Interview | The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “We’ve been painted as devils for corrupting R.L. Burnside, as well as for fucking things up for Elliott Smith.”

Photo | Michael Lavine.

If you haven’t heard it straight from the lips of Jon Spencer, THE BLUES IS NUMBER ONE…and that’s not just some cool-as-shit thing for him to yell at your ass while sweating and bouncing around at a Blues Explosion show. For me, “The Blues” is number one, and they’ve been that way ever since I picked up their record, Now I Got Worry, way back in 1996. In fact, to this day, there is still a sticker from their album Acme on the mirror in my old bedroom at my parents house. How rock n’ roll is that?

So — admittedly, I was nervous to sit down with Jon Spencer (minus Russell Simmons and Judah Bauer) and try to not come off like some fanboy asking for an autograph. We covered everything from the upcoming tour, to Hurricane Sandy, and along the way, we figure out they may have single-handedly corrupted the entire music industry.

They play Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, tomorrow night and tickets are amazingly still available. You can get them here. Come join us…we’ll be posting our take on the show shortly thereafter.

SIC: Is the Blues Explosion getting prepped for the upcoming tour?

Jon: Yeah – we did a show Wednesday night at a friend’s bar in the west village, just a little lo-fi thing to try to shake the cobwebs off, and we taped a song for the Late Show with David Letterman.  So we’re trying to get things to a point where we can put on a good show at the Cat’s Cradle there in Carrboro.

We have a band from Pittsburgh with us called Shockwave Riderz, who’s a few members from The Modey Lemon, so it should be a good show.  And a new development there, The Dex Romweber Duo will be opening as well, so that’s always worth checking out.

So on the Letterman thing, I had read you guys recorded yesterday – how hard is it to get prepare for something like that?

I found it pretty hard.  I mean, Judah and Russell have both done it before, with artists they tour with like Cat Power, Harper Simon, and Joseph Arthur, and they’ve done it together with Tom Waits, so they have some experience there.  I mean, we’ve done lots of television in Europe and in Japan, but we really haven’t done anything in the states. So I was pretty nervous, but  I think it went okay.

So is it difficult to go from 0 to 100 and especially for a band like yours?

Well I don’t know if we could possibly get to 100 in that amount of time, but, I dunno, 75 or something like that? (laughs) It’s sort of like how making a record is different than a concert, where playing an hour-long set is so different than getting up and just playing one song, and the peak you might reach in a full set is so much higher than you can ever hope to achieve in a cold television studio, you know? It’s hard – but that’s the job!

And we’ve all heard that is a cold studio…

(laughs) It’s very, very cold. Yeah

So…you guys took a long break, how has preparing for a tour like this, that takes you across the globe pretty much, changed since the last time you did something to this scale. Or has it?

I think we still work very hard to get ready, I mean, it’s not like we just played this impromptu underground show, we rehearsed for weeks straight leading up to this. So it really is like training for a prize-fight, or running a marathon, we’ve definitely gotten ready, because it’s not like you can just roll out of bed and play a Blues Explosion show. And I don’t think that’s changed so much. We’ve always worked very hard to present a energetic and entertaining show. So no, (laughs), nothing has really changed.

So while preparing – did Hurricane Sandy cause any issues for you guys?

Well it certainly was an inconvenience. I mean, we were without electricity for a few days, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what happened to some folks here in NYC.  We know some people who got hit pretty hard, like WFMU, who got hit very hard by the storm and need some help getting back on their feet.

But in a way, it was…ironic, I guess, because a year earlier we had Hurricane Irene, and when that came through we were working on songs for Meat & Bone, and it was predicted to be a terrible storm, and we practiced in a basement on the lower east side a place that was in the flood zone, so there are some songs on this record that were inspired by that storm.

The best example is “Black Mold,” that’s about the storm coming, and trying to get things up off the floor of the basement – and in the process I found a box of old records that had become damp, and these beautiful old records were all mildewed and moldy, so it’s this classic blues song in a sense, of good and bad.

So it’s just ironic that when we were writing we had one, and when we released the material, we get another. But yeah, Sandy was the real deal.

So the names you drop on Black Mold…

Yeah, it’s literally a list I was keeping while checking trough that box of destroyed records.

On the LP as a format, what’s your take on music these days being dominated by less-tangible formats.  Is releasing digitally helpful or a hindrance? Is the instantaneous nature of music something that dilutes previous channels?

You know, I’ve heard people say that it’s incredibly empowering, that it’s kind of true punk rock , because it’s one thing to have an independent record label, but now anyone can release anything at any time. Also, (laughs) I know some people think it’s opened the flood gates for a wealth of very bad music.

But I don’t spend a lot of time trolling the internet for music, so I may not be the best person to ask. I’m an old guy! I mean, the way I find out about music and listen to it is pretty old fashioned

But in a way though, we’ve hit a point where consuming music is swinging back to that other side where the kids are trolling through boxes of records, the pickers if you will, to find music they may have not heard. 

Yeah, that’s nice to see, but what’s important to remember is that the LP isn’t something that was handed down like the Ten Commandments – meaning the way that music is distributed and consumed has always been changing. So it’s always been in flux, and I may have a preference for one format, but that doesn’t make the other formats necessarily bad.

So does format make a difference to how you approach a record?

Well yeah, and when we make a record we go in to make an album. But, (laughs) it’s not like we have rules – the songs should definitely be able to stand alone, but they should also be able to work as a whole, to make a piece of art that’s different than that of the pieces. We put a lot of effort into the sequence and the way everything flows together, I mean, down to the packaging, so it works as a whole. So yeah, we set out to record an album…and that’s what we do.

Speaking of recording, were the sessions for R.L. Burnside’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey as weird as they sounded?

Well, some of that “weirdness” was done in the mix. The Ass Pocket session took place in one afternoon, and you know, R.L. was a very funny guy, and we toured with him quite a bit. And when you’re on tour, you do a lot of sitting around, and R.L. liked to tell jokes, and stories, so after a while, we started asking him to come on stage and tell some of them while we accompanied with music.

So eventually, we were asked to come make an album with him, in what was basically a hunting lodge, in the middle of nowhere, and there had been an ice storm the day before, and we were driving through these dead fields, that were covered in a layer of ice, so it looked very strange, and when we got to this “studio”, there was no heat, and they had built a big fire in the fireplace, and the “studio” was just equipment that had been trucked in by the label.

So yeah, it was strange. We were in this little bitty place in the middle of nowhere. It looked weird, it was cold – and to have these NYC punk rockers in the middle of a frozen southern field…it was odd.

But it was also intentionally in the mix by Jim Waters, who we did Extra Width, Orange, and Now I Got Worry. He really tried to push the sound and the mix, since the session was just one big, day-long recording. And I really love what he did with that record.

Well it was one of the first “blues records” I ever purchased…

Well I don’t know if you can really call it a “blues record,” I suppose you could, but really caught some heat over that, because some purists thought we were corrupting R.L., trying to make him something he wasn’t, and I guess, yeah, we were playing on it and inserting some of our stupid kind of noise, but that’s who R.L. was, (laughs) he liked telling those stories…he was always telling those jokes.

And hopefully yeah, him playing those shows with us was a gateway drug for a new generation to discover those hill country musicians, but it wasn’t our intention to give the American youth a lesson, we just loved his music and wanted to play with him.

While we’re on collaborations, tell me about working with Elliott Smith for Plastic Fang. How did that happen. 

Well, (laughs) for a while there, Elliott was just kind of, hanging out.  He seemed to always just magically be around. And it just happened to be at a time we needed some melodic backing vocals, so Elliott came by one day to record his parts, and did a few songs with us, and one that we recorded was a version of The Beatles “Yer Blues,” with Elliott singing and playing bass, which, if you’re familiar with that song — is a pretty heavy song.  Shortly after that, Elliott passed away, so now we have this tape that we’ll never release because the song took on this whole new weird light, but it’s this great version from this deeply troubled, but remarkable musician.

So, he’s on a lot of stuff from the New York City sessions, and then we went to LA and spent three days in his studio, which had an incredible collection of gear. He invited us to just come jam, and work with him, and he was sorta…courting us, and he was like “I want to make a record with you guys, and I want you to be my band” and we were up for that, so we would arrive at the studio and we would just kinda sit around outside the studio and wait for him for long periods of time, so it wasn’t a very productive trip…but he was a sweet guy and just an incredible musician, but just dealing with a lot of problems.

But it’s funny because just last night Russell Simmons and I were talking about this, and after the tragedy of Elliott killing himself, there were a few books that came out, and one of them, (laughs) attacks us saying that we were a bad influence for him, saying “how could they have alcohol in the dressing room when Elliott was there!” And I thought that was just incredibly unfair, since the author knew nothing about the relationship between Elliott Smith and the Blues Explosion.

So, we’ve been painted as devils for corrupting R.L. Burnside, as well as for fucking things up for Elliott Smith.

So The Blues Explosion are the bad kids of the music industry. 

(laughs) I guess so.

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