It’s been 17 years since Boss Hog put out a record, and although a lot has changed during that time, you might not know it by listening to the new album. Named after a strain of cicada that also only reappears every 17 years, Brood X (In the Red Records) doesn’t sound like the work of a band that’s been lying dormant for nearly two decades. More than just picking up where the band left off, the album combines the ferocity of its early years with the tenacity of being older and wiser. Singer Cristina Martinez, who, just as on 2000’s Whiteout, is joined by husband Jon Spencer on guitar, Hollis Queens on drums, and Jens Jurgensen on bass, plus new member keyboardist Mickey Finn, sounds every bit as irascible and cagey as on previous outings, while musically the band has seemingly tapped a new vein of vitriol.
I caught up with Martinez on the day of the band’s record release show to discuss Brood X and what’s gone on during the band’s time away.
Does it feel like it’s been 17 years since you put out a record to you? Does it feel that long and does it feel like a different Boss Hog than the one that put out Whiteout?
Cristina Martinez: It definitely feels like a different Boss Hog from the one that put out Whiteout, if you look at it that way. When people ask me if it feels different than when you last put out a record… first of all, I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. When I think about all the things that have happened in those 17 years and how much we’ve grown and changed as people—or I have—then it’s probably a lot different. But as far as us getting together as a band and playing music, that hasn’t changed so much. It still feels very familiar, very easy and comfortable, and exciting and fun to do. All of those feelings are very much the same. But the fact that we have all lived that many years longer, the experience that we bring to how we communicate with each other might be different. We’re a little more easy going and relaxed, and we know each other that much better and are familiar with each others’ patterns.
So is the approach to the band more relaxed then?
CM: Well, you know what? Boss Hog has always been that way for the mere fact that Jon has always been in other bands. We’ve always been a fair-weather band. When the moment is right and when we all have time to get to it, we do something. We’ve never been on a mandated schedule of putting out a record every year and touring for six months or whatever. The couple times we’ve done that, after the Geffen record and after Whiteout, when we toured as much as possible and it was a priority for all of us, that was pretty destructive. I came out of that exhausted and not feeling good. That kind of crazed schedule didn’t work out so well for us. We’ve been playing together regularly since we got back together in 2008 to do shows, but on a very relaxed schedule that’s fun for us. I think it’s important that we all enjoy doing what we do in Boss Hog. It’s not our job, but our pleasure.
Was there a specific impetus for getting back together in 2008?
CM: Yeah, we were invited to do a bunch of shows all at once, and we were all in transitional places where we could do them. I think it was some cherry tour in Italy that happened at the right moment. It was so much fun that we forgot all the troubles of being in a band and accepted more shows. After about two years of doing random shows, we decided if we were going to keep playing, we should have new material. It is a little awkward to go out and keep playing these songs that we’ve been playing for over a decade. We started rehearsing on a regular basis and writing songs, and eventually we had so much stuff we decided we should make a record. That was maybe three years ago and we took two years to record it—it took a long time to go back and do vocals and get it in shape—and finally it has seen the light of day.
Prior to getting those invitations to play, was there a point when you thought Boss Hog was done?
CM: I never said never. I thought at some point I would make more more music, not necessarily with Boss Hog per se. I did know that I would eventually want to play more music and record more music. And I love Boss Hog. I love those songs and that band, playing with those people and what happens, that dynamic. I was fairly certain it would happen, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I don’t think any of us were. We exhausted ourselves on that last record and needed a psychological break.
You were talking about wanting to make a new record, and we’re kind of living in the age of the reunion…
CM: I know! Every time I pick up the paper, I’m like, “They’re playing a show! Maybe we should play a show together!” Everybody took the same break.
Were you at all concerned as being seen as a nostalgia act?
CM: Sure, of course, I worried about that, because whenever I see someone getting back together after 20 years, I think, “Oh, they needed money.” But let me assure you, that’s not why we’re doing this. It’s not making us a great deal of money. Luckily, it pays for itself, but that’s not where we’re coming from. We’ve always been self-sufficient and made a little money. We’ve never operated in the red…
Just with In the Red!
CM: Yeah. That’s certainly not why we are doing it. It’s funny that there are so many acts that are coming back after the same gap or longer. What is it about 2017? Is it Trump?
On “Ground Control,” you seem to lament the old New York fading away. Do you think Boss Hog could have come out of any other time or place?
CM: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. The real impetus or sentiment behind Boss Hog is that we’re all outsiders, except for maybe Mickey, who is the outsider in our band because he’s so well-adjusted. But the rest of us are misfits and that brings people together, like punk rock did. You find your tribe and commune with people who are like-minded, like the same things, and find the same importance in things. I think we all felt that way as teenagers and as young adults, and that would have been the same no matter what time. But the kind of music that inspired me—it made me think, “I can do that.” And I might not have thought that if I grew up in another time when there weren’t high profile bands playing very simple music. When I would hear, for instance, the Butthole Surfers, I thought I could probably do that. It enabled me to think I could express myself this way, it doesn’t seem that hard to learn enough to do it. I really gravitated to the kind of urgency and feelings behind that music.
I read another interview where you were expressing concerns about playing some older songs that you didn’t connect to emotionally anymore. Is there material that you just won’t play anymore? It seems like you don’t delve beyond the self-titled record too much.
CM: We try to play something from every record. We are really trying to cover the catalog as much as possible. There are things that I find a little silly and that I’m not 100% behind in theory, but my job is that I’m a performer, so I try my best to not think about them logically when I’m onstage and be in the moment. I think that’s the mark of a good performer, if you’re able to do that. I was driving somewhere recently and I heard Bruce Springsteen being interviewed on NPR. I’m not a Springsteen fan at all, but I thought it was a really good interview. He quoted someone else and was saying that if you think about what you do onstage then not a one of us would do it because it’s weird and crazy. But once you’re there, if you don’t think about it and just let go, that’s what makes a good performance and that’s the goal. At the end of the night, that’s what makes a good show: if you were able to stay in the moment and let the music guide you while giving 100% of yourself and being completely committed to every single one of the songs. So that’s my goal. If I sit here and talk to you about the ideas behind some of these lyrics, I can’t vouch for them all the time, but when I’m onstage I can. I hope I do. If I click out of it, that’s not a good show for me—or for anyone, probably.
Sonically, you guys have covered a lot of ground. Do you see an aesthetic that connects Drinkin’, Lechin’ & Lyin’ and Cold Hands to this record or this record to Whiteout?
CM: I think the thread that carries through is that we put together stuff that might not ordinarily be a smooth transition or a logical segue. We like to chop things up sonically and put together parts that can be kind of jarring. We’ve always done that, and the way we structure songs and the instrumentation we use is a little funky and off. That’s very much the case with this record. Whiteout is a little more polished. We worked with high-profile producers and they really smoothed out the edges. This one was tinkered with a lot less. It’s weird, it feels like an earthquake when the two plates rub against each other. And I think that’s our strong suit.
Did you have anything specific in mind going into it?
CM: No, nothing other than to make a great record. It’s almost like the first record, because with your first record you have your whole life to write it and after that you’re just writing off of the last record. This one we had such a long break, we had years of material to cull from. We took our time to figure out which songs made it, and we had much more material than what made it on to the record. It was a careful culling of good songs and editing down to what was the strongest.
What’s the dynamic like within the band in terms of division of labor? Do you concern yourself musically or do you focus on the lyrics and singing?
CM: When we’re writing the music initially, we will very often switch instruments. I’ll play guitar or I’ll sing or someone else will sing or we’ll switch and I’ll play drums or keyboards. I’m a big fan of super simple, weird music, and I think that if you give somebody an instrument with which they’re not entirely comfortable or they don’t go to their usual place automatically, then you get a different feel. Everything all of a sudden starts to sound like neanderthal music, and I like that! I like super simplistic, weird sounds. So we did that a lot and once we get the basic idea, we switched back to our instruments and refined it, creating different parts and orchestrating the song. That’s when I switch back to doing vocals. But this entire time we’re working together and playing around until somebody hits on something to which everybody responds. It is completely collaborative and everyone is an integral part of that process. As we’re figuring out how to structure the song, I’ll bring in something I’ve already written or sometimes it will be whatever I’m thinking about that day and I’ll ad lib. Then I’ll go back alone and flesh out that idea. The music was maybe 99% done, but lyrically I had a lot of work to do. We went into the studio and recorded basic tracks and I recorded rough vocals. Then I went back home and did more writing and then returned to the studio to do vocals.
Was there a reason to go to Michigan? Did you feel like you needed to get away from New York to focus?
CM: It’s expensive to record in New York so for the same amount of money we could all fly out to Michigan to the Keyclub Recording studio, where we wanted to work. Jon had worked there previously, and (producer) Bill Skibbe had worked with Steve Albini, who we had worked with before. I thought it would be a good idea for us. If I’m in the city, generally I have to go to work at the day job. Going somewhere else, you can focus and get it done faster and better. And it was great! Benton Harbor is a burned out city on Lake Michigan. St. Joseph, the neighboring town, used to be some fancy resort for rich Chicagoans. Now, Benton Harbor is burned out and weird. The studio was built in an old warehouse store front so there aren’t a lot of windows. It was kind of a surreal experience. We ate and slept and worked all in the same building. The first time we were there it was warm and we went to the beach, but subsequent trips, it was cold and we were stuck there. It was a surreal experience that we really enjoyed.
Do you and Jon ever collaborate outside of Boss Hog? I mean, do you ever help him out with something he’s working on for the Blue Explosion or Heavy Trash?
CM: Oh, God no! Absolutely not. He would never ask me, and if he did, I would never say “yes.” We’re quite clear on keeping it separate. We have tried a few times to sit down and write something, realizing it would be nice to have something a little more mellow that we do. We’re exploring that because maybe one day we’ll move away from New York and it would be nice to still create music together just the two of us. We haven’t done much of that, but we’re starting to explore it. It’s hard. It’s not as easy as with five people joking around. We haven’t done it before so we’re just getting our feet wet.
Has being a parent changed your approach? Were you like, “Maybe I won’t be naked on the cover of this record?”
CM: No, not really. Charlie’s a young man now, and he’s seen far worse. Now, I don’t worry about it. I may have been more aware of it had I done this when he was younger. But we didn’t, so that may be why I feel like it’s fine to be me and not have to be an upstanding citizen.
Obviously, your son is older, but what does it feel like to be a parent with Donald Trump in the White House?
CM: That’s what gets me the most, not only is that asshole a father, but he’s a grandfather. He’s going to ruin our environment! What he is doing is so inhumane and so horrifying, but that guy doesn’t give a shit about his wife or his kids. He’s an egomaniacal psychopath, a narcissistic fuck. I don’t know how he got to where he is. It’s just so shameful. How can he be representing me? He’s not my president. I’m horrified that he’s doing what he’s doing. There are many times that I cry on my way to work about what is happening to us. I think maybe the arc of progress got too far. It will forever go forward, but it’s taking a little break because some people were freaking out. But I work hard everyday. I protest as much I can and call my representatives. I’m sick of signing petitions. Hopefully it’s inspiring people to keep up the good work and keep fighting this asshole.
You were in Europe right after the election, right?
CM: We were there right before and then after in February.
What was it like being an American band touring in Europe after Trump was elected?
CM: Most people felt bad for us. The things we said from the stage were to promote love and goodwill. It’s too easy to bash Trump. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It was more like, “This isn’t how the world should be and we’re there to support you and to try to remember that there are people for progress, who tolerate differences and love people of all nations and aren’t afraid to say so.” We really tried to speak positively about moving forward and lend support to people who need it. Personally we’ll do other things, but as a band I think our job is to lift spirits and voices.
The only other thing to ask you about is what the future holds for Boss Hog. I know you have some shows lined up.
CM: Tonight is our record release show in Manhattan and we’re doing a series of long weekends in the Northeast. After that we’ll go back to Europe. Then we have the Southwest of the States. I’d like to play everywhere, like Japan and Australia. We just started talking about what’s next. When we rehearse, we’ll generally start writing new songs. We’ll start noodling around. It’s not for lack of material that we wouldn’t put out another record, we just have to make sure everything takes care of itself. I like things to happen very naturally and easily. I don’t like to push for anything. With this band, it’s at its best when it’s spontaneous and it comes from a joyful place.