Jon Spencer: Back To The Apple (Interview)

Jon Spencer brings his Blues Explosion back to Auckland for a raucous show at The Powerstation on Friday, July 31st plus 3 more NZ dates. The band has just released their latest album, Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015. The album finds the trio in top form, with the songwriting centred around their adopted home town of New York City. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Jon Spencer about the making of Freedom Tower and about his early years in The Big Apple.

Click here to listen to the interview with Jon Spencer:

Or read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: You’ve been travelling around quite a bit. How is touring going cause I saw you were in The States, and then overseas and you’re back again.

JS: We kind of just wrapped up the United States and Canada. We spread it out over 3 separate legs and we’re been kind of going since March. The shows have been going very well.

MD: Excellent, excellent. I saw you’re playing like in the mid-west in The States and places like Omaha and Nebraska and then cruising over to Paris. Is that kind of a, is one show, one town pretty much the same or is it kind of weird to be, do you have to kind of adjust yourself to be playing say in the mid-west and then over in Europe?

JS: Well, it’s a little weird but I mean, mainly its very nice. Of course audiences are different in different parts of the world but not like such a great degree.

MD: Right.

JS: I think pretty much everywhere,  the people are still after the same thing in a rock and roll show.

MD: Yeah. Do you tweak your show at all for different areas? Like when you come down to New Zealand here, is it any different than playing in New York City?

JS: No, we’re always trying to focus on the most recent record.

MD: Right.

Freedom TowerJS: So we pretty much play every song off Freedom Tower the new album, but with that said we never use a set list, we never have and the band is always just flowing freestyle when it comes to live concerts.

MD: Right.

JS: And if somethings not going right we’ll try to correct it and try to switch things up make a left turn during the show if something just isn’t happening, we can’t always fix everything, some nights you just have a bad show.

MD: Right.

JS: We do try to leave things open for, if someone in the crowd they’re shouting for their song and we can play  that song, we’ll try to fit that request in.

MD: Right.

JS: And you know, we also like to not have a set list because it leaves some room for chance. It leaves some room for spontaneity sometimes it can leave for a bit of a train wreck but most of all it works really nicely.

MD: Yeah. Well I think with a rock and roll show, you want to go see a band that has the capability of putting on a bad show because that also means they, capability of putting on a really good show and nothing worse than just kind of the same thing every night, it just probably bad for the band and the audience.

JS: Yeah. I mean I’ve been playing professionally as a touring musician for about 30 years now and I’m always surprised when I encounter a band that just does the same thing every night. For me that thing is deadly.

MD: Yeah. Now perhaps we can talk a little bit about Freedom Tower, the new record cause I’ve got a copy of it and it sounds pretty darn good.

JS: Thank you.

MD: You’re welcome. It seems to have a bit of a rawer, a more basic sound than say the previous record Meat and Bone. Was that something that you guys attempted to do when you went into the studio or …?

JS: Yeah I think Meat and Bone was our first record after about 8 years. There’s a good long gap between studio albums between Damage and Meat and Bone and with Meat and Bone I think we kind of wanted to come roaring back on that record is very raw and in some ways it’s very blown out, very much kind of a chaotic squall of rock and roll. With this new record. I can’t say that we planned anything beforehand, we don’t do that,  but the songs that we wrote tend to dictate a more refined and focused approach. So we went for that kind of tighter, more sharp, more precise sound.

MD: And you recorded it at Daptone Studios in Brooklyn, is that right?

Daptone Studios
Daptone Studios

JS: Yeah that’s right, yeah. A lot of the songs kind of for lack of better word are a bit funky to begin with. We’re making a dance record. So that’s Daptone is, of course, famous for such artists as Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, the Budos Band. It’s a great soul label and they have their own studio and they know how to get a great sound and how to capture a band performing and working together in the studio floor and they definitely know how to get a great drum sound. Yeah we went out to Bushwick in Brooklyn and we were working with Wayne Gordon, the engineer at Daptone.

MD: Is that kind of a neighbourhood studio for you? Do you live around that area?

JS: I don’t, no, in fact the whole band lives in Manhattan. But It was easier to get to for me.

MD: Right.

JS: It’s a short ride on the subway which is nice.

MD: Yeah. I think people, especially in this part of the world, just assume well New York is New York and everything is going to be right around the corner anyway. I’m from Rochester, New York which is 8 hours away and I’d say I’m from Rochester New York and they just assume  I’m from Manhattan.

JS: How’d you end up in New Zealand?

MD: Oh I moved here about 21 years ago. Got a job and loved it so seems like a great place to be.

HOG1JS: Rochester is famous for the House of Guitars.

MD: I used to work at the House of Guitars.

JS: Really wow. And The Chesterfield Kings are from up that way, right?

MD: Yep, yep, Greg Prevost and Andy and those guys, yeah I know those guys.

JS: The Bug Jar the CBGBs of Rochester.

MD: Well now that you mentioned CBGBs because the album…

Garbage PlateJS: Wait, wait, I’m not done! Isn’t  the Garbage Plate something?

MD: Oh yeah. the Garbage Plate at Nick Tahou’s!  Yeah I’ve have had a few late nights there. So you mentioned CBGBs and the album is kind of a tribute to New York City from what I understand and I was curious if you could maybe tell me what New York City was like for you when you originally went there. It must have been 30 years ago now, when you were with Pussy Galore I think and how New York treated you.

JS: Well they treated Pussy Galore very well. We were welcomes with open arms.

MD: Right.

JS: That was nice. But New York City was certainly a wild place and a bit of a frightening place. I grew up in a small town in New England. I wanted to go to New York because I was in love with it. It was kind of a romantic thing, reading about all the bands, and the artists and the scene. So that’s why I moved there. A lot of that is gone now.

MD: Yeah.

JS: It’s changed a great deal. So Freedom Tower, this new album, is kind of about our hometown, this version of the band has always lived and worked in New York City. There are songs about the city today, there’s songs about the city of yesterday. And there’s also songs about a place that never existed except in my own imagination.

MD: Right.

JS:  It’s not meant to be a nostalgia trip or it’s not meant to be a lament. I don’t think that…I’m not trying to turn back the hands of time.

MD: Right.

JS: I think that the city, especially New York City, has got to charge forward.  And it’s definitely been my impression that the city doesn’t care much about me and that’s part of the attraction.

MD: Yeah. You have to meet New York City kind of on its own terms, don’t you? It’s a thing that you’re confronted with the first time you are there. Of course you call it a No Wave Dance Party. Were you particularly attracted to the No Wave movement in the early 80s, late 70s, early 80s.

JS: Oh yeah. Especially some of those artists influenced the Blues Explosion.  And while I wouldn’t say Freedom Tower is an out and out No Wave sounding record, at a certain point during the mixing process, I was referencing some old records from the early 80s because this was going to be a kind of dance record or dance party. So I wanted to make sure I was getting things right. I mean it’s also, the subtitle was chosen as a way to further reinforce the connection with New York City. There’s no way…that’s the only place it happened really.

MD: Yeah I was just talking to Lydia Lunch a few weeks ago and she’s going to be here in Auckland I think about a week after you’re going to be here. So there’s…

JS: Yeah, we we’re actually playing at the same festival in Melbourne. So Lydia, I’m a great fan of hers and she’s been for sure an influence and so yeah.

MD: Coincidentally she’s from Rochester as well by the way.

JS: That’s right, crazy. How did the interview go?

MD: It was like old homecoming. We talked about the House of Guitars quite a bit because she went there as a teenager and hung out and it kind of a very much influenced who she became as well.

JS: So was she going there as a teenager, customer hanging out while you were working there?

MD: She was there…

JS: Do you remember her at all.

MD: I remember her, yeah. In fact I brought my Teenage Jesus and The Jerks 45 at the House of Guitars. By that time she’d already left and gone to New York, she was a little bit older than me but not much.

JS: So you weren’t working at the store when she was coming in?

MD: No, she was like thirteen and it was in the early 70s and I was working there in the later 70s.

JS: Oh okay.

MD: It hadn’t changed much I can tell you that. So a couple of the songs I was hoping to just touch on the album. On The Ballad of Joe Buck I was wondering which Joe Buck were you referring to on that one.

Click here to listen to The Ballad Of Joe Buck:

JS: Well, the reference is a nod to Midnight Cowboy.

MD: Oh right yeah of course.

JS: This song is about Tim Warren the guy who runs Crypt Records, the great  garage Punk label.

MD: Which label is it?

JS: Crypt.

MD: Right OK yeah. I immediately thought of the Sportscaster.

JS: Where abouts is Sportscaster from?

MD: I think he’s from the Midwest actually so it didn’t make much sense.

JS: Oh yeah.

MD: That’s why I was confused. Betty vs the N.Y.P.D. What kind of is the story behind that? Is there one?

Just-Kids-book-cover-334x500JS: Well in the past couple years, couple of books I read, Patti Smith’s book, Just Kids and Richard Hell’s book…

MD: Oh yeah.

JS: …I think it’s titled something like I Dreamed I Was A Clean Tramp and I really enjoyed both books. It was great to read about their musical development, but what was most striking to me was that both books painted such a picture of forgotten New York City, again a New York City which is long gone.

MD: Yeah.

JS: Which is lost in the past. So this is, that song Betty, is taken inspiration from those stories of the   late 60s, early 70s New York and people living on the fringes and trading their bodies for money.

MD: Right. The New York City music scene has changed over the years. Obviously the punk thing in the late 70s and then the No Wave thing, but for a lot of younger people, they relate to New York the New York City music scene from say The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs of the early 2000s. I was wondering what your perception of that music scene was? Did that relate at all to you?

JS: Well I definitely knew the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We took them out on tour, we did a bunch of dates with them, both in America and in Europe. I was a great fan, I’m also the fan of the band. The Strokes are nice people, I don’t know them as well. I mean, what was my impression of the whole thing? I guess it was OK.  Maybe I was a little jealous.

MD: Right.

JS: I think that the Blues Explosion was a great band and a quintessential New York band. So, hey I’d like to be making a million dollars.

MD Yeah.

JS: A gold Cadillac…sure, why not. What the hell, I’m still going. We’re still making records and making great records and we’re going to be heading to New Zealand soon.

MD: That’s right, yes.

JS: Yeah that now seems like ancient history. That was 2000.

MD: Yeah.

JS:  That whole scene. For us, for me I’ve been working hard for many years in New York City and plugging away and it was I guess, the beginning of a very healthy, live music scene. There was a lot of venues to play at in New York City a lot of venues to go see live music. You know, that’s good.

July 31st Auckland Powerstation

August 1st Wellington Bodega

August 2nd Christchurch, Allen St

August 3rd Dunedin Chicks Hotel

Click here for more info about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s show at The Powerstation.