Jon Spencer Hit-Storm:
Bluesy Funky Rockabilly Thrash Still Rules, Okay?
“Set the Wayback Machine for Never,” proclaims Jon Spencer as he makes his proper solo debut on Jon Spencer Sings the Hits. That’s a pretty good line. It starts out as a rock-critic cliché and twists into a mocking manifesto for a notoriously self-aware artist.
The lyric’s also a call for action, with Hits wrapping up a fine trilogy as Spencer enters his fifties. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion made a dramatic and soulful return in 2015 with Freedom Tower, followed by Spencer reuniting in the studio with his bride Cristina Martinez as Boss Hog for the striking goth-psyche of 2017’s Brood X.
So it made perfect sense for the veteran band member – who’s also made three fine albums as a member of Heavy Trash – to then leave the past behind with a proper solo debut at 53 years old. Of course, that high concept is kind of news to Spencer as he talks from his NYC home.
“I never really thought of it that way,” says Spencer. “It’s definitely not thematically connected. You’re right about the history, but doing the Hits album all by myself wasn’t something that I preferred to do. It was the only outlet that I had available. The Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash had kind of stopped, and Boss Hog isn’t a full-time thing. The Blues Explosion couldn’t even tour when we were getting a lot of attention off of Baby Driver. It was frustrating.”
There’s another fine twist. The Blues Explosion had taken several breaks over the years, but no hiatus so hard that they wouldn’t even cash in when 1994’s “Bellbottoms” kicked off film director Edgar Wright’s breakout actioner as the musical backing to an epic heist scene.
That left Spencer facing the abyss of being a solo artist. “I really missed having a group,” he says, “but it just meant that I went and made the record first. The concept in my head was to have the bass on the synth, and then add metal percussion and be very crude in a ‘60s punk way.”
Fortunately, the solitary man hadn’t lost his knack for getting together a crew. Spencer brought in Sam Coomes on synthesizer, and that turned out to be a brilliant move. The former Quasi singer comes in with a heavy hand that gives Hits a righteously ominous feel. The fuzz grounds the desperation of Spencer frantically pleading for everyone to finally get rockin’ right for once.
M. Sord (aka Mike Gard) first met Spencer in 2012 during the production of the Explosion’s Meat + Bone album at the Keyclub Studios in Michigan. “He was like the handyman,” says Spencer, “and turned out to be a great drummer.” And anyone attending the Jan. 16 show at The EARL gets the bonus of Bob Bert from Pussy Galore sitting in on additional primitive percussion.
Spencer fronted that pioneering ‘80s band, too. At the time, Bert seemed like the member with all the talent. Spencer doesn’t mind somebody saying so, either. He remembers the days when he had as many detractors as fans, with a lot of people not used to heavy rockers incorporating hype and even hip-hop into bluesy rock blowouts.
“It’s something that’s dogged me,” Spencer notes. “Certainly, the Blues Explosion was criticized for being a minstrel show or a parody. I kind of understand that, but I was playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band because I love rock ‘n’ roll shows. That was the motivation: ‘I love this record, and, man, I want to make my own record and beat it myself.’ Then there were some post-modern trappings as far as the sound and the visuals and the subject matter. I guess that’s what tripped people up.”
Spencer hasn’t been cowed by his detractors, though – and Hits is full of his own hits taken at rockers who usually just manage a single album playing at Spencer-level velocity before devolving into grunge. He risks being blasted as a curmudgeon with calls against “counterfeit punk,” and blasts lesser acts cursed with “wrong priorities, misguided intentions [and] ironic distance.”
“I’ve always done those kinds of songs,” says Spencer, “but I guess this new record has quite a few. ‘Fake’ and ‘Beatles Boots’ and ‘Wilderness’ are all talking about authenticity. It kind of dovetails into the larger trend in today’s world about what’s real and what’s fake, and the crazy world we find ourselves in today.”
The world’s so crazy that Spencer isn’t even speaking as a proper elder statesman. He’ll never have the iconic clout of an Iggy, but the guy certainly deserves to at least be a Roky. The past two decades have seen plenty of aspiring Next Big Things looking to break through via Spencer’s various pioneering visions.
“That’s a nice thought,” Jon amiably agrees. “Maybe the article could be called ‘Jon Spencer Gets the Last Laugh.’ I guess, to some degree, each new project is greeted with some enthusiasm. We played some dates this summer before the record was released, and the response was very warm. It’s been a little more quiet with the record out, though. It would be nice if people over here got into it.”
That would help on selling any concept of Spencer’s last laugh. It also would’ve helped if Spencer and his bandmates had jumped on that Baby Driver action. Things could be worse, though. Spencer has seemingly settled into a good home at the In the Red label, where founder Larry Hardy has also taken in contemporaries like The Dirtbombs, Scientists, and even Sparks.
“I’ve been very lucky,” says Spencer, “but I’ve worked very hard. I want to get right back in the studio with this new band and start writing with them – and Larry’s been great at getting these records out with In The Red. I guess you can think of him as a kindred spirit. He’s unassuming and very hard-working, and he loves crazy fucked-up punk.”
Photo by Michael Lavine.