|31 August 2012||Filter||49|
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion:
|31 August 2012||Filter||49|
|Extensive article and interview with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion by Kevin Friedman from issue 49 of Filter Magazine dated 14 November 2012 but available from 31 August 2012.|
|The sound was dirty, brittle and shrill. There was no bass to even out the unrelenting treble of the two-guitar assault of Jon Spencer and Judah Bauer. Russell Simins maintained order with the beatings he gave his drum kit. The deepest tones on the songs were often Spencer’s voice. There was a lascivious sexuality in it, summoning something between Isaac Hayes and Barry White when not rivaling Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard in the unadulterated audacity of his screams.
Spencer made a name for himself with Pussy Galore, as deconstructionist and nihilistic a post-punk band as there was in Washington, DC, and then on the Lower East Side of New York in the mid ’80s. When that band melted down, he joined the Honeymoon Killers, where he met Simins. The two began staying after practice to jam. Bauer, a wide-eyed kid fresh off the bus from Wisconsin, showed up to borrow some gear and ended up getting in on the action. The Blues Explosion was born.
It’s not surprising that not everybody “got” the Blues Explosion the first time around. There’s something about them that, as Spencer is fond of saying, makes them “a difficult pill to swallow, and not for squares.” Unfortunately for the band, some of those squares were well-known music journalists who found this particular blend of white-noise-blues to be lacking in appropriate veneration. What these critics missed was that the band wasn’t interested in reverentially perpetuating the sound of any genre, especially one as worn as “the blues.” Their spark was the creative soul of early rock and roll artists—Sun and Stax gods like Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis—guys who took the chord structures and scales of the blues and fused them with adrenaline-fueled shrieks of excitement. Except for the attitudes and adrenaline of punk, the Blues Explosion ignored most of what had come before in the 40 years after rock’s inception. These were no students of the “art form,” channeling riffs and songs in the manner of Richards, Beck, Page or Clapton; their sound came from an attempt to reanimate the attitude and energy of the originals. They were convinced that this would be what The Killer or Hound Dog Taylor would be playing if they had been born 50 years later.
A sharp sense of humor can be found in the early releases. How could there not be with call-to-dance songs like “Afro” and “Bellbottoms”? It seemed obvious and harmless enough, but it was this type of jocularity—coupled with that damning word, “blues,” in their name—that gave rise to the accusations that the band were being too ironic in their approach to what was apparently a sacred cow. The term “racist” was even bandied about by a few influential critics whose sensibilities had been offended—as if the band were performing some kind of musical blackface routine. To a band of amateur musicologists, the words stung with particular venom.
Fortunately, while hurt, the band didn’t waver. They parried with the ironically titled Controversial Negro EP, as if to say, “I got your irony right here, motherfucker!” If they were mocking anyone, it was their critics.
Things were good for a while. They made a solid name for themselves, surviving a jump from Matador Records to Mute (and also Bauer’s battle with drugs), and even brought a few friends along with them on the road, introducing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Europe via an opening slot on tour. They made a record with the legendary R.L. Burnside, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. They paved the way for The White Stripes and The Black Keys, and by the turn of the century had achieved an almost elder statesmen’s role on the indie-rock circuit.
Then they plateaued. There really isn’t such a thing as a loyal following in entertainment. It had been a good party, but the need for more didn’t seem all too pressing. The audience response became increasingly less enthusiastic, until the band’s new home, Sanctuary Records, pulled the plug and the band went on hiatus. Spencer focused on Heavy Trash with Matt Verta-Ray. Bauer put out albums under the name 20 Miles and then joined Cat Power. Simins continued producing bands and made albums as Men Without Pants with Dan the Automator. They never called it quits, they just stopped calling for a bit.
But then over the last few years, Shout! Factory began to put out several compilations of the JSBX early releases and reissue the classics. Shows were booked, then some studio time. And now they’re fully back, doing their victory lap with a new album on Mom + Pop Music, Meat and Bone. The energy and enthusiasm has not waned and, if anything, the songwriting has improved. Their demons behind them, the Blues Explosion are embracing each other and the past—and even the blues.
How did the Blues Explosion come together?
RUSSELL SIMINS: I was just becoming friends with Judah. Jon asked me, “Who was that guy? He came in and kind of had a vibe.” Judah was very young, only 18 or 19. After that we hung out a bunch, staying after practices, getting on really well in every way—musically, personally. It felt like a destined meeting.
JUDAH BAUER: I stopped over to get a pedal or something, and Jon checked me out. We had run into each other at shows, had talked. He was looking to do something like Pussy Galore, or some version of it. Luckily that didn’t happen. I figured the band would last a couple of months or through one record. I hadn’t been in New York that long. I don’t even think I had gear. It was Russell’s guitar. I was pretty antisocial, so I lucked.
After Pussy Galore and Honeymoon Killers, were you, Jon, looking to do something that represented you as a person?
Did you guys discuss what direction you wanted to go in?
SIMINS: We’ve always been the kind of band where not much is spoken; more is done. We would just jam and work on stuff that turned us on.
BAUER: It wasn’t verbalized. It was the rapport that it’s always been—three people who are on a mission: loving music and wanting to get something going on.
Jon, was your stage persona something you had developed already or was it somewhat unique to this band?
There seemed to be a little reluctance from the band in accepting the baggage that comes along with having the word “blues” in your name.
BAUER: That didn’t really describe the music at all; the “Explosion” part kind of did. It was kind of a dumb name but [names] have a life of their own and grow. Playing blues was almost taboo. I was kind of against it back then, the Chuck Berry chords. The blues came much later. It was always there, but it was just rudimentary guitar. We were more into garage rockabilly, punk, hardcore, a lot of hip-hop.
SIMINS: When that was presented to me, the first thing I thought of was John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, and I wasn’t really like, “Wow! That’s the greatest name ever!” But Jon was thinking at the time how it was kind of a laugh; it’s so oddly square. I didn’t think in terms of the way we’d be thought of or referred to or categorized or put in blues festivals or thought of as a blues band.
Did you ever feel pigeonholed by the persona you created or the sound that you established?
How would you describe the interpersonal roles in the band? How does everyone fit?
SIMINS: We have a lot of respect for each other, and we’ve certainly learned over 20-plus years how to deal with each other, and that’s a really good place. We know what works and what doesn’t. There’s a certain role that Jon has as the leader of the band, but we are all very much involved in the decision-making process when it comes to things on the creative and business levels. If we all don’t agree on it then we won’t do it.
SPENCER: Being in a band is not like being in The Monkees. What people see on TV is not true to real life. It’s not always easy. I think Judah, as he’s grown as a musician and as a person over the years, has been through a lot. He more and more wants to do his thing and have more of a say in the way that the band goes. So at times there will be disagreements, for sure. We all contribute, we all do our thing, but there’s a reason why it’s called The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
What has been the most challenging time in the history of the band?
SPENCER: I think that [with] making records like Plastic Fang and Damage, or some of the stuff around them, there was a desperation. We were feeling pressure from outside influences, from record labels, which is understandable but was unpleasant. I felt a bit of disconnect from my bandmates as years went by. That was why I wanted to stop it for a while. The only other bad time would be when Judah was working through issues earlier on, but he took care of that stuff.
BAUER: There was the whole thing when I was a junkie. You know, [when] someone doesn’t pull their weight, it stresses people out. Will the band break up? It’s a total fucking grind when someone’s doing a lot of drugs. On a personal level, that was the heart of darkness and was hard on the band, too. And that all happened when we were recording Orange. Jon had to push through and finish that recording.
I guess it started around the beginning and came to an end while recording Orange. We were out with The Breeders and that was unmanageable. We had to miss a bunch of shows, and it became so apparent how fucking screwed up I was. Things turned around then.
SIMINS: That was a challenging time. We were only three or four years in. We knew each other but we didn’t know each other all that well, and I think there was a lot of turning the other way, but then we couldn’t turn the other way. It was disheartening and confusing and disturbing and maddening to deal with someone addicted to drugs. We were in the middle of making this really intense record, but he somehow managed to rise to the occasion and get through it even in his—whether it be physical or mental or spiritual—absence. This was a stressful, trying period. It was more learning about how to be in a band.
SPENCER: I was a bit oblivious to part of it. I remember trying to help in whatever way I could, but I really just left it to him and he really did take care of it, god bless him.
What do you think the biggest misperception about the band has been?
What was your reaction to those criticisms?
What are you most proud of from your work with Blues Explosion?
BAUER: Playing with R.L. Burnside was the most fun. He’s the real deal. He taught me how to live and be a man, in a way. There was something special about that guy, he had soul to make that tradition real, the stories and the language. The music was so kickass. Everyone responded to it, people would just light up at the shows. That was a great time.
SPENCER: You know, I just came off the stage and we had a very nice show and we were stuck on the damn bus for 10 hours and for a while it seemed like we weren’t going to make it here. But right now, I’m most proud of having played a good show. I really felt very much alive. I was happy. I really felt good to be on that stage and I’m pretty sure that there were people out in the crowd that felt good, too.
JERRY TEEL OF HONEYMOON KILLERS
I met Jon when he first moved to NYC. We became friends and Honeymoon Killers and Pussy Galore did some shows together. His girlfriend at the time—now his wife—Cristina, played guitar in the Honeymoon Killers, and then later I played guitar in the original lineup of Boss Hog. The Lower East Side was a fun place back then. We were just happy to be doin’ our thing and diggin’ the scene. I met Russell at a party about the time HK was looking for a drummer. He started playing with us, and sometimes his friend Judah would drop by and play guitar. Judah was just a kid at the time, but I loved him dearly and still do.
Anyway, HK were looking for a second guitar player and Jon was between projects. So, I asked him if he wanted to do it, as he and I had just done some recording with the Workdogs. He said yes, and we did some recording and some gigs. The record, Hung Far Low, came out and I wanted to do a European tour. Jon couldn’t do it, so I asked Judah and he did. We were just friends having a good time.
I was a fan of the Blues Explosion. I liked Russell’s primitive caveman style. Jon’s guitar was just crazy—it worked. I dug what they were doing, but it was the end for Honeymoon Killers. I knew I’d never have a lineup like that again, so I went on to something else. They all did their time with the Honeymoon Killers and I will remember that as some of my best times.
DAVID YOW OF THE JESUS LIZARD
How did you meet the band?
What was your impression?
Is there a big difference amongst the musicians in that band onstage versus offstage?
How would you describe the dynamic between the band members?
Can you share a story about the band?
What do you think their legacy is?
What was your initial exposure to the Blues Explosion?
How much time did you spend with them?
How did the Sideways Soul album come about?
They were very polite; a joy to work with and open to suggestion. They’re very adept at improvisation. Throw out an idea and they come right back at you with what you suggested, only better. It was a lot of fun.
What’s something that most people don’t know about them?
What is their legacy?
JIM WATERS, producer
How did you start working with the band?
They all had this great energy and Jon has a really wicked sense of humor. No one sounded like them at all and I’m not even sure if they knew exactly where they were going with it. They all enjoyed hanging out with each other; they were having fun just seeing where everything was going.
What was it like working with them?
How did their approach to the studio differ from their live shows?
Around the time of Orange, Judah admits to having been pretty strung out. From your perspective, what effect did that have on the music?
When did you know something big was happening with them?
KAREN O OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS
I was watching MTV as a Jersey teenager and the video for “Flavor” came on and I was hooked. A week later I bought Extra Width and I’d dress up in my bedroom and strike sexy poses in front of the mirror to it. Soon after, I was going into the city to see Blues Explosion play live and I was completely floored by Jon’s stage persona; he was the sexiest man alive up there. I would dance in place intently staring him down hoping to make eye contact even for a second.
The sweaty sex factor of their music was a total influence on us. Sex was still a popular theme in rock music at the time and they had it oozing out of their pores. Their identity as a legit New York City outfit was also inspiring: If only we could be so cool in the city; man, we tried. Loud, sexy, NYC—that’s what we wanted to be. I’d say neither Jon nor I are much like what you see onstage when you meet us in person. We’re brooding, quiet and substantially more awkward so we never ended up talking to each other much at all!
There’s some healthy overcompensation that goes on when you’re a threesome: there can be no slackers, everyone is giving everything and there is a constant tension and release that goes along with that. No bass? We probably should have nicked more of Russell’s booty-shaking beats. The only song that I can remember really trying to sound like Jon was in our obscure song “Yeah New York”!
We were shitting ourselves when we got the call to support them in Europe. It was a game changer, the biggest thing to happen to us at the time and we’ll never forget it. So a big thanks for that!
A Reverse Willie Horton (1991)
Extra Width (1993)
Now I Got Worry (1996)
Plastic Fang (2002)
Meat and Bone (2012)
This article is from FILTER Issue 49