A reminder of a time when rock 'n' roll was nothing more than a raw, primal wail, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion came back in 2012 with "Meat and Bone," the band's first album in eight years. Formed in 1991 in New York City out of the ashes of Pussy Galore, The Blues Explosion — frontman Jon Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer, and drummer Russell Simins — took (and still take) all forms of classic American music, long abandoned by many musicians, and forged a new yet familiar sound. Blues, soul, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, punk are blended together, with all genres linked by a common, urgent thread. Without The Blues Explosion there would be no White Stripes or Black Keys. Without The Blues Explosion there would be nowhere to go.
Spencer got on the horn recently and gave us a blast to discuss the new album, taking chances, the Blues Explosion legacy, and how he doesn't like the word "jamming." An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
CITY: What's happening?
Jon Spencer: Man, the Blues Explosion. We took a few years off last decade. We didn't do any work, we didn't play any shows for a few years.
Why was that?
For me I was focusing on Heavy Trash. We made three albums and did a lot of touring.
What got you to fire the Blues Explosion up again?
We took a few shows here and there, we had a good time, found out we could still do it, that we could play together, and still have a good show. It felt good. So we began to take more concerts and play more frequently. This went on for a couple of years and in 2011 we began thinking about doing another studio album. Most of the writing on "Meat and Bone" was done in the summer of 2011. Then in October of that year we took a trip out to Benton Harbor, Michigan, to work in this fantastic studio called The Key Club. We holed up there for about nine or 10 days and tracked the record and came back home. And by January 2012 we were done with it.
What is the thrust of this new album?
As far as the sound of the "Meat and Bone" record, like I said before, we just felt awfully good about playing together again. So when we went in to make this record the focus was very much just us playing — the band playing these songs live in the studio. I think every record we've made always has that element. We start with a live recording. Granted, it's in the studio — we play differently in the studio than we do on the stage. But it's still a real performance.
Some are calling "Meat and Bone" a classic Blues Explosion record, as if you strayed from the formula before.
Yeah, I think we've always stuck to our guns. At the same time I'd like to think we've taken some chances. We've done different things to experiment while making records. We've made records where we got real crazy and experimental with the production or whatnot, the mixing. This one I think is lot more straightforward. It's a savage record in a way; it's raw, and quite raucous at times. But really it's just, "OK, here's the three of us and we're making a racket."
What are some of the chances you took with this one?
Just in making it, which could have been an opportunity for us to fall flat on our faces. We're not kids anymore. We've been playing in this band for more than 22 years.
But it's not like the band broke up and now is coming back together to reclaim former glory.
With some of our contemporaries, some of our peers, there's a lot of talk about reunions, or bands going around and playing their classic albums. With The Blues Explosion, we never really broke up, there was no stop, so we're not really in the same camp. There are bands that are my favorites, real hero bands. The Stooges is a good example. And as much as I love The Stooges, and as important as the band is and was to me, what I've heard of the new studio albums...it's not really my bag. But I can't begrudge them for wanting to do it, you know?
So I guess speaking from a fan's point of view, I can understand why someone might be a little suspicious to hear that The Blues Explosion was putting out a record in 2012. But I think we made a really great record, and a record that's very much alive with energy, passion, and a lot of ideas. Yeah, I think in a way it's a classic thing... but it's also new in the sense that we 've been doing this so long, and with all that experience comes a kind of wisdom or energy or power, and we applied that to making this record.
The Blues Explosion has always struck me as a reminder for those who lose sight of what's important in rock 'n' roll. Why do people keep forgetting?
I think anyone going to a concert, going out to see a band and getting sweaty, that person doesn't need to be reminded. There's always this stuff in the media about the death of the guitar and the demise of live music and bands. I don't think that's ever going to go away. It's part of who we are as animals. It fulfills a very strong need. It's this very weird, spiritual, communal happening, going to a show.
What's your songwriting formula?
When we write together, it's very much a collaboration as far as the music goes. I write the lyrics. We just get together and play. You could call it jamming, but I don't like that term so much. We just get together and play and the songs just sort of come; they happen.
One hundred years from now what will they say about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?
I hope someone will still dig it. I've always been knocked out by records that seem out of time, out of place. And hopefully some Blues Explosion records will be like that for some kid to puzzle over or marvel at and enjoy as well.