Explosive 'Damage' from Blues Explosion


November 5, 2004



While Jon Spencer isn't quite as iconic as the blues greats that he emulates -- tongue in cheek or sincerely -- he's certainly achieved the status of an indie-rock elder, thanks to the punked-up, art-damaged take on the blues that he's been honing since the mid-'80s, a sound and an attitude that is influencing younger bands ranging from the North Mississippi Allstars to the White Stripes.

On the new "Damage," the guitarist and vocalist formally changes the name of the group from "the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion" to the plain ol' "Blues Explosion," and he offers one of the most raucous and inspired albums since starting the trio with second guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins in 1991, working with renowned producers such as Alan Moulder [My Bloody Valentine, the Smashing Pumpkins] and Steve Jordan [the Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow] and well-chosen collaborators like Public Enemy leader Chuck D.

I spoke with Spencer in the midst of a tour that brings the band to Metro tonight.

Spencer: Before we start, I have to ask: Aren't you the same guy that interviewed me once for Penthouse magazine? I was a little disappointed by how that came out! I sort of felt that you made some points in the written piece that you didn't bring up in person.

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  • J.D.: Actually, we talked a lot about the troublesome question of authenticity and how you treat the blues -- you know, "Can a young white punk really play the blues?" -- and I thought you acquitted yourself pretty well in the published article [www.jimdero.com/OtherWritings/Spencer.htm].

    Spencer: Well, that's long ago -- six or seven years. I guess I forgive you.

    Q. I do love this new album, and it seems as if it's been a long time coming.

    A. I think it's two years since "Plastic Fang." Or did you mean you've been waiting a long time for a good Blues Explosion album? [Laughs]

    Q. No, I just meant it seemed like a wait for this album.

    A. No, it was only two years. The big gap was between "Acme" and "Plastic Fang," which was about four years. I can tell you what was different about this one: Russell, the drummer, has got a studio now. We always write by just getting together and playing -- people ask why I changed the name of the band, and one of the reasons I say is, "We've always been a band; we've always written together" -- and when we were writing this record, we went to Russell's studio and agreed to hold up there for about 10 or 12 weeks. We never really had that luxury before, our own place, where Judah could really mess around with different guitar sounds or whatever.

    We wrote an awful lot of material -- probably three or four albums. We just kept going and going and pushing ourselves, and I think because we just kept at it and kept working, we hit upon a lot of songs we might not otherwise have reached. So some of the songs on the record are from those sessions, from the actual writing. Like the song "Rivals," that's the song being written -- the moment of inspiration right there. But there are also some songs like "Spoiled," which as taken by the producer, David Holmes, and edited and structured together from different bits.

    Q. "Damage" strikes me as a mix of material that is as raw and immediate as you've recorded and other stuff that is more produced, with horns and piano and percussion.

    A. We had some really, really great help, and I think the producers, to their credit, never smothered us. You get the flavor of what all these different people do, and it still sounds like the Blues Explosion. There was one other thing that was a little different with this record that I don't think we've ever done before: Some of the songs were written with other people -- like the song "Fed Up and Low Down" was written with DJ Shadow, and Dan the Automator helped us write "Crunchy."

    Q. When you wind up with 40 or so tunes after recording for so long, how do you decide which songs are the keepers?

    A. Initially, we wanted to work with one producer from start to finish, but we just couldn't find the right match. Then I guess we sort of indulged ourselves and started asking different people -- people that we admired and were interested in working with -- and anybody that we talked to, once they agreed to do it, we would send them a handful of songs. The band would talk about what might work, and we'd send somebody 10 songs and ask if anything clicked with them. As much as possible, I think we always included any collaborator -- any producer or musician -- in everything. So part of the way it was narrowed down was by these producers saying, "Oh yeah, that's the song I want to do," or "These are the ones we should work on."

    Q. What are the songs that get you most excited?

    A. I really love the song "Rattling." Recording the basic track of it was a real great moment -- a very magical kind of thing. When we actually hit upon writing that song, Steve Jordan, the producer, came by to visit, and he encouraged us to write some songs acoustically. Out of that, one of the things we got was "Rattling," a kind of rockabilly number. That was something I really enjoyed doing, and it really felt good. Because it was a rockabilly song, I wanted to get a standup bass on it, so I called up this guy named Simon Chardiet -- he's been around New York City for a long time; he's been in a lot of different bands and he's got his own group called Simon & the Bar Sinisters that plays at the Rodeo Bar -- and he's a surfer who lives out near Far Rockaway so he can be near the surf.

    He says, "Yeah, I'll come in." This is at 8 or 9 in the evening in the middle of a snowstorm, and he's this little guy with a big standup bass who hauls this big bass into the subway and rides into Manhattan and then hauls it over to the studio in the snow. He comes in and shakes the snow off, sets up the bass and we put a mike up, and "Bang!" We get the cut. It was great.

    Then we mixed "Rattling" at Sears Sound, a beautiful studio in New York City, with Alan Moulder, who's a very clever guy, and so nice to work with. We took that song and turned it into what it is on the record: a kind of weird electronic dub thing.

    Q. How did Chuck D come to be involved on "Hot Gossip"?

    A. We shared a dressing room at this blues tribute that was held at Radio City Music Hall, tied into "the Year of the Blues" and the Martin Scorsese documentary. We met Chuck D and he casually suggested doing something some time. Then a year later, we were working on the record and "Hot Gossip" was an instrumental that we'd kind of been kicking around; Steve Jordan helped us arrange it and really kind of focus it. When it came time to put words to it -- it became a political song. When "Hot Gossip" became what it is, it sort of made sense to get Chuck D. He came in and worked around what I had already put down.

    Q. You've made music with a lot of different people in different combinations through the years, but something always keeps you coming back to Judah and Russell. Have you got any perspective after seven albums about why that chemistry is special?

    A. I don't know what it is. I mean, this is also part of the reason for the name change -- there's something that allows us to write music together, that allows us to play and to do this, and I thought that maybe it was a way after the fact of explaining it, like, "This is a way to honor that bond." I don't really understand it, but it feels good, and I'm very thankful to be able to do it.

    Q. You've been doing this since you led Pussy Galore in the '80s, and a lot of your music has become pretty influential -- I could argue that there'd be no White Stripes or North Mississippi Allstars without the ground you broke. Do you hear that influence coming out?

    A. I suppose so, but it's more that other people come up and mention it. I guess I'm sort of blind to it. A certain band asked us to support and tour with them, and we were talking about it when somebody in our band said, "I didn't want to do it because that singer is just ripping you off; he's just aping you." But it's sort of a mystery to me; it's more that other people will point it out or ask me about it.

    Q. You're 39 years old. You famously studied semiotics at Brown University. At this point, you could go work as a professor ...

    A. I could? [Laughs] I think I'd have to go back to school first!

    Q. OK, so you could go back to school and then go to work as a professor. Why do you keep making music instead of pursuing something else?

    A. You know, I really don't know. I think that's one of the things that I tried to write about in some of the songs on "Damage." I've been doing this now for a long time. I'm tired right now -- we're out on tour, we played last night, and I didn't get any sleep -- and I'm exhausted: My body hurts, I know what the physical effects are on my body, and what it's like to be separated from my family. In a sense, I am sort of a bluesman, but what does that mean? I don't really know. That's kind of a little bit of what I was trying to get at with some of the songs on this record.

    I can imagine doing different jobs, and at times, different things seem very attractive! [Laughs] Why don't I do it? I don't really have a quick, easy answer for that. Recently I was thinking about Muddy Waters and that book Robert Gordon wrote -- and I'm not trying to compare myself to Muddy Waters! -- but just the title of that book, Can't Be Satisfied, it sort of says it all, like, "I'm not done yet." It may sound naive and childish, but it's like it's some kind of curse or something: Call yourself the Blues Explosion, and this is what happens.