They have no need for alarm clocks at the Tweedy household. When they hear the pounding of drums coming from the basement, they know it must be morning. Spencer is loyal to his pre-school practice sessions, and despite a head still groggy from sleep, he attacks the skins with a frenetic energy. He makes sounds that are surprisingly rhythmic. And for such tiny arms, awfully loud.
Spencer, who lives in Chicago with his parents and younger brother Sam, claims to be entirely self-taught. He admits, however, to taking a few lessons from Glenn, the drummer from his father’s band, Wilco. Though only 9 years old, Spencer has been honing his percussive skills since age three, when he received a drum kit for his birthday. “It’s not fake,” he’s quick to point out. “It’s not the kind you get at Toys R Us. It’s real drums, just like adults use.”
There are some in his family who trace Spencer’s musical roots back even earlier. “When he was a baby, you could sing to him and he’d sing along in harmony,” says father Jeff. “I’m not kidding. He’d do it all the time. It’d either be right in key or harmonizing.”
A full year before he took up drumming, Spencer had a fondness for the electric guitar. On his tiny Les Paul, he would join his dad in impromptu jam sessions, either in the house (which is always littered with instruments) or down the street at Jeff’s loft rehearsal space. Before long, Spencer was writing and performing his own songs, proving to be unusually prolific for a two-year old. With little or no help from his dad, he penned dozens of originals, including such classics as “There’s a Bug On the Couch” and “Turkey, Turkey, Turkey, He’s Cuckoo.”
“One of my favorites was called, ‘Mommy’s Home, Daddy’s Home,’” remembers Sue, his mom. “The lyrics were like, ‘Mommy works too much and leaves me.’ It made me cry.”
Though Spencer has outgrown his singer/songwriter phase, his musical ambitions have not diminished. Earlier this year, he formed a band with singer and schoolmate Henry Moser. As Spencer explains, “I was at Dairy Queen with Henry and he was talking about a band. And then the next day he called me and said, ‘Spencer, what are we gonna do about the band?’ And I was like, ‘What band?’ And he said, ‘Didn’t we create a band last night?’ I thought it was just a joke.”
The first order of business was finding a name, and they soon settled on The Blisters. They recruited keyboardist (and at 11, elder rocker) Dylan Johnson, and after just a few rehearsals, they were invited to perform at the Second City Theater for a benefit show. Joining them on the bill were Robbie Fulks, Steve Albini, Billy Corgan, the Mekons, and Spencer’s dad. Not bad for a band that had thus far only played the Tweedy basement.
In the weeks leading up to their debut, Spencer and the boys blanketed their school with flyers. “On the top, it said ‘The Blisters’ in really big 3-D handwriting,” Spencer explains. “Then there was a drawing of an explosion, and then the time we’d be playing. My mom told us that the time might change, so we went around to all the flyers and wrote ‘ish’ after the hour.”
The big night finally arrives, and around 6-ish, the Blisters perform a stripped-down version of “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The crowd literally gasps with joy. When Henry belts out, “I miss the innocence I’ve known, playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned,” it manages to be both ironic and sincere, adorable and genuinely cool. The crowd helps out, providing the “woo-hooooo” during the chorus. Even Billy Corgan is smiling, and Billy Corgan does not smile.
They receive a standing ovation, and the band returns to the stage for an encore. As their repertoire only contains one song, they play “Heavy Metal Drummer” again. And that seems somehow perfect, exactly as it should be. To ask for more would be greedy, a blemish on this otherwise pure moment. It’s even better the second time around, and if the Blisters had the stamina, a third encore would be just as welcome.
After the show, Spencer is exhausted but thoroughly satisfied. With his scruffy hair and sweat-stained t-shirt (decorated with a dinosaur drawn with a sharpie), he looks every inch the rock god. He’s a bit shy, though, and only mingles with fans his own age, despite the many adult admirers.
Once the crowd has thinned out, Spencer is easily coaxed into discussing the highs and lows of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. “I like that it’s really fun and it feels good to play,” he says. “But sometimes you can hurt your fingers with the sticks. I’ve gotten so many blisters from playing the drums.”
When asked if this had anything to do with the band’s name, Spencer just shrugs. “I guess,” he says. “I never thought of it that way before.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July 2004 issue of The Believer Magazine.)