Since making his name with the garage-noise band Pussy Galore in 1984, through Boss Hog, Heavy Trash (with the Sadies and Matt Verta-Ray), a few rounds with RL Burnside, and, above all, the famous Blues Explosion, Jon Spencer has gone through several incarnations without ever really deviating from his unique guitar sound and his typical way of singing and imposing himself on stage. Blues, garage, punk, soul, and noise assimilated, crushed, and spat out with a class of its own and a lot of style.
Now, barely a year after his appearance at the Ritz with the HITmakers, the ever-charismatic Spencer is back to present a new project under his own name, accompanied by two young fearless musicians. With this new entity, the New Yorker revisits part of his repertoire, focusing mainly on his prolific Blues Explosion period, with a few new bonus tracks.
PAN M 360 went to meet him on his birthday, just before this mini-tour which will take him to Quebec, Ottawa, and Montreal, as part of the seventh edition of the Taverne Tour.
PAN M 360: You’ve had several incarnations since Pussy Galore, tell us a bit about this new one.
Jon Spencer: The two musicians I’m currently playing with, Spider Bowman and Kendall Wind, are both excellent players. We had a really nice tour in November and December, so I’m very confident. I think we’ll be able to pull it off and play some good shows. We’ve just spent the past five days mainly working on new material, which I hope to be playing in our upcoming shows over the next week. And when we’re done with this tour, we have plans to go into the recording studio.
PAN M 360: So in fact you brought in the rhythm section from the Bobby Lees.
Jon Spencer: That’s correct. I think the very first time I met them was when the Bobby Lees supported Boss Hog in Hudson, New York, maybe four or five years ago. And then I produced an album for the Bobby Lees a few years ago (Skin Suit, 2023), and got to know Kendall and Spider, more commonly known as Macky, a little bit better. And back last summer, I was offered some shows supporting Samantha Fish and Jesse Dayton. Samantha and Jesse made a record (Death Wish Blues, 2022) that I produced. I wasn’t working much during that period; The HITmakers were sort of on ice because Sam Coomes was very busy with Quasi. So I wanted very much to play and wanted very much to work. That’s why I accepted the shows supporting Samantha and Jesse on their Death Wish Blues tour. It then made me think about what kind of band I would put together for that tour. And I really love Kendall, I love the way she played on that Death Wish Blues album.
Part of my job as a producer was to put together a band for those Death Wish sessions and Kendall was the bass player for that. As you know, I had experience working with her in the studio before when I produced the Bobby Lees. Kendall is such an excellent musician, she’s also super quick to pick anything up. She’s a great bass player. So I asked her if she might be interested in playing with me on these tour dates. And then it just kind of seemed obvious to get Macky, her drummer partner from the Bobby Lees, aboard. Since the Bobby Lees are on hiatus, Macky and Kendall were up for the challenge, and I’m very happy that they agreed to play with me. Just for now, it’s been billed under my own name. I’m trying to think of a band name, because it would be nice to have a better name. But yeah, these are just Jon Spencer shows. So we’re a power trio if you will.
PAN M 360: What I gather is that you mostly revisit some of your old songs with this new project?
Jon Spencer: With this new band, I think the focus is more on revisiting some of my greatest hits. The main focus of this new thing is the Blues Explosion. Most of the set is Blues Explosion songs, but we do play HITmakers songs and we do play Pussy Galore songs. And then it’s a real pleasure, real joy, to play with Kendall and Macky. I mean, Kendall had the interesting challenge of interpreting Judah Bauer’s guitar parts on an electric bass, and she’s really done a fantastic job. Things really clicked and so now we’re trying to make some new songs.
PAN M 360: How did you select the songs? Was it a difficult choice?
Jon Spencer: Well, you know, I guess most of the songs I’ve picked … it’s because I want to play them, I picked them for very selfish reasons. But there are some songs I’ve picked because I figured that’s what people would like to hear. And there were a couple of songs I wanted to try but they didn’t translate well, so we didn’t end up doing them.
PAN M 360: Did you rearrange the songs or you tried to stick as much as possible to the original versions?
Jon Spencer: A bit of both. Things are getting rearranged. Things are changing anyway with the addition of a traditional electric bass guitar. It’s neither the Blues Explosion, nor Pussy Galore, nor the HITmakers. None of these bands had electric bass.
PAN M 360: Did you miss playing these old songs?
Jon Spencer: Maybe I did… I wasn’t aware of it. It’s been really nice doing the shows with Kendall and Macky, especially playing these Blues Explosion songs, it feels really good. it was a bit of a strange process for me, you know, relearning this material, because I guess I’ve changed the way I play guitar and the way I sing, it changed not by a lot, but by some small degree. So at times, I had to really look for live video footages of the Blues Explosion and try to figure out how things were played; and try to remember what I was doing there on the guitar. In addition to that, it’s also trying to teach the songs to a bass player who’s trying to interpret some electric guitar parts. And also a drummer, you know, trying to have him get the finer points of what Russell Simins did on the drums. And it’s not just exactly what Russell played, but also a lot of his intensity. Russell is an extremely intense drummer.
PAN M 360: So getting Russell and Judah back on board was out of the question?
Jon Spencer: There are very real concrete reasons why the Blues Explosion does not play anymore. No, it’s not really possible. There are reasons why the band stopped. We’re still friends, but … it could not continue sadly.
PAN M 360: You were talking about some new songs that you will play on this tour. Can you tell me a bit about this new material?
Jon Spencer: I suppose it’s closer to Blues Explosion than it is to HITmakers or Pussy Galore, but ultimately I hope that it will be kind of its own thing. You know, I’m very enthusiastic about how this material will sound and evolve on stage. So far it’s sounding and feeling really good. But I think songs really mature and really come together when you’re playing them out at a club. So I’m looking forward to this week’s set of shows as a way to really figure out these songs. But I would like to think that this new material is using the strengths of this new band, you know, specifically the strengths of my bandmates Kendall and Macky, and that the new material we’re working on is designed for this trio.
I should make a point though, if I may. With the Blues Explosion, we wrote together, we would get together the three of us, me and Judah and Russell, and we would jam on, you know, we just played. And that’s how we wrote songs. It was a collaborative thing. But with this new band, I’ve written songs, and that’s what I was doing with the HITmakers as well, I would write songs on my own. That may change, you know, but that’s just how it works so far … Anyway, we will do our best on stage.
Even though we’re kind of freaking out people and bumming out some of these white blues crowds, you know, people saying “That’s not blues, that’s just punk rock!” which I take as a compliment, there were always people every night that would say to me “Holy shit! Where did you find these people? That bass player is amazing! That drummer is incredible!” They’re both excellent musicians and natural-born stars. It’s so nice to play with them. So yeah, I think it’d be a good show!
Photo Credit: Whit Lane