Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Last Thursday, I spent some time on the phone with Jon Spencer, former Pussy Galore mastermind turned leader of the Blues Explosion. The bulk of the group's catalog is being remastered and reissued by Shout! Factory this year, including the once promo-only live disc Controversial Negro. Anyway, he had a fair amount to say, and MSN Music (the outlet that commissioned the piece) didn't have room for all of it. You can read their version here; below is a fuller transcript of our conversation.

In retrospect, would it have been easier to deal with critics if you’d left the word Blues out of the name, and just been the Jon Spencer Explosion?
Maybe it would have been easier, but you know, when I thought up the name, I thought, “Wow, what a great name! It’s crazy!” And, you know, I’ve never shied away from doing something that was crazy or doing what was in my heart, certainly not with this band. So perhaps things would have been easier, but it probably wouldn’t have been as good. You know what I’m saying? It has been unfortunate that some people have been so tripped up by the word “Blues” in the band name or some of the sounds we employ, some of the records we’ve made, the shows we’ve done. Like I said, we are kind of a crazy band, and we definitely take influence from a lot of different kinds of music, and yeah, sometimes the band has been misunderstood and unfairly and even bizarrely judged. I think that does seem to be a problem with the blues thing for some people, sure.

And my follow-up to that is, you were just the Pussy Galore guy at that point, so what made you think you had sufficient name recognition to put yourself up front that way?
Just balls, just chutzpah. I had no good reason. It was just rock ’n’ roll.

There were a lot of “alternative” or indie rock bands in the ’90s, from Pavement to the shoegaze acts from England, that really didn’t bring it live. Were you challenging them to step their game up, in a way?
Well, I think so. I think that the live concert was very important to us. It was extremely important that we play a great show—that we put on a show, you know, and not just get up and shuffle around onstage and look at our feet. Showmanship was very important to us. And I think that came from some of our peers. Some of the bands around at the time were up on stage giving 110 percent, bands like the Jesus Lizard for instance, but most of it came from our love of older acts, older rock ’n’ roll bands, older rhythm ’n’ blues acts, older soul acts. For example, James Brown was a huge touchstone for the Blues Explosion. So I think that yeah, when we started and were going, the kind of high-energy showmanship was not so common in the indie or underground scene, and I don’t think it was because we wanted to throw down a challenge to the other bands, I think it was just because it was in us and it was something that we believed in. It was and still is very, very important to us.

How clear was your vision of the band when it started? Because the sound changes radically between the tracks on Year One and the stuff on Extra Width.
Yeah, from Year One to Extra Width to Orange, you can really hear the progression and the band sort of coming together, forming, gelling and solidifying. I think when we started, there was a great rush of ideas, and a great rush of energy, and I think the roles within the band became more defined and more focused over the course of those three records. We never would talk about what we were trying to do, we just did it, you know? So I think through many shows, many, many concerts, and a lot of touring, we came to better understand who we were and what the band could be.

A lot of the Blues Explosion songs, especially on the first few records, aren’t traditional verse-chorus structures; they’re riffs, beats, and collections of cues, almost like conducted improvisations. What was your songwriting process like then, and what was your studio process like?
The songwriting process was pretty much always the same. Pretty much all the songs were written by the three of us just getting together and we would play. We’d each play our instruments—Russell [Simins] played the drums, Judah [Bauer] played the guitar and I’d play the guitar, and I would sing. And through my singing, I would cue the band and…I was not only the lyricist but also the bandleader, I suppose. So yeah, we would just get together and play. And yeah, not all of the songs were traditional. Some of them were more traditional than others. Some of them did lean towards a more standard arrangement, familiar kind of structures, but for me and for us, we were interested in a lot of different kinds of music. Some things like No Wave, definitely punk rock, even free jazz, but one kind of music that really influenced us was rap, was hip-hop. And the thing that was most liberating about hip-hop was the way in which some of these producers and artists would construct songs by cutting and pasting and sampling and stitching things together. That was a really big influence on us.

On the live album, Controversial Negro, I feel like I can really hear the influence of Lux Interior of the Cramps. How big an inspiration was Lux for you, as a performer?
Sure, Lux was an influence definitely. Yeah, the Blues Explosion shared something with the early Cramps in that we had no bass player. Lux was definitely a thing for me, and rockabilly was, and is, for sure. You know, I also think a big influence for us was the Stooges, in particular their live record Metallic K.O., which is a pretty extreme record on its own.

The Rolling Stones are clearly important to you, also. The song “Magical Colors” sounds like something from Goats Head Soup or It’s Only Rock 'n' Roll. What’s your favorite period of the Stones?
You know, I think around ’65, I guess, after they’d been going for a bit and the songwriting really started happening and coming into flower. I mean, the early records are pretty great too, but they’re pretty much all covers. I thought it was nice when they really started writing songs and before they got too psychedelic, but they had a little bit of that pop and psychedelic stuff happening.

A lot of the material on the Year One CD was released on a bootleg called A Reverse Willie Horton before your official debut album or Crypt Style came out. Was that something you put out yourself?
No. I did not put that out, the band didn’t put it out. We were playing around and had done that first session, that Kramer session that ended up on Reverse Willie Horton, and I passed some cassettes around and I think one of those cassettes found its way into the wrong hands.

You had a lot of collaborators on the various records. Why was that important?
It’s great to play with some of these people, to have the opportunity to meet, let alone play with people like R.L. Burnside, Rufus Thomas, Andre Williams, these people who are just heroes, gods to us. To be able to make music with them was out of this world. And it wasn’t just giants from many years ago whose records we had fallen in love with and studied, but also some of our peers, people that were around at the time. A good example is Money Mark, the keyboard player, who’s all over Now I Got Worry. To be able to play with these people – why did we do it? I don’t know, I guess because it felt good, and it was a thrill. And it was for the good of the songs, you know, I think it helped the songs.

As time went on, there started to be a much wider gap between the experimentalism of the studio albums and the rawness of the live show…
Yeah, the early records are much more straightahead, you know, a band playing live in a room. And as the years went by and we continued to make records, we would for the most part still start with a band recording live in a studio, but I began to get more loose, more free, more creative. Some of it just comes from having the money to be able to do that. It’s a bit of a luxury, if you will. And some of it comes from just knowing how to do it. Knowing what you want and having the wherewithal to do it. And I think what’s important for me to point out is yeah, the Blues Explosion had and still does have tremendous respect for the live concert and we work very, very hard to put on a good show, there’s a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline that is involved, but at the same time these records which have been reissued, there’s an incredible amount of hard work that went into these albums. And yeah, some of it was a lot of experimentation. There was a lot of thought, a lot of deliberation, a lot of hard work that went into making these albums. And a concert is one thing, a studio album is another thing. But in no way was either taken lightly. These albums were not done quickly and they certainly weren’t tossed off.

There’s an incredible amount of B-side material, outtakes, live tracks, etc. on these reissues. Were you guys just in the studio constantly?
We spent a lot of time in the studio, but no, not constantly. I think more importantly, we just wrote a lot. We were very busy, we had a lot of ideas and a lot of songs and we were in the studio enough to get them all down on tape. Yeah, it is striking what a busy band we were. For every record we released, we probably recorded and mixed at least two albums’ worth of material, if not more. There was a lot of stuff, a lot of material, and when it came time to do these reissues, I thought it would be best to try and be as complete as possible, make this material available.

Whose decision was it to release the reissues out of chronological order, and why this particular sequence?
On some things I defer to the label, but there was a bit of back-and-forth about the order. The label felt very strongly about not just releasing them all together, all at once, so there did have to be some sequence, and I can’t remember exactly why, but at some point we decided not to do it chronologically. And that’s okay with me.

What are your plans beyond this current batch of tour dates? Will you be going back into the studio, or returning to the road in a more extensive way?
I think we’ll probably continue to play shows here and there in the immediate future. We don’t have any plans for a full-blown tour, but it’s felt very, very good to play live again. So we’ll be doing a bit more of it.

You recently played the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, and it seems like indie rockers are putting on weak shows again. What’s up with that?
That was a very hectic day for us, we got in just a little bit before we had to play and just had to do the show and then left after the show, so I didn’t see too many of the other bands. But I think that, as much as I hate to say it, I think that music scene is not much better today than it was in the early ’90s. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good bands out there, but there’s a lot of people that could be doing something more, could be more creative and yeah, could be working harder.

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