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Jon Spencer and Matt Verta Ray's rockabilly revival


Jon Spencer's voice slithers halfway between howl and croon; like the King baying at the moon.

"They call me the loveless/I'm a mean sonofabitch," he sings on "The Loveless," a cut from his new colab with Matt Verta Ray (Speedball Baby, Madder Rose), Heavy Trash.

Spencer's a suave sonofabitch as well. He comes on greasy and strong. His music's undeniable sweat, swagger and reverence are menacing. And though something of an iconoclastic cult figure, Spencer has no underlying motive beyond diggin' the kicks the music brings. It happens every time.

"I know once we get started playing, I'm just going to feel swept away," Spencer says from his home in New York. "It's just the music. I don't know how to explain it any differently. It really just makes me feel so good."

I dunno, maybe you like your rocks on. But if you really wanna know why rock 'n' roll is such a turn-on for guys like Spencer --- if you really want to get right down to what delivers the shivers and the shake appeal --- you're gonna have to get past the luster and glow and the haircuts. Past the thrash, twang, and thunder. You're gonna have to paddle outside the mainstream. You're gonna have to strip way down and dig deep beyond the bones to find its primal seed.

For most bands today that's simply too much work; they opt instead for the same old hopscotch. Gone is the ability to conjure, to entice and excite. Gone is the pioneer spirit. Gone is the urge.

Most bands, not all.

Not Heavy Trash, anyway. They dig deep. They strip away. They've still got the urge.

Heavy Trash is a rockabilly duo in the classic sense of the term. And yet, by writing originals and focusing on the soul of the music and not its coiffured confines, the true grit prevails. Heavy Trash is more about the spark than the flame.

"What interested both of us about playing rockabilly was not so much playing stuff that sounded like an old record per se," Verta Ray says. "But trying to discover what we thought was cool about [the records] in the first place. The sort of weirdness like Charlie Feathers' style or the kind of anomalies that came out of that culture."

Both musicians have adhered to this philosophy on their own for years.

Spencer has throttled rock 'n' roll brilliantly with huge doses of raw, wrong, and weird. From his early days with Pussy Galore to his work with The Blues Explosion, Spencer truly embodies rock music's seminal rebellion. And by rubbing elbows and learning at the feet of masters like R.L. Burnside, Rufus Thomas, Andre Williams, and The Reverend Solomon Burke, Spencer is able in turn to play music that's as genuine and sincere as its creators.

But it's not just the sound.

"I think all these guys.... these are people that really did their own thing," he says. "I think they were trying to make money too, but their music was very personal and specific to them as individuals and really came from their hearts. And as much as I like to idealize these musicians, heroes of mine, it was nice to see something real out of these people and take some kind of life lesson."

And upon this lesson, Spencer builds a monstrous and bluesy sound that resurrects Link Wray, Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Junior Kimbrough.... besides the legends he has collaborated with.

"I like stuff that's very dirty and simple sounding," he says.

By the time Verta Ray was playing guitar in Speedball Baby, he was already a full-blown rockabilly picker.

Speedball Baby's music is dark, brooding, full-blown junkie noir; a blast of Burroughs' bellowing bedlam couched in doom and Beat aesthetic. Verta Ray's black-clad, ducktailed twang was the only glimmer of hope.

"I'd just been playing rockabilly since I was 11," he says. "And that's how it came out."

Verta Ray and Spencer are both denizens of the New York City underground. They've shared bills, jammed backstage, and hung out spinning records. Heavy Trash was only a matter of time.

A little more than two years ago, the duo began knocking around covers and originals at Verta Ray's studio on Ludlow Street.

"Having a studio is so helpful," he says. "It takes pressure off going to the studio. We're always down there and we just turn on the tape machine when something feels right."

From those sessionsin those lower East Side bowels, Heavy Trash emerged. With the duo playing virtually all the instruments (despite a ton of guests), it's 13 tracks of raunchy and raw. Verta Ray's guitar is full of Echoplex bounce and Spencer's sexually charged singing is pure rock 'n' roll hillbilly gone slick. In fact if you go back and listen to anything he's ever done, Spencer has always been a rockabilly singer.

Thus Heavy Trash fits well in the Spencer lexicon, which Spencer credits to those around him.

"I think the key is that it's a combination of people," he says. "I mean, I don't write songs by myself and I'm not up there playing by myself. I really am lucky to be able to write music and be able to play music with some really amazing folks."

Still, it only takes a coupla seconds listening to Heavy Trash or anything he's involved in for that matter before you know Spencer's in the room.

"Apart from being a really good singer and front man, he's a natural born band leader," says Verta Ray. "It started out as a collaboration, but he's so good at setting the mood for the things that I'll often follow his lead as far as how something's being arranged. He's got really good ideas."

Ideas like synthesizer breaks or weird fuzz tone guitar effects ain't in the original rockabilly cookbook.

"Not that I object," says Verta Ray. "It just never occurred to me. I wouldn't have thought of it. Jon's very adventurous. I think he approaches music in a very unorthodox way, whereas I came up the more straighter root. I lean more towards hooks in songs and Jon leans more towards that sort of Beefheart-style angular stuff."

And therein lies the band's traditional grasp and authenticity. The musicians within this idiom that they emulate were moving forward, frequently taking the wrong fork in the road to arrive at their own sound.

"For me and Jon the main thing was discovering the stuff about rockabilly that was really individual to those performers rather than what they all had in common."

Spiritually, Heavy Trash has one foot in Sun Studios when Elvis suggested they all get real gone for a change, and another foot in anything goes where their individuality and anarchy is unleashed. They shoehorn yesterday with tomorrow and blast it out today. It ain't new... but it is.

"There's a high premium set on the shock of the new," says Verta Ray. "Every movement that's come out of New York has had to have the badge of being the first time it's ever been done... in theory. So you start a coupla paces behind the starting line if you're doing something that's tied to anything that's already existed."

Naturally this antagonizes the skeptics, heretics, and critics.

"Yeah, I'm fine with that. I've had scathing reviews my whole life," he says.

Heavy Trash headlines this year's Bug Jar Summer Music Fest with Chinese Stars, Foreign Islands, Bludwulf, Gaylord, The Purrs, Hinkley, with DJs Thunderclap and El Destructo spinning in between, Saturday, August 26, at Highland Bowl, 454-2966, noon-9 p.m., free, all ages.