Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Published Mar 26, 2010The world has been without the Blues Explosion for six years. It's hard to believe, since the sound of Jon Spencer's werewolf howling the name of his band never really left us. This is why the reunion of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (also including drummer Russel Simmins and guitarist Judah Bauer) right now seems so comfortable, yet equally as thrilling. The seminal '90s band rose up through the indie rock ranks as an oddity that presented their own demented, convulsive take on the blues and rock'n'roll. As one of Matador Records' flagship bands, Spencer was given rock god status by his legions of fans, thanks to his electrifying stage presence that often climaxed with his downright dirty exploitation of the Theremin. At the turn of the millennium, the band began to lose a bit of steam, eventually going on to leave Matador and shorten their name to the Blues Explosion. They signed off with one final album, 2004's Damage, and each member went separate ways ― Spencer most famously tasted success as one-half of rockabilly duo Heavy Trash. But the trio are now back with a new compilation called Dirty Shirt and Rock 'N' Roll: The First Ten Years that collects the best of their first decade, which will be followed by reissues of their first five albums. Ringleader Jon Spencer took some time out to fill us in on what we can expect from these reissues, whether the band will play any reunion shows, what's up with his other, other band Boss Hog and pretend that he cares about hockey (he really doesn't!).
Hi. Where are you calling from?
From Toronto? I'm surprised you've got the balls to call me, an American, after what happened last night in Vancouver.
It's not over yet. We can still win the gold.
You've got a point there. Does anybody really care? Was it a big deal?
Our nation was a lot sadder this morning, yeah. Are you a hockey fan?
Nah. I grew up playing hockey and have nephews that are into it but I don't follow the NHL.
Was it at all news that the U.S. beat Canada down there?
I think so, yeah. They were definitely trying to hype the game up beforehand, but it wasn't big news. Hockey is not that popular as far as the professional sports go. Here it's still baseball, football and basketball that people care about here.
It was front page news here...
Well, Canada still has a lot going for it.
When was the last time you were in Canada?
Maybe a couple years? There was a time when I was up in Toronto a lot because Heavy Trash was playing with the Sadies, but that stopped a couple years ago. Heavy Trash is coming up in late April to Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton. As far as the Blues Explosion, it's been a long time.
How did the reissue campaign with Shout Factory come together?
They came to me and said they wanted to do it. It was something they wanted to do and it just worked out. I guess I'd been thinking about doing it but didn't do much about it.
Was there ever any discussion with Matador to do the reissues?
Yeah, I talked to them but they weren't interested.
So tell me what will be reissued. Is it every Blues Explosion record?
No. The first release is this compilation, which covers the first ten years of the band. Then we're gonna do Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro. Controversial Negro was the live album that was only ever released in Japan. Then it's gonna be Year One, which is made is all of the different records that came out during the first year of the band, and Extra Width, which will include Mo' Width. And then Orange followed by Acme. Acme is going to include Extra Acme, and Orange will probably include Experimental Remixes. All the CDs are going to be filled to the brim with extra stuff ― anything that was recorded just before or around the time of the album. And they'll all have booklets with extra liner notes and photos.
Did timing have much to do with the reissues? You did a show last summer...
Yeah, we played a show in New York City, but then we also did a tour of Europe two years ago. For the most part we've been inactive, but the three of us had talked about reissuing the catalogue and putting out a lot of tapes, a lot of material that never came out. There are recordings of live concerts, B-sides and things. With these reissues, some of those things will be added to those albums, but there is still gonna be leftover material. We were talking about doing a whole bootleg series, releasing the material on our own by starting a Blues Explosion label. And we would talk occasionally about performing and about writing, and at some point Shout Factory! came in and offered us the deal. So that sort of got this whole catalogue reissue happening. Like I said, we're gonna be playing some dates here and there in the spring and summer. We'll see how that goes and perhaps we'll play some more shows and so some writing and perhaps do another studio recording.
When you say shows are they going to be select shows or a tour?
We're not going to do a full on tour. In April we're gonna play New York City, in the summer we're going to play the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, Osheaga in Montreal. And so for those two festivals we'll be playing shows leading up to them. Just short little trips. We're working on some other possible dates for the summer and the fall, but not a full tour.
So if you're playing Osheaga, will you play Toronto then?
I don't know. I don't know what the restrictions are for the festival in Montreal. But if we're going all the way up there it would be nice to play Toronto. Toronto is a very nice city.
What made you decide to start the reissues with Now I Got Worry?
I don't know. It may have been my idea, I don't recall. I think I was saying to Shout Factory! that it was one of my favourite albums, there was a lot of stuff that never got a wide release. Some of it was B-sides, but only one track got released in England. There is a lot of great material that some people may have never heard.
After doing these reissues and looking back on your albums, which one do you think holds up best in 2010?
Well, I'm not done yet. Right now I'm just putting the finishing touches and approved the mastering for Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro. There was a lot of work to be done finding the original tapes, and then remastering the material and sequencing all the extras and made sure it all sounded good. Especially with Controversial Negro, which we've fleshed out with a good 20 minutes of material from another show that we recorded in '94 with Jim Waters, who also mixed it. He's our good friend from Tucson, Arizona who also helped me produce the three classic records: Extra Width, Orange and Now I Got Worry. So I've only just finished those and now I'm working on the other masters for Year One and Extra Width. I'm still trying to find missing tapes and some things have to be baked. Some of them can't be played because the analog magnetic recording tape has deteriorated in such a short period of time. So you have to put the tapes in and oven and bake them, literally, at a low temperature it kinda firms them up and you're able to play them again. So I've had to do that for some of the two-track masters and now some of the multi-track tapes. But there are some things where I'm going back and digging up this stuff I'll find track sheets for sessions and there'll be songs that were never mixed and I don't even recognize the titles or what the song is. It's like a puzzle, so I've gotta figure it out. And for all of these albums there are new booklets being created. I have yet to even get into art for Acme.
I wasn't really looking forward to working on the material from the first year, but now that I've spent some time with it I have a newfound respect for it. There were a lot of things we were trying when we started the band that felt so free and open. There is absolutely no baggage and it's really very nice. And I think people who have heard the early releases will be pleased to hear how it sounds now. It sounds a lot better.
What are the plans for the vinyl release? Anything special?
Y'know, right now there isn't going to be a vinyl release. I would like to do vinyl and if it does happen it will be on our own. The band will release the titles online. And if we do release the vinyl it will just be the original packaging and the original program. All this extra stuff is just going to be CD and digital download.
When you make your return will it be the Blues Explosion or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?
It'll be back to the full name, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Good. I like that.
You and your wife Cristina are working on a new Solex album. What can you tell me about that?
It's done... well, most of our work was done a couple years ago. The record was finished maybe a half year ago and it's now just coming out in April on the Bronze Rat label. It's called Solex vs. Cristina Martinez and Jon Spencer. It's a great record and I'm glad it's finally coming out.
How did you guys contribute?
Well, I sort of got to know her over the years through our Matador connection. And I encouraged her to contact Cristina, because she was kinda itching to make a record. So Elisabeth had some songs she wanted to work on. And I got roped into the project, so we went to Amsterdam for three or four days and worked with her at her home studio and started making stuff up. Some songs were from scratch, some were us contributing to songs she already had. We laid out all sorts of stuff in Amsterdam, but then Cristina and I did a bunch of stuff in New York City on our own. Elisa sorted through all of it and mixed it. She really did the lion's share of the work and was the producer for the whole project.
Finally, what's the word on Boss Hog?
We played last year, a couple of short tours, locally and a few dates in Europe. The thing that awakened the beast from its slumber was an invitation to play the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the UK. So we played a few more shows and really enjoyed it, and did a few more including the ATP festival that was in upstate New York last fall. I think we'd like to play more shows, but right now what we really have to do is write and record more material. And it's hard because everyone has different jobs and there's not a lot of free time. So right now I don't think we'll be playing any shows. We're all kind of maxed out working our other jobs. But there might be some action in the future for Boss Hog.