playing.  Sadly, it didn’t work.

What goes through your mind while you are bluffing when there's butt-loads of cash on the line?

Again, I played blackjack on the team, so all the big money was on 21, and that doesn’t have any bluffing. What I did when I was the guy betting big was to play some sort of character.  So, while I’m doing the card counting math in my head, and paying attention to the cards to make sure I’m making the correct play, and keeping track of how much money I’m betting to make sure I’m not getting ripped off by the dealer, I’m also trying to keep in mind what type of person I’m disguised as, and how that person would react if they win or lose the hand.  The “acting” part of the gig was my least favorite part.

Tell me about the inspiration behind wanting to create this new album.

So I played in The Lords of Altamont for 5 years, and I love garage and rock n roll; but I felt like, if I was going to do something for myself, it should be different than the music I’d played before.  I listen to a lot of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen; guys that write/wrote about some of the darker and more odd things in life, and I really wanted to explore those thoughts and ideas in myself.  Everyone deals with dark stuff, and writing about some of it was cathartic for me.  I like to say they’re songs about drinking and dying.

Where would you bookshelf it between two established all-time great recordings?

Wow, that’s a hard question to answer without sounding like a complete narcissist!  Not that I think my songs are anywhere near as good as these records, but I would put it somewhere between Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Let Love In, and The Scientists’ Blood Red River.  It definitely has somewhat of that swampy Scientists feel, greatly due to the amazing guitar work of former Lords of Altamont guitar player Johnny DeVilla, but I like to think the lyrics have a little bit of the edge and darkness of Nick Cave’s writing.

What was your biggest challenge in regards to making solo record?

It’s funny; it was not as challenging as I thought it was going to be.  The songs came fairly easily, and we recorded the thing very quickly.  I wrote and demoed a lot of songs at home before choosing the ones I wanted to record.  I guess the hardest part for me was then having to play them for the musicians I wanted for the EP.  I’d co-written songs in the Lords, but never the lyrics.  This was the first time I’d be reaching out to musicians that I knew and respected, and asking them to give up their time to come play on my dumb little songs.  It was all a little intimidating. I liked what I’d written, but it’s hard to tell if people will dig it or not.  When Johnny DeVilla from The Lords, and Tom Hernandez from the Superbees agreed to play on the record, I was thrilled. They were my first choices for musicians, and they really delivered.

What's the most memorable roadside attraction you've visited?

I haven’t visited a lot of roadside attractions; this probably sounds pretty cliché, but the first time I went to gamble in Mississippi, I flew in a few hours early so I could go to Graceland.  It was a lot of fun.  Sure, it’s gaudy and some of the tour is silly, but when you get to the hallway of Elvis’ gold records, it’s pretty damn impressive. Once you get past the floor and ceiling shag carpet of The Jungle Room, and the slightly ridiculous videos of Elvis doing karate, the gold records remind you of how big he actually was.  It’s sobering.  The song “Tunica” on my EP is about that gambling trip.

Tell me a punk rock story.

One of the cool things about being in The Lords is that I got to play everything from little punk rock bars to huge European festivals.  I did a few shows at this great punk bar in Las Vegas called The Double Down Saloon.  It’s a smoke-filled dive bar with no windows, and they serve something at the bar called “ass juice.”  They would just push the pool tables off to the side, and have bands play in the corner.  I was setting up my bass rig, bending down to plug something in, and I leaned against the wall with my hand; well, as I did this, my hand literally sunk into the wall.  That bar has been there for a long time, and the walls were littered with so many punk rock fliers from bands that had played, that my hand got swallowed up in the rotting paper. Yeah, it was kinda gross, but it was also a cool reminder of the countless bands that had set up their gear in the corner of that place, and played rowdy ass shows.

Another amazing memory was a West Coast tour we did opening for The Cramps.  They were such an incredible band, and getting to play with them every night was something really special.  There were a few bands that I got to play with that were like “dream come true” situations for me.  The Cramps were definitely one of those bands.

1 comment:

Stanley J. Kirby said...