Published in Rhythms Magazine, December 2010
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Baby, lemme tell you about the blues. Yeah, you know the blues, but do you really know the blues? Do you know what it can do when you let it loose? Do you know how to make love to it in such a way that it’ll make you scream and writhe like the music itself? C’mon, baby, lemme tell you about the blues. Cos the blues isn’t just 12 bars and a microphone, it’s a feeling and a state of mind. It’s something that makes something else and something else again and you can make it big or you can make it small, you can make it punk and you can take it all. It’s the blues baby, it’s been having sex with the world for a long time, and it’s high time, you got on board...baby.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion captured and corrupted my mind a long time ago. I was in high school at the time and I was young and impressionable, easily led astray, but I liked where it took me and how it made me feel. They made me feel ten feet tall and so I stomped on the terra and made it my own to the sounds of that big bass drum, those scruffy guitars, that manic howl from the depths of the rock n’ roll abyss. I grew my sideburns so they were the same as Jon Spencer’s himself, and I strutted around as they bumped and jostled on my discman, sounds channelled through headphones, straight into the mainline of my brain.
The first time I saw them, I walked from North Carlton to St. Kilda to catch the set, and then home again afterwards. I slept four hours then drove to Meredith to see them again the next night. I saw them again in 2005, a shoving match down the front of the Hi-Fi Bar in Melbourne because this guy thought I was trying to push his girlfriend out of the way but really I just wanted to get closer to the Blues Explosion. I’ve sweated for this band, and they’ve sweated for me. I’ve howled for this band, and by god, they’ve howled for me. For almost 20 years, they shaped my mind and enlarged my brain so’s the bigger, more ungainly blues ideas could be accommodated and they lay my ethos down, threw a ten dollar bill on the bed, and pushed me out of the room. Nothing has been the same since.
“It’s crazy, and I don’t know where the time has gone, it’s funny how it just slips away,” smiles Spencer when I mention that when they’re back here in Australia in January (six years after they were here last), it’ll be nigh on two decades of shimmy-tight blues punk n’ roll. “But it is something to be proud of, and I am proud of it.” JSBX have, over their time, stamped themselves as a cult act - never ones to hit it big, so to speak, but always lurking in the musical shadows, content to do it their own way, a renegade group of musical misfits, the blues their watchword, rock n’ roll their muse.
So it all began in 1991, Spencer coming from Boss Hog (who he still plays with), joining forces with guitarist, Judah Bower (who plays with Cat Power a lot these days) and drummer, Russell Simins. This power trio dropped some of the dirtiest records around: Extra Width in 1993; Orange in 1994; Now I Got Worry in 1996. They’ve a host more under their belt (their latest was Damage, released in 2004), but around the time they were in Australia last, the band decided to call a time-out. At the end of 2005, they stopped for a while, and the future looked a little grim, although as Spencer tells it, The End was never on the cards.
“I think we just wanted a break,” he muses, looking back over the years. “I was interested in making different kinds of music with different kinds of people (most notably, Heavy Trash, with Matt Verta-Ray). We’d been playing for a very long time by that point, I think it was about 14 or 15 years in…I just think it’s nice to take a break and have a bit of a different thing going on, I mean, it wasn’t the end, the band wasn’t dead. I think also, it was a little frustrating - we’re a punk rock band and we’ve always done our own thing, we’ve always made records for ourselves, but it’s always nice to have people like what you do.
“So I think as time went on and the returns began to diminish, that hurt a little bit, especially with Damage, which I think was a really good record,” he says. “So having that feeling that things were passing us by…and to see a lot of other bands who I don’t rate very highly, making a lot of money, it hurts a little bit and makes it harder to do business with other people, especially record labels. So that just seemed like a good time to take a break.”
“Do you wanna get heavy?” he asks, croons, on 1998’s ACME, and it’s a loaded question, one which you must answer correctly in order to move on to the next level, and the level is the level of the blues my friends. The answer of course, is yes, yes you wanna get heavy, because that’s what the Blues Explosion does, they get heavy, and even when they take a break, they’re still heavy, they’re just waiting, doing other things, maturing, gearing up to come back, to slap you in the chops with three chords and a can of beer, they’re not dead, they’re the Blues Explosion, baby.
“We did a compilation of all our Jukebox Singles, The Jukebox Compilation, and when we put that out, we did a brief tour in Europe and a few shows in New York City,” Spencer tells on the band coming back together in mid-2008. “Then after that, we’d get asked to do some gig, and we’d just take it, it just began this very sporadic, intermittent series of gigs, and then around a year ago, I started working in earnest on these re-issues, because all our albums have gone out of print.
“I think it gets easier and easier now,” Spencer goes on when I ask if, when they re-entered the JSBX fold, it was a smooth re-entry, or if there was work needed. “When we played together the first few times back, there was quite a bit of work, but I think the energy and the synergy between the three of us remains, and it’s always a nice feeling to feel that, to know it’s still there, that it hasn’t dried up. But then I think just remembering some of the things takes a bit of work, and more than that, I think it’s also like training for a marathon, we believe very passionately about putting on a good show, we’ve never shied away from the show business part of what we do…we make no bones about the fact that we’re entertainers.”
Entertainers from the depths of the pit some call odd but that I, any many like me, call rock n’ roll heaven. Spencer mentioned the band’s records are now out of print, and as he also mentioned, with the help of Shout Factory, JSBX are re-issuing all their records once more, enjoying now, something of a revival, even though we in the know, knew they never went away. “I think in some ways it is a bit of a revival,” he muses. “From what I’ve seen, people have re-evaluated the band and what the band did, it’s contributions and importance. I think at the same time though, the band is sadly misunderstood by some people.
“And the re-issues themselves, that was our idea, we wanted to have those records made available again,” he continues. “We’d been thinking about doing it on our own, but we got a very nice offer from Shout Factory…so it was our idea, but I don’t think it would have happened in the way that it did without this record label.” JSBX are out there again in all their scruffy glory, laid bare on disc once more, a revival of the rebels, the rebirth of the renegades to be sure, although it’s not all about the records.
“Live is a very, very important part of who we are, it’s the key to understanding the Blues Explosion,” Spencer offers, and he’s right - seeing them up on stage under the lights, in a different place to you and I, doing what they do with a fervour and a chaotic abandon rarely seen in this day and age, not with such focus and intensity, anyway. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are their own entity, and they’re still very, very much alive, very, very much moving forward and you’d best buy the ticket and take the ride, lest you get caught under the wheels, dragged for miles and spat out the back, a tangled, bloody mess, never the same as you were when you began.
To the future, and the question begs, will there be more new material from the band? “We’ve got plans for it, and I don’t wanna jinx anything, but the three of us have talked casually about it, so yeah, we’re messing around with some songs,” he says. “And not only that, but we’ve been messing around with new arrangements of old songs, so we’ll see where it goes, we’ll see what happens.”
Damn, baby, the future is bright, I can see it right in front of my eyes, hallelujah, you know where it goes from here - hot-doggin’, punk n’ roll done in the style of the blues. Because that’s what’s always happened, and what will no doubt continue to happen for many a year yet. It’s the Blues Explosion, baby, and you’d better believe it.
Samuel J. Fell