|“When the smoke from the break-up of Pussy Galore cleared to reveal Jon Spencer’s new project, the Blues Explosion, a lot of people didn’t quite know what to think. Blues? What could these city kids possibly know about blues? Well, after a couple of years on the live circuit, the Explosion have left many a believer in their wake. As Steve Albini said in our last issue, “They’re so good at this point that it’s stupid even debating it, whether or not it’s OK to play music like that.” The Jesus Lizard have called them the best band in the world, and with the release of their third full album, Orange, the band seems poised to bring their theremin-driven brand of blues to the soulless masses. All photos taken with the Thicker Roving Photographer by Jon’s wife and Boss Hog band mate Cristina Martinez on the set of the new Blues Explosion video.
jon spencer blues explosion
JS: We took some nice photos yesterday. We were making a video, so we took some photos during that, so we’ll be in costume.
EB: What kind of costume?
JB: We’re sort of like spacemen, like aliens, kinda. No crazy makeup, just wearin’ kinda spacesuits, and we’re in a spaceship.
EB: What song is the video for?
JS: “Dang.” Have you heard the album?
EB: Yeah, I got it last week.
JS: Matador sent you one?
JS: I hope it’s not one of those ones that the quality’s real bad. They made some advance cassettes where the sound’s real muffled.
EB: Well, it said “unmastered advance,” but it sounded pretty good to me. So anyway, you were just out on a Boss Hog tour, that was about a week long?
EB: Do they have a new album coming out or anything?
JS: No, we’re sort of working on one. We did those shows, then since we’ve been back, the past two nights, we’ve been going into the studio and doing some recording. But that’s just starting, so there probably won’t be anything new from the band for the rest of the year, ‘cause we’re just barely starting. Then I’m going to be away with the Blues Explosion for a few months.
EB: So the shows are pretty much just to whip the new material into shape?
JS: Yeah, test it out.
EB: The guy I do the zine with went to the show in Boston, and somebody there told him there was no singing on some of the songs because there were no lyrics written yet.
JS: I think we were sing pretty much every song, maybe the sound was bad or something. I mean, yeah, I admit things are a little rough now, the songs are still being written, but we’re trying. That was the first show, so that one was kind of rough. So you do the fanzine with someone in Boston?
EB: Yeah, I come from Boston originally, north of Boston.
JS: I’m from New Hampshire
EB: Oh really? What part of New Hampshire?
JS: Hanover, it’s where Dartmouth College is.
EB: My aunt and uncle live up there, in Lyme. So where was the new album recorded?
JS: We did it here in New York City, at a place called Waterworks. It’s where we mixed Extra Width, the last album.
EB: And you did parts of the last one in Memphis, right?
JS: Yeah, but this one was done all here. Recorded and mixed at the same studio in New York City.
EB: So what made you want to go down to Memphis for the last one?
JS: There was a lot of music that we really liked that came out of Memphis, specifically Sun, rockabilly, soul from Stax and High, and some of the blues artists that are around today. Memphis was a real important place for us. So it was exciting for us to go there, and it was also to make a point to everyone else.
EB: But you didn’t feel like it made enough of a difference to want to go down there again.
JS: Well, you don’t want to do the same thing every time. I think with this record, I was real concerned with making a recorded that just sounded better. I’m not talking about like, you know… I think with Extra Width, we made a really good record, but maybe the sound of it, when you’d hear it played next to other albums, it wouldn’t be maybe as loud, or maybe cut through a bar as well. So we were technically trying to do something that, technically, just was better. We spent some time on Extra Width, and sometimes it’s annoying after all these years when people talk about garage music, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but when they use the words “low fidelity”. You know, I’m taking a lot of time, and I’m trying to make a good sounding record. It may not sound like what’s on the fucking radio, even if it’s something like Green Day or whatever, but sometimes it’s just frustrating when people dismiss things as low fidelity.
EB: So they thought that you were doing that intentionally, then.
JS: AH, I think it was just sort of a misunderstanding. It’s sort of like, I read a story recently… when Pere Ubu left one of their records back in the master pressing plant, the plant was calling and saying, “man, there’s a big problem, there’s all this noise all over the record.” People just don’t understand the music, really, it’s more like that. I’m just trying to say that we spend time, and we’re making what we think it a good sounding record. But anyway, with this one… granted, even saying that, I think Extra Width could have technically been a little better, so that’s what we’re trying to do with this one. So to that end, we felt that it would be important to record and mix in the same place. I think it did come out a little better.
EB: Yeah, I think parts of it sound crisper.
JS: Another thing is, you don’t want to do everything the same on every album, but I did want to work with Jim Waters again, the guy that I’ve been sort of working with for the past few years and that I mixed Extra Width with, we sort of understand each other, and he’s very easy to work with.
EB: Is he a friend of yours?
JS: Yeah, he’s a friend…
EB: I mean, as opposed to originally being a mercenary producer that you work well with now.
JS: He used to own Waterworks, and about a year ago he moved to Tucson. He bought a studio out there, and now he’s got a studio out there. But when we did Orange, the new album, he would fly into New York for a couple of weeks and we’d record some, or do some work on the album. He came back here because it was cheaper for him to come here than it was for us to go there. I mean, Waterworks was an eight track studio that was real cheap, and a bunch of other people we knew had worked there. So we went in to do sessions there, this was two or three years ago. Then we just kept going in. We recorded and mixed about half of Extra Width there, the Memphis stuff was recorded in Memphis and mixed back in New York City.
EB: Are they still eight track now?
JS: Yeah, it’s been eight and sixteen ever since I’ve been there. For a long time we only used eight, but with this record we used sixteen.
EB: So that’s going to make a difference right there.
JS: Yeah, I guess it did. When we were doing Extra Width, the eight track thing was never a problem for me, never got in the way at all. But back then, we used to record pretty frequently, and it wasn’t like we were working towards an album. With this one, it was like, alright, it was time to make an album. It used to be that the band would just record every few months, then just pull things together and put an album out.
EB: How long did it take you to record this one altogether?
JS: We did a few days here and a few days there, we started maybe back in December, and had a session in December and a session in January. We tried doing some stuff in November but for some reason or another it was a sort of disaster. We had a bad session there, something happened and we had to cut the session short. Then in December we recorded, Jim Waters’ father was sick, so we had two sessions that were cut real short. But we tried to spend more time with this one, setting the mics up right, taking more care with that kind of stuff, making sure things were… trying to make sure we were getting a good sound, drums most importantly. We also, for this record, for the most part used small guitar amps, they weren’t very loud, because the studio’s basically one live room, and that way we could give the room over to the drums, and get more of a percussive sound than the guitars. We didn’t do the whole album that way, but most of it.
EB: Were these amps old tube amps?
JS: Yeah, yeah.
EB: So was that partly because you liked the sound of those anyway?
JS: Well, I’m not a snob, I’ll use anything if it sounds good, but I’ve always been using tube amps, I guess. Just recently, this past tour, I’ve used a solid state amp with the Explosion. But whatever sounds good… for me, I used this old Fender, I can’t even remember what it was, and the speaker was all busted up and half of the tubes were shot, so it had a really nice greasy sound, and Judah used a little old Supro. It’s not like we were using them because they were vintage, they were just right for the job. And they were handy, as well, which is also very important, whatever’s available.
EB: What do you think was the difference between the way that you approached the songwriting for the last album and this one?
JS: Well, like I was saying Extra Width was pulled from a whole lot of sessions. We just had a lot of stuff that was recorded, and in fact we have an alternate version of the album, Mo’ Width, which just came out in Australia, and that had a couple of different versions of songs that are from Extra Width, and then nine other songs that are from the same period of time.
EB: OK, you guys are still on Matador but are you going to be hooked up with the Atlantic thing this time?
JS: Well, I think just being on Matador, you’re hooked up some tiny bit with Atlantic, I guess they make some money off us, but they don’t distribute our records and they don’t promote ‘em, so Matador still does everything, but I guess Atlantic fits in there somewhere, But no, we don’t have any plans to be a Matador/Atlantic band like Unsane of Yo La Tengo. I don’t know how well that arrangement has worked out for anybody.
EB: So that’s by your own choice, then?
JS: Yeah, you know, I wasn’t interested in being on Atlantic, I want to be on Matador, and I guess it was a little frustrating to sign to Matador, and soon afterwards have Matador sell themselves to Atlantic. But, you know, what the fuck.
EB: So it’s important to you, to stay associated with an independent company.
JS: Yeah, I like Matador, I like the people there.
EB: OK, I’ve got a couple of sort of esoteric questions here. The first one is… you’re obviously drawing heavily on certain influences, what do you think you’re bring to music that’s totally new?
JS: I really don’t know what, if anything, besides just the mixture, the combination, and I guess the personal style. That’s really the only thing that you can offer. I don’t really know that we’re doing anything that innovative, it’s just the right combination and the manner in which we do it.
EB: I don’t know if you ever thought about this, but looking down the road… this is something I think about all the time, when I’m gone, if someone pulls out something I did, it’s important to me that that person is impressed with it. Do you ever think about what kind of legacy you’d like to leave with the music that you’re doing now?
JS: Not too much, I hope that people who listen to it years from now still think it’s crazy. I don’t know, a lot of stuff that’s inspired me was just stuff that I thought was totally stupid, like American garage punk from the 60’s, just crazy music. It was just great, It was a delight, it was bizarre. Just stuff that was really crazy like the Electric Eels or Devo… I don’t know, I guess I’m sort of picking things that were nerdy or goofy as well, but you know, things that were just strange, but it was also good music.
EB: In the last issue of our zine, Steve Albini had some nice things to say about you guys, and people like the Jesus Lizard have said that you’re the best band in the world, and it seems that when people talk like this, they’re focussing on the live show. How important is the live thing for you as opposed to the record?
JS: I think it’s real important, I think it’s possibly more important than making records. I think the band is a live band, and it’s just the easiest way to understand what we’re trying to do. A bunch of people have said this to me, that it helps people to get it, if they’re not. I also think that that’s really what music is for, it should be to function in a group setting like that.
EB: When you call out songs during a set, is that carefully planned out, like part of the show, or is it just that you don’t have a set list?
JS: No, we don’t have a list. Some of it is just something new, but generally if we’re playing one song, we’re going to play another (particular) song next. There are things that we’ll do over and over again. But we don’t use a set list because we like to try to keep it kind of exciting and new. There are songs that will go together, but when we stop, what I’m yelling out is what we’re gonna play next.
EB: When Pussy Galore was playing out, the energy seemed to come from tension in the band, but with the Blues Explosion it seems like there’s more of a team thing going on.
JS: Yeah, with Pussy Galore, especially toward the end, we weren’t getting along that well, so I guess there was a lot of bad energy between everybody in the band. But I think that a lot of it was also confrontational with the audience, and with this band we’re just trying to put on a good show.
EB: By confrontational with the audience, you mean they didn’t like you?
JS: Well, what the band was about was “fuck you.” So that’s what the whole thing was based upon, and then people sort of knew aboot it. So you’re not just getting up there and saying “fuck you.” You’re saying “fuck you” to an audience that sort of knows what you’re about, and they’re expecting it, so it sort of goes back and forth.
EB: So now you’ve got more of a love thing going with the audience.
JS: Yeah, sure, I’d say that. It just gets real tiring after a while. With the Blues Explosion, we just like to play, and that’s about it. You know, we’re trying to have a good time, and we hope the audience does too.
EB: So there’s going to be a lot of touring for this album?
JS: Yeah, well we’re going to Australia on Monday, then when we get back from that , we’re going to Europe in September, and we’re doing some of the U.S. in October. We should be going out to the West Coast then. So yeah, we’ve got some stuff to do.
EB: Somebody asked me to ask you why you didn’t play the New Music Seminar this year.
JS: Judah was away, and beyond that it was a pretty lousy year. Not that is was ever that great, at least not that I can remember. Actually, I think it seemed to be more fun a few years ago, there were more shows that I was interested in going to, there were friends coming into town. This year everything was miserable.
EB: It’s getting too big?
JS: I don’t know what it is. I couldn’t go to anything if I wanted to, I was too busy. We were rehearsing every night.
EB: Are there any bands in New York that you like right now?
JS: I haven’t really been out to see a show in a while, because I’ve been busy with stuff. But I can tell you shows that I would have liked to have gone to see; there was a show with the Chrome Cranks and Speedball Baby, both of those are kind of new bands and I would have like to have gone to that show. I like to see Railroad Jerk every once in a while, they’re good. The Wharf Dogs have played a few times, and I haven’t been able to go see them, but I like them. I did get to see Bikini Kill, but they’re not a New York band. Someone was telling me that they played at Max’s in Hoboken, they played a kind of short set, and then when people were cheering for more, Kathleen was saying, “You know, we’re not rich, we have to sleep on people’s floors. We’re not rock stars, we have to book our own tours.” That was their excuse for not playing anymore, that was pretty unbelievable. Sort of like this big tongue lashing that everyone got, they sort of walked out the room with their tails between their legs. I like Free Kitten!
EB: Do they play out a lot?
JS: Every once in a while, they have a bigger band now. It used to be just Julie and Kim, and now they have the guy Mark from Pavement, the bass player, and they have… I think her name is Yoshi? From the Boredoms, she’s the girl drummer. I’ve gotta play a show tonight, actually, Boss Hog’s playing with the Boredoms Tramp’s. Tramp’s is more of a rhythm and blues type club.
EB: This guy at Warp magazine sent me a thing that he did about the Blues Explosion…
JS: Warp? Oh yeah, the skateboard magazine.
EB: Yeah, and you said that Pussy Galore get name-dropped by riot grrrl bands a lot.
JS: Oh yeah, I don’t know if it’s fair to say that, I really don’t know. I think that certainly some of the riot grrl bands sound like that, more specifically some of them owe a debt to Julie Cafritz, sort of the same style of guitar playing. It was weird, in England, it’s even more so than here. But you know, it’s there in some of it.
EB: Well, I’m out of questions. If there’s anything more you want to say, about the new record or anything…
JS: Well, I don’t know, I hope people like the new record. I know it’s kind of dull to talk about technical stuff. I should just talk about the technical stuff. I should be saying, “Well, we’re trying to make the kind of record that makes people want to take their clothes off,” or something.
EB: Yeah. Well, the only thing I can ever think to ask people about their new record is how they think it’s different from the last one, but a lot of times there isn’t really a difference, you’re just trying to make the best record you can.
JS: Yeah, well you know, I think there was kind of a big jump between our first record and Extra Width. As far as this new album, Orange, I don’t think there’s that kind of big jump again. I think if anything , there’s been more of a refinement of the soul and funk stuff, but in a way, there only thing that we really did was make it better sounding than Extra Width.
EB: There’s something on the first track that sounds like synthesizers or something.
JS: Ah, the very first song?
EB: yeah, on “Bellbottoms,” it sounds like a strings on a keyboard.
JS: It’s a string section!
EB: Oh really!
Js: Yeah, those are real people playing real stringed instruments. You may have one of the shitty sounding cassettes. Yeah, it’s a real string section.
EB: Wow. So did you write out the parts for them?
JS: I didn’t, a friend of ours, a guy named Kurt Hoffman, who used to play saxophone with us on other records and he’s done a show with us, he wrote out the arrangements. I went over the night before and kind of sang to him what I wanted, and he showed up the next day with the sheet music. He led this small section that he hired to come in with us. That was a lot of fun, you know, seeing those guys in there playing along with “Bellbottoms,” and seeing the sheet music, it seemed kind of goofy.
EB: SO they dubbed their part over the basic tracks?
JS: Yeah. So did you do that interview with Shellac?
JS: So did you know all that technical stuff, the mics and everything?
(Conversation trails off with Jon asking me a bunch of questions about myself none of which had particularly interesting answers.)
B l u e s B o x e s
“For the studio, Judah used a Supro, and I was using an old Fender… I don’t know what the fuck it was, a Deluxe or something? I don’t know, an amp with a single ten inch speaker, but the speaker was messed up, and a lot of the tubes weren’t working in the amp so it has a real funny kind of sound. On the last tour we did, Judah used a MusicMan 4×10 HD, and I was using a Sunn… Alpha 212, maybe? Some kind of solid state amp. Judah uses a Telecaster, I use a guitar that doesn’t have brand name, it’s from Korea or Japan. My wife Cristina bought it on Avenue B for seventeen dollars, and it’s what I started the band playing. She bought it and used it for about a year with the Honeymoon Killers, and it was just sitting around, and I picked it up and was using it. It’s what I started this band with, so it’s sort of defined a sound. The drums that Russell plays is a kit that his dad bought him when he was nine years old or something, it was his childhood drum kit. It’s a Slingerland kit. Even though the drums were bought for him when he was nine years old, the drums were made the year he was born, 1960 or something. It’s a really nice old kit, it has a really nice finish. It’s a 20 inch bass drum. We also use the Theremin. The guy that does sound for us in the United States works for a company here in Manhattan that rents musical equipment, and I had the idea of using the Theremin, so I called up there. He’s the manager of this company, the company owns a couple of Theremins and nobody ever uses them, nobody ever rents them. So we just get to use it, it’s not mine, it belongs to this company in Manhattan.”