From the GC Archives: An Interview with Jon Spencer

From the GC Archives: An Interview with Jon Spencer

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017
INTERVIEW

Originally appeared April 2015

I’m sitting on a couch backstage at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston on a rainy spring day with Jon Spencer next to me while he looks at my record collection. They happen to be Blues Explosion records and now that I’ve finished interviewing him and I asked him to sign a couple records (What can I say? That side comes out of me sometimes). He’s taking his time looking at them. Almost as if he’s rediscovering them. I know I was going to have this opportunity to sit down with him and since Jon Spencer is a person whose music I’ve been listening to for such a long time, and someone who’s ethics as a musician I highly respect, I somehow felt inclined to show off my record collection to him. So of course, I pulled the rare and out of print stuff off my record shelf for this occasion. Almost as if I was trying to say, “Hey, this isn’t some pushover interviewing you. I’m a legit fan. You made the right choice agreeing to do this.”

 

As he’s looking through them he get to the Plastic Fang LP, probably the loudest record in the Blues Explosion catalog, and most definitely the most intricately designed package, out of print for years now. Spencer’s eyes widen when he sees it, and he pulls it out of the sleeve and inspects it.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m just getting caught up looking at this record. It’s the one we haven’t reissued yet. Some of the songs here, I’m not so sure about…”

 

I’m shocked to hear him say this. Not only is Plastic Fang one of my favorites records ever (probably the most consistently good the band has sounded on a recording), but after having what I thought was just an average interview, Spencer is just now starting to open to me. Maybe it’s because I acted like a nervous ass during the interview, or maybe it’s only after seeing my record collection that he’s starting to trust me?

 

“It’s my favorite one!” I tell him

 

So we gladly spend the next couple minutes talking about records, the artwork and Chip Kidd’s involvement, and some unknown details about their live recordings. We’re talking like two human beings and he’s finally opening up, and it’s too late for me to turn the tape recorder back on.

 

Though I probably failed to make an impression on the man, he sure left an impression on me. Being a musician is not an easy thing, and Jon Spencer has most certainly done this for a long time and done it his way. Although he wouldn’t exactly tell me his life story, he most definitely made it clear that he’s had a very straightforward approach to making music throughout the years. Fueled by DIY ethics that he got from hardcore punk, he’s left his mark on modern music and done it his way. The man doesn’t think about why he does the things he does. He just goes out and does it.

 

 

I’ve been listening to your music since the 90s and I’ve always had this impression of you of being purely music-fueled person: you record albums, you go on the road, you do it all over again. What do you actually do in your free time? Do you ever actually have down time?

 

Oh sure, yes, some. I spend a lot of my non music making time is spent managing the band, looking at the business affairs, making sure everything’s OK. But that’s not free time, you asked me what I do in my free time. I like to see a movie, I go to the cinema. Watching TV is nice. Hanging out with friends. I can’t say that I have a hobby; I don’t build model airplaines anymore.

 

But you used to?

 

A long time ago, when I was little, yeah. I loved to build classic model planes. I like to read, yeah. Right now I’m reading Raymond Carver.

 

You said that you learned a lot from hardcore and punk rock music like the DIY ethics and you consider yourself punks.  

 

Hence all the time managing all the business affairs. In the sence of the self-reliance and responsabilities and DIY part, yeah. And we owe great debt to and take influence from punk rock.

 

 

And that influenced your starting Pussy Galore and making music now?

 

Oh totally. I started Pussy Galore with Julia Cafritz after kicking around a couple years playing in different bands. I wasn’t playing hardcore music, but we played with hardcore bands. And it was an important lesson that you can do it for yourself, you didn’t have to wait for somebody to hand you a gold ticket. If you wanted to make a record, you could make a record. You’d have to work a job to make some money to make a record, but that way you could make any kind of record you wanted to make. If you wanted to put on a show, you could put on a show. You’d have to work hard and roll your sleeves up. There’s responsibility there. But, I didn’t wait for a handout, I tried to do it for yourself.

 

Have DIY ethics that made it easier or harder to make records now than maybe say 20 years ago?

 

I don’t think much has changed. We’ve always made the kind of record we wanted to make. Most of the time we make the record ourselves and say to the record company, here’s the album we finished, would you like to license it?

 

But now you can record the music and put it out online and not through a label.

 

Everyone talks about it being a brand new day and a brave new world, the record industry has changed. Now you can record a record in your bedroom and put it online. It’s not new for me. If you want to make a record you can make a record and put it out there. There was no internet, but you could make your own record and put it out there. Yes, the mechanics and delivery system is different, but the idea, the model of freedom has always been available to those who were interested.

 

 

You spoke years ago about there being tons of Blues Explosion demos and live recordings that you might want to put out as a bootleg series. Is that still somewhere in the horizon?

 

Yeah, we should get going on it, because we’re out touring now [laughs]. It’d be good to have that stuff with us for interested people.

 

There are even Meat and Bone songs that were recorded and never got used, right? Same for Freedom Tower?

 

Yes!

 

 

You talked a lot in interviews about the Blues Explosion reissues that it’s been an important thing in the band’s career to be careful with your band’s material and always be in control of it, which has worked out great for you. Are there any decisions in the Blues Explosion’s career that looking back on it, you regret?

 

Oh sure. We recorded something for a television program, a small cable program today. I remember thinking it was 2 or 3 o clock, and wishing we hadn’t have done it.

 

The Anthony Bourdain thing?

 

Oh, no no. It’s a local thing called Boston Talk Radio, it’s for a cable network. It’ll be available online, it’s this new music program. I’m always prone to second guess my actions and my decisions.

 

Throughout your career, you’ve always been part of projects, like with the Blues Explosion of course and Boss Hog, and Heavy Trash. Have you ever considered doing a solo project? Considering your music history, I don’t even know what that would sound like.

 

I’ve definitely thought about it, but I like to collaborate with people. It’s why I was drawn to making music, it’s to work with people. It’s not just me by myself. Maybe the closest I ever came was, I made a record with the Dickenson brothers, it was called Spencer Dickinson, I think that was around 2000. It was a spur of the moment project. I went down there with a lot of ideas and sketches for songs. There’s a lot of me on that record, and it’s an interesting record. I like to write with other people. Occasionally by myself, but mostly with other people.

 

You said you put a lot of effort into the packaging of your records, like Orange was released on silver vinyl, Plastic Fang came in a packaging like old novelty toys and actual plastic fangs, and Damage kind of looked like a book of matches. Has unique packaging that fits the theme of an album been a work of joy or burden?

 

More joy than burden. Some of both. As someone who stays a fan and a record buyer, I like a nice looking package.

 

And Meat and Bone was supposed to come out with a special distortion pedal. Did that ever happen?

 

That was part of an incentive to get people to preorder our record directly as a bundle. It was the premium bundle package. There were approximately a hundred of these things made. It was a sampler and distortion pedal. It was a little too ambitious. The guy who was going to make them, he bit off more than he could chew. I designed this with him, I didn’t do any of the electronics. But it proved to be too difficult to make, so it took him much longer to make these things, months and months, so people were very unhappy [laughs]. They ordered these things and it said August, but they didn’t get them until March. Then there were other problems, with company doing the selling and shipping. Then they oversold the product, they said there were going to be 100 and they sold 120, so there some people who never got one. I wouldn’t say that that was part of the album package proper.

 

You have one of my favorite music quotes which is that rock and roll is supposed to be weird and kind of scary. That hits at the heart of good music should be to me. As someone who has been in music such a long time, do you remember a time when mainstream music was more boring and safe than it is now?

 

It was boring and safe when I was a kid and it’s pretty boring and safe now that I’m an adult. Rock and roll didn’t have any interest for me. I think there were some things on AM radio in the Summer time, like what was that Cher song? Half Breed? But as far as serious rock music, it was terrible, or I thought it bland. When I got older, 16 and 17, I got into what’s called new wave and I was mostly interested in bands that used synthesizer, I was really interested in electronics. There was a music column in Heavy Metal magazine and I learned a lot about some bands there.

 

I grew up in a small New England town, and this was before the internet. The local record store would carry some stuff, you know? You’d kind of hear about a punk rock band or new wave band, but it wasn’t easy to get [laughs]. It would be like these weird little stories you’d pass around.

 

 

You start of the new record Freedom Tower by saying you’ve got to pay respect to those who came before you. If you could pinpoint one record by another artist or band that serves as the perfect appetizer for the Blues Explosion, what would it be?

 

Pffff!

 

I always thought maybe the Stooges’ Funhouse

 

Yeah, but it you want to pick a New York band, the New York Dolls, the Ramones… The one that pops in my head is Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions.

 

What’s your favorite JSBX music video?

 

I’m quite happy with the ones we’ve done for this record. We’ve done two and they’re very different. A guy named Even Bernard did a video for the song Talk About The Blues and that’s areally a good one. That’s where you had actors, my contribution was to say I want actors to play the band. I mean hey Wynona Rider at the time she was very famous. It’s an incredible cast. I never met any of those people. They filmed it in Los Angeles. The director just did it.

 

 

Finally, I always like asking bands about this,but what were some of your favorite albums of last year, this year so far, and what have you been listening to lately?

[Pauses] I can’t even remember last year! Sorry! This year – this is not a new record but a record with Carl Perkins and  NRBQ called Boppin the Blues. I don’t listen to much NRBQ but I like Carl Perkins. I probably got it months or years ago and I finally found the time to listen to it. When I was designing the package for Freedom Tower, I listened to a lot of Dave Dudley who did truck driver songs and that really seemed to fit. Most recently in the van today Russell Simins was playing an album by the comedian Sarah Silverman.

Bloodshot Bill put out an album last year too that’s really good…

I probably have that one. Bill’s great, he’s a true original and one of my favorites. I think he makes good records nothing can beat seeing this guy live. I think he is the greatest living rockabilly. I’ve seen his studio, it’s called Sins I think. His studio is just a basement in his house. He’s using I think Garage Band on his laptop. They don’t sound bad, and they’re made that way and he has an aesthetic, but yeah I’ve always gently encouraged him. He plays bass in Heavy Trash my other band, and my partner in that band has a nice studio in New York City. At times I’m trying to gently encourage Bill to go to a proper studio, and make some recordings. I don’t know if it’s an economics thing. He’s a real song stylist.

Well thank you very much!

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