The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Interview (PRESS, NORTHERN IRELAND)

May 2014
Interview from The Black Box, Belfast on 13 May 2014 published by


If you felt buildings shake in Belfast on Tuesday, May 13 it can be assumed you felt vibrations from The Black Box where Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – predators of raw, garage-punk rock – were laying out their tunes. In spite of their ear-piercing, solid and sharp sound as a band, their front man – Jon Spencer – seemed to be very calm and quiet person.

Covered in black from head to toe he was soundchecking with Russell Simins behind the drums and Judah Bauer on electric guitar. As soon as they finished, he jumped off the stage to check all the lights, then looked at the stand with an impressive collection of CDs, vinyl and posters to make sure everything is set up for the night. Once we settled down in the Green Room next door the fatigue was speaking through him; just a few minutes ago when he was blasting fierce riffs from his beloved six-string noise machine.

Anna Jankowska: Hi Jon. It’s great to see you here. Is this your first time in Belfast? I’m sure touring is sucking the energy out of you.

Jon Spencer: I do like to do stuff while we are touring, to explore; today after we unpacked we still had some time left and I went for a walk around the city. We were playing in Dublin last night, Glasgow is our next stop tomorrow. I think I have been here before, but I am old and I can’t remember much! Some people use the term ‘fish memory’, I would remember small pieces and not for very long time. I am happy to be here though and we are ready for tonight’s show.

AJ: Are there any festivals planned for JSBE this year?

JS: We are doing a few. We have some dates in July in Scandinavia and Western Europe. We also received a proposition from Polish Festival but I don’t think we are going to play there this year.

AJ: That’s a pity – every summer on the Polish and German border there is the Przystanek Woodstock Festival – it would be great to see you playing it sometime. Whenever you do play festivals would you stay around for a day or two or would you prefer to play the gig and leave after?

JS: I would play the gig and leave after. Whenever I am away from home I don’t like to sit around – I want to work. You see, everything needs to be paid for: instruments, amps, hotels, the crew… so I do like to get out there and work as much as I can.

AJ: Is there any songwriting involved while touring?

JS: Sometimes. I mean, as a band, we don’t say “ok we are going to write six songs on this tour”. It has happened before, though. Songs can come to us during the soundcheck, even during the gig itself. I used to tour for more than four weeks, now usually it is two weeks so we do most of the recording in Brooklyn.

AJ: You have been playing together for over twenty years – not many bands can stick together for so long these days…

JS: I can only speak for myself. I didn’t start to play in the band to see the world, I certainly didn’t see it as a career or a job. I didn’t do it for money. I just wanted to make music and perhaps that’s the key to our longevity. Also, we do take breaks, sometimes we just stop working for a while and that helps as well.

AJ: But you did leave a remarkable mark in music world and travel around the globe. Your lyrics are sung back to you from stages all around the world. Do you find varying receptions in particular countries?

JS: No. I mean there’s not a huge difference between the Belfast public or London or Paris or Tokyo or Toronto, you know. I think people show up at rock concert because they want to experience a very particular and unique thing.

AJ: You surely do deliver that.

JS: I love what I do, as a punk spirit I keep my work ethic high, I make sure we sound good – that is my job. We have been lucky to receive warm reception from public all around the world.

AJ: It has been a while since your last recorded album Meat and Bone (2012) was out. Are you working on new material?

JS: We’re working on something. We have just been in the studio. I would like to think we could record anywhere but of course studio is where it’s done. We genuinely like to work in old-fashioned way, we are fans of kind of classic-late sixties recording technique and it takes a lot of things like a sympathetic sound engineer, good sound and equipment. It’s not about using a computer and doing one piece at the time, it’s about having a group of musicians going into the room and playing music.

AJ: Speaking of equipment: which guitars did you bring to this tour?

JS: I still use the same guitar as I used when starting the band, which I broke in London, on stage not long ago. During the last song I hit Russell’s drum cymbal and BANG! I have done it many times over the years – that was just a “lucky” hit. Our sound engineer kindly, expertly and fantastically fixed it over last few days.

AJ: Can you hear the difference in the sound?

JS: I can’t.

AJ: I have seen your appearance on Later… with Jools Holland where he accompanied you on the piano…

JS: Yeah, he was a good sport. He seemed like a great guy and to be up for it. He even let me jump on his piano. They sent us a bill for that, as there were some marks left – it was fun. I don’t think we rehearsed at all. It is wonderful to be on television but I find it incredibly nerve-wrecking. In most of them programmes you have to show up early in the morning and then wait there all day…

AJ: Do you remember first gig that you went to? The first that made an impression on you?

JS: I come from a small town, a little village in the mountains and a forest so there wasn’t really a lot going on. Then when I went to the University, it was in a city – Providence, Rhode Island – and I think it was at that time I began to go and see concerts. I can’t say that there’s one that really stocked with me. I saw Link Wray, The Gun Club; hardcore bands like Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys etc. but what really made a big impression was local bands. In the U.S. there were of course The Ramones in New York and X/The Scream in Los Angeles, but I think the “true punk” in USA didn’t happen until few years later, with a kind of hardcore , underground scene which was everywhere, all across the country. It was not written about in magazines and it wasn’t on TV or the radio. It was sixteen year old kids playing in punk bands, out of that group or network and that would be American indie scene. That’s where I came from – that’s where my roots are. Some were great inspiration for me because the lesson was “if you want to be in the band, go ahead, you can do it, do it yourself”, don’t wait for somebody to give you permission, or say here’s the contract we are going to make you rich and famous. If you want to go on the tour, go ahead. It sounds easy but it is hard work If you want something you’re going have to work hard for it and take responsibility for it too.

We are fans and students of people like Rufus Thomas, James Brown or other old, blues performers and these are people who played in United States of America in the fifties, sixties and the seventiess and it was tough. I mean, if you could have a career as a entertainer and if you could break through from the segregated circles and get on the other side of the track, if you could cross over, that was something you would not take for granted. They worked very, very hard to do that. For me what I do is my work but it’s also my life – it’s in my heart, it is my passion. I want to do something to keep this alive and I also want to do my ‘elders’ proud.

AJ: Finally, can we see you in next couple of weeks? And when can we expect the new album out?

JS: We are staying in UK for a while, then France, Spain then back to France again. We will be back in Europe in July, Scandinavia and Belgium and who our new album might be out in New Year.
Anna Jankowska