The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion release their first album in eight years, Meat And Bone on 17 September, but what have the trio been up to: hiatus, holiday, split or something else entirely? To solve the conundrum there was only one man to turn to, Mr Jon Spencer himself (right), and in this week’s Q&a he tells us all about the new record, how the band’s reissue series influenced their new songs, why he’s calling out “crappy bands” and more.
How the devil are you?
“I’m good thanks. I’m in Spain, you know the people who won the soccer?”
You’re huge in Spain aren’t you? The crowd at your 2011 Primavera Sound performance was massive…
“Really? That’s nice. I don’t know about huge, but we’ve done pretty good in Spain. The people are really nice. I really don’t know though. We didn’t play for many years, we took a long break, so for me I’m trying to figure out if the people are coming to see us just because they grew up with us and are more our age, or is it people who have never seen the band before? I remember that gig been a nice show.”
Right, well before we talk about the new album – and you’ve touched on it there – can you tell us where The Blues Explosion has been for the last few years?
“Well our last proper studio album, Damage, was 2004 and we toured for a good year after that, but after that personally I wanted to take a break. I was interested in doing something else so that’s what I did. I started a band called Heavy Trash to play rockabilly, a kind of music of always loved. So I made three albums with them, did a lot of touring. Then in 2007 we did the Blues Explosion’s Jukebox compilation and that sparked some interest and we got a bunch of nice festival offers in Europe, so we thought, Why not? So we went and found out we could do it, and more importantly we enjoyed it, so we started doing more. In 2010 we had that exhaustive reissue project and so we just kept playing. Doing the re-issues and going back through the history of the group was a big influence on us: how we write songs today and the way we went about making the new album.”
You were your own influence?
“We were inspired by somewhat by what we’d done before. This wasn’t something we talked about, we don’t really talk much about theses things in the band, we just go and do it. Now it’s done looking at it I think that’s what happened.”
Going back to before 2007, did you ever think the Blues Explosion might not return?
“Sure, but I think that’s just my basic nature. I’m always worrying!”
You never contemplated getting a day job?
“Erm, no. I can’t say it’s never crossed my mind to do something completely different, but there’s something that’s got a hook in me. I’m not letting go and it’s not letting me go, so I’m still compelled to play rock’n’roll and to get up on the stage and act like fool.”
What was your reaction when the offer to reissue the albums came through?
“Well we own everything, all the rights had come back to us. I’m proud of those records and I wanted to make them available again. It was something I wanted to do but we just something we hadn’t been moving on. Then we had a label that were keen to do it and that lit the fire under my arse.”
It’s a funny stage to reach in your career though.
“Oh, it was totally weird! I really didn’t want to do it, which why I was dragging my feet. I was the guy dragging out the tapes and remastering them, it was a big project and not really my idea of a fun time, I’d much rather be writing a new song, but once I rolled up my sleeves and got to it, it kind of took over my life.”
There must have been some nice moments when you come across something you’ve forgotten about?
“For sure, there were definitely things I’d forgotten about. I think the fact that it was old material and so much time had passed it was almost like I was curating someone else’s work.”
Did you learn anything new about yourself?
“Yeah, I guess I heard some songs in a new way, some I’d forgotten about… Did I learn anything? That we were really busy! We really did a lot of work. For most of those reissues, there’s two or three album’s worth of material there. We were really hellbent. It was a strange thing to do. It might have been better if someone else had done it, but I’m too much of a control freak.”
And now you have a new album coming out you can remaster in ten years time, Meat & Bone. How was the recording process?
“It was just us, no guests, no superstar DJs. I think getting our nose rubbed in our own past did influence us, plus maybe because we’re a little bit more sure of ourselves because we’re a little bit more… well, we are old! We’re getting older, but it flowed a bit more. We didn’t second guess things too much.”
Is that why there were no guests?
“I think so. The band has always been about the chemistry of the three of us and it couldn’t exist with other people. In the past where we’ve had guests I can hear it in my head: We need a piano player, I know my limitations so who can we get to do it for us? Or we’ve encountered someone on the road and that’s resulted in a studio collaboration. For this record, that voice wasn’t in my head.”
So there was plenty of space for some spontaneous things to happen this time?
“I think that’s always been the case. [laughs] We’ve never really make a plan or talk about what kind of art are we going to make or how we’re going to paint our masterpiece. We do stuff, then afterwards go, Oh that happened.”
It was must be a unique experience to not have to speak to a fellow musician yet both know where you’re going?
“It is a special thing. I’m very lucky to be able to play with two such great musicians as Judah [Bauer] and Russell [Simins].”
In terms of writing the record, did the three of you have something in mind you want to tackle?
“There’s some kind of old man crankiness on the record. A couple of songs are calling people out, because I think it’s the same way now as when the band started: there’s a lot of crappy bands out there, a lot of people doing things, calling it rock’n’roll but I don’t think it’s rock’n’roll. The Blues Explosion has always been trying to promote what I believe is true about rock’n’roll and what it should be. I hope there’s enough humour in it though so I don’t sound like an old man screaming: Get off my lawn!”
Listening to the album it does feel very much in the moment. There’s a lot of energy energy there.
“Pretty much everything we’ve done in the studio starts with a performance. It’s not a concert but we track the basics together playing live, and Meat And Bone was very much that way. We’ve done some adventurous stuff in the studio, some crazy production work but this is more traditional and more old fashioned – old fashioned in the sense we used a lot of old equipment. The way we made the record was probably current for 1979! It was also old fashioned in the sense of The Blues Explosion. We went in a did our thing. In some ways we felt like we were making our first album.”
A lot of artists who return after a break come back more serious or sombre because it’s legacy time. In a good way, this album is not that.
“Oh no, we love to make a racket!”
Looking more widely, for the last couple of years people have been predicting the end of guitar music. As someone who is standing up for rock’n’roll, what’s your take on it? Has the guitar age passed in the same way the jazz age did?
“Well I’ve lived through it before back in 95, when The Chemical Brothers were very popular. You guys were saying that all back then! The interesting thing is I always felt The Chemical Brothers were popular because they were trying to play rock’n’roll in a sense. The electronic music that seemed to break out was always the most rock.”
Sounds like you’re enjoying life in a supposedly dying artform?
“Well, I could have made a better career choice! But sometimes I feel like the choice wasn’t mine.”
And how do you feel about the current rock scene, particularly if you’re calling out “crappy bands”?
“Sometimes I feel it’s not that different from 20 years ago or when I was a kid. There’s a lot of dreadful music. It’s not surprising, what’s popular is popular because it’s bland in some ways. That said there’s always cool people doing good things, you just have to dig for it… or do it yourself! That’s what I did.”
How do you feel about the prominence of the blues, garage sound at the moment. Is that good for you?
“I don’t know, we’ll see. I think the main difference between the Blues Explosion and a lot of these other cats, is that the other bands they’re safe, they’re straight. The Blues Explosion have always been more of a punk band, we’re more crazy, there’s an element of confrontation to what we do. Rock’n’roll is a very strange kind of music, it’s a bizarre thing and that’s hard to find. That’s what’s missing in a lot of stuff.”
For more head to Thejonspencerbluesexplosion.com. The Q&a is taking a little break next week because of the Bank Holiday, but will return in two week’s time on 5 September.