The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – BAM: The Rise of The Anti-Virtuoso / Lo-Fi 101 [2400 Words] (PRESS, US)

13 January 1995 BAM #450
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - BAM: The Rise of The Anti-Virtuoso / Lo-Fi 101 [2400 Words] (PRESS, US)

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - BAM: The Rise of The Anti-Virtuoso / Lo-Fi 101 [2400 Words] (PRESS, US)

Article on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion from B.A.M. magazine by James Sullivan.

Photos: Michael Lavine

The Rise of the Anti-Virtuoso

Some of the most thrilling creative efforts are those drawn from the furthest reaches of the psyche. Getting there is the difficulty; upon arrival, ideas seem to spill forth irrepressibly. Think of the single-minded works of a method actor, an action painter, or a writer from the school of “first thought, best thought,” at their peaks of proliferation: Unpremeditated and unrestrained by prior rules of form, these sorts of unconscious emissions are called creative farts.

Creative farting finds its most welcome outlets in rock ‘n’ roll with rockabilly, soul, and garage music. Each of these styles provides a spare framework which begs to be sent up in a blaze of glory-squeezed to death in the abdomen of ferocious human energy.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion makes music that ignites rock’s least wooden forms. That they’re able to do so consistently, at will, both on record and in performance, marks the band as maters of style and fluency. And style and fluency, though unfairly subjugated to the mannerisms of technical execution, are in truth two-thirds of the components of virtuosity.

Does the Blues Explosion’s leader agree that his band is in top form, that he is indeed a master of style and fluency? “The only thing I’d say,” says Spencer, “is it’s something I’m not really conscious of. It just sort of happens.”


In rock music, unconscious style and fluency, as epitomized by the Blues Explosion, have it all over technique. Perfection in rock is getting the pulse right, a process which often comes equipped with the paradoxical trappings of imperfection – ragged notes, false starts, busted strings. Utter chaos has its own version of perfection, and the Blues Explosion is on to it.

If you’ve ever sought to improve your artistic skills by studying one of those “drawing on the right side of the brain” tutorials, you know that the goal is to eliminate the distractions of daily existence to focus solely on the project at hand. One suggestion for improving concentration is to flip the subject upside down, creating a spatial confusion that requires trashing preconceived notions in order to see the thing simply for what it is. The Blues Explosion is predicated on a similar concept: their sound is the commotion made by standing musicians like Otis Clay and Johnny Burnette and the Count Five on their heads, and shaking them down to see what falls out of their pockets.

Jon Spencer’s first band, the notorious Pussy Galore, was hatched in Washington, D.C., but quickly relocated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. During the years following punk’s entrenchment of musical populism, Pussy Galore shredded the acceptable rules of rock guitar by ignoring tastefulness altogether. And yet they saluted the conventions of rock even as they exploded them, producing the legendary knockoff of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street LP in its entirety, and retiring their own band in 1990 with the tongue-in-cheek swan song, Historia de la Musica Rock.

Though critics were often antagonistic, Pussy Galore certainly harvested its share of the indie names and faces. Former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert kept time throughout the duration of the group; guitarist Neil Hagerty went on to form Royal Trux (another stepchild of smack-period Stones); Spencer’s wife Cristina (Martinez) went on to front the Honeymoon Killers; and Julia Cafritz joined Don Fleming’s Velvet Monkeys and currently co-leads Free Kitten with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.

Upon Pussy Galore’s demise, Spencer and Cristina also formed Boss Hog, a Steve Albini-produced project which hinted at the gutter-level itchiness of the Blues Explosion (and a re-formed version of which recently signed with Geffen). But it wasn’t until a trip to Memphis to record with new friends, the Gibson Brothers, that Spencer really seized on the discombobulation of roots music that is his new band.

“I think,” says Spencer, “that I’ve always had an interested in blues based, crude rock ‘n’ roll, and certainly rockabilly – there’s always been that kind of element in the stuff I’ve done, garage or rockabilly. But certainly, with the Gibson Brothers, they taught me a lot, showed me a lot”

In Memphis, the group recorded the basic tracks for Memphis Sol Today! (Sympathy for the Record Industry) in one night, at Sam Phillips’ mythical Sun Studio. “That was a very strange night,” Spencer recalls. “It was, I guess, sort of ridiculous. It’s a big long story, but there were a lot of circumstances, personal stuff that was going on. But it was a lot of fun.”

It’s this kind of simultaneous grasping for rock history while remaining totally immersed in his own world that has served Spencer’s Blues Explosion so well.

“When we were on the way to Memphis to record most of [1993’s] Extra Width,” Spencer says, “I read the book Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick. That is a really, really, great book, and it also had an impact for what we were doing then, you know, heading to Memphis. Stax was very important to us then, as were High [Records] and James Brown.”

“What I like about those books is the way they describe the music. It just sounds so new and bizarre. Oftentimes, what I’ll imagine the music is from reading the book is much better than anything if I ever go and listen to the record… That can be very inspiration, because, you know, I’ll get my own idea.”

Which, in spite of his band’s name, rarely (if ever) takes the form of a true blues progression. Recently a spate of Blues Explosion profiles have declared the profound influence of Hound Dog Taylor on Spencer’s band, beginning with their parallel of the late Chicago bluesman’s two guitars/drums/no bass line-up. Spencer wants to clarify:

“I think maybe people get confused by that,” he says. The Blues Explosion – Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins – met “by accident” at the Honeymoon Killers’ rehearsal space. “The band sort of fell into our laps. There wasn’t any plan, there wasn’t any set idea. But at that time, during the first half-year or whatever, Hound Dog Taylor was something that I think all three of us discovered. It wasn’t like a model, but maybe an affirmation. There have been other bands that had a similar kind of line-up, but I guess with Hound Dog Taylor, it was just that it was so great.”

In expressing his admiration for Hound Dog’s “natural boogie,” Spencer goes onto reveal a few of his own secrets, “In a recent issue of Living Blues, he says, “there was a big interview with, I think his name is Phillip Brewer [actually Brewer Phillips], the other guitar player [in Hound Dog’s HouseRockers]. And that guy is probably more my favourite because he’s the one who’s usually playing, not doing the slide stuff, but he’s doing the boogie runs and the bass kind of stuff, and that’s just really amazing stuff… He said, the guys in the band would be worried, you know, if Hound Dog started something and jumped to a key and they wouldn’t know what key, but Hound Dog would always say, ‘Don’t worry about it. So long as you do it with conviction.’

And therein’ lies the Blues Explosion gestalt; the seamless continuity of their sound, trampling aural exactitude in favor of the other two, infinitely more soulful, parts of virtuosity; style and fluency. Beginning with an eponymous 1992 release on the Caroline label, coursing through a cluster of import-only product and domestic singles, Spencer’s band had greased itself slicker than a pig at the fair by the release of last year’s Extra Width. Their latest full-length record, Orange, the second for Matador, wallows just as vaingloriously in hog heaven.

Using instrumentation which is economical to the extreme, Spencer, Bauer and Simins have fashioned their extraordinary maelstrom.

“Ju uses a Telecaster, probably from the early ’70s, “Spencer explains. “His amp is a Music Man. It’s my amp; I used to use it and Neil Hagerty used it. It was an amp that was in Pussy Galore…

“My guitar is actually my wife’s guitar. Cristina bought it on Avenue B for $17. It’s some kind of Korean or Japanese guitar, doesn’t have a name on it. It was hers she used it in Honeymoon Killers for a year or so, and then it was just sitting around.”

“And then I was using it when the Blues Explosion started, so it just sort of defined our sound.”

Clearly, the thought process behind the Blues Explosion sound has never been constipated. Spencer continues; “Russell’s drums are pretty old. They were a childhood drum kit – I think his dad gave them to him… It’s not like a drum kit made for kids; it’s a real drum kit. It’s small 20-inch bass drum, and Russell’s a big guy, so it looks smaller than it really is, but it’s a real drum kit. Very nice one.”

Embellishing the Blues Explosion’s beggarly tool kit is Spencer’s theremin, defined as “an electronic console like instrument often used for high tremolo effects,” a Martian-meteorite kind of contraption topped with antennae which feed back dementedly when “played.”

“I won it in a card game.” offers the proud owner. “Ever played hearts? You know how it goes – it gets to be late, and everybody’s drunk, and the stakes are high.”

“Of that particular model, I think there’s only about 70 [left]. That was built in the late ’50s or early 60s, by the Moog company. Before they made the Moog synthesizer, they tried to make and sell theremin, but it wasn’t very successful… I think it’s the world’s first electric instrument. Definitely, the outer space thing was what attracted me to it,” Spencer says.

Surely, when Spencer the mad scientist staggers toward the theremin onstage, hands wavering as though the instrument’s antennal oscillators are playing him rather than he them, the force-field electromagnetism of the Blues Explosion is deftly emblemized.

With his thunderous incantation of the band’s moniker (RightnowladiesandgentlemenIgottotellyouabout… BLUES EXPLOSION!)”, and the relentless charge of the bands rutting three-legged ram, the Blues Explosion’s performance is a direct descendant of the classic showman’s revues of the early decades of rock. “When we were starting we felt that was a problem with indie rock, with the bands that we were coming out of – that there wasn’t much style… It is very important for us to put on a good show. It’s what we believe in,” says Spencer.

And Matador records Extra Width and Orange do a remarkable job of conveying the Blues Explosion’s live combustion from the confines of the studio. In fact, Spencer is so hell-bent on spontaneity that he claims he was ready to move onto new material, even before Orange was recorded.

“The difference with Orange,” according to the bandleader, “is that they’re all songs that had been played out live for a couple of months.

Whereas with previous albums, they were songs that had been whipped together right there in the studio, out of half-ideas from rehearsal, or something that had been coming up again and again at sound check.

“I look back on making that record as just king of hard, kind of a long process. Most of the reason for that was because I was trying to make a better-sounding record.”

“Better-sounding” is a relative term – Orange ain’t exactly for Bang and Olufsen audiophiles – but the record is a piece with Extra Width’s signature fuzztone, give or take a bleating sax solo (“Ditch”) or an ornamental string arrangement (“Bellbottoms”). Elsewhere, the instrumental “Very Rare” could be the long lost companion piece to TV’s Sanford & Son theme, and songs like “Dang” and “Dissect” sit well with the incorrigible Motor City rock of that same early ’70s time frame.

The unifying theme in the Blues Explosion’s dumpster-dive into rock’s past is the band’s uncanny knack for infusing their finds with completely unidentifiable attributes from the nether reaches of consciousness. Spencer likes to call it “outer space.”

He has been quoted as describing Pussy Galore’s attitude as, “Fuck you, we’re the coolest band.” Does the same hold for the Blues Explosion?

“We’ll I definitely think we’re a cool band,” Spencer chuckles, “but it’s not carried with the same kind of trip… I think the Blues Explosion is just the sheer joy of making the music and playing together,” he says, “That’s the main thing.”

LO-FI 101

At the tail end of “Flavor,” on the Orange LP, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion slows down to a slinky crawl to accommodate a taped overlay of punk rapper Beck, droppin’ drowsy science over the phone.

Spencer says the collaboration came together after “hearing that [Beck] was a fan of [Spencer’s first band] Pussy Galore. And then I met him, and he was a very nice guy, and very cute.” He makes no bones about the seemingly secretive guest appearance on Orange on Orange of California’s own answer to the young man blues: “Of course we’re trying to sell some records. There was supposed to be a sticker on the record saying ‘Featuring Beck,’ but there was some fuck-up at the plant.”

After cutting the lyrics for “Flavor,” Beck asks shyly, “Was that good? You want me to do one more?” In a hopped-up coyote howl, Spencer assures him, “You got the flavor! You got the flavor!”

Spencer and Beck are just two of a stack of ascendant artists who are winning converts with flavor. While the rock industry’s choreographers will always make room for gearheads and transcription wonks, groups like PJ Harvey, Guided by Voices, Ween, Pavement, the Grifters, and Sebadoh have been busy crafting idiosyncratic deliveries which don’t fret over a flubbed note or two.

Not long ago, “lo-fi” was less a revolution than a financial necessity for many of these artists. When indie rock threatened to dispose the dictators of rock ‘n’ roll a few years ago, lo-fi served as a manifesto of the insurgents, a rebuttal to the primping and preening of major-label royalty. As the powers-that-be re-established themselves by paying off the revolution, many of these rag tag acts have been awarded access to increased studio time and bigger budgets for engineers, producers, and the like. For Spencer, at least more studio time is little short of a pain in the ass.

“It would be nice to get back to doing some stuff that was more loose and improvisational,” he says, true to form.