Jon Spencer Explains How to Survive a Blues Explosion
Devotee of gut-punch guitar and leering rhythms shared his secrets to living well down in the sonic dumps
Whether it was with skuzz-rockers Pussy Galore, rockabilly revivalists Heavy Trash, or his namesake blooze provocateurs, Jon Spencer has been detonating classic American rock’n’roll forms for four decades now. On the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s guttural, swaggering Meat and Bone (Mom + Pop/Boombox) out September 18, the singer-guitarist comes off as lascivious and cocksure as always — and sounds a skeevy world away from the settled place in which he now resides. At 47, Spencer is comfortably ensconced with his longtime bandmates, drummer Russell Simins and guitarist Judah Bauer, happily married, and a proud dad. This devotee of gut-punch guitar and leering rhythms shared his secrets to living well down in the sonic dumps.
Because we are an older band, and we are older people, it’s not like we have anything to prove.
Yeah, we do have something to prove [in that] we wanna be a great rock ‘n’ roll band, and we always have something to prove every concert we play. But when we were making this record, there was no rush. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we gotta get it out.” It’s been done since January, and it’s only coming out in October.
Things are constantly shifting and moving.
There are all these variables. [The band] typically doesn’t really discuss things too much. It’s not like we sat down and had a meeting: “Let’s work on this record, it’s gonna be called Meat and Bone.” [That] wasn’t until we figured out, “OK, these are the songs which fit together nice as an album.” There’s a unifying theme, which holds this album together, but everything we do in the band, especially the creative stuff, is kind of just done. We don’t talk about it. It’s more about action. And the way in which we write songs is we get together at the basement practice space, and we’re playing and kind of bouncing ideas, sounds, riffs off each other. With this new record, we never really talked about getting a producer. The reissues that we did in 2010 [were] an influence on us — hearing all that stuff, getting our nose rubbed in it. For me, my nose was really deep in that stuff, ’cause I’m the one who did that whole project. It reminded us of, “Hey, we’re a pretty good band.”
A lot of people think a rock’n’roll band is like the Monkees.
That’s an incredibly dated reference but they think, “Yeah, it’s just laughs and fun” or something. But most of all, if you’re really gonna do it, it’s hard work, and it is a weird relationship. It’s a forced relationship. You have to spend a lot of close time with people in these awkward situations, sitting around waiting or in a vehicle. So it’s not an easy thing. We’ve been a band for a long time. The band has changed. Each of us has changed as individuals a lot. That we can still make this music together — that’s great.
It’s hard to continue life with so much piss and vinegar.
It’s not like, “Hey, I’m cured, and I no longer have any issues with anger or confrontation.” That’s a lot of what was at the heart of Pussy Galore, but I think Pussy Galore was also trashing and attacking traditional rock ‘n’ roll, and there was a lot of subtext to what we were doing. With the Blues Explosion, I guess I turned a corner, but I don’t think it’s like my hands are totally clean. What we do is not casual, it’s not by accident. These records are made with great care and great deliberation. For us to get back together after not playing together for a few years, we were just really getting off on making a racket.
There’s a lot of shitty bands out there.
It’s the same as today as when we started. A lot of people are being lauded for making music I think is kind of boring and safe and dull. True rock’n’roll is a strange and beautiful, kind of scary music.
Great art is something that transcends time.
It’s not that I’m in a band because I chose this as a career. I did this because I was in love with rock’n’roll, and there are bands and records that just totally blew my mind. I wanna leave behind some sort of similar, weird artifact. Like [Black Flag’s] Damaged. It’s such an amazing album, but there was also so much stuff around it. That band was so heavy and so worshipped. There’s things like that, and then there’s also totally obscure records that I don’t know how I find them — things like the Monks or these sort of weird time capsules and messages from outer space.
I always felt like an outsider; always felt underneath.
And I’m extremely wary of the music industry. I can’t remember what people would say what next thing we were gonna be. I always thought the Blues Explosion was very unique and kinda punk and confrontational and experimental. [The record companies] were like, “Well, what do you think about the record sales?” I can understand that I’m part of it, but I didn’t start playing in a rock’n’roll band because I wanted to be in the music business.
It’s nice to be liked for what you do.
I can’t deny that. I can’t say, “Oh, I don’t care what anybody else thinks.” If people want to listen to us, that’s great. I don’t think we’ve ever been exclusionary or elitist.
If you wanna make a record, go ahead and make a record.
Do it yourself. That really opened my eyes, changed my life. I put out the first two Pussy Galore records myself. I’m doing some more of these reissues on my own. Now, with the Blues Explosion, we made this new record and we saved a bunch from concert tours. We just wrote the songs, planned everything ourselves and made the record. After the record was done, I began to talk to some record labels. That’s just what I believe in, but you could also call me a control freak.
I would be lost without my family.
It’s been a real trip, ya know?