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TRCH - Caitlin Moran

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

12 May 14 words: Mark Andrews
"We’ve remained true to who we are as a band. We’ve not caved in to fashion – or senility"
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Interview

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Photo by Stefano Giovannini

The Blues Explosion at Daptone. Sounds like pure New York City dynamite: America’s greatest living rock’n’roll band doing their work at the nerve centre of the finest soul, funk and afrobeat on the planet. What a mouth-watering and gusset-moistening prospect the next Blues Explosion album is. And here’s the good news: expect a lot of it at The Rescue Rooms.

Says Spencer, “I said to the band a couple of times that, you know, I’m interested in throwing a dance party. These new songs are at the funkier end of our spectrum. That’s another reason we went to Daptone.”

5 days in the studio. 17 tracks taped. Now that’s a band that’s got its stuff well and truly down.

“We’d been writing and playing and rehearsing since the start of this year in earnest. In late February and early March we played every Thursday night in New York City at friends’ bars and other places. We’d get up and do nothing but new songs, unannounced because we didn’t want to feel the pressure to play old songs.”

“Then we did 10 gigs out West, including 2 weekends at Coachella in April and went straight into Daptone. It’s definitely a funky studio, home-made rough around the edges. I felt very at home, very comfortable there. Maybe we also feel a little bit of kinship because, like the Blues Explosion, they are great lovers of music and students of music history. Also, over the years I’ve crossed paths with some of the Daptone people. We played with one of the guys who runs the label, Neal Sugarman, and his band The Sugarman 3 in ’92 or ’93.”

As students of great music and great studios  - Spencer mentions Stax and Royal – the band knew what they were looking for. And they had heard it on Daptone records by Sharon Jones and The Mighty Imperials, rather than the bits of Back To Black that Amy Winehouse recorded at Daptone with Mark Ronson. Nevertheless, that’s a record that Spencer likes.

“We wanted somewhere where we’d be assured of a great drum sound. And it’s all out of one mic – they know what they are doing there!” The Rolling Stones had to go to Alabama to find their great soul studio – the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – where they tracked Brown Sugar, Wild Horses and You Gotta Move for Sticky Fingers, Spencer just had to go across town. Daptone’s House of Soul in Brooklyn is just 30 minutes by subway and on foot from Spencer’s apartment.

So far, like 2012’s Meat And Bone, the new material is just the Blues Explosion playing as a trio. With so many great musicians in the Daptone stable, it must be tempting to reach out and make a call?

“I don’t know if any of the Daptone musicians will play on the new material but that would be something very special.”

Spencer is a man “who likes to keep busy”. This Spring, his wish has been granted. “I haven’t actually listened to the Daptone material since we did it because I went straight off to another production job for a young German – Jesper Munk – and his band.”

There’s a touch of the evangelist or the cool professor about Spencer, when he discusses the bands he likes. “One time I mentioned a couple of post-Hardcore bands from the Mid-West to them – Killdozer and The Laughing Hyenas – and they had no idea who I was talking about.” I imagine, he’s quite capable of giving a quick tutorial on line-ups and discographies. “In their true incarnation The Hyenas were one of the most ferocious and consistent live bands and they made great records”.

That’s a description that fits his own band. On the first night of this European tour in Utrecht, the band delivered their usual electric Blitzkrieg, cut with so many heavy nuggets of fearsome, raucous new funk that the room was full of shaking Dutch ass. It’s really something to play hard and aggressive and still really swing. I’ve never seen them better.

This month’s 9 date tour is actually the most the Blues Explosion have ever played in the UK at a stretch. To celebrate that, Jon has commissioned a tour poster from the Italian graphic design trio Malleus, with a peculiarly British flavour.

“As usual I sent some visual clues or hints or stimuli to them. This time a clip from an old Patrick Troughton Dr Who episode, a poster of Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb and a publicity still of this Hammer va-va-voom lady in full Egyptian regalia out on a UK city street. She has a cat on a leash!”

“As a kid I was drawing, making art all the time and if you’d asked me at 10 years old what I’d be, it was probably some kind of visual artist. I oversee, as much as I can, the visual presentation of the band. I thought the poster was fitting for the UK”.

More than you could know Jon. This “Va-va-voom lady” is Valerie Leon, instantly recognisable from an array of ‘70s big screen British schlock, trash and cult curios (including six Carry Ons), as well as classic TV - The Goodies, a Morecombe and Wise Christmas special, Up Pompeii and the Mike Yarwood show. Her name isn’t well known in the UK but her face and décolletage are.

So why such a substantial UK tour now?

“It’s not just that we feel like we owed it to the UK, but promoters would be hitting up our agent - John Barry of CNL, who actually lives in Nottingham - and these days you get people posting on Facebook asking ‘When you gonna come?’ so you get a sense of want, of desire.”

Keeping the Blues Explosion making records and playing shows is a full time job for Spencer, still requiring the ethos that built his career in Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and the pre-Orange days of the Blues Explosion.

“We have a lawyer, an agent, a business manager but even with those people I know what’s going on, and it’s my business to know what’s going on. When I started playing in a band I wanted to create some sounds similar to the sounds that were making my head and heart swoon. I worked a job, I saved up money, I paid for a studio, pressed my own records, the early shows I did I booked myself. This do-it-yourself sensibility – the way I use the term “punk rock’ - is the same. If you are spending your own money, you watch the pennies.”

2014 will be Spencer’s 30th year of being in a band. (He dates everything from the start of Pussy Galore, so Shithaus, a band he drummed in at college, doesn’t count). That’s a long time doing anything, so is there a chance of music going on the back-burner?

“Maybe once my son gets out of college and we move out of New York City! I mean, I don’t hate my day job - I keep playing in the Blues Explosion because it feels good and I guess I’m not cranking out screenplays or mounting exhibitions because this is the amount of work I can handle.”

And how is this Blues Explosion different from the 2005 version that played the Rescue Rooms?

“Releasing our back catalogue in 2010 was a great refresher for the band and refocused us on what it is that we do and what makes us special, so that might be a difference between then and now. However, the idea, the proposition is still the same. We’ve remained true to who we are as a band. We’ve not caved in to fashion – or senility.”

'The Blood of the Ancients Ones' it says on the tour poster. These fellas might be longer in the tooth, but they damn sure still got the flavour – deeper and richer, a real New York City Soul Stew. In their own stage vernacular, the Blues Explosion are still “Ready to do it. And do it right now!” Good people of Nottingham, it’s time to get down.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with support from Dusty Bible and The Canadians perform at the Rescue Rooms on Friday 16 May 2014.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion website

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