Jon Spencer Returns To The ‘Brutal And Strange’ World Of The Blues Explosion

By Joe Warminsky

After about 25 years together, members of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are “sort of tender with each other," Spencer says.
After about 25 years together, members of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are “sort of tender with each other," Spencer says. Micha Warren

Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015 might be the funkiest Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album yet, and it’s certainly the most New York-oriented. But it also makes bigger points: For a punk-influenced band that’s arguably 15 years removed from its heyday, the showmanship and the energy level haven’t diminished.

Spencer, whose thoughtfulness during interviews stands in direct contrast to his cocky, howlin’ stage persona, says rock ‘n’ roll is still fun for him. One thing that’s evolved, he says with a hint of a smile in his voice, is that after about 25 years together as a band, drummer Russell Simins, guitarist Judah Bauer and he are “sort of tender with each other.”

I spoke to Spencer after JSBX had completed a tour of all five New York boroughs. (If you want more conversation about how he feels about the Big Apple’s transformation, listen to the interview he did with NPR’s All Things Considered.) The trio is now heading out on a U.S. tour, with an April 11 stop in D.C., where Spencer briefly lived in the mid-’80s and formed his pre-JSBX band Pussy Galore.

In advance of his D.C. gig, Spencer talked to me about a great moment in JSBX history, “mongrel music” and splendid frequencies.

Bandwidth: One of my favorite things on the entire Internet is that video of you guys on that Australian show, Recovery, where you do “2 Kindsa Love” and “Flavor.” What was going on there?

Jon Spencer: We were having a good time. [He chuckles.] So that’s a program that ran Saturday morning or Sunday morning … they had an all-night video program called Rage, and then in the morning they had Recovery. And it wasn’t just videos — as you can see, there’s a studio audience, they have different things, more like a talk show, I suppose. So we were booked to be on there and play a song. And, yeah, we just went a little crazy.

I think the remarkable thing is that the television people, ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, just let it go. Nobody wrestled us to the ground, and we just ran wild for whatever it is, five or seven minutes. It wasn’t anything premeditated, mind you. For me that morning was special because I got to meet the engineer Tony Cohen, a guy who made The Birthday Party record Junkyard, and I was a great fan of The Birthday Party, and especially that album. And he was mixing sound for the program — I don’t know if he was doing the whole program or just the musical acts — he was out in a kind of mobile truck out in the parking lot. So I was terribly excited to meet Tony Cohen.

The mix of the performance is brilliant, too. Even with the YouTube sound, in terms of just capturing who you are, it’s as good as any of the official recordings.

Thanks, I mean, I guess the credit’s got to go to Mr. Cohen. The other thing that’s a little strange is many years later, like two years ago, when we did the Meat And Bone record, we made a video for the song “Bag Of Bones,” and it’s a kind of animated clip, and it was made by a couple that lives in Berlin, and the woman in the couple is Lucy Dyson, and she lives in Berlin, but she’s Australian. And when I was talking to her about making the video, she was like, “Actually we met once before, I was at the Recovery taping, I was there to do a cooking demonstration. If you watch the clip, you kind of run into me at one point, by accident.” So, I thought that was a pretty bizarre coincidence.

The thing that strikes me about that show is how docile the crowd is. They’re into it, but they also don’t know quite what to do. And somehow it’s all at ease, though.

Australia’s a beautiful place. Some pretty relaxed people, very nice people over there.

Staying on videos for a second, you have that new video, “Betty vs. The NYPD.” That one looks like it was pretty much a hoot to make.*

The guy who did it is an old friend of ours, Michael Lavine, he’s a legendary New York City photographer. We’ve worked Michael lots of times in the past — he shot the photos for Crypt Style, one of the earlier portraits of Blues Explosion. Those where we’re wearing makeup. He also shot the band portrait for the album Orange, he shot the band portrait for Meat And Bone. … He’s somebody I’ve known since 1986 or 1987. … Michael wrote that video along with Russell Simins, and Michael shot and directed it — and it was done in what seemed like a pretty quick day. And the real star of that video is Bridget Everett, who’s a local New York City cabaret artist. …

The detective [played by Samrat Chakrabarti] … he was wonderful, and I loved his outfit. The concept of the video is a kind of John Waters Mortville-style police station. So everybody’s wearing these wild, sleazy outfits. Yeah, I think that detective, he’s great.

And about Bridget, knowing what I know about her … she probably didn’t need a lot of direction for that. That probably came pouring right out of her, that performance.

Yeah, yeah, but she still took her notes, and was open to the things that Michael was asking for … It’s not just like we let her loose. There was a script and there was a story. But yeah, she was very nice, it was super easy, and nice to do that.

There’s so much New York emphasis with this new album. That Five Boroughs tour is complete, right? Anything strange happen?

In Staten Island we played this old-man’s bar, a longshoreman’s bar, kind of a seaman’s bar, you know? It’s at the edge of the island right down by the waterfront, where the refineries or the tanks are, a very industrial part of Staten Island. You’re looking right at the southern tip of Manhattan, and this is a bar that’s been there — they had some plaque or some claim that this is the longest-running bar or oldest bar on Staten Island. A real old, funky place, a workingman’s bar. That was a really cool place to visit.

ringing the bell, Liedy’s Shore Inn

A photo posted by JSBX2015 (@jsbx2015) on

In your NPR interview, you talked about the transformation of the city…

I was very nervous!

You sounded great.

Well, thanks. One thing I wanted to point out is that at one point I listed the kinds of New York City music that were an influence on the Blues Explosion — things which inspired us — and I listed rock ‘n’ roll and punk rock, and No Wave, and maybe free jazz or something. I didn’t mention rap and hip-hop. And it really always has been such a huge influence on us, and I think it definitely was an influence on this record. … At times it has been made explicit, and I think the Experimental Remixes record is a good example of that: Having GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan do a remix, working with Mike D, working with Beck, working with Killah Priest, working with honest-to-goodness real-life rap artists like Chuck D. Yes, at times it’s been made very explicit.

But I think it’s always been there, maybe it’s something you can hear in a record, maybe the way something is mixed, a kind of audio homage, or a reference or something like that, but I think it just runs much deeper than that. It’s an influence that is there in the way we think about writing songs, the way we put songs together. … [But] when I say there’s a big influence, I don’t mean, oh I aspire to be the next KRS-One — not at all — what I’m saying is that it’s how a DJ might cut between two breaks on a record and that would be the basis for a song. This kind of mongrel approach, which is at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll as well. Rock ‘n’ roll is a real kind of mongrel music, as well.

When you’ve talked over the years, you’ve mentioned the Sun Records guys. If there was ever a mongrel genre, from the beginning, it was the Sun Records crew.

Yeah, yeah. I mean … rock ‘n’ roll is a really strange and beautiful music, but it’s also a very sort of brutal music. I think a lot of people get confused, you know, “this is what I think rock ‘n’ roll is and what it should be,” and I think that’s what the Blues Explosion is trying to do — we’re trying to champion our definition of rock ‘n’ roll music. … For me, I think rock ‘n’ roll is a very kind of brutal and strange kind of music. …

We mixed [Freedom Tower] with Alap Momin [aka Oktopus], at his studio up in Harlem. He was part of the — I don’t what the correct term is — underground hip-hop band Dälek.

Oh yeah. I like Dälek.

Oh, they’re great. … The kind of noise that Kanye West was working with, the things which are kind of popular in the mainstream in hip-hop, I don’t know if Kanye’s been listening to Dälek, but there’s stuff that I think that was bubbling under a few years ago that is now accepted as part of the mainstream.

To me, Dälek is one of the few musical acts of any kind that nailed that kind of jet-engine sound. … On a lot of contemporary garage rock, the production often pays homage to cheaply recorded old-school garage rock. I find that those songs might be great and they might have a certain amount of oomph to them, but a lot of that music, you put it up against any contemporary music — pop, hip-hop, whatever — and sonically it just doesn’t stand up. This is one of those rare rock albums where you take one of these songs and put it next to a hip-hop song directly from the radio, and it holds up.

That’s nice to hear, thanks. Credit should go to Alap. He’s a guy who’s obsessed with sound, and obsessed with frequencies. He had just spent a year or so living in Berlin, going out every night to discos and while we were mixing the Blues Explosion record, he was always applying what he learned, not just in Berlin in the past year, but whatever he learned in the past 15 or however many he’s been working. He’s very aware of that stuff. And he made sure great care was taken so that it would sound, uh, awesome, I don’t know, sound big. And so sometimes it was a matter of removing certain frequencies so that it could be played loud and that it would sit comfortably next to some other kind of music or programming. A lot deep care and attention was focused on that.

* Last week the band released a second video from Freedom Tower: a gritty creature feature for the “Tales Of The Old New York: The Rock Box,” a song about the rock club CBGB.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays Black Cat April 11.