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Be specific: Blues Explosion's Jon Spencer on getting the band back together

blues explosionJon Spencer Blues Explosion are back together in support of a slew of reissues. (Ashkan Sahihi)

By David Malitz

Whenever I think about my favorite live bands, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is always one of the first to come to mind. Every time you saw the trio - Spencer, fellow guitarist Judah Bauer and powerhouse drummer Russell Simins - you were guaranteed a show. A barrage of scuzzy punk-blues, Spencer’s madman sloganeering, theremin freakouts - there was nothing remotely slackerly about them. Spencer concedes that many people viewed the band’s albums as afterthoughts but with a current string of deluxe reissues he is hoping to change that perception.

“We were really busy. I’m proud of these records. I think they’re great records,” he said when we talked on the phone a week ago. A slew of extras accompanies each disc. “For every record we probably made two or three albums,” he told me. If every other ‘90s band that broke up is getting in on the reunion/reissue thing, the Blues Explosion may as well, although Spencer isn’t without his hesitations. “I definitely have a problem with bands getting back together. Especially if it was a band that was near and dear to me,” he said. “Like I’m hugely conflicted about the Stooges reunion. I’ve not gone to see them. I think that stuff is a little weird. So maybe I’m just as guilty as those [expletives]. But it sure does feel nice.”

Spencer talked about playing with his old band, the process of piecing together the reissues and some of the criticisms the Blues Explosion dealt with.

How does it feel to have this band back together?

It feels great. We’ve played a few shows now to mark the reissues. I was kind of nervous about some of those earlier shows. Now I still get a little nervous - I always get butterflies before a show - but I’m really just very happy to be playing. It’s very enjoyable. It’s a gas. So it feels good to be playing with the Blues Explosion again.

Does it at all feel like you’re going back and playing an old character?

Well, if that’s the terminology you want to use ... I guess I struggle a little bit. There’s the dilemma that it’s not something new but there are new things to be found in these old songs. And I think a lot of times it’s important to respect the songs and do right by them. And to play a great show. I think maybe after a few of those I’m really relaxing and enjoying it. I’m thinking less about things. So no, I don’t really have a problem going back and playing these old songs. For the same reason, I’m reissuing the albums. I think they’re great albums with great songs. The same goes for playing them live, they’re great songs.

("Am I only supposed to listen to white music?" after the jump.)

The band’s live shows were marked by an incredible energy during the initial run, is it hard to bring that back?

It’s more passion than energy. If you say energy it just makes people think - I’m not sawing a log in half! There’s passion, there’s showmanship - there’s a whole lot of stuff in there. It was terribly important to us to really get out there and knock people dead. And I think there weren’t a lot of bands doing that - certainly not in the indie or underground scene - when we started. There were a few and there were certain bands that made a big impression on us. One of the first that pops to mind and a really big one for us was the Jesus Lizard. There were bands that would really get up and give it their all every night and I think that we definitely respected that and learned from that.

But we were also taking a lot of notes from heroes of ours from blues scene, soul scene, R&B scene. Someone like James Brown was a huge touchstone for us. So I think we were trying to do our own version of rock-and-roll revival, gospel show, soul revival. However you want to call it. Doing our own take on that.

That said, about the live stuff, a lot of people think that the albums were kind of afterthoughts or throwaway affairs. And that wasn’t the case at all. As much energy and passion and hard work that was put into the live concert - it’s not like we could just get up there and freak out. It’s not like we just went up there and spazzed out. There was a lot of discipline and lot of hard work that went into putting on a show like that. And in that same way there’s a lot of hard work put into these albums. They were not casual affairs that were tossed off. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, a lot of thought. These reissues, with all the inclusion of the extra stuff that didn’t make the records, it might give people some idea of what went on and the breadth of all the recording that we did. We were a very busy band.

Was it fun to go back to these old albums and dig around for all the extra content?

No, not really. It was a huge job. It was a lot of work. Honestly, for a long time, I was like, I don’t want to do this. I’d rather be making new songs. But then once the ball got rolling and I really rolled up my sleeves and got into it I became obsessed with it. At times there was a lot of detective work, putting a puzzle together. And there were some things I could just never find. I had to settle for just taking something off a cassette tape because I couldn’t find the analog master for one reason or another.

I really worked hard making sure everything sounds best as it could. And just as I was obsessing over these reissues I obsessed over those original albums and worked as hard as I could to make them great albums. And it’s really just because I liked good albums. I wanted to make some weird, crazy artifact that would touch somebody, some time in the same way that I got such a kick out of discovering some weird record that happened some other place, some other time far away from me.

Some people have criticized the band as a gimmick or parady...

It’s art. It’s great music. It’s great rock-and-roll. I’m not going to make any excuses for it. I love James Brown. I love Little Richard. I love Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I love Andre Williams. I love Chuck D. I love a lot of artists who aren’t white. I don’t feel I have to make any excuses for taking influences from these people. Yes, there have been people who have gotten down on me and the band for issues of race and I just don’t get it. Am I only supposed to listen to white music? It’s just [expletive] ridiculous.

And it’s contradictory to what is at the very heart of rock-and-roll! What made rock-and-roll a beautiful thing was a jamming together of different cultures and all sorts of different stuff. It just drives me crazy and I have no patience for it. We were doing it because it felt good and we had to do it. It was in us so much, so strong that it had to come it. We were moved. We were in love ... I’m talking about music!

By David Malitz  |  August 18, 2010; 12:55 PM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion  
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Is the band touring? There are reports of some shows this year in NYC on BrooklynVegan, but I didn't notice a tour schedule.

Jon Spencer was at DC9 last year with a band called Dirty Trash. Good rockabilly, but not a blues explosion by any means.

Posted by: MyPostID27 | August 19, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

There won't be a full tour for Blues Explosion. There are a handful of West Coast dates timed around the Matador 21st anniversary thing in Vegas, but not sure if anything else. I'll be sure to report from Vegas :)

I caught Heavy Trash at Rock & Roll Hotel a couple years and like you said, it was good but not quite the Blues Explosion experience.

Posted by: DavidMalitz | August 19, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

i got lucky enough to score a ticket to the matador festivities. any word on bands to be added to the lineup?

Posted by: mmickney1 | August 20, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Haven't heard anything besides Come, which they announced soon after tickets were sold out. Liz Phair was listed on some very early version of the poster before it was changed, FWIW.

Posted by: DavidMalitz | August 20, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

i was at the beck and JSBE show. i was 20. The Blues explosion came out and played most of orange and stuff off of extra width and then left.
came backout and pretty much played the entire "now i got worry" (before the record came out) and then left again. Came back out and played more off of orange / extra width and left again! the techs started taking the mics down when they came back out and played one more tune. the best show i ever went to as far flat out energy for the entire show.

Posted by: sendhelp | August 22, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

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