MUSIC : Band Has Deep Roots in Santa Barbara Fiesta : Spencer the Gardener, formed in 1989, will play five times during annual event on State Street.


The Santa Barbara Fiesta is just an excuse to party, as if party animals needed a bigger incentive. The annual wingding will essentially make State Street a parking lot, as revelers bar hop down the main drag to see just about every band in town.

Spencer Barnitz, of Spencer the Gardener, loves Fiesta time. Someone must love his band, too--they’re playing five times during the celebration, including opening day, which was Wednesday.

“We are Fiesta,” Barnitz said during a phone interview. “Some people really don’t like it because it’s tourist-oriented, and it’s very crowded, but I don’t necessarily have to wait in line, so I don’t care about that. Fiesta is a longstanding tradition. My mom used to get into it, and so did my grandmother.”

It seems like STG has been around as long as the Fiesta itself, but the band has only been going since 1989, with a year off following a gnarly traffic accident that nearly put the band into the past tense. STG, a band that seems synonymous with the Santa Barbara scene, actually plays their hometown but a few times a month, except for Fiesta week.


“I know there’s a lot of good bands in town, but I haven’t seen too many of them because we’re always playing,” said Barnitz.

While STG keeps chugging along, other bands come and go, while a few get signed. Toad the Wet Sprocket, which started a bit before STG, just released its fourth album on Columbia. Ugly Kid Joe is signed to Polygram, and Dishwalla has a new one coming out on A&M.; None of this seems to matter to Barnitz, who doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body.

“None of that stresses me at all, and in one sense I can understand,” he said. “Record company people are looking for bands that will fill stadiums. They want to know what their fan base is. I think they think we’re a great band, kinda surfy--but will it play in Ohio?

“Also, no one in Santa Barbara is overly competitive, and bands congratulate each other on their success, and mean it. I’m very happy for all those bands that got signed, but I think there’s a lot of great bands that’ll never get signed.”


So, STG continues to do it their way. They have three albums on two CDs, with a fourth in the works. That equates to 33 songs recorded with a lot more in the repertoire.

“Basically, we’ve signed ourselves,” said Barnitz. “We’ve had lots of inquiries in the past, but essentially, we’ve never had an offer worth taking. Independent companies have talked to us, but have never offered us enough.

“We recently got a distribution deal from a friend who used to work for a record company. He has a lot of companies that he gives product to, so our stuff will be in a lot of stores soon.”

STG was the first local band to be a hit in both Ventura and Santa Barbara, and has since expanded its horizons considerably and put some serious miles on the camper. The band goes to the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Chico and Lake Tahoe and as far south as San Diego.


“Last year at this time, I set up a tour across the country,” said Barnitz. “Some of the band members decided they didn’t want to travel--they weren’t ready to go out for a month.”

So some of them left the group, leaving behind the serious hard-cores. Besides Barnitz, they include original members Nate Birkey on trumpet and John Schnackenberg on sax. Cougar Estrada is on drums, Brian Fox on bass and Dave Hetrick on percussion. But no matter who plays, dancers love this band.

“It’s the same as before,” said Barnitz. “Big band spy movie music set on a tropical beach, with revolving members.”

Barnitz has been doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing pretty much since he graduated from Santa Barbara High School. His first band, called All Night Longo, was followed by pop rock group, the Tan. Then there was the Wedding Band, which is temporarily on vacation, followed by the Gardener band, inspired by Barnitz, who once had a real job as a landscaper. Whether he knows a rhododendron from a ranunculus is unclear, but Barnitz knows what a good song should sound like.


“I guess it all goes back to when my dad died,” Barnitz said. “I had a choice of two things: get a $2,000 inheritance or part of a nursery. I took the money and bought a guitar and an amp. That was the first big mistake in my life.”


* WHAT: Spencer the Gardener at Santa Barbara Fiesta.

* WHERE AND WHEN: Revival, 18 E. Ortega St., (770-7383), tonight; Paseo Nuevo shopping center, 651 Paseo Nuevo St., and The Voodoo Lounge, 500 Anacapa St., (966-1634), Friday; De La Guerra Plaza, De La Guerra Street, Saturday.


* COST: Either free or $5 max.