There comes a time when nothing else but a brain-hammering session with Pussy Galore‘s 1989 album Dial M For Motherfucker will do. And not just to clear the house of your so-called friends who’ve been sloshing cheap wine on your expensive new carpet all night. (Although it might work for that, too.) Jon Spencer, the man who shocked and awed the world with the noisiest band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, went on to form three more exhilarating combos: Boss Hog (with his wife Cristina Martinez), Heavy Trash (his most recent band) and, of course, the stunning Blues Explosion, whose recent career-spanning compendium, Dirty Shirt Rock ‘N’ Roll (Majordomo), tells you plenty about the DNA of the man in charge. (The label is reissuing expanded versions of out-of-print Blues Explosion albums Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro tomorrow.) Also out tomorrow is Amsterdam Throwdown King Street Showdown (Bronze Rat), the new album by Spencer, Martinez and Solex’s Elisabeth Esselink. In case you need more, Spencer leapfrogs through his musical career as a tune-up for his week-long guest-editing stint at magnetmagazine.com.
MAGNET: Where did you grow up, Jon?
Spencer: I was born and raised in Hanover, N.H., a small town in the middle of the state. My father taught chemistry at Dartmouth College. I had older siblings, but neither of ’em were too crazy about rock ‘n’ roll. There was a lot of opera and classical music in my house. My mother was a big fan. I listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when I was a kid. But I didn’t start seriously buying stuff until I was an adolescent. I was born in ’65 and grew up in the ’70s. The stuff that really had an attraction for me was what was called new wave at the time. I was really into Devo, Kraftwerk and the Residents. Rock music just sounded awful, a real turn-off, all through the ’70s. I come from a small town. There is such an easy access to music these days that just didn’t exist then. There was no cable television, no internet, no compact discs. I don’t think we got cable TV until ’83. And that was a big thing because there was this program called Night Flight on the USA Network. It went from midnight to four in the morning, and I could see things. It was very hard to find out about music where I grew up. Dartmouth was not a very wild and loose place. It’s not like I was hanging out. I was a very straight, good kid.
Were you into the New York punk stuff, like the Ramones?
You heard about punk stuff, maybe, but information slowly filtered through. I won a subscription to Heavy Metal magazine as an art prize. I’d read about some bands in a column, then start sending away for records. When I finished high school, I went away to Brown in Providence, R.I., for a couple of years. But that was the stuff I was into then, kind of futuristic, science-fictiony, a little strange. Then I slowly got interested in rock ‘n’ roll and really discovered what true rock ‘n’ roll is: very strange music. It’s not something that seems to be celebrated in this country. It’s a shame. This is one of the great contributions we’ve made to the world. We seem to be a little bit ashamed of it.
So how did you get from that upbringing to Pussy Galore, one of the weirdest, craziest, loudest bands ever?
I just began to move to more extreme groups and sounds. I became very much into straight-up industrial noise, bands like Throbbing Gristle, early Einstürzende Neubauten. Also the Swans and Sonic Youth were just starting. And the no-wave stuff from New York. I was really into noise and into confrontation. I was very angry. I then got into ’60s punk and the thing that started me down that road was the Back From The Grave series on Crypt Records. When I was at Brown, I started playing in bands. Played bass for a pretty straight-up garage group and was banging on pieces of metal for an industrial-noise group. Then somewhere we put the two of ’em together and started Pussy Galore.
It was a very cool band.
We were a cool band. We made some records and put ’em out ourselves. Hardcore taught me a lot; one of the things was if you want to go on tour, go ahead, book a tour. You could put out a record, make a fanzine, do it yourself. It was a feeling that I still carry with me to this day. Pussy Galore, we played around, went to Europe a couple times. It was always a bit volatile. We were young, and you’re still trying to figure out how to get along with people. It was still quite new, the whole underground scene. Things were still coming together. You had all these electric bands like Electric Eels in Cleveland, the Replacements in Minneapolis. Weird bands inspired by the Stooges or the Velvets that were springing up. There wasn’t really this tour network set up, but it started happening, thanks to bands like Black Flag, who laid the groundwork. That Michael Azerrad book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, is an enjoyable book to read. It was an exciting time. You’d go out to Chicago and get to meet Big Black. You’d go to Detroit and meet the Laughing Hyenas. I felt very connected to a scene. People ask if I ever felt connected with the Blues Explosion, and no, I didn’t, not really.
Any particular crazy nights on the road with Pussy Galore that stick out?
We weren’t hell-bent on destruction or anything. We weren’t shooting up dope. Not all of us were. The wildest night? There’s no stereotypical, clichéd rock ‘n’ roll groupie story. First of all, I can’t remember much of it. The classic story is when we did the very last tour with Pussy Galore after Julie Cafritz had left the band, right after Dial M For Motherfucker. It was the lineup with me and Bob Bert, Neil Hagerty and Kurt Wolf, the four guys. We did four weeks in August, not the best time to tour, all through the south and southwest. The whole tour, Neil had a Samsonite piece of luggage, a big old-fashioned suitcase. But he always wore the same clothes. He’d change his clothes when somebody gave him a T-shirt or he got something at a Salvation Army. We were coming back into the U.S. from playing Montreal going to Boston. And we’re getting stopped at the border and they’re going through our stuff. We’re getting tossed. So, they go to open Neil’s bag, and we’re all standing around. And the only thing that’s in there is a deflated basketball. Neil says his father suggested it might be a good way to stay in shape, to shoot a few hoops.
Did he have a pump, too?
No, that wasn’t in there. There were things like people breaking the windshield of the van. A lot of the shows weren’t at professional rock clubs. They’d be at the Elks Lodge or wherever hardcore shows were held. Or we’d play somebody’s house. But it was terribly exciting, making connections with like-minded artists all over the country.
Why break up the band?
We had said our piece, and it was a good time to stop. And I think I had grown up a little bit and changed. I wasn’t quite as angry anymore. I also wasn’t just angry with myself and at the world, but not so angry and frustrated with rock ‘n’ roll.
So what about Boss Hog with Cristina? It was more structured than Pussy Galore and definitely not so angry.
We’re still sorta going. We played a bunch last year. We were invited to do both the All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K. and the one in upstate New York. They’re really well run. I think Boss Hog was an opportunity to do something with Cristina. And it was a way to explore a male/female dynamic. Ike and Tina were a big inspiration. Boss Hog was always a casual thing, especially at the start, hanging out with friends. It continues to be an easy-going band. We did a little tour last year and are playing the Amphetamine Reptile 25th anniversary party in Minneapolis.
No matter what band you’re in, I always hear some Iggy Pop in there.
Oh sure, big Iggy Pop fan. The Stooges were huge and the Dolls, they were like gods, such touchstones. And it was hard to find out information before YouTube and the Internet. You had to look for the records and hear stories. And it was before anybody did it again. I have mixed feelings about the Stooges reunion.
Tell me how the Blues Explosion came about.
Well, Pussy Galore had been done for about a year, and in that time, Boss Hog had already been going. Also during that time, I’d done some playing with another New York City band called the Honeymoon Killers that Cristina had been in, as well. Through the Honeymoon Killers, I met Russell Simins, who became the drummer for the Blues Explosion. We hit it off personally and musically. I think, at the time, Russell was living with Judah Bauer, who’d come to New York on a bus from Wisconsin. I certainly didn’t put an ad in the paper for musicians. It kinda fell together, it clicked, it felt good, and it was a lot of fun. So we kept doing it.
How did you wind up recording with Rufus Thomas, the maestro of “Do Funky Chicken” and “Walkin’ The Dog,” down in Memphis?
We were out touring in 1996 and working on the Now I Got Worry album, and we stopped to record some tracks at Doug Easley’s studio in Memphis. We had this instrumental called “Chicken Dog,” and Stax was a huge influence on the Blues Explosion. Robert Gordon was hanging out at the session, and I’d heard that Rufus Thomas had done a guest vocal with another young indie band. So I mentioned this to Robert Gordon and asked whether he’d come in and do something with the Blues Explosion. Robert Gordon said, “Yeah, sure, just give him a call.” So Rufus Thomas came down to the studio. That was a huge thrill for me. He came by, listened to the song and just did it in one take. [Laughs] He just made it up on the spot. To meet the guy and have him sing on that song was something very special.
Since we keep returning to one of my favorite cities, Memphis, have you ever bumped into Jim Jarmusch? Your music and his films would be a natural fit, I’d say.
Sounds like a good idea to me. But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the maestro. [Laughs] I met him for the first time ever at the ATP festival last fall. He was there presenting one of his films. No, I’ve never worked with him, but I’m his fan. In particular, I really loved Mystery Train. I was already interested in Sun and Stax, and that movie is such a funky and beautiful valentine to the city of Memphis. That really pushed me further down the road.
How was it working with Calvin Johnson and Dub Narcotic Sound System?
I can’t remember when I first met Calvin, but I was a fan of Beat Happening. I do remember the Blues Explosion being on tour in Germany, and there was a disco after the show. Russell and I were hanging out, and we heard this crazy song and it turned out to be Dub Narcotic’s “Fuck Shit Up,” one of their first singles. We asked the DJ what it was and started covering the song. Eventually, that led to some kind of collaboration in Calvin’s studio, which was in his living room at that time. Some of the that stuff the Blues Explosion took and used for some songs on (1998’s) Acme; for instance, that song “Talk About The Blues,” which is built on a loop from one of the jams that came out at that session.
I assume your song “Buscemi” is about one of my all-time favorite actors, Steve Buscemi.
Sure, that’s an instrumental written in this weird, funky little studio in Dallas. We were on tour with the Beastie Boys, supporting them. It was a weird thing, playing these big arenas. We got to be real friendly with their keyboard player, Money Mark. I think we had day off, and he asked if we wanted to go a session at this funky little eight-track studio. That was one of the improvisations that just sort of happened. There was a lot of Money Mark on Now I Got Worry. He had a real influence on that record.
I really like that film that Buscemi did where they’re making a movie about making a low-budget movie called Living In Oblivion.
Yeah, that’s pretty good. I also like the episode of The Sopranos he’s in where they go out to whack somebody and they get lost in the woods.
Yeah. And, of course, Fargo, where he’s last seen being ground up like hamburger in a tree chipper. Not to mention dying of a heart attack in a bowling alley parking lot in The Big Lebowski. How about Steve Albini? You’ve worked with him. I saw Big Black back in the ’80s and recently caught Shellac.
Albini was one of those people I met early on with Pussy Galore. Was a big fan of Big Black and hired him to do part of (Pussy Galore’s) Right Now! album. Also worked with him on Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion. I’ve learned a lot from Steve; not just recording techniques but the philosophy of engineering. He’s a real individual, a guy who believes in making his own path.
Tell me about Heavy Trash. Haven’t heard it yet.
We played the Strictly Hardly Bluegrass Festival (in San Francisco) recently. We’ve been doing Heavy Trash for five or six years. The band is me and Matt Verta-Ray, another New York City guy. We started the band to play rockabilly. Over the course of three albums, it’s become less so, and it was never really pure rockabilly. Of these four bands, Heavy Trash is the most traditional and a partnership with Matt. He has a classic, almost sweet, pop sensibility that provides some contrast to my more nasty stuff, my mean tendencies.