Indie rock veteran Jon Spencer has been a busy man since reuniting with the Blues Explosion last year for a world tour in support of new reissues of their six acclaimed albums. Rolling Stone caught up with the rocker to chat about revisiting his body of work, his progress in putting together a brand new record with the Blues Explosion, and his rockabilly side project Heavy Trash.
You’ve been incredibly active lately.
When we put out the back catalog, we started to tour a lot, all over the world. That wound up with a really insane schedule this summer, which saw us playing shows in four different continents, and two or three a week, so we were really traveling a lot of miles. But we had some very, very nice shows and during all that time, we’ve been slowly writing songs. I think it was inevitable that if we got back together and started playing again, we would start writing songs and for me, that will always be my favorite part of a show, the new material.
We started talking about potentially going to the studio and recording some of the songs back in January, I think, and we did go to the studio in Australia to record a song for a television advertisement. We did a cover of “Black Betty” for Volkswagen, for a Beetle ad that aired during the Super Bowl. So, you know, we kind of proved to ourselves that we could still cut it on the concert stage, then we proved that we could work under pressure and get some good work done in the recording studio. So every small step, we’ve made it at least in my mind a real possibility that the Blues Explosion could go in and try for a session in the studio.
We’ve stopped touring now, our last dates were the end of summer, and since that time we’ve just been down in our basement in the Lower East Side chipping away at these songs and woodshedding. We have this show at Maxwell’s [in Hoboken, New Jersey] next week, then after that we’re going out to a studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan called the Key Club and we’re gonna see what happens.
What’s the new material like?
It’s still coming together and the way we’re playing a song now could inevitably change, and what we do with it in the studio that’s a whole different variable in the equation, but a lot of the material seems to be quite, I don’t know, aggressive. It seems a bit like we’ve gotten back to some of the aggression, the confrontational nature of the earlier material. It’s not as crazy as the stuff we did in the first two or three years, but there seems to be a little flavor of that.
We don’t ever really discuss things as a band. We do write as a band, we get together in a room and play and a song can happen, and then at a certain point there might be some certain analysis or discussion and we’ll tinker with structure and composition, but really songs just sort of happen. They just come out.
The whole process of doing these reissues, that was a project I was very closely involved with, I did the whole thing basically. It took over my life for a few months, it was a huge process. Certainly for me, I don’t feel as close to those old records anymore. It’s now almost as if I’ve been working on another band’s catalog. It’s been a few years. Bearing all that, I think there’s been an influence on the kinds of songs we’ve been writing. I think it has, in some way, freed us up. There was a time where there was a sense of pressure to maybe come up with a hit, and now I just think we’re comfortable doing our own thing.
When you got back together again to play new shows, what songs did you gravitate towards?
There’s certain songs that people like to hear, and then there’s certain songs that we just like to play. There’s a handful or two of no-brainers and easy picks. After that, there were quite a few songs that became dislodged through this reissue series, but that all sort of seemed to happen anyway. We’d go back to an old thing and rework an old song. There were things which we hadn’t played for many years, or had never really played live. Then there were some songs whose arrangements were totally changed. A good example is the song, “Bellbottoms,” on the reissue from the album Orange. I found a rough mix. At some point, I guess the song was even longer. There was a whole section that we ditched, edited and cut out and abandoned. And when we were preparing the reissue, I found a rough mix of this whole end section of the song. We began to then work out a live arrangement and adapted that to our concert. So for the past year, we’ve been playing that version most nights.
How do people respond to the band now versus back in the Nineties?
It’s not like fire has been invented in the meantime. It’s still a rock and roll concert and people are still going to rock and roll concerts for the same reason they were 10 or 20 years ago. It’s really not that different. Possibly, and again it could just be rose colored glasses, but I think some of the concerts back then were way more crazy and over the top and I’m not just talking about what was happening on stage, but what the audiences would get up to. But no, there’s not a huge difference. You know, this isn’t the first time the Blues Explosion laid down our guns for a period of time. We’ve taken breaks before, and I’m always surprised at how easy it is to fall back into it.
So tell us about Heavy Trash. How does that work differently for you?
I rarely write by myself so the main difference between the Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash is I’m writing with a different person. For Blues Explosion, I write with Judah [Bauer] and Russell [Simins]. I write with Matt Verta-Ray with Heavy Trash. So, that makes for different kinds of songs. Other than that, yeah, Heavy Trash is a more traditional band in many ways. Really, the reason for starting the band was to play rockabilly. We don’t strictly play rockabilly, but that’s what started us off.
When do you expect these new records to be ready?
You know, I don’t know. I gotta be honest. I was reluctant to even speak to you today because I don’t want to be blabbing about oh, ‘we’re doing this and that,’ and if it doesn’t come together the way I hope… So I’m a bit shy about shooting my mouth off. I don’t know. We’re doing this on our own. We’ve saved up money from concerts that we’ve played and it’s really just, we’ve always been an independent band, a punk band in that sense, and that’s true to this day so we’re gonna make whatever kind of record we want to make. With Blues Explosion, we’ll definitely just do our thing. I’m not trying to put a deadline on it or anything. Here’s another example of the difference in being in this band in 2011 and say, 1991 or 1995. I think we’re doing good work. It’s enjoyable. I feel compelled to do it. There’s a fire in my bones. But you know, I’m an older man now. I understand that when the record is ready, it’ll be ready.