Punk Blues Band Boss Hog Continues to Kick Out the Jams With Unparalleled Fierceness

Boss Hog, the scuzzy punk blues band fronted by singer-guitarist Jon Spencer and singer Cristina Martinez, first took the stage in 1989 at CBGB’s and made one helluva debut.

The band bio proclaims that its “sexy-dirty brand of bluesy punk” left a “sweaty, immutable mark” on the New York underground.

“I don’t remember a lot of specifics about that first show,” says Martinez, who keeps a day job as the editorial production direction for Bon Appétit, via phone. “It was nerve wracking and only lasted about 15 minutes. It was very fast and furious and full of a lot of adrenaline.”

Nowadays, the band has a reputation for improvisation. At that time, however, Martinez says it merely tried to bludgeon its way through a short set of tunes.

“Yes, we did have real songs,” says Martinez. “They were all a minute and 30 seconds long at the longest. Generally, when you have that much adrenaline, you play everything faster. It was good to have it be kind of an assault.”

Inspired by other “New York City noise stuff” like the Swans and Jim Thirlwell’s band Foetus, the band drew from a wide range of influences that include go-go music, hardcore and “British stuff like Wire and the Fall.” The Stooges made an impression as well.

“There was cool early rock stuff which I consider the beginning of punk rock,” says Martinez. “The MC5 and the Birthday Party too. That stuff is timeless. It’s seminal music. It changed so much music and is so relevant today. [The Stooges’] No Fun is such an amazing album. It still has the key ingredients of good music. It has a fierceness and an irreverence for society. It has that youth-quake music.”

When the band finally got around to recording its 1989 debut EP Drinkin', Lechin' & Lyin', it teamed up with engineer and producer Steve Albini, a guy known for working with noisy bands.

“Steve was a friend at the time,” Martinez explains. “He had his studio in his house; it was just outside of Chicago. At the time, it was just in his home. Now, it’s in a proper warehouse. It was a crazy lost weekend. We slept as we could.”

The band had a great run in the ‘90s and even signed with a major label at one point. But the touring took its toll and the group would go on hiatus in 2000.

After reforming in 2008 and steadily touring for two years, the band realized it couldn’t play its old songs forever. So it began to work on new material and recorded the just-released Brood X in Benton Harbor, Mich. with producer Bill Skibbe. Martinez says the group cut Brood X about two years ago and took its time with the artwork and mixing.

“Bill used to work with Steve Albini, so it was like we came full circle,” says Martinez. “Benton Harbor is a burned out town on the shores of Lake Michigan. It used to be a ferry ride across from Chicago, so it was this resort-ville. The Benton Harbor part is very depressed and burnt out. [Skibbe] bought a warehouse that was a storefront and warehouse. We flew out there. It was in the middle of fucking nowhere. It was like recording in the middle of a casino. There were very few windows. We worked around the clock. We would sleep odd hours, and you couldn’t tell if it was day or night. We would get up and do some work, and some of us would fall asleep, and some of us would continue working. It was a feverish and surreal experience.”

For the first time in its 27-year history, the band didn’t go into the studio with fully fleshed out songs. Martinez says the tunes were “maybe 90 percent of the way there.”

“We had basic ideas but they were skeletal,” she says. “We had to flesh them out there. That was an interesting way to work. It’s good to go in loose because a lot of things grow out of there. There were happy accidents that made it onto the premix. One of my favorite songs on the record, ‘17,’ is built on a loose jam we did in between takes. We’re good at improvising. When you don’t go in with such a to-do list, things like that can happen, and it’s really nice when they do.”

With an ominous organ riff and pounding drums, “Ground Control” possesses an ominous vibe as Martinez and Spencer trade lead vocal duties, wondering, “Where did my city go?”

“It has a post-apocalyptic vibe,” says Martinez. “I read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels. I love sci-fi books and movies and music-sounding stuff. It lent itself to that kind of vibe. I started imagining how that applies to my life in a kind of extreme way. Some of the lyrics are from the movie Forbidden Planet. I was watching that movie at the time and that inspired me.”

The band’s always put on a visceral live show, and Martinez says that continues to be its “strong suit.”

“We like the danger of a live performance,” says Martinez. “It’s an adventure and it’s this adrenaline rush. It’s a communal experience and you’re giving energy and getting it back. It’s this amazing event. We did the women’s march in D.C. and protesting here in New York and feeling that commune with people where you all feel the same way is great. When I was young and first found punk rock, I realized all these people were just as confused and freaked out and proud. You can get a charge from that. To tap into that it is the best thing in the world. It’s the best high in the world to connect with like-minded people and feel that energy surging through everyone. We love to play with each other but doing it in front of people really energizes you in this fun, crazy way, which is what rock ’n’ roll is all about.”

Boss Hog, Archie and the Bunkers, DJ Party Sweat, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15 ADV, $17 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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