For 30 years, rock & roll powder keg Jon Spencer has been a flailing, wailing presence in the American underground: from the transgressive noise clang of Pussy Galore to the high-octane avant-blues of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, from Boss Hog's major label dirt-groove to Heavy Trash's rockabilly rumble. Once again — alongside drummer Russell Simins and guitarist Judah Bauer — his most acclaimed band, the JSBX, is returning with their 10th album, the Gotham-ist Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015 (which you can still hear in its entirety before its March 24th release date). We caught up with Spencer to ask about some of his most well-regarded recordings.
Pussy Galore was a band I started with my friend Julie Cafritz. We left, dropped out of Brown. I guess we're still technically on leave? We weren't really playing hardcore, but we were definitely influenced by the scene. Hardcore was my real university. How I learned about putting on a show, putting out a record, booking your own show.
We did the first two records at Barrett Jones' home studio, the Laundry Room, in the living room of a suburban house in Virginia. That first Pussy Galore EP, Feel Good About Your Body, we'd never been in a studio before, didn't know anything about it. We jumped into the deep end and we tried to swim.
That song, Julie's reading from letters section of Maximumrockandroll. Most letters in Maximumrockandroll, they were just these people complaining so bitterly about "the scene." How things weren't being done correctly or what wasn't right about it: It's kind of ludicrous because this is basically an offshoot of punk-rock which was, to me, this free, anarchic thing. . .I think Pussy Galore was definitely trying to knock things down a peg. How did it become so self-important? But also, Pussy Galore was also anti- kind of everything. We were very, very angry and also sort of confused people. I think we were also kicking against the local scene, the Dischord scene. We make a half-hearted jab against them on the artwork on the single. We didn't know those people, it was sort of a bratty move. But that was all part of what we were doing. I now have a great respect for the Dischord label.
We were genuinely angry people and wanted to throw that anger to other people. But I think also we had a sense of humor. With "Cunt Tease" it's, in some ways, a totally ridiculous song. It's turning inside-out the stereotypical bravado of Sixties rock & roll, and all of rock & roll.
It was me using a cool riff from a band I had played in before. I was in another band when I was at Brown — and that band, for a little while, was called Pussy Galore. It was a straight up garage band. I don't know what words were to that song before, but it was basically the same song, the heart of that riff — thats why it was credited to me and [Buster Ludd]. Julie's part, I think [she] improvised it in the studio. I think she's just over there screaming in the background when I'm doing my vocal take
By that time we had Neil Hagerty who was a amazing guitar player. I think we didn't own a tuner when we moved to New York City. We just kinda tuned to each other.
Extra Width we recorded down in Memphis. We were obsessed not just with Stax but also Sun, so we made the pilgrimage and we tracked down at Easley Studios. I'd worked at Sun before, I did a Gibson Brothers record there. That was kind of a bummer, that whole session. You're basically paying for the room. It's not like they have any of the old cool mics or board or tape machines there. So I wasn't really interested in going and working at one of the famous old places.
I think "Afro" came out of [a] discussion of Stax. And also from listening to Otis [Redding] and Rufus [Thomas]. A lot of people have talked to me about the guitar solo on that record. My engineer, Jay Braun, says that's his reference for what a good volume should be for a guitar solo. It's not even a guitar, it's an old Juno synthesizer.
Things changed a little bit [after 1994's Orange], but we were just always nose-to-the-grindstone. We were working, and working very hard, making the records we wanted to make and touring. I'd like to think that if we got over, it was just through hard work and sweat and playing and turning people on. Yeah, things changed, but it's not like I was given keys to the city or the record label bought us Cadillacs or that I got a dinner invitation from Eric Clapton or something.
"Bellbottoms" was originally twice as long, there was this whole end section that was cut out of the record. The string section was just something I had heard and wanted to do. A buddy of mine knew a cellist and a violinist, so I hummed this part to my buddy, he made some sheet music and then we got the two string players in and had them play it twice so it sounded a little bit bigger.
The remix record was sort of a natural extension of the influence and love of rap and hip-hop. The Beastie Boys were very nice and took us out as a support act for a few weeks. It was the Roots, the Blues Explosion and the Beasties Boys. The Roots had just released their first record, and they had only like a 20-minute slot or something.
I think with all those remixes, we sent the tapes out to people and just tried to encourage everybody to just do whatever they wanted to do. Fuck it up however they wanted to do it. Some of the things I got back I had to do a little extra work to edit. Maybe I overstepped a line there, but it was my record, so fuck 'em!
When we were working on Orange, Blues Explosion was kind of popular, and we had been courted by a bunch of different labels, and I just wasn't interested at all. I wanted to remain independent. It wasn't like, "Hey yeah, buy us this lobster or fly us out here" because most of the time I was just like, "No thanks." But Boss Hog, Cristina [Martinez, bandmate and wife], she was game. So Boss Hog signed to Geffen, to DGC. When Cristina and I went out to do that deal in Los Angeles, "Loser" may have been a hit and Beck, in all his interviews, or some of them, would talk about how much he loved Pussy Galore. I got his number from somebody from Geffen. I hit him up, he said, yeah sure, I'll call you back in about 30 minutes.
[For the original version], we got a Radio Shack suction-cup microphone, put it up to the phone and called him back and said, "OK, we're just gonna play the song really loud in the control room." Beck freestyled and I think that's his first take. You can hear me at the end of it saying, "Yeah that was great."
We asked for a certain type of agreement. Of course, it was still a major-label agreement, but we were able to do what we wanted to do. They left us alone in the studio. I mean you can listen to that record, it's pretty funky. Funky in sort of a homemade way, it's not super polished or pro. We were careful, we read the contract, we knew what was going on.
When we were being wooed by Geffen, Cristina and I actually went in and had a meeting with David Geffen. I remember asking him something like, "So what do you think about a particular Sonic Youth song?" And David Geffen was very honest. I think he said something like, "You know, I couldn't tell you about that song, but I trust that these other. . ." He seemed like a straight-shooter.
It wasn't bad working with Geffen. It was not a bad experience, and I'm generally not a big fan of the music industry. We're talking two, three years post-Nirvana. That was like the gold rush. And as much as I resented all that, because that was the death of it all, and I'm a person that came out of the American underground and Nirvana and that success fucked everything up and ruined it. . .I think there were people that got in and got out unscathed. Melvins were one, Boss Hog was one, we're around today making a new record.
One of the Australian stations had a program called Rage that would go all night, and they would show videos. And then they had a program called Recovery that was on Saturday morning or Sunday morning, I guess. It was more like a talk show, and they would have segments about this and that and they would have bands. So we do the song — and this was not rehearsed — I think something clicked in my head like "fuck it" and I went off. And Judah and Russell just stayed with me. And God bless the Australian Broadcasting Company. It wasn't like anybody came in screaming, "Shut this down," or got yelled at afterward.
What's funny is like two years ago, we had a video for the song "Bag of Bones," directed by a young woman named Lucy Dyson. She's Australian, and she was actually working on the program at the time and was going to do some cooking demonstration. When I was talking to her about making this video, she said, "You know we've sort of met before. . .I was there when you did Recovery and if you watch the clip, at one point you run into me. I'm over by the stove on the kitchen set."
I never really felt like I was the "theremin guy." The only time I ever really felt good about it when there was a film, Theremin, which is a great documentary. And i went to see it at the Cinema Village. . .and went to buy the tickets, and in the lobby they had a big poster for Orange which has a line drawing of the Moog Vanguard that I used to play. That was the one time I felt like, "oh cool!" I think the theremin is a beautiful instrument but maybe sometimes I feel a little sheepish because I'm playing it in a very wrong way. I don't think Leon Theremin would approve.
I guess it was related to Rolling Stone. It was spurned on from an interview I did with Joe Levy, who was some guy I knew because we used to work together at Details. Rolling Stone was doing a blues issue, so I did an interview with him for the blues issue. And the interview went fine, but beforehand I got really nervous and worked myself up and that song was written from that anxiety or tension.
At that time we were also starting to get dogged by questions of authenticity and our right to do whatever we were doing. And I think it probably would not have happened if the band had been named anything else. People got tripped up. So that song is commenting on or about all that sort of stuff.
We did that one with [Dan the] Automator. And that's using some stuff we recorded with Calvin Johnson. Calvin wanted to do a trade. He said, I'll do a remix if you guys do a session for me. So the next time we were touring the Northwest we left two days or something, three days free, stayed in Olympia and recorded with Calvin. This was when Dub Narcotic was in his house. We just spent two or three days banging around and out of that came the Sideways Soul record on K. But then he graciously allowed us to take some of those recordings. So, "Talk About the Blues" is a sampled from a riff recorded at the old Dub Narcotic studio I basically just played the sampler and just improvised the lyrics. I did a demo on my own like that and then Dan the Automator took it. He basically just took it and beefed it up and made it powerful.
I love the video for that. Now everybody and their fucking mother does the funny video and does the celebrity cameo video. I'm fuckin sick to death of [it]. But if you look at that, that's us back it what was that '98? What a great fake band! Winona Ryder, John C. Reilly and Giovanni Ribisi.
Working with Chuck D. Who would have thought? What a sweet guy, what a nice guy. At that time Russell Simins had a studio on West 28th St., I think it was. It was in the Flower District, which is no longer even the Flower District. But he had a studio, it was on the 15th floor or something and from one of the windows you could see the Empire State Building. Damage [from 2004] was written there and there's a lost album between [2002's] Plastic Fang and Damage. And we're gonna try to put this out. We always call it "the black album." A tribute to Prince's Black Album. We wrote tons and tons of stuff and it was a proper studio, so it was all being recorded
You know, it's one of the few overtly political songs [in the JSBX catalog]. This was after 9/11, we are a New York band we are residents of New York City. That song was coming out of a great frustration and horror, not so much with the events of September 11th, but with seeing how the rest of the country. . . You know this was something that happened to us, in a way. That morning I was taking my son to school. I'm on the M14 bus going crosstown and looking down 6th Ave, you could see fire. The first plane had just hit so it was something that was very, very personal to all of us in the band. And then to see how things went down following that and the ways in which the government and this country used something. . .Maybe this is entirely naïve or I'm oversimplifying it, but I was in the middle of this thing. We all lived through this you know, and it felt so bad to see all this wrong done afterwards, in our name.
I had had the title Dance Party in my head for months, and then one morning it kind of hit me: I don't even think they use the term "Freedom Tower" anymore. They kind of backed away from it. But that seemed to be a very apt title for this record and what it's about. . . I mean, who would have thought there'd be a hole in the ground for how many years was it? That it took that long, it's just shameful. So, the new record turned out to be very New York-centric. A theme emerged and it was something that kind of happened, organically. When I sequenced the album I purposefully went for the songs which worked together on this theme. I lived in New York City for 29 years or something, I've lived here most of my life — and I still don't really feel like "a New Yorker," but at this point, fuck it. I'm gonna claim something.