It’s afternoon here, 9 am in New York. The man on the other end of the line is a regarded as a hero of rock music, as the man who found and gave RL Burnside and Mississippi Blues to college kids throughout America, as the leader of the independent music movement, as the king of the European festival circuit, and, overall, as the living embodiment of rock. He is Jon Spencer, and since his first album as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in 1994, he has been roughly ten years ahead of the music industry. On May 26th, he’ll be in Iceland leading the Rockabilly movement with his new band Heavy Trash.
“I’m a busy guy, I got a lot of stuff to do. Let’s get going with this,” he says, as soon as I introduce myself.
Mr. Spencer, I was a fan of 1994’s rough and ready Orange, which sounds like White Stripes with two Jack Whites, when I came upon you and a freakishly precise Rockabilly guitarist Matt Verta-Ray at a music festival in Norway. How do you go from sloppy and crazy, as an aesthetic, to pool shark precision in Verta-Ray.
“Well, I do love the way Matt Verta-Ray plays. It’s just beautiful guitar playing, and that was the reason for heavy trash, the chance to get that sound down on vinyl.”
And presumably play live?
“I love this music. I love rock n roll. It makes me feel good to play this kind of music and to play a concert and have a good time and celebrate something and at the same time mourn something and just sort of get lost a little bit and levitate a few feet above the earth.”
Levitate above the Earth?
“You just get lost with these shows.”
I think of Jon Spencer as the Gateway drug, the man who just takes suburban kids, or college kids, or Europeans, and shows them all the dark history of American music.
“It’s nice to show people that, the other music, but it’s not the reason I’m doing this. My reasons are a bit more selfish. I just want to make records and to play concerts.”
You’re a 20-year veteran of the Indie circuit. Actually, I guess you invented the Indie circuit—playing your way through Europe as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, across America with your famous blues tours.
“That’s the beauty of it. A lot of people think music is about business and careers, and I think that you can do it on your own. You don’t have to have money behind you. It doesn’t have to be that way. Of course, sure it would be nice to have some company give us lot a of money. I wouldn’t be upset, but everything comes out in the wash. You can tell, just when some gets up on stage, who will stand the test of time. In concert you can separate the wheat from the shaft.”
Well, you’ve got the chops, to say nothing of Matt Verta-Ray.
“Yeah, we’ve got chops and we’ve got looks. Take that out and make it a pull quote, cause we’re coming to Iceland to blow some people’s minds.”
About the looks, you’re influential in everything from the way you dress to the album covers. This new Heavy Trash album, for example.
“The way that a recording is presented, it’s a big part of the whole music experience, and it was always something that I got off on as a young fan and still do to this day. The artist for the new album is Paul Pope, a friend of mine. He’s a great comic book artist. Among other things, he did Batman Year 100 for DC, which I recommend to anybody. And he spent a lot of time with us, got a good feel for the band, and made something that represents us.”
Are comics part of what shapes your sound?
“I like comics books novels, any type of media, for sure. I like talking to the bus driver. The things I do with my family. Everything, from getting older on, it all feeds into what I’m going to write about.”
And cars? Rockabilly is traditionally driving music.
“I’m not a car person. I’m not a gear head. I think tradition is great. But music isn’t real estate, it moves and it’s fluid. I think one thing that’s weird is the way Rockabilly cats take a hard line. I think that rock n roll moves. Whether or not anyone else agrees with me, I’m going to take the parts I like best and drop the rest.”
Your treatment of tradition is controversial. The Reykjavík Grapevine went to the South recently, and we found ourselves in an argument at the Delta Blues Museum based entirely on you. They said that your seminal album with RL Burnside, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, was mean. They said you just got him drunk and recorded him, that it disrespected tradition.
“I knew RL Burnside. He was a friend. And he drank a lot more than I ever could. I didn’t introduce RL to alcohol. We didn’t twist his arm at all.
About the album, we’d been touring together and messing around together on stage for a while. We were friends and the record was a natural progression. It was Matthew Johnson’s idea to capture what was live and what was going on.
I can understand why some people wouldn’t like that record. I think some of the later stuff (Fat Possum Records) did… I think there are worse things that people did than what we did.”
In my opinion, A Ass Pocket demonstrated not just that RL was a great blues musician, but that he was still alive and curious in his 70s, and that this whole different, aggressive world of blues was out there.
“It’s something that I’m very proud of. The time we spent with RL left such a deep mark. It was a very sad thing to lose him. Touring with him, it was a powerful thing to see people get turned by something that was very alive.”
This is the tradition people see you following and developing on.
“I hope so. I think you can look at RL or Charlie Feathers or someone who had a real fire in their bones. And it was a very particular thing that they did. And they stuck to it for their entire lives. And that’s some of my favourite stuff.”
And will you be pushing it like RL, into your 70s.
“We’ll see. I don’t think about it. It’s not like 20 years ago I thought this is going to be my job. I like doing this; I don’t want to do anything else. I still like to do it, and it still satisfies something, so I’m still doing it.”
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