“Fuck this orange piece of shit!”
And with that cry, Jon Spencer’s first solo album is off to races.
It bears the deeply ironic title Spencer Sings The Hits. It is, of course, not a collection of hits, his own or anyone else’s.
It’s a twisted take on garage punk: “super-nasty, super-simple caveman” guitars, metal percussion and synth bass. In true Spencer style, it’s extremely playful with a whole host of rock’n’roll tropes. Spencer Sings The Hits is unquestionably fun.
It’s also a rage-filled and at times a melancholic record that addresses ageing, the vagaries of being in a long-term loving relationship, Spencer’s distaste for musical fakery and, above all, his revulsion at the almighty “shitshow” that is the Trump administration and its Republican enablers.
That vibration between those two impulses – one irreverent but loving, the other deadly serious - runs strongly throughout Spencer Sings The Hits and makes this new release a more compelling and a much richer album, than its kitsch cover – or its title - might have you believe.
Spencer Sings The Hits therefore continues the run of terrific records that Spencer’s been on in the autumn of his years: two by the re-activated Blues Explosion and one by the similarly revivified Boss Hog. Not to mention, the three albums with Heavy Trash that preceded those.
And yet in 2017, just as he was being lauded for an old song, Bellbottoms, because Edgar Wright staged the entire opening of Baby Driver to it, Spencer was effectively band-less and, because he preferred to write with his bands, he was song-less too.
To get himself out of the doldrums, Spencer did something he hadn’t done for nearly 30 years, not since his days in Pussy Galore: he wrote songs on his own. First of all, in his East Village basement rehearsal space, then demoed them in his Manhattan apartment, and then recorded them at the Key Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan with a completely new band: Sam Coomes from Quasi on keyboards and Mike Gard, the Key Club’s “handyman and assistant engineer and a great drummer’, who writes and records under the name M. Sord.
This interview covers the genesis of Spencer Sings The Hits and also looks back over Jon Spencer’s 30-plus year career.
It took place in early October 2018 just as US Senators were casting a key procedural vote that allowed the Senate to move forward with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Spencer, unsurprisingly, was utterly pissed off by the whole thing.
Jon Spencer: It's a bit of a fraught time. I really cannot understand it. I’m getting so frustrated and so angry to hear people on the radio and see them on TV talking about this administration’s policies. I just feel like screaming; I don't understand why they're not screaming. This is not right. This is not normal. This is totally immoral. Why is everybody being so polite? People should be screaming. This is just wrong. This is just fucked.
Spencer Sings The Hits is clearly political, but let’s deal with the title first. Is it referencing John Spencer, the Dutch singer who had a record called “Sings American Golden Hits”?
I'm aware of the Dutch artist. Xavier Benoit, the Belgian tour manager I've worked with, has crossed paths with John Spencer, got a record signed and gave it to me. Over the years other people have given me John Spencer records. I don't own a copy of Sings Golden American Hits though. But it’s certainly a good title.
The title Spencer Sings The Hits was given to me by an old friend of mine – a New York City writer, Todd Hanson, one of the guys who started The Onion. A couple of years ago he had this idea that I should do an album of cover versions and it should be called Spencer Sings The Hits - or it may have been …Hits. He sent me a JPEG of an Andy Williams cover and a list of songs; he’d really thought this out. I took my friend’s suggestion for the title and maybe I took some notes from him for the art: that maybe it should be more traditional, an old school ‘60s/’70s pop portrait kind of record jacket.
The cover of Spencer Sings The Hits does seem to be at odds with content. The cover is a slightly goofy parody but lyrically it’s more than a little savage and lacerating.
It’s certainly trading on a tradition, or referencing something that it’s not, mostly so with the title. It's not a collection of standard hits, not by a long shot.
I was reminded of the contrast between the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats (opens in new tab) and the actual Throbbing Gristle album, which contains 11 songs that obviously aren’t jazz funk greats.
That was not in my head. I dig Throbbing Gristle and I dig the contrast, but Spencer Sings The Hits has a picture of me holding a guitar and it's a record of me playing guitar. It's not like a 180. Throbbing Gristle: that was really extreme music and to see them posed and happy-looking was a much more contradictory thing. I don't see the cover of Spencer Sings The Hits as being that.
You are wearing a monster hand on the cover. Was the hand a special purchase for the photo-shoot with Michael Lavine?
Yes! A very important, considered, and much researched purchase.
I wore the monster hand because I didn't want the photo to be too straight. I don't think this is a very straight rock and roll record, much like some of the records I've made in the past; it's a little bit bent in some ways. And I think it is a little, if you want to say, ‘goofy’. I'm somewhat reluctant to use that word because in the past it's got me into trouble: “Oh, everything you're doing is just a joke, you're not serious about it.” But I still like that kind of playfulness - or goofiness - in my work.
The inner sleeve has a different style of artwork.
There was a period of time when I was considering using that drawing [by local comic book artist Katie Skelly (opens in new tab)] for the cover – the image of a woman superhero-figure listening to a hi-fi (opens in new tab). At one point I even appealed to Larry Hardy at In The Red because I was torn. I gave him the two options: the Michael Lavine photo of me and the drawing by Katie. Larry thought the photo of me was perfect because it encapsulated what was in the record, especially the monster hand. He made special note of the Monster Hand.
There is more rage on the record than I was expecting, the first song, Trash Can included.
That song was straight up anger and frustration. It's mainly operating at the level of a call to arms. But still meant to be a rock and roll dance song.
The album is very much how you feel about being a man, a male artist in 2018?
That's all in there. That's why I didn't use the female superhero cover. It felt somewhat inappropriate.
One of the themes of the record seems to be the tension between doing something new and looking to the past.
Living in America, we’re caught in this time right now where you have people in power who want to force the country back into the past, who are trying to stop the tide of progress and isolate us and turn things backwards. That's been going on for a couple of years and that's what I'm living in. It's going on in other parts of the world as well.
There's that, but there's also me being an older person, a guy who's getting old playing rock and roll, which is a young person's music. And, there's a song like Wilderness, the lyrics all came to me when I went to see a band. They were really good but it was a band that was so heavily steeped in - I can't remember if it was country punk or garage punk - I mean, they were doing it well, but it was too much of a walled-off, retro thing.
Beetle Boots sends out a reminder that it’s “not easy being in a band” and lists some of the pitfalls. Similar to Wilderness, is it actually directed at someone else’s band?
Yes, at someone else. And other bands. But also a note to myself.
Fake also sounds like someone directing his ire outward, but could equally be someone taking himself to task and getting in the mood for renewal.
It could be taken that way, yes.
Another theme that reoccurs is the need for action, as opposed to ‘playing’ and ‘play-acting’.
You could look at this a number of different ways. Right now people in power in the US are trying to shove this unqualified and partisan person on to the highest court in the land. There's my great frustration and feeling of helplessness. What do you do in a situation like this? Helplessness vs. action. There's also the idea of authenticity or legitimacy, as far as music, as far as rock and roll, in what you're playing and what you're saying.
That a necessary response to the current torrent of bullshit is to be honest as a creative artist, including playing rock’n’roll?
Yeah, the truth matters, facts matter.
So rock’n’roll is legitimate action?
I think playing rock'n'roll is legitimate action for playing rock'n'roll. It's not legitimate action for trying to change the world. I think that happened once and it’s probably never going to happen again. But if you want to try to get people to vote there are better ways to go about it and playing a rock'n'roll concert or writing rock'n'roll songs.
I still have faith in rock'n'roll as a worthwhile activity. I don't think I would have made this record and I wouldn't be talking to you otherwise. I believe in that quite firmly. I wanted to make this record. I missed having a band. I wanted to keep doing that. However, I'm not someone who ever believed that punk rock or rock'n'roll was going to usher in a great new era of social justice or feed the world. For me, it's always just been about the rock'n'roll. You can look at my favourite records or look at the kinds of records I've made. It's a thing more unto itself.
You came up at the time when music and politics really intersected in the American underground in the 80s.
When I had just got started there were a lot of people who were very political and there were a lot of political bands. It was not music that appealed to me. I was attracted to rock'n'roll because it was something out of this world and because it was so different and it offered an escape. I was not drawn to it thinking it could be a way to fix the world. Not at all. I wanted something fantastic. Also, I was a different person. I was a young man, largely apolitical. I had no faith in any institutions - everything just seemed totally corrupt and bankrupt.
Have you returned to that level of cynicism?
There's the rub. Now when I'm an older person, a middle-aged man and I have more love for my fellow man and society, there are things happening which I can't help but look at and think, “This is totally corrupt.” There are things, which are just unprecedented but are let slide. Again, Exhibit A: Judge Kavanaugh. The whole thing is just a total shit-show. Even if he's not guilty of sexual assault, his behaviour at the hearing last week means he's completely unqualified. Even if we forget about him lying under oath during his testimony, his demeanour, his attitude, his lack of self-control on the witness stand and his partisanship: talking about this left wing conspiracy and revenge on behalf of the Clintons - that's just crazy. The guy was out of control and just nuts. This is not somebody who should be on the Supreme Court. The FBI investigation is extremely limited. It's not a true thing, yet it's been called as such. There's more and more of this doublespeak and doublethink.
Do you maintain any faith in institutions, in the media and political spheres, especially, or is the American Republic terminally fucked?
I am hanging on to some hope. I am not giving up just yet.
There’s a pair of songs on Spencer Sings The Hits that address the challenges long-term love and intimacy.
I'm 53 and someone who has been together with a person for over 30 years. So yes, there are songs about those things that you mentioned. That's just my daily life - that's where I'm writing from.
Are there specific musical influences on Spencer Sings The Hits?
The biggest reference to me is Pussy Galore - the garage punk influence. When I was writing the songs, almost everything with the exception of I Got The Hits was just single string notes on the guitar. There's no rhythm chords; it's super-simple caveman, super-60s punk-style. That was my MO. I wanted it to be super garage-y, super-nasty, a lot of feedback, fuzzy. I wanted to have metal percussion. I wanted to have bass, but I didn't want to have a traditional electric string bass guitar. I wanted a bass synth. The sound was in my head before I started to write. I like to think that Spencer Sings The Hits has a definite nod to my past, but I hope it's not some kind of rehash or re-tread. It's a modern record and something new, while also looking to my past.
The early Pussy Galore records were written by myself but ever since then I've mostly favoured writing with other people, collaborating with people in my bands. But I didn't have a band and I really wanted to be playing and working. I had tried getting a couple of things going with a couple of different people, but it hadn’t worked.
Could you explain?
I don't want to mention the false starts. But I eventually got fed up and figured, “I’m just gonna make a record. That will get things going.” So everyday I would go down into my basement rehearsal room with my guitar and record bits whenever I hit on something that tickled my fancy. This was last summer - 2017. Then I fleshed the ideas out at home. I made demos with Garageband on my iPhone along with some simple hardware to enable plugging in a microphone & guitar. There was also the bass synth and percussion. On the demos, I just used programmed beats, but I would double things up to try and give the extra clatter - I wasn't actually beating on pieces of metal in my apartment.
How did you use the demos when making Spencer Sings The Hits?
I don't think I ever played the demos to Sam or Sord - maybe once, for one song - but I would just describe the parts. With Sam - because he was playing my bass-lines - I would have to be a little more specific because I had particular lines written, whereas with the drums, there was a little more room. Both Sam and Sord add so much character to the record. Sord has a very unique style of drumming. He was leading the charge on this album.
Making records is often about attention to details. What are some of the minutiae of Spencer Sings The Hits?
About half the songs on the album were recorded with a weird slack guitar tuning. This was done because of the early Pussy Galore records, which were made in a similar way - but done unintentionally. For, the first couple of Pussy Galore records we didn't own a guitar tuner; we just tuned to each other and so most of the time we were playing in some weird loose, slack tuning, which gives a strange feeling to the songs. That was something that I was interested in recapturing.
I don't know if I listened to Groovy Hate Fuck to try and figure out where we were in pitch and tried to match that. At the Spencer Sings The Hits sessions I ended up with two slack tunings: one was ‘very slack’ and one was sort of ‘medium slack’. And for every song we would do a straight take and then I would retune the guitar. Sometimes it sounded good and worked, sometimes it didn't.
The actual recording sessions at the Key Club had to be cut short, I believe.
When we were doing the session last fall, after 2 or 3 days I got a phone call that my father-in-law had had a massive stroke. He was resuscitated and kept alive, but he was gone. There were these 6 or 8 hours where we didn't know what was gonna happen, but it was pretty obvious I would be leaving soon to be with my family. We attempted to keep working but it was a very miserable day. I kept having to stop to take a phone call and figure out what was going on with the family and making travel plans. So, I had to leave early but we had gotten the basics of the record, all 12 songs, from start to finish.
Sam Coomes, instead of changing his flight home, stayed there and hung out for the remaining two or three days. There were some songs he fixed or replayed, and for every song he added something. He fleshed out the sound and added extra layers and voices and keyboard sounds or effects. I called and checked in: it seemed like he was having a pretty good time because the Key Club has so many cool old instruments. When I mixed the record it was a very pleasant surprise to sort through the extra Sam material.
Tell me about the other sessions needed to complete the record.
I went back to the Key Club to do vocals, overdubbing, add extra percussion and mix in January 2018. It was very cold, an Arctic hell-scape: snow, bitter wind, ice everywhere. When we tracked, it was still warm, you could still go swimming in nearby lake Michigan.
At the session in January, both Bill Skibbe and I we're both struggling with our lives. For me, Cristina (Martinez, Spencer’s wife and lead singer in Boss Hog) and I were contemplating buying an old house in upstate New York and moving out of New York City. For Bill, he had had an offer for his old Flickinger console – the one custom made for Sly Stone - and he was weighing whether or not he should sell it.
We were both in the throes of some kind of existential freak-out. There were a lot of long discussions about future plans and possibilities.
What was the outcome of these existential freakouts? You’ve lived in New York City since 1986. Is it really over?
Yeah, me and Cristina bought the place. Now we're trying to sort out the repairs, so we have not moved yet. I guess on some level I've had enough of New York. Or perhaps New York has had enough of me.
I'm not supposed to say who bought the console but Bill did indeed sell it, so Spencer Sings The Hits was one of the last records tracked on the Sly Stone Flickinger console at the Key Club. When I went back to mix, it was another equally cool old console.
You nearly made a solo record once before, round about 2000, after the Blues Explosion’s Acme. I believe you were going to use Douglas Sirk films as titles.
I only got as far as picking which film titles to use: the crazy-colour Hollywood ones with Mr Rock Hudson - All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written On The Wind. It was very much a daydream. It wasn't as if I had started writing songs; no serious work had been done. I was imagining making very different kinds of records from what I was doing at the time. And from all I ever did after. It was going to be true, really traditional, singer-songwriter stuff. I guess it would have been a real test, a real challenge.
The Blues Explosion have actually split this time? This is no hiatus?
It's hard to know what to say. It's not like we had an official end but for me it was helpful in order to move forward and to do things like Spencer Sings The Hits to say, ”OK, this is done. It's over” and to really acknowledge that. Maybe one day … I don't know but it's pretty much… Yeah, I had to get going.
I had also put the brakes on Heavy Trash. Boss Hog made a record, but it's not a full-time thing; we can't be touring all the time. So yeah I think it was a real period of mourning which led up to this new record.
The last two Blues Explosion records – Meat and Bone in 2012 and Freedom Tower from 2015 – are both excellent. That last one doesn’t feel like a band reaching an end-point at all, unlike Damage in 2005.
It's a shame. I think Meat and Bone was the engine revving, feeling the power, stretching out and getting ready to run and Freedom Tower was us really moving now, up to speed. And then everything got nipped in the bud when Judah (Bauer) got sick. He had developed a respiratory problem. He’s doing better now, but he can't be going out on a rock and roll tour.
Other things happened also. It wasn't just Judah’s illness. For multiple reasons, it was, “OK, this is probably over, this is done.”
Posthumously, the Blues Explosion got a massive boost when Baby Driver came out in the summer of 2017.
That was a whole weird experience in itself. It was a great help for the Blues Explosion, but it was kind of odd to have that focus on the band and not be able to work.
A moment for celebration as well as sadness?
Even the celebration part was bit awkward for me, just because of who I am. But yeah, it was sad as well. I don't know how much I wanted to admit that at the time. But God bless Edgar Wright. As if using Bellbottoms in his film wasn’t wonderful enough, we've been able to make a bit of money on the side from that.
For example, Bellbottoms is all over a long Gatorade ad (opens in new tab) with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.
Yes. We approved that. We own the catalogue. We own everything, so if you ever hear the Blues Explosion in a TV advert or in a film, that doesn't happen without us signing off on it.
There’s a song called Gatorade (opens in new tab) on the first Heavy Trash album. I assume the ad agency had no clue they were dealing with someone who had previously used their client’s product as an extended metaphor for going down on a woman?
Any other uses of your music that you think have worked well?
Around about the same time as Baby Driver there was another film called War Machine (opens in new tab), which used the Blues Explosion song Confused (opens in new tab) in the title sequence. I thought that was a very effective usage - nicely done.
There’s a lull in activity from Boss Hog, but that band is still active?
I can't stress enough how much I enjoy working with Boss Hog. I really like hanging out with those people. I really like playing in a band with them. I hope we can do some more of it.
We did a tour of Spain in June and some local area shows. There’s talk about doing a week in England, Scotland and Ireland. So maybe sometime in 2019 we'll do something. We're still in touch and I miss everybody, but do we have new songs? We recorded two or three albums worth of songs but they're all super, super rough. We were writing for many years before we made Brood X. There's probably a bunch of stuff from the sessions for Brood X that could be polished up. Cristina talks about doing that. I don't know if she's going to go ahead. I think something brand new would be better, rather than trying to sift through the old tapes.
In both Boss Hog and on Spencer Sings The Hits you’re the only guitar player and the main counterpoint is a keyboard player. Was playing in Boss Hog an influence on this new record? In all your other outfits there’s been a very dextrous lead guitarist: Neil Hagerty, Matt Verta-Ray, Judah Bauer, Luther Dickinson.
I don't think a major influence. I've always taken solos in the Blues Explosion, in Pussy Galore, even in Heavy Trash, but, yes, there has always been the significant other, the musical foil, the partner. I didn't have that on Spencer Sings The Hits. Sam and Sord are kind of doing it but I didn't write with them. This is very much all ME, my voice.
Maybe one of the ways in which the recent experience with Boss Hog has influenced this album is the sexual politics. It's a very different thing to be in a band with women, especially to be in a band with a woman front person. It's one of the reasons I really like playing in Boss Hog so much. These white male - well, they are not all white - these stupid men in the United States of America, doing all this terrible and abhorrent stuff were definitely on my mind, maybe subconsciously, even consciously at times, when making this record and it's definitely in there. There are a few songs on the album making the case for the ladies to take over, or are attempted from a female-centric point of view.
Another clear nod to Pussy Galore is the use of metal percussion on Spencer Sings The Hits.
I played the metal on the record. It was fun to go out and look for the stuff. As it was January, some of those metal parts were dug out of a lot of snow at the local scrap yard. I really enjoyed that banging around on metal. The record has percussion all over; it's an integral part of the record.
And Bob Bert the drummer and percussionist in Pussy Galore is in your touring band.
When it was time to tour my very first thought was “I should get Bob Bert. I should just call Bob and ask him.” But then I just hemmed and hawed. I even spoke to Bill Skibbe about it: “Do you think I should just go out with Sam and Sord as a three-piece and just get really tight, get the musical bond really strong?” We decided I should get the percussionist in from the start and it should be Bob Bert. I called Bob and he was game.
You went out on tour with the Melvins this summer. How did that happen?
I saw a news item that the Melvins were putting out a new record and they were gearing up for touring and had dates coming up, so I reached out to Dale (Crover) and Buzz (Osborne) and asked them, “I've got a new project, could I open for you?” They were very receptive, super-nice and said they would love for me to do it.
I could have done the whole tour, which went all across the United States, but I didn't want to be out for 8 weeks. I didn't want to bite off too much. Dale and Buzz offered me the pick of the litter. I picked that run of dates in the Midwest at the end of their tour because I thought maybe my album would be out, but it took a lot longer than I thought it would to get the manufacturing rolling and everything printed.
I did about a week's worth of shows with them in the States in the summer and I'm going to do about another week with them in Europe. On both these tours, I have headlining shows of my own.
Your run of dates with the Melvins was very much a Red State tour.
I guess it was a little bit like Pussy Galore and Reagan's America in the 80s: you're going to be traveling through some pretty conservative states but you show up in the city and some freaks are gonna come to the show. The majority of America is, I think, much more progressive than people want you to believe. However, there were some weird times driving through industrial farmland and seeing anti-abortion and gun-rights billboards.
For Europe, again the Melvins again offered me the whole tour but Bob had a prior commitment to play some dates with Lydia Lunch Retrovirus. He’s doing that right now and then he needs a break. He comes home for a week and then we go to Europe.
Bob Bert and metal percussion: are you having any Pussy Galore flashbacks?
No, not so much. It's a little strange but it's nice. I don't really remember much about Pussy Galore. Bob’s my friend. He's somebody I've known a long time. It's nice to hang out with my friend. Since all the dates in the summer were in the Midwest, me and Bob rented a van here in New York City and drove out. So I had two days in the van just with him talking about all sorts of stuff.
Every show there seems to be somebody who comes up to me and says, “it's so cool you have Bob Bert along beating on a gas tank with a hammer.” It's nice that people dig it and are getting a kick out of it.
We always seem to be greeted warmly. We'll see how it goes this fall in Europe. One of the nice things about doing the shows this summer was that the record wasn't out and people had no clue what it was supposed to sound like. Most of what we are doing in the set is just the album but we are playing some Pussy Galore, Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash songs.
Dang, Loveless, Pretty Fuck Look and New Breed: those I’ve seen on a set-list. Any others? And some covers, I believe. Which ones?
If I answered, that will spoil the surprise! I don't know what people were expecting from the new band on the Midwest dates, but when we would kick into a Blues Explosion song you got the sense of recognition from the crowd; they seemed to like it.
Your current band is geographically scattered.
It's not the best situation that Sord lives in Michigan, Sam lives in Oregon and Bob and I live in the New York City area. When we did the shows in the summer, we assembled in Kalamazoo, where Sord lives and we practised for two days straight, 13 hours a day, these marathon sessions in the basement of his house. And then we went and did our first show at First Avenue in Minneapolis. That was one of the shows supporting the Melvins. First Avenue is a great big club. It's famous - it’s where Purple Rain was filmed. So we definitely jumped in the pool at the deep end.
For the European tour, it's up to everybody to practise on their own as much as they can. And we’re going to try and get as much time as we can at the first venue beforehand.
Not only are you alive and healthy, but you’ve largely avoided the kinds of nonsense and shenanigans – financial, narcotic, sexual - that pepper a lot of rock stars’ lives and careers.
You could all put it down to the love of a good woman. Could we leave it at that? I certainly have had plenty of mis-steps and I’ve done plenty of knuckle-headed things in my time. But, what does Popeye say? “I am what I am.”
You’ve been playing music and “in the business” for over 35 years. Has the dickhead quotient been high?
I'm really wary of people who are full of shit and who are not nice people. I don't like to hang around with people like that. I’ve certainly seen some friends and some band-mates really get off on someone sucking up to them. I'd like to think I'm not into that kind of stuff. I’m not into flattery and/or poor behaviour. But why? Are you looking for an anecdote about some guy who was a real prick?
I’m equally happy to hear about some of the great people you’ve crossed paths with.
I'm very happy to be playing with people like Sam and Sord and Bob Bert because they are decent people. I don't want to be in a band with people I don't like; I'm going to be spending a lot of time with them. I want to be able to have a meal together and hang out. I want to be friends with the people I'm working with. Take Sam, as an example. He's basically my age, he's my generation, came out of hardcore, played in all sorts of bands. Granted we’re from very different backgrounds and different parts of the United States of America, but we share a lot in common. It's not just that I was always a fan of Sam's music, but this is a very nice person, friendly, someone you want to have a good conversation with, a kind, humane decent person. It means a lot to me.
You seem to place a lot of emphasis on decency and compassion in your friendships and relationships, including with your wife, Cristina. Have the last two years amplified the importance of those values?
You’ve had a long career and your output has been prodigious, but are there any lost records?
There was a period when Russell had a studio in the 30s in Manhattan. It was where the Blues Explosion was rehearsing and we did a lot of playing to tape, digital ‘tape’. Some of the songs ended up on Damage, some were heavily re-worked and/or cannibalized. There's definitely a whole album, if not a double album of pretty raw stuff that we did when we were messing about. It's my intention to put that out. I've been meaning to do that for years.
Other than that, Boss Hog did demos for Whiteout. These were the demos that were rejected by Geffen that we did at Jerry Teel’s Funhouse studio. Those are really good. They were more punk, more garage rock. It was Boss Hog playing live basically. I think they might be worth putting out. I don't think there's a straight up lost record though.
Didn’t the Blues Explosion try to make a record before Freedom Tower out in Arizona?
Oh yes, that's right. We went to Tucson and worked with Jim Waters. There was a whole batch of songs we were working on that got discarded leading up to Freedom Tower. I don't know if it's a full album, maybe there's an EP in there.
And Heavy Trash’s 4th album?
There you go, that's the lost one, for sure! There's a few songs recorded and mixed properly and a lot of very rough sketches for songs.
Out of all the records you’ve made with numerous bands, which one do you think of as the black sheep?
Perhaps Plastic Fang? Because it was unusual that we were using a producer and it was sort of an attempt to toe the line, a little bit more trying to make a straight record. I guess that one feels a little weird to me.
And the under-rated records?
As for Pussy Galore, it seems like people want to talk about Dial M, but I much prefer Right Now! I think Boss Hog’s Brood X was under-rated. We did get good notices for that record, but it didn't hit in the way I thought it would; I really like that record a lot. Maybe Acme is a bit under-rated. Some of what we were doing - the extreme remix style, the cut and paste style of that record. That was a really sprawling canvas. I don't know if we got the credit we deserved for that.
Your recent records have been made on tighter budgets than some of the earlier ones, such as Acme. Do you think those kind of restraints actually make for better records?
I don't think the amount of money you have to spend or the kind of studio you can afford to rent is ultimately what makes a record good or bad; it's the ideas that are going to make it or break it. That said, it sure is nice to have a big budget and the luxury to make records like Acme. To be able to really stretch out - that was great. Mind you, it was not frivolous spending. We were not having lobster lunches. The money was all spent on goods and services for the record.
You have been creating a visual as well as a musical legacy. There are some very memorable TV appearances, yet do you actually have much of a memory of playing, for example, for Jackie Chan on French TV or miming on the Uncle Floyd Show?
Nope, not much memory of either Floyd or Chan. And like looking at old family photos, the video clips have become false memories.
Which promo videos of yours still hold up in your opinion?
One of my all-time faves is the promo video for Talk About The Blues.
Meet Me In The Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman has become a classic New York music book…
Did you like it?
I like some of the bands in it…
That's not what I asked.
I actually found the beginning quite annoying…
The beginning is the most interesting part - with Stewart Lupton. The problem is that if you compare that book to Please Kill Me the Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain book about the ‘60s and ‘70s NYC music scene, the characters in Please Kill Me are interesting, whereas the people in Meet Me In The Bathroom, I don't think they're that interesting. They think they're pretty interesting or the author thinks they're pretty interesting, but you gotta remember that for the author, that was her scene, she lived it at the time.
Actually, it’s the assumptions about what the beginning was ie. that New York was a musical dead zone in the years preceding 2001. Simon Reynolds is quoted as asking, “Before The Strokes, were there any bands at all?”
That's hyperbole. Do I agree with those views? Not really. I think it was definitely a lot of great music in my scene, which predated that. There is the Eric Davidson book (We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut 1988-2001 (opens in new tab)), which sort of covered that, but not very well.
Lizzy Goodman wanted to talk to me and I initially said no. I routinely turn people down now because I got tired of being misrepresented and misquoted, and mainly because I got tired of reading somebody's version of my history. So I'm trying not to participate in documentaries. I'm happy to do interviews promoting something new, in which I talk about the past. But she was very persistent. “So many other people that I’ve interviewed for the book have mentioned the Blues Explosion, I just want to check a few things with you”. So I gave in. We spoke on the phone for a little while.
Is Ghost on Spencer Sings The Hits about being written out of history or losing fame?
No, it’s more about ageing.
It’s been over a year since you wrote the songs for Spencer Sings The Hits Have you been down the basement in the meantime and written others? Any sense of a second solo record brewing?
I would like very much to try to write with the current band.
The last lines of Spencer Sings The Hits are a list of female superheroes: Batgirl, Sue Storm, Black Widow, She-Hulk, Starfire and Wonder Woman. To me, this makes the album end on a hopeful note: women as the nemeses of the orange piece of shit?
Spencer Sings The Hits! (opens in new tab) is out Nov 2nd. Jon Spencer tours the UK from Oct 23rd with The Melvins, with solo dates in November.