"I didn’t start playing in a band to be part of a music industry" - DiS meets Jon Spencer Blues Expl
Dang!!!!!! The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are back after nearly a decade. “But DiS?” I hear you ask, “Why should I care”?? Only because the JSBX are the very epitome of every thing that is vital, ferocious, raw and.... well...ya know, fun about Rock and Roll. You can talk about your White Stripes and the rest of that New Rock Revolution malarky in the early naughties. Fact; the Explosion got there first over a decade earlier. Sure, even now stripped back blues rock bands are dominating international album charts and playing really fucking high up on festival bills (I’m looking at you, you two piece from Akron, Ohio). But not without the same zeal or devotion as the NYC three piece.
Seeing Jon Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins live is akin to praying at the altar of Rock and Roll. Formed in 1989 in New York City, the Blues Explosion have taken great pains to deliver only the highest grade of primeval Rhythm and Blues albums over the last couple of decades. I caught up with Jon on the phone to learn about the latest, including his feelings about Twitter, amongst other things.
After 8 years since the last JSBX release, what compelled you to get back in the studio with Judah Bauer and Russell Simins?
The thing that got it all rolling again was in 2007 the LA label In The Red put out the Jukebox compilation, which was a collection of singles we did with them over the years. We hadn’t played since the last studio album which was Damage in 2004 which we toured all over the world. So, with the release of Jukebox we got a lot of concert offers and we figured, you know why not, let's play a few shows. We found out that we could still play together and most importantly that it felt good to do it. In 2010 we did the big reissue program of everything we recorded in the first 10 years of the band, and along with that we continued to play live. The next logical step was to write new songs and to plan a new studio album. Since the very start of the band it's always held true that it feels good to do this. We really do enjoy it so we keep doing it.
Meat And Bone is the first JSBX release for Bronzerat records here in the UK. How did that come about? Why the change from Mute??
Well, basically Mute dropped us a while ago now. I’m still really fond of the label and it was wonderful to work with them. The choice wasn't mine. Regarding Bronzerat, I don’t remember how I met Andy Zammit, who runs the label, but I met him somehow over the years. Bronzerat released the last Heavy Trash album Midnight Soul Serenade in 2009 (Jon’s Rockabilly band). It was a pretty easy decision because I really like Andy and the label.
You’ve returned to self producing on this record
Yeah, it’s a return to form in some ways. Traditionally I am the band's producer. I’ve mixed the records Orange, Extra Width and Now I Got Worry. It was only on the later records that we began to hire on outside producers and mixers by our own design.
Does the recording process differ greatly when you self produce?
Of course there’s a difference, dependent on what engineer or producer is present. When I produce/mix a record I’m not all by myself behind the console, I’m always with an engineer. In the past we’ve worked with Steve Albini, Jim Waters, Kramer etc. This time we worked with Bill Skibee and Jessica Ruffins at The Key Club Studios in Michigan. The thing is, if I’m the guy who's mixing it I’m clear in my head on what I want, and I’m serious about going about and getting it done.
You’ve always been a big collaborator though, right?
Yeah, at the same time I am interested in collaboration. I think that cuts across everything in the music of this band and the way that we write songs. I think that's the great thing about music. It’s something you can do with other people. But yeah, I know what I want in the studio. I really know how the Blues Explosion should sound on wax and I know how to do that, but I really like to work with other people. Titles and credits really aren’t so important.
This album feels like a return to the early Blues Explosion sound?
In some ways I agree with you, but I think it’s worthwhile to point out that it’s definitely not a retread. I don’t think we’ve gone back and rehashed something old or remade Orange for example. I think this is very much a product of the Blues Explosion here today. It’s very much a 'now' record. I certainly don’t think that it could have been made by the Blues Explosion 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve been playing as a band for many years and I think that’s evident on this record.
I definitely agree. I was thinking more of the feel and energy of the performance.
I think in the way that we wrote the songs, the kinda songs we wrote and the way in which we made the record was influenced by our past records and that was due to the reissues. Listening to a lot of that older music was empowering. Even though it wasn’t explicitly discussed in the band, I think everyone agreed after listening back to the reissues that we had made some pretty great records. Let’s go on in and do it again. It was pretty natural, there wasn’t much hand wringing or worry along the way.
How do the Blues Explosion write the tunes?
We get together and we play and the songs come out. I don’t write by myself, like I said, I like to collaborate and with the Blues Explosion that's pretty much how it’s been. We don’t talk about things, I mean we don’t sit down a say “hmmmm...let’s write a song in the style of John Lee Hooker”, we just play and things happen. When the songs come, they tend to come really quickly, everything’s there including the lyrical thrust. Dependent on the song there may be some refinement.
Same with Meat and Bone?
The twelve songs were all songs that we had written before going into the studio. Some of them are older than others. ‘Pants Off’ and ‘Strange Baby’ were songs that we have been playing in concert for about a year now. We wrote more than the 12 songs but these are the ones we chose. They fit together and make a nice LP. Having said that, just because these songs were already written does not mean to say that we don’t bang out songs on the studio floor.
You recorded at the Key Club in Michigan, why not record in your home town of NYC?
I’d worked on an Andre Williams record there in 2006, which has only just come out now called Night and Day featuring The Sadies. At the time, The Sadies were touring with Heavy Trash and we had a couple of days off and Dallas of The Sadies wanted to make another record with Andre so we went to the Key Club and did a session. I thought it was a great studio with a great vibe and an incredible selection of equipment. Ever since I've always wanted to go back. I managed to sell the idea to Judah and Russell. It's a hell of a lot cheaper than anything comparable in New York City.
You are essentially one of the most exciting live rock and roll bands on the planet (a great live Blues Explosion gig is similar to a religious experience). What would you favor, playing live or recording?
I really love making records sure, but I guess the thing that is most satisfying and immediately gratifying is a concert.
How do you psyche yourself up for a show?
(Laugh’s) Ummm, try not to think about too much I guess. A very Zen approach. I still certainly get nervous before a show. It’s better to sneak up on a gig. We practice a lot and always work hard on our shows. I've never been able to tell what makes one show better than another. We never use a setlist because we like to keep things open to chance a little bit. It's better to leave an open opportunity to react to a situation in the room.
You’ve been playing in bands for some time now. You must have seen a lot of changes since you put out your first record. Do you find easier to get your music out there now?
I remember growing up as a kid in a small town it was really hard to find new music that spoke to me and get my hands on the records that were interesting, Yeah, it’s a lot easier now. Although, I think we have always been principally a live act. Any success that we have won has been due to getting out there and playing shows night after night. That’s a bit harder these days. There are so many bands out there trying to book the same rooms that we wanna play. But the way that music is duplicated, distributed and consumed has always been changing. Even the Vinyl LP hasn't been around for that long which is good to keep in mind. But you know, I didn’t start playing in a Rock and Roll band to be part of a music industry, I started playing a rock and roll band because I love Rock and Roll. I felt I couldn't do anything else.
Well said. Speaking about some of your other bands, It’s great to see that the Pussy Galore records are becoming available again.
Yeah, I’m working on it. I got one of the vinyls out and my plan is to get at least two more available before the end of the year. There’s three that are available digitally.
Would you get the band back together for one off shows?
We played last December as guest of Yo La Tengo at their Hanukkah festival, which is a benefit concert that they put on every year at Maxwells club in Hoboken, NJ. I really thought that we would never play again and perhaps should never play again. That’s a band that very much did what its was supposed to do. We did our thing and said our piece and reached a definite full stop. When we got the offer, I spoke about it to Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore guitarist) and our gut reaction was that it was a bad idea (laughs). But, I was working on the reissues and we thought it was a nice way to mark that these new records were available as they had never been available digitally before. We really like Yo La Tengo and it’s a nice event for a good cause so, you know, we did the show. We did get offers for other shows but we politely turned them down.
Shame, I would have loved to see the band live. Is it the same with Boss Hog? (another of Jon’s bands featuring his wife, Christina Martinez). It seems that you’ve never officially closed the book.
Yeah, we still work. We’ve gone out a few times over the past few years on short little trips. Usually, if we get a nice little offer for a festival we’ll book a few dates around that. The band is still kind of active in the way that we’ll get together every couple of weeks. We’re all still friends and live here in New York City. Maybe we’ll get a lunch or something and hangout and talk then go and write some music. We have been hashing out some songs but they’re all a bit rough. We’re still to make that next step where we really focus in and polish up the songs to go into the studio with. There has certainly not been a full stop placed on that band.
Glad to hear it. So I’ve started following you on twitter recently and there was a post that I was curious about; “What’s worse: bands trying to sound like the Black Keys on stage or bands blasting the Black Keys to get psyched before going on stage?" Any Black Keys issues Jon...?
Not really, no. I think unfortunately that the way that the business is today is that a huge part is in social media and I have been dipping my feet into it as I’ve been strongly encouraged to do so. And you know, I am old and have been making records for a long time so it is a bit foreign to me, but I am trying. I think, unfortunately, with a lot of this stuff it can generate negativity. People like to read nasty tweets and so, perhaps that wasn't the best posting. No, I don’t really have a problem with that band. I guess in some ways, I am envious of them. I wish I was rich and making that big celebrity money (laughs). It’s all about personal taste and I really don’t want to talk trash about anyone else. Hey, I like the music that I like and there are things that I don’t like. I think the Blues Explosion are a great band and we are pretty much head and shoulders above everybody else. I’m proud of us. I think that that particular posting was from a festival we were playing in Bilbao. The dressing room was this big cavernous tent and even though everyone had a dressing room you could here everybody else. So, there were some other young bands psyching themselves up in different ways. I guess I was being kind of a grumpy old man.
Fair enough, it’s good to get your views on social media though. You’re right, it’s getting to be pretty important.
I don’t know if it's important. I mean, It’s there. It’s like, “well, if that’s the way things are now”. I mean, is it really important? I think it’s the currency, it’s the mode of business now it seems. It’s promotion or advertising.
Black Keys aside, what are you hearing that’s interesting at the moment?
There’s a guy from Canada that I’m a huge fan of called Bloodshot Bill. He’s a one man Rockabilly band. Probably the only guy who does a good job of playing rockabilly. There are so many people that play it in that terrible heavy metal fashion so I love Bloodshot Bill to bits. As far as an English band? There’s another Bronzerat artist called Gemma Ray. Probably one of my favorite records is the one that she did with my friend Matt Verta-Ray (Heavy Trash guitarist) that’s all covers. I think it’s called It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray? It’s basically her solo and reinterpreting all these great songs. But this new record is amazing (Island Fire). It’s totally different with super full production with strings, it’s really great.
Thanks for the tips Jon. It’s been super cool talking to you and see you at the Electric Ballroom.
I very much look forward to heading back over and playing.
Meat And Bone is released on 17 September.