NASA’s Sam “Squeak E. Clean” Spiegel is a busy man. Between surfing, working on Cee Lo’s and Spank Rock’s albums and working with Drew Barrymore on a film, he and the team have been flight-testing the new Explorer shuttles for the upcoming mission to Mars. Currently in orbit around Phobos, Mars’ largest moon, we have a chat that lasts for hours, given the delays inherent in interstellar communications. I ask Sam how the flight tests are going.
“The truth is I really want to make some pop music right now, you know.” Tests must not be going so well then. “I’m not really feeling the mainstream of hip hop music right now and I think pop music is kind of better than hip hop pop music. I’m really kind of intrigued by the idea of the challenge of doing music that many many people love but also remains really tasteful and really good.”
Spiegel is the brother of director Spike Jonze, who gained critical acclaim for his Kaufman-penned films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Jonze and Spiegel worked together on an ADIDAS television commercial entitled Hello Tomorrow, with Sam lending the score.
On Jonze: “We goof around a lot, we have fun. Both of us, you know, we’re pretty fun loving people. I think we understand each other really well though, there’s no, like, communication barrier like there is sometimes when you’re working with new people, there’s just this really clear causeway of communication between us. Also it doesn’t hurt that we share a very similar taste.”
NASA released the album Spirit of Apollo in February of this year, but the album had been in production for five years. The album is packed with an eclectic megastar list of collaborators such as Tom Waits, John Frusciante, George Clinton and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, which was one of the reasons for the long production time. NASA had to wait up to three years for collaborator’s schedules to align favourably.
“Everyone’s really eclectic, everyone’s really open minded and it was something we really wanted to explore on the record. We feel we’re very eclectic DJs and very eclectic music fans and that’s something we feel really comes through on the album. It’s also something that is really kind of pervasive in society today – the idea of being open minded and not being locked down to one kind of music or one kind of aesthetic. Everyone is borrowing from everyone right now. I think music really makes you feel you know. It’s the most emotive art form and I think that is one of the biggest things that make people love it, that it makes you feel.”
Tom Waits appears on the album with rapper Kool Keith, a strange collaboration indeed. “As much as possible we tried to get people in the same room together you know so they can feed off each other and have chemistry. But we thought these two people are so amazing, so unique, and so in their own world that we didn’t want to get them together cos they might just not get each other and just bug out.”
Spiegel is also taking a leaf from his brother’s book by directing and editing a documentary about the making of the epic album. I wonder how Sam deals with a different art form.
“It’s been really fun to be able to work in a different medium. It’s basically half documentary half animation. We’ve been working with some of our favourite artists like Sage Vaughan, Shepard Fairey, Mark Gonzales, Marcel Dzama, and The Date Farmers, like all these amazing different people, we’ve been getting them to animate music videos and stuff for the film. So the film is like a bit of a cross genre experiment, in the same vein as the album.”
Spending time with some of the most unique musical artists in the world must have been like a five-year party, with a shitload of hard work thrown in too. How does one come down off such a high? Isn’t it ever hard parting ways with collaborators?
“It’s sort of like a girlfriend, you have to appreciate the time you spent with them. You know it can be weird seeing them with someone else like a new boyfriend or whatever, but you know the time you had with the girl was great and you created some amazing moments together. Also there’s always that chance you might get back together.
“I love working with people, it’s definitely something I thrive on. It’s just fun you know, making music with people is fun cos it just feels like your hanging out with these people, having fun making music with a friend. People inspire me as well, you know sometimes even just their personalities inspire me, just by hanging out and vibing and making me feel creative. But at the same time I like to work alone too, you know, I need the contrast.”
We leave Sam there, sitting in a tin can, far above the world. Planet Mars is red and the radio’s gone dead. Make sure you check out Spirit of Apollo before Sam’s craft comes rocketing back towards Earth like the end of the dinosaur age all over again.