Jon Spencer on how working with R.L. Burnside felt like being in the presence of an eternal god
A few years ago, Jon Spencer was getting the Blues Explosion's Matador albums ready for expanded reissues when he thought about getting the band back together after an extended hiatus began taking root. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion subsequently regrouped and spent the intervening years touring, writing new material and recording, eventually releasing Meat + Bone, the outfit's first studio album in eight years. The record is revved up and, as you might expect, injected with an ample amount of vigor.
We caught up with Spencer, who was gearing up to move out of the apartment that he's lived in for the past sixteen years, and spoke with him about the new album, how composer Milton Babbitt (mentioned in the song "Black Mold") lived above him and he also talked about how the trio comes up with new material, as well as touring and recording with Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside.
Westword: On "Black Mold," the opening cut on your new album, you rattle off names like Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey, Milton Babbitt and others. I found out later those were actually records that got water damage.
Jon Spencer: Yeah, it was literally a list of vinyl LPs that were ruined. I mean, the records were okay, and some of them I did save and cleaned them, and they still play, but the jackets were just covered with mildew and mold. Me, along with Russell and Judah, are fans in a way the Blues Explosion has always been and still is a garage band. It's motivated by our love of music, and we are real geeks and fans about it. So it really hurt to find a couple boxes of records all eaten up from mildew and mold.
But, yeah, that is literally just a list of some of the records that were destroyed and lost. And the song "Black Mold" was inspired by the events around Hurricane Irene. And, ironically, we were writing the album Meat + Bone around that time that Irene was coming through. Irene proved to be kind of a bust for the New York City area. And then a year later, when our record was about to come out, Sandy came through and really caused so much damage.
Another interesting note, Milton Babbitt was my upstairs neighbor when I first moved into this building. I didn't find out until years later that he was renting the apartment above ours. I only found this out because one day they were moving everything out and I asked one of the guys in the building what was going on because we never used to hear anything from the upstairs neighbors. It just sounded like there was nobody ever home.
One the guys said, "Well, you should ask her," and pointed to this woman. And so I asked her, and it turned out that she was the daughter of Milton Babbitt, and she grew up in the apartment. They were giving it up because for many years Milton Babbitt lived out in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught. So, it was kind of crazy thing to find that out.
That is pretty crazy. I'm guessing not a lot of people know who he is.
He's one of our great American composers. America, I guess, is best known for jazz and rock and roll, but we had some great modern composers as well.
I just thought the list of names in "Black Mold" was very cool -- jazz, blues, even Randy Newman....
Well, I wasn't trying to impress anybody. It was really that I just lifted the crate and wrote down the titles and that was it. It wasn't like I was trying to... It's not a made-up list, and I wasn't out to get points with collectors or I don't know who...
I was reading about how when you guys write stuff you just get together and start playing, and there's not a whole lot of discussion, right?
We've always written by playing, and "jamming" is a word that I'm not a big fan of, but that's what is when we get together and play. No, we never really talk and say, "Well, let's do something in the style of Otis Redding," or this or that artist, or that song. You know, we just play. And of course we do have our influences, and that motivates us and influences how we play and the kind of songs we write.
We just do it, and it's all about action. And if the song comes to us, it usually comes quite quickly and pretty much fully formed. I write the words, and, of course, once the song has taken shape, there's some time of editing or polishing or refinement that happens. Yeah, we do write all together as a collaboration on the music.
Was it any different this time around after taking some time off?
No, it was still the same. We took a few years off, and in 2008, we began to play live again. We sort of did slowly at first with a few shows here and there. We found that we could still do it and still enjoyed it very much. There's definitely a special link or bond between the three of us that still existed and still exists today, which allowed us to make this music.
We just kept working and taking shows, and in 2011, we started talking about making another record again. So most of the songs were written in the summer of 2011 -- mostly in July or August -- and it was the same as always. We just went down to our basement in the East Village and played.
So when you recorded it at the Key Club using Sly Stone's old mixing console, do you think that old gear like that something like a mystical quality or mojo?
We definitely get a kick out of using beautiful, old equipment. It's nice to work on old analog tape machines and some cool gear, but that said, we're not Luddites. We use computers as well. It's really what is best for the song -- whatever best helps you get the job done. For sure, to use a piece of gear that was owned by hero or a musician that you admire, yeah, that's an extra thrill.
I know you were influenced a lot by Hound Dog Taylor and the Cramps as well when you first started, right?
I think definitely Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers because we were really into their records, and also there was a kinship because they were a three-piece as well with two guitars and drums. So were definitely listening to those Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers records when we started. It wasn't like we really listening to the Cramps, but we had all listened to the Cramps. There were some bands that we just thoroughly digested, and they're part of our DNA, and of course, that's a very big influence. Bands like the Cramps, the Stooges, Velvet Underground... there are lots of groups like that -- you know, Rolling Stones and whatnot.
I don't think, as far as the Blues Explosion... There was never any discussion, "Well, let's do it like the Cramps did it." When the Blues Explosion started, these were just the instruments we were playing. It's just kind of the way it happened. There wasn't a plan beforehand. We didn't map something out saying, "Okay, we'll start this kind of band, and we'll sound like this, and how about we use these instruments." It really kind of fell together in a kind of accidental way almost.
What did you come away with from touring and recording with R.L. Burnside?
On a practical level -- or I don't know if "practical" is the right word -- but you could listen to the record we recorded after our time with R.L., Now I Got Worry, and you can really hear the influence of R.L. on the way in which Judah was playing. Judah really took some lessons from R.L. and spent a lot of time hanging out backstage or in motel rooms after shows, you know, playing guitar with R.L. and trying to learn from him, which he did. And I think it was an influence on the way in which Judah plays, and so it was kind of an influence on the way the Blues Explosion evolved and sounded.
Other than that, it was just really a very magical time for us. I think we really felt we were in the presence of an eternal god or something. Of course, he was very much a real person, but this is somebody whose music we really loved, and more than that, he was a living, breathing, walking link to our whole history of music that we love. Here was everything all together, like here in the same room with us.
I should point out that when we first started playing with R.L. and we proposed doing some shows with him right at the beginning, it was simply because we were fans. We were not on any kind of mission to educate people about the blues or educate people about R.L. Burnside. We sought R.L. out as a support act because we are fans of his music.