To celebrate the release of their new fine album Freedom Tower — No Wave Dance Party 2015, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion embarked on a short Five Borough Freedom Tour and played gigs in Staten Island, Manhattan, Jersey City, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. After spending something like 20 years in the Big Apple, you’d think the guys would have played every nook and cranny in the city. But that’s not actually the case.
“The [shows] were really nice,” says Spencer when asked about the mini-tour as he’s driving to the first show out of town after the conclusion of the Five Borough Freedom Tour. “I had never played a show in Staten Island before. I never played a gig in the Bronx before. It was a lot of fun to go out and play places we had never been before and play places that were a little more unusual. It was quite an adventure. I really enjoyed it.”
Spencer grew up in Providence where he started absorbing a mix of noise and garage rock. He says he was a late bloomer when it came to diving into rock 'n' roll.
“I didn’t listen to a whole lot of music when I was a kid,” he says. “I didn’t get into until I was 16 or 17. It became a real obsession at 17, 18 and 19. I was into straight up noise bands like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten and Swans. I was also into '60s garage punk and old school hip-hop. All these songs took hold of my life.”
Spencer played in a noise rock band before moving to Washington D.C. in the '80s and forming Pussy Galore, a ramshackle garage rock band that’s perhaps most famous for issuing a cassette-only covers album of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. The band split up in 1990 but not before leaving a lasting impression. Does Spencer look back fondly on those days?
“I guess so,” he says. “I don’t look on it so much. I don’t remember it so well. We reissued some of those early records over the past couple of years so I’ve been in touch with the people in that band. We even played a show a few years ago. One of the nicest things about that is that I have been able to talk to with people like [former bandmates] Kurt Wolf and Bob Bert and Julia Cafritz.”
With the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which he formed in 1991 in New York, he sticks with a garage rock formula but plays with a little more swagger, delving into blues, funk and hip-hop. And he does so without bass guitar. Spencer sings and plays electric guitar while Russell Simins backs him on drums and Judah Bauer plays electric guitar. The formula works — the band’s known as a potent live act and played to packed clubs throughout the ‘90s before taking a hiatus in the early ‘00s.
“Well, we just try to go all out and give it our all,” he says when asked about the live shows. “There’s an element of trying to mess with people and cut down their expectations. But we’re also fans of people like James Brown. We’re trying to entertain and put on a super dynamite rock 'n’ roll show.”
After taking a few years off, the band returned to touring and recording in 2012 with Meat + Bone, a rough-around-the-edges album it recorded in Michigan.
“It was a real rock ’n’ roll record,” says Spencer. “It was very blown out and raw.”
For the new disc, the band “tightened things up.” Album opener “Freedom” begins with a bit of white noise before Spencer starts hiccupping, “Here we go.” The song sounds like a cross between the Beastie Boys and the White Stripes with a bit of Prince thrown into the mix.
“Well, personally, I was hoping to get something that was a little tighter and more focused,” says Spencer when asked about the band’s approach on the new disc. “I had the idea in the back of my head that it would be a dance record or a dance party. That helped determine the direction for me. That was why we recorded at Daptone studios in Brooklyn and then we mixed with Alap Mornin at a studio in Harlem. We recorded at Dap tone. We worked with people who know dance music and soul and hip-hop.”
Spencer practically raps on “Wax Dummy,” and his vocals pack the urgency of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
“Over the years I listened to a lot of Public Enemy,” he admits. “For sure. Rap and hip-hop has always been an influence on the Blue Explosion and not just with sonic tricks we might pull. It’s been an influence on how we think about songwriting. We’re not trying to write rap song and I’m not trying to be a great MC. If you listen to Public Enemy and their record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, those are songs built from old soul songs. It’s built on the backs of great soul music. The way in which Public Enemy and their producers would sift through the bones of musical history and stich things together and jump and do these hairpin turns and jump from one style and sound and verse to different sound and style and chorus. It could be very free in how you went about writing the song. That’s what I mean by an influence on our songwriting.”
In a snippet of an interview that comes before the track "Tales of New York: The Rock Box," Spencer says, "We want to push the music and get way out there." That's something that’s endeared them more to critics than to major record labels and commercial radio. Spencer is fine with that.
“[Pushing boundaries] has always been our mission,” he says. “That’s been on our minds. That’s something we’re definitely interested in. we’re not trying writing songs and making records to craft something that will please someone else. We’re really pursuing our hearts.”
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Danny & the Darleens, 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 24, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15 ADV, $17 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.