BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER There’s a die-hard demographic of ‘90s rock fans that will recall the cannonball impact of Boss Hog, the sloppy, ragged swagger of wife-and-husband blues-punk power-couple Cristina Martinez and Jon Spencer. After dropping a handful of albums and EPs to the delight of college rock radio listeners everywhere that decade, the band disappeared for 17 years. Spencer and Martinez became parents. They got day jobs. Who knows, maybe they moved to the suburbs. To hear her tell it, sure: they may have grown up some. But they never grew out of their passion for the garage, and for playing live the blistering, bruising blues they will bring to Underground Arts on Saturday April 8th.
Brood X, Boss Hog’s first record in a decade and a half, is signature Boss-Hog hiss-and-howl.. But their hiatus has informed an evolution, too, and their sound has been updated a bit — Brood X is piss and venom you can dance to. In advance of their Philly tour date in support of Brood X, we got Boss Hog frontwoman Cristina Martinez on the horn. She graciously took a break from her New-York-City day job to talk to us about Boss Hog’s new music and their process, about anthems of resistance in the age of Trump, about bad band names and about worse people who make great art. Oh and, cicadas.
PHAWKER: What do you do at your day job?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: I am the editorial production director for Bon Appetit magazine.
PHAWKER: That’s pretty different from your night job.
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Um, it is. This is all math and precision for me, and the other one is the other brain entirely. I’m just really letting go of all of that stuff.
PHAWKER: Did you go to school for one or the other, or no?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: I did not go to school for one or the other [laughs] — well I mean, I learned math in school, yeah! [laughs] The only thing I use from all of that still, besides basic math, is I still use a lot of algebra for this job, like ratios and stuff like that, basic stuff. Yeah I mean I didn’t go to school for music, I’m a self-taught musician.
PHAWKER: I wanted to talk to you a little about your new record and your return to touring and music after a long hiatus — what’s it been, about 15 years or something?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Well, yes. It’s been a very long time. We in 2008 to 2010 played shows, but we haven’t recorded since 2001, so it’s been a minute. But like I said, in 2008 to 2010 we were asked to do a couple of brief tours and some anniversary shows, so we really had a great time doing it and were enjoying ourselves, and so we decided that if we wanted to continue doing that we should really write new material. After that point we also lost our keyboard player from the Whiteout era, Mark Boyce moved away to the west coast. So we found a new keyboard player. His name is Mickey Finn, and he lives in Brooklyn, so it was much easier to sort of get a rhythm going, and build momentum and write stuff, because he was here, and he was also very enthusiastic about doing it. And like I said we enjoyed ourselves enormously in that sort of pick-up that we did in 2008. So it was fun! We just started getting together routinely and writing, and eventually had enough stuff that we thought we should go in and execute it.
PHAWKER: So the decision to do a new album was sort of in support of your interest in touring more?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Well I mean..yes, sort of. I mean I think we enjoy touring a great deal, and I do think it came from, like I said, we thought that if we wanted to play shows, we really should have something new to play, instead of just sort of, you know, playing our catalog for the rest of our lives. But also, we just enjoy writing and playing together, and we wrote a lot of material over those three to four years — this record was recorded now two years ago. So we just had such a vast amount of material that we thought it was a good time to record the record. But yes, we also had in mind that we would eventually like to play out again. I don’t know if we would call that the sole reason though, we just wanted to continue the process, all of it — recording and playing and touring.
PHAWKER: What’s your writing process — do you come up with the stuff yourself, or you and Jon together?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: No no, it’s completely collaborative. We all go down into our rehearsal space and just play. And at the writing stage, we’ll very often trade instruments and sort of just goof around. But we have a really good time playing with each other, it became like a social club — you know, we’d go down, we’d play some music, we’d stop and chat about whatever art show or movie we have seen, and have snacks. It was kind of just a fun way of hanging out together, and we’d all do genuinely enjoy each other’s company, so it was just a very natural, easy process. And then we’d just record whatever bits of music we had.
When it comes time to really arrange songs, and finesse them, I would say Jon is the person in the band who is the best at really doing that. And that’s a real skill and talent that not everybody has. Because I’ve been in other bands where it’s a different process. But Jon has a real knack for arranging songs, and focusing them, and structuring them. And generally, while we’re doing that, I will just be ad-libbing, and singing about whatever comes to mind. And sometimes I’ve written stuff down in a journal that I will bring in, and sort of spark an idea, and then also that gets refined as we go along, so I’ll start to structure it with the song, and come up with a kind of verse-chorus framework for it.
For this record, we hadn’t played the songs out live, which was new for us. We traditionally had really played the songs out a little bit more, and they had become solidified before we went into the studio. Not so for this record. We went in with basic structures, and very loose skeletal lyrical ideas, and they were really finessed in the studio. Especially for me, the music was more finished, but I had to really sort of create larger, more textured narrative, really flesh these ideas out in the studio. Which was hard, because everybody’s watching and you’re paying for it! [laughs] But it was interesting! I enjoyed it. It was definitely different for us.
PHAWKER: What was that like though after that long hiatus, was it easy to get back into the process dynamics you had in the ‘90s, or was that a struggle?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: You know, it’s easier now, from practice, from having done it for years and years, I feel not so critical of myself, or I feel freer to just do whatever, and I feel very comfortable with my bandmates, who are good friends. So you know, you can do anything — it doesn’t have to be great. It can be pretty shitty, actually. I don’t feel that kind of… self-criticism, is really what it is. I feel free to explore whatever way I wanna go and see what happens. And you know, sometimes it doesn’t work, and you just scrap it and try something else. It used to be that sometimes, if you get caught up with something… for me, if I couldn’t find a vocal path in it, I’d just scrap the whole song. I think I’m better now at having the freedom — and the bravery, really — to try something else, and not edit myself in the moment.
PHAWKER: Do you think that’s a product of getting older, and not giving a fuck as much?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Yeah, all of those things! The fact that I am more experienced at it, the fact that I am older and I’m not so self-conscious. Or the fact that you realize, like, it’s all good, the stuff that I was hard on myself for before, like I go back to and say ‘that was great!,’ you know, ‘why was I nit-picking?…’ When you’re creating something, sometimes you do need a little time and distance to sort of appreciate what it was. And the charm of Boss Hog really has always been that it’s not so perfectly clean. [laughs] We’re a little disordered, a little rough around the edges, and I like it that way.
PHAWKER: People can change so much in 15 years, with influences that inform styles and sensibility. What made you want to return to Boss Hog as a cohesive project over starting something new?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Mostly because it’s the same people, and so we bring a lot of the same elements, the same ingredients are used. And so it definitely still has that Boss Hog flavor or feel, to me. It’s got a very heavy bass, and it’s very much about the groove, and we like to chop stuff up that doesn’t necessarily make sense together.
I would love to change the name! [laughs] I’ve hated the name from the get-go. You know, we had to make a heat-of-the-moment decision, and that one has haunted me my entire career! [laughs] You know, nobody wants to walk around with a t-shirt that says ‘Boss Hog’ on it. Bad marketing decision! But, you know. It is what it is. I don’t think it’s a very great band name, but I think we’re a great band, so we can survive it.
PHAWKER: I think the Goo Goo Dolls feel the same way.
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Yes, they must! [laughs] And, maybe they regret those haircuts, too.
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: That’s nice of you to say that… we like to dance. [laughs] I think we made a real effort — [drummer] Hollis [Queens] and I, especially — that’s what makes the song a good song, to us. It’s like, ‘well, can ya dance to it?’ And like I said, that ability to sort of explore things, to go a little further, or to not shut that kind of progress down. We were open to growing, of course. I mean, you do. And that’s kind of how we were all feeling, the mood we were all in. We’re a pretty happy bunch, and that felt good. It felt right.
PHAWKER: Without imposing perspective, what do you consider the themes of your writing on this record to be?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Well, it’s interesting that all of these songs were written before the election. So, for me, they were very much about personal politics or personal experiences that I tried to make a little bit more universal. And in doing so, they have now taken on this completely new tone, sort of post-election, where a lot of them seem really like battle hymns. They take a new resonance, a new meaning, under the new administration. But, like I said, they started out more as the different things going on in our lives that I was thinking about during the course of the writing. One of which, for instance — I’ll pick one out of the hat, “17,” — our son Charlie was about to go off to University, and I was really thinking about that moment where you leave home, and for me, that meant coming to New York City, and what that felt like. And there’s a couple songs on the record that are really about that moment, sort of taking flight and sort of seeing what goes on. “Billy” is also about that, about coming to the city and being sort of chewed up and spit out by “the forces.” So that was one of the themes of it, I think. Moving on, sort of loss of innocence, which is a kind of general theme. It’s about growth or movement, moving forward, and just about our general struggles and plights. It was really very personal politics.
PHAWKER: So, a very pro-Trump record, is what you’re saying.
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: … [laughs] Yep! … I’m sorry, I’m laughing but, I don’t know if you read this today, but out on Pitchfork, there’s some story about Johnny Rotten comin’ out for Trump! Which, whatever. What an idiot! Really, you motherfucker? Really?! It’s so infuriating. I just can’t.. I’m still completely flummoxed. And now it’s sort of starting to wear in, you know, the idea that he.. I just can’t.. it’s so infuriating, and so frustrating, that this happened.. So, I’m curious as to how that’s gonna play out, when we tour. Because I know that outside of the bubble of New York City — even in New York City, you run into the occasional Trump person. And so, I’m a little worried about that, because while we wanna focus on the positive, like lifting people’s spirits, and making sure that they’re prepared to fight all that they can, and really trying to be a positive force in that, and lift voices and awareness — I’m a little worried about like running into Trump supporters, because I have a hard time biting my tongue.
PHAWKER: It’s funny, listening to the music you love from the rock ‘n roll heroes you revere. The tendency is to think they share your political values too.
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Yeah you would think, right? You would hope. It’s really disconcerting, and it’s really divisive. When we found out that a friend of ours was pro-Trump, we really cut off. Like that’s crazy. We can’t deal with that crazy. Like how could this person be so heartless and so stupid? We really have just not wanted to engage with this person at all, because it’s such a dividing, such a huge chasm that it caused. How could anyone want that for any human? It’s like he’s killing our humanity. He’s an ignorant fuck! It’s just mind-boggling. It is really odd, when people come out, as that. I wish that it weren’t such a divide, you know, that we could have differences of opinion and talk through them, but I feel like Trump is really jumpin’ the shark. If you like Trump, NO! [laughs] Absolutely, I want nothing to do with you. Even if it’s an economy thing, or you are conservative, you cannot deny all the damage that he’s doing, to the environment, to immigrants, for women’s rights — things that are such basic human rights. You cannot tease those out and say like ‘oh but he’s gonna be good for the economy.’ Because, I mean the two go together. So I just don’t accept that. At all.
PHAWKER: Do you feel you can continue to be a fan of someone’s art, though, if they don’t share your point of view politically?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: You know what, this is a very good question — I have a problem with Woody Allen, because I’m like, you can’t marry your daughter, and have everybody just be like, ‘but his movies are great!’ I have a big problem with that! I’m not so sure that I can. And I often don’t. I’m trying to think of an example of someone I do. Maybe Roman Polanski? You know, he had sex with a 13-year-old girl. But I’m sure if I knew that 13-year-old girl, then.. Well, no, actually that’s not true. Even saying that is wrong. [laughs] But I do love his films. But I still hold that against him. Can you imagine? Do you know any 13-year-old girls? Probably when I was 13 I thought it was fine. But it’s wrong! It’s just so clearly not okay.
PHAWKER: Right but so that’s interesting: you’re a punk-rock icon — has that changed for you now, as a parent or as you’ve matured?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Um, yes and no. I always believed in freedom to do and say what you want, you know, and that’s a very basic right that I’ve always enjoyed myself, and hope any human can have. And so that hasn’t changed, certainly. I think I don’t feel the same need to sort of, like, say it as loudly as I did when I was a kid, and sort of struggling and fighting to say it for myself. But I certainly believe in that rigght for everyone. And however that comes out and however they say it, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else, I appreciate that message, you know? In retrospect, the things that I regret doing — when I worked with Richard Kern, the photographer, we took photos with guns, and that’s not something I would do today. And I didn’t really think about the consequences of that, and I’m very anti-gun. I wasn’t thinking about that, at the time. To me, it wasn’t such an issue, and it was kind of like a cool kind of art thing that we did. But it does bother me now, and I don’t mean to glamorize guns, and I didn’t think about that aspect at the time. So that was something I do regret, for instance, and would do differently today. All the sexual stuff, I would do it again in a minute, and continue to try and present myself always in the most kind of raw and naked way possible, because I think that’s important that, you know, you expose yourself.
PHAWKER: You guys are playing at Underground Arts on the 8th — what’s been your experience with Philly crowds vs. where you live in New York?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Well, I’m from DC, so I have that experience sort of more ingrained in my memory of performances. When I’ve gone to Philly, it seemed sort of similar-ish. When I was little, we’d cross our fingers that when people came from England they’d come to DC as well. So that put us in a like, ‘hey!’ wavin’-our-hands position. So, I’m happy to go, and in fact this whole spring what we’re doing is trying to play just the northeast on weekends, and go out and do all the cities that we can — some smaller, some big cities like Philly and DC. But definitely also like, you know, Burlington, Vermont, and Portland, Maine. We’re trying to hit as much as possible because I think shows in small towns are usually more fun. Unfortunately because of our time restrictions, when we go to Europe we can only hit major cities, and that’s not as fun as when you do a solid, just going to small towns and playing smaller shows.
PHAWKER: Have you guys toured the new material a lot yet, and if so what’s the reception been for that?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: We have played it, we did a couple of weeks in Europe so far, that’s all we’ve done. But yeah, it’s been good! It’s been positive, they’re really fun to play. I think we’ve finally nailed ‘em down! [laughs] It was funny to have to go back and sort of learn the lyrics that I wrote in the studio and play them live. But I think we warmed up in Europe for the states! [laughs]
PHAWKER: Did you get a lot of old Boss Hog fans coming out?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Yes! Yeah, we did. And new fans too! So, it was nice, we did pretty well. We did a week on the west coast too, and that was a little more of a struggle, because that was before the record came out. We put out a kind of pre-mix record of four songs called Brood Star, last July, and played the west coast. That was a little tougher, because there’d been no promotion, and like we were gone off the face of the earth for so long that people really didn’t know that much about it. So we played some very small shows, and it was rough, it was hard. But it’s good! Also, it humbles you, and it makes you work harder too, to entertain fifty people. It’s easier to entertain a huge crowd who loves you than fifty people who are sort of ambivalent. So it’s good, we’re up for the challenge.
PHAWKER: Your EP last year was called Brood Star and the record is called Brood X — is this a double-meaning use, i.e., a family of young, or thinking deeply about something unhappy?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Nope! I was really strictly referring to the idea of a cicada, these summer nights that are full of the cicada sound, that are so loud and so beautiful, it would lull me to sleep in the summers. My bedroom window faced onto the backyard and it would have this incredible song of the cicadas. And I’m just sort of fascinated by the different — there’s the 13-year cicadas and the 17-year ones — but this idea that for 17 years this nymph is living underground gnawing away at roots of trees and they all together en masse decide to come out, eat, sing, mate and die! [laughs] I thought it was kind of like Boss Hog, and so the whole artwork and idea behind it is really about that.
PHAWKER: The 17-year hiatus, you mean?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Yeah! And because we’ve been you know functioning underground for 17 years. So, while you thought we weren’t around, we were actually there the whole time, and it’s just our time to emerge now, and make a beautiful noise and then go away again.
PHAWKER: Not for another 17 years, I hope?
CRISTINA MARTINEZ: Hopefully not! [laughs] That would make us really old, and probably no one would come. [laughs]