The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Mojo: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (PRESS, UK)

November 1999 Mojo
This article originally appeared in Mojo magazine but was later included in a press release sent out by Matador Records to promote The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion release Acme.

Words: Andy Gill/Photo: Giles Duley.

Photo Caption Text: The Jon Spencer “We Do Not Play Blues” Explosion: (from left) Judah Bauer, Jon Spencer and Russell Simins. “Swamp, mud and earth.”

“Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

One thing about using the word ‘blues’ in your band name is that people tend to have absurd preconceptions about the kind of music you play. Such as that, y’know, you might actually play the blues. Having spent substantial portions of previous interviews trying to correct this impression, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion set the record straight with Talk About The Blues, on 1998’s thrilling Acme album, which finds Spencer howling, “I do not play no blues! I play rock ‘n’ roll!” He’s right, too.

“We have to keep stressing that!” he explains. “Our records are all about the three of us – we love music, all different kinds of music, and when we get together to play, that stuff seeps through. The only element we really take from the bvlies is that we play from what we know, from where we’re coming from; it’s real, it’s not pretence. We’re not trying to be a rap group or write soul songs; what we do is unique to us.”

The three men in question are Spencer himself on guitar, vocals and occasional Theremin excursions, Judah Bauer – whose side-project, the Fat Possum band 20 Miles, certainly does play the blues – on guitar, and human dynamo Russell Simins on drums. Together they forge a peculiar music all of their own, likened variously to The Cramps, R&B groove units like Booker T. And The MG’s and The Meters, and The Stooges shut inside Sun Studios. All of these influences flow into their sound, best encountered in a live setting, where the band’s sheer animation offers one of modern rock’s most compelling experiences. The two guitarists bounce around with punkish gusto – Spencer, in particular, has a great move where he does the Townshend windmill and the Godfather knee-drop – simultaneously. But even they seem restrained at the side of Simins, whose style combines the enigmatic pulse of John ‘Drumbo’ French from Beefheart’s Magic Band with the deranged enthusiasm of Animal from The Muppets.

In and around Simin’s lock-tight rhythms, the two guitarists’ lines intertwine with bristling angularity and no small intimation of violence. Spencer, impressively incoherent, howls and shrieks over the top, unintelligible save for the frequently repeated expostulation “Blues Explosion!!!”. Dark and driven, the songs seem like riffs which haven’t yet been colonised and cowed by words. Perhaps it’s just as well.

Formed in the early ’90s from the ashes of Spencer’s previous band, New York avant-rock noise-punks Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion effectively apply much the same aesthetic principles to a different genre. “There are some similarities,” admits Spencer. “The main thing is: really simple music. But with Pussy Galore there were more ideas and concepts involved. By contrast, the Blues Explosion met by accident and started playing by accident – we just have fun doing it. We’re not hung up on any heavy ideas.” And, he might have added, there’s a verve and spirit to his current group which contrasts sharply with Pussy Galore’s jaded New York nihilism.

Though their style may alter subtly between releases, their five albums – the eponymous debut (1992), Extra Width (’93), Orange (’94; remixed the following year as Experimental Remixes), Now I Got Worry (’96) and this year’s Acme – sustain a remarkable energy level throughout. The group prefer not to think of changes in terms of ‘progression’ but feel instead that each album reflects the influences at play on them at any given time. Now I Got Worry, for instance, mirrored the impact made upon the band by such as venerable Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside (with whom they collaborated on R.L.’s tremendous A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey) and R&B legend Rufus Thomas, who guested on one track. “We offered Rufus a few hundred bucks,” explains Simins, “he came down and did what he does. He was very gracious, very open and friendly.”

A more accurate estimation of the Blues Explosion’s position can be gleaned from their more contemporary collaborators, who include Beck and various Beasties, Luscious Jackson, Dub Narcotic, Boss Hog and drill’n’bass auteur Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot, who remixed the track Attack from Acme. “He basically just attacks the board,” claims Simins of Empire, explaining the different the German made to the song. Until he got hold of it, it wasn’t called Attack – it was called Caress!”

This blend of ancient and modern comes through strongly on the new album, which uses modern techniques to sculpt riffs hewn from ancient impulses. “Things like Talk About The Blues, that’s build from a loop of us playing, a re-sampled Blues Explosion jam session,” explains Spencer. “Normally, all our records are recorded live in the studio, and this one was much the same, though we did take a little more trouble with it. But the heart of it is just us playing.” On Acme, this approach has resulted in possibly their most accessible record yet, one which, despite possessing an urban focus and energy, oozes a Southern swamp-funk sensibility that feels as though it’s bubbled straight up out of the bayou. “Swamp, mud, earth,” agrees Simins, “that’s out roots.”

– Andy Gill”