The first time I saw the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, I had a modicum of knowledge about their music. It was one of those shows you go to, because you didn’t have anything else planned. After the show had ended, I told people that I felt as if I’d just seen Elvis (and I don’t mean Costello). Rapid fire rock and roll, fired out of a cannon with no breaks betweens songs and no song list. The energy, the sweat, the swagger was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I’ve seen them a dozen times since then and they’ve never ceased to amaze. I interviewed Jon a couple of years ago (one of my fave interviews ever and one that Jon indicated was one of his favorites too). Upon hearing that they were going out on tour, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to Jon again. I must say, he was a bit more cantankerous, denying his influence on The Black Keys and The White Stripes, which is fair. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion didn’t just influence those great bands. They redefined alternative rock and taught all of us that it was ok to be loud, boisterous and intent on blowing up the slacker attitude that had infected indie rock. Actually, the trio influenced a generation of rock and roll that probably doesn’t even realize it. They are the Elvis and James Brown of our times.
Todd: So often, later in their careers, bands seem to run out of ideas. Quite the contrary with your newest record, Meat and Bone. Given the struggles that many bands have with staying vibrant, how did you approach writing this record?
Jon: We took a few years off. I wanted focus on my other band, Heavy Trash and I wanted to play music with other people and play other kinds of music. So we didn’t work together for three years and then in 2007, In The Red released the Jukebox Compilation, which is a collection of some of the singles we did for them. After that, we started to get a lot of offers to play again. We did a real quick tour with some festivals in the summer. We enjoyed it, so we started taking more shows and started working more and more. In 2010, we did reissues of all of our albums and then in 2011 we started talking about making another album. For me personally, it was a bit of a hurdle to play again. I was nervous about how it would go. It’s like training for a marathon or a prize fight when you go on tour. But the link between the band members was still there. It was like when the band started because we were doing it for ourselves. We weren’t under contract and didn’t owe anybody any money. We used the money we saved from tours to pay for the recording. We’ve always been very independent and wanted to make the album on our own terms.
The other thing I was a bit nervous about was that we were on tour in Australia and were asked to record a version of a song for a television commercial. We went into a studio in Sydney for a day and recorded it. That was kind of a hurdle because it was the first time we’d been back in a studio together in a long time. We were able to get a good take and were happy with it. Afterwards, we found out that the ad agency had contacted a lot of bands, but they chose us for the commercial. So that was a nice hurdle to overcome, because it was the first time we’d done something like that. I think for me, at the end of that day, it felt good and I felt like we could still work as a recording band.
Most of the songs on Meat and Bone were written in the summer of 2011. We tracked in in October of 2011 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. We didn’t finish mixing until the fall of 2012! There were a few songs that were older and had kind of percolated for a couple of years. We holed up in our basement and wrote in the same way we always have, by getting together and playing. I think in some ways the reissues were an influence on this record. Playing together and telling the history of the band, rediscovering somethings. I think we took some power and energy from the old stuff. I don’t think Meat and Bone is us saying, “Hey, let’s get together and do something like our second album.”. I think Meat and Bone is the product of the band today and a band that has played together for twenty years.
Todd: What difference was there in the process?
Jon: We don’t really discuss things together. It’s always been about getting together and playing. We don’t sit around and talk about what kind of songs we want to write. The songs just kind of happen. We’ll polish and edit as we see fit.The only time we talked about things was that we were going to do it on our own. I took that as kind of a vote of confidence from Judah and Russell. In an early time, I’ve always been very hands on. We’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of creative producers and engineers over the years, but this time we did it all by ourselves. Perhaps that confidence came from those reissues.
Todd: Live, the band is so spontaneous. You don’t even use a setlist, right?
Jon: We don’t!
Todd: I imagine that’s what the recording process is like too?
Jon: No, playing a concert and making a record are very different things for us. You’re paying for the studio time. We’ve done that, where we just play something off the top of our head, but Meat and Bone wasn’t like that. We recorded at a studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan for eleven days and we lived in the studio, which was nice. It had apartments above it, so we recorded all day and all night. We had twenty songs written and ready to go. We mainly focused on getting good takes and good sound. The studio had a great collection of different mics, drums and amps. Depending on the song, we would use different amps and different room placements. It was focused in a different way than a concert. We hit a snag where the multi-track 2″ machine broke down, so we couldn’t record for two days, which was frustrating. When we went there I thought there might be time to just throw stuff against the wall and see what worked but because of that, we ran out of time.
Todd: Deservedly, you have a reputation as an incredible live band. When you are making a record, are you trying to capture that live energy?
Jon: Not exactly, they’re very different experiences. Meat and Bone is based on a live performance, which is a formula we’ve used for a long time. Even Talk About The Blues, which is filled with samples started with a base live track. We’re in the studio, but there’s a live performance going on. When we record, it may take several takes before we’re satisfied with everything about the song. Meat and Bone is a lively record, but it wasn’t my intention to try and re-create a live performance.
Todd: You’re performing on David Letterman, which is terrific. Not the first time though, right?
Jon: It is the first time! My first time, anyway. Judah was on with Cat Power and Russell played with Tom Waits.
Todd: Do they give you advice on playing Letterman or are you so far beyond needing that….?
Jon: No, I’m scared! It’s great. I’m very happy, but tomorrow will be a very nervous day?
This interview was conducted the day before the Letterman appearance. Here’s video of the segment!
Todd: Is this your biggest television appearance?
Jon: I’m not sure. We’ve done appearances in Europe, Japan and Australia. In the U.S., we’ve done very little: Carson Daly, Craig Ferguson… No, it was the guy before John Ferguson. And we did the old Jon Stewart show that was on MTV.
Todd: Are you still using the theramin?
Jon: We use it live, but we didn’t use it on Meat and Bone.
Todd: What are you going to be playing on the new tour?
Jon: We try to focus on the new album, but we play a lot of our old songs. As the tour goes along we rearrange song and as I said, we don’t use a setlist. On stage, I’ll call a song or I’ll just start something.
Todd: Is that how you keep it fresh?
Jon: It helps. It was my idea and each of us in the group had experience with setlists with other bands and it always felt like a drag. You’d get to a song and it didn’t feel appropriate at that moment in the set. Also, you end up staring at a piece of paper, when we’d rather be looking at each other. Our biggest inspiration is James Brown and that’s what he would do.
Todd: With as big a discography as you have, can you still call out any song and play it?
Jon: No, but we dust off songs all the time. I’m not able to play “stump the band”. If we get enough calls from the audience, we’ll work it out for the next show. We were getting a lot of calls for Brenda, so we dusted it off and added it to the set.
Todd: I read an interview that talked about other bands (Black Keys, White Stripes) that were influenced by you. I remember seeing you when you brought RL Burnside to open you, which led me to start exploring the blues. So I was surprised to hear you say that you’re a punk band, not a blues band….
Jon: I don’t know those people, so I’m not going to comment on them. I’ve always said that I play rock and roll, not blues. We’re influenced by blues artists like RL Burnside, who was a huge influence. But the name is kind of a flip of the bird. We’re not a blues band. I’m not trying to disrespect the blues, but I’m not going to classify us as blues.
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Catch them on tour!
Jan 20 One Eyed Jacks New Orleans, LA
Jan 21 Fitzgerald’s Houston, TX
Jan 22 Red 7 Austin, TX
Jan 23 Trees Dallas, TX Tickets
Jan 24 The Rev Room Little Rock, AR
Jan 25 Hi-Tone Cafe Memphis, TN
Jan 26 Exit/In Nashville, TN
Feb 07 Sala Apollo Barcelona, Spain
Feb 08 Sala But Madrid, Spain
Feb 09 ANTZOKIA Bilbao, Spain
Feb 10 Le Bikini Ramonville-Saint-Agne, France
Feb 11 Paloma Nîmes, France
Feb 12 MOLODICIOTTO MUSICA 90 Torino, Italy
Feb 13 Circolo degli Artisti Rome, Italy
Feb 14 La Scuderia Bologna Bo, Italy
Feb 15 Auditorium Flog Firenze, Italy
Feb 16 Interzona Verona, Italy
Feb 17 Pogon Jedinstvo Zagreb, Croatia
Feb 18 Arena Vienna, Austria