Provocation and confrontation are words sometimes associated with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. For more than two decades, they have confused and angered some, while consistently thrilling others. And during their long and risky history, the band has blurred the lines of fact and myth, and truth and tricks. Just who and what is the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?
The Blues Explosion formed in New York City in the early 1990s, following an ugly end to the even uglier noise-rock group Pussy Galore. Everything about Pussy Galore was carefully constructed to be as offensive as possible. From their are-they-for-real? race-baiting and misogyny to their assault on both classic rock and, more important, punk traditions, Pussy Galore's aesthetic overshadowed their frequently amazing music. Noisily anarchic with a swinging backbeat, the band, not unlike the Stooges or the Velvet Underground, were reviled in their time but their influence echoes through countless bands today.
When singer/guitarist Jon Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins became the Blues Explosion, they were more into music than audience abuse, and met the public halfway with subversion submersed in brilliant, hyperkinetic rock 'n' roll. By 1994, the Blues Explosion were bubbling up to the surface of the underground indie/alternative scene, onto MTV and in the crosshairs of major labels. And with the attention came controversy.
The band was the antithesis of the "here we are now, entertain us" '90s alternative rock culture. They were a deranged soul revue, out of step with the slacker era. "In the past the Blues Explosion has been subject to criticism," Spencer told me in a recent phone interview. "Some of it has been centered around questioning the legitimacy of what we're doing. Having the word 'blues' (in the band's name) confused people." And it really upset some people, too. Accusations of racism, with Spencer likened to a modern-day Al Jolson, were almost as common as the rave reviews the Blues Explosion's music was garnering in media as mainstream as Entertainment Weekly. "I've always thought that being called a minstrel show was flat-out wrong and crazy. I didn't start this band to make fun of Little Richard or Chuck D. I love that music. At heart the Blues Explosion is a garage band; the three of us touched on that music that we want to do ourselves."
Beginning with 1993's Extra Width, the Blues Explosion had a decade-long winning streak of albums (mostly recorded in Tucson by producer Jim Waters, including a live album, Controversial Negro, recorded at Club Congress and the late Downtown Performance Center) that explored funk, soul, electronic dance music, various forms of rock 'n' roll and, yes, even semi-traditional blues. Still, they maintained a singular identity and gained the status of a legendary live band.
Meanwhile, under the radar were a new generation of artists that were very unimpressed with turn-of-the-century favorites like Korn, Limp Bizkit and countless other acts devoid of any redeeming qualities but also really into the letter 'K'. The White Stripes were the first, then came the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and anyone else who believed in the mystique of rock 'n' roll and/or the mystique of New York rock 'n' roll. Suddenly the Blues Explosion were in the position of quasi-elder statesmen who were still artistically relevant. After 2004's Damage, the band took an unprecedented hiatus, which kept them from the recording studio for almost eight years.
"We spent a long time touring after Damage, and we didn't work for about three years," Spencer explains. "The reason for the hiatus was that I wanted to take a break and focus on another project of mine, Heavy Trash. We released three albums and toured all over the place." Heavy Trash, a creative partnership with ex-Madder Rose bassist Matt Verta-Ray, had a more rockabilly-inflected sound than Spencer's main band.
Spencer had long been doing side projects out of his artistic comfort zone, working with the likes of R.L. Burnside, Dub Narcotic Soundsystem, the Gibson Bros. and Boss Hog. The Blues Explosion also had released the Experimental Remixes album in 1995, making them among the first American indie rock outfits to collaborate with hip-hop and dance producers, in this case running the gamut from the Beastie Boys' Mike D to Moby and even RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Fast forward to 2008, and as Spencer explains, the Blues Explosion "began playing live again, slowly at first. A few shows here and there, and it felt good. We started playing more regularly. In 2011 we started to talk about making another studio album." With Spencer producing, the band eased into making a more straightforward rock 'n' roll record, with a lot less of the stylistic detours they had adhered to in the past. The result is 2013's Meat + Bone, a perfect title if there ever was one.
"For Meat + Bone, the focus is on the band, stripped down and raw," Spencer says. "It's really just about us playing the songs in the studio. We made some records that were more adventurous or experimental as far as production. This is more of a document. All of our records start with us just playing live in the studio. The heart of the song is always a live performance. Sometimes we'll take a bar and sample it and loop it. More often, it's a performance. We wrote the songs the same way (we've always done). We get together and play. I write the lyrics but the music is collaborative. Writing through action. We don't discuss what we're trying to do, we just do it. We're composing the material by chance."
Meat + Bone is an unquestionable triumph in that regard. Even though Spencer says "we like to mess with people's heads a little bit," there's not much head-scratching going on while the record is playing. It's the sound of a great band playing what they love because they love it. The James Brown funk, the Rolling Stones swing, the Sonics' exploding speaker raunch—it's all here; the album is the culmination of a half-century's worth of uncontrollable body-music.
At this point, the Blues Explosion's influence and contribution have withstood the test of time. They really don't have anything to prove to their audience. So why do they do it? "It's enjoyable; it feels good." Spencer says. "The drive is still there. The obsession and the passion. The three of us are still obsessed with music, different kinds of music. And it feels great to be onstage with this band."
As for the controversies regarding their authenticity that plagued them in the past, I asked Spencer if he thought any allegations of racism would be leveled at the Blues Explosion in the present cultural climate. "In 2013, it's a post-Internet world. Young people are much more accustomed to mashing up and combining different things. You hear a song here, you grab a song there. There's much more flexibility and open-mindedness (among today's audiences)."
When asked whether a musical act could have a similar polarizing impact as Pussy Galore had in the '80s, and the Blues Explosion had in the '90s, Spencer's answer was simple: "Why not?" And as Spencer howls in Meat + Bone's "Get Your Pants Off": "I told you you could do it!" He's right.