Whatever you do, don’t call the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion—playing at Coachella on Friday, April 11 and 18—a “nostalgia” act.
Jon Spencer began his music career as the guitarist and vocalist for the Washington, D.C.-based psychedelic/punk band Pussy Galore. (Pussy Galore also included guitarist Cristina Martinez, who would go on to become Jon Spencer’s wife.) Pussy Galore dissolved in 1990, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion surfaced in 1991. Shortly thereafter, a 15-song bootleg titled A Reverse Willie Horton started making the rounds.
A Reverse Willie Horton—now considered by many to be the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s debut album—featured a cover with a reverse-negative picture of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas kissing his wife as President George H.W. Bush looked on, at Thomas’ swearing-in ceremony in 1991.
During a recent phone interview, Spencer said he had nothing to do with either the album cover or the album’s release.
“It’s a bootleg. I didn’t put it together,” Spencer said. “That record is the Blues Explosion’s first recording session that we did with (Mark) Kramer. I sent it to somebody, and it got bootlegged. I think the Reverse Willie Horton album came from Philadelphia.”
Throughout the ’90s, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion recorded and toured with big names—all while developing a sound that’s impossible to describe. Many people have labeled them as a blues band; others have used the term “nostalgic”—and neither is even close. While the sound includes elements of blues, it also contains bits of rock ’n’ roll and a punk influence.
The band’s proper, self-titled debut album, released in 1992, included some tracks from Reverse Willie Horton; few copies were produced and released. It was the release of Orange, in 1994, that led to critical acclaim, an appearance on MTV’s The John Stewart Show, and a tour with the Beastie Boys.
Orange also featured an appearance by Beck on the track “Flavor.” Beck was a rising star at the time, and he invited the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
“That first experience was fine,” Spencer said about working with Beck. “But later on, Beck became not so good to work with. ‘Loser’ was just starting to happen, and Beck would talk about my old band Pussy Galore being an influence on him. Around that time, I was mixing Orange in the studio in Manhattan, and we had the song ‘Flavor,’ and I thought, ‘Well, what about asking Beck to rap on this song?’ I got his number from someone at Geffen, called him up, and he was a good sport and said he’d do it. I let him write for 20 minutes and called him back, and we recorded over the phone.”
After Orange, the band recorded A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with blues legend R.L. Burnside. The album was recorded during one afternoon in February in Holly Springs, Miss.
“The guys from Fat Possum Records rented a hunting lodge, and it was out in the country,” Spencer said. “We just spent four or five hours that afternoon. It was bitterly cold; there was an ice storm a couple of days beforehand, and snow and ice are very rare down there. It was in a house, and it wasn’t a proper recording studio. The Fat Possum people brought in some recording equipment, and there was no heat. There was a big fire going in the fireplace. The Blues Explosion and R.L. had been touring together, and we’d been playing songs together more and more during encores. Matthew Johnson at Fat Possum thought, ‘Why don’t you go in the studio with him and record?’ That’s what we did.”
In the fast-paced, DIY recording session, R.L. Burnside had no problems, Spencer said. “He was a farmer most of his life. He wasn’t a prima donna. It wasn’t like we were recording with Pavarotti or Elton John. (Burnside) was a guy who definitely had no problem with anything, really. He was tough in some ways, for sure.”
While Jon Spencer Blues Explosion songs and albums have made the charts in the United Kingdom, the band has not managed to do so here in the States; still, the band has enjoyed a great deal of success with indie- and underground-music lovers, and many critics have raved about the band’s live performances. The band also received some good music-video exposure back in MTV’s heyday.
Bands such as The White Stripes, The Black Keys and others have listed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as an influence.
“A lot of these bands that people will mention to me, I don’t think they sound close,” Spencer said. “We’ve always been more of a punk band and quite more experimental. We’re not very traditional. We are a rock ’n’ roll band, but we’re not recycling the early-’70s sounds and styles.”
Since 1991, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion lineup has remained consistent, with Judah Bauer (lead guitar) and Russell Simins (drums) remaining in the fold. The band’s most-recent release, Meat+Bone, was well-received by critics.
As for playing at Coachella, Spencer was brutally honest in his assessment.
“I think the festivals we have in the States are modeled after the big European festivals,” Spencer said. “It’s nice to see a lot of festivals here in the States, and we’re very happy to be asked to play Coachella.”