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Jon Spencer of the Blues Explosion: My Life in 10 Songs

From Pussy Galore to ‘Freedom Tower,’ the combustible blues-punker looks back

Jon Spencer

Jon Spencer performs in London on May 9th, 2014.

Robin Little/Redferns/Getty

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.

Jon Spencer

Jon Spencer performs in London on May 9th, 2014.

Robin Little/Redferns/Getty

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, “Talk About the Blues” (1998)

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.

Jon Spencer

Jon Spencer performs in London on May 9th, 2014.

Robin Little/Redferns/Getty

Blues Explosion, “Hot Gossip” feat. Chuck D (2004)

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.

Jon Spencer

Jon Spencer performs in London on May 9th, 2014.

Robin Little/Redferns/Getty

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, “Do the Get Down” (2015)

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.

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