BY JONATHAN VALANIA With all due apologies to The Gun Club, Jon Spencer looks just like an Elvis from Hell. Where I come from that’s the highest praise you can confer on someone. And after 34 years of rocking righteously and outrageously, not to mention prodigiously — more than 40 albums and EPs, and countless singles and comp appearances spread across five different bands — he’s earned it. Back in 1985, his band Pussy Galore crawled out of the noise rock sewer of the Lower East Side and proceeded to define deviance downwards. They sounded like Einsturzende Neubauten raised on ’60s punk and no-budget sexploitation films instead of John Cage and Throbbing Gristle. They were the Heath Ledger’s Joker of ‘80s underground rock — they just wanted to watch the world burn. Or at least rock n’ roll — and burn it did. On a dare from Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore did a song-for-song extermination of the Stones’ Exile On Main Street. Despite the fact that it was only released on cassette and the band only made 550 copies, millions now claim to own it. Their first EP was called Groovy Hate Fuck. Their second album was called Dial ‘M’ For Motherfucker [pictured, below right], only because their record label wouldn’t let them call it Make Them All Eat Shit Slowly. I think this speaks for itself.
By the time Pussy Galore flamed out in 1990, Spencer had started Boss Hog with his then-squeeze/now-wife Cristina Martinez, who had joined Pussy Galore as a guitarist when she was 16 despite not knowing how to play guitar. Fronting Boss Hog, she would go on to to become the clothing-optional pin-up queen of the shit-rock scene, commanding the never-ending adoration of a certain breed of unshaven garage-rock ne’er-do-wells in stripey t-shirts, eyelash-fringing bangs and black beat-to-fuck Chucks. She was a Suicide Girl before there was Suicide Girls. Over the course of four LPs and four EPs spanning the better part of 30 years, Boss Hog sounds like a velvet glove cast in iron, like a bra on fire, like the neck-snapping, man-crushing supervixens of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! started a garage-punk band on the side to fill their down time when not neck-snapping and man-crushing and the whatnot.
The next year Spencer would team up with Mister Judah Bauer (gee-tar demolition man) and Mister Russell Simmins (fuck-beat maker extraordinaire) to form the The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and when their wonder-trio powers activated they were a whirling, strobe-flashed cyclone of sweat, sex, and pure adrenaline. The music was an unholy marriage of lunar rockabilly, feral blooze skronk, garage-punk splatter, and extra-wide bell bottom funk-soul brotherhood, narrated madly by a reverb-drenched Spencer frugging, mugging and wailing like Little Richard with a mouthful of Buddy Holly, culminating in 1994’s Orange — arguably THE party album of the decade, if not the 20 Century. Cue the balletic, gravity-defying car chase at the beginning of Baby Driver to get a taste. If Pussy Galore was fuck-you music — and it was — JSBX was just plain fuck music, and don’t think the ladies didn’t take notice. At the gigs, Spencer was only half-kidding when he would invariably declare at some point in the show: “This is the part of the record where I want everyone to put their hands in the air and kiss my ass ’cause your girlfriend STILL loves me!” If ever a man was built to be famous, it’s Jon Spencer. It never quite happened, but the truth is he never really tried that hard to be, like, red carpet TMZ famous. Fuck that noise. He’s famous with all the right people, which is the best kind of famous.
Anyway, and then some stuff happened that you can find out about on Wikipedia. Blah, blah, blah. Fast forward to circa now. The JSBX is, tragically, kaput (see below). And after a few years of silence, Spencer has struck out on his own with his debut solo album, Spencer Sings The Hits!, a rollicking collection of needle-pinning garage-punk thuggery and spazzy proto-industrial-electro scree going mano-a-mano atop bulldozer beats and the occasional clanking percussion that sounds like a monkey wrench swung upside a rusty heating pipe. Think Einstürzende Neubauten meets The Music Machine narrated by a shitfaced Wolfman yowling and growling into an empty garbage can. Spencer is currently on a tour in support of the new album — new West Coast dates were just added — which brings him to Johnny Brenda’s for a WAY sold out show January 10th, aka tomorrow night. Last week we got him on the horn to chew over all the aforementioned.
DISCUSSED: A day in the life of a Blues X Man; Shithaus; attending Brown; Pussy Galore; artistic authenticity; Boss Hog; life under Trump; the death of science in the post-factual era; Baby Driver; Andre Williams; Steve Albini; going solo 34 years later; and the sad and lonesome death of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; sigh.
JON SPENCER: Yeah, Cristina and I still live in New York City. I mean right now it’s a little atypical because we just were traveling for the holidays and now Cristina’s sick with a cold, so I’m playing nursemaid. A more typical day, I don’t know, I spend most days just kind of, since I live in New York City, sort of all by myself. Trying to do more touring, you know, and these January dates, that’s part of that. I don’t really have a really good exciting “typical day” sort of stuff. More mundane, I suppose. If I am at home, I’m doing more kind of take care of the house sort of stuff, like shopping and cooking and laundry and things like that.
PHAWKER: You guys live in Manhattan the last time I checked?
JON SPENCER: Yes, we still do.
PHAWKER: Right on. So music is still a full time concern, right?
JON SPENCER: Yeah, I mean I consider myself lucky that I’ve been able to do it as a full time concern since the mid ‘90s.
PHAWKER: When would you say you officially started your career in rock? (Completely rando Volcano Suns reference) I know Shithaus was back in Brown.
JON SPENCER: I don’t know if I really count that. I mean there were groups before Pussy Galore, such as Shithaus, I think that was more, they weren’t my bands, so I wasn’t leading them. It was just sort of my apprenticeship. So I would consider the start when Julia Cafritz and I started Pussy Galore in 1985.
PHAWKER: Okay. So 35 years later you are finally going solo, which is technically speaking an odd turn of events for a person that’s been running a band called The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion since early ‘91.
JON SPENCER: Yes, I mean, the Blues Explosion will always be the Blues Explosion. I’m not going to carry that on without Judah Bauer or Russell Simins. That band is very much a sum of its parts. So yeah, while I was reluctant to do it as a solo record, I thought it would be the quickest and easiest way to let people know what to expect with this new album. So I did it under my own name. And yes, this is my first solo record. You know, I was between bands, the Blues Explosion had ended, Heavy Trash kind of ran its course, and I very much missed having a band and wanting to get back to work. So rather than, you know, put a band together, I decided just make a record first and serve up songs, and then went about setting up the session.
PHAWKER: Blues Explosion is not just on hiatus? Is it over?
JON SPENCER: We’re not making any official announcement and I guess I should never say never, but I think it’s pretty much over. I think for me, I kind of spent a couple years not really working, with my own thing. Sure, I was busy with Boss Hog, and I love playing with Boss Hog and I think we made a really great record that came out last year, the album Brood X. Then we did some touring and we hope to do more. But, we can’t go out and tour a lot because people have real job commitments. Our last record was Freedom Tower and that was in 2015. We were in the midst of a long touring cycle and then Judah Bauer became very ill, and we had to cancel everything. So, I think there was a period of time where, like I said, I really missed having a band and it was a period of mourning. I guess in my own head I had to stop sitting around waiting for something and decide “Okay, it’s done. I should move on.”
So, while there was no official announcement, I think in my own head I said like, “Okay, I need to move forward.” It was hard because there had been, it wasn’t this past summer but the one before, a big movie, Baby Driver, that came out. So, there was a film that used a Blues Explosion song and there was all this renewed interest in the Blues Explosion, but there was no Blues Explosion to go out and play shows. So, yeah, it was very nice to get the notice and attention, but it was bittersweet.
PHAWKER: Not to dig into people’s personal lives, but is Judah OK? Did he recover?
JON SPENCER: Yeah, he’s much better, it’s not like it was life threatening, but he can’t go on a rock n’ roll tour any more. He’s still making music, his girlfriend is a yogi and they make this sort of chant music that has a Velvets vibe under the name Chamunda.
PHAWKER: Okay, cool. Glad to hear it. Will have to check it out. So let’s jump into the new record. You worked with Bill Skibbe at the Key Club Recording Company in Michigan and he’s done a lot of work similar to the vein that you work in, with some high profile people that we all know.
JON SPENCER: Bill and his wife Jessica Ruffins, they own the Key Club Recording Company. A marvelous studio in the middle of nowhere. Benton Harbor, it’s kind of a depressed, post-industrial small city on the banks of Lake Michigan. So to be there in the late summers can be very nice because you can take a break and go to the beach. But the Key Club is an amazing studio and Bill and Jessica were in the band Jaks.
So they had Jaks for many years and they put out records and toured all over. Jessica worked for Touch and Go and Bill worked for Steve Albini. He helped build Electrical Audio, Albini’s studio in Chicago. They wanted to open a studio of their own and they found that they can get a lot more bang for the buck outside of Chicago. So they went back, they’re both from Michigan, so they went to Benton Harbor and bought a building there. They built this fantastic studio, the crown jewel of what used to be the Flickinger Console that was custom built for Sly Stone, the board Sly Stone used to make his album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
PHAWKER: Oh wow.
JON SPENCER: This record of mine is one of the last recorded using that console. Bill and Jessica since sold it but they have a couple of Flickingers. They’re not short for fantastical gear, so it’s a wonderful place. I first learned about it when I was on tour with Heavy Trash. Dallas Good from the Sadies, the Heavy Trash band was on this one particular tour, and we had a day off. Dallas organized a recording session for Andre Williams, me and Sadies we had a kind of shared history with Andre and we had a couple days off on this tour. So Dallas set up a session at the Key Club, at the time Andre was living in Chicago. I think he’s still in Chicago. But, we camped out there for a couple days and this recording which finally came out a couple years ago on Yep Roc called Night and Day. It was not the easiest session. Andre had just come out of jail and he was really sick. It was kind of a disaster, but there’s still good stuff on the record. But that was the first time I worked at the Key Club and I really fell in love with it.
When the Blues Explosion made Meat + Bone in 2012, we tracked it there. When Boss Hog made their last record a couple years ago, that’s where we went. When I made the decision to make this solo album, I thought I’d go back to the Key Club. I really love that place. I’m very comfortable there and have a good relationship with Bill. A working relationship, creative relationship.
PHAWKER: Was this set to come out on In The Red from the get-go? Or did you record it, and then eventually…?
JON SPENCER: I just paid for it myself, then I just made the record and then it was done. But to be honest, I think in the back of my mind, I had Larry Hardy and In The Red, so I’m happy to work with In The Red. I think it’s a great label.
PHAWKER: For real. Yeah, next time you see Larry, send my regards. The fact that he’s been doing it this whole time is amazing, and I’m glad to see that he’s still doing it. He’s a good egg with great ears. Sam Coomes plays keyboards, synths and things like that. Yeah?
JON SPENCER: Yeah. So I wrote all the songs over the summer just by myself, which is atypical for me, normally I much prefer writing with a band. Collaborating with people. But, I don’t have the band, so all the songs are by myself, which is not the first time. Back in the early days of Pussy Galore I wrote mostly on my own.
So I got the songs together, and I saw Sam at a friend’s wedding at the end of the summer. I mentioned that I was going to do this recording session and I knew I wanted to have bass on the record, but I didn’t want to have a traditional rock’n’roll strings, electric bass. I wanted to have a synthesizer. So I asked Sam if he’d want to come and play on the album, and he agreed and Sam’s on the record. He’s now playing with us live.
Then I needed a drummer. So I asked this guy, M. Sord, who lives in Kalamazoo, and he’s somebody I got to know from working at the Key Club. For a period of time, he was kind of a handyman of studio and hanging out with him I discovered he’s a pretty amazing drummer. So I thought, I know this guy can play great, and he’s local. So I asked Sord, and he agreed. So Sord played on the record, and he’s also playing in the live band. To flesh out the sound on stage, my old friend Bob Bert, from Pussy Galore is coming along with us, and Bob plays percussion.
PHAWKER: So you said you didn’t want to have a regular stringed bass. You wanted to use a keyboard or synthesizer. What prompted that decision?
JON SPENCER: I don’t know, it’s just what I heard in my head. I mean, it’s not just that I wrote the songs beforehand, I also just had that sound in my head. I knew I wanted it to be, kind of, very crude, simple, punk rock, 60s-punk guitar, simple lines, a lot of fuzz, a lot of feedback. I knew I wanted to have a lot of heavy 60s punk influence in there. I knew I wanted to have the same synthesizer sounds and I wanted to use metal percussion. So it was all sort of mapped out. I could hear it. Why? I don’t know why. It’s just because I thought it would be cool.
PHAWKER: Well, I can hear Pussy Galore in there. I can hear Music Machine in there. I can here like Einstürzende Neubauten. The album references the entirety of your career.
JON SPENCER: Thank you. I think that there are definite nods to my past, like the 60s punk guitar, things like the metal percussion. The fact that I wrote the songs by myself. I do believe that this this album is not just like some nostalgia trip. It’s a nod to where I walked in the past, but it’s something new.
PHAWKER: The catchiest song on here, I Got the Hits, is almost buried at the very end of the record. Tell me about the decisions on how you sequenced the tracks.
JON SPENCER: This was sequenced, largely, the way in which the songs were recorded and I didn’t really get into fussing with the sequence that much. This is not just the way in which I recorded them in the Key Club, but is the way in which I recorded the demos at home using the Garageband app on my phone. The groundwork was laid and I just got like ‘Demo-itis’ or I got so used to hearing the songs in sequence. It’s not entirely the exact same order, a couple things were flipped, but I never agonized over remaking from scratch. I tried to with all distractions, just trying to keep moving and not agonize, and not second guess myself. You know, try to maintain some immediacy, and hang on to my instincts.
When we were mixing, I spent a lot of time out there in Benton Harbor, Michigan. I had a rent-a-car, and I spent a lot of time driving around listening to mixes. The album sequence, for me, just always works, it always flows. What the fuck, you know, I’m not the kind of person where I think, ‘What song is the single? How do I strategically place that on my record?” I think if anything these days I’d be more interested in thinking about like, ‘Okay, if four or five songs in, maybe I should try to put a ballad in there or a choir song. Which is why albums used to be sequenced that way, because people are sensitive to the limitations of the vinyl manufacturers. You know, mastering and final manufacturer saying that, you wouldn’t want to have a loud song towards the center of the record because that’s where you start to get some distortion. Typically you close up a side with a softer track.
PHAWKER: Oh wow, I wasn’t aware of that dynamic of vinyl. There’s a great line on here, I think it is from the song Wilderness: “Set the Wayback Machine to never.”
PHAWKER: That is so apt and hilarious and I think that could be written on your tombstone — God forbid you should ever die. Tell me a little bit about that line, about setting the Wayback Machine for never.
JON SPENCER: Well, I mean the song is, is sort of a kicking against, you know, nostalgia. Yeah, and it’s surprising as some reviews of the record, took the meaning as exactly the opposite. It puzzled me because I thought I was pretty clear as day with the words.
PHAWKER: So then there’s another song that has one of the greatest song titles of all time: Alien Humidity.
JON SPENCER: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Is it Alien Humidity, as in humidity is alien to the location that I’m at currently at, as in it’s a new thing? Or are you talking about humidity that came from another planet?
JON SPENCER: I think more the former. Yeah, just a song about feeling out of place.
PHAWKER: Okay, and there’s also a line in there “you’ve been set-up!”
JON SPENCER: Throughout the album, there are themes of fakery, of mistrust. Definitely frustration, anger. I think that there are questions or themes of authenticity, which play out in several different levels. One as far as, like a person playing in the band or somebody trying to make a musical statement, you know, the authenticity of the artist. Also, authenticity as far as a media hellscape from which we will all live in. You know, post 2016 or post 2015.
PHAWKER: I feel ya, dawg. Also related to this questioning of authenticity there’s a song called Fake and a song called Beetle Boots — Beatle is spelled the way the old comic strip Beetle Bailey spells it, suggesting that even the Beatle Boots are inauthentic. Why is this on your mind at the moment?
JON SPENCER: Why is it on my mind at the moment? Well, I think it’s just incredibly frustrating having to live in a world where people are questioning things like, the fact that the earth is getting hotter, or that science itself is questioned, or that words are spit out to mean something entirely different. That there’s this kind of newspeak, or doublespeak, trying to push a particular agenda. It makes me goofy. It makes me crazy. So I think that there’s this current malaise married to these things, which are not entirely new to me. I’ve always written songs about playing in a band, being in a band, other bands and musicians. That’s the kind of thread that runs through, I think, most of my records and all my fans.
PHAWKER: On a related note, for the readers that may not know, you are actually a very intelligent fellow.
JON SPENCER: There you go, you got your headline: He’s actually pretty smart.
PHAWKER: But the point I am trying to make is you don’t feel the need to make music that announces, “I’m a smart guy.”
JON SPENCER: I think it’s kind clever. I like rock and roll because it can be very simple and very direct, and also because it’s connecting to the non-intellectual part. It allows me to access something which is not analytical.
PHAWKER: Right. What I am trying to get at is, there’s a great line on here, “ironic distance reinforces convention.” Can you speak to that for a sec, or unpack that? Or would you rather not?
JON SPENCER: I’d rather not, because then I’m worried about getting into this avalanche of like, what the song is really about and who the songs really about. I mean, yeah, it’s kind of a diss track, but I don’t really want to talk about any particular artists or bands.
PHAWKER: Okay, fair enough. On a tangential note here, I was just listening Songs The Cramps Taught Us, specifically to the song, “Love Me” by The Phantom. I always loved that song. But it suddenly occurred to me how proto-Jon Spencer that track is. I’m assuming you’re familiar with that song?
JON SPENCER: Yes.
PHAWKER: Right. Do you know much about that guy’s life story I was just looking him up and I didn’t until now…
JON SPENCER: I think I’ve probably read something about him, but it was a long time ago.
PHAWKER: Did you know that song was released on Pat Boone’s label?
JON SPENCER: That sounds familiar.
PHAWKER: That’s crazy. And then years later, his car went off the side of a cliff in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and left him a quadriplegic.
JON SPENCER: That I do know. Yeah. Why are you bringing this up?
PHAWKER: Because I was listening to that song and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I hear the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in this.” And then I’m “I can hear the Pussy Galore in this,” and I realized I don’t know anything about The Phantom, so I looked him up and I was taken aback that his life was so tragic. Like, wow that’s heavy. Did not see that ending coming…look Jon, I just think it’s important that the kids know about “Love Me” and The Phantom. OK? Is that so wrong?
JON SPENCER: That’s very interesting. It’s a huge difference, today versus the 80s and 90s, where it was you couldn’t just find out all the information in two minutes. You were blessed just to simply wonder and I guess daydream.
PHAWKER: Okay, so that brings me to the question: Which is better? Being able to have everything at the tip of your fingers or that you had to really work at finding out things, or maybe never did find them out, and had to had to come up with answers yourself?
JON SPENCER: I prefer a bit of mystery, but yeah I’m not like one of those people who say, “It was better when computers didn’t exist and you had to use magnetic recording tapes.” I love science and the future. I think we gotta fix things and pull ourselves up. We need smart people, and we need science. I’m for progress.
PHAWKER: Amen, brother. You mentioned Baby Driver earlier. I wanted to ask you about, how did that change your life? What impact did that have on the career of Jon Spencer or the Blues Explosion?
JON SPENCER: It’s been a very kind of wonderful experience. A very strange one. Just a couple days ago, on Christmas night, I was with my family and friends, at the very end of the day, and people were veggin’ out. Somebody turned on the television, and the movie was starting on a cable channel. So everybody watched it, and I didn’t watch the whole thing again, but we watched the opening sequence. I still get a kick out of it because it’s a very surreal thing for me.
I still catch things that I didn’t notice before, as far as like, for instance the way in which sound effects are tuned to the pitch of the song. The way in which things that will happen within the scene, like passing by pillars in a parking garage are timed to match Russell Simins snare fill. There’s so much. Edgar Wright is a very clever guy. Yeah it was amazing.
I think that if I was a better businessman, I probably could have tried to maximize or capitalize on the renewed attention, but as we discussed, there wasn’t a Blues Explosion. I mean i’m just bitching, but it was really wonderful.
PHAWKER: I want to ask about Orange. You mentioned earlier that you usually write with bands. I’m curious as to how those songs came together? A number of the songs are these amazing 60s punk/soul/funk suites. Did these songs mostly come together from playing them live?
JON SPENCER: With Blues Explosion, pretty much everything, with a few rare exceptions, we wrote together. We’d get together and play, most of it was written in a practice space in New York City. Occasionally we’d come up with a song at sound check or something would happen where maybe we’d be vamping on something live and we’d then try to recreate that.
Orange was something we definitely wrote together. There’s things which weren’t done by the group. Once the bass tracks are done, I was left alone to produce the record. So things like the strings in Bellbottoms, that was something I did, and added. But you know, as far as like the guitars and the drums, that stuff, the basics…Me, Judah, and Russell wrote that stuff together.
Orange was a record where we had written the songs, and we had played them out a lot before recording them, which was a little different. Like with, Extra Width, when we went into the studio, a good chunk of songs were still coming together. They weren’t as road tested, if my memory serves me correctly. With Orange, pretty much all the songs were things which we really played a lot.
PHAWKER: Okay, so I have one particular question. I know you like to preserve the mystery, but there’s one thing I want to ask you how you did because I think it’s one of the greatest moments in rock and roll of all time, and that’s no exaggeration. It comes in on Blues X-man at about the 3:10 mark. You know the effect I’m talking about?
PHAWKER: I actually have this queued up. Let me play it for you, [cues up Blues X Man shortly before the 3:10 mark] right here, there’s this backwards guitar sound leading up to boom, boom, boom and then this…I don’t know what…sounds like female shriek through a delay pedal…
JON SPENCER: Yes. So it goes boom boom boom and then there’s a big backwards. I mean the band, we actually hit those hits, “bang bang bang,” and then when Jim Waters, engineer/producer who helped us make Orange, and I, we just took a piece of leftovers or something. That flipping sound is a section of tape turned around. It’s just a little backwards, its analog. It’s taking a piece of tape and flipping it around. So, that’s old school. I mean, Orange, we made that record in ‘94 and it was one inch, 16 tracks, analog tape.
Water Works was the studio that it was recorded and mixed at. A small studio within the Meatpacking District in Manhattan. It’s long gone, I mean now the Meatpacking District is super rich, fancy chic restaurants and shops but Water Works was not a big place and even by those standards it was using very kind of crude and sort of outdated equipment.
[The snippet of tape in question] could be from an entirely different song, but I think Jim and I felt like, “Man, we need something else!” I guess that goes to show that we weren’t really precious with things. We were willing to say, “Well, what the fuck this song needs a shot in the arm, let’s do this.”
PHAWKER: Yeah, and it fucking works — after all these years that’s such a sonically thrilling moment. Is that Cristina singing, who’s singing the female backing vocals?
JON SPENCER: Yeah, that’s Cristina and it’s Hollis Queens.
PHAWKER: They sound like the anarchist cheerleaders from Smells Like Teen Spirit rooting you guys on while you throw a garbage can through a Starbucks window. It literally sounds like there’s riot going on. It’s one of the all time great moments of rock n’ roll, I hereby declare. Somebody’s gotta fucking do it. Anyway. That’s my that’s my total fanboy question there, which brings this about to the end. Jon thanks for taking the time to listen to Orange with me.
JON SPENCER: It’s my pleasure! Thanks for doing this.
PHAWKER: One last thing, tell me about the green monster hand that you’re rocking on the cover and in the press photos. Just to be clear here, that’s not your real right hand is it? Your right hand isn’t monster green, right?
JON SPENCER: Only when the moon is full.