|Interview with Jon Spencer from issue #5 of Fiz. The article discuss the career of Pussy Galore and Boss Hog, The formation of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and various editions of the first album and his work with the Gibson Bros..
Thanks to Skeleton Boy for the scans.
“A real treat, this one, Jon Spencer has done so much great stuff over the years that I can’t help but place him on a pedestal. He has such a unique sound and style – without being arty or pretentious – that you have to think of his music has completely infiltrated the New York scene in so many ways it’s astounding (although he won’t admit to it). If I were to make a family tree of the current crop of N.Y.C. bands making a dent it would be difficult not to find a Spencer connection with most of them. If not through former bands or bandmates, then through the influence of his unmistakable sound. The members of Pussy Galore alone have all gone on to do great things with other bands, and I can’t help but hear a little bit of Jon in all of them. But what an influence!
I interviewed Jon when his most recent band, Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion, was passing through town, and let me tell ya, this band is bound to become legendary. They are everything and more of what his fans have come to expect from this true innovator of auditory scuz. Dig in.
Fiz: For the sake of the people that don’t realize everything you’ve done, let’s go back a ways to … well, I guess to Pussy Galore. Who was in that band, and what were you trying to accomplish at that point?
Jon: There were a lot of different people in the band. It was mainly my band, and I started the band with Julia Cafritz – she was there almost up until the end. Neil Hagerty was the other big name there, and I guess after that it would have to be Bob Bert. When we started in Washington DC and we didn’t get Bob until we moved to New York. The drummer that we had in Washington DC didn’t want to move to New York, so when we moved we got Bob. The band started in 1985, and what we were trying to do was play some really hard rock and roll. There are a lot of people that have written things about it, but I think the way we went about things was sort of predicated by the notion that rock and roll was dead and a dead language. Really, what we were doing was just trying to write good songs and put on a good show, and I think that we got away with that.
Fiz: Do those early records reflect that? Are they accurate documentation of what you wanted to do?
Jon: Yeah, I don’t think there was ever any record that we were unhappy with. The way the band always recorded was live – we’d set up in the studio and play. A couple of things would be added, and some records we’d spend longer on. Dial M for Motherfucker we spent the most time on that record. Records in general, are always made pretty quickly, and it’s always the band in the end – just the band playing live. That’s the way I’ve always worked. Any record that I’ve made is just a document of the band playing live.
Fiz: Is it true that one of the reasons you guys decided to leave Washington DC was because of the Ian MacKaye song?
Jon: No, we left DC for other reasons. I mean we were having trouble with the band in DC.
Fiz: Yeah, I’d always heard the stories, and I’d always wondered if they were just bullshit.
Jon: Well, we had a song called “Fuck Ian MacKaye.”
Fiz: And since this was in 1985, I can see where that might be a bit of a problem. Did you guys have a hard time just because you didn’t fit in with all of that stuff?
Jon: Yeah, well there have been some crazy DC bands. It’s not like we were the fucking weirdest thing they’d ever seen. We were just trying to stir up some trouble and trying to draw some attention so that was the reason for the … I guess it was kind of the “baiting” of the Dischord crowd.
Fiz: You were young and energetic…
Jon: Oh, yeah. I mean we were probably all the same age as those guys.
Fiz: Actually, when I saw you last night I was surprised. I’d seen Pussy Galore before, but I’d never really paid attention, and I was surprised at how young you looked.
Jon: Well, if I wear my hair long I look older.
Fiz: OK, so Pussy Galore gets to New York and obviously people start dropping in and out of the band. Is that when you got signed to Caroline [Records]?
Jon: Uh, we came to New York right after we’d put out Groovy Hate Fuck, and then we put out a record with a label out in New Jersey called Buy Our Records. We did Pussy Galore 5000 and Exile on Main Street – Exile we did ourselves. I was at Caroline because we did all the records ourselves, and I was getting paid for something – they did the distributing – and the then-head of the label called me in and said “make us an offer.” So that’s when we signed to Caroline.
Fiz: And that’s when you did Dial M and Right Now?
Jon: Right Now and then the EP Sugar Shit Sharp, then Dial M for Motherfucker and then the History of Rock.
Fiz: I read an interview not too long ago with Bob, and he was talking about the end – when Julia dropped out and you guys were trying to tour and Neil just wasn’t into it anymore.
Jon: The last tour we did with Julia was in Europe. Neil had quit the band, and we had done a year with Kurt Wolf as the kind of lead guitarist. As soon as Kurt joined we did a lot fo touring, and then we did Sugar Shit Sharp. Then I really wanted to tour with Neil again so we went to Europe and we recorded most of the tracks for Dial M in London, and then we came back home. Julia had pretty much quit by then – she and I hadn’t been getting along for quite a while by that time, and I really wanted to end the band. It was sort of like a power move – who could quit or who could finish the band first.
Fiz: Was Christine [Jon’s wife and singer for Boss Hog] already out of the band at this point?
Jon: Yeah, Christine was only in the band for a few months, so it had nothing to do with that really. When all that happened we came back to New York and recorded some tracks without Julia. When that record came out we toured that states and that was just the four guys – Bob, Neil, Kurt and myself. Then that was it. Dial M for Motherfucker was supposed to be the last record and that was sort of what that record was all about. That fall I really wasn’t doing anything. I was writing some songs, and I really wanted to have a band again so I called up Bob and Neil, and I set up a recording session. Neil had been out living in San Francisco and had come home for Christmas to see his family in Virgina. He came up to New York and we recorded the History of Rock record, and that was supposed to be the starting up again of the band. We were going to tour in Europe, but Neil just wouldn’t return out calls, basically, so it became obvious that that was that.
Fiz: Is this when Boss Hog started taking shape?
Jon: I think that was before. I think that was when Pussy Galore was still going. I think it was before Dial M that we did that first Boss Hog record. Boss Hog has always been a kind of loose, casual thing.
Fiz: It seems like the line-up is pretty fluctuating.
Jon: We hardly ever play in the US. We’ve gone to Europe a couple of times just because it’s a vacation really – that’s really nice. We’re actually very, very popular in Germany.
Fiz: Is Boss Hog really still together?
Jon: Well, Charlie [Ondras, beloved New York denizen and drummer for all bands of high quality] died back in May, and that was very sad, and then we started playing again with a friend of the bass player’s.
Fiz: Who is playing bass nowadays?
Jon: A guy named Jens Jurgeson. He’s been to Europe with us twice, but hasn’t been on any of the records.
Fiz: I know Pete Shore [Unsane] was playing for a while.
Jon: Yeah, Pete Shore was in the band for a very short time, but he was in for that recording session. We have a new drummer, and we have actually recorded some stuff, so there probably will be another album. We’ve done a couple of shows.
Fiz: I was just wondering because I know a lot of people were pretty crushed by Charlie, and I wasn’t sure if people were going to want to continue on with their bands or not.
Jon: Yeah, Charlie … the Unsane have a new drummer, too, I don’t know … people think that’s a bad thing to go on without him – I can understand that. but…
Fiz: Well, no, I didn’t think anything bad about it. I just know that sometimes when something bad like that happens the band feels that there’ something missing with that person gone…
Jon: Well, we just kind of got together, and we just started writing a lot of songs, and like I said, we did some recording and we did a couple of shows. We’ll see what happens.
Fiz: Hazelmyer [Tom Hazelmyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records] told me that all of the records he puts out, Drinkin’, Letchin’ and Lyin’ is one of his all time favorite to just pop on and listen to.
Jon: I know he said he really likes the first cut on that record for driving. That’s really a nice compliment.
Fiz: At one point you got involved with the Gibson Bros.
Jon: Pussy Galore would always play with them whenever we passed through Columbus, Ohio, and I’d always loved them. Then their band sort of fell apart when they were in New York once, playing some shows. I’d been corresponding with Jeff [Evans] and Don [Howland, both of the Gibson Bros.]. I don’t know how it came about, but they did this short tour of the Northeast, where I played guitar and Christina played drums. I think actually before that Christina and I had gone to Memphis to visit Jeffrey, and Don came down, and we did a show at the Counterfest there in Memphis, which is this thing that Tav Falco puts on there every year. That was actually the first show. Then we did the tour, and then Christina didn’t want to play drums anymore so they brought in another drummer. I did two summer tours with them.
Fiz: Did you play with them when they came out here?
Jon: Yeah, we played a smaller stage here.
Fiz: Was it at Jabberjaw?
Jon: Yeah, we played there.
Fiz: I wasn’t sure if you were with them at that point.
Jon: I was. The show we did here was actually the best show of the tour. That tour really wasn’t all that much fun. At the end of it we recorded an album at some studio that Long Gone John [Sympathy for the Record Industry] is supposed to put out. I don’t know when it’s coming out. He says he hasn’t got the art yet.
Fiz: Well, you know … John’s just kind of …
Jon: Are you making excuses?
Fiz: No, I guess I shouldn’t. I’ve just noticed that with him the stuff just sort of gets out when it gets out.
Jon: Yeah, I know.
Fiz: So, at what point did you start with the Blues Explosion?
Jon: Last August, I was out here with the Gibson Bros., and we had been together for a couple of months, and I had a tape of the first session we had done.
Fiz: Didn’t Chris Ashford put out that first single?
Jon: Who’s Chris Ashford?
Fiz: From Iloki [Records]…
Jon: Now we never did anything with him.
Fiz: That “Shirt Jack” single?
Jon: No, that’s Larry
Fiz: Oh, Larry Hardy [In the Red Records]. I think he’s involved with Chris on some level.
Jon: Oh! Yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry. Technically it’s In the Red – Larry does the juke box singles.
Fiz: You obviously have a – shall we say – unique way of approaching your music. How do you go about fining people to do this with you? How do you explain what it is you’re after?
Jon: Well, Russell [Simins, Blues Explosion drummer] feels very instinctively for what I’m doing. He and I play really well together. We just kind of stumbled into each other. He was just this drummer that the Honeymoon Killers had found, and I was coming around playing with them – that’s how we met. Judah [Bauer, Blues Explosion guitarist] was the friend that was living with him – this kid – and we just started playing together, the three of us.
Fiz: I’ve just always been in awe of what you do – in particular because you can actually harness it, put it together and make it into something that people can actually sit and listen to and say “Yeah, I dig this.” I mean, it is pretty psychotic music.
Jon: This band is a more natural band. We can get together and just play. Pussy Galore was a band that was more rehearsed, more drilled.
Fiz: It occurs to me that you’ve had a real far-reaching influence around New York. Do you see that?
Jon: No, I don’t see that.
Fiz: Well, if I was to do a sort of Jon Spencer family tree…
Jon: Oh, you mean like people that have gone on?
Fiz: There are just so many people that you’ve played with and you’ve obviously had some kind of effect on them.
Jon: (humbly) Well … uh … yeah.
Fiz: It just seems that almost every band that I really dig out of New York, if I research them, either Julia was involved or Bob was involved or … it just seems like there’s always this line that goes back to you.
Jon: Well, I guess there’s just not that many new people coming in. It’s really too expensive.
Fiz: It’s just a real incestuous little scene.
Fiz: Is there anything really exciting going on right now that you’re involved with?
Jon: That I’m playing with?
Fiz: Or that you’re involved with – friends, anything in that whole circle.
Jon: I really like the band that Julie has with Kim [Gordon] – Kitten.
Fiz: She’s out of the Action Swingers now, right?
Jon: Yeah, I think it’s a completely new Action Swingers.
Fiz: Oh, Bob’s out now too?
Jon: Yeah. Um, Railroad Jerk is nice.
Fiz: I like them a lot. How is the new Unsane?
Jon: I haven’t seen them with their new drummer. I mean … whatever … I think that was an instance where Charlie was a very important part of that band.
Fiz: I think so, too. I mean, I shouldn’t say anything until I see them with the new drummer, but it seemed like a definite personality thing with those three on stage.
Jon: I think they’re on tour now. But, I mean, they all went to school together and, you know.
Fiz: So you aren’t really doing anything outside of the Blues Explosion and Boss Hog?
Jon: No, we have a lot more stuff for Blues Explosion in the can. We’re going from here with Jesus Lizard through Texas, and then we’re going Memphis to record some more material and we hope to have a new album out in March.
Fiz: What’s the deal with the three different versions of the album?
Jon: The first one – A Reverse Willie Horton- is a bootleg.
Fiz: That’s the one with the black girl on the cover?
Jon: Yeah. When I was travelling around with the Gibson Bros. last year I had a tape of that with me because we had just done it. I let a few people dub it so maybe something came from that. Then the Caroline record – there was a record in the US, and then there’s a version out in England, too. Then Crypt Style is for Germany and the rest of Europe.
Fiz: And there are a few oddball tracks from album to album, right?
Jon: Yeah, there’s a big difference … I think the Crypt one has about eight of ten songs that aren’t on the Caroline one. It’s a little shorter and I think it works better. I think the Caroline one is maybe a little too long.
Fiz: Well, to be perfectly honest I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.
Jon: Really? Well, we’re having some problems with Caroline.
Fiz: Well, you also have to understand that there are only four or five stores in the entire Los Angeles area that would carry anything like that, and you have a city of people that want it. Basically, they’ll all order four copies and then have ten people that want to buy it right away.
Jon: That’s bad to hear. But basically that bootleg is just the first recording session in it’s entirety from start to finish.
Fiz: Do you like the cover for that?
Jon: Yeah, it was alright.
Fiz: I liked it.
Jon: I mean, we got some copies of it, so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to have happened.
Fiz: That’s nice when people at least supply you with a copy of the record they’re bootlegging your band with.
Jon: That session was done with Kramer [Shimmy Disk/Bongwater] over a three hour deal.
Fiz: You recorded the whole thing in three hours?
Jon: Yeah. Then we did a session with Steve Albini over about a day and a half. So the Caroline and the Crypt records take material from both of those sessions.
Fiz: So, you’ve say that it was definitely worth it to search out the various version of the record?
Jon: I mean, if you have to buy one, buy the Crypt record – it’s our record. I’ll tell you, the Caroline record has the horn section, and it’s the one that has the Theremin.
Fiz: How do you record a theremin? Did you mike it?
Jon: We hooked it up through a Marshall.
Fiz: Is that how you’re playing live with it?
Jon: No, live we go just direct line through the PA. It saves you having to carry around an extra amp. So we just hooked it up to the big amp and just played it out live.
Fiz: I see you’re playing through a Marshall now live, too.
Jon: Yeah, it was a last minute substitution for the tour. A guy that was going to let me use his amp wouldn’t let me take it.
Fiz: I’ve always noticed that you’re something of an odd ball music equipment aficionado.
Jon: Oh, I used to just use a Fender Twin with Pussy Galore. All the guitars are just totally cheap. I ‘ll just get stuck on one and stay with it.
Fiz: I think what you’re doing is really unique, and I don’t hear anyone else doing music like you do. There are a lot of things that you start pulling in when you start listening to your music, and one of them was the obvious rockabilly influence. Are you into rockabilly or is it just something that you utilize?
Jon: Yeah, I’ve always sort of liked it, and I guess when the Blues Explosion start out I was listening to more of it and digging around more…
Fiz: Finding the more obscure stuff?
Jon: Not so much anything obscure, but just going through all the Sun [Records] artists. Right now we’re listening to a lot of Stax [Records] stuff. We’re very excited to be going to Memphis.”