The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
That Old Feeling
by Stephen Slaybaugh

When The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion returned to action a few years ago to promote reissues of its back catalog by Shout! Factory, even the band probably didn’t know if it was going to stick. Having laid dormant for much of the past decade while the mesh of primal rock and punk sounds in which they specialized was fetishized by a new generation of musicians, the trio—frontman Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins—re-emerged having not made an album together since 2004’s less-than-stellar Damage.

Fortunately, once the band, who formed in New York in 1990, shook out the cobwebs, the creative juices got flowing again. While the Blues Explosion may not be running at the peak level of, say, 1994 (hell, neither am I), Meat and Bone is, if not a return to form, an exciting next chapter. Recorded with the assistance of engineers Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins at The Key Club studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the band didn’t enlist any producers or special guests for this one. As such, it is undiluted, and songs like “Boot Cut” and “Ice Cream Killer” are as potent as anything in the Blues Explosion repertoire.

With Meat and Bone due out tomorrow, I caught up with Bauer last week to discuss the album’s relation to the rest of the Blues Explosion discography, as well as the band’s past and future.

How did the band leave things after Damage?

Judah Bauer: We left things in 2005 at Madison Square Park, next to Shake Shack. I was like, “Am I going to have to pick up an application at Shake Shack?” I guess it was because we all lived up in the neighborhood then. We had run through that last record, and I think everyone just had road burn. It was also a long run to be in a brotherhood/dysfunctional family, and it was time to do something else. I think this band works too hard, and working hard isn’t always the answer. Mute had dropped us too, which was kind of depressing, so we decided to take a break.

But there wasn’t any finality?

JB: No. Everyone had other stuff brewing that they wanted to do. I mean, everyone always had other stuff, but it became more of a priority. But then we started playing together again in September 2008. We’d always get offers, but everyone was always busy doing other things. We got some interest to go to Europe and everyone’s time was free. There was no pressure of a record, so it was more like the Blues Explosion wedding band. We could play whatever we wanted, which was fun. After that many years, we could run a set whatever way we wanted, whatever era we wanted, and remember what the hell we were. And I realized we were an art-punk band. Before we were a rock & roll band, we were an art-punk band. We did all those reissues and heard things that maybe we only ever heard the day we recorded it. So touring playing what we wanted and then putting out the reissues, it was kind of a review of what the band was.

So we ran the Blues Explosion jukebox tours long enough that it was time to do something. On the road, you always come up with things and enough stuff sounded cool that it was time to do a record. Same old drill. Nothing too different this time. Maybe it’s more like the earlier records because it’s just us, no cast of characters or guests.

Going over those reissues, were there things you liked less and wish you hadn’t done or things that surprised you that you liked more?

JB: I guess just that I liked the band from the point of view of a listener. The band has a lot of noble qualities and is so raw and to the point. Everything is really creative. I kind of learned how to play along the way, and now I can see what’s good about that. Not knowing how to play, you’re left to your own devices and have to rely on pure creativity.

Do you think putting out those reissues influenced this record? I hear some similarities to Orange, especially on “Boot Cut.”

JB: At some point we became a rock & roll band, and I forgot that we were more, like I said, art-punk and broke from the form. I appreciated that aspect of the band more and came back to it. It’s also pretty rudimentary. There are no producers or extras. This record probably has more overdubs than we’ve done it the past, but it’s just us doing them.

It seems kind of loose to me. Do you think there was less forethought going into it?

JB: Ah, this band doesn’t have much forethought. But it was pretty efficient. It happened pretty quick, which is how the early records were. You go in and write songs quick and record quick. With Damage, we’d get together from noon to 7pm everyday and jam and come up with songs. We had so much material and time put into it, and when stuff is sitting around, I guess you do think about it more, so maybe you’re right, there is more thought. This was pretty tight. We had a couple songs written on the road, and we pulled “Black Mold” from the Damage outtakes pile. But otherwise, we had 10 writing days in July and 10 in August, so it was a pretty tight schedule because I was playing with Cat Power and Jon was doing Heavy Trash. So we got the record done and then it was sitting around for awhile because we forgot we didn’t have a label! We had to think about all that, which we hadn’t had to do for awhile. But yeah, this was pretty quick, and the mixing was pretty quick. For me, after a certain amount of money, I think you’re just wasting it. Everyone agreed, so it was good to have that constraint. I mean, I don’t know if people buy records. They buy t-shirts, but I don’t know about CDs. I guess we’ll find out.

Well, you’ve got the deluxe package with the apron. What’s the Exploder thing that’s being package with it?

JB: It’s a toy. I don’t know. You’ve got to come up with stupid ideas. The apron idea was mine, and I tried to kill it. I thought it was too domestic, but it ended up happening. Maybe that’s savvy, though, because maybe our fanbase is more domesticated now...

Well, you have the song on the Anthony Bourdain show so that kind of fits.

JB: That’s true. I forgot about that. But this is the kind of crap you have to do when a record comes out. We’ll pick up our dignity later.

You touched on this before, how it is just you guys, and the title, Meat and Bone, implies that you’re keeping it lean and there’s no fat on the record. Did you feel that was necessary?

JB: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what Russell’s and Jon’s ideas were, but I pushed for it to be just us and to keep it short and sweet and without too many extras. You don’t always know what it’s going to take to get something done. I could have been wrong, but I’m glad I wasn’t. I think everyone had sort of the same idea, but we don’t really talk about that stuff.

Yeah, after having played together so long, is there a lot discussion before constructing a song or does it just happen?

JB: Nah, it’s just rock & roll—or it’s just art-punk—you just play. I guest there’s discusstion indirectly. If we’re talking about Link Wray or Black Flag or such, it sometimes can have an influence. But mostly, it’s just playing and playing until something sounds good. Then, the next day, you come in and remember whatever is significant enough to remember.

There was the hurricane that was coming and never came, and we have an instrumental that’s called “Zimgar,” but originally it was called “Irene.” It has a brooding, foreboding vibe, like the storm is coming. So sometimes it’s whatever is going on that week.

Do you see this as being the start of the Blues Explosion Mach II or is it going to be another eight years before another record?

JB: I don’t know. I thought we were only going to have one record back in the day. I figured we’d be around for a year, so it’s lasted longer than I thought. I guess I’ve got to see how it goes. I like playing, but we have our own version of the chitlin’ circuit. I don’t need to go slog it out. I don’t know how many times I can do that a year. I guess the band needs to re-establish itself and see if anybody cares.

Could you envision the Blues Explosion continuing until you’re in your seventies, like old blues guys sitting around?

JB: Yeah, or it could be over tomorrow, which has always been my attitude. It’s like I said, a brotherhood and a dysfunctional family. You want to do it and you want to get the fuck away from it. Everyone is older and a little more diplomatic, so that helps. I could see it going on and on, but I’m not going to over-extend myself like I have in the past. This band tends to be all-consuming, and that doesn’t even make for a good band necessarily. It’s easy for us to become totally involved and that hasn’t always worked. But if it stays balanced and healthy, then yeah, I could see that.