The family that plays together
The Sunday Times/2006-08-20
By Robert Sandall
They're the children of a guitar god, but grew up in a religious cult that disapproves of music. Robert Sandall on the strange tale of Jynxt
Compared to some of the other houses that members of the band Jynxt have occupied during their short but eventful lives, their present abode -a quiet suburban semi in Finchley, north London -must seem pretty boring.
It is hardly as picturesque as the old colonial tea farm in Sri Lanka from which their singer, Talitha "Tally" Spencer, dimly recalls being airlifted by military transport in 1983 after the first Tamil uprising. It lacks the stunning volcano view of their pad in the Philippines, which was completely buried in grey ash by a huge, unforeseen eruption three days after they chanced to vacate it. It cannot even compete, in terms of drama, with the camp site in Greece where the guitarist, Ben (aka Koa) Spencer, and his brother Nat, the drummer, nearly blew up 20 caravans and a row of tents after a lark involving matches and a pile of gas cylinders went disastrously -but not fatally -wrong.
These are just a sample of the colourfully formative experiences that mark out Jynxt from your average rock band. Not for them the traditional route by which mates from school or college get together with a drummer who has answered a "musicians wanted" ad, or the more modern short cut, auditions on some reality-television show.
Though few have heard of them yet -and their debut album, Bring Back Tomorrow, only arrived in the shops here in July -Jynxt are a band with an unusual pedigree. Their story began in California in 1971, when the man who went on to father three of them suddenly decided to leave one of the most famous rock bands on the planet, Fleetwood Mac, in the middle of an American tour. At the time, Jeremy Spencer was the guitarist and de facto front man of a group whose original leader, Peter Green, had just quit after a series of psychologically damaging encounters with LSD.
While narcotically unscathed himself, Spencer had also been feeling the pressures of Fleetwood Mac's galloping success.
"Dad loves music, but he hated the music industry," says Ben, who adds that he has no idea why his father disappeared to join a hippie Christian cult, the Children of God. "He never mentions it. When you entered the cult, you had to let go of your old life and start again."
Thirty-five years later, Spencer pere remains a committed supporter of this shadowy evangelical organisation, with an estimated 8,000 members living, as directed, in outposts all over the world.
He is now based in Ireland: the kids aren't sure where exactly, because the cult does not encourage close family ties, but they gather from his occasional phone calls that he misses sunny Brazil, where, until recently, he had a recording studio.
The Children of God was founded in the late 1960s by a fiftysomething West Coast long-hair, David Berg, from Huntington Beach, California. According to Tally, who heard it from her mum, the second Mrs Spencer, Berg "started out making sandwiches for all the hippies in Huntington, then he had this bright idea to start a cult with the Jesus freaks".
Initially, there was a bit of communal, free-love hanky-panky among the Children of God, but by the time the three Jynxters-to-be came on the scene, that had long passed. Berg's regime was austere. Ben lists the rules: "There was no smoking allowed, no more than two cups of coffee a day, one glass of wine a week, no sweets, a lot of brown bread and only natural food." Conversation was discouraged. "We weren't allowed to talk in the evenings -we had to sit and memorise passages from the Bible." The principal duties and daily activities of cult members were to preach on the street, dispense leaflets and sell educational videos door-to-door.
Their education was taken care of in-house. "History was difficult," says Ben, "because the only book the cult approves is called 7,000 Years of World History. That was the family's view: nice and concise."
Alongside this fundamentalist creationist tract, however, the Children of God were taught to admire atheistic revolutionary heroes from the 1960s, such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. "They totally contradicted themselves all along the line."
The cult broadly disapproves of music, but, in its contrary fashion, has made an exception for its most famous convert, Jeremy Spencer, who is permitted to record material for the organisation's exclusive use. Electric guitars are generally banned, although Spencer again enjoys a special licence to use one with his trademark slide, on the strict understanding that he keeps off the distortion pedal. "Dad plays a lot of sort of gospel music these days," says Ben. "And he made that rap album, too," Tally recalls with a giggle. "God, that was something. Embarrassing."
Easy as it may seem for these offspring of a 1960s legend to have formed a band, the strange ways of the Children of God contrived to make it as awkward as possible. As they hit their teens, the Spencers were split up and sent on a succession of temporary foreign postings lasting between six months and two years, depending on their visas. When Ben finally decided that, at 19, it was time for him to strike out on his own, he was living in a cult house in Bulgaria.
Tally knew she had had enough after a spell in a tiny flat in Omsk, Siberia, where she had been sent on a failed evangelical mission to a part of Russia that still clung to communism. Nat, meanwhile, had managed to blag a gig as his father's studio assistant in Sao Paulo.
When Ben left and moved to London in the mid-1990s, he realised that he was stateless. "I had a British passport full of stamps from all over the world, but when I tried to sign on, it was like, 'Who the hell are you?'" He says he found it hard to start thinking for himself and even harder to support himself. But there was an upside to the years of cultish isolation. Having been forcibly kept at a distance from modern music for most of his life, when he and Nat formed a band in 1999, he felt relatively unconstrained by fashion and the desire to copy heroes. "There was never any kind of music we felt we had to emulate," he says.
"We were fearless."
With the acquisition of another defecting Child of God, the DJ Dan Brown, and a bass player, Simon Walsh, Jynxt were starting to get their techno-electro-rock act together. They even managed to tempt their father into the studio, to play some slide on a track that has fetched up on the new album as Voices. By 2000, the only component they lacked was a singer.
"When I got the phone call, I was living in Italy with my mum," Tally explains.
"They'd somehow got hold of a demo of me singing with this rock band in Italian, but I hadn't seen either of my half- brothers for 10 years. So it was like, 'Hey, how are you?'"
Bring Back Tomorrow was finished in 2004, since when the hard slog for recognition has begun in earnest, with Jynxt signing to a tiny independent label, Halo, and making some headway with the Kerrang! crowd.
Their greatest asset, you feel, might be their oddly grounded approach. Many bands at this stage are desperate to get out and see the world -and often harm themselves in the process. Jynxt have been there, done that. "Our upbringing has been a great training for going on the road. We know about different cultures," says Tally. "And we feel comfortable anywhere, even in caravans and tents," adds Ben.