Jon Spencer On The Liberation That Comes With A Stripped-Down Record

It’s difficult to find another band that incorporates every significant era of rock and roll into its arsenal than the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. For a quarter-century, the trio out of New York City has been erupting with electrifying noise; distorting swamp blues; unleashing the primal shrills of 60s punk; channeling the furious Doo-wop; blaring heavy, psychedelic soul; blending hip-hop beats with ’77 punk riffery — the list could go on for several more paragraphs. Hell, it could go on for pages.

The energy and musicianship JSBX is able to squeeze into a two-and-half minute song is freakish. It almost seems effortless. What’s especially impressive is that Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins have continued to raise the bar through dozens of releases (with minimal tools), completely unaffected by trends and fads plaguing the music industry.

The trio is back with a new full-length on Mom & Pop Records entitled Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance PartyAnd as the title suggests, the record is a full-blown party that chronicles the danger, the filth, the beauty and the magic associated with the Big Apple’s changes throughout the past 25 years. But as Spencer explains in our conversation, this isn’t a record about the good ol’ days.

 

When we spoke after the release of Meat and Bone (in 2013), you mentioned that revisiting all of your previous albums through reissues helped shaped the sound of Meat and Bone. Would you agree that Freedom Tower also pulls your previous work into one consistent collection of new songs?
I think whereas Meat+Bone perhaps came out of the big re-issue project and the reexamination of the band’s history, this record came just from more working. So, there’s that difference. We wrote the songs in the same kind of way, but I mean the past wasn’t casting such a large shadow over this record.

Talk a little bit about the New York City theme that runs through the album…
I can’t really point to one specific incident, I don’t have a good story of “…and then that’s how!” The songs are written over the course of several days, or weeks, and I think the New York City theme became clear to me–or I became aware of it–after the fact, later on. It wasn’t like we set out beforehand to make this a concept record. But, ya know, the Blues Explosion has a been a band for a long time, and in all of those 24 years we’ve lived and worked in New York City. And maybe with this record we sort of stake a claim–or make a claim–for our hometown. Yes, some of the record is about the New York City that used to be around 20 years ago or longer; some of it is about New York City today; and then some of the record is about a New York City that only ever existed in my head or in my heart…my imagination. For me, I was in love with the music scene, the culture, and also the city — you know, the Lower East Side. There was some romance to the decay and the fact that it was a little dangerous …. But it’s important to know that it’s not just the city that has changed, I’ve changed as well. I came here 30 years ago, so I’m a very different person now. I’d like to note that in no way is Freedom Tower meant to be a nostalgia trip, I’m not interested in turning back the hand of the clock.

 

The song “Crosstown Hop” seems to be a great example of you guys doing what you’re known for — and that is injecting so much into a song with so few resources-
[Laughs] What do you mean by that?!

It’s a very, sort of, primitive setup. I feel like there is always so much going on in your songs-
I think that we’ve always been punk in that sense, you know, we have a limited power. There are only three of us, just two guitars and the drums. I think a lot of our music is working with the spaces between the notes, the blank spaces, the negative space …. The whole record is pretty stripped-down, there are no guests at all, it’s just us …. It was done with intention and was probably the reason we went to Daptone [House Of Soul] — they’re a studio that is renown for making great-sounding records in a very simple way, you know, old school, true to life, hears an honest to goodness live working band playing a song on the studio floor …. It can be liberating if you get rid of some options.

On that note, something you guys have done your whole career has been to get a really thick, low-end sound without having a bass. Was there a particular artist or band that steered you in that direction or was it just out of necessity?
There are tons of bands that I could cite that have great low-end, great bass — it’s not like the Blues Explosion has something against the bass. These are just instruments that happen to work for us and that we had in our hands when we started the band. For Freedom Tower, a lot of credit [for the low-end] should go to the guy who mixed it, Alap Momin. Alap has a studio up in Harlem and he was part of the underground rap group Dälek. And, Alap is not only obsessed with the bass, but with all the frequencies across the board [laughs] …. Even though we were working with these old-fashioned recordings done at Daptone–and it’s this garage-punk band bashing away at these songs–we would get in there and really surgically pull out certain sounds, certain frequencies to make things more clear, to make it so it would be a record that when you turn it up it would feel full and loud but wouldn’t be harsh and unpleasant …. Historically, for the bass sound of the Blues Explosion, credit is due to Jim Waters, the guy we worked with in the ’90s when we did Extra Width, Orange, Now I Got Worry.  Jim was instrumental on helping us achieve a fuller sound.

2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival - Day 1

(Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella)

When I saw there was a song on the record called “The Ballad of Joe Buck,” I was really hoping for a some sort of slam on the broadcaster Joe Buck, but-

Who is the broadcaster Joe Buck? I am not familiar.

Oh, he’s just this annoying talking head on Fox who is infamous for being dull…but, clearly the song is not about him.
No, the song is about Tim Warren who founded and runs Crypt Records. And, Joe Buck is a reference to the character from Midnight Cowboy.

Speaking of Tim Warren, have you heard any of the new installments of the Back from the Grave collection?
Yeah, [Volume] 9 and [Volume] 10 are great. He continues to do amazing work.

Outside of the Blues Explosion, after this tour, do you have any plans with Boss Hog or any of your other projects?
Boss Hog is currently working on another album. We’ve tracked the songs, we just gotta mix them. It’s great, we got a whole album [worth of material], we just have to find the money and time to finish it up. [Laughs] Any rich entrepreneurs reading this who want to bankroll a Boss Hog record, get in touch.

Chris Coyle

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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays an all-ages show at the Crocodile on Thursday, May 14 with We Are Hex. Tickets can be purchased here.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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