The Culture

Globe-Trotting DJ Spencer Brown’s Unique Form of Stress Management

I still remember watching Spencer Bruno’s first-ever DJ set. It was our Dallas private school’s end-of-eighth-grade mixer, held in a classmate’s backyard, and he jittered onstage in plastic sunglasses and played clean versions of Lil Jon songs. Back at school, Spencer was an anxious weirdo who worked off nervous energy by drumming on the table during class, and I was too, so we were friends. In ninth grade we formed a two-person rock band called the Stupid Freshmen. Sophomore year, when he quit our band to DJ under the name $pen¢a and produce a kind of electronic dance music called dubstep, I thought he’d made a huge mistake.

After he left the Freshmen, Spencer stayed home most weekends to create dubstep tracks on his laptop. Within weeks he was releasing songs on YouTube. Within months he was one of the Metroplex’s most sought-after bar mitzvah DJs. Now, ten years later, he tours the world under the name Spencer Brown, playing his original techno and house songs to thousands of people at a time. Last year he released an album that hit number one on several dance-music charts, and even now he’s still too kind to remind me that he did not, in fact, make a huge mistake.

At the end of March, as he was finishing recording his second LP, Spencer invited me to join him at Miami Music Week, a SXSW-like archipelago of dance-music beach parties, pool parties, boat parties, and networking barbecues. When I landed at Miami International, Spencer was waiting at the gate. He wore all black, including his socks, headphones, and sunglasses.

“Thanks for not making fun of me for wearing sunglasses in the airport,” he said. “I need them to remain anonymous.” I laughed at his joke, but then he took them off, and a guy fifteen feet away shouted, “Spencer Brown!”

After Spencer posed for a selfie with the fan and put his sunglasses back on, we took a Lyft to his Airbnb. In the car he thumbed through dozens of Instagram direct messages he’d received that day from strangers. Last year he had to change his phone number (“Getting hundreds of texts a day made me anxious, mate”), and recently the man who had been given his old number complained that he still gets flooded with texts from Spencer Brown fans.

Spencer’s fan base has been expanding rapidly since he left the Stupid Freshmen, but the chaos has really accelerated recently. While we were in high school, the wildly popular producer Skrillex played Spencer’s dubstep songs to festival crowds. While Spencer studied at Duke, he opened arena shows for Swedish megastar Avicii, mixing together pop-leaning songs that he created on his laptop in the school library. Today, Spencer releases his tracks through high-profile dance labels, and he’s often billed at shows as a main attraction. The day after I arrived in Florida, he was scheduled to play his first-ever Miami Music Week headlining show.

In some ways, Spencer’s rise has been the result of excellent timing. A decade ago, when he was working as $pen¢a, electronic dance music was being rebranded into the friendlier, all-caps EDM, and the formerly freaks-and-geeks scene was transforming into a massively efficient profit center. In 2014, not long after Spencer started touring with him, Avicii made $28 million.

But there’s also a counterintuitive aspect to Spencer’s rise. By the time he graduated Duke, in 2016, and moved to San Francisco, he didn’t want to chase EDM stardom anymore. He dropped his manager and stopped making Top 40–yearning songs, and he started building a more specific fan base through his live shows and by releasing darker songs and more ethereal songs. Part of his motivation was aesthetic; he’s always liked the slightly freaks-and-geeks stuff best. But the shift was also for the sake of his own mental health. On the road with Avicii, Spencer saw how fame can mangle someone who already suffers from anxiety. And in 2016, Avicii, beset by the stress of being in the limelight, retired from touring at age 26.   

The morning after my arrival, Spencer ventured out to find coffee and take Snapchats promoting his shows. Then he opened his laptop and prepped for the headline gig, an open-air concert that would start before dusk and extend “into the darkness.” Spencer’s DJ sets are pretty distinctive—in contrast with most DJs, who mix in tracks by other artists, he usually pulls only from his own songs—and on this tour he’s playing over 200 unreleased original tracks. He clicked on the file for a song he’d finished on the plane and dragged it into a folder he’d made for the set. “I don’t know what the crowd is going to be like; I don’t know what the vibe is going to be like,” he said. “I’m going to go in with somewhere between 100 to 120 originals and then just wing it.”

In the early evening, we walked over to Barter, a covered open-air venue with a cloudy view of downtown. The promoter seated us at a table against the back wall where we could hang out before Spencer’s set began, and rain started drizzling off the roof. The show had apparently sold over three hundred tickets, but minutes before the music was supposed to begin, there were only twenty people there, and nearly all of them were staring at Spencer, who was slightly fidgeting. He kept glancing at a few hovering onlookers, and he eventually asked me and his tour manager for the Miami shows, James Lenihan, to sit on either side of him. On the bench, he toggled between the morning’s Instagram and Facebook comments about that night’s upcoming set, and he kept telling James he was afraid that the rain would stop other people from showing up.

When Qrion, the opening DJ from Japan, walked onstage at 4 p.m., there were maybe twelve people on the dance floor. Just as many fans lingered around our table, and a few of them were inching toward Spencer. He leaned over, cupped his hands, and asked me to tell any approaching fans that there would be a meet and greet after the show. When the rain started coming in sideways and streaming through a hole in the roof, he gripped his vodka cranberry. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, he didn’t say much; he mostly watched his feet tap on the floor.

Spencer has been anxious since at least middle school. He’s fought it by meditating, by playing baseball, and by turning his anxieties into comedy (when we had a substitute teacher, he’d sometimes pretend to be a panicked, face-fanning alter ego named Glenn). Mostly, though, he’s fought it by making music. But as I watched him look at his tapping feet, I wondered if becoming a semi-famous musician was making his anxiety worse.

Brown at the nightclub Barter, during Miami Music Week on March 28, 2019.

Photograph by Mary Beth Koeth

Brown opening for Above & Beyond at RC Cola Plant later that same night.

Photograph by Mary Beth Koeth

Left:

Brown at the nightclub Barter, during Miami Music Week on March 28, 2019.

Photograph by Mary Beth Koeth

Right:

Brown opening for Above & Beyond at RC Cola Plant later that same night.

Photograph by Mary Beth Koeth

It’s a glamorous life, being a DJ. You can fly around the world with only a USB stick in your backpack and get paid a lot of money to make people dance. But as Spencer makes clear, doing it for a living in 2019 also means becoming a public brand. It means getting your face out there by way of Instagram and Snapchat and therefore getting your face recognized at airports. It also means spending a lot of time waiting in those airports, having days where your only conversations are with flight attendants and club promoters and via texts and DMs from strangers. It also means, professionally, being “the life of the party,” sometimes five or six nights a week. In other words, being a DJ provides a lot of spaces for your anxiety to creep in, and in his first year of touring, Spencer lost fifteen pounds.

“Writing music is easiest when I’m anxious or distressed . . . but that year was a big wake-up call for me,” he told me later. Then he talked about a subject he rarely discusses: Avicii’s suicide, almost exactly a year ago. Spencer had seen his mentor, whose real name was Tim Bergling, withdraw backstage or cancel shows on tour, but, like almost everyone else, he didn’t grasp just how painful it was for Bergling to be Avicii. “When Tim passed away, it really, really affected me. Health has to be the first priority. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically.”

But at 5:58 p.m., with rain still draining through the hole in the roof, his anxiety was spinning toward something. His feet were still tapping and his head was still bobbing with panic, but now they were tapping and bobbing, with scary precision, at 123 beats per minute, the tempo of the song he’d chosen to begin his 6 p.m. show with. He got up from our table and walked through the crowd, which had finally reached triple digits, and he slipped under a blue tarp, which blocked the sideways rain, into the DJ booth. Dancing next to Qrion, he inserted his USB stick into the Pioneer CDJ turntables and queued up his set.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of eleven songs that influenced Brown’s music.

He began with “Sapporo,” a soft rush of abstract vocal samples, nimble electronic drums, and nature sounds. I stood apart from the crowd and watched them glide on the Astroturf. Many of Spencer’s fans discovered him through the British trio Above & Beyond and their record label, Anjunabeats, which last year released his debut album, Illusion of Perfection. Actually, “record label” may be too limiting a phrase. Dancing around Spencer were bodies sporting Anjuna neck tattoos, Anjuna gold chains, an Anjuna flag worn as a cape, and more official “team” clothing than I’d seen at any tailgate in my life. In my iPhone notes, I wrote: “Benevolent cult?”

Spencer says that DJing puts him in a “flow state,” where his anxiety gets channeled into energy, and that energy fixates on scanning the crowd and building the right sequence of tracks. Playing music on a dance floor is kind of like doing stand-up comedy—the crowd’s bodily reactions tell you if you’re succeeding or bombing. Spencer pays attention to the fans’ smiles and moves when he’s auditioning his unreleased tracks, and he builds his sets around tested songs that he knows will make everyone dance. At this show, when he transitioned into one of those songs, the crowd—now a few hundred people—swelled toward him. Out of curiosity, I lifted up the rain tarp and went into the DJ booth.

Standing behind him, I watched the dancers pulsate around us. When Spencer raised his hands, they raised their hands, and when he looked up, they made eye contact with him. The subwoofer punched at my calves, and I watched Spencer twist knobs I didn’t understand. He apparently was mixing songs together, tweaking sounds and levels, and trying to build a continuous flow. At that moment, he was transitioning into a song that begins at a low pitch and slides up for ninety seconds into the key of G minor. He composed the intro so that he can segue into it from any key, but the gradual build also means a slow rush of tension. After forty seconds, I left the booth. I couldn’t handle all the anxious energy swirling around in there, but I could tell Spencer had harnessed it.

Brown at RC Cola Plant.

Photograph by Mary Beth Koeth

Back on the dance floor, I heard the song, “Everything Is a Cycle,” take form. A progression of arpeggios builds on itself, and Spencer adds in whirling synths and counterpoint melodies, and the tension grows and grows until, as in a lot of great dance songs, it breaks. And when he played it that night, all the tension became release. I started jumping up and down, and the man in the Anjuna cape flailed his arms toward the sky, and all of us entered some kind of state. We looked up at Spencer, and he wasn’t swaying or drumming on the table anymore. He was standing still, with his hands at his sides, looking out at us with a Buddha-esque smile.

“It’s just getting the frequencies of the song that I programmed on my computer to bring love to other people,” Spencer told me later. “And along the way it brings euphoria to me. Once you’re in that flow state, that anxiety is gone. That’s what I do this for.”

By the end of the set, the rain had stopped, and Spencer took photos with dozens of fans. He hugged nearly all of them, and he was the happiest he’d been all day. I wanted to ask him gingerly about the near panic attack he’d had before the show, but he beat me to it. “Every time before I play, the anxiety builds and builds and builds as the day goes on,” he said. “But I take that energy and turn it into something.”

In fact, Spencer struggled with panic again during dinner. At midnight he was scheduled to play another show, opening for Above & Beyond in front of five thousand people, and from ten until then his mind was already on stage. James helped calm him, but Spencer mostly drummed on the table and imagined his set in his head.

At 11:55 p.m., I stood among those thousands of people in a parking lot. The act before Spencer had played an hour of sugary dance songs, and Spencer answered with forty minutes of his most brutal techno tracks. Spencer fracked his darkest energy, his deepest anxieties, and we danced to it. Jumping up and down again, I thought of a quote that he and I discuss in our most pretentious moments, that music should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” And while some ticket holders looked a little perturbed by the violent drum sounds filling the large parking lot, Spencer Brown and a few thousand people and I felt the painful, jittery tension build and build until it released us.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Tension and Release.” Subscribe today.

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