By Kevin Friedman on November 14, 2012
The sound was dirty, brittle and shrill. There was no bass to even out the unrelenting treble of the two-guitar assault of Jon Spencer and Judah Bauer. Russell Simins maintained order with the beatings he gave his drum kit. The deepest tones on the songs were often Spencer’s voice. There was a lascivious sexuality in it, summoning something between Isaac Hayes and Barry White when not rivaling Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard in the unadulterated audacity of his screams.
Spencer made a name for himself with Pussy Galore, as deconstructionist and nihilistic a post-punk band as there was in Washington, DC, and then on the Lower East Side of New York in the mid ’80s. When that band melted down, he joined the Honeymoon Killers, where he met Simins. The two began staying after practice to jam. Bauer, a wide-eyed kid fresh off the bus from Wisconsin, showed up to borrow some gear and ended up getting in on the action. The Blues Explosion was born.
It’s not surprising that not everybody “got” the Blues Explosion the first time around. There’s something about them that, as Spencer is fond of saying, makes them “a difficult pill to swallow, and not for squares.” Unfortunately for the band, some of those squares were well-known music journalists who found this particular blend of white-noise-blues to be lacking in appropriate veneration. What these critics missed was that the band wasn’t interested in reverentially perpetuating the sound of any genre, especially one as worn as “the blues.” Their spark was the creative soul of early rock and roll artists—Sun and Stax gods like Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis—guys who took the chord structures and scales of the blues and fused them with adrenaline-fueled shrieks of excitement. Except for the attitudes and adrenaline of punk, the Blues Explosion ignored most of what had come before in the 40 years after rock’s inception. These were no students of the “art form,” channeling riffs and songs in the manner of Richards, Beck, Page or Clapton; their sound came from an attempt to reanimate the attitude and energy of the originals. They were convinced that this would be what The Killer or Hound Dog Taylor would be playing if they had been born 50 years later.
Recording Acme; image courtesy of JSBX
A sharp sense of humor can be found in the early releases. How could there not be with call-to-dance songs like “Afro” and “Bellbottoms”? It seemed obvious and harmless enough, but it was this type of jocularity—coupled with that damning word, “blues,” in their name—that gave rise to the accusations that the band were being too ironic in their approach to what was apparently a sacred cow. The term “racist” was even bandied about by a few influential critics whose sensibilities had been offended—as if the band were performing some kind of musical blackface routine. To a band of amateur musicologists, the words stung with particular venom.
Fortunately, while hurt, the band didn’t waver. They parried with the ironically titled Controversial Negro EP, as if to say, “I got your irony right here, motherfucker!” If they were mocking anyone, it was their critics.
Things were good for a while. They made a solid name for themselves, surviving a jump from Matador Records to Mute (and also Bauer’s battle with drugs), and even brought a few friends along with them on the road, introducing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Europe via an opening slot on tour. They made a record with the legendary R.L. Burnside, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. They paved the way for The White Stripes and The Black Keys, and by the turn of the century had achieved an almost elder statesmen’s role on the indie-rock circuit.
Then they plateaued. There really isn’t such a thing as a loyal following in entertainment. It had been a good party, but the need for more didn’t seem all too pressing. The audience response became increasingly less enthusiastic, until the band’s new home, Sanctuary Records, pulled the plug and the band went on hiatus. Spencer focused on Heavy Trash with Matt Verta-Ray. Bauer put out albums under the name 20 Miles and then joined Cat Power. Simins continued producing bands and made albums as Men Without Pants with Dan the Automator. They never called it quits, they just stopped calling for a bit.
But then over the last few years, Shout! Factory began to put out several compilations of the JSBX early releases and reissue the classics. Shows were booked, then some studio time. And now they’re fully back, doing their victory lap with a new album on Mom + Pop Music, Meat and Bone. The energy and enthusiasm has not waned and, if anything, the songwriting has improved. Their demons behind them, the Blues Explosion are embracing each other and the past—and even the blues.
Photo by Michael Lavine
How did the Blues Explosion come together?
JON SPENCER: Jerry Teel had a band called the Honeymoon Killers. They were some of the first people I met when I moved to New York City—this is ’85, mind you—and when Pussy Galore ended, I started sitting in with them because I was between jobs. At some point, Jerry got a new drummer, Russell. So Russell and I started playing after Honeymoon Killers practices. Russell invited his friend Judah Bauer, this very young kid, literally fresh off the bus from Wisconsin, and it worked.
RUSSELL SIMINS: I was just becoming friends with Judah. Jon asked me, “Who was that guy? He came in and kind of had a vibe.” Judah was very young, only 18 or 19. After that we hung out a bunch, staying after practices, getting on really well in every way—musically, personally. It felt like a destined meeting.
JUDAH BAUER: I stopped over to get a pedal or something, and Jon checked me out. We had run into each other at shows, had talked. He was looking to do something like Pussy Galore, or some version of it. Luckily that didn’t happen. I figured the band would last a couple of months or through one record. I hadn’t been in New York that long. I don’t even think I had gear. It was Russell’s guitar. I was pretty antisocial, so I lucked.
After Pussy Galore and Honeymoon Killers, were you, Jon, looking to do something that represented you as a person?
SPENCER: I wanted to do something true to rock and roll—Jerry Lee Lewis and all of the Sun and Stax artists. When I was growing up, rock and roll was a bore. It had no interest for me. It was terrible, so I’d like to think that with the Blues Explosion we’re championing what rock and roll truly is all about. It’s a strange kind of music, it’s a beautiful kind of music; it’s unusual, it’s sexual, it’s aggressive, it’s bizarre. It’s something that came from I-don’t-know-where. I think that’s been the great disappointment with this band, because we are from another world in some way; it’s not an easy pill to swallow. For some people there is this kind of a confounding element, this craziness at the heart of the band, but that’s at the heart of any great rock and roll. It makes you twitch.
Pussy Galore, 1986-7; image courtesy of JSBX
Did you guys discuss what direction you wanted to go in?
SPENCER: No. There was never anything like, “Well, should we have a bass player?” We’d talk about things like records. We just moved and we did it.
SIMINS: We’ve always been the kind of band where not much is spoken; more is done. We would just jam and work on stuff that turned us on.
BAUER: It wasn’t verbalized. It was the rapport that it’s always been—three people who are on a mission: loving music and wanting to get something going on.
Jon, was your stage persona something you had developed already or was it somewhat unique to this band?
SPENCER: I think it grew over the first couple of years. Pussy Galore was a very confrontational band, very much in-your-face, and there was a lot of hate and a lot of anger in that group. With Blues Explosion it was a little more playful. We were definitely surreal; we had a crazy edge to us and there was real joy and lots of humor in what we did. We really started to dig deep and explore the roots of American music and rock and roll.
There seemed to be a little reluctance from the band in accepting the baggage that comes along with having the word “blues” in your name.
SPENCER: The name is kind of ridiculous and I called the band that because I thought that that’s what The Killer [Jerry Lee Lewis] would do. When we started we were totally into Hound Dog Taylor, and that was a big touchstone for us because it was a trio as well—two guitarists and drums, and very funky. We were into Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf. But we were also into Captain Beefheart, Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Don’t get hung up on the blues in the name. We are a rock and roll band.
BAUER: That didn’t really describe the music at all; the “Explosion” part kind of did. It was kind of a dumb name but [names] have a life of their own and grow. Playing blues was almost taboo. I was kind of against it back then, the Chuck Berry chords. The blues came much later. It was always there, but it was just rudimentary guitar. We were more into garage rockabilly, punk, hardcore, a lot of hip-hop.
SIMINS: When that was presented to me, the first thing I thought of was John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, and I wasn’t really like, “Wow! That’s the greatest name ever!” But Jon was thinking at the time how it was kind of a laugh; it’s so oddly square. I didn’t think in terms of the way we’d be thought of or referred to or categorized or put in blues festivals or thought of as a blues band.
Did you ever feel pigeonholed by the persona you created or the sound that you established?
SPENCER: I’ve been thinking about that lately. I don’t have a problem being an entertainer. I don’t have a problem making people feel good. I think that’s what set Blues Explosion apart from a lot of our peers when we started. We embraced that. We were there to work hard and put on a show. We were students of James Brown and a lot of other great artists and musicians. I’ve got the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other and I try to give people what they think they want sometimes, but also I’m always still trying to confound people and fuck with their heads and really try to let my freak flag fly.
Image courtesy of JSBX
How would you describe the interpersonal roles in the band? How does everyone fit?
BAUER: In the beginning it was probably more following Jon. I had never been in a serious band and he was setting the pace of rehearsals and touring. Everyone kind of kicked in and was young and stupid then. Jon and I are either very much in agreement or we’re not. Russell’s kind of the mediator; he’ll be in the middle, breaking the tension with a story.
SIMINS: We have a lot of respect for each other, and we’ve certainly learned over 20-plus years how to deal with each other, and that’s a really good place. We know what works and what doesn’t. There’s a certain role that Jon has as the leader of the band, but we are all very much involved in the decision-making process when it comes to things on the creative and business levels. If we all don’t agree on it then we won’t do it.
SPENCER: Being in a band is not like being in The Monkees. What people see on TV is not true to real life. It’s not always easy. I think Judah, as he’s grown as a musician and as a person over the years, has been through a lot. He more and more wants to do his thing and have more of a say in the way that the band goes. So at times there will be disagreements, for sure. We all contribute, we all do our thing, but there’s a reason why it’s called The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
What has been the most challenging time in the history of the band?
SIMINS: When we changed record labels, that was kind of a bummer. That led to taking a break, regrouping. Mute was a rare record label that we respected a lot, and they decided to let us go. With the release of Damage, things just weren’t going as well as we hoped. The shows weren’t doing as well, the records weren’t being reviewed too well, the label wasn’t so psyched.
SPENCER: I think that [with] making records like Plastic Fang and Damage, or some of the stuff around them, there was a desperation. We were feeling pressure from outside influences, from record labels, which is understandable but was unpleasant. I felt a bit of disconnect from my bandmates as years went by. That was why I wanted to stop it for a while. The only other bad time would be when Judah was working through issues earlier on, but he took care of that stuff.
BAUER: There was the whole thing when I was a junkie. You know, [when] someone doesn’t pull their weight, it stresses people out. Will the band break up? It’s a total fucking grind when someone’s doing a lot of drugs. On a personal level, that was the heart of darkness and was hard on the band, too. And that all happened when we were recording Orange. Jon had to push through and finish that recording.
I guess it started around the beginning and came to an end while recording Orange. We were out with The Breeders and that was unmanageable. We had to miss a bunch of shows, and it became so apparent how fucking screwed up I was. Things turned around then.
SIMINS: That was a challenging time. We were only three or four years in. We knew each other but we didn’t know each other all that well, and I think there was a lot of turning the other way, but then we couldn’t turn the other way. It was disheartening and confusing and disturbing and maddening to deal with someone addicted to drugs. We were in the middle of making this really intense record, but he somehow managed to rise to the occasion and get through it even in his—whether it be physical or mental or spiritual—absence. This was a stressful, trying period. It was more learning about how to be in a band.
SPENCER: I was a bit oblivious to part of it. I remember trying to help in whatever way I could, but I really just left it to him and he really did take care of it, god bless him.
What do you think the biggest misperception about the band has been?
SPENCER: That we’re a joke or that we’re racists. Like I said, the band is not an easy pill to swallow. We’re a punk band. We want to mess with people’s heads. The band is confusing to some people. I’m not playing in the Blues Explosion because I want to make fun of Howlin’ Wolf or Little Richard. I play in this band because I love Howlin’ Wolf and Little Richard.
What was your reaction to those criticisms?
SPENCER: We were so grossly misinterpreted. Called names. It definitely hurt, especially since it was going on here in the United States of America. That one piece by the Chicago writer, Jim DeRogatis [“The Truth About The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion,” 1997], really burned me. He came and visited us on tour, hung out with us, and he never brought any of that stuff up with me. It wasn’t something he chose to discuss, but when the piece came out there was all this stuff about minstrel shows and accusations of racism. Probably the one that hurt the most was the “Blues Hammer” scene in Ghost World. It hurt because I love Daniel Clowes and that is such a great movie. Maybe it was coming from director Terry Zwigoff? Also, more to the point, some people thought the Blues Explosion was exploiting R.L. Burnside. In the film, the main characters go to a venue to see a real elder blues musician who is upstaged and disrespected by some white, heavy metal band. We toured with R.L. a lot, he was the way he was—more punk than any of us in many ways. We did not make him into anything, and never disrespected him or his music. That Ass Pocket record is him, or a part of who he was—rude, raw and mean.
What are you most proud of from your work with Blues Explosion?
SIMINS: I’m proud of the fact that we are seen as great performers and musicians, and that we have character and respect. We are very true to ourselves. And it’s something that any band that I’ve loved and respected does—from Dylan to Pere Ubu, from the most popular to the least popular. They do their thing, they do it great and they do it uncompromisingly.
BAUER: Playing with R.L. Burnside was the most fun. He’s the real deal. He taught me how to live and be a man, in a way. There was something special about that guy, he had soul to make that tradition real, the stories and the language. The music was so kickass. Everyone responded to it, people would just light up at the shows. That was a great time.
SPENCER: You know, I just came off the stage and we had a very nice show and we were stuck on the damn bus for 10 hours and for a while it seemed like we weren’t going to make it here. But right now, I’m most proud of having played a good show. I really felt very much alive. I was happy. I really felt good to be on that stage and I’m pretty sure that there were people out in the crowd that felt good, too.
Image courtesy of JSBX
JERRY TEEL OF HONEYMOON KILLERS
Jerry Teel was the leader of the garage punk band Honeymoon Killers, of which both Spencer and Simins were members before starting the Blues Explosion.
I met Jon when he first moved to NYC. We became friends and Honeymoon Killers and Pussy Galore did some shows together. His girlfriend at the time—now his wife—Cristina, played guitar in the Honeymoon Killers, and then later I played guitar in the original lineup of Boss Hog. The Lower East Side was a fun place back then. We were just happy to be doin’ our thing and diggin’ the scene. I met Russell at a party about the time HK was looking for a drummer. He started playing with us, and sometimes his friend Judah would drop by and play guitar. Judah was just a kid at the time, but I loved him dearly and still do.
Anyway, HK were looking for a second guitar player and Jon was between projects. So, I asked him if he wanted to do it, as he and I had just done some recording with the Workdogs. He said yes, and we did some recording and some gigs. The record, Hung Far Low, came out and I wanted to do a European tour. Jon couldn’t do it, so I asked Judah and he did. We were just friends having a good time.
I was a fan of the Blues Explosion. I liked Russell’s primitive caveman style. Jon’s guitar was just crazy—it worked. I dug what they were doing, but it was the end for Honeymoon Killers. I knew I’d never have a lineup like that again, so I went on to something else. They all did their time with the Honeymoon Killers and I will remember that as some of my best times.
DAVID YOW OF THE JESUS LIZARD
The Blues Explosion and Jesus Lizard toured together repeatedly throughout the ’90s in the US and abroad.
How did you meet the band?
God, I’m not sure. It was over at Steve Albini’s house when they were first starting in ’91...maybe ’92. Or it was that first tour that they did when they were, believe it or not, opening for us. I’m not sure if we did the whole country, but I know we went up into Canada, and that was a hard act to follow.
What was your impression?
At the time I was completely floored. I thought they were the best band in the world. Jon just oozed charisma and Russell’s a great drummer—he’s not the greatest drummer, but he’s more fun to watch than almost any drummer. Judah was kicking ass. Yeah, the whole package was so impressive.
Is there a big difference amongst the musicians in that band onstage versus offstage?
Yeah, but that’s because it’s entertainment. Jon fully understands, as do I: people pay their hard-earned money to buy your records and see you play, so be sure to entertain the motherfuckers. If Jon just stood there and was nice like he is, that would be really boring. So, you crank up the emotion and let the music take you.
How would you describe the dynamic between the band members?
Duane, the guitar player for Jesus Lizard, used to do a funny Russell impersonation and his Russell impersonation was: “Judah! Tuck your shirt in!” Jon was definitely, no doubt about it, the leader. He wrote the shit and he was extremely specific about what he wanted, and the guys were good about accommodating him. Judah was kind of the more quiet, reserved one. Russell was like part-Muppet.
Can you share a story about the band?
Well, this is sort of an indication of what a gentleman Jon is. They were playing at Lounge Ax in Chicago. There was a downstairs area where we used to hang out. I was hanging out there much of the show. I guess Judah had fucked up, and then when it was over, they came back in that little area and Jon was steaming mad, he was just really pissed off. But he very politely said to me, “David, could you leave us alone for a moment? I’m very angry.” He didn’t sound angry—he looked really angry—and once I took off, but was still within earshot, he really, really laid into Judah.
What do you think their legacy is?
Blues Explosion. I think Jon has said “Blues Explosion” more times than the oldest man in the world has said “me.”
In 1999, Calvin Johnson, founder of Beat Happening and K Records, collaborated with the Blues Explosion on Sideways Soul: Dub Narcotic Sound System Meets The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a Dancehall Style.
What was your initial exposure to the Blues Explosion?
Pussy Galore were a fave band of the day. Then it was suddenly Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. Clearly this was going be his “normal” band to cash in on the fame. Only they were not normal. Incendiary. Train-wreck poetics, dungaree madness, a storm with no eye. Simple complexities that unravel as you are wound up and flung into space.
How much time did you spend with them?
As little as possible. I already have enough problems.
How did the Sideways Soul album come about?
Jon called me and invited me to remix one of his songs at the Dub Narcotic studio. In exchange he agreed to stop by Olympia to record a single. The session was at the end of a tour and they had shipped their equipment home, just bringing guitars. They used the amplifiers we had at Dub Narcotic. I set Jon up with my Randall Commander, but saved the Fender Vibro-Champ (the first amplifier I ever owned) for Judah. He was bummed that Jon got a large amp and he had such a tiny thing. I reassured him he would get a much larger microphone than Jon.
They were very polite; a joy to work with and open to suggestion. They’re very adept at improvisation. Throw out an idea and they come right back at you with what you suggested, only better. It was a lot of fun.
What’s something that most people don’t know about them?
They share an unshakable devotion to family.
What is their legacy?
Rock and roll, baby.
JIM WATERS, producer
Jim Waters recorded and/or mixed the albums Extra Width, Orange and A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.
How did you start working with the band?
Jon came in to record a Christmas single for Sub Pop. It was just me and him. Then he came back during the making of Extra Width—they’d already recorded some of the songs at Easley Studios in Memphis. He brought the band into my studio and recorded the remainder of the songs, then overdubbed a lot of vocals and instruments and we mixed the tape. It had a really great response, so when it came down to do the next album he did all of it at my studio.
They all had this great energy and Jon has a really wicked sense of humor. No one sounded like them at all and I’m not even sure if they knew exactly where they were going with it. They all enjoyed hanging out with each other; they were having fun just seeing where everything was going.
What was it like working with them?
They were throwing ideas back and forth and it was all very up. I think [Russell and Judah] acknowledged that Jon was the leader, but people who had worked with Jon in other bands thought this was a pretty democratic band...considering that it was not quite democratic. Everyone was adding to the mix. Orange was recorded on 16-track, so there was a lot more room for overdubs, and Jon kind of took over that situation. He would haul them in if needed, but generally the others weren’t really around once they put down the basic tracks.
How did their approach to the studio differ from their live shows?
The way that I worked with the band was that you want to go for the first two takes, because after that it would stop being fresh, and they are definitely a band that needs to work off of the energy. When they played live, they just walked out there and Jon would call out these songs and they would play them and change them at random times. It was never anything like that in the studio. We spent a lot of time mixing and making it sound very different from the next one. They were carefully put together.
Around the time of Orange, Judah admits to having been pretty strung out. From your perspective, what effect did that have on the music?
It definitely put some stress on it. Just before we started working on Orange, around September of ’93, we got into the studio and we all were having a great time. We got all the mics going and everything was looking super good, and at that moment Judah decided to excuse himself to the bathroom. We thought nothing of it, but when he came back in he was so fucked up that he couldn’t hold his guitar and he was falling over. He couldn’t do anything. At that point they decided, “We need to do an intervention, now,” and so that whole recording session was for nothing. He had to go through a bunch of treatment and then we came back later. At that point, they were very wary of him and it took a lot of strain. Oftentimes Judah didn’t really understand why they were so pissed off at him.
When did you know something big was happening with them?
After Extra Width came out there was a lot of momentum—it kind of blew up, really fast. I remember them coming to the studio one day and they had gotten an advance from their record company. They had this van that was just crumbling; it probably had three wheels. Instead of recording, we went out to some car dealership in Brooklyn and they bought a van they could tour in. They were so excited. It was so positive, how exciting it all was, like, “Wow, this is happening.” I would go into some store and they were playing the Blues Explosion, and I was like, “Wait a minute!” I don’t remember that ever happening where I recorded something and I was hearing it in stores. It was all very exciting.
KAREN O OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS
The Blues Explosion introduced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to a much wider audience by bringing them on their first international tour.
I was watching MTV as a Jersey teenager and the video for “Flavor” came on and I was hooked. A week later I bought Extra Width and I’d dress up in my bedroom and strike sexy poses in front of the mirror to it. Soon after, I was going into the city to see Blues Explosion play live and I was completely floored by Jon’s stage persona; he was the sexiest man alive up there. I would dance in place intently staring him down hoping to make eye contact even for a second.
The sweaty sex factor of their music was a total influence on us. Sex was still a popular theme in rock music at the time and they had it oozing out of their pores. Their identity as a legit New York City outfit was also inspiring: If only we could be so cool in the city; man, we tried. Loud, sexy, NYC—that’s what we wanted to be. I’d say neither Jon nor I are much like what you see onstage when you meet us in person. We’re brooding, quiet and substantially more awkward so we never ended up talking to each other much at all!
There’s some healthy overcompensation that goes on when you’re a threesome: there can be no slackers, everyone is giving everything and there is a constant tension and release that goes along with that. No bass? We probably should have nicked more of Russell’s booty-shaking beats. The only song that I can remember really trying to sound like Jon was in our obscure song “Yeah New York”!
We were shitting ourselves when we got the call to support them in Europe. It was a game changer, the biggest thing to happen to us at the time and we’ll never forget it. So a big thanks for that!
Image courtesy of JSBX
A JSBX Discography with Commentary from Jon Spencer
A Reverse Willie Horton (1991)
PUBIC POP CAN
A blur of energy and ideas. Tracked quickly. First session was with Kramer, live straight through ’til the one reel of tape we brought was full, then overdubbed vocals in one pass, start to finish, then mixed in one pass.
Extra Width (1993)
We had begun touring and had played a lot of shows. The band is coming into focus. Each member is defining his role. Mostly tracked in Memphis because of Stax and Sun.
Everything in focus, everything defined. Sharp, clear, to the point.
Now I Got Worry (1996)
Now the formula and sound is pulled apart and turned inside out. Pushed to extremes. (This is a studio/production choice; live, we still work the same.) Experiences with R.L. Burnside and the Beastie Boys bear their mark.
A remix record before—instead of—the proper album. Even more studio and production, trickery and experimentation. Working with many different engineers and producers. A Frankenstein’s monster.
Plastic Fang (2002)
First album made with one single outside producer, Steve Jordan. A more straight, traditional rock-and-roll album. Less sure-footed.
Somewhere in between Plastic Fang and Acme. Another big-budget affair. Some good help from people like David Holmes, Alan Moulder and Steve Jordan (again). Spent many many hours writing and wood-shedding at Russell’s old Empire View studio. Lots of unreleased material.
Meat and Bone (2012)
MOM + POP
This record happened in a very easy way and we did it very much on our own—no musical guests and no outside producers or mixers. It grew out of starting to play live again. After the In The Red _Jukebox compilation in 2007, we began to take some concert offers and it felt good, so we kept playing. We did more and more touring, especially when the 2010 reissues happened. This was a massive project and the reexamination of our past was an influence. I think that we were empowered by our history, we felt strong and self-assured, maybe even wise. F
This article is from FILTER Issue 49