Meat And Bone: Jon Spencer

"We've come back from a long rest..."
JSBXpromo.jpeg
Mental note: when interviewing Jon Spencer from the Blues Explosion - the trio of Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins - do not, under any circumstances, suggest that the band aren't taking things seriously.

"People think that it's this simple, easy thing," Spencer tells me from New York, and he sounds frustrated at the suggestion that it might be anything otherwise. "We work very hard at it when we prepare for a concert or a tour; we work very hard so we're able to get up and play a good show. It's not like you can just roll out of bed; it's like training for a marathon. Similarly, our records might have a certain feel or sound to them, but the recording process is very meticulous. There's a lot of work that goes into them, and they're made with great care and deliberation. Yeah, some of the records might have a rough sound to them, and people sometimes like to use the word lo-fi. I can understand that, but I'm also a bit wary of that, as to me that implies a kind of casualness or an accidental nature, like you don't care, like it sounds like that by accident. There's a lot of time and thought and work that goes into our records and our live shows."

The Blues Explosion have just released 'Meat And Bone', their first album of new music since 2004's 'Damage', an album that saw the band working with the likes of DJ Shadow, Steve Jordan, David Holmes and sometime Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird. After completing the album's tour, which included an unlikely slot opening for Razorlight at their Alexandra Palace shows, Spencer, Bauer and Simins decided to take a break and focus on separate projects - Spencer recorded three albums with his other band Heavy Trash and recorded with Andre Williams; Simins drummed for various musicians including Harper Simon and Joseph Arthur; Bauer, meanwhile, led the Delta Blues Band, Cat Power's touring band that also included drummer Jim White from Dirty Three.

"We've been doing it for a long time. We're a twenty or twenty-one year old band," Spencer continues. "We all recognised or felt on some level that it's good to have a rest every once in a while. We were all doing different things, but it wasn't time wasted." Given the peripatetic nature of the three band members during the off years, it's no surprise that Spencer is laughing wryly as he says this. Accepting live dates again following a best of compilation made the trio realise they still loved their day jobs, which in turn led to the new record.

'Meat And Bone' is a comfortably familiar album. It's the Blues Explosion doing what they do best - a unique take on rock 'n' roll with wild, anthemic tracks featuring carefully-wrought guitar riffs, a sometimes anguished, sometimes euphoric but always hypnotic singer in Spencer, and some of the cleverest drumming you'll hear outside of a hip-hop DJ's record box. The album's closer 'Zimgar' and the suggestive 'Get Your Pants Off' are two of the funkiest tracks this side of the 1970s, and there's no denying that when these guys lock into a groove it's one of the most formidable walls of noise in music today. And when they get loud, fast 'n' nasty - as on lead track 'Black Mold' or 'Boot Cut' - it's like connecting a straight line between early Chuck Berry, Hendrix's wilder moments and the New York Dolls. 'Black Mold' reverentially namechecks Little Richard and Ornette Coleman and many others almost in the same breath, while also making fungus cool. The point is that no-one has ever made music as audaciously and resolutely indefinable as the Blues Explosion.

But is it what we think of as the blues? "The name of the band is kind of misleading," Spencer concedes. "It's a confusing name for sure. I mean, we do have some influence from the blues. Probably the biggest blues influence on us was R.L. Burnside, the great bluesman from Mississippi, a guy we spent a year touring and playing with, but we take influences from a lot of different sorts of music - Stax soul, rap, hip hop, Sun Records, New York City punk. So I think what we're really doing is playing rock 'n' roll."

The new album was recorded in nine days on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Benton Harbor's Keyclub, a studio filled with unique and rare bits of recording equipment, as well as a custom-built console originally built for Sly Stone. "The Keyclub has a fantastic collection of old equipment," enthuses Spencer. "For us, we're into making records in an old fashioned way, and we're also record geeks. It was a real thrill. It was like being in a candy store. I first worked there maybe six years ago on the Andre Williams record 'Night & Day'. When it became time for the Blues Explosion to make this album, I convinced Judah and Russell that this studio would be a good place to work."

"Benton Harbor really is in the middle of nowhere," explains Spencer of the environment in which 'Meat And Bone' was recorded. "It's a small, depressed city where all the industry has all left. It was very cold when we were there. We'd spend twelve hours working and we slept in an apartment above the studio." Unlike 'Damage', the new record eschews the big name producers and collaborators and was produced and mixed by Spencer himself. "In the past we've made records that have involved all sorts of beautiful musical guests and cameos. We've been very lucky to work with a lot of really creative, groovy people, and also some heroes of ours. With this record it's just the band." Spencer explains that looking back over their previous albums for a 2010 reissue programme provided a big influence for working in such an unadorned way, almost as if the band were influencing themselves.

But 'Meat And Bone' isn't a comeback cash-in. "We've come back from a long rest, a hiatus, a long vacation," states Spencer. "But the difference between the Blues Explosion playing live again and releasing a new album and a, I don't know, a Pavement or the Afghan Whigs? Well I don't think we ever put a full stop on it."

"We just went quiet for a bit," he concludes, fully aware that, as displayed on 'Meat And Bone', the Blues Explosion don't know the meaning of the word quiet.

Words by Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Stefano Giovannini

- - -

'Meat And Bone' is out now.

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-