Jon Spencer “I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Cool J. – if people wanna call it a comeback, they can.”

Jon Spencer is an artist that seems to attract, powerfully, scrolls of eye-rollable clichés; one writer, here, now, is trying to avoid using the phrase “seen it all (done it all)”-etc. The Blues Explosion, his essential power trio (with Judah Bauer and Russell Simins) that through the 1990s essentially pioneered their own quite-zingy take on rock ‘n’ roll, slogging out a weird, wiry, gritty, grimy, fuck-shit-up-funk and stiff-armed, grimacing, raucous rock. They were often simplified unconstructively and kneejerk-ishly press-release-printed as “blues-punk” or, worse, misconstrued as irreverent or novelty. Flavors of rock, country, R&B, soul, funk, and even hip-hop, sounding twisted, timeless, birthed from a collage of various regions, styles and traditions — it was hard to place, sure, and it seemed to be powered by a punk-like iconoclastic drive. Thus, the tag “blues-punk” stuck.

But, as stated, Spencer and The Blues Explosion have kinda seen it all; if not, they’ve seen a lot, particularly shifts in the music world, from the business to the habits of its amassed listeners. Unlike the world of 1993 that saw their breakthrough Extra Width released, most listeners now don’t primarily listen to vinyl, cassette, or even CDs — it’s off the internet. And this 2010 world certainly knows Spencer for his resume (Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, and, now, Heavy Trash), but perhaps a re-introduction is in order. And said re-introduction can (a) make Blues Explosion rarities and B-sides available for the first time digitally (via Majordomo), (b) provide a much needed history lesson for any as-yet-unrefined or unaware Generation-Y mouse clickers, and (c) hopefully help to conjure a proper understanding of this often stylistically and sometimes topically misunderstood band.

Spencer speaks to TMT about baking those old Blues Explosion tapes in the oven, about the particular aspects of the band and the music that made it “punk,” and whether or not this can be viewed as a Blues Explosion “come back.”

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What brought about this reissue campaign for the Blues Explosion? Where or how did it get rolling?

Well, we first started talking about it a few years ago. Everything is reverted to the band — we own the catalog. And, everything’s gone out of print. So, I think these are good records! I don’t know, I guess in some ways it’s important to me, having them be available for people. We have a lot of stuff that never was released and we’ve been talking about possibly releasing records on our own, like a bootleg series. There’s a lot of demos and rehearsals and live recordings, it’s just sitting around. We talked about doing something on our own. Some time went by. The real albums went out of print. Then, a couple years ago Shout Factory got in touch with me and they were asking about a particular unreleased live recording. I said, ‘Well, ya know, if you’re interested in that, we actually have the entire catalog.’ And, that kind of started the ball, very slowly, rolling. It wasn’t until about six months ago that we really got down to work and started to dig out the tapes. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into some of these reissues. First is this comp [Dirty Shirt Rock n Roll] and then six albums are going to follow it, and each one of these albums is expandable: a lot of extra material, and we’re creating booklets to go along with it. It’s really a bit like doing a puzzle. I don’t remember much of what happened and it’s been a lot of work trying to find all this material. Ultimately, why is this happening? These are good records and the Blues Explosion was a good band. I want people to know about it.

And, so, as you said, the songs are all in the band’s hands, there was no tug of war drama with the labels?

It’s all ours, the band all owns it. All these recordings were licensed to these various record labels around the world, including Matador here in the United States. No, there was no drama, it was very friendly and very helpful, as have, I should say, the people at Toy Factory in Japan, Au-Go-Go, and Mute records. When I said we own all the stuff, that’s what I mean — we own all the stuff. Some interviewers I’ve talked to say, ‘Wow, you’re kinda lucky for that’ — luck has nothing to do with it. I was very careful with this. I came out of hardcore and the lesson I took from it was — you do it yourself. You use your head and you make sure you’re not gonna get screwed by anybody. If you wanna do it, go ahead and do it. You can put out your own record, you can book your own tour, make your own poster, put on your own gig. I read the contracts, or if I can, I write the contracts. So, now, doing these reissues, it’s, like I said, there’s a lot of work making sure it’s getting done right.

Can you detail the work of digging through these tapes and re-mastering them up to the snuff of mp3-ready quality – as these will all be made available digitally.

It’s been very arduous. It’s been quite stressful. I’m still looking for a few missing pieces. Analog masters, a song here and there. I have all of the albums but there’s a few… B-sides and things like that which are proving to be elusive. So for some things I might have to resort to taking something off of cassette or CD. I think once I’ve actually got the stuff together and working in the mastering studio, it’s not been that difficult. I always enjoy working in the studio. We have had to bake some of the old analog tapes that have not held up so well. Once they’ve been baked they play fine. Are you familiar with this process?

“There was no plan, there was no career, it wasn’t a career choice. It was done very much out of passion and a kind of real necessity.”

I can’t say that I am… ‘baking?’

Some analog tapes, talking about reel-to-reel magnetic tape, the material it was made on, the backing… some particular brands, it all deteriorates over a period of time. There are some bad batches. Some brands from some years have deteriorated much more quickly so some remixes we have from, say, 92, 93, 94, we had to, you couldn’t play them, they get real sticky; if you put them on a tape machine you can’t even move the tape, they’re sticky. So you put them in an oven, at a very low temperature, just a regular oven, depending on, it might just be an hour, it make take a few hours, but you bake them and that dries them out and you can play them.

Initially to me, I’m picturing popping open faulty Tupperware and staving off freezer-burn?

Heh. I guess so. Heh.

Sorry to turn it into a food metaphor. But anyway… less technical and more emotional, what’s it been like going through the old “batches”?

I don’t really have much memory of a lot of this stuff. I have a really terrible memory overall, so in a way it’s cool because it’s like I’m working on another person’s band. I have a bit of distance from it because of the time and also because of my poor memory. So in some ways it’s made it more enjoyable, ya know, but other times it’s proven to be a hindrance. I can’t remember dates of sessions or what came from where and there’s been a fair amount of detective work I’ve had to do, and, like I said, it’s ongoing! We’re halfway through the project.

Is it anything like a photo album? Or looking at old journal entries? How much of it is nostalgic? And how much, if any, makes you question, or self-scrutinize?

I’m trying to be as complete as possible, to include and fill these CDs up, and in some cases there’s going to be two CD packages, so I’m just trying to put it all out there. I’m not holding anything back. Yeah, there’s some things where, I guess, are a little embarrassing now, sure. That’ll always happen. I’m my own worst critic and I think that it’s not been, I gotta be honest with ya, it’s not really been my favorite job in the whole world spending all this time on this stuff. There is this kind of nostalgia hung on it and I’m not working on a new thing, but, ya know, it’s nice to see the finished thing and I hope people will enjoy it. People who have never heard of the band and also people who are familiar with some of these albums – I hope that there’s enough in these reissues to interest both types.

The perception is that you are always one with a strong reverence for tradition and the old ways. Any mixed feelings about these albums also being available digitally online and getting the MP3 treatment?

No. Technically, they’ve already been available digitally. They’ve been available on compact discs. But, an MP3 is different and the delivery mode is different for sure. But, it doesn’t… ya know, I prefer or I’m inclined to old-fashioned working methods and an old-fashioned kind of sound. But I don’t really mind, I’m not bothered by MP3’s, no.

You played a show with the Blues Explosion back in the summer of 09?

Yes, and we’re playing next month in Brooklyn. And then we’re playing the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. We’re gonna be playing a few shows throughout the summer and probably later on.

And, back before summer 09, there was a European tour in 08. So, at that point, two years back, was that sort of the grand post- reunion?

I guess so. It’s not like we ever said, ‘Okay, that’s it. We’re callin it quits.’ So, when we come back to play again it’s special, it’s awfully nice, and it’s always a very nice thing to get together and play and to feel that energy and to remember what it’s like and to discover that it’s still possible. That’s always great, but I don’t think we’ve ever really hyped it as, ‘Oh, we’re going away’ and, ‘Hey, we’re coming back.’ I guess if we were better businessmen we would …

“It’s my own thing, it’s my personal trip, so I can understand why it might be hard for some people to get into that, to crack through.”

How are the guys doing these days?

Judah Bauer has been very busy; he plays in the Cat Power band and Russell Simins — he’s had his finger in a lot of different pots, currently he’s playing with Harper Simon.

How would you describe the evolution of your relationship? Does it feel much different up there, like back in summer 09, compared to, say, 93 or 94? What makes it work between you three?

I think we’ve always given each other a lot of room and a lot of respect as collaborators. The musical thing has always been kind of magical. And it’s also never really discussed too much; it’s just sort of something that happened and we just kinda do it. There’s almost an unconscious quality to the way in which we work. As far as the personal relationships – this band started in 1991, I believe, that’s an awful long time and people change and relationships change for anybody; it’s always been shifting.

You are an artist known for his live presence, his live energy. But what are you like in the studio?

When I’m in the studio… well, the studio… I love to play it live and I also love to work in the studio but the studio is not a concert hall. I don’t think we’ve ever tried to, ya know, with the exception of the very start of the band, the very first recordings were just straight up — us playing live in a room, that was it. But, then, almost immediately, The Blues Explosion began to experiment in the studio and the recordings became more produced. So, from that point on, the second year on, I don’t think we were trying to recreate our live concert on a record. They are different; they work in different ways. With The Blues Explosion, you can hear it on the compilation, Dirty Shirt. There’s a real range of kind of styles, of recordings, of production.

You’ve talked about the personal importance of making a connection, with the audience or with your collaborators – and that’s obviously something the impact of which can be observed in the heat of live performance on the faces of the audience, but what about the connection of the recording, for the solitary headphones listener?

Well, I think for me as a music fan, as almost a record-collector geek, and I don’t mean to put anybody down, but, I’m a fan! And am obsessed with music, listening and consuming records and CDs, whatever way it is, listening to music. So, a lot of it is very personal. It may not be with headphones; it’s a direct relationship between the listener and the music, the artifact, but there are other ways. Ultimately, it’s about finding something within the music and being able to relate, to make a connection. I think that’s what’s the greatest; what separates great artists, great musicians, great performers is that you can, that there is a possible connection in some way, and there’s something, really of themselves that they’re doing something unique and to themselves as individuals.

And I’m wondering, because, as has been acknowledged, The Blues Explosion in particular, has been a somewhat misunderstood band…

Yes, I think that’s true.

“I think the Blues Explosion some of what we were doing was really fucking with people’s heads.”

This series of reissues can perhaps help bridge a gap that listeners initially slipped on, as those old records expressed myriad sensibilities and genres colliding, perhaps bringing this to a new generation there can be a more immediate translation.

Just simply because we had the word “blues” in the name of the band proved confusing, as a real snarl for a lot of folks. I think because you said there’s different styles and genres ‘colliding,’ was the word you used, within the music. Yeah, that can be a little hard for some people. But, I think what we’ve done, what I’ve always done, I’ve done for myself — I’m aware of the audience and especially playing a concert — I’m definitely aware of the audience; people ask a lot of times in interviews what were your plans or what did you think when you were starting the band. It was entirely selfish, there was no plan, there was no career; it wasn’t a career choice. It was done very much out of passion and a kind of real necessity. So, yeah, some of the records are — it’s my own thing, it’s my personal trip, so I can understand why it might be hard for some people to get into that, to crack through. And sometimes things are a bit obscure and the manner in which some of the Blues Explosion recordings have been produced, mixed, the way in which I’ve written some of my lyrics. At the same time, there’s also a lot of play. I think The Blues Explosion, some of what we were doing was really fucking with people’s heads and, in a kind of a punk way, for lack of a better way to describe it. We weren’t the only band to do that — it was sort of coming out of tradition not only in music but also in art. If you look back to, way back to the Dadaists or Surrealists, this isn’t a new thing.

I think the hardest thing was the people writing us off. The hardest thing for me was to have The Blues Explosion written off as a joke or be labeled as racist, ya know. I think those were the worst cases of misunderstanding.

But, as I am presuming, this could be a very healthy refresher, a reintroduction, or a new introduction to the next generation. Here’s a chance to become properly acquainted with a generation under 25 who may only know you for the resume rattle-off that comes with various write-ups on you — a generation of computer-induced shortened attention spans, able to get keys to the majority of The Blues Explosion kingdom. The symptom we face is, when bands break-up and then reunite, Pavement for example — your bill-mate for the Pitchfork Fest — it can be seen as a resurrection. But I fear that reaction might also come when bands like Blues Explosion go into the amorphous and reclusive territory of “hiatus,” that some people may confuse this as a comeback.

Well, I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Cool J. – if people wanna call it a comeback, they can. Yeah, we haven’t been really doing much. I’ve been doing Heavy Trash and that continues to be my main gig. So, it is kind of a comeback, but whether or not we’re gonna make a new album that remains to be seen. It’s something we’ve talked about. We’ll see if it happens. I think that we’ve never been content to just sort of sit still, and I can’t imagine that we’ll be content to just go out and play greatest hits.

What are you looking forward to in 2010?

I’m going to Europe for another Heavy Trash tour. I’m looking forward to that. I love to work and I love to perform, so I’m kind of itching to get back out there. I’m looking forward to finishing these reissues. Now, I’m working on Extra Width and I still got a couple more to go. I’m looking forward to playing with The Blues Explosion, although I’m also a bit nervous about that. But, just gotta make sure it’s gonna be alright. I should say that I’ve got a record coming out I did with the wife that we did with a Dutch musician, calls herself Solex. It’s called Solex Vs. Cristina Martinez and Jon Spencer, entitled, Amsterdam Throw down Kings Street Showdown. That’s coming out, I think, this month on Bronze Rat.

[Photo: Danielle St Laurent]

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