|The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion feature interview from Details magazine.
Article: Rob Sheffield
“Jon Spencer is a punk of burning love, a preacher for the devil’s music, and the man who’s putting the sex back into rock ‘n’ roll.
Funky Big White Noise
“Well, let me ask you this,” says Jon Spencer. “Which did you like more: Natural Born Killers of Pulp Fiction?”
I’m riding in a cab uptown with Jon and his wife, Cristina Martinez. We’re headed to a Korean restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, and I have the distinct feeling that Jon’s question is a personality test, like the girls in fifth grade used to ask a question that was supposed to reveal what you thought about sex – “You’re in a room full of water. How do you feel?” – and you’d say “Scared of drowning,” and everybody would laugh.
Jon plays guitar and Cristina sings in Boss Hog, a thrashy, messed-up R&B band whose early records Jon once described as “the sound of us fighting.” Jon also leads the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the band that brought the bump and grind to punk rock. Together, the Explosion and the Hog have made the sexiest music about monogamy since Al Green’s Living for You, albeit a good deal grimier. It’s easy to see why Jon and Cristina would hold dear a movie about outlaw-killer lovers on the run.
I tell Jon and Cristina the truth anyway: Pulp Fiction. They exchange a knowing glance. “How can anybody say that?” Cristina asks, “Natural Born Killers is so much more…fucked up”.
Growing up in the ’70s in Hanover, New Hampshire, Jon Spencer was a polite kid too scared to watch horror movies. ten years after that, he was a Brown dropout living in Washington, D.C., with his band, Pussy Galore, watching trash movies and horror films all night long. To say he’d gotten over his childhood hang-up would be putting it mildly. From 1985 to 1990, Pussy Galore elevated B-movie sleaze to religious devotion, inserting obscenity into every song, and banging scrap metal and cheap guitars. “We couldn’t go to shows. Nobody liked us,” Spencer says of the six months the band spent in D.C. “A lot of that had to do with out own bratty behaviour. Trying to stir up trouble.” Pussy Galore moved to New York, where they continued to stomp all over the punk-rock idealism – they were in it for pure, nasty kicks, a lot like Natural Born Killers.
Spencer likes to say that the Blues Explosion’s music is more mature than Pussy Galore’s. Think of the Blues Explosion as the director’s cut: less gore, more sex – funked up as well as fucked up. “It’s kind of, maybe, growing up, you know? Being a bit more happy. Not being pissed off with music. I think a lot of what Pussy Galore was about was destruction, a chip on the shoulder. And I sort of got over it, or through it.” Ten years ago, Jon Spencer would bring a guitar squall to a halt and yell out “I just wanna die!” On the new Blues Explosion album, Now I Got Worry, he’s moved on to a party-people exhortations like “Throw your hands in the air! And kiss my ass, because your girlfriend still loves me!”
There are those who believe that the locus of a man’s character can be found in his eyes. What I can tell you about Jon Spencer’s eyes is that they are dark, focused, and intent. They have an air of uneasiness, as though they have something to hide or to hide from. For all his stage flash, Spencer is notoriously, painfully shy. He doesn’t make eye contact except when he has something to say, which is not often. To say he is comfortable with long pauses is to seriously underestimate his gift for silence. One more thing about the eyes: They appear to be ringed with eyeliner, even though they’re not.
Spencer is closemouthed about his childhood. He spent his high-school years reading Heavy Metal comics and listening to music he sheepishly remembers as “nerdy sci-fi stuff”: Devo, Kraftwerk, the Residents. He also loved movie music: the grandiose soundtrack of 2001, the nutty dynamics of Planet of the Apes, and most of all, the way Coppola twisted ’60s oldies into Apocalypse Now’s death trip. In college, he studied semiotics, made films, and did time as a Goth, bumming out to Nick Cave and Siouxsie & the Banshees. He also discovered the noise that inspired his music: the Stooges, Run-D.M.C., and the ’60s garage bands on ratty compilations like Back From the Grave. “That’s what made me think I could do it myself,” Spencer says. “Because it was all just the ’60s U.S. punk bands imitating the Stones imitating Chess blues artists.” The title of the first Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album, Crypt Style, pays tribute to the Back From the Grave series.
After Pussy Galore fell apart, Jon began jamming with drummer Russell Simins – from noise-rock veterans the Honeymoon Killers – Judah Bauer, Russell’s roommate, on guitar. (Like Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion use no bass.( They took their inspiration from vintage blues, rockabilly, and soul, but weren’t reverent about the past – all they wanted to do was connect the raw, primitive stomp of early R&B with the raw, primitive stomp of hardcore, punk, and industrial rock. Bent on distorting the music they clearly love, they came on like burn-outs who fell asleep in history class and then got stuck with the job of rewriting the textbook.
“The Blues Explosion is not a blues band,” explains Spencer. “We’re not trying to play the blues. It we have anything in common with that, it’s that what we do is coming from what we know – we’re true to ourselves.” He emphasizes that the band and its style were organic, almost an accident – anything but a high-concept pairing of New York bohemian noise and roots. But like everything else about the Blues Explosion, it was a carefully orchestrated accident. “Accidents are very important to us. If we’re in the studio and, say, something falls over, or something gets switched on when we’re doing the mix and a new sound comes out, I love things like that. The idea of producing a record is trying to create an environment in which anything could happen.”
Since Spencer added organ to the Blues Explosion line-up with 1993’s Extra Width, the band’s albums have been a mix of soulful polish and spontaneous combustion. Nineteen ninety-four’s Orange added disco strings and Dr. Dre melodies. “Orange is a real rap-soul record. I think the way we write songs, there is an influence of rap – just the idea that you can stick anything together. I wanted to take that all the way and remix it.” The result, 1995’s Experimental Records EP, included techno and hip-hop revisions by Moby, Mike D, and Genius from the Wu-Tang Clan. Spencer was upset that they didn’t sabotage the tracks more.
You don’t hear disco strings and Dr. Dre riffs on too many indie-rock records. But the thing that really makes the Blues Explosion unique is their showmanship and sex appeal. “The Blues Explosion is a very pagan ritual, man,” Judah tells me. “People need it because they don’t go to church anymore. That’s why there are so many bands.”
Onstage, the Blues Explosion act out all the raw, debauched power of their music. Bauer and Simins glower like film-noir hit men, while Spencer plays Cat-woman as a boy, strutting his stuff and displaying what Rick James used to call “bitch power” – the power to make every man in the audience jealous and turned on at the same time.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is sexy music. It should be sexy,” Jon says before he goes on to avow surprise that anyone would consider him or the Blues Explosion sexier than the average white band. “We don’t come off saying, ‘Hey man, I’m sexy.’ We don’t really think aout it. If you’re trying to do it, it usually doesn’t work.” Just another carefully planned accident I guess.
“don’t call me after twelve,” Spencer sings on Orange’s “Blues X Man,” “that’s when I’m laying in bed home with the wife. I don’t want that bother.” Cristina spent time in Pussy Galore as a guitarist and photographer before breaking away to sing with the Honeymoon Killers and eventually forming Boss Hog. “One of the nicest things about Boss Hog** for me, “Spencer says, “is seeing Cristina smile when we’re onstage”.
Spencer and Martinez met at D.C.’s hallowed 9:30 club on December 8, 1985 – the feast of the Immaculate Conception – at a Jesus and Mary Chain show. They first got married on June 8th 1991, in a New York civil ceremony. A little more than a year later, they were married again in Spain, ina Catholic wedding in the village where Cristina’s mother grew up, in the same church where Cristina made her first Communion. It was a traditional Spanish wedding. “We marched through the streets of the town,” Spencer remembers. “I couldn’t understand much of it. But they told me I was married.” The anniversary they celebrate is the night of the Jesus and Mary Chain show.
To the small extent that Jon makes his personal life public in his music, it’s to pledge his love to Cristina. When he talks about the emotional change from the angry young wolf-boy of Pussy Galore to the grown-up Blues Explosion man, I ask him if his marriage played a part. He takes a minute to think it over, then says simply, “Yeah.” This boyish, soft-spoken moppet is the same guy who likes to yell “Take a whiff of my pant leg!” in the middle of his songs. He’s still figuring out the tricky boundaries between his music and his life. “People like [rockabilly singer] Charlie Feathers and [soul legend] Rufus Thomas now mean more to me than maybe Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley,” Jon muses, “Because they made music, but they had families and jobs, you know?”
“Rufus Thomas called me this morning,” Jon Spencer tells the rest of the Blues Explosion over dinner.
While recording Now I Got Worry in Memphis, the Blues Explosion dared each other to call up on of their heroes, Rufus Thomas. Drummer Russell Simins – the hairiest, burliest and most garrulous or only garrulous member of the band made the call because Spencer was too nervous. Simins offered Thomas $300 to sing on an instrumental the Blues Explosion had modelled on Thomas’s Stax-Volt hits “Walking the Dog” and “Do the Funky Chicken.” “Make it five hundred bucks,” Thomas told him, “and I’ll be over in fifteen minutes.” When the seventy-nine-year-old Thomas arrived at the studio the first thing he did was start swigging from a bottle of Scope. “don’t want to offend nobody.” he explained.
Spencer tells the others that Thomas got the tape of their session, a fabulously noisy spasm called “Chicken Dog.” “He liked it. He said he can’t play it on his radio show. Buy he said he’d take the tape around to all the pop stations.” Everybody laughs.
The conversation turns to pop-culture free association. Who made sexier music, James Brown or Elvis? Universal agreement: James Brown, “But who was sexier,” asks Russell, “Elvis or Ann-Margaret?” Universal agreement. “The way she dances in Viva Las Vegas,” Russell says, “it’s all over for me. She’s the only one I’ve ever seen out-dance Elvis.” Jon seconds his emotion “Yeah,” he says, “that kinda spazzy dance!”
The Blues Explosion’s idea of sexy music is Robert Johnson, Frank Sinatra, the New York Dolls (“It’s sexy noise,” says Jon) and Prince. but the band they really love is Prince’s proteges the Time. “Morris Day had the coolest hair,” raves Russell.
“Onstage he’d be primping,” recalls Jon. “And he’d have his manservant Jerome hold up his mirror.”
Would the Blues Explosion ever invite their menservants onstage to hold up mirrors while they primp?
Jon Scowls. “Man, we don’t even have people to move out goddamn amps.””