Hog Heaven

A polished new album has Boss Hog looking ahead and leaving a sloppy past behind.

Boss Hog With Delta 72. 9 p.m., Monday, May 15, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue, $10 advance, $12 day of show, 216-241-5555 and 330-945-9400
Leaps and bounds: According to Cristina Martinez (second from left), Boss Hog has grown considerably.
Leaps and bounds: According to Cristina Martinez (second from left), Boss Hog has grown considerably.
Coupling the sexier-than-thou attitude of singer Cristina Martinez with the brand of distorted, fire-eating rock and roll that has made her husband, singer-guitarist Jon Spencer (of the infamous Blues Explosion), the toughest kid on the rock and roll block, Boss Hog's story is built on two of rock's oldest ingredients: sex and rock and roll, each of which is represented by Martinez and Spencer.

In a scenario that sounds like a scene out of a rock and roll fairytale, the two met in the mid-'80s in Washington, D.C., at a Jesus and Mary Chain concert. Martinez had been living in D.C., and Spencer had just dropped out of Brown University to start his path to stardom with the devastatingly raucous noise/punk band Pussy Galore -- a group that, in addition to Spencer, included guitarist Julia Cafritz, guitarist Neil Hagerty (now in Royal Trux), and former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert. After two EPs, "Feel Good About Your Body" and "Groovy Hate Fuck," Pussy Galore staked its claim as an underground sensation with updated garage rock, namely a track-by-track cover of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, which it released on cassette (now out of print).

"I was working as an import record buyer, and I overheard Jon talking about an import [record] that we were both kind of into," Martinez says via phone from her home in New York City. "He needed someone to take photos for the first Pussy Galore single, and I was studying photography at the time. I guess two weeks later he moved in."

But Martinez would wind up doing much more for the band than just taking photos -- she eventually dropped out of school to fill in as a third guitarist and gave Pussy Galore a visual shot in the arm by posing for some eye-catching and controversial cover art. Martinez was underused as a guitarist, and when things with Pussy Galore eventually fell apart in the late '80s, she and Spencer started Boss Hog with guitarists Jerry Teel and Kurt Wolf, bassist Pete Shore, and drummer Charlie Ondras. Originally formed to fill in for a band that canceled a show at the last minute, the band eventually picked up steam and released Drinkin', Lechin', and Lyin' in 1989 and Cold Hands in 1990 on Amphetamine Reptile Records.

Spencer then devoted his attention to the Blues Explosion and didn't come back to Boss Hog until 1993. By that time, the lineup had shifted -- Spencer and Martinez remained, but they replaced the other original members with bassist Jens Jürgensen and drummer Hollis Queens. Its major label debut, in 1995, was part of a five-year deal the band had with Geffen. Spurred on by the fact that Spencer and Martinez made a few waves themselves with their fairly public private life, Boss Hog became as much of an underground sensation as the Blues Explosion. Yet Spencer and Martinez were a little too forthcoming in interviews about their sex life and drew attention away from the music.

"It has really always been about the music," Martinez maintains. "When we play together with Boss Hog, it is a different kind of thing than what we have as a couple. People always want to know about [our marriage] and make a big deal of it, but it really isn't. Jon and I have a wonderful relationship, and it has been great since the beginning, but eventually all the stuff about our private life and sex and all that got tiring."

For a while, though, everything was perfect. Because they were so photogenic, Spencer and Martinez were featured in magazines around the country, with full-color photo spreads and positive reviews. But no rock band history is complete without a few disasters, and Boss Hog didn't make the cut when Geffen merged with Interscope and A&M last year.

"It was disconcerting in a way, but it really worked out for the best," Martinez says. "[Geffen] paid us off the remainder of our advance and gave us the copyright to songs we had already demoed. We really made out like bandits."

Making out like bandits meant making the most of a break, and Boss Hog, which had taken time off after Boss Hog so that Martinez could have a child, returned earlier this year (on Valentine's Day, to be exact) with Whiteout, which was released on the California-based indie label In the Red, the same label that issued a live Pussy Galore record in 1998. But it isn't just the label and personnel that have changed on Whiteout. The album represents a dramatic shift toward a more groove-oriented sound.

"The whole thing is different by leaps and bounds," Martinez explains. "The main difference was that we wrote with [keyboardist] Mark Boyce. After the last record for Geffen, we added a lot of keyboards on top of everything else, in the studio, after the songs were written. Jon and I liked how it sounded and wanted to add it in live. We eventually asked Mark to be a full-fledged, card-carrying member of Boss Hog, and we wanted to record with him."

Boyce's Stax-like organ and keyboard contributions were one of the keystones to the seminal hip-hop group the Goats. His role in determining Boss Hog's sound, as well as the extensive use of more electronic beats and more mature production qualities, take Whiteout far from the in-your-face attitude that typified both Pussy Galore and early Boss Hog records.

In addition, Queens takes a backseat on much of the album and lets sampled beats and drum loops provide the rhythm tracks. Queens maintains she wasn't bothered by the use of electronic instrumentation, because she feels it's a part of greater directional changes for the band, which she says are for the better.

"Honestly, I don't give a shit," she says, when asked about being assisted by a machine. "They sampled my drums to make them sound more or less like I do live. Some people get touchy about that kind of thing, but these tunes were written with these beats in mind."

With a cast of guest producers that includes Andy Gill, Tore Johansson, and Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell, Whiteout is unquestionably the most polished album the band has made to date.

"Those guys were really amazing," Queens says. "They Protooled everything. Not only my drums, but everything. The guitar hits a wrong note or the bass hits a wrong note or someone sings a wrong note, and they just Protool it out."

Through the wonders of "Protooling it out" Martinez's vocals throughout Whiteout are much more prevalent than in the earlier efforts. The combination of her vocal melodies, Boyce's organ lines, and sampled beats makes it appear as if Whiteout is aimed at a different audience.

"I know people will like this record," Martinez says. "We are really happy with it. This album is all about rhythm and groove, and that is because of this kind of keyboard sound that Mark added. I purposely wanted to write songs that were hypnotic and locked in that way, so you could tap your toes through the whole song to the same beat. I didn't have to yell over everything, and I actually got to sing."

Fans of Pussy Galore and early Boss Hog will probably miss some of the raunchy guitar-driven rock that Spencer brought to the band, and though he is still a part of the equation, he's been pushed to the background on this album.

"I'm really excited to tour with this album," Queens says. "Even though it is a very different record than the other stuff, I think a lot of the things about the live show are going to be even better. It's not just two people leading the show anymore. We're all more into it and more in the mix, and I think everyone is giving a lot more to the live shows and [is] a lot looser."

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