The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
The Business of Show
Dec 19, 2012
Regardless of where musical trends sway, as long as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is in the studio or onstage, there will always be a group of guys intent on breaking a sweat. Their latest album, Meat and Bone, finds guitarist Judah Bauer, drummer Russell Simins, and Spencer as tightly wound as ever and delivering with revival-meeting fervor.
The trio has covered quite a bit of ground since their start in 1991 and, judging by his conversation with Under the Radar, one might think Jon Spencer remembers every mile and microphone.
Jon Spencer: Where are you calling from?
Hays Davis (Under the Radar): Knoxville…actually, I’m in Richmond, Virginia. I had Knoxville on my mind from having seen the Blues Explosion there.
What was the venue?
It was called the Snakesnatch Lodge.
That was a long time ago.
I think it was when the Caroline [label] album was out . It was a really small place. People were wound around an L-shaped performance area trying to get a glimpse of you. And a year or so later I caught you guys with The Jesus Lizard and Southern Culture on the Skids. I think you had cut your hand at the end of the show…
I cut my ear. I hit my head with the mic stand and it sliced over my ear, and then I had to go to the emergency room. There was a hospital within walking distance and somebody pointed me in the right direction. I just walked over and got my ear stitched up.
I had heard something like that from someone in the crowd that night, that you had gone to the hospital, but I didn’t know if it was their beer talking.
I did it to myself. I was swinging the mic stand around or doing something stupid and popped myself in the head.
Were you guys always able to fit comfortably onto varied bills like that? You’ve probably played with a little of everyone over the years.
We have played with a bunch of different people over the years. You mentioned a couple: Jesus Lizard and Southern Culture. We’ve been asked out and we supported people like The Breeders and Beastie Boys. But some people have asked us to support and we’ve turn them down. We were asked to do this Page and Plant tour and we declined. Nothing so much against Misters Page and Plant; we figured we would be playing to a whole lot of people who really didn’t know who we are and would have no interest in finding out who we are, and then, more importantly, we figured that there was a good chance that Page and Plant’s crew would probably be a bunch of assholes. That’s the kind of thing…you get up to a bigger tour, and you get these crews that can be huge. And if you’re playing some big arena you’re really at the mercy of the crew.
But anyway, yeah, we have played with some really great bands, and it’s not just that we supported great bands; we’ve had some great support ourselves. We’ve taken out Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Kills a bunch of times. Some of my favorites have been these tours we did with Andre Williams, the great rhythm and blues singer, and I think probably our all-time favorite is the dates with R.L. Burnside, the great bluesman.
What did you have in mind when you began work on Meat and Bone?
This new record came after a long break. Our last studio album was in 2004. We toured all over the world after the release of that album. Damage was the name of that last studio album. And we took a few years off. We didn’t do anything for about three years. We began playing again in 2008, slowly at first. We still liked doing it, so about a year and a half ago we started thinking about making a record, going back into the studio.
I do think that the long break that we had influenced what we do and how we work in some way. We did, also, this big reissue program in 2010, put out pretty much everything the band had recorded in the first 10 years of our history. And that process, listening to all that old stuff again and kind of reviewing our history, that really was, in a way, empowering. And so we came back into the studio with this band, feeling good, feeling strong, not really second-guessing what we were doing. We’ve been a band for a long time, more than 20 years, so we weren’t in any rush to make this record. We really just did it our own way and did exactly what we wanted to do.
You were talking about the reissues. I still had pretty much all of your old stuff and it led me to go back over some of it. One thing that struck me about that was how undated a lot of it sounds. I think what you were doing, a lot of the time, could have come out years earlier and still been just as good a fit for the times. Do you ever think about that, or has that ever really mattered to you?
Only in a sense that some of my favorite records are records that seem to stand the test of time, or even seem to be outside the test of time. I think that’s something I’ve always aspired to. It’s not really something we talk about amongst the band, but those have always been my favorite records, time capsules or strange messages from a parallel universe or something that really are not tied to a particular time or trend.
At what point did you guys decide you were ready to do some new recording?
We started playing live again in 2008, and in maybe early 2011 we got asked to record something for a television advertisement, an ad campaign for the Super Bowl. We got the job. They asked us to cut a demo and we found out later we were competing against all these other bands, and we won. That was the first time we had gone back into the studio. It’s one thing to return to the concert stage and start touring again and to tackle that, but then it was another test to go into the studio and find that we can still work in the studio.
Considering your time with Pussy Galore, do you feel that The Blues Explosion has creatively pulled off what you hoped it would after your earlier work?
That question sort of implies that I had a plan before starting The Blues Explosion, and I certainly did not. I wasn’t even looking for musicians. I didn’t have a blueprint in my head for The Blues Explosion. But Judah and Russell and I, we all found each other and started this band. We’ve never really talked about doing too much. We don’t plan things out too much. We think we have made some good records and definitely have played some good shows. I think we’ve done right by rock and roll and helping to keep something alive, and I think we have touched some people’s lives, for sure.
You somewhat answered my next question: When you three first started getting serious about working as a trio, what did you talk about wanting the band to be?
Pussy Galore had ended and I was kind of kicking around for a year or so. I was playing a little bit with a band called The Gibson Brothers. They were out of Columbus, Ohio and then they moved to Memphis. And I was playing with Boss Hogg, the band I had with my wife, Christina Martinez. I also played a little bit with the local New York City band The Honeymoon Killers, and it was through The Honeymoon Killers that I met Russell Simins. After a while, he and I just started playing together on our own, and he invited his friend Judah Bauer to one of these jam sessions. Something clicked, it worked, and so we just kept at it. Starting out, there wasn’t any plan or anything like that. I think that there were some influences, records, like-minded interests that we shared, the three of us—things like Pere Ubu, The Velvets, Ramones, Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stax/Volt, also Public Enemy, Ice Cube. But there was no formula, no plan.
What was missing in music back in 1991 that you guys satisfied?
Definitely, in the way that went about playing our concerts, we approached them as events, as shows. We were really into people like James Brown and rhythm and blues and soul music and the idea of making a show a show. We had no problem thinking about it as a show or as entertainment. We tried to do that. I think that was definitely something that set us apart from some of our peers at the time, that there were definitely some bands that when you’d see them play live they seemed as if they didn’t even want to be on the stage. There wasn’t much show business in what they were doing.
By the way, is that a true story about the band requesting the Jerry Lee Lewis box set as a signing bonus to Caroline, and then asking Matador for the Stax box?
Yeah, we’re music fans. We’re record geeks, and we definitely did ask for those things.