Justin Spencer talks about Recycled Percussion on their own stage and giving back
By Michael Witthaus
In 1995, Justin Spencer put together a three-man band called Recycled Percussion and entered a talent show at Goffstown High School. They finished in second place, but soon after that they began receiving appearance offers. This would become common for the pioneer junk rockers, whose drumming on trash cans, ladders and other non-instruments delighted audiences.
The group came in third on Season 4 of America’s Got Talent and parlayed that success into a Las Vegas residency, the only contestant to do that. For 10 years Recycled Percussion were regulars on The Strip; when that ended, the group returned to New Hampshire, Spencer’s home state.
Their thoughts were now focused on more than performing. They had a charity, Chaos and Kindness, along with a television series showcasing its deeds. The effort grew into a lifestyle brand, with two retail stores, one in Laconia, the other in Keene. Their crowning was The CAKE Theatre — the acronym stands for Chaos and Kindness Experience.
When Recycled Percussion played that 1995 talent show, it consisted of Spencer and two buddies who would not go on to be part of the band. The current lineup is Spencer, his cousin Ryan Venzina (who was 11 years old when the Goffstown competition happened, but joined three years later), Spencer’s wife Quinn, former Miss New Hampshire Ashley Marsh, Jimmy Luv and Davin Cox.
“There was no definitive original cast because Justin just had random friends playing gigs with him whenever someone was interested and we’ve been through over 20 members since then,” said Ryan Venzina. ”I always thought it was interesting that he chose non-drummers who were just really good friends to join the band instead of good musicians. It was always about fun and chemistry. I think I was the first person to join that was actually an experienced musician.”
In a wide-ranging interview at his Manchester home, band hangout and playroom, Justin Spencer looked back and forward, as the group prepares for its traditional “out with the old, in with the new” run of late December and early January shows across the Granite State.
What got you into playing and percussion? When was the first time you picked up drumsticks, do you remember that?
Yeah, yeah. So, my dad was a drummer. There were always drumsticks laying around the house and there’s pictures of me playing at 2 years old, of course I don’t remember that. There’s certainly the evidence that I was playing drums at a young age, and I can remember by at 5, 6 or 7 performing on stage with my dad — he was in a local cover band, and I’d go on stage and do drum solos. So I don’t really know a life without music. It’s been something I’ve done since I can remember.
Any other instruments you’re proficient with?
No, very much not so. I can’t do anything else besides drums.
But you’re really, really good at drums.
Yeah, but I have no other talents,
When you did the talent show, you came in second, which seems to be a trend in your life — you don’t finish in first place, and you go out and rule the world right after that.
My whole life I’ve been second.
It just makes you hungrier, right?
There was a period after that when you were contacted by different entities to perform. Tell me about that; was there a moment in time when you knew you were on to something special?
In the early days, even when I was still in high school, this was 1997, 1998, those years, we really spent a lot of our time going to elementary schools and middle schools and high schools, for a couple of hundred bucks here and there, doing assemblies. Really, that’s how we kind of got started. In 2001 we got a big break when we were able to perform a halftime show for the San Francisco 49ers. It was two days before 9/11 happened. Up until that point, I would spend my days after school calling a lot of schools — back then it was open a phonebook and find schools and call and say, ‘I have a band, Recycled Percussion, can I come perform at your school for two hundred bucks,’ or a hundred bucks or whatever. Sometimes we’d get paid in free lunch. We’d go to every school we possibly could. That lasted a few years before we got a break and started touring our show around the country.
So this was in San Francisco?
Yeah, it was a big deal for us. I remember they paid us five thousand bucks and we thought we were rich. We were excited. It was a couple of days before 9/11 and we got stranded there, and we had to drive home. It was a very interesting time, and even at that time we didn’t really have … you can have aspirations, but in the music world, it can end at any time. At that point it was like, yeah, we made it, we did a halftime show and it was really cool. I would have been content with that. It was bigger than anything I’d ever seen. Of course, being from a small town in New Hampshire, you don’t really think you have the ability to. Nowadays, with the advent of technology, it’s a lot easier to be seen no matter where you live, but back then if you didn’t live in a big city or have money there was no way people would ever see you.
What you do is so unique, too. Some kids start a band, you started something that no one was doing. The closest thing maybe was Stomp! Were you aware of that?
No, because I think we came before that or Blue Man Group, or maybe they came around that time, I don’t remember. Our inspiration came from a kid named Larry Wright. He was an African American teenage boy who had won the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship, which was given every year to an individual who had shown unique percussive talent. We had seen a VHS tape of him in 1994 or ’95 and I’d seen this kid playing buckets and thought this is really cool. Eventually I said why don’t we do something like that at our high school talent show, but three of us do it? At that time, I’d never seen anything like it. That’s really where we came up with the idea of RP, and we were only going to play one show. It was only for the talent show. That was it. It wasn’t until a few years later I heard of Stomp! and the Broadway show.
Fast forward to AGT, that was a back and forth, there was a moment where you thought it wasn’t going to happen, it was out of your hands and then it did. Then you lost—
We lost to a singer. At that point, it was Season 4, we were the highest non-singing act in the history of the show. Traditionally singers win, their stories are more — people are more compelled by singing in general. So, the guy who won, Kevin Skinner, had this great story, he was a chicken catcher, this very sympathetic, Middle America, Kentucky guy. Second place was Barbara Padilla, who had just come back from cancer, and she was an opera singer. Right when that was done, we moved to Las Vegas.
Right after AGT and before Las Vegas, you came back and performed at Goffstown High School and it was an event, I remember the energy. What are your recollections of that?
We’d been in Los Angeles for a few months filming AGT, and it was a very trying time emotionally for us. When we came back, we thought, we’re just going to do free tickets and we’ll go back to where we started, Goffstown High School, and I’ve always proclaimed that our last show will be at Goffstown High School, it will come full circle. I want my last show to be there, whether it’s this year or next year, the end is coming soon, at least for me, and when that time comes. So the right choice is to go back to Goffstown High School. I remember we said for people to go to Shaw’s for free tickets and my stepmom called to say they had to shut down the road because people couldn’t get tickets. It basically caused traffic jams; it was such a big deal at the time. Nowadays, these reality shows, there’s so many of them, it’s really based on social media anymore. Back then, AGT was getting 24 million viewers a night, it was a big deal. The show was at its apex. We were in one of the biggest seasons, the top three seasons in history of that show. Now hardly anyone even knows it’s happening anymore; it happens so often. But back then it was a year process to find that winner. So it was a big event at Goffstown, I’ll never forget it. It was like the Beatles, the volume of people screaming. It was one of my favorite shows that we’ve ever done. It was a celebration, it was crazy.
How did the Vegas offer happen, and how did you feel about it when it came?
It happened with a guy named Steve Levine, who is VP of ICM, one of the largest agencies, and Steve represents some very profound entertainers, Ellen, Chris Rock, Carrot Top. He’d seen us on AGT and showed up to say, of all the acts that are here, you’re the only one that could actually be a Vegas show. We don’t need a singer; we need someone who is diversified to be a performer. So, at that time, they said ‘we think you can be a Vegas show.’ So within those 48 hours — as you can imagine AGT has 300-page contracts, and Freemantle, which is owned by Simon Cowell, said the only act we are going to sign is RP, and we didn’t want to be signed because we knew we could go to Las Vegas on our own. In order to get out of that contract we said we’d go to Vegas for two months to perform in the AGT Celebrity Show. When that’s done, we want to open up our own show in our own name. Steve Levine brokered that deal with the MGM Grand, and we went and performed for two months like we said we’d do with AGT, and they started to realize in that time frame that some of the other AGT acts weren’t — a lot of these singing acts can be good on TV for two minutes or this guy’s a bow and arrow trickster for two minutes, but they couldn’t diversify. So they started to put RP with those acts. Kevin Skinner, who won, is kind of boring, so they have to put RP as his backing band. Then when that was done, we went to the MGM Grand for a year, and then we moved on to be at the Tropicana for the next six years and ultimately Caesar’s for five years. Once we got to Vegas, we were the only band that owned our own show.
And you were the cheapest when it came to equipment — you could buy it all at Home Depot.
Yes, but the production was not cheap; it took millions of dollars to build these stages. It wasn’t like we were playing bars in Vegas; we were a perennial headline show in big theaters. We did 5,000 shows.
I’d think the amount of time you spent on the road, paying dues and getting your 10,000 hours, made you Vegas-ready.
Once we got to AGT, we were 13 years in, we were prepared. A lot of those acts, they were discovered online, and we were already playing hour-long shows in other places. We knew how to really be prepared to run a show in Vegas. If you look at the shows we did on AGT, they were very complex, and we had to write those in advance. A singer had the whole week to do what? Find a song to sing. We had to write an entire new piece, coming off the ceiling with big water tanks and all that. We had to develop and build these enormously difficult things and that came into play when we went to Las Vegas.
How did Vegas end?
Did you decide it was time to go, was it a mutual thing?
It was me. I was dealing with a lot of mental illness at the time, something I’m a big advocate for. It’s something I’ve had to deal with for a long time, but 500 shows a year for 10 years … I wasn’t happy for the last couple of years. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. You also have kids and your family’s always in New Hampshire and you’re like how much longer am I going to be away from them? And my parents, I want my kids to be with their grandparents. It just had run its course. We’ve had multiple offers to go back to Vegas and perform but I don’t have the desire right now.
In the next chapter, Recycled Percussion became focused on philanthropy and helping people out. When did you decide to do that? Was it something you always wanted to do; did you see it growing to that point? What led you into Chaos & Kindness and the charitable things you do for people?
That really started back in Las Vegas. I wrote a book called One Life, One Legacy and the idea was here’s this kid, I didn’t grow up with money and grew up in a small town and didn’t always have the easiest path forward and I found a way to live my dream. I thought this is really cool, I think I can inspire other people to make their dreams come true. I’m a big believer in you only live once, what are you going to do with that life? I came up with this idea of helping people and I found it so rewarding. In Las Vegas it wouldn’t be uncommon on weekends that I’d pick up women and children from homeless shelters and bring them to my house and do pool parties. Every Christmas I’d give toys out to thousands of kids. I would donate thousands of tickets every year to people who couldn’t afford to come to shows, visit hospitals, visit people with cancer. It made me feel more alive, being kind, than even on stage. I kind of think that’s where it started. The Chaos & Kindness brand … we had a TV show that was going to be called Junk Rockers, and it was this idea that A&E was looking at doing on a national level. It was a very unique situation where our entire band, we all live in one house, with our family, wife and kids. I said what about kindness? They said, kindness isn’t going to sell. I said I just want to do this cool thing where half the show is these guys, we’re crazy, we’re in a rock band, we’re the kind of guys who’d go streaking one day and the next go help some guy with cancer. That’s how the idea of Chaos & Kindness came to be. I pitched it to WMUR, I said I’ll do the show for free; I don’t want to get paid for it, you just give me a 7 o’clock time slot and I’ll produce the whole thing myself. We’ve done over 106 episodes, all of them for free.
The production — I imagine it costs you because it’s a very well-produced show.
It does and it’s won over 20 Emmys now, and they’re everywhere. I gave some to my mom and dad. We do it all. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to follow my heart. It’s a very personal journey for sure.
What you’ve done with the brand is so impressive. There’s a kid named Viktor who was on the show, he’s autistic and he draws great pictures, which you put on the hoodies and shirts you sell. Was this part of it or did you just realize it would be a good way to raise money to donate to causes?
Chaos & Kindness is our clothing line, it’s more of a way of life that brings a lot of people together. We have a lot of different artists that create stuff for us. Through Covid we were able to keep a lot of print shops and things in business, because 90 percent of our items are made in New Hampshire, printed in New Hampshire, our candles, mugs are all New Hampshire-based companies, so we were able to give a lot of small businesses work. A lot of our random acts of kindness comes from that. Chaos & Kindness is the band, it’s like we wear different hats. They cross into each other a lot. Sometimes I’ll see someone and they’re like oh it’s the guy from Recycled Percussion, or sometimes it’s oh it’s the guy from Chaos & Kindness. They associate us with different things. Chaos & Kindness is so much bigger than us, it’s everybody in our band but it’s also got dozens of employees, we’ve got people with disabilities that work for us that get paid, we’ve got all genders … it’s a lot of different — I don’t even know what Chaos & Kindness is right now, we sell hoodies, we do all kinds of great things, it’s a great business.
What’s your favorite act of kindness of all the ones you’ve done?
One that hits home was there was a man named Michael, he’s passed away. We learned his story, he had terminal cancer, and he had these two amazing young boys, under the age of 10 or 11. We built a life-sized metal statue of him and his kids, and we surprised him and his family with it, and it now resides up in his favorite Chili’s that he used to walk up to in northern New Hampshire. His kids and their mother, Sharon, I still hear from them frequently, go visit often. Stuff like that. We went to Puerto Rico when the hurricane hit, and helped down there, and went to Houston when the hurricane hit there, we wound up literally carrying people out of houses. Sometimes it’s simple acts of kindness, you do something nice for somebody. I just hope people find ways to be kind to each other.
You set a good example. As far as chaos, you find some interesting ways, like having Ryan ride a boogie board on the Merrimack in the cold weather. What other chaotic things stand out? That’s got to be tough, 45 shows in one day, going around the world.
We performed 25 countries in seven days, and that was tough. It was dangerous because we were in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Romania, those areas. That was kind of challenging. I was buried underground for 24 hours in a wooden box under 20,000 pounds of sand. That was not the greatest of my life, for sure.
One question: Why?
Well, we raised a bunch of money, and took a bunch of kids back-to-school shopping. Which is also great.
People are strange — that would motivate them to donate money, watching someone get buried alive.
Another thing I want to touch on is the return to New Hampshire. You don’t do anything small; you built your own theater in Laconia, The CAKE, for Chaos and Kindness Experience. It’s a great name. What led you to choose Laconia?
Well, I was born in Laconia, I still have a house there. I always found that area to be really beautiful. We’re the only band in the world that owns their own venue. Nobody’s ever done it. It would have made more sense to do it in Boston, a place where there were more people, but we’ve had it great. Every weekend, people come up there, it sells out. What’s really great about it is it’s just like Vegas. My whole idea was can we bring Vegas to a small town. We do about 60 to 80 shows a year ourselves. Can we bring people there? It’s been a rewarding experience. We spent a lot of time and money to build that place, it’s a state-of-the-art venue. I live down in Manchester during the week, because my daughter wants to go to school at Central. So we live here during the week, I go there on the weekends and we still travel and do shows. This is primarily where we’re based now, Manchester and Laconia are where we live.
It’s pretty remarkable … the whole downtown area of Laconia has been revitalized by the arts. Do people come from far-flung places to see you?
Every weekend people come to our show from out of state. It’s like a bucket list for them.
End of year, your residency at Palace is a thing, and a few other places. Tell me about plans for this year.
Yeah, so we’re going to do a record-breaking amount of shows at the Palace this year, 15 shows will take place right after Christmas. They always sell out, there’s always this big energy, this holiday and New Year’s Eve party that goes on for two weeks. We write a whole new show just for that, we take December off and spend three weeks in the creative process. Then we travel around New Hampshire, we go to Keene, Rochester, Lebanon, Claremont, Nashua, we go to some other places too. We basically take two months to travel outside of the CAKE, because Laconia is really busy in the summer. Then we take some time off, write new shows and then open back up. We’re always writing new stuff.
Are you off the road?
No, we still do shows around the country. We just got back from filming a few weeks in Cincinnati, Kentucky….
Chaos and Kindness?
Yeah, but we performed in Alaska a couple of months ago, we performed in Oregon. We go back to Vegas; we can pick and choose a lot. We don’t want to travel as much, but we can if we want to.
Are there other things ahead?
It’s always amazing to me the amount of people that have never seen us live. When we do a show, I’ll ask people, and half the crowd hasn’t seen us. What’s great is we have this show that does well for all ages. I think that’s because we like to pay tribute to a lot of the old classic rock and a lot of our entertainment, our humor is fresher and more exciting. We work seven days a week all year, I literally never stop working. We always believe the next show is better than the one before and I think right now we’re the best we’ve ever been.
Well, I don’t know many people on the planet with the kind of energy you have, Justin. Final question — of all that’s happened, what’s the most surprising to you?
All the friendships I’ve made. I’ve made some very rewarding friendships over the years. I’ve changed a lot as a person, and I have a lot of perspective. That’s the greatest gift, I’ve got great people around me and it’s not any one particular thing that was surprising. Nothing surprises me. We’ve performed at the Grammys, the Super Bowl, TikTok, in 50 countries. That doesn’t move my needle, that’s not what surprises me. But just the relationships we’ve made, with our fans. We have great friendships with our fans, we see a lot of people at a lot of shows, know them by name, know their problems and struggles. It’s great to see those people. Sometimes we don’t see faces and we say where’s that person? That’s probably been what’s most surprising is to have that intimate relationship with our fans.
One more question, because you are such an advocate for mental health. What do you want people to know about that?
I think the world could be a better place in how we think about each other. I think we cast too much judgment, certainly I’ve made million mistakes in my life, and you could judge me, like pretty much anybody in this world. When you have to live with that every day, it’s taxing, and it’s easy to sit behind a keyboard and say things, and those things hurt people. I think we could take a little extra time to realize there are people out there suffering. Going through difficult times. Your comments might make or break their life. Choose wisely. Every day you wake up and have to find that purpose. Money can’t buy you happiness — I’ve tried — or being on stage. You have to be surrounded by people that love and care about you and understand your value, and always be a better version of yourself. Hopefully, it will keep you alive and healthy.
Featured Photo: Courtesy photo.