Artis the Spoonman

An interview with the legendary Spoonman of Soundgarden video fame
by Tommy Rage
February 2019

Artis the Spoonman (courtesy Facebook)

Artis the Spoonman (courtesy Facebook)

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest as a teenager, I was drawn to the evolving music scene in Seattle. By the early 90’s a tight community of local bands played numerous venues and local shows, each band with a similar yet distinctive sound. These local Seattle bands were eager and ambitious, supporting one another to put on great local shows. I was privileged to have some of these local Seattle bands on my radio show and became good friends with several of them. Without a doubt, the energy and excitement at the local shows was not only from the bands themselves, but from the fans as well. 

An emphasis of these shows was to highlight many local and unique talents. Through this venture, local bands such as Alice In Chains, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana, the Melvins and Soundgarden employed a “Tweener”. These “Tweeners” were local acoustic guitarists, bongo drummers and street performers who would play between the bands when they were changing their sets, stage equipment and instruments. One specific street performer drew a large following for his kind demeanor and unique instrument of choice: spoons.

Making my way back to the Seattle area, I caught up with Artis the Spoonman at his small cozy apartment with a window view of Puget Sound. He greeted me with the warm handshake of a 70 year-old as he sat in his chair and we chatted about old times. We caught each other up on bands we hung out with, old venues and familiar recording studios. The Seattle legend, was relaxed and talkative as he shared how it all began for him as a child. “My Mom bought me a pair of musical spoons when I was ten. She bought my sister a pair too, and I also took guitar lessons. My mother was a fun-loving woman, and as a teenage she was a dancer. I had a collection of records that I played along with on my bongos and spoons and I’d sing along too. She never told me to turn it down or turn off the music. I had Elvis and 50’s rock records that I still have. I’ve always wanted to be a rocker. A lot of people want to be something material, like a carpenter, doctor, or a writer like you are. Imagine yourself as a 12-year-old, and instead of being something like what your father was, you said: poet or musician. Who is going to accept that? I just wanted to be a rock star, and who would have thought of that?” 

As Artis pursued the rock-star dream, he rebelled against conforming as a teenager. Explaining what motivated him to become a musician, “The first thing that comes to mind is my attitude. I guess what turned me away from the conventional things, was I got into trouble a lot as a teenager. Things like stealing and such, and I really didn’t relate to the conventions of conforming [laughter].” 
 
Following his non-conforming attitude, Artis left the Navy in the late 60’s and the US Postal Service in the early 70’s and traveled about. Taking in music festivals, Artis preformed throughout the world, and shared the stage with Frank Zappa in Eugene, Oregon and at New York’s Palladium in 1981. Artis made a number of contributions to Zappa’s albums, including Zappa’s 1994 posthumous release Civilization Phaze III. Spending time with Frank Zappa, Artis felt a strong connection to his artistic style. “I remember when I was recording with Zappa. We were in the studio downstairs, it was the ‘Utility Muffin Research Kitchen’, the UMRK – (Zappa’s Hollywood recording studio); it was about an hour and half recording and then just being there with him. I was in the control room with him and I asked him if he ever kept time while he was playing? At that time, I never really knew [musical] timing. When I was playing with him, I knew it was complex. It was an odd thing. His answer to me was, ‘rhythms are just pictures in my mind.’ I thought, ‘Fuckn’A! Thanks. I’ll keep that and put it in my pocket’.” 
 
Traveling back to the Pacific Northwest in the early 90’s, Artis began making appearances at local music festivals, as well as a street performer at the popular Pike Place Market. With his collection of instruments: flute, recorder, and various spoons of different shapes and sizes, Artis was a mini-celebrity and local legend. Becoming a “tweener” for Seattle shows, Artis caught the eye of an up-and-coming local band, Soundgarden, in 1992 at a Seattle music festival. 

Artis sat quiet for a moment, reflecting about his time with Soundgarden. He turned his head in a proud realization, “I still have that session [recording]” he proclaimed with a smile. We decided to head to his recording studio across the street. Typical Pacific Northwest rain with a coastal breeze welcomed us to his studio. Cardboard boxes and black music crates along with scattered memorabilia were laid about the one room studio. Artis settled himself in front of his computer. Monitors, a keyboard, a VHS/DVD player were decorated with stickers from music festivals, old photos and various spoons strewn about his make-shift studio.

Artis turned his computer on, and he handed me a pair of headphones. “I have close musician friends who tell me that I’m not a musician, that I just play spoons. But I’ve written a lot of songs and have a new CD that we did in New York City, it took about three weeks to do.” The Spoonman’s 2018 release Finally plays through the worn headphones as Artis taps his knee in perfect rhythm to a somber-blues song, “Stay Away From Me.” Artis reflected on how the CD came together, “It was sad, it was the same year that Chris died, so I thought I was a sign. It was [the record company], they couldn’t find me, but they had six checks for me. It was enough to put together some money for a CD, so I went out to New York once I had [enough] money. I can’t ask for people to give money, I can’t ask for generosity, I’m not a businessman [laughter].”

We listened to his CD Finally, some of his unreleased recordings and a DVD video performance that he would like to release down the road. Making our way back to his apartment, the sound of waves crashing on the beach filled the brisk, cool air. We continued to talk about his ideas of writing an autobiography and putting together a DVD of all his previous work, when he paused. “You hear that beach? You can sit here and listen to all the things going on with the beach. There’s definitely a rhythm, it’s not a beat, it’s a pulse. It’s got a tone. If you have perfect pitch you can tell what key the water and beach is in when the waves come over. When you have that kind of ear, there’s a note that fits. It’s all in the inflections and tones. You can just listen and hear it. That’s how I play spoons, I do the same thing.”

Perhaps that’s the true Artis the Spoonman, a man who just does his own thing, in his own unique way. Recalling the free spirt of recording “Spoonman” with Soundgarden, “There wasn’t any direction from their part. When their manager Susan contacted me, Chris [Cornell] and Jeff [Amet/Pearl Jam] were working on the soundtrack to the movie Singles. They wanted some simple riffs for the movie, for some background stuff. Jeff came up with the name, and Chris wrote the song after we met. It wasn’t a song at first, it was just a riff. They called me and asked me to come in and record it with them in the studio. They didn’t tell me to do anything [laughter]! We did four takes in 2 hours, and that was it.” 

As our time wrapped up, I could tell that the passing of Chris Cornell was difficult on Artis. He only occasionally plays spoons now but keeps the spoons from the “Spoonman” video in a glass cabinet in his living room. He took them out and played a brief song for me as he smiled and laughed, “I just managed to be a rock-star with fucking spoons!”

(Author’s Note: Artis suffered a heart attack in 2002, and no longer performs on a regular basis. He was able to self-fund his 2018 CD Finally which is available through Bandcamp. Please help support this rhythmic icon by purchasing his CD on Bandcamp: Thank you) 

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Artis the Spoonman
CD: Finally