If you’re not familiar with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the opening track on the band’s new album Meat and Bone gives you a good idea what the trio is all about, musically and even philosophically. “Black Mold” is a heavy, driving garage rocker that flirts with scuzziness but never gets too far gone, culminating with Spencer rattling off a list of records from his personal collection that were ruined by the titular fungus in the wake of a flood.
That JSBX doesn’t really sound like the Art Blakey, Milton Babbitt, Magic Sam, Randy Newman, Lonnie Smith, or Little Richard records that are name-checked isn’t the point, nor is this just an excuse for the singer to tell us how cool his record collection is. Throughout their history, Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer, and drummer Russell Simins have always demonstrated an interest in a broad range of rock, jazz, avant-garde, blues, soul, and R&B, and “Black Mold” is a celebration of—and lament for—lost records that can also be read as a paean for uniquely American music.
After JSBX barrels its way through a confident set of rock songs peppered with funk, blues, and soul influences, Meat and Bone’s closing track offers further insight into the band’s inspiration. “Zimgar” is an instrumental tribute to a somewhat obscure model of guitar Spencer credits with helping to shape the JSBX sound. For all this celebration of vinyl records and vintage guitars, though, Spencer does not want the band to be lumped in with any lo-fi worshipping purists.
“We’re not Luddites or snobs,” Spencer says during a phone interview from his home in New York City. “We use digital technology, but we do like to record to 2-inch 16-track analog tape. We like to record live, and we chose to record this album at Key Club Studio in Ann Arbor, Mich., because of their collection of gear and the great engineers there.”
Spencer formed primal garage-trash band Pussy Galore in the ’80s, later played in wife Christina Martinez’s band Boss Hog, and more recently fronted rockabilly homage artists Heavy Trash. JSBX is justifiably his most well-known band, kicking off the ’90s with a stripped-down, punk-informed blues and soul sound that soon became fashionable in the indie-rock world. There were precedents for guitar-and-drum lineups—in blues bands like Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, and rock revisionists like the Cramps, both of whom Spencer considers major influences—but JSBX arguably went further in popularizing the format with a series of releases on taste-making label Matador that paved the way for bands like the White Stripes.
Though some of the band’s finest work was in a hard-rocking blues style, including a blistering album with Mississippi bluesman R.L Burnside, Spencer increasingly became involved with remixes, hip-hop, and collaborations with the likes of Moby and DJ Shadow. The group’s last studio album before a lengthy official hiatus, 2004’s Damage, suffered from a surfeit of this kind of thing, and you can’t help but notice how much more rough and raw the new album is.
In 2010, the band oversaw the reissue of much of its back catalog, including outtakes and B-sides, and it makes sense to wonder if spending time with those records had any effect on how they approached their latest recording.
“Well, I wasn’t too jazzed to be doing it in the first place,” Spencer says of the reissue project. “I’d rather be working on new stuff. But once we got in there I got really involved with it. It was a big job—took about nine months. We were a busy band; for every album we put out, we recorded enough material for another record. With those reissues, we wanted to tell the story of who we were and where we’d been the first 10 years. I hadn’t heard a lot of the stuff in years and it was almost like working with another band, and there were a few surprises along the way, songs I had forgotten about.”
One thing that has remained a constant with the band is the braggadocio quality apparent in Spencer’s lyrics and stage persona. JSBX has been both praised and lambasted for its often arch appropriation and postmodern tweaking of the tropes and signifiers of blues and rock ’n’ roll (if that is how you can describe giving albums titles like A Reverse Willie Horton and Controversial Negro). Mid-song boasts like “Everybody stand up/Throw your hands in the air/And kiss my ass/Because your girlfriend still loves me!” were either an amusing extension of this conceit or eyeroll-worthy examples of narcissism, depending on how you viewed the band. Spencer’s been dealing with criticism of this kind for years—it’s possible his good looks, hot rocker wife, and charismatic stage presence make him an irresistible target for a certain type of critic—and he seems a bit irritated with those who haven’t figured out it’s all part of the act.
“It’s all just a part of taking from what you like,” he explains. “This guitarist has a certain sound you like, or you’re impressed by a singer or an m.c., and you take from that. That’s just part of rock ’n’ roll. It’s like an oral tradition that gets passed down. Every person picks what they want to do with it, and you hope you have a clever way to present it or enough of your own stuff in there.”