Jon Spencer is a deep thinker. He also wears denim pants that look a lot like leather. When he talks about the Blues Explosion’s first studio album in eight years, Meat & Bone, he refers to part of what the album signifies is about the aging process and acquiring knowledge. “It’s about time and age and about growing old, we go through this world and gain some wisdom, we learn a lot, but at the same time your body is slowly decaying and falling apart. That’s one of the cruel tricks, this great irony. You gain some grace and wisdom but your body is dying. That is kind of a theme for some of the songs of the album and that’s also part of the reason why I chose the album title. It’s the cover imagery that is underneath everything which is tied to the physical machine and is the very real representation on the cover. ”
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has been making music for over 21 years. From the outset, they are fortunate enough to have total, creative control over everything that they do. Meat and Bone is testament to this punk ethos, and was produced by Jon Spencer with his stalwart band members; drummer Russell Simmins, and guitarist Judah Bauer, creating the sound of the record.
A glance at the cover art of a menacing carcass would have Vegans running for the hills, but despite the meat-centric appearance Jon doesn’t want us to take the image literally. He explains: “I’m certainly not trying to make a big statement about meat. Please don’t misunderstand my intention by looking at the cover art. The cover of Meat and Bone was chosen because it reflected the very raw nature of music, and also the fact that it’s just the three of us that had made the record. There were no outside musicians, no musical guests, no hiring outside.The sound was conducive to everything else we had done on our own. It was very much back to the basics. No details, no fat, no skin and certainly no clothes. [pullquote]The sound was conducive to everything else we had done on our own. It was very much back to the basics. No details, no fat, no skin and certainly no clothes.[/pullquote]
Meat and Bone was very simple and very basic.” Blues Explosion fans will be very pleased to know that the merchandise on the website features an “exploder”: a distortion pedal that can help the buyer recreate the Blues Explosion sound and an apron, which is completely appropriate if you’re a lover of the humble outdoor Aussie BBQ. The apron is a nice touch. Jon sums it up simply by saying “Everybody needs to eat” and when it comes to meat Jon is a fan of roasted pork cooked in the South American, “carnitas” style.
Furthermore The Blues Explosion is responsible for choosing the very merchandise on the website which makes it all the more special for the buyer. “We pretty much control everything. We’re the Blues Explosion. Nothing happens without our input; we’re a punk band and we believe in doing it for yourself (sic).” The album was produced by Jon Spencer, and his do it yourself philosophy, so one wonders what way that differs compared to other people producing the record. “Sure there’s a difference, but maybe not such a huge difference. Even when the Blues Explosion works with outside producers, be it Steve Jordan or David Holmes, even when we are working with other people, I’m in the control room and I’m always involved in the process. I have a clear idea of how I want the Blues Explosion to be presented and how I want the Blues Explosion record to sound. Nine months ago when we were in the studio making Meat & Bone, it was nice that we did it in such a home grown way and didn’t have anybody else present. We did take a few years off when we were not working with the band and since we’ve come back the feeling has been very good to play again with the Blues Explosion. We’re not under contractual obligation and we do this out of pleasure, which I think it’s a good position to be in. We feel quite confident and quite strong and of course we wanted to make a great record, we wanted to create something. The mood and the feeling in the studio was quite easy going and relaxed”.
Inspiration can come in many forms when making an album, and collaborative efforts are no exception, but for the Blues Explosion it’s less about discussing what they are trying to achieve and more about just getting on with the job of making music. “Each of us were listening to different things. Writing the songs from Meat and Bone and any of our albums we don’t talk about what song we like or what direction we’re trying to go, we just go about and do it. There was some talk about Nick Ray, not that Nick Ray is an influence for the Blues Explosion but certainly Nick Ray’s name was kicked about at one point, I believe.”
When it comes to what inspires Jon’s writing, Jon says pretty much anything be an inspiration. “Anything can do it. It could come from an offhanded remark at practice, or something someone has said. It can come from something that happened to me in present. For example the song “Black Mould” was inspired by a vinyl LP that I had, becoming water damaged. Or something that happened a long time ago, for instance the song “Strange Baby” which was inspired by meeting my wife many years ago”.
Fans and critics alike will draw their own opinion about the sound of the record, but it’s good to hear how Jon Spencer defines the sound of the new album in his own words. “We’re called The Blues Explosion but we are a Rock n Roll band. As far as the sound of Meat & Bone is concerned, it’s quite rock, quite raw, very in your face. We really didn’t have a grand design. We just produced the songs, and we didn’t talk about it at great length. We just wrote the songs and went in and made the album and that’s what we ended up with”.
Contrast this with the manufactured pop music pumped out for the masses and you realise why artists who are self made, like those of the calibre of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are important. Jon adds further, “I think it’s a shame that so often popular music is stagnant in a way. The records that are hits are very popular; they are pretty much the same thing over and over again”.
Part of the Blues Explosion sound is characterised by the use of a theremin, which isn’t your standard run of the mill instrument on stage. I ask Jon what attracted him to the theremin and his relationship with the instrument; “It’s such a strange and exotic instrument. I like to play, but I also think it takes a great skill. I’m not really a proper thereminist. There are people who can play the instrument like a violin. It takes great skill and control. The connection to it is because it produces such a strange sound. It is such a bizarre instrument and also for me it connects to a lot of horror and science fiction films. The Theremin is commonly used as a sound track”.[pullquote]“The way in which I work, the way in which my band mates might relate, other people couldn’t of course, because I’m the lyricist and singer. Most songs are quite personal to me (laughs). The song, “Strange Baby”, that was about the early days of my relationship and meeting my wife, a quite special reason for me and the song that’s basically an instrumental, “Get Your Pants off”, is definitely very strong for me”.[/pullquote]The conversation moves deeper into what song resonates most strongly with Jon on the album. He ponders and offers; “The way in which I work, the way in which my band mates might relate, other people couldn’t of course, because I’m the lyricist and singer. Most songs are quite personal to me (laughs). The song, “Strange Baby”, that was about the early days of my relationship and meeting my wife, a quite special reason for me and the song that’s basically an instrumental, “Get Your Pants off”, is definitely very strong for me”.
On the topic of pants, anyone at the Big Day Out in Melbourne many years ago seeing Jon Spencer in some satin orange pants at the RRR stage, would know he wears them well, but when I ask whether he prefers wearing leather or satin pants on stage, he offers,” Neither. I don’t go for either too much. I don’t know. I sometimes wear pants that are made out of denim that are mistaken for leather, but they’re not leather”.
I had the good fortune of travelling to New York City earlier, while it was snowing, and even in the heart of winter the city was abuzz with activity and life. Given that Jon Spencer has lived in New York City for over 20 years I enquire whether the city and its bands has been an influence on The Blues Explosion Sound. “We’ve been influenced by a great number of bands that have come out of NYC. People like the Silver Apples, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, The New York Dolls, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks and Swans and there also all the fantastic hip hop and rap artists; Public Enemy and Run DMC. We’ve been influenced by a lot of music; a lot of culture, literature, art, visual art, definitely a lot of art in the city has also influenced us. Living here has influenced us as well; it’s big and noisy, very alive and vibrant in some ways. With regard to the city being conducive to being creative, I think so. Sometimes I wonder about that because when I moved here as a young man, the city was a very different place. The character of the city and the neighbourhood, definitely that I lived in at the time, and that I currently live in has changed a lot over the past 27 years, so sometimes I wonder how because I’m an older person now, I wonder what it would be like for a younger person to live in. I do know that it’s a very expansive city to live in and it can be hard to make your art”. To be creative and make a living from it takes great courage.
Being passionate about music I am really moved by artists that have made music their whole life. One such artist, the late Rowland S Howard said that he really listened to music carefully, and the lyrics over and over, and that there were people out there that didn’t even like music. I pose this to Jon Spencer and ask him what music means to him since he’s committed his life to making music and he offers; “Good music can make you very alive and really good music can make you feel something special. Almost like a secret I’m sharing. I think really the best piece of music or the best records can make me feel like you gotta grab the LP or the artist”.
Of interest to many is the distinction between the musician on stage and the man, so I’m curious to know what Jon makes of these personas; “It’s not even a problem. They’re just different sides of who I am. When I’m on stage that’s me, when I’m at home cooking dinner that’s me as well. I’m not one of those people who believe that you have to be on all the time. I believe in punk rock and everything, I also think I’m in a band. My job is to put on a show.”
For a man who grew up in Hanover a small town in New Hampshire, Jon Spencer describes his foray into music at a later stage of his life.”I wasn’t listening to too much music as a kid. I was a late bloomer, so I was 16 or 17. The first records that I got into were The Raincoats, Devo and Kraftwerk. I was really turned off by traditional rock and roll and the electric guitar.”
His early musical choices are a contrast to the Blues Explosion sound, so I wonder what defining artist was an inspiration for him to start a band. “More than anything it wasn’t a popular band like Led Zeppelin or The Stones. Friends that I played with or friends that I kind of knew in hardcore bands I think. That whole hardcore scene, in the early 80’s, had a big impact on me. You could go ahead and make a record. I thought I wanna be in a band. I can do that. It was very empowering.”
Since part of the theme of the album is about growing older and gaining maturity, I’m interested to find out what advice Jon would give his younger self. “It would all be things that I would not discuss. That stuff is private and personal. I would tell myself to relax and enjoy things more. I’m still playing with the Blues Explosion, we’ve just made another record. It all kind of goes by quite quickly. For instance the time we spent with R L Burnside, when we were hanging out with him, making music and his band that’s gone. RL Burnside passed away so, we’ll never have that opportunity again. I’d tell myself to really enjoy it all and relax more, and not worry about getting things done, and hitting the right notes and what not. What the hell. I did really enjoy it. We’ve had an incredible time”.
When I ask Jon about his most vivid memory of Melbourne, favourite is the word Jon prefers to describe his experience. “I’m not sure about vivid, but we were excited the first time we went there. There were a lot of Australian artists. One of my really favourite times, the first time we went to Australia to support Beck on his tour and we had one show we did on our own (I can’t remember the venue, but I’m pretty sure it was in Melbourne) and played with Kim Salmon and the Surrealists . To do that show was such a thrill, such a great night and I’m pretty sure it was Bruce Milne’s 40th birthday. I remember he was tripping, and I thought it was so odd, the guy’s 40 years old. That was a great night”.
First published in Au Review in October 2012