Electric Avenue's Kevin Spencer has had a career like no other. He started in bands in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and went the major label route—getting on major tours like Lilith Fair and experiencing just about every high and low that a musician could ever experience. He then went on to play the role of Roger in Rent on Broadway and on tour for some time, before leaving that job to work for the legendary Daniel Lanois, best known as U2's longtime and most commercially successful producer.
What transpired from there led Spencer, who now lives in Atlanta, to forming Electric Avenue. The band, featuring an unbeatable lineup of stellar musicians (who’ve toured and recorded with the likes of Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men, and others in addition to Electric Avenue gigs), meticulously plays the music of the MTV era and has garnered immense acclaim for their engaging show and dedication to the hits of the 80s as they were meant to be played.
Spencer’s true passion for music was on full display when we caught up with him ahead of the gig, and chatted about the circumstances that led him down Electric Avenue.
How did you end up starting this project?
I did my 600 shows as Roger in Rent, and then I landed in Atlanta after that. I met Dan [Lanois] through a friend, and he didn't know anything about my resume. We just became friends talking about records, and it was a matter of him growing an affinity as a friend. He realized that I could wear an awful lot of hats—I'd just finished up doing a bunch of work that was really shiny, and I wanted to be back in the ditch. He was like, "I get that, dude. Do you want a job?"
I worked on and off for him, and then I got married and was going through immigration with my wife. I couldn’t leave the country, so I lost that job with Danny. When I couldn’t leave the country anymore, Tim Smith and Pete Stroud—two of my buddies who tour with Sheryl Crow—said, “We’re going to do a tribute to XTC. Are you in?” I was like, “Yeah!” When Tim Smith, one of the greatest bass players in the country, asked me to play bass in his XTC project I said, “Fuck yeah, dude.” [laughs]
So it seems like this all naturally led you to Electric Avenue?
Yeah! When I grew up, playing in a cover band was really not something I wanted to do. But playing with Pete and Tim kind of turned my head around. They said, “Look, the jazz guys of the 30s playing standards were playing covers. The Beatles and those guys played covers. ‘Twist and Shout,’ their first hit, was a cover.”
If you play the music of your generation that you love, and if you do it really fucking well, you’re not different than the jazz guys playing standards. A bunch of us [in Electric Avenue] were involved in helping to build another tribute brand out of Atlanta but said, “The songs that we really love are the ones that were a true influence for us.” The center of gravity for that was Songs From the Big Chair by Tears For Fears.
What an incredible record.
That’s a landmark record. No band out there really does justice to it, because they don’t know how to get the sound or the details. So we made a list of all of the songs we love from the 80s that were new wave or synth-pop driven—about 45 or 50 songs—that other bands either can’t do or butcher it when they do it [laughs].
We just made a list over drinks one night. There wasn’t a plan; it was like, “If we were to do a band, we’d play these songs.” It was never a conversation about actually doing it, but then a week later we got asked by a lawyer friend of ours to play a Christmas party eight weeks later. He said, “We want something different, fresh, and fun. We were thinking more like 80s.” That’s honestly how it started.
There’s no attitude here—it’s a true love. We love these songs, and it breaks our heart when we try to hear someone do “Take On Me” and it sounds like pop punk. But that party is where it started, and that was almost seven years ago.
It seems like you’re providing people with an opportunity to reconnect with a particular time in their lives, and just genuinely enjoy this music the way it’s meant to be played. Is that the ultimate goal?
You have to approach the gig as if it could really pull someone out of the sewers emotionally. Getting older and being an adult is not easy, and if we lose sight of who we were when we were younger, then we lose sight of all of the things that were important to us in our youth.
All of that plays into what we’re doing, which is trying to remind people of a time when they got to go home from school, put on a record and listen to it with open ears. That’s the thing that we’re selling.