Can Blue Men Play the Whites?
Jon Spencer do not play no blues.
He tells you that, his own bad self, on "Talk About the Blues," the first single from his current Matador Records album, Acme. Over a rumbling groove that's split by a sampled shard of Judah Bauer's guitar, Spencer, utilizing that mush-mouthed white-blooze voice that would embarrass even professional white Negro John Hammond, lays down the law:
Rolling Stone magazine, on the telephone bay-buhTalkin' about the blues . . .Rolling Stone magazine, coming on the phone, bay-buhTalkin' 'bout that fashion.Spin magazine wanna tell ya what to wearBut I ain't gettin' with that, or MTV . . .Stay with it, bay-buh, 'cause I got somethin'I want everybody to hear right now, ladies 'n' gennamen.I don't play no blues. I play rock & roll!That's right. The blues is No. 1, the blues is No. 1, ladies 'n' gennamen.But there's something I gotta tell ya right now -I do not play no blues, I do not play no blues.I play rock & roll! Get it!
This outburst doesn't come unladen by Spencer's customary irony - after all, Acme's very first track, "Calvin," begins with the sampled proclamation "THIS IS BLUES POWER!" - but it isn't unexpected, either, and its anger and impatience are definitely sincere.
Spencer's music has the same effect upon critics that a strobe light does on some epileptics; the chafing of the Blues Explosion's parodic elements (including but not limited to Spencer's punk-Elvis vocalizing) against its diligently forceful re-configuration of blues and R&B moves has always touched off petits mals in the press corps.
The JSBX's exploits in 1996 dispensed waves of cognitive dissonance through the journalistic community. At that point, the group was coming off their hip-hop/'70s- soul-inflected 1994 album Orange and 1995's Experimental Remixes EP, which comprised Orange tracks jacked around by UNKLE, Wu-Tang Clan's Genius, Moby, Beck, and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys. The Blues Explosion - singer-guitarist Spencer, guitarist Bauer and drummer Russell Simins - executed a bizarre 180 by first backing north Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside on his loose-jointed raunch fest A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, and followed it up with their own Now I Got Worry, the most primal assault the band had mustered since Crypt Style in 1992.
So, taking things on their face, certain writers reasoned that if Spencer was playing the blues, then he must be a bluesman, just as the band name connotes (which would explain the Blues Explosion's presence alongside established blues artists in Rolling Stone's blues supplement this spring). And, it followed, since Spencer is a white, college-educated semiotics student, he has no right to play the blues (an idea with more crow's-feet on it than Mick Jagger's mug).
Explaining the mocking tone of "Talk About the Blues," Spencer - calling from a hall in the Pacific Northwest, the latest stop on the Blues Explosion's U.S. tour - says, "I guess it was a reaction to a lot of the criticism I've received over the last couple of years, after Now I Got Worry. The thing that kind of triggered it was doing that interview for the Rolling Stone blues issue. The piece came out great, and they printed a nice photo of me, and what more can you ask for? A nice big picture. But I just got so nervous when they said, 'Rolling Stone wants to interview you for their blues issue.' I just thought they were gonna drag me through all sorts of shit, you know. So I got so worked up and nervous about it. A few days after doin' it, that's when I wrote that song. And the song was kinda unusual, because it's just me sampling the Blues Explosion, some kind of jam session we recorded with Calvin Johnson at his Dub Narcotic studio in Atlanta a couple of years ago, and then just kinda did the lyrics freestyle over it. It was just made up on the spot."
Spencer admits that he has probably made it tough on himself by calling his band the Blues Explosion.a "Yeah. I mean, I've certainly thought that. But fuck it. I think some people just don't have a sense of humor, and by that I do not mean that the Blues Explosion is a comedy act. We're not a joke band. Some people are too square or something . . . I think that the song is more than anything about, you know, like, this is rock & roll, and, come on, man, get off it, let's dance. It's just music. You know?"
Yet, while Spencer suggests that such matters are beside the point, he bridles at any notion that the Blues Explosion has no right to dip into the blues lexicon if it chooses to.
I note to Spencer that his approach to the blues has always been drawn more from secondary sources - his cherished '60s garage punks, whose reception of the form may be heard on such Nuggets-like compilations as Crypt's Back From the Grave, and even Brit-blues types and garage-punk inspirations like the Rolling Stones (whose magnum opus Exile on Main Street was crankily deconstructed, cut by cut, on a legendary 1986 cassette by Spencer's previous band, Pussy Galore).
He replies with some ferocity, "Sure, yeah, there were lots of Blues Explosions in the '60s . . . The thing that's so fucked up is that those bands, it wasn't a big deal, and a lot of those bands were embraced, especially if they were from fuckin' England. That's what really gets me. Fuck you, this is my music, my culture. I grew up in the United States. Why is it okay for Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger, but it's not okay for Jon Spencer? You know, fuck you."
Payback is fair play: The cover of Controversial Negro, the band's limited-edition 1997 live LP, culled from a manic concert in Tucson and issued to fans, bears a Warhol-style portrait of Jagger, his mouth papered over by a tattered Blues Explosion sticker. "That was the original title and artwork for Now I Got Worry," Spencer says, barely disguising his glee.
While Spencer speaks with justifiable satisfaction about Now I Got Worry, he implies that the inanely obvious reactions that greeted the album helped spur the Blues Explosion to take a different tack with its follow-up.
"Before we went into it, we wanted to do something different, and Judah and Russell, I think, were very interested in being more involved in the making of this record," Spencer says. "We all sort of felt that it was time to do something different, and that it was also time to either shit or get off the pot. We've been going for a while, and we wanted to come up with something new."
That entailed a change in work habits, and the band chose to work only sparingly with Jim Waters, the Arizona-based producer who has largely piloted the Blues Explosion's studio albums since 1993.
"The idea of working with just one producer is such a scary thing - you're sort of throwing your lot in with somebody," Spencer explains. "But we'd done the Experimental Remix record before, back in '95, and so it was something we'd kind of tried before, so maybe that idea wasn't so scary - to do that approach for a whole album. That was very much out in the open right from the start - we're doing a remix album. Most of it was recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago right around the new year. Then some people we just sent tapes to, and some people came and worked with the Blues Explosion in New York City."
While the enormous cast of Acme made recording the album, in Spencer's words, "a pain in the ass," it's a bright and compulsively listenable experiment in auto-remixing. In place of the frenziedly direct assault of Now I Got Worry, the new record has a more lustrous, diverse sound full of breakbeats and breakdowns, courtesy of such guest mixers as Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (of Dr. Octagon), K Records' Calvin Johnson (a returnee from Experimental Remixes), Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot, and even, briefly, Memphis musician-producer-necromancer Jim Dickinson. Jill Cunniff of Luscious Jackson, Delta 72 keyboardist Greg Foreman, Thrill Jockey Records' askew Lonesome Organist and Spencer's wife and Boss Hog colleague Cristina Martinez add instrumental and vocal ingredients to the clangor. (One number, "Lap Dance," recorded with Andre Williams, Chicago's mack daddy of R&B sleaze, remains in the can.)
While the density and soulful, streetwise delirium of Acme will be familiar to people who picked up on Spencer no earlier than Orange, Spencer says that his fascination with mix culture dates back a decade, to the noisy cut-ups of Pussy Galore (whose 1987--89 sets Right Now!, Dial M for Motherfucker and Sugarshit Sharp were reissued earlier this year by Matador).
"I can listen to a record like Sugarshit Sharp or Dial M, and I can hear all the hip-hop shit," he says. "I was totally fucking into Public Enemy and Ice Cube and Run-D.M.C. and Rick Rubin and the Bomb Squad, and so many other different artists and bands. And everybody says, 'Oh, this record, the Blues Explosion is getting into rap or hip-hop.' Fuck that. Back in Pussy Galore, there were production things or mixing things, or the way songs were written, or the way I was singing something, or lines from songs and stuff - there was a lot of shit that was coming straight outta the rap I was listening to, and my love of that music. I was so into it at the end of the '80s - it's always been a part of what I was doin'."
It appears that, no matter what his intentions with the album at hand, it is Spencer's lot to unleash his new music upon an uncomprehending world.
"I'm a little puzzled," he says. "I mean, we're traveling around now, we're just startin' to tour. Previously, we've been to Europe and Japan, and a lot of people are really into the record. Over here in the U.S., we're traveling around to cities, and I'll pick up the local arts newspaper, something like the local equivalent to the L.A. Weekly, and I'm starting to read a lot of stuff - people saying, 'Oh, this record is some last-ditch attempt of something-or-other' or 'It's a collection of leftovers.' I thought it was a really good record . . . I guess maybe I was expecting people to just embrace this record everywhere, and some people are sayin' shit like, 'Aah, this band's had it.'
"I like Acme. That's why I called it Acme."
I point out to Spencer that "Acme" is also the brand name of the anvil that frequently falls on Wile E. Coyote's head in the "Road Runner" cartoons.
"Yeah, people ask about that," he says. "That's cool, too. We wanted a record that would hit you on the head like a fuckin' anvil."
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