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The Continuing Adventures of Squeak E. Clean 

The star-studded N.A.S.A. project by L.A.'s best-connected producer gets a remix

Thursday, Jul 22 2010
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Just around the corner from an indoor paintball range, a spy shop and more than one parked van — which aren't really vans but homes — the Squeak E. Clean Studios hide in the backyard of an anonymous Hollywood home. Inside, the midcentury house is filled with instruments, vintage mixing boards, rack upon rack of guitars and basses, while bleary-eyed techs lounging on office chairs chat about "mixing stems," and other unintelligible jargon.

Squeak E. Clean Studios looks like a music shop meets Animal House.

For Squeak E. Clean himself, DJ and producer Sam Spiegel, founder of the star-studded outfit N.A.S.A., this is home. Or it was, for a time.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BENZO - N.A.S.A. reloaded: Squeak E. Clean (front) and collaborator DJ Zegon
  • PHOTO BY BENZO
  • N.A.S.A. reloaded: Squeak E. Clean (front) and collaborator DJ Zegon

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"I lived here, then slowly I grew my company," Spiegel says, slouched back in an office chair in a room stacked with Moogs. "Then, like eight or nine people [were] coming in here every day so I'd come down in my boxer shorts and there would be somebody right there. It got a little bit much. Especially if I had a lady friend over."

Although this dude den is no longer his crash pad, the Studios — surrounded by tangled wires, jerry-rigged soundproofing and even a Nintendo Power Glove (not for musical purposes) — is where Spiegel's heart is.

It was here that the DJ/producer made his name in L.A., after leaving behind New York and his childhood home in Bethesda, Maryland. It was here that he and his older brother, Academy Award–nominated director Spike Jonze, once cultivated their creativity. Spiegel went on to become the successful DJ Squeak E. Clean, and began scoring commercials and films, and produced records for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fatlip and many others.

But while he was putting sound to images, he was working on his own project. N.A.S.A. (North America/South America) isn't just an album, it's an art piece. Spiegel collaborated with Brazilian DJ Zegon (Ze Gonales) to ambitiously combine disparate voices from rock and hip-hop to make a singular sound, pairing David Byrne with Jurassic 5's Chali 2na, Spank Rock with M.I.A., and Karen O with the Ol' Dirty Bastard himself.

Hip-hop serves as connective tissue, the bouncing rhythms and danceable beats tie this work together. It took Spiegel almost five years to get the record together.

"I'd meet [the artists] on tour across the world," he says. "I almost never did it over the Internet. It could have been a random collection of songs, but it was important to me that there was a concept tying it together."

To do the track "Gifted," for example, Spiegel crossed a couple of oceans and a few continents to record a joint featuring Lykke Li, Santigold, and his friend Kanye West, for whom he music-directed a tour.

" 'Gifted' came together, like, two weeks before the album was due," Spiegel says. "I thought of Kanye for it, then I get this call, like, 'Yo, I'm in Hawaii; come out here and let's do this song.' So I flew to Hawaii that day. Then I contacted Lykke, who immediately got back to us and we flew a couple days later to Sweden to work with her. Then I had been talking to Santi, so a couple days later I flew to New York, and recorded her, then I had to fly back to mix the record, then pretty much turn it in the next day."

Spiegel has more stories than the library, and he nonchalantly describes his connections to some of the more creative names in the industry. He talks about the time when E-40 and Method Man stopped by the Squeak E. Clean studios to record their track: "They were all drinking jugs of Carlo Rossi that they'd pour into bottles of grape Gatorade."

On the raucous collaboration between Kool Keith and Toms Waits: "He lived up in the cabin way out in Napa, in wine country. He hadn't really done any collaborations before, [or] anything with electronic sounds, but his son was really into Kool Keith, so he did it."

On Kool Keith: "Kool Keith is writing music almost all day. Every day he wakes up, writes some music, eats some Chinese food, then shops for cloth — because he designs women's lingerie and panties, you know — then goes back to writing."

Spiegel even captured one of the last tracks ever recorded by Ol' Dirty Bastard, allegedly just weeks before he passed away. "I didn't get to meet him, but we kept trying to have him come into the studio, and he kept standing us up. So he eventually said that he would record the track in his own studio."

Nearly a year has passed since Spiegel dropped N.A.S.A., and he has revisited the piece through the eyes of others. For his upcoming release, The Big Bang, Spiegel commissioned Steve Aoki, L.A. Riots, spazztastic Frenchman Mr. Oizo, and many others to reenvision his dance art piece.

So how do you exactly one-up a talent-packed album five years in the making and a follow-up remix album by top-name DJs?

"I just spent a month in Africa. I went to Ethiopia and stayed in a grass hut and recorded these villagers. I got a horn section in Addis [Ababa], and some sound from these villagers in the south. It's still amorphous, but that will probably be a big part of the record."

N.A.S.A. will be playing on a bill with Kid Cudi, Bassnectar, A-Trak, Rusko and many others at the Audiotistic festival on Saturday, July 24 at the NOS Event Center in San Bernardino.

Reach the writer at drew.tewksbury@gmail.com

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