Veteran rocker discusses his band’s new album and his large, soggy record collection
Jon Spencer was not an early fan of rock and roll. In fact, he says he didn’t like music much at all. It’s a strange thought considering the singer/guitarist’s band – the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – is regarded by critics as one of the pioneering rock bands of the ’90s. The band fused everything from punk, jazz, blues, rockabilly and rap into its own cohesive sound.
The Blues Explosion has worked with musicians as varied as Elliott Smith and DJ Shadow to Dr. John and Chuck D. One of the band’s most popular songs and videos, 1994’s “Flavor,” features the likes of Beck and Mike D from the Beastie Boys, and the band is credited for bringing legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside to a wider audience with their 1996 collaborative album, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain even personally asked the Blues Explosion to record the theme song for his Travel Channel show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
But it’s Spencer’s commanding live stage persona that puts him in a different league of musicians. His fellow Blues Explosion bandmates – guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins – exude equally commanding performances.
After an extended hiatus that hadn’t seen an album since 2004, the Blues Explosion reemerged with the September 2012 release of Meat and Bone, which came coupled with a tour across the country, including a stop in Central PA.
We caught up with Spencer at his home in New York as he prepared for a day in the recording studio.
Michael Yoder: What are you working on in the studio right now?
Jon Spencer: The last couple of days I was recording a young band called Howler from Minneapolis. I’m recording their single that will lead up to me producing their album. I’ve done some production work – I don’t really seek it out. But if someone asks me and I like the band, then I’ll take on the job.
FM: It’s been nearly a decade since the Blues Explosion released a new album. How does it feel to have Meat and Bone ready for the public?
JS: It feels good. I’m curious to see how the record will be received. We recorded Meat and Bone in October and finished mixing it in January. So the record’s been done for a long time. Now I relate to it in a different way – it’s no longer this brand-new thing for me.
FM: Did it just feel like the right time to work on something new with the Blues Explosion?
JS: We took a long break. We put out Damaged in 2004, and in 2005 we toured all over the place. And then we didn’t do anything for a few years. In 2007, In the Red Records put out a collection of our early singles. There was a renewed interest in our music. We took a few concerts, and we found out we still like playing together. Last spring we began to think about making a record. It just sort of grew out of touring and playing. There wasn’t any sort of rush. We’ve made lots of records before, so we don’t have that much to prove.
FM: What do you credit for the positive relationship with the other members of the band?
JS: Ultimately, we respect the band, and we really cherish what we have together – this musical partnership. The Blues Explosion is very much a musical collaboration and is a product of the three individuals. I don’t think it would work in any other way.
FM: You sing about losing some of your vinyl albums during Hurricane Irene in the song “Black Mold.”
JS: As I was preparing for the hurricane, I went into my storage space in the basement and found that a couple of boxes of vinyl LPs got damp. They were rotted and became part of the inspiration for “Black Mold.” The vinyl is still playable, but the jackets are destroyed. It’s a sad thing – especially for me. I love records, and I love a good record jacket.
FM: Do you have a favorite record jacket?
JS: A favorite of mine is The Flamin Groovie’s Teenage Head. Part of it’s because it’s a tip-on jacket, where the art is printed on paper and glued onto a cardboard jacket. We went for that same style with Meat and Bone. The Stooges’ Funhouse is another one. I’ve definitely hung on to records and CDs just because I liked the packaging so much – which becomes a problem. Sometimes you have to let things go and throw some junk out.
FM: How many albums do you have?
JS: Maybe a couple thousand. There are people who are serious collectors. I’m not a serious collector. And my buying habits have slowed way down.
FM: Did you collect albums when you were a kid?
JS: No. I wasn’t too keen on music when I was a kid. My older sister and brother listened to some music, but it wasn’t anything that was all that great. The only bands I really liked as a kid were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Monkees. As a teenager, there were peers of mine that were really into music, but it held no interest for me. I found most of it really unappealing.
FM: So what triggered your interest in music?
JS: Definitely leaving home and going to college helped, but it started before then. At the end of my high school career, I became friends with artsy punk people. You had to have somebody’s friend tell you about a band, and things were being passed along by word of mouth. It was very different than it is today where you can find anything online almost instantaneously.
FM: Have you ever eaten a meal cooked by Anthony Bourdain?
JS: I have not. I’ve met Anthony Bourdain once. I read his book, Kitchen Confidential, so I was familiar with who he was. He asked us to write the theme song for his television program, so we went to meet with him and ate dinner at Les Halles – the French restaurant where he was a chef for many years in New York City. He was a really nice guy and certainly a big fan of music. We didn’t eat any of his food, but he was a fine dining companion. I think if he wouldn’t have been, we wouldn’t have done the job.
FM: Are you comfortable with your place in the music industry?
JS: For the most part, I am. Of course, there are times when I experience twinges of anger, jealousy or envy [laughs]. But for the most part, I feel ok. I basically do what I want, and the Blues Explosion does what it wants. We make the kind of records we want to make, and we make the decisions that chart our own course. It’s totally on our own terms. So we’ve been very lucky to be able to do whatever the fuck we wanted and to make a living at it.