The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – CMJ New Music Monthly: Acme Blues Explosives, INC [1300 Words] (PRESS, US)

December 1998 CMJ

This 1130 word article originally appeared in CMJ New Music Monthly but was later included as a photocopy in a press release sent out by Matador Records to promote The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion release Acme. Also sent out with several other photocopied articles/reviews and a 10″ x 8″ black and white band photograph.
“CMJ New Music Monthly
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Acme Blues Explosives, INC

Story David Daley
Photos: Dennis Kleiman

The latest blues-punk-funk-soul mishmash from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is its best yet, but talking to them about it finds a band loath to reveal its true face.

When Rolling Stone reviewed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s last album, Now I Got Worry, the writer practically accused Spencer of wearing blackface, sporting an afro, and angling for a sitcom on the WB Network. Asking what right young, white boys have to play the blues, the scribe opined that “Spencer’s faux backwoods drawl verges on minstrel-show insult.”

Sitting in a diner in New York’s East Village with bandmates Russell Simins and Judah Bauer, picking idly at the menu’s awkwardly titled “salad burger,” Spencer will only call the review “upsetting,” and bemoan that “some people don’t get the band, don’t understand it.” What actually sent Spencer off, however, was a tamer Rolling Stone Q&A, in which he answered earnest queries about how a New Hampshire boy fresh from sneering punk deconstructionists Pussy Galore fell for the authentic blues music of Hound Dog Taylor and Mississippi Fred McDowell. It’s actually one of the few insightful articles on Spencer – whose combination of genuine shyness and obnoxious East Village cool makes him a difficult interview when he’s not being downright rude – that reveals the depths of his musical knowledge, and gives Blues Explosion fans at least half-dozen original sources to explore themselves, some they might know (Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James), and some they might not (Jessie Mae Hemphill, R.L. Burnside).

After the interview – perhaps feeling his authenticity in question, perhaps frustrated that the soul, funk and hip-hop sides of his band get overlooked because of the name Blues Explosion – Spencer sat down and wrote “Talk About The Blues,” the first single off the Blues Explosion new album Acme (Matador-Capitol).

“I got something I want everybody to hear right now, ladies and gentlemen/I don’t play no blues,” he testifies, riffing on McDowell’s album called I Do Not Play No Rock And Roll, and calling out MTV and Rolling Stone by name. “That’s right/The blues is number one/But there’s something I gotta tell you right now/I do not play no blues/I play rock ‘n’ roll.”

It’s the bluesiest song on Acme, a blistering, chicken-scratch distorto-groove with Spencer howling in protest, that feels like an out-of-place rant in the middle of an album with a lower-key, soul-train vibe, one that opens with a James Brown-styled exhortation “Let’s have a party.”

“[On] the last record we got criticism for, I don’t know, trying to be something we’re not,” says Spencer. “I wrote the song right after we did the interview, inspired by that and also some of the criticism we’ve received over the past couple years. If we tried to record some song that was a response to criticism as it happened, that would be too heavy-handed. The lyrics stayed true to the original off-the-cuff feel, what you call a rant. But it’s not such a big deal, you know. A lot of that stuff just doesn’t merit a response.”

Indeed, Spencer’s response is Acme, an album that just appropriates more black music than ever. There’s a funkier bottom to the Blues Explosion’s trash-can-rattling pastiche, with “Lovin’ Machine” sampling the essence of James Brown’s funky heart, and “Do You Wanna Get Heavy” borrowing the soulful stirrings of Stax-Volt R&B. And there’s a mellow, chill-out feel as well: if the Blues Explosion’s raw power once got the trio tagged rock’s sexiest band, Acme has more crooning for post-coital cuddling. “It’s interesting. This record, in some ways, is blacker than the last one,” Spencer observes. “When we’re making a record, even after it’s done, I don’t really know what to say. It’s not until we start doing interviews that you can sort of see it for what it is.”

Spencer insists Acme isn’t merely a response to Now I Got Worry, which he once fretted was too nasty and raucous a follow-up to the more accessible, bell-bottomed hip-hop soul of Orange.

“The thing is, we recorded really raw and raucous songs for this record. It wasn’t until June that we totally started thinking about what to put on the record that we really started going for the more mellow, soulful groove-oriented songs,” he says.

The group recorded slowly, trying to involve lots of different people, to recapture the diverse feel of the Experimental Remixes EP that followed Orange. The trio recorded the basic tracks with Steve Albini (and a couple with Calvin Johnson at Dub Narcotic), figuring Albini’s minimalist style would capture strong songs no remixer could completely ruin. Then they distributed the songs to different mixers whose work they admired, including Jim Dickinson, Alec Empire and Dan The Automator (Dr. Octagon, Cornershop. It’s a much more collaborative, hands-off method of making a record for Spencer, who has produced his own music ever since the Pussy Galore days.

“The idea was just to kind of mix it up, take a remix approach to the album,” says Spencer. “This is the best record we’ve done. I really think this is a great record. I think there’s something on here for everybody. We really outdid ourselves songwriting-wise on this record. There are great songs on there. That was one of the things that allowed us to turn this loose to the different mixers.”

Adds Simins, “This record also, more so than the other one, represents all of our interests. there are all these bands who listen to the same music all the time, they all dress the same, and they play the same music. That’s just boring. We listen to a lot of different things. We kind of hip each other to stuff, and that’s a big part as to why this band works.”

Spencer, for his part, credits his status as a new dad (he’s married to Boss Hog partner Cristina Martinez, who adds backing vocals to “Bernie”) for the Blues Explosion’s new vibe.

“Part of the reason this record is different from other Blues Explosion records is because of what’s happened to me the past couple years, because I’m older – that’s always an influence – and more specifically, because, yeah, I’m a father now. That was a big influence on me. Far more so than any music I’ve ever listened to.”

You had a boy, right, I ask innocuously. Spencer turns and fixes me with a look of icy cold disdain. “I’d rather not talk about my family,” he says, shutting down a subject he himself raised, seemingly for his bandmates’ amusement. Attitude Explosion!

Or maybe it’s just an interview inspiring the arrogant single from the next record – “(Rather Not) Talk About My Family.”