Heavy Trash – La Maroquinerie, Paris: Interview (PRESS, FRANCE)

20 March 2010
Extensive interview with Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray of Heavy Trash.

The article ends with Jon Spencer selecting a favourite book, film and album and top ten songs as selected by Matt Verta-Ray previously published in Les Inrockuptibles.

Photos of Heavy Trash @ La Maroquinerie, Paris from the No_Syzygy flickr.com page.

The French-language version of this interview was published in the Automne issue (no. 4) issue of Rock, Still! online magazine on 6 December 2010: http://www.wobook.com/WBM14O66Ik2H

SHOW INFO / SET LIST: Heavy Trash – La Maroquinerie, Paris, France (20 March 2010)

Heavy Trash are playing in Paris at the nice venue La Maroquinerie.
A few hours before the show we have the opportunity to interview Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray, and here are their compiled answers. Thanks to Adam for helping to transcribe the whole thing.

Noémie & Oli

Heavy Trash has been quickly dismissed as a side project for you…

Jon: I think that’s kind of understandable because I didn’t say that the Blues Explosion was done. If I’d said that the Blues Explosion is finished then I don’t think that Heavy Trash would have been called a side project.

Matt: I think people can be forgiven for taking the Blues Explosion as the main act. It would be a high point for anybody’s career, it’s hard to not to envision that as Jon’s quintessential project. The profile of my band was considerable lower so I don’t think it’s so much an issue. Also, Jon and I, we’re pretty prolific, we play with a lot of other people, Jon’s got a project with his wife in Boss Hog, he also has a project with his wife and Solex, and a few years ago he did something with Jim Dickinson’s kids, Spencer Dickinson.

It’s our third album and we’ve got a whole other album ready to go and we just do nothing but tour, write and record. It’s ok, I’m not too concerned about it, people are entitled to think whatever they want to think. We’re just making music and putting out records. Hopefully we will do it as long as it’s fine and it’s just getting more and more fun.

How is it becoming more and more fun for you?

Matt: Well, the band’s so good, these guys we’ve been playing with are just amazing, Sam Baker and Simon Chardiet are just great. All of the people we’ve played with before have all been very good musicians but these guys are like…it’s ridiculous.

So that part of it is just great ’cause these like kind of subtleties bubble up that you didn’t even know existed. The drummer will just do something so cool and the music feels great and you’re like ‘I didn’t do anything to make that happen’ but it feels so much better. You know, to me, I’m not a drummer, I can sit down behind the drums and enjoy myself but being a real musician on the drums is still mysterious to me. When one of those guys will do something incredible me and Jon are just like ‘what’s going on?’ it’s like being high or something, you just really get this kind of charge.

So, there’s that, and there’s also the fact that Jon and I have always been good friends and you get more and more comfortable with each other, our working relationship has gotten into a comfortable thing, we’re not so worried about hurting each other feelings, or stepping on each other ideas ’cause we’re very familiar now, with how we work, so the writing process is so easy, it’s like ‘stepping off a log’ as we say in our language and it’s just very easygoing. Sometimes Jon will just call up and say ‘What are you doing this afternoon? Do you want to go to the studio?’ and we’ll just go to the studio and we’ll just kind of play and make stuff up and take turns playing the drums or the piano or bass or guitar, it’s very loose and I’ll always have tape ready to go in the tape machine, sometimes there’s just like two or three songs in a session.

It’s like living in playtime, you know? it’s always fun, we’re like kids again, that part of your brain you use when as a child when you’re just sort of creatively playing and making things up. You’re trying to solve these minor spatial, sonic and verbal problems for yourself, you know? This is how we make our living. It’s a dream really, we get to physically play for a living and literally play music for a living. It sure is fun.

Some bands are hyperactive on the internet and seem to document every second of their lives.

Jon: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s because of my age, I’m of an older generation but I’m just not so interested. I like to make a record, I like to put out records, I like to play concerts but I don’t really wanna do a blog, keep a diary or make lots of photos and put them up. I can understand that it’s kind of a cool thing for some people to look at but my creativity doesn’t flow on that manner.

Matt: Jon and I are both very verbal, we both can write, it’s tempting to… I can understand the appeal in being public about everything and like “rehearsal went great today, we wrote three new songs, broke a string on the third song”. I remember reading Forced Exposure fanzines and there’d be Steve Albini would be writing-up what I guess would now be called a blog, a tour diary and that seemed really interesting to read what he was up to but I think that the proliferation of these things has devaluated all of them. You know the band that’s rehearsing down the block is writing a tour diary as if they’re Bill Wyman writing about the Rolling Stones.

There was a time when you buy a record and the only information you had was that these people are weird, they look so scary, then you listen to the music, you look at the record cover and that’s your only input. There can be something nice about that. Look at the picture of Chuck Berry and like he’s so scary looking but he also looks like he’s having fun and looks like he’s wearing a cool suit but I don’t know what kind of guitar it’s that? Nowadays Chuck Berry will be telling you about what he had for dinner.

Over the last ten years the internet has enabled a lot of people to have this encyclopaedic knowledge of music, do you think this can also have drawbacks?

Jon: There are some people I think who view the internet and their relationship of popular music and the internet as bad. I’m not one of these people, that doesn’t really bother me so much. I think if anything I, myself, find it useful if I’m curious about an artist to be able to quickly find out information about a type of music or a particular musical artist. I think it is taken for granted. The kind of world which I grew up in, there wasn’t an internet and when I was young in order to find out about music when I was just getting started it was completely different, especially being from a small town in the United States, I was extremely isolated, so yeah, I think that, it’s worth noting that everything has certainly changed.

Matt: You mean is the fact that they so well informed now about all kinds of music?

There is a very popular radio show on in the United States called the Grand Old Opry, and it was broadcast from one theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. It was on every Sunday night. When it became popular it was right when everyone could first started to be able to afford to buy a radio. So it was before TVs were around. So everybody, every family in the south United States and some in the North would they would all be tuned into this one radio station and listening to one guy playing guitar and singing a song, it was this group focus on this one thing and there’s a lot of appeal to that, it made a national culture. And to a lesser extent when television came about there were maybe two of three choices but people were still focused on one of two or three things. And then cable access split that, splintered that even more and the internet is that many more million branches on a tree. People can be watching a movie that we recorded, they can be watching a DVD or a television show that was broadcast two hours ago that they recorded or watching something on their cell phone.

There are really some amazing aspects of the internet but I do mourn that loss of that group experience. The same way that you miss something when you’re watching a movie at home on a DVD instead of in the theatre with a bunch of other people and you hear them laugh or someone calls out a comment or the screen goes dark because the film person didn’t change the film, you know, that’s a group experience. And there are fewer and fewer of those. So, I think one of the things we try to do when we play is that we try to get a little bit of that back we try to make something happen in a room that you’re all a part of. As opposed to the punk rock days when there was this kind of adversarial relationship set up between you and the audience and maybe even the members of the band. They didn’t like each other it was like the style, in a way, to be mean, people spat at each other.

Joe Strummer said he felt got hepatitis C because people would spit so much when they would play. The stage was just like a rain of spit and once or twice he would take a breath to sing and inhale some horrible junk from someone else’s lungs. In a way I think it’s been interesting to watch Jon as performer make that transition from the aggressive, confrontational aspects of the Blues Explosion sort of preening, macho, post-punk thing to more of a sort of James Brown thing which is also extremely masculine and extremely charismatic but is also a little more incorporative.

In Heavy Trash I think what we’ve done, especially with this new album is try to welcome people in a little bit more. We’re not spring chickens we’ve been doing this a long time, Jon and I both have children, so, we’re like “well, do I want my son to look at my album cover and see me with a cigarette in my mouth or looking like some cool junky or something?” well, actually no, I’d rather prefer that I wouldn’t have a cigarette in mouth and act like there’s some kinda uplifting aspect to this, it doesn’t have to be sickly sweet and it doesn’t have to be sappy or ass kissing or anything like that. But there is still a way to be positive and be cool, it’s possible.

For Jon I think being cool has never been an issue he’s just a naturally cool guy, the contrast of him being sweet is very nice. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers? My favourite thing about The Heartbreakers was that Johnny Thunders sweet songs, ’cause he has a reputation as a total bad ass, hard guy, drug taker you know, hard living, extremely punk, pre-punk, proto-punk bands but when he sings those sweet songs Sad Vacation, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory.

It’s sort of like Nixon going to China, are you familiar with this? Our President Nixon is an extremely right-wring, scary, republican, sort of, he was able to establish relations with communist China because his reputation as a staunch anti-communist was so entrenched and just that way of a cool guy like Jon or Johnny Thunders or Mick Jagger they could afford to appear sweet because no one would bust them.

That’s one of my favourite things someone who’s earned the right to be soft. Someone who has lived it hard and has earned the right to reach out and be welcoming that’s when you really get a lump in your throat. This took a lot for this person to be not Mr Cool.

How do you find the compromise between wanting an organic, authentic sound, and also using modern technology?

Jon: It doesn’t bother me. There’s an aesthetic which I like, I aspire to, I employ. And it’s by and large old fashion but I’m not very strict. If computer would help me, than I’ll use computer. We should be able to use anything. I don’t have a problem, It’s not a conflict for me.

Matt: We use a lot of old technology but we use a lot of new stuff too. I try not to be prejudice by the definition of something is modern or digital. I guess the way you do it is you boil something, some tool or some style that you are using down to it’s assets and say what’s really going on here? what’s the essence of this piece of equipment? or what’s the essence of this technique that we’re using? And is it believable that we’re doing it and if it’s not then you don’t use it, if it is you’re like ‘fuck it we don’t have to obey any rules about what rockabilly is supposed to be’ or something.

It makes sense that if we feel like we want to put a synthesizer or Rhodes piano on some rockabilly tune it doesn’t matter that Gene Vincent wouldn’t have done it. It matters that we want to do it and so the best thing we’ve allowed ourselves is to not restrict ourselves to how to record old-sounding music.

Because the way you record your music suits well to the vinyl format, but at the end of the day most people will listen to your music digitally, on mp3s, do you keep this in mind when recording?

Jon: I think, it makes a little difference but ultimately I’m making a record for me, an album that I would want to enjoy and I’m still making an album, Midnight Soul Serenade is a record and it’s designed to flow from the beginning to the end and to relate the songs and to work as a thematic whole. that is still important to me. I think I’m aware that people may be listening on headphones or maybe listening on very small speakers from a computer, So yeah there are technical issues which I’m conscious of and try to address during production in the studio.

Matt: You know we’re conscious that most people listen on computers but I guess you might not build a hook into your song that is all reliant on the super sub bass, like reggae dub bass, because no one can hear it on their computer. That’s not even an issue for us. My experience as a recording engineer tells me that if you make something sounding really good coming out of the studio speakers the quality in general will translate to whatever medium.

Matt, You’ve been producing many bands. what are your future projects? What about Speedball Baby?

Speedball Baby is just taking a nap, it’s not dead or rubbed out. Ron and I are still very good friends and we hang out all the time and see each other in New York so, yeah, there’s been some talk about getting together. Heavy Trash has been very active and keeping me very busy so it’s a question of time there’s no bad blood or anything.

Future for us in the studio there’s a lot of stuff, oh yeah, there’s a label called Vice, which is based on Vice magazine. It’s kind of a cool idea they’ve booked two days in the studio and are going to be bringing two bands to New York, one band records on one day, the other band records on the second day and the third day they have a concert with both bands playing and then they release a 45.

I’m doing one of those two-band sessions every month. The Black Lips are coming in next month, Pierced Arrows and the Oblivians are getting back together and there’s a bunch of really cool artists coming in. I just finished a record with this girl, Gemma Ray, this really fantastic singer, she’s so talented and she’s great. This is an album of covers, it’s really minimal, she played pretty much live, she plays open slide-tuning and she just sang and played so well it didn’t take much, the best thing I could do as a producer was just not to fuck it up too much and let her do her thing. She was really great. That should be coming out in a couple of months.

We’ve been to lots of your shows, and you seem to always have great supporting bands (Sadies, Powersolo, Bloodshot Bill). Sometimes they are also the backing bands during the Heavy trash set, what do they bring to your songs?

Jon: I think they bring a little bit of themselves, you know, who they are inside as people. It’s not just their unique style of musicianship, but who they are as people. For me the good musicians, the good artists are the people that are individual, you can get the sense of the person, inside.

Matt: Every one of those groups brings something different. The Sadies come from this Canadian country music royalty, their parents have a band, they still do. And when they kids they toured as musicians in their parents band. There are two brothers in the Sadies in the core of the group, they just like such consummate musicians, that’s what they bring. This through-line of generations so when they play the guitar it really resonates back through the decades.

And the Powersolo guys, they’re kind of edgier, also brothers, they’re very funny and there’s a sense of humour and playfulness. Kim, the bass player, was also in a psychobilly band there’s a completely different angle to approach rockabilly from. The Sadies come from a traditional country music thing whereas the Powersolo guys are coming from somewhere else, Scandinavian rockabilly.

So we’ve been really fortunate to have all these various bands play with us and we’ve tried to record with all of the bands and we have, we’ve done some sessions with each of the bands but these New York guys are just so great.

Jon, I think you grew up in New Hampshire are you very much attached to this place?

Jon: Me? no. I just grew up there, you know.

Matt, you grew up in Canada where exactly?

Matt: Montreal, I like it a lot but I moved-out in 1979 so it’s been a while. I remember the winters being very very cold, very hard but the culture is great and I like French Canadians a lot, some of my favourite people. It’s really great. I even like English Canadians too, it’s a different flavour, Leonard Cohen verses Robert Charlebois.

Did you grow up in an artistic household?

Jon: My parents were both scientists my father taught organic chemistry, my mother was a cardio-pulmonar technician in a hospital so they’re both scientific people but I think they are also artistic and they certainly supported me in anything artistic I wanted to pursue. You know, it was ok but I wouldn’t really call it an artistic household.

Matt: Not overtly, but the arts were always encouraged. My father had been a singer as a kid but my mother was a social worker and my father was an academic so there was nothing overtly artistic but when we did creative stuff it was always rewarded and encouraged. So, in that sense it was a very conducive atmosphere.

Do you remember one particular song that triggered something off in your mind and music became a passion?

Matt: Sure, I can name a few; Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry, Billy Lee Riley…

How old were you?

Matt: Well, Bo Diddley, I was very young, probably about 11, there were only about 10 people in the audience and after the show he came and sat down on the edge of the stage and talked to me and my friend about rock ‘n’ roll. We were in the presence of our hero, so that was sort of cool.

And Chuck Berry was having an aggressive, angry vibe and having an argument with the promoter so that was a different type of thing but really cool still.

Jeffrey Lee Pierce Then Jeffrey Lee Pierce, The Gun Club, that was a huge concert for me, that was kind of like seeing a Shaman or something, he was possessed. He didn’t look that good at that point, kind of puffy and the worse for wear from alcoholism and drug abuse but it didn’t matter, it wasn’t about him being handsome, it was about his ability to tap into this kind of Sufi trance, Shamanistic trance. It was cool.

Jon: When I was really little I think the thing which had the most impact on me was music when it was used with a lot of visuals, like something on television, perhaps or in a film, the Stanley Kubrick film 2001 left a big impression on me and I listened to that soundtrack a lot. That’s when I was very young. when I was older I became interested in rock and roll I think it was… what was the question ?

One song, or one event that triggered something off really for you?

Jon: When I was older yeah, I don’t know about for one song, I mean it was so tied up with adolescence, he he… a lot of stuff goes on.

Maybe one special show?

Jon: Where I grew up there were no shows. So it wasn’t until I was in university when I was 18 or 19 that I began to see concerts. There were a lot of hardcore shows I saw, because in America that was the kind of true punk you know?

Yes, there had been bands like Ramones, X, a lot of 70s punk bands but a lot of these bands were kind of older people who were teenagers during in the 60s, maybe, not all of them. I think hardcore was the more real punk for the U.S. because that was very young kids for the most part and was totally underground. I went to a lot of hardcore shows and it wasn’t really my favourite kind of music but that really made a big impact on me to experience that community, there was a lot of bullshit you know with the hardcore music scene, but to see what was possible, that you could be in a band, you could have a show, you could make a record, you could go on tour, you could do anything, you just take control and do it yourself and I think that had a big impact on me and I still carry that with me, the idea of responsibility and of doing it yourself.

What have you given up or sacrificed for music over your career?

Jon: I’m away from my home and my family a lot… I’ve given up part of my hearing I guess! The physical parts my body worn down a little bit. I don’t have any kind of guarantee or security, I’ve given up some security perhaps.

What kind of actives do you have when you’re not recording or touring or writing songs?

Jon: I spend a lot of time just taking care of the business, of my career, of the band, which takes an awful lot of time, like I said I do it myself! I look after everything and it takes a lot of time.

Matt: Well… Those three things take a lot of time. But I like to draw and make sculptures. We have a sort of a workshop in front of the studio we have saws, grinders and things. Jon and I were both at art school and I think that informs how we regard our music career. We don’t really think of it as a career, there is a career that has kind of evolved by default, but it’s never how we approach it, we approach it as creative play, like making art, solving this kind of non verbal problems even when there’s words involved, it’s not an intellectual process, it’s more like a feel.

Jon can draw very well and I draw in my sketchbook and can make sculptures, it’s really a dream life, I’m so glad to be able to do this. There are certain things about travelling and touring, it’s not all play time, it’s work and you have to conduct yourself professionally, be kind to people around you, and these are all just kind of skills you can pick out, you know ways you can survive, and both Jon and I are doing this for over 20 years. First tour I ever went on I was not very well behaved I didn’t know how to conduct myself…but over time you learn ways to stay safe, stay healthy, keep it together, think about the long throw of a tour instead of “tonight, I’m gonna get fucked up tonight” smash your dressing room, that kind of stuff get’s old fast and you can’t sustain it.

We then asked Jon to select one film, one book and one album among his favourites.

Mystery Train Jon: It’s hard to say, there are many films. Maybe this will relate nicely to the Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash. I could talk about the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train. I can’t remember when it came out, I think it was around 1990 but I’m not sure. It’s a wonderful movie I think for me it helped with this romantic view of Memphis and Memphis culture and Memphis music. I was already getting into Sun artists, old rockabilly artists, old blues artists, Stax records and things. And this really made my heart beat faster, it’s a real kind of, that film is a real kind of love letter to that music and that culture. Memphis has such an amazing influence and impact on rock ‘n’ roll in so many ways. It was a big influence on me, on the Blues Explosion. Memphis has a real tradition, the kind of outsider, the odd ball, people then impacted the entire country, the world.

It’s sad because just a couple of days ago Alex Chilton passed away and earlier this year Jim Dickinson a great musician and producer from Memphis. So we’ve lost a couple of very great individuals.

Would you mind choosing one book and an album?

Jon: I’ll stick with Memphis as far as a book. It’s a work of non-fiction It Came From Memphis the author is Robert Gordon the guy lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee and It Came From Memphis is a history of the alternate side of Memphis, not alternate like Nirvana alternate but underground freak, it detours through the freak hippy scene a little bit. Has a lot of stuff like Memphis Wrestling, who’s the great DJ? Dewey Philips, sort of the Memphis oddball, the outsider. These people who, I guess for us, in Paris, France or New York City or Los Angeles or Milwaukee think ‘Wow, that’s really weird’ but in Memphis it’s more accepted. For some reason through the 50s, 60s, 70s and some of the 80s this incredible fertile ground for all this really beautiful art, music and stuff that really kind of doesn’t see any line or boundary and this is really getting to the heart of what rock ‘n’ roll is about, which is freedom.

An album?

Jon: Well, should probably stay with Memphis, how about the record album Behind the Magnolia Curtain by Tav Falco Panther Burns. I think it came out the late 70s maybe around 1980, I’m not sure exactly. Alex Chilton plays guitar on it, I think Jim Dickinson is probably involved as well. A very sloppy rockabilly blues record, a lot of covers. This was a record which, for me, opened a doorway to some of these other music’s. It was something I heard early on in my digging and listening and it’s a very cool record and great cover too, it’s pink there’s a nice photo of Tav with a pencil moustache and he looks very swarve. On the back cover there’s a photo of an old car in front of Stax, maybe, I don’t know. Very sloppy but a really great great album.

We also asked Matt to list ten of his favourite songs*.

The Velvet Underground – Sunday Morning
Carl Perkins – Her Love Rubbed Off
The Gun Club – Sex Beat
Johnny Cash – Get Rhythm
Mary Wells – The One Who Really Loves You
Nat King Cole – Nature Boy
Sleepy LaBeef – Lonely
Plastic Bertrand – Ça Plane Pour Moi

*This top ten was previously published in Les Inrockuptibles