Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
“The heart of how rock and roll works” : Best Fit speaks to Jon Spencer

“The heart of how rock and roll works” : Best Fit speaks to Jon Spencer

10 September 2012, 14:55

Jon Spencer is not as he appears. Nor is his band. At least, never for very long, anyway. His band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which formed and operates out of New York, is much more than just some pig-brained, whiskey-soaked bar-blues band, contrary to the name. A name which Spencer might not identify with these days as much as he once did: “The name of the band can get confusing, but we’re a rock and roll band.”

“Hounddog Taylor & the HouseRockers was a real favorite of ours in the early days,” Spencer begins, describing his formative influences. “They were based in Chicago made a bunch of records for the Alligator label in the 70s. It was a similar lineup as the Blues Explosion: there were two guitar players and a drummer.”

“And they were a really great band and a big inspiration, but other that we were into things like: Rocket from the Tombs, and the Velvet Underground, and the Electric Eels, and a lot of rap, Otis Redding… a lot of different things.”

What united the band, more than the topicality of any single genre was their common love for buying records and seeing shows as fans themselves. Which is exactly what put Spencer on stage.

“Before I lived in NYC, when I was still at university, I got to a point where I was just such a big fan of different bands and records and so in love with it that I pretty much decided I want to do that, I want to play in a band. So I started a band.”

He first played drums for a band called Shithaus – one which Spencer fails to call his own, and certainly wasn’t a product of his own vision – but his first ‘real’ band was called Pussy Galore. After that band dismantled, Spencer met a drummer (Russel Simmins) via a band Spencer was hanging out with at the time called the Honeymoon Killers. That drummer brought in another guitarist (Judah Bauer), and all the ingredients for a musical big bang – or a ‘Blues Explosion’ – were set.

While Spencer is certainly adamant about keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, his regard for the past and past experiences can’t help but call attention to themselves in everything he does; for example, the studio art and film classes he took at Brown University in Rhode Island lend themselves directly to the visual art he contributes to each album cover, in addition to the sonic art contained within. Having designed every cover but the last two, he says: “Definitely what I’ve learned over the years, what I learned in college, I’ve used in the production of record jackets. I guess designing a record jacket for me… feels more like playing in a band. Well, I’m so into the Velvets, or the Stooges, or Public Enemy, and I want to make a record. Also I get inspired by other great record jackets.”

The new album Meat and Bone maintains that visual quality, evident in song titles like ‘Black Mold’ or that graphic hunk of meat that sits atop the cover. And in keeping true to the band’s history, it also serves as its own landmark in honor of that continuing history. “This album is definitely a product of an older band,” says Spencer. “We’ve been playing together for twenty years and after all that time there’s a lot of experience and, I guess you could call it wisdom. It was a source of strength for us when we made this record. We felt confident in a way, I think with age and the passage of time. You can’t take it away from the physical body we are all tied to and trapped inside, and those things, they just wear down after time. The way in which we make music has always been very physical. Putting out a good concert, putting on a good live show, is extremely important to us. It’s one of the most important things about this band. That’s a very intense physical endeavor.”

It’s certainly one thing to sit back and admire a tattoo, and it’s another to understand the pain endured without which that work of art wouldn’t be possible. Spencer recounts some of the passion he endured so that it could also be enjoyed:

“For many years, I worked day jobs. But music was my passion. I never set myself up in a situation where whether or not I could make music, play in a band, release a record, or go play in a concert was predicated on somebody else. I always paid for things myself, or we paid for it from the money we made from concerts. I’ve always been fiercely independent. Never been beholden to any label. Any decision we made has been on our own. It’s very much punk in that way. Very much D.I.Y.”

And as humility should come endemically to those with humble origins, Spencer counts himself as no exception.

“We always worked really hard, and yeah we had some success. We were lucky in that way. We’re lucky we can continue to play in this band and people are interested in what we’re doing. And we can make some money off of it.”


On that road to success, Spencer has had the opportunity, by some means or another, to work with musicians like Beck and Nancy Sinatra. But those collaborations were very much in accordance with Spencer’s autonomous streak.

“Most of the time collaborations will happen in a sort of casual way. The only thing I would like to stress: it’s not some outside force, like some record label or something saying ‘oh, you gotta to go work with Beck.’ If we worked with Beck, or GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, or David Holmes, or did a concert with R.L. Burnside or Andre Williams – it’s because we wanted to do it. It’s because these were artists or musicians whose work we enjoyed and were interested in collaborating with and experimenting.”

Which collaboration did he find most fun?

“I don’t know about ‘most fun,’ but the biggest impact on us was the time we spent with R.L Burnside. And perhaps also the time we spent with R.L Burnside was also the most fun . We played concerts, played some songs together on stage at the end of gigs – we also spent a lot of time just hanging out; there’s a lot of dead time when you’re touring.”

Now, fending in a musical landscape dominated by Twitter, Youtube, and song remixes, how does Spencer adapt? Only he knows how. He admits, “I’m not a kid anymore; I’m an old man. So the way I relate to things is different then how a 20-year-old would. I’m not as close to things. I’m still busy, still making records, still playing lots of concerts, I continue to work. I guess I have to adapt to what’s happening. With this new album, I’m doing a lot of new things I’ve never done before. As far as social media and the way in which records and bands are promoted these days, I can’t say I’m loving all of it, but I’m getting in there and rolling up my sleeves.”

His music is very much reflective of past ideals, but it’s never without careful calculation or an allocation of sheer fondness. And don’t call his music ‘lo-fi,’ whatever you do. Spencer abhors the term, saying, “‘Lo-fi’ to me implies it’s done in a sort of casual fashion, crossed-off, that there’s not any deliberation or thought put into it. It’s very, very hard to hard to achieve a particular result in all our records. There may be a very raw element, but it’s not ‘lo-fi’; it’s extremely deliberate. A lot of our records are very gloriously produced and top-of-the-line, kind of extremely hi-fi.”

And while he himself may be a product of the past, he hates to think he only exists there. Spencer says, “I don’t think we are luddites. I don’t think we are in love with the past. Yes, a lot of my favorite records were recorded in the fifties and sixties perhaps, and I do enjoy working in the studio in a very old-fashioned manner. I do like working with analogue tape. Also, I have no problem using the computer as well or some other form of current-day, modern technology. Basically, it’s whatever serves the song, helps the song come to life, and be realised fully.”

Spencer frequently insists upon his acceptance of present-day technologies, but he admits to still being a devout vinyl-enthusiast -although not as much as he once was. The song ‘Black Mold’ from the forthcoming Meat and Bone album is actually about his record collection being damaged by a water-logged storage space during New York’s Hurricane Irene. In the song, he name-drops the likes of Art Blakey, Little Walter, and Little Richard, amongst others, all of which unfortunately succumbed to the devastating grips of some nasty mould and mildew.

Spencer’s vinyl-mindedness shows up elsewhere as well. “I still buy records,” he says, “and my band makes music available on vinyl. Yeah, I pay bills to the pressing plants… Yes, I very much believe in and do support vinyl.”

With one foot in the past, and another in present day, Spencer constantly strives to make a distinction between himself and who he admires -even when his music might blur that distinction. About his songwriting style, Spencer says, “I’m not consciously thinking, ‘I gotta do this like Iggy,’ or ‘How would Carl Perkins sing this song?’ It’s sort of like with the Rolling Stones: I don’t listen to the Rolling Stones every day. And I don’t think about Mick Jagger, or Keith Richards all the time, but I’ve listened to enough of Rolling Stones that it’s sort of just in me. There’re certain artists and bands which are so ingrained. I wouldn’t say our new album is really influenced by the Stooges. I guess you could say that because the Stooges really changed my life, but it’s not like I was listening to Funhouse everyday when I was writing/mixing this record.”

“It’s not so scientific or methodical. That’s the heart of how rock and roll works. It’s a folk/oral tradition, in a sense; it’s people passing along this music. And rock and roll itself is very much a bastard/amalgamation of other types of American music. It’s this kind of handing down and continual changing.”

Where do the Blues Explosion fit into that equation, an extensive history of piggy-backed musical tradition?

“What we’re doing with the Blues Explosion, we believe very much in rock and roll, we’re creating what we believe is good rock and roll, and trying ultimately to keep this music alive, but… this is not a ‘re-creation.’ We are influenced by a great number of bands, and are total music fans and record geeks, but what we think we do is something new with that. Otherwise, I don’t think the records we made would be any good.”

Meat and Bone is released on 17 September via Bronze Rat Records.

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