Jon Spencer – Jon Spencer – Interview (PRESS, AUSTRALIA)

12 January 2011
Extensive interview with Jon Spencer from visit the website for the complete article with videos.
Back in the now rose tinted days of 1997 a band appeared on early morning TV and seared themselves into the memories of Australia’s early rising music fans. As Russell Simins and Judah Bauer belted their way through Two Kinds of Love and Flavor their leader Jon Spencer brutalized his guitar and an innocent theremin as he tore apart the humble Recovery studios to well and truly announce that “the blues is number one!”.

Ahead of a return to Australia, which will most likely see Spencer playing slightly less destructive shows, the manic performer recalls that set in a surprisingly calm tone. “We were very excited to be invited to play on the television program. You’ve got to understand that in America we never got to get on TV so it’s been fantastic to travel around and meet new people and see all different parts of the world. It’s also been nice because it seems that if we go somewhere else, they respect what we do. So we were thrilled to go onto the Australian television program. And I thought that was very nice that they let us do that, it wasn’t planned, and we just got caught up in the moment.”

As the Blues Explosion wailed through the 90s and early years of the next decade, Chuck D, Beck, DJ Shadow, Steve Albini, Dr John, Alec Empire, Andre Williams, Rufus Thomas, members of the Wu-Tang Clan and even Weird Al Yankovic and Winona Rider got caught up in the band’s hyper-kinetic live energy. And although the band remained a cult attraction they undoubtedly became a major influence on the bands of the rock revival at the turn of the millennium, which saw the rise of the Strokes, Hives, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and many others now forgotten by all except nostalgic NME writers.

But for some critics this simply isn’t enough. Spencer may have cried on Talk About The Blues that “I don’t play no blues, I play rock and roll”, but there’s still plenty of confusion about the band’s sound, which has even led to insinuations that the band’s frantic live shows are merely a parody combination of Little Richard, James Brown and Elvis. Spencer explains that “just the very name of the band is too much of a stumbling block for some people,” but some critics don’t just stumble at the mention of the band’s name; they descend into harsh criticism.

Prominent critic and Milk It! author Jim DeRogatis slung accusations of racism at the band in a Penthouse article back in 1997 with the magazine’s sticky fingered readers left to ponder the question “If Spencer really loves black music, how come he can’t get beyond making fun of it?” As the critic for the Chicago Sun-Times DeRogatis raised the criticism again last year, snidely dismissing the band’s set at the Pitchfork Music Festival as “boarder[ing] on blackface parody.”

The revival of the debate has come to colour many recent articles about the band (yes, including this one) and Spencer sighs as he recounts (again) his side of the of the story, “It’s interesting because everyone that I have done, this is my third or fourth Australian interview tonight, and it seems that everyone has came across the same piece [of criticism] by that particular Jim writer.”

“I think it was a terrible piece of writing, in that my band is misunderstood, my work is misunderstood. It does hurt; it hurts basically for anybody to be misunderstood. What is particularly bad about that piece is that the guy spent a couple of days with us on tour and yet never confronted me with his views or opinions or put any of these things to me as a question. Yet when it came out it was a real hatchet job you know? … The Blues Explosion is not a joke or a piss take. We do this because we love this and that’s all, it’s as simple as that. Yes it’s crazy and it’s filled with life and energy, but it is very serious art.”

But enough of debates about art, authenticity or black, white and blues and onto a brighter hue – orange – the colour and title of their much loved 1994 album, which they’ll be playing in full on their Australian tour.

You’re playing your 1994 Orange in full at the Melbourne gig. I was wondering why you’ve decided to play that particular record and why only Melbourne’s getting that show?
There’s a good reason – they asked for us to do it. So we figured why not make the people happy. We’ve done it one before with the form of Orange in its entirety at for a party in London as part of the ‘Don’t Look Back’ series. That was a few years ago now. So it’s not totally alien to us. Like I said they asked us. They asked us a very nicely so we figured we wouldn’t let them down.

Could this open the door for maybe a 15 year anniversary tour of Now I Got Worry?
I don’t know about that, but that will be a good one to play. I mean we’ll play a few songs from [either or] anyway. At a regular show we’d be playing songs from all the albums.

Recently, you’ve been re-releasing a lot of your material as well and going back and listening to some of the very, very early Blues Explosion stuff. Is there any material there that you found sort of surprising or that you regretted?
Not really. I know what’s there. I mean a lot of time has passed since when I made these albums, I’m not as close to them as I used to be I suppose. That kind of distance was interesting when I was working on these reissues. There were times when it was almost like I was working on other bands albums. But I hadn’t forgotten what was there or the nature of the music.

I can’t say I actually regret anything. Maybe that is also a result of the time that’s passed. I am a real perfectionist, and can be my own worst critic and can totally nit-pick and pick apart anything, a concert I’ve just played or some work that I’ve done or some record that’s just come out. But with these reissues, they’re almost a bit alien to me now. I mean not totally, but they’re not so close to me anymore.

I have to admit I say “Ahh why did I sing that word?” or “Why did I mix that song like that?” But they’re all what they are. I think they’re great records. And my main job was to make them sound as good as they could through mastering and pick out the best additional tracks and the best bonus material I could gather.

So there wasn’t any temptation to tinker with them or anything like that?
No. I tried to just treat them as documents of the time or of what happened back them. I tried to keep them as complete as possible with anything and everything that was recorded at the time of the album. There were a couple exceptions where I had to mix something. There’s a song from Orange called Haircut. Which was recorded and we even [over-dubbed] on it but it was never mixed. And because there were so few extra tracks on Orange, this was of particular interest to me. And also because I totally forgot about this song, it was in some ways a lost song. None of us could remember it. Nobody in the band, not the engineer we worked with at the time either. It was a rare mystery. I felt that it was definitely worth doing a mix up and including it as a bonus track on the Orange reissue.

Other than that the only thing I mixed was some live tracks from CBGB’s, again this was for the Orange reissue. It was a sold out concert we did the night before went into the studio to begin work on Orange. Other than that it’s just a question of re-mastering, giving them a slight touch up and dust them off and sometimes I had to do a little bit of editing for some other live recordings here and there. As I said mainly I was just trying to present things as they were.

Doing the reissue must have led you to think about those early days when the band was starting and what the scene you were working in was like back then?
Yeah, but I never got bogged down with it. It’s not like I lay awake at nights crying. Yeah I would reminisce, but my memory is not very good, so it really was at times like I was working on other bands records.

From what you can remember of those early days. How has the scene changed? How has the landscape changed from when you started?
In some ways it’s kind of like it was at the beginning. We’re in some ways outsiders to the famous rule now just the same as we were when we started. As far as the scene, I don’t really know. I didn’t really feel like much a part of the scene back then but I was definitely going out a lot more often, spending a lot more time out at bars and clubs, going to see other bands. I felt a lot more plugged in back then, but even then I felt that Blues Explosion were totally outsiders of musical trends. But now I suppose it can happen to anybody, you get older and you’re priorities change. But I do still love rock and roll and I do still love to play with Blues Explosion.

Blues Explosion was always a band that was open to experimenting and bringing on collaborators and producers and that sort of thing. What was it that you were able to do outside of Blues Explosion that you could do with say Heavy Trash that you couldn’t do with Russell and Judah?
The main difference that sets Heavy Trash apart from Blues Explosion is that with Blues Explosion I write with Judah and Russell and with Heavy Trash I write with Matt [Verta-Ray] so it’s a very different kettle of fish. And as a lyricist and a singer I find that there are very different things that you can do with Heavy Trash that I usually can’t do with the Blues explosion.

I don’t know if we’ve had the chance for it to be released out here but the record that you made with Cristina and Solex sounds very interesting, I was wondering if you could tell me about that?
I don’t think it’s come out [in Australia] but it’s a good record. We worked on that one very slowly, for a couple of years, and I think the main reason it was very slow was because Solex was away a bit, she was in Amsterdam. But I’m really happy with the way that came out and it was a treat to work with Elizabeth, she’s very very clever. It’s always nice to do something with Cristina and I think it’s a very inventive and crazy kind of album.

Maybe you could bring a couple of copies along and maybe sell them at the gigs?
I don’t know mean its rough with the airlines you see. We’re sweating getting our guitars over there so I don’t know about extra things like that, but maybe I’ll try to bring along a couple of copies, yeah.

While you Judah and Russell were working on separate projects, were you still in touch and offering suggestions on each others’ work or tuned into what the three of you were doing?
Hell no! We’re not married!

What is it that brought you guys back to working on the reissues after that separation?
Well I’m the one that always did all the work on the reissues, but that brought us back together to play all the shows again. But this isn’t the first time, a couple of years ago we did a compilation on the great In The Red record label they published some singles that we’d done over the years and when that jukebox compilation came out we did a bit of touring at that time. And now that there was an album reissue I didn’t just want to come out and hit the floor, we wanted to mark the occasion, so the best way to do it we thought was to play some shows.

So reintroducing the band sort of as though they had come out for the first time? Rather than it being a very nostalgic kind of exercise?
No, it’s not really a reunion because we never stopped, we never quit, there was no official end to the band. So I don’t really think there was a nostalgic trip, it still feels very much alive to me.

I guess the Blues Explosion hiatus hasn’t been as extended as the other 90s prominent bands that are touring again, bands like The Pixies and Pavements that have been playing purely sets of old material. [The Blues Explosion’s most recent album Damage was released back in 1994.] Is there likely to be new material Blues Explosion as a result of you touring again?
Yes there is, we’ve been working on new material, yeah.

Is that for a record, or just a few pieces here and there?
It’s just for us I guess! We’re enjoying it. I mean there’s always been a kind of selfish element; as far as I’m concerned it feels good to play in Blues Explosion so I have kept on doing it, I wanted to make the kind of records that I wanted to listen to.

So just sort of put the three of you in a room and it’s inevitable that something new is going to come out of it I guess?
It’s just like those monkeys at those typewriters, yeah.

I also noticed that you have been playing some gigs recently with your wife in Boss Hog, is it possible that there will be a similar revival of Boss Hog through reissues and live shows?
I have been trying to talk Cristina into it, into reissuing the back catalogue, but she didn’t want anything to do with it. She says if we make a new album she’ll put it out but she doesn’t want to re-release the old stuff.

I guess she’s not as keen to go back to her early days as you are?
I guess not, no, but I still love her.