Photo by Anthony Batista
“Uh … play that ca-ca-cow bell! Ready?
Get yo pants off!” Jon Spencer belts
out at the beginning of the new tune “Get
Your Pants Off.” It’s one of his favorite memories
from the sessions for Meat and Bone,
the first studio effort in eight years from his
namesake Jon Spencer Blues Explosion trio.
On cue, drummer Russell Simins takes the
lead with reckless abandon, throttling his tom-tom
rhythm engine as Spencer and co-guitarist
Judah Bauer rev up the trademark rawness
that’s made them underground heroes for the
last 20-plus years. It feels like the sequel to the
seminal JSBX tune, “Bellbottoms.” But let’s
face it: This is not about pants.
“It’s all about the vibe,” says Bauer.
That vibe—punk-Elvis vocals wailing
over wild-and-free 6-strings flailing within
Simins’ infectiously filthy grooves, sans
bass—is informed by equally dirty and
irresistible influences ranging from ragged
bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Hound
Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers to James
Brown and Public Enemy.
Simins, Spencer, and Bauer came
together in the early ’90s, when power trios
were not uncommon in their native NYC
punk scene. Bauer and Spencer maintain
that the Blues Explosion didn’t pave the
way for bass-less bands like the White
Stripes and the Black Keys that came later
and achieved greater commercial success.
But even so, there’s really no other band
like them in sound or attitude: Spencer—who plays a practically un-intonatable
Zimgar-brand guitar that Bauer says “pretty
much scarred me for life”—is known as
much for his manic street-preacher persona,
lambchop sideburns, and pleather
pants as he is for reverb-soaked yowls and
perpetually fuzzed-out riffs.
So maybe it’s a little bit about the pants.
Spencer and Bauer busy themselves
with so many side projects that it’s easy to
see why it took a while to get this album
out. Spencer has two other bands—Boss
Hog, with his wife, Cristina Martinez,
and garage-rock outfit Pussy Galore. And
Bauer has spent the years between the
last Blues Explosion studio record (2004’s
Damage) gigging with his band 20 Miles
and touring with Cat Power.
But when he’s playing with JSBX,
Bauer likens the experience to a musical
spring training of sorts: There are no
set lists, there are baseball-style cues and
handshakes, and “songs can get truncated
and things can become almost like medley
versions of stuff—so you have to pay
attention.” He adds matter-of-factly, “It
kind of stays at the ceiling.”
Spencer doesn’t deny any of this—in
fact, if you’re even a little familiar with his
raging lo-fi jams, you have to believe he
relishes it. “What we do can be a little wild
and crazy,” he says. “I think the band is a
little confusing for some people, but if you
see us live it makes sense.”
Eight years is a pretty long break—what
happened between 2004’s Damage and
the Meat and Bone sessions?
Jon Spencer: We’d been on break for a few
years, and a compilation of some of our
singles came out on the Jukebox Explosion
compilation in 2007, and after that we
began getting offers for different concerts
and festivals. So we figured, “Why not—let’s try playing some shows.” We enjoyed
it, so we started playing more and returning
to regular live work. Then, in 2010,
we did this very exhaustive reissue program
where we put out six albums from the first
10 years of the band. We were playing and
having a good time and we began writing
songs. It felt quite natural and it fell into
line that we wrote an album and went
back in the studio.
Did the songwriting happen mostly on
the road, or was that just a catalyst to get
back to it when you were on break?
Spencer: There were times when we said,
“Meet at the studio, we’re gonna write,”
but there are other times when we are just
practicing for a tour or a gig—or it might
even be a soundcheck—and a song just
happens. It comes out. It wasn’t until
last spring that we began in earnest to
make a record.
Judah Bauer: There were a bunch of songs
we were playing on the road, but some
were written a while ago that got worked
out live. I think some were outtakes from
the Damage sessions, and the rest we wrote
pretty quick from July through September
[of 2011]. Usually we have tons of extra
stuff—like, enough stuff for two or three
records—but this one was pretty concise.
Jon Spencer plays his legendary Zimgar guitar (bought from a pawnshop by his wife) in dropped-D tuning. He says drummer Russell Simins encourages him to play hard, strong, loud, and rhythmically.
Photo by Frank White
Were these sessions different from previous
records in any way, for example in
the way you guys determine the dynamic
between guitar parts?
Bauer: Everything’s just jamming—whether it’s at soundcheck or in a basement
on Avenue B [in New York City].
Anyone [in the band] can start anything,
so it’s pretty much a collective, musically.
I think this album had the tightest time
schedule of any—I think we had 10 days
in July and 10 days in August to get
songs written. But, in a way, I think having
these pretty tight parameters kind
have influenced the record: It’s kind of
lean, and it’s kind of a return to form. I
definitely spent more time on “Bootcut.”
I spent a week trying to figure that out.
Then there was a lot that was totally
off-the-cuff. Because this band has been
doing that for so long, it was a little easier
to go in and throw things at the wall.
With songs like “Zimgar” and “Black
Thought,” I just kept coming up with
stuff and the engineer was like, “Another
guitar part?” And I was, like, “Yep!”
Spencer: We always work the same way.
We write the songs by just getting together
and playing. The three of us don’t talk
about things, we don’t discuss ideas or concepts
or forms or anything—we just play
the song. They just happen. Of course,
at a certain point there might be editing
and refining and we’ll play around with
the structure a little bit. Russell plays the
drums, Judah plays the guitar, I play the
guitar and I sing. Because I’m the singer,
I’ll tend to lead where the breaks or changes
are and when we go to a chorus or when
we have those major changes. But within
that, each person is kind of doing their
own thing. Over the years, we’ve developed
a sort of language but it’s not really
something we ever discuss. We don’t say,
“Hey, I’m going to do this here down
on the neck, so you go and do this other
thing.” We just do it.
That sounds kind of like true love.
Spencer: [Laughs.] I guess, kind of true
Jon, is “Zimgar,” the last track on the
album, an ode to the guitar your wife
Spencer: Yes, but she bought it for herself.
She was playing in a band called the
Honeymoon Killers at the time, so she used
that guitar. When she left that group, the
guitar was sitting around our apartment
and I picked it up and began to play it.
That’s the guitar I was using when I first
started playing with Judah and Russell.
It has a very distinctive sound, so I stuck
with it. Over the years I’ve gotten a couple
others and they all have their different
personalities, different sounds. Sometimes I
have to get the pickups redone if they don’t
have enough oomph. I’m not sure what
kind of pickups they are—they might be
DeArmond—but I don’t swap them out for
another brand, I just get them rewound.
Is that first Zimgar still alive?
Spencer: Oh yeah, it’s still kickin’.
Bauer: It’s pretty whacked—some people
call it a “stick.” The intonation is really
off, and it’s kind of scarred me as a guitar
player permanently, playing with him
on that guitar. I just automatically bend
pitches up higher on the neck to match
him. I caught myself doing that in Cat
Power and I was like, “Wait a sec—I
don’t need to do that!” [Laughs.] It’s a
habit now. Sometimes I will bend a note
because I’m used to the intonation [on
Spencer’s Zimgar], and sometimes things
are going to sound funky—there’s just
no way around it. Jon will go, “Are you
outta tune?” And I’ll go, “No, I’m not
outta tune, it’s just your guitar.”
Did you play it on that track?
Spencer: I probably did. I mean, I took
two guitars out there [to the studio]: I
took the original old one and I took one
that’s the middle child—I have three that
are in working order.
Bauer: The original has hardly any paint
on it, and it has a very distinctive sound.
None of the other Zimgars sound quite
like that one. We’re not quite sure why.
Various people have said the pickups are
out of phase or that the meter reads different
[when measuring them], but I don’t
know—it’s just a combination of things. To
me it’s the same—I really think it sounds
like a vacuum cleaner or something.
Spencer: It’s just got a different tone. I don’t
know if it came out of the box that way or if
it’s the result of all the years of play, but it definitely
has a little different tone. It’s got a little
bit more of something down low. The bass
is a little bit different—I think it’s the midrange—and also the way the pickups distort.
Photo by Anthony Batista
Jon, what do you have to say about the
whole, “scarred for life” thing?
Spencer: Well, we have very different styles,
and the guitar I use is not what’s considered a
“good” guitar—and certainly it has some issues
with intonation—but it is what it is. I am who
I am, and the way I play is how I play.
“Zimgar” has a really infectious groove
and this deep, bass-line-type sound. How
did you get that?
Spencer: It’s just the sound of the guitar and
the amp—and it’s the way I’m playing it. I
use a dropped-D tuning, but it’s not a slack
tuning. It’s not like I’m using any crazy tuning,
and I’m certainly not using any pedals.
Over the years I’ve learned some tricks for
how to mix things in the studio to help with
the low end. Also, from song to song—and
on “Zimgar”—there’s one section that comes
in towards the end with an organ pedal. But
most of that song, that’s just the guitar.
So Judah, you play most of the clean
leads and solos, and Jon plays the lower,
blown-out guitar parts?
Bauer: We both play solos, but he’s
definitely more fuzzed-out. He goes for a
raunchier sound, which is why I gravitate
toward using the Tele to try to get some
separation in the sound. We both don’t
need to sound like we’re blown up.
Did you play any other guitars on Meat
Bauer: I played one guitar, just one Tele. I
used to have a lot of toys, but now I’m using
the one I’ve been using for the last four or
five years, maybe longer. It’s a sunburst Tele
that’s all parts’d together, because I have a
bunch of old guitars but I can’t take them
on the road. So my guitar guy measured and
weighed everything, and basically we got
Fender parts together that fit the same neck
and he sanded things down and refretted it.
Who’s your guitar guy?
Bauer: Imai Guitars [in New York City].
They are genius. It’s a Japanese company,
and my guy there—Norio Imai—knows
everything about guitars, and he knows
what I like. He put that [sunburst Tele]
together, so my ’66 just sits in the closet
now. He’s making me another one, because
it’s getting to the point where I don’t want
to lose this one—because they sound better
the more you play them. I’m just waiting
for an airline to say, “Sorry, we lost your
guitar.” I used to go out with my ’50s guitars
and I didn’t care, but sometimes the
airline would be two or three days behind
me on the road for the whole tour. So now
I don’t take them out on the road anymore.
I just use copies of the original guitars that
we put together with Fender parts.
What amps did you use for these sessions?
Spencer: I was definitely trying different
old amps. I didn’t bring any amps out to
the studio. Bill Skibbe and Jessica Rubbins
[engineers at Key Club studio in Benton
Harbor, Michigan] have a collection of old
instruments, including a bunch of amplifiers.
For me, what I was really drawn to were
a bunch of really nice solid-state amps—a
couple Heathkit amps and a Kustom or
two. Generally, I gravitate towards the
solid-state stuff. Not only do the Heathkits
look really cool because some of them are
from kits, but they sound really cool, too.
Bauer: My main amp is my white ’61
Fender Twin that I’ve had forever. I didn’t
use it on the record, though, because in
the studio I don’t like using really loud
amps—I usually use smaller amps. I have a
’61 or ’62 Magnatone 412 that I like a lot,
and then a ’59 tweed Deluxe that sounds a
lot better because I put in a 150-watt JBL
speaker—because someone told me that
it’s the cleanest country-amp speaker and
I wanted to get a little more out of that.
Hopefully, I get to use the Twin for most
of the shows. I don’t take it to Europe anymore,
though. I used to, but they’re worth
something now—when I got it, they weren’t
JSBX guitarist Judah Bauer digs an unadorned vintage Telecaster sound, but he doesn’t want
to take his originals on the road so he has Teles created with Fender parts by Imai Guitars.
Photo by HIGH ISO Music
Does the Twin still sound as great as it
did when you first got it?
Bauer: Yes, that amp is amazing. I
haven’t changed anything on it, but the
speakers are Kendricks that someone
swapped in there. I don’t know if that
helped or hurt the sound, but otherwise
it’s all stock. But I don’t really pay
attention to speakers too much—anything
that makes it less bright is good.
I’ve played other white Twins with
original speakers, and these Kendricks
sound better to me—or maybe I’m just
used to them.
What mics did you use, and how did
you place them?
Spencer: [At Key Club studios] they had
a real small room, they had a medium-sized
room, and they had a great big
room. So we did some songs in each
location to get different sounds. We
would try out different amplifiers and
we would try out different microphones
and processing. It was all to get interesting
sounds that would work best for the
Bauer: Usually I don’t pay attention
too much to mics and placement. I
like ribbon mics, again, because I think
less bright is better. Using Fenders into
Fender amps is always about dealing
with the brightness and the brittleness of
it, so whatever minimizes that is a good
thing. We put a mic on the front and a
mic on the back [of the amps] and then
put it all out of phase, so all my stuff is
two mics out of phase. It sounds pretty
good—I’m going to have to remember
that I liked that out-of-phase sound for
the rest of my career.
Let’s talk about pedalboards. What
effects are you guys using?
Bauer: I just use delay pedals on the
road. I use them less and less when
I feel they are starting to clutter the
sound. A lot of times with effects you
lose the guitar sound a little bit, but
it depends on the room. If it’s a small
room, I’ll use less delay. On the record
I used an Echoplex in a couple songs,
and I think I used some kind of fuzz on
“Black Mold.” I have a lot of delays and
tremolo [pedals]—that’s pretty much all
I need—but I’ve used a fuzz sparingly
before, and I can’t remember what it
was. It was one of those fuzz pedals where
your foot has to go sideways …
Spencer: We used the [Jennings] Growler,
which has a pedal that you rotate from left
to right—it’s a very strange thing. I have a
boutique fuzz pedal called the Fuzz-Stang
that someone graciously gave me when I was
out in Portland—it’s really a fantastic fuzz
pedal. I like fuzzes you can clamp down and
the note will cut to nothing. I also have two
different organ pedals—a Chorus X3, and
an ’80s electric copy of a Hammond.
Is there any bass on the album? How
did you get the low grooves that sound
Bauer: There’s no bass on there. There are
bass keyboards or one of the guitars is run
through a low-end filter—which is what
we do live: We run the guitars through
a crossover that boosts the low end and
people think it’s a bass, but it’s just a guitar
through a low-end filter. It’s kind of part
of the band almost, there’s this old Ashly
crossover that costs nothing that we’ve been
using forever—it’s on the FOH [front-of-house
mix] when we play live, and Jon uses
it in [studio] mixing, too.
So who usually plays the part that covers
Bauer: It depends on the song—we go back
and forth … either or could be. If I play
the bass-line part, that’s going to be run
through the crossover. I don’t know if it’s
even “bass lines,” either—because bass playing
mystifies me still.
What was your first experience with the
guitar—when you decided, “I really want
to do this?”
Bauer: I saw Bruce Springsteen on TV doing
that really long song, “Rosalita,” and he was
running all over the stage and laying on the
piano and jumping up and down and I was
like, “That looks like a good job. I want to do
that for a living.” Not that I was even a Bruce
Springsteen fan at all, because I was into mostly
punk and hardcore. It was more like just
seeing someone having a good time like that.
Spencer: I didn’t really start playing rock ’n’
roll until maybe 17, which is quite old for
some people. Before I got into the guitar I
played bass. But there was no pivotal watershed
moment for me.
Photo by Anthony Batista
Why did you switch from bass?
Spencer: The guitar is cooler, that’s what
I tell people.
Was a bass-less, dual-guitar approach avant
garde in 1991 when you guys started out?
Bauer: Not coming from the scene or the
influences I was in. I mean, we had Hound
Dog Taylor, we had the Cramps. It was
kind of normal from my point of view.
Even in the bands I was in as a kid, there
was no bass player—everyone seemed to
have guitars lying around but no bass. It
was happening, y’know? We didn’t need the
bass. On some records I’ve played bass or
Jon has played bass here and there, but not
a lot—and definitely not on this record.
Spencer: There were bands before us that
have done this. There was the Cramps,
most famously, and the Electric Eels. A
great inspiration for us was Hound Dog
Taylor and the HouseRockers—they were a
two-guitar, no-bass lineup.
We weren’t the first, but I do think that
the Blues Explosion is not very traditional
or straight. We’re a bit punk and maybe a
bit confrontational, and yeah, avant garde.
That’s always been the case for this band.
We’re different—we’re not a regular rock
’n’ roll band.
Judah Bauer's Gear
’50s- and ’60s- style Telecasters
made from assorted Fender parts,
Danelectro baritone, Gretsch 6121
’61 Fender Twin with Kendrick
speakers, ’61 or ’62 magnatone 412
1x12 combo, ’59 Fender Deluxe with
a 150-watt JBL speaker, brownface
Fender Vibroverb (for overdubs)
Echoplex, Honda Sound Works Fab
Delay, Audio Kitchen The Big Trees,
heathkit fuzz, Fender bass fuzz
Strings and Picks
DR Tite-Fit .011–.052 sets,
Jim Dunlop 1 mm picks
Jon Spencer's Gear
solid-state kit amps
and other tube and
owned by Key Club
Studio (Meat and
Kustom 200 head
driving a Vox 2x12
in U.S.), Kustom
100 head through
an FAD 2x12 cabinet
and a Peavey Bandit
65 combo (live in
Europe), Sunn 2x12
Boogie MkIII, Mesa/
Strings and Picks
GHS Boomers custom
sets (.011, .015,
.018, .028, .036,
.050), Jim Dunlop .73
mm Tortex picks
But you’ve said you’re not a blues band either.
Spencer: No, we’re not.
So why include the term in the band name?
Spencer: It seemed like a good name, a
crazy name, a confusing name—sort of a
What’s the Blues Explosion all about to you?
Spencer: Of course, this is a very personal
project—a vehicle in which I can
give voice to different thoughts, feelings,
emotions—but it’s also a partnership. You
couldn’t make any substitutions in the way
the three of us bounce off each other.
Bauer: For someone who loves music, the
Blues Explosion has a lot of interesting
references. When I play with someone
like Cat Power, I don’t feel like the fans
are as big of music fans. I could play an
awesome guitar solo in Cat Power and no
one would care. They’re more like Chan
Marshall fans and they don’t recognize a
James Brown breakbeat or all the different
genres or a country lick. A lot of Blues
Explosion fans get that these things are
happening. I think we put it together in a
good way. Sometimes it’s paying it homage,
sometimes it’s ripping it in half, and
sometimes it’s humorous—and a lot of
times it’s just a good influence that we’ve
made our own.
So you’re saying Blues Explosion fans
Bauer: They know a lot about music, a
lot of ’em. A bunch go there because it’s
drinkin’, party music. But for the others—the record collectors, the music fans—it’s
like the history of music. I just don’t
think there are a lot of bands carrying that
much with them.