Q&A: Jon Spencer
“The first time I met the blues,” sang Buddy Guy in 1960, “I was walking down through the woods.” The woods where Jon Spencer first met the blues were in western New Hampshire, where he grew up the son of a Dartmouth-professor father and a medical-technician mother. In 1985, Spencer dropped out of Brown University and started Pussy Galore, a group that sounded like the punk house band for a Sixties horror film. After Pussy Galore broke up in 1990, he formed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins. A rock & roll band devoted to rockabilly, R&B and punk, the Blues Explosion play the blues the way Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix did — brutal and loud, reducing the music’s precise rhythmic logic to its barest electronic essentials. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please put your hands together for the only living link between the Mississippi blues of R.L. Burnside, the Staten Island hip-hop of Wu-Tang clan and the L.A. bizarrerie of “Weird Al” Yankovic … Mr. Jon Spencer.
Pussy Galore were a punk band. What attracted you to the blues when that was over?
You know, with Pussy Galore, one of the prime motivators was Sixties garage punk, and those were bands that were imitating the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds or the Kinks. And those groups — a lot of that was imitating Chess artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry. So there was always a thread there.
I liked the Cramps, I liked the Gun Club, Panther Burns, and those bands had some blues in what they were doing. But the year stint I did with the Gibson Bros — Jeff Evans and Don Howland’s band — that turned me on to a lot of stuff. They were a Columbus, Ohio, group that was playing a really messy version of rockabilly and blues, country style. I played with them when one of their guitar players left, in 1990 or ’91, and Jeff and Don would both make mix tapes for me — it was a good education. So it wasn’t until after Pussy Galore that I really started listening to a lot more of the source.
When the Blues Explosion started, the real big thing was Hound Dog Taylor. That was something that Don Howland turned me onto.
Who else did you listen to?
Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Elmore James, Slim Harpo, Howlin’ Wolf.
What do you hear in that music?
The stuff I like is the really weird stuff, the stuff where you can hear an individual in there, somebody different. The thing is, when I was still in Pussy Galore, if somebody was talking about blues music, it was like, “Why the fuck listen to the blues? Ick.” And I think it’s still pretty much true today — what most people hear of the blues, it’s kind of dull. What I like is something that has a stamp of personality. And also if it’s got a nasty sound, I like that, too.
So you’re not much interested in what’s going on in the blues today?
No. But blues today is probably just as bad as rock & roll. Most blues is just awful. Most rock & roll is just awful.
There’s not enough individuality. It’s trying to conform to some kind of standard — trying to be something that sells.
How did you learn to play the guitar?
I didn’t play guitar until college. My first guitar — I think I traded something for it. I don’t remember what, but I got it off a friend of mine in college, freshman or sophomore year. I had a banjo when I was growing up.
What made you want to play banjo?
I think maybe it was Steve Martin. I studied for a while when I was a kid, but I didn’t stick with it for that long. When I moved to New York City, I sold the banjo for money. I wish I still had it, though. But the way I play guitar is very simple. A lot of it is just from trying to figure out stuff from records. So I’m self-taught.
What records did you play along to?
Link Wray, mainly. If I had a guitar hero, he would be it.
Are you comfortable being thought of as a blues artist?
I’d rather be known as a rock & roller. I mean, we don’t really play blues.
How would you describe it?
It’s the exact opposite of Mississippi Fred McDowell. He’d always say, “I do not play no rock & roll.” He had a record called that, too.
When’s the last time you had the blues?
I don’t know how to answer that. Most of the time I’m fretting about something or I’m upset about something. I don’t think to call it “the blues,” though.
So you just call it anxiety?
Yeah. You know, I’m white. That’s what I call it.
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