Interview with Jon Spencer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is playing at Asylum this Thursday, and Portland will be better for this. In one form or another, Spencer has recording music since the start of Reagan’s second term, and Blues Explosion is celebrating its 21st birthday this year.

I have been fond of Spencer and his music for years. Both his music and personality were beacons of hope in the oft staid popular music scene of the mid-to-late 90s, back when rock and roll was going through its second iteration of being assimilated into a business machine. Blues Explosion made weird, aggressive, sexual noise sound really great and they made it look particularly sharp too. They were equal parts punk rock and James Brown, grimy, anti-establishment, musically astute, well-dressed DIY showmen.

Meat and Bone, their newest album, is a beautiful continuation of this tradition. Some of the defining bands that made their impact in decades past take their shows on the road and effectively serve as a cover bands of their past selves, whereas the new Blues Explosion record sounds like the next logical step in a satisfying continuum, a maturation of an already admirable catalogue of defining music that more than keeps up with the past and establishes its own distinct milestone.

I last saw Heavy Trash, a collaboration between Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray, at SPACE Gallery two years ago. I was drunk dancing with almost Pentecostal fervor and between songs he commended my style and enthusiasm and reached out to shake my hand. I got to chat with him briefly after the show, and was he nice, classy, and generous with his time, which is exactly as he was when I caught up with him Monday morning. Enjoy.

I saw you play with Heavy Trash at SPACE Gallery a few years ago.

Oh, I remember that show well. That was a good night. I think it was a good space and I can’t remember the name of the band we played with [Portland’s King Memphis], but they were very good.

I have noticed that one of the constants you touch upon in almost every interview is that Rock n’ Roll is strange, beautiful, scary and sexual, and I noticed that your music video for Black Mold is dark, beautiful and scary. While there is no overt sexuality, perhaps the role “black mold” plays is that of the STD.

Yeah, you could make that reading. I do think that the video Toon Aerts made for Black Mold can be read that way. There’s definitely that element of body horror and it can be taken like a little Cronenberg film. So yeah, you could take it in a sexual way, I’ll accept that.

Was the imagery of the video based on overt input from you?

No, I just wrote the song with Judah [Bauer] and Russell [Simins] and I wrote the lyrics, but really the credit has to go to the filmmaker Toon Aerts. There were some conversations, but ultimately that was his baby. For some videos there can be a more literal interpretation, but some, like that “Black Mold” video, carry the feeling and themes of the song. That song has a sense of dread and it’s a blues song, but it is not, as the video is, about an out-of-space virus infecting two brothers. It’s such a beautiful video and as a fan of horror and science fiction, I couldn’t be any happier with it.

You have said in previous interviews that Rock n’ Roll is about freedom and expression, and you have said that the music industry is lousy and fairly corrupt, but that you are largely able to circumvent this reality.

You know, some of it is luck. Not everybody is bad, but certainly there is a lot of evidence that the music industry has been up to no good and ripping off artists since the get-go. Of course I have worked with parts of it, with people within the industry, with the Blues Explosion and other projects, but by and large we try to keep it under my control. We are a punk band in that sense and we believe in the DIY ethic—do it yourself.

So I guess a bit of luck and a lot of hard work. The Blues Explosion has worked very hard, not just on studio albums but also on concerts. This is the love of our lives, so we work very hard at it.

Can you talk a little more about the album?

Most of this record was written over a year and a half ago and we recorded it last October in Benton Harbor, Michigan at a beautiful studio called The Key Club where they have this collection of old recording equipment. The crown jewel of all of this equipment is this one-of-a-kind Flickinger console custom-made for Sly Stone, and this is the board Sly Stone used to make the Album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” So I was happy to go out and work with these great engineers at The Key Club and to be able to use all of this great, old equipment.

I am happy to have the record out. We have been playing the songs for a long time now. The band has been working live pretty much constantly, which is really important for us. So we have been touring these songs for quite some time no, but now that the record is out, the way in which the crowd reacts to the songs is different now that there is some familiarity with the material.

I read in a couple of places that the 2010 release of your reissues were substantial influences for you, but I was heartened that this record doesn’t sound like you guys covering yourself. It sounds like a continuation of your work.  

Thanks, yeah, I agree with that. In 2010, we did a lot of reissues and a lot of stuff came out. That was a huge project and it was a huge influence on us regarding where we were and what was going on. We had come out of a 3 or 4 year break in 2008 and we were listening to that stuff again and kind of discovering some lost gems and things we had forgotten and I think that had an influence on us and with regard to recording Meat and Bone. I totally agree with you that the record is not a rehashing of the past or like we are redoing an old record, even though we do take some influence and strength from the history of our old records, it is made by the Blues Explosion here today. I don’t think we could have made it 10 to 15 years ago, as it is made by a band that is comprised of people who are now 20 years older than when they started. That all comes into play. It’s not a mellow record, though, that’s for sure. There is a lot of vim and vigor contained within those grooves.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.