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
I spoke with Spencer in the midst of a tour that brings the band to Metro
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.
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
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
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
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.