Interview: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
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 love, yeah.
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 that expensive.
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 particular songs.
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.
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 grand gesture.
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.
It’s no substitute for the in-your-face experience of a live Blues Explosion show, but these videos give a glimpse into the essence of the band while they’re live and on fire.
JSBX rocks “Burn it Off” in Dijon, France: Judah Bauer channels his inner twang with jangly country while Jon Spencer busts out a rare acoustic and Russell Simins plays a cardboard box with a badminton racket.
At KEXP in Seattle, Spencer proclaims that his band is “fighting a war,” while trading energy-infused licks with Judah Bauer on “Get Your Pants Off” from the new album.
Spencer’s fuzzed-out, downtuned Zimgar guitar gets intense in this mid-’90s performance of “2 Kindsa Love” in London, while Bauer stays clean, focused, and on point.