FOREWORD: The first time I saw Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, they played a brilliant two-hour set at CBGB’s. I had to piss halfway through but waited ‘til conclusion because I was pressed up against the right-hand speaker and could barely move. But that’s the kind of crazed adventure it is to watch these venerable Blues-punk denizens. I spoke to Spencer, second guitarist Judah Bauer, and drummer Russell Simins at Matador’s downtown New York office. Spencer was there first, so I got some tidy quotes off the rather shy front man. Then, the real fun started when his two co-conspirators showed up all loosey goosey. A sold-out Irving Plaza show followed a week later, where I hooked up with the trio backstage for some friendly debauchery afterwards. ‘04s Damaged, under the shortened moniker, Blues Explosion, was the last recorded outing for the threesome, as of ’09.
Currently, Spencer’s married to Boss Hog vocalist, Cristina Martinez. His ’05 side-project, Heavy Trash, benefited from eager spontaneity. Bauer backed Cat Power on an ’06 tour. And Simins was last seen at Bowery Ballroom in ’08 backing pre-teen brother-sister punk novelty, Tiny Masters Of Today. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
First and foremost, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s unbeatable live shows bring back the crazed excitement and frenzied sexuality of post-World War II Blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Furthermore, skinny, jet black-haired frontman Jon Spencer’s gyrating pelvis and swiveling hips mutate early rocker Elvis Presley with Rhythm & Blues sensation James Brown. Finally, his spindly guitar mannerisms and rubber-legged duck walks imitate Chuck Berry and Pete Townshend to a tee.
New Hampshire-raised Spencer first gained ‘80s underground attention with New York scuzz-rockers Pussy Galore, which included Neil Haggerty (before hooking up with guitarist/ heroin chic model Jennifer Herrema as Royal Trux) and Cristina Martinez (Boss Hog leader whom Spencer married). After stints in the Gibson Brothers and Honeymoon Killers, Spencer borrowed the two guitar-one drum approach of raw-boned bluesrockin’ trio Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers and formed the New York-based Blues Explosion with like-minded Wisconsin-raised guitarist Judah Bauer and Long Island-based drummer Russell Simins.
Inspired by the unbridled amateurism of ‘60s garage rock compilation, Back From The Grave, ‘92s developmental Crypt Style! put this experimental blues-wracked combo on the map and ‘93s funkier Extra Width expanded their scope. But these deconstructive neo-Blues minimalists truly hit stride on ‘94s hip-hop-flavored Orange. From the Elvis-stoked title track and the soulful retro-fashion workout “Bellbottoms” to the name-checking boogie-shuffled chant “Sweat,” its rip-roaring appeal found an eager audience soon to be knocked out by the primitive Southern Blues of Fat Possum Records’ septuagenarians R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and T-Model Ford.
One-off collaborations with Burnside and renowned funk soul brother Rufus Thomas (on the Stax-derived “Chicken Dog”) helped make ‘96s rural Blues-fried Now I Got Worry JSBX’s heaviest, hardest hitting set yet. Offering a more refined approach, ‘98s techno-infiltrated Acme (with additional remixes extracted for the arguably better Xtra Acme USA) depleted the scruffy shagginess of its predecessors for more structured uniformity. (Remix fans should check out indie rocker Calvin Johnson’s ancillary Dub Narcotic Sound System Meets JSBX)
With their sleazy gutbucket ‘rawk’ still intact, ‘02s Plastic Fang chills with more consistent, persistent thrills. Spencer’s love of monster movies and scary beasts inform the demonic “Killer Wolf,” the blustery “Midnight Creep,” and the whiskey-bent “Down In The Beast” (where the ghosts of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Howlin’ Wolf meet Captain Beefheart in the backwoods). The wankering fuzz-distortion of “Shakin’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Tonight” recalls Keith Richards’ Exile On Main Street rhythm guitar work while “Over & Over” re-visits Chuck Berry circa ‘57. Big Easy pianist Dr. John and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell punctuate the juke joint ditty “Hold On” and Spencer’s theremin blurts complement the icy “Point Of View.” Capturing Plastic Fang’s spontaneous energy and exhilarating performances was veteran producer Steve Jordan.
Last time I caught JSBX live was at CBGB’s around ’97. There was a line around the block waiting for tickets and then you proceeded to play for two straight hours. How’s the show changed?
JON: We just go out and do it and things happen on their own. The live show evolves in its own way. We’re playing all these new songs live for a year now.
How do you transform from a low key, shy guy off-stage to such a sexually gyrating extrovert on-stage?
JON: I don’t know. It’s crazy and puzzling. I’m sure it has something to do with where I’m from.
Did the thick, bushy moustache and beard you had last year influence the werewolf alter ego of Plastic Fang?
JON: Monsters and horror movies have always fascinated me. It’s fun for me. (At this point, Judah Bauer walks in and starts reading a copy of this publication)
What made you decide to work with a full-time producer for the first time?
JON: Steve Jordan, the producer, and Don Smith, who recorded and mixed it, are more traditional mainstream guys. They did a great job and are largely responsible for the way it sounds. We had a great time making Plastic Fang. It was hard work, but a pleasant experience. We were lucky to use really cool old equipment. Most vocals were done using incredibly rare, valuable, expensive microphones. We’re students of music and these producers showed us some of what goes on in the recording studio and how records are made. We just hit it off. It was nice to entrust someone else. They made small changes to a couple song arrangements.
Your vocals sound cleaner and more up-front.
JON: Don spent a lot of time with the vocals, going through specific syllables and words. For him to be able to hear the entire story was crucial. We had 19 songs, but mixed 17. We left some of those out so the album wouldn’t be super-long.
What influences affect your guitar playing, Judah?
JUDAH: I like the influence of open-string Delta Blues, like John Lee Hooker.
Besides JSBX, are there any current bands exploring the blues through rock music you enjoy?
JUDAH: There’s a bunch of bands influenced by the Blues. How ‘bout the White Stripes – one guitar and drums. The North Mississippi All-Stars are great Blues-influenced rockers. (The somewhat tardy Russell Simins now enters)
Is JSBX appreciated as much Down South where the Blues originated?
JUDAH: There’s a rock circuit we play. I don’t know if the small juke joints exist anymore. People down there don’t have the affinity for the Blues anymore. There’s more people up North into the Blues now. The kids Down South are now into hip-hop.
RUSSELL: I’m into DJ Shadow’s Brain Freeze with Cut Chemist. It was a series of cut-up 45’s with amazing funk and R & B sounds. They sampled these unknown 45’s and took ads like “milk is good for you” and made it sound new, fresh, and vicious.
JON: My favorite period of hip-hop was the early ‘90s with Public Enemy, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, the Geto Boys.
RUSSELL: There’s some great shit now, like Outkast. Their live show is unbelievable. On the Grammy’s, they were fuckin’ great. I also think that new Dead Prez record is cool.
Our conversation then slips into favorite t.v. shows such as The Sopranos, Family Guy, and Greg The Bunny. Then, the New York-based trio head out of Matador’s offices for some photography sessions.