In Conversation: Old Hands on Vacationing in the Depression-Core on their debut album “illinois”

Spencer Rose is all smiles when I call him on FaceTime. Backdropped by some 3D postmodern art and rocking a beanie hat in the summer, as compared to my shirtless post-Nike app workout look, he’s in celebration mode. It’s release day for the Chicago based artist’s excellent debut album illinois under the moniker Old Hands. Made in lockdown due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the seven track sixteen minute album is pristine quarantine art. 

illinois, now streaming on BandCamp, is a pretty album, packed with gorgeous riffs over anxious and often sad lyrics. The vocals are never in the forefront, which is a shame, as Spencer excellently weaves rhythmic existential tales together with such laidback ease. When Spencer told me he, “recorded some in my car too because I was too nervous someone at home would hear me” it shows. His voice shows restraint, sometimes barely above a whisper, when dealing with heavy topics. On “you’re still you” Spencer sings, “Why make jokes when everything you know is fucked enough? You go right home and lay in bed and wonder why you’re not dead.” This line hits home for anyone who has dealt with depression or even feels the anxious dread of COVID-19

Spencer’s ability to paint uncomfortable feelings with sunshine vibe guitars is his greatest strength. The music sounds best when enjoying a quick stroll through nature and letting your emotional walls down. Self-aware, he knows his biggest blockade is himself. On “nothing but me” he admits, “And when I see you I’ll pretend not to”, something we can all do while safely wearing a mask and keeping a 6+ feet of social distance. In his own words, “nothing but me can bring me down.” 

An improv performer, Spencer is used to using art to control his narrative. The album acts as a catharsis for uncomfortable feelings and conversations he has struggled to have. On “garden of guilt” he owns his own shortcomings in his personal relationships revealing, “Friendships like flowers, I watch them wilt. If I don’t tend to my garden I’m filled with guilt.” Watching something beautiful fade away is always hard to see, but the reality is life goes on. It’s hard though when there is a disconnect and inability to be with the ones we love. Album closer “always tired” touches on this when he sings, “Stuck inside my house, I want to go out. I want to go and see my friends.” 

Stand out track “games on yourself” is where Spencer’s prowess all come together. With an emo vibe and vocals that sound like they were recorded underwater, the track reminds me of a happier version of Sunny Day Real Estate. For all it’s sadness and self-described “depression-core”, “games on yourself” delivers the mantra that carries Spencer and the project: “When you feel like you’re dying and you can’t tell your brain that it’s lying, just calm down and breathe deep. The moment will will pass believe me.” As anxiety comes and goes in waves, illinois is the perfect album to throw on during a panic attack or manic episode. The dark lyrics will give the audience enough to wallow in, but the happy go lucky production will ensure they are grooving along with their head up.

Check out our social distance interview below where Spencer breaks down his recording process, empowering women, the story behind the illinois album art, and more. 

GSC: Who are you and how do you identify?

Spencer Rose: My name is Spencer Rose. I identify as he/him and a nice guy (laughs). What else do you want?

GSC: That’s it right there. How long have you been making music? Is this your first solo musical project?

Spencer Rose: So I’ve been playing guitar for a long, long time. Probably since I was like 13. I was one of those kids that saw their first concert and was like, “I want to do that.” But this is my first time making an album or recording anything. 

GSC: What does the name “Old Hands” mean to you and why is the project named illinois

Spencer Rose: The name Old Hands was I wanted to hide behind some sort of name because I wasn’t comfortable putting my first and last name on it if it was bad. The weird thing about it is I get very embarrassed regarding music and stuff, like performing and singing and stuff, so I wanted to hide behind the moniker Old Hands. I got it because I was looking at my hands one day and I have a ton of scars on my hands from various dumb accidents over the years, so I always thought my hands look older than I actually was. 

I’m from illinois and the majority of the content on the album is specifically about my last 3 years in Illinois here because I’m kind of on the precipice of maybe not living here anymore so I wanted to make an album that would commemorate my time in the state of Illinois.  

GSC: Where are you moving to?

Spencer Rose: Who knows? It’s kind of open. So my thing for keeping me in Chicago was always performing improv and comedy and stuff and that theater just closed out of nowhere because of COVID-19 and other things going on with it. That was always my big shtick. “I’m staying in Chicago because my theater is here”. Now that that’s closed it’s kind of up in the air. 

GSC: Does comedy play any role in your music creation?

Spencer Rose: I would say the thought process of it is, the way you would organize an improv show. Like a Harold, the form that I did. Of just making sure that things make sense. If you introduce a character or a sound and it gets resolved in the end in a satisfying way. I’d say 90% of the lyrics were improvised. I would just record different takes over and over again until I got something. 

GSC: Pivoting to comedy quickly, with the current lifting of the veil of power structures I’m sure you noticed there was a toxicity in the Chicago scene somewhat. How do you think men in particular can empower women in the comedy world? 

Spencer Rose: I think it’s a matter of being aware of what voices are being presented. If you look around and start to notice everyone looks like you, then you should start to notice you have a problem. With improv that’s exactly what we did. Once everything started happening, the most recent social uprising I guess you could call it, we kind of took a look at ourselves as a team. Like yes we are not by definition problematic people, but the fact we are nine white people and one person of color on an improv team is not a good look. And we decided that was something that needed to change. This goes into the whole petition at iO that every single performer signed. That they refused to perform there before diversity was addressed since it was a big problem at iO, but then the theater closed down a week after the petition. 

But as far as your original question of how men can make space for women, especially in comedy, I’m not as familiar as the stand up scene. I can guess based just based on stand ups I’ve met around my travels. I really don’t know if I have a great answer for that one of what you can do to stop it. It’s a very toxic culture in a lot of ways. I think it takes a lot of cooperation between everyone, but I don’t really know. It’s the same thing with improv. It was such a toxic space in the end. You can close your eyes and ignore it. I think opening your eyes and realizing it’s happening is a good way. Even if it’s not happening in your corner or your stage. I think it’s important to know it is happening. It’s not made up. It’s not rare. Then there are a lot of things in play that even if you carry yourself as a great person and work to make spaces safer for everyone, I think you need to acknowledge there is an inherent problem at the root of everything. 

GSC: Besides Illinois, what other inspirations are behind this new project? 

Spencer Rose: Conversations with my therapist. It would basically be like I’d have to come up with a thought or something I’d like to express more when talking to my therapist and words weren’t doing it. I kind of felt dumb talking about it so I thought if I could put it into some artistic medium. I always run to music as an outlet in a way and so I thought that specifically with how much therapy I’ve been doing in my life, a lot of it came out of those conversations. I would talk about song ideas I had, conceptually with my therapist. 

GSC: From day one of planning to release day how long was the project timeline?

Spencer Rose: I started the second I got locked down. Quarantine is when I decided I was going to do it, make some sort of an album because I finally had free time. I didn’t have any excuses anymore. I needed some sort of artistic outlet to again work through a couple things, a couple stories in my life that I haven’t quite been able to overcome with words. I thought that I could really draw the emotion out the way I feel about certain things. I think musically you can do a lot. I guess that started in March and I was kind of mixing it up until today when it came out. I was tweaking and replacing things on Bandcamp. I would listen to it over and over again hearing one small thing out of place and then go back and fix it. 

GSC: What was your recording process like? Where did you work on the songs?

Spencer Rose: I would record the guitar parts in my room by myself. Just quietly with headphones on trying not to make too much noise cause I live with two other people. I’m super embarrassed by all this stuff. Maybe embarrassed isn’t the right word. I think shy when it comes to that cause it’s very much exposing a part of who I am that I don’t really show cause when people get labeled comedian every thought they have needs to be funny or insightful in some sort of way. Somebody said something today about how a lot of improv comedians look at putting effort into something as embarrassing and tacky if you spend more than twenty minutes thinking of something. That really stuck with me as far as what I was doing. 

A lot of it was recorded in my car. The vocals were. I would take my laptop and my whole set up and my mic and hide in the backseat of my car and sing and try and get everything down. Or I would whisper into voice memos to remember the melody that I wanted to do. None of it was recorded in front of people at all. My roommates were there for the entire recording process and today was the first they heard any of it. 

GSC: After COVID-19, or when safety allows for it, do you have plans to perform or even tour this project? 

Spencer Rose: I want to. I certainly want to. Now that the improv career has taken a dive.

GSC: Same

Spencer Rose: I miss performing, I miss being in front of people. Now with the positive reception I’ve gotten from all my friends and their friends who have reached out, it’s like the confidence I have in this not being stupid or a dumb idea. This is something I sat down and spent for four months and really made something worthwhile. Yeah, I’d love to. It’s definitely a dream of mine. I used to be a summer camp counselor up in Wisconsin and those are the only people I ever confidently sang in front of. I used to play comedy songs at the campfire because people found me to be funny I guess, which is their mistake. The sad thing is too is I have to remember how to play a lot of them because I’m not a musician, so I forget how to play some of the songs on there. Specifically “Games on Yourself” I sat down to remember how to play it and I can’t do it. I don’t remember what I did. 

Wet Hot American Summer – Higher & Higher aka a summer camp singing counsellor

GSC: The first song “It Couldn’t Be Done” is mostly a poem by Edgar Guest read by someone who isn’t you. Why did you pick that poem and who is the reader on the track? 

Spencer Rose: I was looking for something. I was in a phase of putting sampling of things before songs to try to capture or present a thesis statement of what the song was going to be about. You can hear that in the last song where I put that old PSA clip about keeping your emotions in check around people. I searched ‘hope’ on YouTube and I clicked uploaded today and I checked and saw this old woman Auntie Jo who has like maybe 20 subscribers, maybe less. Each video gets maybe 15 or less views. 

At the time I watched the one on the vieo “It Couldn’t Be Done”. At the time I was the only person who had watched it. I sat there watching this old woman read a poem and discuss what it meant to her. I was like not only do I like this poem I like the whole vibe presented by her. It’s “Visitng with Auntie Jo” the YouTube account. Such a calming thing. You can tell she’s doing it because she enjoys reading and sharing material and that was something I really connected. 

Auntie Jo reading “The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

GSC: Are there any features, vocal or instrumental? Is this an entire solo endeavor? 

Spencer Rose: No, I did today talk to somebody about working together, but no, everything on illinois is all me, baby

GSC: A lot of the songs have a heartache vibe to them. What is your lyrical writing process? Are the songs about your life?

Spencer Rose: The heartbreak process, there’s definitely a lot to that. Again, these are things I wish I could have said in the moment when I was in these relationships. Even in my relationship now, which is the best relationship I’ve ever had, the song “Games on Yourself” is about a conversation I couldn’t bring myself to have verbally. Instead I decided to put it into a song. My girlfriend would dream that I would break up with her constantly and I couldn’t find the right words to tell her how much it bothered me. Not that it was annoying that it happened, but it bothered me I was doing something to make her dream that way. 

So I analyzed my entire self of what I was doing, what I could be doing. This song was done in maybe three hours of like consistent sitting down and doing it. That one needed the least amount of change ever cause it just kind of flowed out cause it was a conversation that I didn’t even bring up with my therapist. I was like, “what am I doing wrong?” I thought it was my fault in some way and I just needed to express to her in a way that couldn’t be put into words.   

GSC: How would you describe this album sound to the casual listener? What are the sonic influences? 

Spencer Rose: I put on Bandcamp ‘depression-core’ as the genre I picked. A lot of the musical influences are like Alex G, Duster. I think I would listen to Duster’s Stratosphere everyday. Just glean techniques and stuff that I can try and make some sort of shitty copy of, but if I had to boil it down to one word ‘depression-core’. A lot of it is just filtering my thoughts into song.

GSC: Speaking of depression, what have you been doing on the daily to take care of your mental health during this unprecedented pandemic? 

Spencer Rose: I’ve not been great about it. The last song “Always Tired” kind of sums up my thoughts where I feel like I’m sleeping way too much because I’m tired of being awake a lot of the time. I’m really trying to be better about it. Music was kind of that way like although the album was seven songs and sixteen minutes, I had forty-five tracks that were done cause whenever I start spiraling I just pick up my guitar and start making noises to fill the space. I’d have my headphones on and just blast it in my ear until I heard something good. Then I would diddle on it more and more and eventually instead of sitting around being depressed and just laying in my bed with the lights off, I would have something to show for it in the end. 

GSC: What’s the inspiration behind the album cover art? 

Spencer Rose: The picture is my license photo taken two days after the worst mental breakdown I ever had where I had to really start going to more therapy, changing psychiatrists. Really going into it and my mom forced me to go get my license renewed. She was like, “I’m not gonna let you sit around and mope. Shave. Comb your hair. And we’re gonna go get you a new license.” So I always find that picture so funny cause I’m smiling in it but really two days before I was nearly dead. I just find it so funny in a very dark way. I don’t think anyone would guess the context behind the picture, but to see myself smiling after going through all that. Not wearing glasses. My mustache looks like shit. Everything looks like shit. I’m really really skinny cause I wasn’t eating. It’s just a photo that’s a license photo that I show everyday so I have to confront how I was feeling that day every single time I show my license or open my wallet. That picture always stuck with me. When thinking of album covers, it was the first thing I thought of. Something super symbolic and unassuming. 

GSC: What advice would you give any man on the fence about going to therapy?

Spencer Rose: Just go. The most important thing I ever saw, a tweet once a couple years ago. “Attention comedians: Going to therapy won’t make you less funny. Antidepressants will not make you less funny,” cause that was my big fear. I would be on antidepressants, the fog would kick in. I would stop being funny and lose my social circle, but which of course was just depression talking at that point. It’s one of those things that no matter how painful it is, it might take a couple tries to find the right therapist, but if you feel like you need to talk to some and you need a professional to talk to, it’s a place you can take your thoughts and your brain, dump them somewhere, get feedback, and it’s consequenceless. The advice would be go. Don’t doubt yourself anymore. It doesn’t make you a better musician. It doesn’t make you a better comedian. It doesn’t make you a better writer. I know some people like to say they work better depressed, but it’s not worth suffering through all that. There’s so much more on the other side and you’re still just as great no matter what’s going on in your brain. 

GSC: That was me for years. I needed to be depressed. I needed to be sad to feel to make shit. Now I make more shit than ever and I’m not like super high, but I’m not fucking crawling on my knees sad right now. 

Spencer Rose: That’s exactly how I feel. The same thing. I’ve reached heights that I never thought was possible when I started going on antidepressants hardcore. I dabbled with it in college. Like when I really realized something was wrong and started getting correct with what medicines I should be taking and being vocal with the psychiatrist when it’s not working. This album would not be made. It’s basically sponsored by Lexapro. It’s very weird to put myself back in that headspace. It’s somewhere I don’t enjoy going, but I do enjoy vacationing there when it comes to writing some songs. 

GSC: How do you feel about Glenview, Illinois?

Spencer Rose: Oh boy. You got another half hour? Just kidding. A fine town on the surface with much to fix. It’s the town that gave us Mike Fish so it can’t be too bad.

GSC: Any movie, music, book, or podcast recommendations for the GSC’s readers?

Spencer Rose: One of the albums that I would say was really influential that not a lot of people would have heard of was by Chicago artist named Morgan Powers. The album is called Bugs in a Jar. She’s probably inadvertently, it’s not like my music sounds anything like hers, but I went to a show in her backyard last summer. I saw all these SoundCloud and Twitter musicians who don’t have deals anywhere and just put their shit out. She brought in three of my favorite artists in one night in someone’s random backyard. It was one of the most defining moments where I wished I could do this. What if I could? What if I sat down to do it? I’m not looking for superstardom. I’m looking to be able to express myself as well as they can. 

Her album Bugs in a Jar came out I believe right before lockdown or right after, but that album was on repeat constantly. There’s a song in there called “Hideous Creature” that I’ve seen her play live two times. The first time I saw her in concert she posted on Twitter that she’s playing a show at this venue. I did a comedy show at once. I was like “oh, cool I’d love to check that out”. I showed up expecting other people to be there and it was like me, her parents, and one other person there. I was like uhhhh, but I stayed and the concert was so good. It was like listening to the intimacy of the whole thing. That album Bugs in the Jar is probably the most influential out of macro-influences like Alex G, Duster, and Elliot Smith. When it comes to the culture and idea that I could do it at all, it was listening to Morgan Powers for sure. 

Hideous Creature – Morgan Powers

The laid back style of illinois as the world burns around us is welcome. Follow Spencer on Instagram, Twitter, and buy the album on Bandcamp where all proceeds go to Brave Space Alliance in Chicago. 

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