"True Rock and Roll Is Something That's Very Crazy": A Chat with Jon Spencer
Jon Spencer talks about the reissues of the Blues Explosions' mid-1990s landmarks Orange, Orange Experimental Remixes and Acme and the hip-hop obsessions that shaped them.
"I think the best rap is really free. That's incredibly liberating and powerful, when you use it as a way to make or even think about music," Jon Spencer said.
The subject has come up because of the vastly expanded reissues of Blues Explosion's landmark third and fifth albums, Orange from 1994 and Acme from 1999. In one sense, both albums are raw and live and stripped down, rooted in early rock and soul. But on the other hand, they are clearly linked to hip-hop, in obvious ways like the use of scratching and heavy, bass-driven beats, and in less obvious ones, like Orange's use of remixes.
That's because if you got in the van with Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion any time in the early 1990s, you were likely to hear rap. Public Enemy was on all the time, Spencer remembers. Ice Cube was another favorite. "We have always been influenced by rap music," Spencer recalled.
That influence may not have been overt early on, in the swampy garage rock of Crypt-released A Reverse Willie Horton in 1991, or in the James Brown-inspired R&B theater of Matador debut Extra Width in 1993, but it was there. "I think that primarily that influence came through in the way in which we wrote our songs and the way in which we put things together. It wasn't that we were trying to rap. We didn't have a DJ on stage," Spencer said.
Part of the fascination had to do with the fact that rap artists were drawing from the same set of influences as the Blues Explosion, digging through the same crates of 1960s rock and soul singles for inspiration. "It wasn't just that we were listening to the Bomb Squad sampling 'Hip Hugger' by Booker T and the MGs. We were also listening to 'Hip Hugger' by Booker T and the MGs," said Spencer. "So there would be this kind of double thrill."
"You could be listening to the Meters, and we were doing that, but then you could be listening to Ice Cube and catch a Meters sample," he added. "So it all seemed like a great convergence, a fantastic coincidence. Everything was kind of pointing in the same direction."
The hip-hop influence came to the fore with Orange, an album that many consider the Blues Explosion's artistic high point. "Orange was really our third record and, over the course of these first three records, we had really been figuring out who we were and refining that," Spencer explained. "Orange was, in a way, the clearest statement of that initial thrust of the Blues Explosion. And with that, we really laid our cards on the table in terms of our rap and hip-hop influences. We did things like someone would do a little scratching on a song. We'd use weird Dr. Dre style, Parliament-style synthesizers. We did a little rap with Beck."
Yes, that Beck, the anti-folker with his own hip-hop connections, whose "Loser" single and Mellow Gold album had recently gone supernova. Spencer's other band, Boss Hog, had (at the time) just signed with Geffen, which was also Beck's label. The two of them met briefly, and Beck mentioned that he was a fan of Pussy Galore. Later, during the sessions for Orange, Spencer was trying to figure out what to do with the song "Flavor", then just the basic tracks recorded by him, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins. "I don't know, I just had the idea, 'Why not? Let's try to get Beck to do something on the song. Let's see if he'll do a spoken word or a rap,'" said Spencer.
Spencer called Beck and eventually got him to agree. But in a pre-internet, pre-file-sending era, the question was how? "We ended up calling him on the phone and playing him the song over the phone," said Spencer. "Beck did his rap over the phone and we recorded it with these little suction cup microphones from Radio Shack." You can hear Beck at the end asking if it was okay and if they wanted him to do it again, but according to Spencer, it wasn't necessary. "We used the first take," he said.
Orange itself is full of hip-hop references and sounds, but it's really the remixes -- by artists like GZA, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and even Moby -- that take it most fully into rap territory. Orange Experimental Remixes was released a year after the original album on Matador (and again on Mute in 2000).
"The next step seemed to be to give these songs to someone else and let them remix them," he said. "That was what was going on, and not just with hip-hop acts. It wasn't uncommon for people to remix, to further take apart a song."
"It wasn't just on records," he added. "You could turn on the radio on Friday and Saturday night, the Red Alert show here in New York City. You could listen to it on the radio, some guy, a DJ, remixing and taking apart a song live on the air. I think it's just a fascinating logical extension of the influence of hip-hop. 'Okay, let's hand it over to somebody else.'"
So, Spencer turned the guitar mayhem of "Bellbottoms" over to Old Rascal and got back a funk-swaggering, group-shouted shuffle, Spencer's voice smoldering over a bristles of percussive scratching. He gave up blues-fuzzed, over-driven "Greyhound" to Moby and GZA and got back, respectively, a bizarrely new age synthscape and a bone-shaking, rap apocalypse. He even took a stab at remixing his own materials -- not music, but life -- taking snippets recorded on a long European tour and creating a very funny "Tour Diary", which should be mandatory listening for any journalist about to ask Spencer (or anyone else) a stupid question.
Yet even as the Blues Explosion's recorded output became more experimental and genre-bending, its live show remained a sweaty, physical, early rock piece of theater. The reissue of Orange includes a five-song, ten-minute recording from a CBGB's show that gives a flavor of what it must have been like to see the band in the mid-1990s.
Asked what he remembers about the concert, Spencer replied, "Very little. With a lot of this reissue project, I can't remember a damn thing." He thinks that the show was part of a pre-recording warm-up tour that extended briefly into the mid-West. (He has some similar tapes recorded at the Lounge Ax in Chicago from the same period.)
"We did a little tour in the Midwest, maybe a week's worth of shows, to really prepare and work out all the kinks in these songs," he said. "Though a lot of these songs we had been playing for a while. I think that's part of why the record sounds the way it does. The songs had been very road tested."
Spencer said he listened to the tape maybe once immediately afterwards and decided that it wasn't a very good show. There were some tuning issues that bothered him, and not all of the mics fed into the tape. Still, for sheer fire and energy and as a record of a band in its prime, it's hard to beat these recordings. And now, more than a decade later, even Spencer hears something special there. "Before, if the slightest thing was off, I would think, 'Oh, this is terrible.' I could be very critical," he said. "Now it's like I'm dealing with another band. Enough time has gone by that I can kind of listen to it and take in this material in a different way."
Blues Explosions' theatrical live show, he explained, took some time to develop. "That just came with playing many, many shows, night after night," he said. "And I think it came from listening to old rhythm and blues artistic, old soul artists and reading about all these old great musicians and great tales of showmanship. James Brown always was the big touchstone."
The mid-1990s, remember, was a period when bands like Pavement ruled the earth, hardly looking up from their guitars as they played and mumbling a few words, if anything, between songs. Blues Explosion was uninhibitedly over the top, by contrast, always in motion, always in character.
"What we were interested in was something more like a show," said Spencer. "We wanted to connect with people. There was no stigma about putting on a show, being an entertainer. And some of it was being a little cheeky, playing with show biz conventions. But, you know, it was coming from listening to an old James Brown record or reading about a Howling Wolf concert. Listening to some old X-rated live comedy record on the Laff label. Any kind of performance. It was done because, you know, it was what we believed in. Or what I believed in."
Acme, which came after Now I Got Worry and the R.L. Burnside record, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey continued to explore remixing and collaboration, starting with sessions at Calvin Johnson's studio in Olympia, Washington. Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound had done one of the Orange Experimental Remixes, unpaid, and in trade, Blues Explosion agreed to record with him for a record on the K label. Spencer and his bandmates spent a few days at Johnson' home studio and went home with cassettes of rough mixes, which they thought might form the basis for new material. "Some things we couldn't get out of our heads," said Spencer, "and we began to use them for songs on Acme. For the song 'Calvin', we didn't use the idea -- we used the actual recording."
Blues Explosion recorded the remainder of Acme in Chicago at Steve Albini's Electrical Studio, where they ran into Andre Williams. "Andre made a number of bizarre and fantastic records for Fortune records out of Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, and we were a fan of these crazy singles," said Spencer. "He was just a total mystery and then at some point, in the 1990s, he resurfaced and began playing shows again." Spencer went to one of these shows and met Williams. Then one night, while recording Acme, a friend dropped by to tell him that Williams was playing at a bar that night, just a few blocks away. After the show, Spencer invited Williams back to the studio. "Andre came by and did the song 'Lapdance', which I think was an instrumental and already kicking around, but Andre came up with the words and produced the song and made it what it is."
Over the years, Spencer has riled some critics, who question the Blues Explosions' right to draw on African American traditions like R&B and soul and to collaborate with bluesmen like R.L. Burnside in the 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.
"We never had a difficult relationship with blues fans. I think, if anything, blues fans probably understood or were able to take what we were doing," said Spencer. "I think if anything it was rock and roll fans or rock critics. I think they were thrown by the very name of the band and confused by the different styles that would imply. And also, I think the music was just over the top, and you know, I think critics and journalists and, I guess, the public at large, like things that are a lot easier to understand."
"True rock and roll is something that's very crazy and a bit silly. And when you present people with something like that, which is what the Blues Explosion was doing, people just think, 'Well, this is a joke.'" he said. "And it wasn't a joke."
You can hear Spencer responding to that kind of criticism in Acme's "Talk About the Blues", twisting Mississippi Fred McDowell's "I do not play rock and roll" into a declaration that "I don't play the blues. I play rock 'n roll."
"There was a lot of stuff about the Blues Explosion that was putting us down as a minstrel act and questioning the authenticity of what we were doing, or the very right to do what we were doing," he said. "Which is just insane. It's music. It's art. And who's to say what kind of song anybody can write?"
"Me personally, I'm into people like Little Richard, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I don't think that there's anything wrong with taking influence from those people," he continued. "I love those artists and it's never been my desire to lampoon any of these people. That would be a real waste of energy. I'm playing this music because it's music that I love."