"We are not a joke band," declares Jon Spencer, the namesake of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. "We do have a sense of humor, but we're serious, too. We take joy in what we do, and there's stuff that's just crazy and funny. But we're not a joke."
If Spencer sounds like he's protesting too much, it may be because he's a fellow with a notably brainy past, at least by pop-music standards. He first came to the attention of the prime ministers of fashion on the East Coast's art-core scene during the mid-Eighties, thanks to his tenure with Pussy Galore, a bold fuck-you of a band whose members claimed that rock was on the critical list even as they covered songs by the Rolling Stones. The act, which also featured Neil Hagerty of Royal Trux (about whom Spencer pointedly chooses to say absolutely nothing), made less than no impact commercially, but it established Spencer as a musical provocateur eager to throw a spanner into the works of a creatively moribund industry. Persistent rumors that Spencer was a junkie--rumors he currently denies--only added to his outre allure. Here was a bandleader who, in many ways, seemed like a particularly juicy tragedy waiting to happen.
Spencer, however, survived that time quite well, thank you. After the messy end of Pussy Galore, he went on to perform with a pair of highly regarded combos, the Gibson Brothers and the Honeymoon Killers. Through connections with the latter, he came into contact with drummer Russell Simins and guitarist Judah Bauer, who joined him to form the Blues Explosion in 1992. Three sweaty, mind-blowing records later (1992's Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, 1993's Extra Width and last year's ripe Orange), the trio is benefiting from swell reviews, growing acclaim and an enlarged fan base thrilled to discover music that blatantly contradicts Pussy Galore's message. For Spencer circa 1995, you see, rock isn't all that sick after all--although, characteristically, Spencer hems and haws before admitting it.
"Pussy Galore was about the death of rock and roll, or the lack of it, or the dead end of it," he allows. "But with the Blues Explosion, we don't really worry about that stuff. It's more about taking what's ours, reclaiming it. There's really no platform--we're just trying to have a good time.
"I think Pussy Galore was successful on some level--I don't think it fell short. But this is a different band, and my head is in a different place. So rock and roll is alive, as far as I'm concerned. It means everything to me."
This testimonial may seem somewhat lukewarm, but Spencer's performances prove that he's not simply offering lip service. Curled-lip service, maybe: Spencer, you see, is an aficionado of Elvis Presley, and he's been accused more than once of aping, or perhaps channeling, the King during some of the Explosion's more raucous and theatrical onstage escapades. Spencer is certainly not ashamed of the association, and when he's asked about his favorite Presley era, he doesn't hesitate for an instant. "Probably when he first went to RCA in the late Fifties," he says. "But there's stuff I like from his entire career. It's not like I'm dead set against what he turned into during the Vegas period. It's all part of it. I'll take the whole package."
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Still, Spencer continues, "Even though I like Elvis Presley and I listen to Elvis Presley, there are other early rock-and-roll singers, especially early rockabilly singers, that probably have been a greater influence on the way I sing. Like Charlie Feathers, who was probably the greatest rockabilly singer ever, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was the greatest Sun Records artist--he had the best track record there. I'm not a rock historian or anything like that, but I like rock and roll, and I really like them."
Not that the Blues Explosion sounds anything like, say, the Stray Cats. A closer comparison is late Sixties acid rock taken to amphetamine extremes. But ask Spencer about Blue Cheer or the Blues Magoos and he offers the verbal equivalent of a shrug. "I'm familiar with some of the names," he concedes, "and I've probably heard some of the music, but it's not something that I listen to. I don't know what the hell we sound like. Us, I guess."
To understand what that means, lend an ear to "Bellbottoms," the lead track from Orange. The track is introduced by a huge, repetitive riff straight out of a vintage Led Zeppelin live set. Then, following the punctuation of an ultrarudimentary drum pattern, comes, of all things, a string section as lush as anything from Paul Buckmaster. The unexpected sweetness of this sound doesn't last long: It's sliced in half a few bars later by Spencer and Bauer, hollering like wounded cavemen. With these elements in place, the number starts building speed, but before it can get away from him, Spencer stops it flat with this pronouncement, delivered in his best rock-star sneer: "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Right now I've got to tell you about the fabulous, most groovy--bellbottoms!" After which the entire melange devolves into an ecstatic sonic orgy of percussive racket, guitar screeches, time changes and wild chanting about...pants.
In Spencer's mind, the Explosion's twists and turns come as a result of the composing process--although such a term might seem high-flown when applied to the semi-organized mayhem at the heart of the band. "The songs are really very spontaneous," Spencer confirms. "It's just the sound of the three of us playing together--there's no planning or theory involved. It happens very quickly. Then, after we've recorded, we might add some clever tricks in the studio. We might add instruments or change mixes, toss in some references that might not make any sense to anyone but us. There's a lot of play that goes on."
Given this logic, it makes perfect sense that Spencer would call up folk-rap-punker Beck and ask him to record a guest vocal over the phone for the coda of a song called "Flavor"--which is exactly what he did. Beck has also been enlisted in a second Spencer project, a remix EP utilizing much of the Orange material. Spencer's called in heavy hitters for the disc, which should be available in late spring: In addition to Beck's dissection of "Flavor," accomplished with the assistance of Beastie Boy Mike D, the release will sport "Bellbottoms" as reimagined by two producers associated with the London trip-hop label Mo'Wax and two versions of "Greyhound"--one altered by techno wiz Moby, the other sliced and diced by Genius, one of the masterminds behind the rap supergroup Wu Tang Clan. Spencer claims to be pleased by the results, but not by what he had to go through to achieve them.
"The original idea was to get real straight rap and hip-hop DJs to do the whole album," he says. "But it turned out to be impossible to find enough people who were even willing to do it. And after that, a lot of people couldn't deal with the fact that we don't have a time code or a click track or anything like that. It freaked them out to think about dealing with a real band without any kind of pulse--without anything that they could synch all their machines up to. And on top of that, people were asking for tons of money. So we had to come up with something a little different.
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"The people we finally ended up with we told to just come in and fuck stuff up, but after it was all over with, I had to go in and fix some of it. Some of what we got back was way too long and sort of dull. So I did some editing. Because it's still my name on it, you know?"
Also on the Spencer agenda is a new recording with Boss Hog, a group run by his wife, Cristina Martinez, and the Blues Explosion's current tour, about which Spencer mutters, "I hope the Beastie Boys audience can stand us. We did some shows in England with them, and it was a little rough." Still, he adds, the band will approach the upcoming slate of appearances as it would its average club date--which means that this bashful intellectual will try to get as anti-intellectual as possible.
"We don't play with a set list," he says. "I just call the songs out and we go, man. We go."
Beastie Boys, with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Roots. 8 p.m. Monday, May 1, Red Rocks, $20, 444-