Tour De France: On The Road With Jon Spencer
, March 4th, 2015 16:47
On the road with Jon Spencer, talking Heavy Trash, the Blues Explosion and turning 50. "I don't mind being old. I'm happy to be alive," he tells Mark Andrews. Portrait by Jean-Luc Karcher
La Laiterie. Strasbourg. Second night of the tour.
Heavy Trash's drummer is still MIA. Last known location: the fast bus from Frankfurt airport. No chance in hell he'll make it to tonight's show in time.
The core of Heavy Trash - Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray - made it out of JFK. Double bass player Bloodshot Bill made it out of Montreal. Sam Baker – nicknamed Ramshackle – had his flight grounded in Nashville. An ice storm shut down most of the city, including the airport.
So, as they did on the first night of the tour in Annecy, Heavy Trash have deputised Nelson and Robin from the Swiss support act Duck Duck Grey Duck for an impromptu drum corps.
The band – loose but thrilling - rip through choice album tracks like 'The Loveless', 'Outside Chance' and 'Lover Street', plus terrific jukebox 45s like 'Say Yeah', 'Nervis', 'Trouble' and 'Punk Rock Mama'. Verta-Ray, always the calm centre of the stage, takes lead vocals on 'Good Man' and 'Female Form' (off the band's "missing fourth LP").
All this is interspersed with fabulous covers, including LaVern Baker's 'Bumble Bee', Eddie Cochran's 'Guybo', The Famous Flames' 'I Don't Mind' and a real highlight - Bloodshot Bill, his fingers taped up and his hair slick with pomade, delivers a salty version of Stick McGee's jump blues track 'Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee'.
Spencer leaps and skitters about with the kind of abandon that pops two buttons on his suit. He's clearly loving Heavy Trash a little bit sloppy. The next night the damage is worse than a couple of buttons.
Throughout, Robin and Nelson watch Spencer like hawks, especially his right hand - for chord changes and sundry signals – and his feet, in order to keep up. Apart from this, there's hardly a clue that Heavy Trash are flying by the seat of their pants.
Far from apprehension or dread, the young Swiss take all this is in their stride. Ten minutes before the show they were selling their homemade tomato sauce at the merch table. This strange spectacle took place under the watchful eyes of La Laiterie's 1996's headliners, looking down from a poster expo in the cavernous, concrete foyer. Afrika Bambaataa, Shed Seven, Tav Falco, The Chrome Cranks. They salute you, Nelson and Robin. You did Geneva proud.
Heavy Trash retake their places on stage for the encore. And lo! before a note can be played, Ramshackle Sam Baker enters stage right. He's straight off the bus, still in his overcoat, wearing a short-brimmed fedora and swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniel's. Nelson vacates the drum stool and joins Robin behind the snare.
Sam Baker takes the six-piece Heavy Trash home. He plays drums like a man who has seen quite enough of Nashville, Chicago, Heathrow and Frankfurt airports. He plays like a man who has lost his luggage, a cap from one of his teeth and a whole lot of sleep over the previous 48 hours. He plays like a man whose car has been damaged by a tree branch brought down by the Nashville ice storm. He plays hard and with a smile on his face. He knows he's the drummer in a great band, back among friends at last. Make no mistake, Heavy Trash ripped this joint good and proper.
They are headlining Les Nuits De L'Alligator, an 11-date itinerant French festival, with a changing undercard. It's a slightly mysterious entity for Spencer: "The first rule of Nuits De L'Alligator: You do not talk about Nuits De L'Alligator." For these first shows, Duck Duck Grey Duck open with their psychedelic soul music and by Sarah McCoy does her ragtime/blues cabaret act, with Bloodshot Bill playing solo in between.
This is Jon Spencer's first tour since turning 50, yet another sign – if any more were needed – that he has no intention of relaxing his prodigious work rate. The new Blues Explosion album Freedom Tower is out at the end of March and Spencer has been knee-deep in the preparations for that. This tour is a chance to partially "get the fuck away from all that" and "go round for a couple of weeks in France, play some rock & roll. Hey, what's not to like?"
But there's more to all this than having fun playing rockabilly with your buddies. Performing, when it goes well, gives Spencer "this moment of catharsis, the total freedom of losing myself in the music and doing something creative with my band and the audience. I started this 30 years ago because this was what I loved. It's never stopped. It's life. It's my passion."
Age and high-energy rock & roll are not always comfortable bedfellows. When I first meet him, Jon Spencer is carrying a kilo of salt. "Salt baths are good for the muscles," he says. "Over the years I've injured myself in different ways, so I have to look after myself. Protecting my ears, protecting my lower back, protecting my knees. Trying to protect my teeth!"
"I stretch before and after a show. I take vitamins. I follow The Henry Rollins Rule: Don't eat within two hours before going on stage. I try not to drink too much. And I sleep whenever I can. I don't go in for wild living. The only thing I want that's wild is the stage."
While gearing up for Freedom Tower, Spencer played a Planned Parenthood benefit with The Blues Explosion in Brooklyn on Valentine's Day, one of his rare overt political gestures. "I was very happy that my bandmates agreed to do that. In the 80s, Cristina [Martinez, his Boss Hog bandmate and wife] and I thought the battles had been fought and won and fuck me for questioning a woman's right to do anything. It was a given for us. But as you get older you realise it isn't for a lot of people."
Another break from Freedom Tower prep was provided by the reactivated Boss Hog, 15 years on from their last album. "Cristina, Hollis and I went to the Key Club in Benton Harbour, Michigan for a weekend to do vocals. We'd already tracked an album there over the Labor Day holiday."
"We were able to get this far because there was an account which was slowly accumulating some publishing money. Now we need to mix." Self-reliance has always been key for Spencer: "not waiting for permission or a hand-out, doing it yourself."
"I learned that from the hardcore scene in the early 80s. Then travelling around the American underground and meeting people like Tom Hazelmyer [founder of Amphetamine Reptile Records] and Steve Albini. You learned more about how to look after yourself."
"That has continued for me. I pay attention to everything. How the mix sounds, the mastering, the artwork. I pay attention, not just to the design, but how it's going to be printed, the kind of paper it's going to be on. To tour dates, to who the crew's going to be. I pay attention to the financial statistics."
"It's in my nature to be very detail-oriented. It's in my nature to be somewhat obsessive. It's in my nature to be somewhat of a control freak. It's also in my nature to work hard."
Even though Spencer has the work ethic of a textbook New England Puritan, he took time out on his birthday in early February for lunch at Casa Mono, a Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant in Manhattan, and for a preview screening that evening of Jupiter Ascending. ("I'm a big fan of some movies which are barking mad but this was just a bit of a mess.") A couple of weeks later, he's on tour with Heavy Trash.
Backstage band chatter ranges from the merits of Kubrick films (a resigned shake of the head from Spencer for Eyes Wide Shut; a look askance at the suggestion that The Shining doesn't work as a genre film) to teasing Bill about his penchant for antique 50s lamps. The aftershow snack of confit de canard segues into a discussion about Michael Jackson's alleged euphemism for semen ("duck butter"). Matt and Bill compete with Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions, Bill going down the Mr Freeze route, Matt choosing Total Recall: "If you're watching this with a wet towel wrapped around your head…"
All four of them can mimic the scene in French Connection II where Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle tries to order a Jack Daniel's in a Marseilles bar ("Jacques qui? Jackie yeah. Jackie Daniel's") and the head-smackingly literal and pompous trailer voiceover ("French Connection II: the only film that could follow The French Connection").
Nancy. L'Autre Canal. Third night of the tour. The only night that could follow the second night of the tour.
"I got chocolate sauce on my hand," announces Spencer during the encore. He doesn't need to reference Psycho, we can see he's bleeding. Accidents will happen, when you try to tear the roof off the sucka.
On Spencer's cue of "They Were Kings, motherfucker," Heavy Trash segue back into their best song. The decibel metre hits 106 and, like the back of Spencer's hand, turns red. Perhaps being 50 - perhaps being questioned about being 50 - prompted this defiant surge.
Before the show I'd asked Spencer about the legendary Vera club in Groningen in The Netherlands. Clearly visible from the stage are the names of the bands whose shows have been feted as best of the year by the Vera's patrons. The Blues Explosion's name is writ large for 1993 and 1994. How does it feel playing there?
Spencer gave a melancholy answer: "After 30 years of touring as a musician, there a lot of ghosts. I feel a little strange, a little spooked. It's hard not to get lost in some feeling of sadness: 'We were pretty good in 93 and 94 - are we any good now?'"
Questions of posterity and legacy are certainly still niggling him during the Nancy show. An improvised monologue about his funeral concludes: "As the song goes, Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave."
Spencer knows several versions of this song. For a man who claims to have a bad memory, he has excellent recall when it comes to music. So, was he thinking of Charlie Rich's, or one of the Jerry Lee Lewis versions? Maybe it was the live recording at the Palomino Club, when The Killer foregoes the headstone, but wants "a fucking monument" instead? Unlikely. Spencer exudes humility rather than bravado.
He is also able to recall his formative years with a great deal of candour. Spencer is not at all guarded when he discusses his youth. Perhaps because there's a clear continuum between the very bright, arty lad who grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire and this rock & roll veteran touring France - namely discipline, focus and a compulsive desire to be creative and find ways to personal expression.
"I was a very good student in high school, very square, a straight arrow, I did a lot of creative projects. I worshipped Hunter S Thompson. Me and a friend even started an alternative gonzo high school newspaper called Mostly Harmless. We got in trouble and we even wrote to Hunter S Thompson for help. We got a handwritten note of support on his stationery. I adapted Hitchhiker's Guide into a school play too. Peg me for the supernerd that I am!"
"I spent a lot of time in the art room, I did a lot of murals. I was doing stuff with video as well. I'd do comedy shorts – I loved Saturday Night Live, Second City TV and Monty Python - and feedback. If you point a video camera at the monitor you get all sorts of crazy effects."
"After discovering punk rock or new wave or whatever it was called, I might have freaked out a little bit, dyed my hair, but I still got good grades. But at college I just lost the plot. Depression, fear, blind rage, like someone drowning."
Spencer went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island - Ivy League and one of the most selective institutions in the USA.
"I thought it would be his really groovy, open-minded, free-thinking great place, but – maybe it's because of where my head was at – it seemed there were a lot of uptight people concerned about getting into law school or medical school."
"I was making films, which is what I thought I wanted to do, but music became all-consuming and seemed a much better way to get at what I wanted to get at. I played bass in a real straight-up 60s punk band. For a while it was called Pussy Galore but one of the guys said the name made him uncomfortable, so we changed it to The Philistones. We were into garage punk, Back From The Grave. We did one or two Gun Club covers."
"I also played metal percussion in an experimental industrial noise group called Shithaus made up of Brown and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design and pronounced 'Rizz-dee') people. There was a disused railway tunnel underneath the hill that the Brown campus is on. We put a gig on in there with fire and using the acoustics of the tunnel and with me banging on the rails."
Spencer's second year at Brown was better, but he and Julie Cafritz still quit, moved to Washington DC and started Pussy Galore. And the die was cast.
"Looking back it seems quite odd. Not that I should stop going to school - I really didn't like it – but to start a band with a person I only vaguely knew at the time."
Heavy Trash finish their Nancy show with Sam on double bass singing 'Stealin'' by The Memphis Jug Band. Rather than their usual molten wigout, the band end this old song with beautiful four-part a cappella harmonies. Sometimes you got to be gentle.
Big Band Café. Caen. Fourth night of the tour. Bad juju. Eight hours in the rain on some of France's ugliest roads and then a show so rotten he couldn't get to sleep.
Spencer: "It never clicked for me [tonight]. Some rooms, some audiences are very still. Towards the end I was resorting to doing animal tricks, doing anything to get a response.
"Gigs like that are the hurdles, the potholes. It used to be I'd have a show like that and kick myself for the rest of the night and the next day and it would lead me into a great depression."
"I'm getting better but I guess I'm just never going to be satisfied. Talk about the blues, you know. Maybe that's why I'm 50 and still doing it. The cup can never be full."
Spencer is reading Exit Ghost by Philip Roth on this tour. Nathan Zuckerman, the 71-year-old protagonist, incontinent and impotent, is suddenly struck with a "crazed hope of rejuvenation". Not a great bedtime read when you are in a funk, when exhaustion and short-sightedness meant that when "my amp didn't sound right during the show, I went over and turned the wrong knob!"
Spencer managed to snuff the worst of his mood by watching some of Dig! online. Seeing The Brian Jonestown Massacre "fucked out of their minds, fist fighting… just a complete train wreck" and The Dandy Warhols - "those pompous, pretentious assholes" - made Spencer feel a little better. "So there but for the grace of God… I'd like to think I've stepped gingerly through the minefield."
Spencer has taken longer term inspiration and succour from RL Burnside, Charlie Feathers and Rufus Thomas. "I'm all for someone making a highly personal, idiosyncratic, totally out-there form of art, and just doing it throughout his life. There is some truth to the concept that rock & roll is a young person's game but I dig those people who have stepped outside that through sheer force of will and because what they are doing is so unique to who they are."
Le Chabada. Angers. Fifth night of the tour. Saturday. The biggest crowd. The latest night. The highest stakes. Please, not another night like Caen.
The omens are good. When Matt Verta-Ray sings 'Female Form', a lesbian couple in front of me begin making out. Is their English that good or is it just serendipity? His guitar break on 'Dark Hair'd Rider' elicits an awed, "Le guitariste, c'est un tueur. Putain!" ("Fucking hell, the guitarist is killing it.") from the gent behind me.
'Yeah Baby' gets its first airing on the tour and during 'I Don't Mind' Spencer almost goes the full James Brown, falling to his knees, the band dropping out on his signal, leaving him holding the pose… and holding it… and holding it… and… I thought a stooge was going to walk on, wrap a cape around his shoulders and help him up. Mr Dynamite indeed. Then, with Sam on bass and Bill on drums, Heavy Trash hit an absolute peak. They go into 'You Can't Win'.
Spencer usually ducks in and out of the recorded version's lyrics. Tonight he's more out than in, in some zone between the conscious and unconscious. Talk about the blues? Talk about dada and surrealism. He's talking about hifi equipment, Doritos, squirrels, spooks ("be gone from my nightmares"), tucking your children up in bed, Providence, DC, Manhattan and how "this beautiful land is fucked forever". In Angers, Jon Spencer gave a performance of physical and psychic intensity that was thrilling to behold.
Spencer (as Blues Explosion Man) follows Werner Herzog on Twitter. On a good night, I sense that Spencer would understand this from the great Bavarian director: "It is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth - a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and elusive and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through fabrication and imagination and stylisation."
After the show I asked him how it had compared to Caen.
That the DJ was playing Ike and Tina was no doubt helping his mood.
He still looked like a man whose cup was not full, but I don't believe he had to watch the rest of Dig! for solace that night.
And so to Freedom Tower, subtitled No Wave Dance Party 2015, which Spencer will soon not be able to get the fuck away from. If you saw The Blues Explosion live in 2014 then, you'll know how good Freedom Tower is. Great swathes of it are funkier than a mosquito's tweeter. The road from 2012's Meat & Bone to Freedom Tower was not entirely smooth however. "There's a whole album we recorded with Jim Waters at his studio in Tucson which got shelved. The songs weren't terrible, we just weren't quite there yet. So we wrote another bunch of songs." The Blues Explosion played these out at unannounced gigs in NYC in early 2014 and on a West Coast tour, including two sets at Coachella. Then it was straight into Daptone's House of Soul, tracking 17 songs in five days.
Spencer: "All along in my head I wanted to make a dance party record. That's one of the reasons I wanted to track at Daptone because I knew I'd get a great drum sound, very close, in your face, very present."
"But Daptone is analog – state of the art for 69 or 72 – so I didn't mix there. I knew I wanted to be really surgical, super-tight with some of the beats. I knew beforehand I wanted to do it digital with Pro Tools. So I mixed with Alap Momin at his place in Harlem. Heavy Trash mixed three or four songs from Midnight Soul Serenade with him and The Blues Explosion did 'Bag of Bones' and 'She's On It' there."
The new record has a very strong sense of time and place. "Freedom Tower is a New York City-centred record and The Blues Explosion is a New York City band. The city's changed a lot. The woolly, hairy, weird stuff has sadly, largely gone. But this album is not a lot of moaning and bitching about 'What happened to New York City? It's not cool any more.'"
The city Spencer moved to in the mid 80s was a pre-gentrification hellhole. "I spent my first three or four years moving from one sublet to another in the Lower East Side. One of the tenements I lived in was the only building standing in the whole block. Drugs ruled the place. People lined up to buy. There were lots of crazy people but it was cheap to live and easy to make art and music." It's this city that Freedom Tower concerns itself with.
And why "no wave" in the title? "There's always been an influence of some of the no wave bands in our music and definitely so on the songs on this record. It's not freeform skronk, more the dancey no wave stuff. Meat & Bone was very blown-out with this schmear of rock & roll but I wanted this record to have a tight sound, crisp and defined, so I began checking out old no wave bands I knew already like The Bush Tetras and referencing mixes."
Spencer's connections with no wave filmmakers like Richard Kern, Nick Zedd and Tess Hughes-Freeland go way back to pre-Pussy Galore days. "I'd read about the scene and I knew their work. I would travel up to New York City from Providence. They were nice enough to include my films in their screenings."
Spencer's Brown-era films in the no wave style "were very confrontational, very angry, very extreme. I was always into monster movies, science fiction and then into cult movies, outsider art, surrealism, dada and also punk rock and hardcore. These things came together, so these were not easy-going narrative films."
The only one it's possible to view is 'Shithaus'. It can be found on Nick Zedd's Cinema of Transgression VHS compilation, attributed to "John Spencer – the most hated filmmaker in the world". Is it actually you, Jon Spencer?
Repetitive. Rhythmic montage. Disgust at Reagan-era America. Confrontational. Ugly. With Industrial music. "Yeah, it's probably me," says Spencer.
The most famous filmmaker to come out of Brown around this time was Todd Haynes, director of masterful 2002 Douglas Sirk pastiche Far From Heaven, among other greats.
"When Far From Heaven came out I was gobsmacked," says Spencer. "It was thrilling because when I was at Brown we were seeing all these Douglas Sirk movies in film classes. Those films had such a big impact on me – they are so out there and unbelievably bizarre. All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind blew my mind. For a while I was thinking about making a series of solo records and giving them all Sirk titles. Sirk is probably as big an influence as James Brown."
The key word here is 'pastiche', a term vigorously rehabilitated within film studies and clearly demarcated from parody. Films like Far From Heaven (and a song like Spencer's 'Bellbottoms') are loving imitations in a dynamic dialogue with the original works that inspired them; they are playing with genres, not mocking them.
Spencer is more than comfortable with his work being labelled pastiche. "This is something that has informed me and definitely made an impression on me as a young man at university. You look at Pussy Galore, Heavy Trash and The Blues Explosion and this is something that continually trips people up, especially The Blues Explosion, which is written off as ironic, as a joke."
The next nine months of Spencer's life are pretty well mapped out thanks to Freedom Tower. "The week of release we're doing a five-borough tour of New York City. Then April to June we're going out for two weeks at a time in North America. Some festivals and maybe Australia in the summer. In the autumn, we begin touring Europe."
And Heavy Trash's missing fourth album will stay missing. "We're using The Residents' theory of obscurity. People will know about it but never hear it. It's been dragging on for a few years now."
The Angers show ends with a massed version of 'Drinkin' Wine': all three members of Duck Duck Grey Duck in a drum corps, Sarah McCoy on upright piano and her accompanist Alyssa on Bill's mic, completely dwarfed by him and his double bass. It's a loose, fun, juke-joint knees-up. My tour is now over.
After the show Spencer, still in his stagewear, can be seen at the merch table signing and selling, doing it himself, paying attention to the details, working hard.
It's a fitting final image for a man who "loves that story in Sweet Soul Music about Solomon Burke out selling popcorn and sandwiches at The Apollo before and after his set."
Farewell Duck Duck Grey Duck. Les Nuits De L'Alligator roll on into Brittany without them. The tomato sauce, by the way, was delicious.
Farewell Jon Spencer: gentleman, craftsman, artist, supernerd and a punk rock daddy supreme.
Farewell Heavy Trash.
They were kings, motherfucker.