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The pandemic, the rise of the right, the war against truth: Jon Spencer has a lot on his mind. So how come his new album is so much fun?

Jon Spencer
(Image credit: Michael Lavine)

In March of this year, Jon Spencer broke more than two and a half years of silence with a new album, Spencer Gets It Lit, and a month-long tour of the US. This was his longest hiatus since he began performing and recording in the mid-80s. 

Spencer’s re-emergence has been a decidedly mixed bag.

The album is a zesty, playful, twisted and downright entertaining take on both rock ‘n’ roll and recent history. It ranks among his very best, whether made with the Blues Explosion, Pussy Galore, Boss Hog or Heavy Trash.

The tour, however, was something of an ordeal. This was not simply because Spencer got “whacked” with Covid near the start. Seeing the ongoing blight of his homeland by the pandemic and right-wing politics exacerbated the already sour taste in his mouth.

Spencer Gets It Lit is a paradox: a record that is pure Spencer, yet it also bears the strong imprint of his band – The HITmakers: Bob Bert (who played with Spencer in Pussy Galore) on metal percussion; Sam Coomes of Quasi on synths – including synth bass – and vocals; and the mysterious M. Sord – currently no longer a HITmaker – on drums.

Spencer talks to Louder from his home in upstate New York about the creation of Spencer Get It Lit, the challenges of the road and finally leaving New York City.

Louder line break

Louder: For a record that came into being during the pandemic, Spencer Gets It Lit seems to wear the influence of that period quite lightly.

Jon Spencer: When we were making the record out in the Key Club Recording Company in Benton Harbour, Michigan, there were a few times when Bill Skibbe [the co-owner and engineer] would caution me about getting a little too pandemic-specific. 

He also set up – and now runs – Third Man Mastering facilities in Detroit and when they came out of lockdown and resumed operations, Bill was cutting all these records and it was case of: “Yeah, there’s a lot of pandemic songs.” If he, as a mastering engineer, was already sick of it, then people were sure as hell going to be sick of it by the time this record came out.

It was a good note and I took it to heart.

Layabout Trap and Death Ray are the most Covid-era songs on the album?

I suppose you’re right. The most obvious is the bonus track on the CD – Germ vs. Jerk. I just couldn’t help myself.

The sessions at the Key Club were delayed by over a year.

Initially we were meant to record in April of 2020 and that got thrown out of the window. So it wasn’t until July of 2021 that it seemed like it would be safe enough to attempt a recording session. 

I really didn’t feel like flying. I’d inherited a car, so I thought, “Fuck it, I’m just going to drive out there and take a bunch of gear and not have to get in a jet aeroplane with a bunch of strangers.”

The plan was to try to cut 12 tracks. We were a little slow starting. Bob was actually late. He was going to fly out and his flight was cancelled. He was so frustrated by spending a day in the airport waiting that he also said, “Fuck it” and he got in his car and drove out. Once we got everything happening, we got all 12 tracks done and had time to record another three. 

You’ve recorded before at the Key Club, with Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion, as well as the HITmakers. Was it a different experience this time?

There’s not a lot to do there in Benton Harbor. Whenever I’m there, I’m basically in a studio bubble anyway. Largely we were just there in the studio or in the apartments above it, where we lived. 

In the summer you can go to the beach out on the lake, which is very nice, and we definitely did do that, but it’s not like there’s a cool bar – at least not for me – to go and hang out in, or nice restaurants. We did go out and get take-away. We were always wearing masks, if we were out in public. We were all vaccinated, double vaxxed at that point. 

Bill lives there with Jessica [Ruffins], his wife and co-owner, and their young daughter. They were very concerned about the well-being of their family, so we were as careful as we could be. 

For Spencer Sings The Hits, your previous album, the sessions were cut short. Did things go as planned this time for Gets It Lit?

I was out there for 21 straight days. And they were long days: 10, 12 hours a day easily.

When I got back home there was a period of a couple of weeks where revisions were done at a distance. I would send notes to Bill or Brian Fox, the assistant engineer.

Initially when I got back, I was kinda dismayed. I was really struck how there were differences from the first record. Then I realised that it was a strength that it was different.

Although it’s obviously a ‘Jon Spencer record’, Gets It Lit does sound markedly different from your other records, even quite different from Sings The Hits. Can you explain why?

On the first record it’s me banging around on metal and this time it’s Bob. It’s the band playing live. It’s an actual band, a band that had played many shows. We hadn’t played for over a year – 18 months maybe – when we made this record, but we had played a lot of shows through 2018 and 2019 and over that time had built up a language and understanding and the kind of muscles you get from playing night after night.

This record also doesn’t have any of the Pussy Galore slack guitar tunings from the first record. This has less of a guitar feedback/guitar overdub schmear, two or three guitars playing the same thing, thin trebly guitars. This time it’s mainly one guitar.

And his record has more Sam. That was definitely my plan. More of his vocal presence. 

And there’s a heavier bottom end, it seems to me? Fuzz guitar and synth often together…

Nothing wrong with that. I’ll take it!

That combination of drum kit and metal percussion: Sord and Bob sound really good.

With this album, I shared the demos with the band. For the first record I didn’t share them with anybody. My hunch is that Sam had learned them, but I don’t know if Bob and Sord had spent that much time studying them [laughs]. 

Sord, bless his heart, could just sit down before the take, listen a few times on his headphones make a few notes and then he would have it. Sord is such an incredible drummer. Some of the drum parts [in the demos] were just made by tapping on a microphone or drumming my fingers on a table top, so Sord was translating these incredibly rudimentary patterns into something fully realised on a drum kit. It was my intention that things would be fleshed out a little bit but Sord was really a stickler for getting it exact. It was astonishing: “Holy shit! That’s it right there!”

So it isn’t straight-up rock ‘n’ roll record: the way the synths are used, the metal and there’s also, what would you call them, ‘sound textures’?

I’m someone who’s a huge fan of Joe Meek, amongst other famous abusers of technology.

Take Death Ray as an example: there’s fuzz guitar; baritone fuzz guitar, Sam’s synths – bass and a higher key sound – and then he has what he calls the Squawk Box, like a toy. You can’t really play it, it just produces noise. 

And in addition to that, the sound of parts of Bob’s metal kit were reproduced by a combination of old school classic mic placement and contact mics. Brian Fox the sound engineer custom made some contact mics for the session, which proved to be invaluable. Someone banging on a piece of metal is such a loud and such an out of control sound, so glueing or sticking on or clamping a contact mic right on the sound source close-by to where Bob’s hitting it, you only get the sound of the gas tank, or the one piece of metal that Bob’s striking, unlike with an acoustic, through-the-air microphone. Some times you get these strange sounds, very dead, junkyard metal clunks, low end, a lot of bass. 

Death Ray and a lot of other songs were using these Eventide Harmonizer (opens in new tab) delays. They worked great for these contact mics on Bob’s kit. So those laser sounds or Dr Who noises on Death Ray throughout that song they are the sound of metal delays just feeding back on themselves. 

Gets It Lit has been billed a sort of ultimate Jon Spencer record…

You gotta say that every record. We’re trying to sell something here!

Although you wrote the songs and ran the sessions, it’s still obviously a band record.

I guess we can chalk that up to all the touring and playing together.

I agree when you get compared to Captain Beefheart. Not that this record sounds like him, it’s more the approach to rock ‘n’ roll. Devo also seems apt?

I’ll take Beefheart. And Devo, for sure. Oh yeah. When I was teenager I wasn’t listening to Beefheart but I was listening to Devo – they were a prime influence. I wasn’t listening to Devo when writing this album but Devo is one of those bands that are so engrained and continue to astonish. They really understood rock ‘n’ roll; they were really using the DNA and the elements from rock ‘n’ roll, but doing something new. 

The strong visual element was so well executed and the theory, the manifesto, we sadly see it coming true and playing out here in modern American society.

At the Key Club there’s a small TV and a VCR player and they have a collection of VHS cassettes and they have that early Devo quasi-, documentary The Men Who Make The Music. At one point we did put that on [laughs]. It had been a long time since I’d seen that. Such a great band.

Gets It Lit has a lot of humour. Get It Right Now lists Bezos, Zuckerberg and Bill Gates as ‘those punks’ who ‘got nothing on me’.

And Elon Musk should have been on there!

And Mick Jagger and Billy Joel are on the list. And Daryl Hall and John Oates.

Can’t have one without the other. 

It’s just stupid. There is a playful quality to a list like that, setting yourself up for comparison with the ‘cool rock stars’. Mick Jagger was cool, if this song was written in 1972. So it’s kinda ridiculous.

It’s very Dada - incongruity and absurdity as legitimate responses to the catastrophe of World War One. Spencer Gets It Lit is a response to-

The current catastrophe. Wow. That’s a great idea but for this record, like all the others, there was no great concept going in. I didn’t have a flow chart or a thesis written out but I like your point.

It really is a fun record.

When I was writing it, it was pretty dark but I was surprised that all together it was more lively, more positive, more life-affirming. I was surprised and pleased.

Get Up and Do It, the last song on the album, does note that “time is running out” and that you’re “sick of these clowns” before listing some vintage dances. It concludes that, if you “need some soul in your town, do the James Brown.” It seems to be an extended metaphor for partnership and group action.

It’s a call to action but it’s cloaked in a playful way. Or absurd, in that the dances which I’m listing are mostly from the 60s, out of date and out of fashion. But for me, as a fan of old soul music and other kinds of old music, I want to shout the Mashed Potato and all that other shit. 

That song was written a long time ago and was meant to be done as part of a different project, so it was reworked for this record. And initially the lyrics were much more negative. It took a more political tack. I ended up softening it. It’s a call to action, but it has some sugar in there to help it go down.

The Worst Facts seems to be two sets of lyrics joined together: a dig at a band and their lime green Econoline, which segues into a defence of reason and logic: "You gotta know science and math!”

Yeah, it starts out as a diss track and then turns into social commentary. It was written like that. It’s closer in theme to a lot of the stuff that’s on the first record, addressing questions of authenticity. And unfortunately we are still living in this post-truth world.

Cristina Martinez, your wife and member of Boss Hog, once compared you to Spock because you really can’t bear illogicality. All this science-denying bullshit must drive you nuts.

I must be naïve but I was really shocked by how stupid and selfish people were during the pandemic. This was not the time society rose up and we helped each other out. Instead it became a lot of people bitching about nothing and spouting nonsense, which was politicized to such a degree. Just fucking shameful.

As well as the similarity in the album titles between Spencer Sings The Hits and Spencer Gets It Lit, there’s a consistency in the design.

This is part of a trilogy.

Jon Spencer

(Image credit: Michael Lavine)

Michael Lavine photographed you again, this time in a cape and on throne. Those are references to…

Solomon Burke. James Brown. Little Richard

The monster hand from the cover Sings The Hits has gone. This time there are just three drawn-on fingernails …

One stands for Kavanaugh. On stands for Alito. And the other for Ginny Thomas.

But seriously…

It’s not super heavy symbolism. They’re representing scary monster fingernails. 

The last time I interviewed you for Louder was in the middle of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and you were apoplectic.

You’re bringing up some terrible stuff. Now we see the fruit of the Federalist Society judges that have been installed. This conservative majority is about to strike down Roe v. Wade and they’re going to do all sorts of terrible things. 

Brett Kavanaugh – what a fucker that guy is! A terrible, terrible person. My memory of that time is just being so angry and outraged – I guess that guy is my age – and feeling so ashamed. This is supposed to be the best of my generation?! Politics aside, just the way he behaved during his hearing was just astonishing and disrespectful. And he’s there for life. 

We really are re-enacting the 2018 interview now.

Yeah. Sorry.

The comics artist and illustrator, Katie Skelly, provided artwork for both albums. This time, a pair of female figures, one running with a lit match, one holding a fire-hose.

Fire Girl and the Fire-Fighter. And on the CD there’s a third figure: the Death Ray Girl.

On balance, which of them are you feeling most like at the moment?

Oh, Fire Girl.

Jon Spencer Fire girl

'Fire girl' by Katie Skelly (Image credit: Katie Skelly)

There’s very little outright raging on the record though…

It was impossible to make this record without having the pandemic influence. There were some personal things going on with my family, periods of stress and turmoil and worry, on top of and alongside a global pandemic. It wasn’t just me. Other people in the band experienced tragedy. But it was a time to write about it in a way that people would not get turned off: “I don’t wanna hear about it. I just lived through it.”

You rode out the pandemic in New York City, at its worst another kind of ground zero.

At the height of it, New York City was really scary, the shit really hit. Living through 9-11 and the pandemic, the rest of the country had their own take about stuff, but “Fuck you, me and my family are the ones living through it!” And so it’s always a bit frustrating to see the rest of the country – including some politicians – take very personal experiences and distorting them for political ends, or to make some political point that I don’t agree with.

You and Cristina finally moved out of the city to a house upstate last year.

The last days for us in New York City were during such a strange period of time. Our lives and our behaviour were already changing as we got older and that intersected with this monumental shift – pandemic lockdown/shutdown – in the city. Do I miss the city? No, not really.

So after more than three decades you’re just gone?

I suppose so.

Your musical identity has been very much bound up with New York. Do you think your creativity will be affected by the move?

Remains to be seen. 

The records have been created in my mind or have been born out of a fantasy space or by willing something into being that I wished existed. I think that’s what I always liked about rock ‘n’ roll, that it was a chance to escape, or be more, or remake oneself. So I think the stuff has always just been in my head, so maybe it doesn’t really matter so much where I’m at.

In 2020 you made a short video for the Save Our Stages campaign by NIVA (the National Independent Venues Association) with you playing some of ‘Bellbottoms’ unamplified to a dog in a garage. i) What’s the story behind that? and b) When…

First of all, you went i) and then b) …

You’re right. That wasn’t logical …

That’s where my mother-in-law used to live. And the dog used to be hers. 

I thought I would try to make something cool this organisation could use and I don’t think they ever did. It slipped through the cracks

And when you emerged back into the world of touring, what was your impression of the state of things for independent venues in the US?

Some venues are gone. Talking to promoters and people working in the clubs we were at in the United States and Canada, many of them talk about how difficult it has been and how difficult it continues to be, how they are struggling to get staff.

It’s a continuing struggle with the virus – it’s always a minefield, a crap-shoot. I would advance a show with a person and then on the day of the show, we’d get to the venue and this person was in the hospital, for instance. We played a show and then two days later we got a message that somebody at the venue that day is now testing positive.

What I noticed more is that a lot of other businesses are gone. Returning to a place I’ve played more than once, walking around outside the venue you’d find, ‘Oh, that coffee shop has gone, or the used book-store, that’s gone now.” A lot of businesses went belly-up. It’s not just music venues.

How did you complete a Covid-blighted rock ‘n’ roll tour?

(Laughs) Probably not very well. You just gotta get through it. People coming to shows are not wearing masks even if you make an appeal for them to do that. It was inevitable that somebody in the band would get sick.

We had to cancel five dates. 

Once I got a negative test, I re-joined the group and we picked the shows back up. They probably weren’t the best shows ever but we played. I think playing and working probably helps; performing definitely gives me a good way to beat back any illness. 

It’s a very strange time to be touring. We are in a pandemic and I know so many other bands and musicians that were getting sick and having to cancel tours, cancel shows. I don’t know how the industry is meant to survive. 

The HITMakers’ Instagram has evidence of outdoor socialising over fruit pie. Did you meet up with friends on tour you’d not seen for ages?

Not that many. We’re working extra hard not to get sick and part of that is not interacting with people. We were just staying backstage. Then we do the show and go back. We’re not out meeting people. We’re not out socialising. And a lot of the people I knew and I invited to the shows, would politely decline. And a good chunk of our audience stayed home, which I can understand.

There were a couple of instances where we had some pie though.

We saw Kid Congo Powers in Tucson. He’s such a sweetheart and I’m looking forward to his book (Some New Kind of Kick (opens in new tab)).

So it wasn’t all bad out on tour?

It was extremely difficult. I think I was sick from the start and I chalked it up to being old. There had been almost three years since we played a show and there’s a big difference between 54 and 57. I mean that’s part of it, but I was sick. It’s stressful sticking to our agreed rules in our Covid bubble, the smaller crowds and we had a new drummer. And Bob had Covid, so we did the first three shows as a trio. And when Bob did join us in Chicago, he was recovering, he was very weak.

It was tough. And touring the States, there are a lot of long drives, so it was a slog.

During this tour, we got the leaked Roe v. Wade decision that’s coming. I typically talk for a little bit during a show about what’s on my mind and at a certain point during the tour these vamps and raps became much more political, talking about the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the pandemic. It would vary from night to night but some nights I’d be just screaming, which I don’t think was terribly effective. People coming to see the HITmakers, I don’t think it’s that broad of a political spectrum – maybe I’m wrong – it’s a bit of an echo chamber. 

Do you think the current right wing shit-storm is cut from the same cloth as Nixon and Reagan, that same backlash against social and cultural change?

No, this is not kind of the same. I think this has roots there, definitely in the Reagan administration, which was the beginning of the dismantling of the modern American society of the New Deal. This has been a systematic long game played by the conservatives to dismantle federal regulations for industry and to take apart federal programmes which help people and help our society run and to basically dismantle the federal government in league with Christian groups, which have their own agenda. Each side is holding their noses to get something out of it. Look at the election of Trump, a guy with a long history of immoral, amoral behaviour, yet the religious fanatics fell in line behind him because there was a deal made where he would appoint judges at all levels of the court system, especially the Supreme Court. And here we are.

We’re looking down a long, dark tunnel. But I still have hope that we’ll get out of this. I think people do want to have a government that helps them and takes care of them. I guess I do believe in the march of progress. There might be side-steps, or steps backward or stumbles, but we will continue to move forward.

Jon Spencer & the HITmakers tour:

Jun 09: Hare and Hounds, Birmingham, UK
Jun 10: Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, UK
Jun 11: The Cluny 2, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
Jun 12: Broadcast, Glasgow, UK
Jun 14: The Deaf Institute, Manchester, UK
Jun 15: Thekla, Bristol, UK
Jun 16: London Oslo, London, UK
Jun 17: 4AD, Diksmuide, Belgium
Jun 18: Kids 'n' Billies Festival, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Jun 19: Fête de la Musique, Izel, Belgium
Jun 21: Muziekgieterij, Maastricht, Netherlands
Jun 22: De Helling, Utrecht, Netherlands
Jun 23: Centre Culturel René Magritte, Lessines, Belgium
Jun 24: Concertzaal De Casino, Sint-Niklaas, Belgium
Jun 25: Patronaat, Haarlem, Netherlands
Jun 26: Rotown, Rotterdam, Netherlands

For more info visit the band's Bandcamp page. (opens in new tab)

Mark Andrews is from Warwickshire and lived and worked in the UK, Egypt and Belgium. His first book, Paint My Name In Black And Gold: The Rise Of The Sisters Of Mercy (opens in new tab), is the definitive account of the early years of one of alt.rock's most original and influential bands. Mark has previously written for Louder about the Sisters of Mercy, as well as The Scientists, Gang Of Four (one of the last interviews with Andy Gill), The Mission, the Cramps, the Bad Seeds and more. He has also written for the Middle East Times, Bangkok Metro, Flanders Today and The Quietus.