The primal bellow of the The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is unmistakable. For over 20 years, the band has blazed a path uniquely and entirely their own, pioneering an inimitable, cacophonous, and burly blend of punk and blues. Though the band decided to take a break after 2004′s Damage, it wasn’t long before lead singer/guitarist Jon Spencer, drummer Russell Simins, and guitarist Judah Bauer were back together writing and recording again. The result of the last few years is Meat and Bone, a classic return to form for the New York three–piece. We recently caught up with Spencer to talk about the changing face of rock ‘n’ roll promotion, social media, and why the passage of time plays a big thematic role on the new record.
OS: After your recent hiatus, what spurred you, Judah, and Russell to start writing together again?
JS: Playing concerts again. That’s what did it. In 2007, the label In The Red put out a compilation of a bunch of singles that we had done for them over the years. So, after that there was something of a renewed interest in The Blues Explosion, and in summer 2008 me and Judah and Russell figured, “Well why not take a few shows?” We went over to Europe and played a few festivals and enjoyed doing it, so we kept playing and took more concerts. About a year and a half ago we began writing songs and thinking about making an album. That followed along naturally, quite organically, out of the return to playing live and touring.
OS: And you’ve gone back to formally using your own name in the band’s title instead of just calling it The Blues Explosion, as you did on your 2004 album “Damage”
JS: Yeah, well in 2010 we did all the reissues. We put out everything, and really I mean everything, that we did in the first ten years of the band. When those reissues came out, we didn’t rewrite history. Those are under the full proper name of the band, so when we made this new album we just stuck with it. Since we began playing live again in 2008, it’s been with the full, proper name of the group. I think the spirit and the intentions were good when we officially adopted the nickname Blues Explosion, but it ultimately just proved confusing to a lot of people. I’m not trying to suck up to anybody. That’s always what I’ve said onstage and it’s the name that I’ve shouted. It is important that people understand that The Blues Explosion is very much a collaboration. It’s a product of the three people in this band and I don’t think it would work any other way.
OS: How would you compare the process of writing the new album to writing Damage?
JS: On the surface, I suppose it’s the same. We get together and we play. We write together, the three of us. At the time of Damage, Russell had a studio in Chelsea in New York City, so we were doing most of our practicing there. We spent hours and hours, days and days, over many, many weeks writing and throwing out ideas and recording. There was this huge pool of songs, maybe 50 songs. Some of them we really finished. There is probably at least another couple albums worth of material from Damage. We used some of those rough experimental and exploratory recordings on Damage. Most of the songs, though, we recut and did them for real at another studio. With this record, we were just in our old practice space. Russell’s studio is gone now. We’re back in our basement in the East Village. It was more focused. With Damage, we were switching instruments and playing different instruments. We also had guests coming and sitting in with us while we were writing and feeling things out. With Meat and Bone, it’s very much old-school in the sense that each of us is playing what we’ve always played. Russell on drums and Judah and I on guitar. There is less feeling around. With Damage, we were sort of throwing things at the wall and seeing what stuck, but with Meat and Bone, we were just writing rock ‘n’ roll songs. We took a lot of inspiration from the reissues that were put out in 2010. I was kind of reacquainting myself with some of what we had done. It was empowering. It’s not only that we took some strengths from our history and past, but that some wisdom came along.
OS: You guys have a super cool-looking preorder package that contains something called the Exploder, which looks like a guitar pedal. Can you tell us more about that?
JS: It’s kind of a cross between—well I guess it’s a toy [laughs]. But, it can be used to make some, I guess, music. It can certainly be used to make some noise. I’ll be honest, we’re still working on the thing. We’re still waiting to test out a prototype. It should be a cool thing. Mom + Pop, our U.S. label, had done something similar with another one of their bands, Neon Indian. They worked with this company called Bleep Labs down in Austin, Texas. Our friends at Mom + Pop suggested that we do something with them for the bundles for Meat and Bone and they put me in touch with the guys down at Bleep Labs, and he and I came up with this Blues Exploder. I’m not doing any of the construction. I’m more of the idea person.
OS: And there’s an apron in the package as well…
JS: Yes, there’s an apron, and there’s a very nice original poster done by Malleus, these wonderful poster makers from Italy who have done stuff for us over the years. There’s a bunch of different cool things. One of the things that’s been interesting for me with Meat and Bone has been that it’s kind of a different bag putting out and promoting a record today than it was last time when we did it back in 2004. There are things like these pre-order bundles and direct to consumer packages. Social media is a huge thing.
OS: How do you feel about using those social media tools to promote the band?
JS: Well, I’m old so it’s not really my bad, but I’m trying to get hip. I’m trying to document what’s been going on with the band and put out the stuff—I guess for fans—you know, I can’t quite keep it up daily. It’s hard if we’re not on tour. If I don’t see Judah and Russell, I don’t want to take photos of my cat. It’s also that if I’m into a band, it’s not like I really want to know what they’re doing everyday or what they’re having for breakfast or what they think about eating eggs. It’s just a different sort of thing. I’m trying to do some of it, and not get in over my head, and to keep a little bit of privacy around who we are.
OS: How are you going to approach your live shows on the upcoming tour? Some past performances of yours have been notoriously raucous…
JS: We’ll still do the same thing we always do. It’s still something we enjoy doing and something we believe in. We’re entertainers and we try to go out and play a great, exciting concert at every show. It’s just going to be the three of us; there are no guest musicians; there’s no fancy stage show. It’s just going to be bare bones and in your face. Of course, we’ll be focusing on the new material.
OS: Will you’ll also be playing older tunes as well?
JS: Yeah, I totally understand that there are some people coming to see us that would like to hear a song from this or that old record. People want to hear their favorites and I have no problem with that. We always try to mix it up. We never use a setlist. We try to respond to what’s going on onstage or in the room at any particular moment at every show. It’s common for us to reinterpret songs or to change arrangements. It’s something that helps keep it fresh for us, because we’re students of people like James Brown, so we’re taking lessons from those great masters.
OS: Have there been instances of you calling a song live which has either gone awry or made the group have to improvise in ways that you didn’t foresee?
JS: We spend a lot of time preparing for shows so that no matter what I call, we can hit it. It’s like training for a boxing match or running a marathon: you can’t really roll out of bed and do it. You have to get ready to do it, and you have to prepare. So, of course there have been times when, for many different reasons, something goes wrong onstage, but we just try to keep going and roll from it.
OS: You guys have a huge back catalogue, but you’re still writing new material even after 20 years. Where do you find inspiration nowadays?
JS: Records I’m currently listening to, records I’ve listened to in the past 30 years. I think that more and more as I get older, it’s less about what record I’m really loving at the moment, or what band I saw that really knocked me out. As the years go by it’s really more about me and what’s going on in non-musical or non-artistic things. It’s more about life and things other than music.
OS: Would you say that there’s more personal life put into your newer material, then?
JS: It’s always been a very personal project, The Blues Explosion. I am the lyricist and I’m the singer, and I understand that at times my lyrics can be quite oblique, and the way in which I perform and the way that some of the records are mixed may not make it that easy for others to discern meaning from our songs, but for me it’s always been very personal. I don’t think that has changed too much. It’s hard to explain. I don’t think that we could have made Meat and Bone ten or fifteen years ago. It’s part of what’s going on, since a big factor in this album is the fact that we have been a band for so long and have played together for more than 20 years. And it’s not just the fact that we’ve been doing this together for a long time. We have that experience. But it’s also that we’re not kids anymore. We have also aged and gone through a lot in 20 years. So there’s all of that experience for each member of the group that comes into play. This is a record where we’ve gotten back to our basics as a return to form. It’s just the three of us, there are no guests, and we made the record ourselves. I don’t think this would have been possible a few years ago. All of the years, the wisdom, and the age is a factor. It also ties into themes of the album. There are some songs about time and age.
OS: Being an elder statesman of the blues/punk style, what’s your opinion of younger bands like The Black Keys following in your artistic footsteps?
JS: I think what’s weird is, honestly, getting asked about it. I don’t really feel much affinity for those other groups, but people try to put me in the same shoebox. I can sort of understand it because there are sort of superficial similarities. You know, I think it just gets sort of weird. Honestly, every interviewer asks me about like, The White Stripes. You know, Jack White has nothing to do with the way in which The Blues Explosion works. He’s not really a factor in any way whatsoever in the way we write our songs. I have nothing against him. I’m not trying to bring him down. It just starts to freak me out after a while. I guess I feel weird about it. Of course, maybe sometimes I feel envy. The Blues Explosion has always done what we’ve wanted to do. We’re fiercely independent. We’ve always done our own thing. But it’s also nice that people like what you do, and I’m not an elitist. Sometimes perhaps I wish that I were making millions of dollars, but we have been very very lucky to do this: to make this crazy noise and have people still interested in hearing it.
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