Back In The New York Groove: Boss Hog Interviewed
, March 21st, 2017 10:46
Mark Andrews charts the re-emergence of the legendary Boss Hog and the genesis of Brood X, their first LP in 17 years
Photographs of Boss Hog courtesy of Toon Aerts
Part One: The East Village, New York City, Summer 2016
“Fuck Ronaldo! Fuck Portugal!”
It’s the early evening of Sunday 10 July and this is Cristina Martinez getting up to speed on the result of the Euro 2016 final.
Another “Fuck Ronaldo! Fuck Portugal!” when Boss Hog’s lead singer is told CR7 injured his knee and was stretchered off after about 20 minutes.
Another when she hears Portugal won in extra time.
This is Martinez’s Spanish blood doing the talking: Iberian rivalry combined with Ronaldo being one of the two sportsmen she most despises. Tom Brady is the other. Plus, most of her relatives in the motherland are Atletico Madrid fans. Her footballer of choice is Fernando Torres, "even though, let's face it, "El Niño's golden days are over," she admits.
After a long afternoon at band practice in their East Village basement rehearsal room there is also plenty of adrenaline and some alcohol in her Spanish blood.
That evening Boss Hog are flying out to Seattle for a week of West Coast shows, their first tour since 2009. These shows are a major shift in the life of the band. No wonder Martinez is running a little hot. Boss Hog have only played live twice in the preceding seven years: in 2010 at the Amphetamine Reptile Records 25th Birthday Bash in Minneapolis and on Valentine’s Day 2016 at a Planned Parenthood benefit in Brooklyn.
On the evening of Portugal’s victory, Martinez and Boss Hog have come to The Horseshoe Bar on the corner of 7th and Avenue B in The East Village. There’s little hint of the sleaze and decay such an address would once have conjured. Like a lot of NYC bars, it’s dominated by multiscreen sports and loud music. In this case Soft Metal, Emo and The New York Mets playing The Washington Nationals. The game is not live. Mickey Finn, Boss Hog’s keyboard player laments that his team, The Mets, already lost 3-2.
The Horseshoe is one of the few physical remnants of the wild, bohemian and sometimes downright scary East Village of the 1980s and early ‘90s that birthed and nurtured Boss Hog. Another survivor, The Pyramid Club is just over on Avenue A.
Other neighbourhood fixtures have not made it: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (once the A7, a centre of NYC hardcore); Michael Gira’s basement rehearsal space that Sonic Youth used; Joe’s Bar; Alcatraz; Jerry Teel’s hand-built studio The Funhouse; The Asylum; Brownies. All gone. All once were within a stone’s throw of The Horseshoe. A little bit further away, but likewise no more: Space at Chase; the original Knitting Factory on Houston and The Alleged Gallery on Ludlow.
Another deceased East Village landmark is the basement club Beowulf. Sonic Youth’s 'Dirty Boots' video was shot there. In it, Jens Jurgensen and Hollis Queens – Boss Hog’s bass player and drummer - can be glimpsed, 27 years younger than they are today.
The two most feral venues were a few blocks further south: The Lismar Lounge and The Gas Station.
Jon Spencer, Boss Hog’s guitar player, recalls that the latter was “an abandoned gas station that squatters took over and turned into a sculpture garden. This was the place where GG Allin had his last show. He ran out of the venue, pretty much naked, covered in shit down Avenue B.”
“It’s gone from that to these frat dudes and bros …,” he trails off. “It’s striking walking to practice now on a Sunday, it’s like living in New Orleans or Provincetown, like a seaside resort with these knuckleheaded young people and out of town people who’ve come to have brunch.”
Tompkins Square Park, still the geographical heart of the East Village, was the site of riot on the night of 6-7 August 1988, when the police attempted to enforce a curfew on the Park, then a makeshift homeless centre called Tent City. Tompkins Square Park now has a dog run, several jungle gyms and a Mumford And Sons’ song about it.
A Duane Reade pharmacy stands on the site of The Gas Station.
CBGB, another early Boss Hog hangout spot, is now a boutique selling designer menswear.
The weird and wonderful East Village of dancers, drag queens, musicians, artists, filmmakers, anarchists, punk rock squatters, drug addicts and countless homeless people is long gone.
This East Village of yore was once Boss Hog’s heartland. Martinez and Spencer lived on 8th and D for years and were there when they formed the band in 1989. Their current basement practice space, not far from the Duane Reade, is the same one they first rehearsed in. On 6th St, virtually next door to Mike Gira’s windowless basement, Jurgensen and his collaborator Jim Spring cut the videos they made for Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr, Bongwater, Railroad Jerk, Foetus and two of Spencer’s other bands: 'Dick Johnson' for Pussy Galore and 'Rachel' for JSBX.
Hollis Queens can be seen in Jurgensen’s video for Mercury Rev’s 'Chasing A Bee' – as a bee - body painted yellow and wrapped in strips of what appears to be black electrical tape.
Boss Hog talk about the old East Village like combat veterans. Jurgensen even uses a military metaphor: “Alphabet City was still like a war zone. You didn’t want to go much past 1st Avenue.”
There was even a bar on 1st Avenue called “Downtown Beirut”.
“Most of the buildings were gutted, “Jurgensen continues. “There were a lot of crazy people wandering around that would throw bottles at you. If you walked around a night you were sure to get jumped or knifed.”
Martinez recalls that on her block “there were packs of wild dogs. On occasion we’d hear the cops say there was a bag with body parts on the vacant lot. Jon was mugged a couple times.”
“It wasn’t the safest place,” admits Spencer "but there was a terribly exciting music and art scene. It was a hotbed for creative happenings and interesting ideas. There was this concentration of like-minded people and galleries and music venues in the neighbourhood. And it was cheap. You could make your art, play in your band and not worry about rent.”
Sometimes this underground weirdness unexpectedly pops back out.
“Two or three weeks ago after practice we went to party in a community garden at 9th and C,” explains Spencer. “James Chance was playing. Lydia Lunch was playing. It was great to see the performances but also to see a lot of types you hadn’t seen for a long time and to realise that, ‘Shit – a lot of these people are still here!’ It was a real throwback to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
Martinez admits that “it’s always nice to come back and rehearse in this neighbourhood because there are some remnants of what it was like. I feel it’s still closer to the old New York that we moved to than anywhere else.”
This yearning for this lost New York also includes Manhattan cable access TV. “There were a lot of great shows, locally produced, totally bizarre,” states Spencer. This included the sex shows. Spencer nominates The Robyn Byrd Show. Jurgensen picks The Ugly George Hour Of Truth, Sex, and Violence.
The most famous show of all was Channel J’s Midnight Blue hosted by Screw magazine’s founder and publisher Al Goldstein. “Make no mistake,” says Spencer, “he was a totally sleazy dude, but he was fighting the good fight - he fought and won a lot of First Amendment cases.”
Jurgensen reminds Martinez that she was once on Midnight Blue.
She seems to have no memory of this.
Midnight Blue was full of ads for phone sex, strip clubs, escort services and had plenty of what Jurgensen terms “nudie stuff,” so he clarifies for Martinez that she was “on a panel discussion with Kembra Pfahler talking about music and sex.”
Not that Martinez would be embarrassed by phone sex or nudity. The intersection of her, Goldstein and Kembra Pfahler in the summer of 1992 gives some indication of the transgressive Lower East Side freak scene that Boss Hog grew out of.
Goldstein no doubt invited Pfahler and Martinez onto Midnight Blue for their record of confrontational nudity, rather than their avowed (post)feminism. Martinez appeared on the cover of the first Boss Hog EP Drinkin', Lechin’ & Lyin' naked, save for patent leather thigh boots and evening gloves. Pfahler’s most notorious work still remains Sewing Circle, a short film, in which her outer labia are sewn shut while she’s wearing stockings, suspenders and a “Young Republicans” T-shirt.
Sewing Circle was directed by Richard Kern, the photographer and film-maker who has spent much of his career challenging – or at the very least ignoring - the line between pornography and art. Jurgensen describes Kern as “kingpin of the whole East Village scene,” his work epitomising the turbulent melange of film, photography, punk rock, visual and performance art.
Martinez also worked with Kern as a model in the late ‘80s. She is included in his series of photographs of young women with guns. She, possibly nude, lies sprawled on a rug with a weapons cache spread in front of her, pointing a single-barrel shotgun at the camera. Kern also photographed her in her own bondage gear.
The fetishization of firearms is something Martinez has since expressed regrets about, the Drinkin’ Lechin’ & Lyin’ cover, never.
As a disillusioned Brown undergrad Spencer would come to New York from Providence for screenings of films by Kern and other Cinema of Transgression film-makers like Nick Zedd and Casandra Stark. Spencer even had his own extreme short films - Pus: The Movie and Ponzo’s Masterwork - screened.
In fact, Spencer and Jurgensen first met in Kern’s apartment in the late ‘80s. At the time, Kern was subletting to Charlie Ondras, who would later become Boss Hog’s first drummer. This was Spencer’s bolthole when he and Martinez had one of their regular fights.
“The germ of Boss Hog started between Charlie, Cristina and Jon,” believes Jurgensen. “They were friends, they were the key elements.”
The East Village is now Boss Hog’s spiritual, rather than actual home.
Spencer and Martinez moved to the Gramercy Park area in the mid-1990s. Queens lives not far from them in Murray Hill. Jurgensen is on the Upper West Side near Columbia.
Finn - whom Martinez refers to “the baby of the band” because he’s the youngest at 47 and the most recent to join - is the only one who lives out of Manhattan, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He is also the only one with a tattoo, a dog and who hasn’t dated a member of Boss Hog. “And I intend to keep it that way,” he quips.
Jurgensen and Queens dated back in the ‘90s. Spencer and Martinez are in their 32nd year together.
Boss Hog spent their final rehearsal before their West Coast tour playing variants of sets, working on transitions, focusing on newer songs, Martinez “trying to remember the lyrics.”
“I was incredibly positive,” she says. “We haven’t always had such positive rehearsals. I’ll fess up: I’m the most negative of the bunch. I’m hard on myself but sometimes that translates into being hard on everybody else.”
Jurgensen concedes that an observer of a typical Boss Hog rehearsal might conclude: “What an incredibly dysfunctional bunch of people! We’re all just a bunch of weirdos and when you put us together, shit happens.”
“Jon cracks the whip,” says Martinez. “He’s more about the changes, I’m more about the vibe.” Jurgensen puts it like this: “He’s very exacting. He hears things very precisely.” Finn jokes that any rehearsal involves him being “asked to play fewer notes. In fact everything boils down to Jon going, ‘Just play one note!’”
For his part, Spencer suggests that at band practice he should be characterised as “the genius, but cool guy, good looking, sort of a rebel. You know, like a young Corey Feldman.”
“Corey Haim,” counters Finn.
“Marty Feldman,” replies Spencer.
Quite a bit of the conversation in The Horseshoe defaults to wisecracking.
Finn’s suggestion that The Horseshoe is a lesbian bar prompts Martinez to declare, “More lesbians should come to our shows. We have a Facebook page and you can track the demographic. Mickey, all our Followers are ….?
“Men. 35-44,” is the somewhat resigned reply.
Jurgensen clarifies, “70% male.”
“Slitheryn or Gryffindor?” asks Spencer, which is not the non sequitur it first appears to be. “Jon says that because I have a tendency to slip into Harry Potter when I’m drunk,” explains Martinez.
“And around English people,” adds Finn.
As well as my nationality, the band know that my wife is French.
“Does your wife have a French accent?” asks Martinez.
“She’s French, Cristina,” Finn points out.
“What does your wife say when she gets mad?” Spencer joins in.
“Can you imitate it for us?” Martinez perseveres.
I can’t, so instead three members of Boss Hog give it a go in a potty-mouthed version of 'The Crepes of Wrath' episode of The Simpsons.
Finn: “You peez of sheet”
Spencer: “You muzzerferking …”
Martinez: “You blerdy kernt.”
My wife actually has a Master’s degree in English on the Harry Potter books.
“No fucking way!” exclaims Martinez, midway between delight and incredulity. “No way there’s a French university that gives a degree in Harry Potter!”
Some bands are miserable bastards who piss and moan continually, often about being in a band. You wonder how they stand each other. Not so Boss Hog.
There is no ill humour from them in The Horseshoe or at any of the times I encounter them over the following nine months other than that directed at weekend brunch and Cristiano Ronaldo and, of course, at the man who will become the Republican nominee for President three days after they return from their West Coast tour.
And Crocodile Dundee.
Some of Crocodile Dundee was filmed in The Horseshoe. My suggestion that there is at least one funny scene in that movie (the “That’s a knife!” interlude) is met with a truly appalled, “You think that’s funny?” from Spencer.
On reflection, Spencer’s disdain is absolutely correct.
By the time of their West Cost tour – and the Euro 2016 Final - Boss Hog’s new album Brood X is only three-quarters done. Spencer and Martinez are intending to go back to Key Club Recording in Benton Harbor, Michigan on Labour Day Weekend to finish vocals.
Recording began there around Labour Day 2014. “Is that fucking for real?” comments Martinez on the time elapsed. Spencer chooses a horror movie analogy: “We’re like the killer at the summer camp” that keeps going back.
“It’s like being in a casino,” he continues. “You don’t know if it’s day or night. You’re just working. There’s nothing to do in that city.” Martinez concurs: “It’s a weird, derelict town. Benton Harbor is amazing.”
At least one member of Boss Hog did not enjoy themselves in Benton Harbor. Jurgensen “was so sick when we recorded, I could barely stand up. We’d do a take and then I’d be on the floor sweating, feeling like I was going to puke. It was brutal.” Finn had “the opposite experience. I had a bike, rode to the beach every morning.”
To coincide with the West Coast Tour, Boss Hog have completed a 4 song EP called Brood Star. For Finn, it’s “an amuse-bouche” before the LP.
'Wichita Grey' and 'Disgrace' have clearly had a lot of post-production work done but are instantly recognisable garage rock and punk. 'Nymph Beat' and 'Devious Motherfucker' more than fit Jurgensen’s description of Brood Star as an “experimental remix record before the actual LP; more electronic.”
The Brood X LP, Martinez promises “will be a much more straight-forward record.”
The writing and rehearsal process for this brace of Brood records goes back even further than Labour Day 2014. Before that first Key Club tracking session, there were “three or four years of things piling up,” says Spencer.
Although Boss Hog essentially stopped playing live, “we consistently got together, maybe one or two times a month and played together for hours,” says Spencer. “But we’d also talk, joke, get a snack, have a drink. The social component was very important but the main reason was to make a racket, make some noise, do something musical.”
“First and foremost Boss Hog are five friends,” agrees Martinez. Finn adds that, “this concept of a reunion isn’t really what happened. We’ve been hanging out, even when we’re not playing.”
This new material was the product of “bringing all your luggage with you to rehearsal,” says Martinez “and playing your ass off.”
“We kept coming back, chipping away; we felt drawn,” Spencer says.
Finn joined Boss Hog in 2009. His addition was key to the genesis of the Brood songs. “Technology got to the point where it was very easy to record our rehearsals,” Martinez explains. “Going back and cataloguing that information and building from it … Mickey documents that.”
Finn is a highly trained pro musician - “the black sheep” in his own words - in a group of instinctive autodidacts. Although he appreciates “the energy, the speed and the economy” of punk, that’s not his background at all.
One of his first pro jobs was in a line-up of Enchantment, a Detroit sweet soul group. “In my entire life I’ve only met two white guys that have heard of them,” he says. In fact, Finn hadn’t when he auditioned. His first gig was in a supper club in Toledo, Ohio and “when I looked out, the whole first row knew every word to all the songs. The audience was people who’d grown up making out to their records.”
As well as Boss Hog, Finn currently plays in the US touring version of Mungo Jerry and in Mighty Fine, a soul group with Steve Myers (who sings back-up with The Afghan Whigs). Finn was also in a version of a reformed Left Banke and has done session work with LaLa Brooks of The Crystals.
“Playing with Boss Hog has opened my eyes,” he admits. It’s not often he gets to play “a lot of low organ, droney overdrive that sounds like the end of the world. Boss Hog songs take left turns, right turns, do 180s. To explain what’s going on we’d have to write it in a chart. It’s not traditional music notation.”
Finn and the other members of Boss Hog identify Spencer as the one especially gifted at musical arrangement and song structure.
Boss Hog now have to go to their homes, pack and catch their plane.
As they are leaving The Horseshoe, Martinez – for no apparent reason, other than Grey Goose and cranberry juice - shows her New York State driving licence, containing what she refers to as “her 100 year old photo.”
It also has her American name on.
So I ask Martinez her Spanish name.
“Maria Cristina Isabella Martinez Benitez,” she replies. The pronunciation is Castilian, her mother tongue; her father is Cuban-American.
“No-one ever asks me my Spanish name, but it’s important to me.” “I’m totally Spanish and Catholic. 100%. I still pray. You want me to pray for you? I pray for us all.”
We may need it.
Part Two: Germany, November 2016
Boss Hog are in Germany to play at the Rolling Stone Weekender on the Baltic coast between Kiel and Lübeck. They have tacked on three dates in Frankfurt, Berlin and Cologne to make a mini-tour of Germany.
The US presidential election is the week after.
At the Weekender, Boss Hog played between The Sonics and Dinosaur Jr. Martinez crowd surfed on a mattress she brought to the stage from her chalet.
For Jurgensen, it was an opportunity to catch up with J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph from Dinosaur all of whom he has known since he was at Hampshire College in Amherst. In his pre-Boss Hog days, Jurgensen went on Dinosaur’s first European tour in 1987 as a roadie/helping hand.
He also played with Mascis “in a short-lived stoner rock band called Gobblehoof that is better forgotten about.” More recently and more memorably, Jurgensen played bass in Mascis’ band that nailed 'Cortez The Killer' at the Neil Young tribute show at Carnegie Hall in 2011.
As well as meeting Dinosaur, Jurgensen caught up with some of his relatives. He is a first generation German immigrant to the USA. His father moved the family over in 1972 when he became the New York foreign correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. Jurgensen’s parents’ grave is near Detmold. His plan to visit it after the Weekender was scuppered by repeated bottlenecks on the autobahnen.
Boss Hog’s US West Coast shows in July went well, including playing on live radio for the KEXP Morning Show in Seattle and at one of the In The Red Records 25th Anniversary shows in Los Angeles with The Gories, The Cheater Slicks, Kid Congo and Ty Segall. One reviewer noted that when a drink was spilled and “Martinez feared she might slip, Spencer cleaned up the mess by rolling around on the wet stage floor, literally mopping the booze puddle with the shirt on his back. ‘If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is,’ Martinez said.
Also a lot of fun for them had been two free shows at the Union Pool bar in Brooklyn. The first was during a mid-August heatwave, the second was on Halloween the week before they came to Germany. Boss Hog played in hooded cloaks, their faces made up a ghoulish white.
Also, in the week before the German tour, James Comey, the Director of the CIA wrote to Congress about emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Huma Abedin, his wife, lives close enough to Martinez that to get to and from work on the day the story broke, she had to pass hordes of reporters outside Abedin’s apartment block.
Backstage in Frankfurt - the first night of the tour - Martinez says, she “was pro-Hillary in 2008 and I’m a strong supporter of Hillary now.”
“I was feeling mostly confident until this latest Anthony Weiner bullshit but I think we’re pretty safe with the Electoral College math. I think it’s clear Clinton will win, hopefully by a landslide.”
These words, of course, will come back to haunt her.
She calls Donald Trump “Agent Orange” and “a xenophobe, a racist, misogynist, liar and a cheat. He really embodies evil.”
“You know people have proud Republican tendencies but you can still see the good, the decency in them but this has really brought the scum of the earth to the top; it’s vile.”
She is sure her staunchly Republican father will vote for Trump. Her mother is just a resident, so cannot vote. Both of them came to the USA in the 1960s.
Martinez’s parents are both still alive and live in the DC area. Her older brother, Gonzalo, passed away in 2008.
“My parents weren’t Americanised in the least,” she recalls. “My brother and I grew up in this weird half-light between an American and a very religious Hispanic upbringing.” Isabella, given as her Confirmation name, is after the Castilian Queen who re-conquered and reunified Spain with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon. Together they are known as Los Reyes Católicos.
For someone who now identifies so strongly as Spanish-American, Martinez, like many second-generation immigrants, was ambivalent about her heritage as a girl growing up in the Friendship Heights and then the Mount Pleasant areas of the city. “I just wanted to fit in. We didn’t have a Christmas tree till I insisted,” Martinez recalls. “That was American paganism.”
“I spent a good deal of my youth wanting to be like everyone else,” she continues. “And when I realised what everyone else was, then it was complete rebellion.”
This coincided with Dischord Records putting on summer punk concerts in Fort Reno Park in Washington. “There I saw a lot of random punk rock shows but Half Japanese is the one which really stood out for me.” 'Cherub' by The Butthole Surfers is the key track that made her want to be in band.
Martinez graduated high school at 16 and went to study Film at the University of Colorado at Boulder because the great experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage was there. “He was teaching a history of the avant-garde class, which really altered my perception. He would show us movies - a lot of Kenneth Anger and Maya Daran – and sit at the front and chew tobacco and spit it into a spittoon and when the movie was done, he’d tell us these phenomenal stories.”
“The second half of the year he would take a sabbatical and make films. I was stuck out there; I didn’t ski or do coke, so I got the hell out of town after one semester.”
Back in DC, she enrolled at The Cocoran School Of The Arts And Design to study photography and went back to work at an Olsson’s bookstore. A co-worker of hers, Tom Smith, had a noise band called Peach of Immortality, which had got the support slot for The Jesus & Mary Chain’s first Washington show at the 9.30 Club.
At The Corcoran, Martinez was doing a lot of still life, “but thought I should try live photography,” so she went to The Mary Chain show. That night Jon Spencer and Julie Cafritz of Pussy Galore were sitting in with Peach Of Immortality.
“After the set, I started talking to Jon backstage about 'Nail' by Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel,” she remembers. “I was definitely much more socially literate then he was; ‘dysfunctional’ is putting it mildly. I guess I saw past the bad vibes and felt some sort of kinship with the confusion and aggression.”
This anti-meet-cute took place on December 8, 1985 - The Feast of the Immaculate Conception - the date on which Spencer and Martinez continue to celebrate their anniversary.
For their most recent, they went to see Ute Lemper at Café Sabarsky in The Neue Galerie in New York.
Martinez also remembers an Otto Dix exhibition at the Neue with “pumped in dirt smell and cricket sounds” which reminded her of basement rec room she shared with her brother “which always had the sound of a fucking cricket.”
Her real Proustian rush comes from the sound of another insect – the cicada. They emerge after years underground in great synchronised waves. Washington was prime cicada territory, so their sound was “the song of my summer nights. I’m absolutely enamoured of that sound … a lullaby, that immediately lowers my heart rate and make me feel at ease.”
Boss Hog’s new album carries the name of one of the broods of the 17 year cycle cicada – Brood X. This tenth brood is, fittingly, the Great Eastern Brood that also appears across a great swathe of America, including New York.
Spencer and Martinez moved from Washington to The East Village in 1986. Spencer wants it to be clear that he didn’t move to New York, “I moved to The East Village, to be part of the scene there.” It was ideal if “you wanted to be a freak and play noisy, aggressive music,” he explains.
Swans, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Rat At Rat R and Live Skull had paved the way doing exactly that.
The East Village was also home to two of the twin pillars of underground film - The Anthology Film Archives and the Millennium Film Workshop. Spencer and Martinez went to screenings there but they were not the focal points they were for Jurgensen. Spencer had already stopped actively pursuing film by this point, Martinez’s last roll of the dice was the Sight & Sound film class at NYU. She didn’t complete.
Spencer and Martinez are the only two original members of Boss Hog still in the band. The first line-ups were built around them and Kurt Wolf from Pussy Galore, Jerry Teel from The Honeymoon Killers and Charlie Ondras, who had by then formed Unsane.
“The first weekend we were living in New York The Honeymoon Killers were playing,” remembers Martinez. “Jerry (Teel) lived at 4th and B and he had this rehearsal space in a storefront in his building,” recalls Spencer. “He had The Honeymoon Killers, The Reverb Motherfuckers and some other groups there. In my practice space there was Pussy Galore, Cop Shoot Cop, Unsane, The Black Snakes, Railroad Jerk.”
Boss Hog grew out of this East Village network. The connection went both ways. Both Martinez and Spencer had stints in The Honeymoon Killers.
Boss Hog’s first show was at CBGB in 1989. The urban myth has it that Martinez or Spencer - or both - were naked. This is somebody’s mischief. “There was never any full on nudity at shows,” Spencer clarifies.
The Drinkin’ Lechin’ & Lyin’ EP – the band’s first record - was recorded in Steve Albini’s basement in Chicago, in what must have been somewhat of a blur. Kurt Wolf recently had to remind Spencer what instrument he played on it - bass. Spencer actually remembers Wolf’s contribution better than his own: “Kurt Wolf’s guitar is most prominent on (that record) because he has that very Stooges Marshall-y chug-chug-chug sound. That record is built around Kurt’s riffs and his guitar, a very brittle, metallic sound.”
By the time of the Cold Hands LP in 1991 Pete Shore had joined; Boss Hog then had two-thirds of Unsane for this “more woolly and experimental record,” as Spencer calls it. Jens Jurgensen had made the gorehound cover for Unsane’s 'Vandal-X' single that came out on Sub Pop around the same time. “Pete Shore used to go the slaughterhouse on 14th St,” Jurgensen remembers. “Real cow’s blood is not fun to work with, let me tell you.”
In between the first two Boss Hog records Spencer and Martinez recorded and toured with The Gibson Brothers. They are on Side Two of The Man Who Loved Couch Dancing “live recorded on some boombox,” recalls Spencer during “a short tour of the North East. Cristina played stand-up drums in the style of Mo Tucker but also in the style of their previous drummer, Ellen Hoover.”
The final phase of the early fluid Boss Hog line-ups recorded a Peel Session, some of which became one of the twin 7” singles released as Action Box. The other non-Peel single 7” was produced by Jim Thirlwell, Martinez and Spencer’s match-maker at the 9.30 Club.
This first era of the band was brought to a hideous close with the death of Charlie Ondras from a heroin overdose in 1992.
Queens was a novice drummer when she joined Boss Hog. “I knew nothing about technique so at first I hit really hard,” she remembers. “I played with sticks way too big and wore combat boots which made the task of drumming much more difficult. I would just respond to the music. Later I would come to rehearsal with beats. I liked [Stax house drummer] Al Jackson Jr. a lot.”
“It was like when we first started – friends hanging out,” says Spencer. ”It was nice because there were two couples – very friendly, very casual.” The eventual result was Girl+ in 1993, which Spencer calls “a big shift: a very different style of drumming, different people writing, another woman in the band.”
“I think not knowing a lot about drumming there were things that evolved naturally,” Queens continues. “I didn't play with any cymbals but high hats for a long time. Now I use a ride as a crash cymbal. Boss Hog always had a lot of low end.”
In fact, Jurgensen – also responsible for a lot of that low end – thinks of Boss Hog as a groove band.
Girl+, never intended as such, acted as Boss Hog’s calling card for a major label deal. East Village noise and psych leaning metal bands like Helmet and White Zombie had already been signed by major labels. So had two of the noise rock bands before them, Sonic Youth and first of all, Swans.
“The time was ripe. It was a good time for noisy, weird stuff,” says Spencer.
Yet, this era also killed off the East Village as Boss Hog knew and loved it. The scene “fizzled and splintered after the post-Nirvana underground explosion,” recalls Jurgensen. “The gunge invasion blew it apart even though it had little to do with NYC.”
The band still rate the Geffen record (called simply Boss Hog) highly – a lot of it is still in their repertoire - but after touring it heavily the band basically ended in 1996. “There was certainly a big slowdown” is how Spencer puts it.
Queens and Jurgensen had also broken up by this point, although this was not a factor at all in the mothballing of Boss Hog. Queens comments that her and Jurgensen’s love of music “meant more to us then our relationship. Also I really credit Jens; he is very even-keeled. He's always been a great friend.”
The tremors from the Universal-Polygram merger in 1998 shook loose dozens of artists – especially rock acts like Boss Hog – from Geffen, so when they re-emerged with the Whiteout LP it was on In The Red Records. Another shutdown happened after touring that record in 2000.
“The hiatuses are due to the fact we reached the end of a rope,” says Martinez. “I’m very, very easily annoyed,” she explains. “So when I get to the point where I’m so mad at everyone, then we have to break for a while. I do love each and every one of my band members dearly but stupid, petty shit will drive me insane – so I need time away.”
She notes that even on the current short tour, “I’m the one who goes alone to the hotel. I need that time away. I cannot be around someone 24/7. I will kill them. And myself.”
The aftermath of the Whiteout tour was particularly rough.
“I was in a really bad spot,” Martinez says. “I could not face it any more. I was destroyed.”
Martinez, to all intents and purposes, quit her own band.
She and Spencer by then had a very young son, Charlie, who had gone on the Whiteout tour with them, but was about to start school, which coincided with Martinez “falling apart.”
“Somebody had to be the anchor, to be at home everyday, to offer some sort of consistency to this child we’d brought into the world.” Martinez gladly took on that role and went back to work in the publishing industry.
To put it bluntly, Martinez chose her health, her marriage, staying friends with her band-mates and being the parent she wanted to be over being a rock star.
You may debate how often musicians make that choice when faced with it.
Over 16 years later, Boss Hog are back in Germany.
For The Love Of Spock and Elvis & Nixon were in-flight movies on the plane over. This leads Martinez to reveal that as a girl her three great crushes were Elvis, Dean Martin and Spock. “No wonder I ended up with Jon,” she admits.
On the topic of Vulcan sex, Spencer – proud sci-fi aficionado that he is – knows that Vulcans go into heat every seven years and recalls the episode where Spock and Kirk duel because Spock’s mate rejects him for Kirk.
An enraged and confused hyper-rational being flooded with hormones: I give you the early work of Pussy Galore.
There’s more sci-fi obscurantism after the Cologne show. Spencer in the loft space above the backstage of the Gebaude 9 hears someone suggest that the TV series of Logan’s Run with Gregory Harrison and Donald Moffatt was rather good.
“No, it wasn’t” comes the disembodied and emphatic judgement call from on high through the ceiling.
As show time approaches in Frankfurt, there’s an outbreak of bad taste jokes.
Martinez’s joke is so foul, it is attributed to the joint work of Steve Albini and David Yow of The Jesus Lizard. “What do you get, if you stick a 10” carving knife in a baby? An erection.”
The tour has only four dates but the drives are long, the Mercedes Splitter van malfunctions requiring a detour to a garage (“#SplitterShitsTheBed,” Spencer tweeted) and there’s bad traffic. All Boss Hog, not just Jurgensen, know “Stau,” the German for traffic jam The drive from The Weekender to Cologne took nine hours, the final in a series of hold-ups caused by an afternoon show of Disney On Ice in Cologne.
None of them seem too bothered by these and the other minor irritations of touring: jet lag, the shortage of hot food, the 5am lobby call to get to Frankfurt airport for the return flight, occasional lack of backstage toilets.
“It’s great to be in a band where people are up for the adventure,” says Spencer. Boss Hog drink plenty of their rider and harvest what they don’t consume at the end of the night but they have not come on tour to party too hard, get sloppy drunk and screw up.
“This is something we work hard at and have sacrificed a lot to do,” says Spencer. “We’ve been working very hard to make this record. We’ve been working very hard to make these shows as good as they can be.”
However, their consumption of Flip, the German peanut flavoured puff snack, is probably excessive.
Martinez is self-deprecating about the challenges of fronting a rock band in middle age, joking she might need a hip replacement after the exertions of the Cologne show. Rather than go for digestifs in the hotel bar, she prefers to soak in an Epsom Salt bath to alleviate aching muscles. She therefore misses Spencer’s scurrilous story – involving a hidden camera and hookers - about how Ike Turner got his recording console for his Bolic Sounds studio from legendary sound engineer Daniel Flickinger.
Queens suggests staying up all night till the pre-dawn lobby call. No-one takes her up on her offer.
At The Key Club in Michigan all the Brood songs were recorded on Sly Stone’s original custom made Flickinger console.
“There’s A Riot Goin’ On” was recorded on it.
In five days time, Martinez can be seen marching in the streets on the front cover of New York Daily News.
Part Three: Maastricht & Leuven, February 2017
In 2017, Maastricht is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the signing of the treaty that created The European Union.
Jaunty “Europe Calling” banners hang all over the city.
Europe, I love you but you’re bringing me down.
Backstage at Muziekgieterij in Maastricht, Cristina Martinez chats to Katrien Matthys the Belgian girlfriend of the photographer and director Toon Aerts.
The conversation is in Spanish. Matthys learned her Spanish in Barcelona as part of the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programme.
Before playing the encore at Muziekgieterij, Martinez – two weeks into the Presidency of Agent Orange - announces “we’re seeking asylum, y’all.”
I’m with her.
The week before coming on tour Martinez needed emergency, albeit minor, surgery.
That and the ten plagues of Trumpolini.
It was a rough week for Boss Hog.
Before needing their trip to a New York City ER, Spencer and Martinez went on The Women’s March in Washington. Spencer says it “made me feel energised and hopeful, in a way.”
“It’s been a long time since I marched,” he continues “but since Mr Trump has been elected, I’ve done a few. Every day I’m signing online petitions. At least once a week I’m calling my representatives, trying to do whatever I can do. It’s shocking. It’s frightening. It’s awful what’s going on. The guy’s insane.”
Martinez had marched the day after the election. The New York Daily News’ photograph of her was taken en route from Union Square up to Trump Tower. Martinez marched with Doerta Fitschen-Rath, who took the photographs of her that are in Brood X. “We were fired up,” she says. Spencer made their signs.
Boss Hog (actually three-fifth of them: Martinez, Finn and Spencer) contributed a song to the Battle Hymns protest compilation which was put together by Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Quasi and came out on Inauguration Day. The proceeds go to Planned Parenthood, The ACLU and 350.org.
The Boss Hog song, 'Save Our Soul', was written in very early 2017. “We didn’t address the then President Elect by name,” Spencer states. “There’s no reference to specific policies. Most people on the compilation ended up doing that. We tried some loud guitar punk thing, but we changed course almost immediately. We were thinking NYC Downtown early 80s No Wave or Funk.”
Brood X’s gestation and recording took place during the two terms of the Obama Presidency, yet it often feels, lyrically, like a Trump-era record.
'Ground Control' – Brood X’s standout track – appeared on the band’s Facebook page the morning after Trump’s victory.
It’s the closest thing Martinez has written to the blues.
“I woke up this morning. Turned on the radio. All I hear is bad news. Tears and woes … No civilisation,” she sings. “Where did my city go?” she asks. Observing, that “it’s time to stand up … activate yourself … identify the threat,” the band backing her up with compressed mutant funk daubed with mellotron and congas that slides in and out of a kind of spacey, heavy dub.
New York Babylon.
Martinez now asks, “Where did my country go?” when Boss Hog play 'Ground Control' live.
On 'Elevator', she makes a metaphorical extended safety announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please, this is an emergency,” she begins. Later advising, “fasten your seat belts, we’re going down” and “It is your duty to help … other action may be required.”
The injunction: “Elevators to the lobby!” from someone who works on the 36th Floor of One World Trade Center and therefore passes the 9-11 Memorial every working day, does not lessen the mood of dread and approaching doom that hangs over a lot of Brood X.
A band so often (mis)labelled a punk-blues band, have made a record about the big flood coming, a bad moon rising.
Much of this sense of the gathering storm stems from Martinez’s abstracting and extrapolating from the trepidations of any right-minded person’s middle years, especially those associated with being a woman and a parent.
Not all of the lyrics for Brood X (and Brood Star) were finished when she went into the studio, so some are ad-libs. “I was very in the moment, unfiltered,” she says. ““It was very much like a therapy session.”
“I had to make a concept out of this free stream of consciousness,” she continues. Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins at The Key Club “helped make them into songs anyone but me would want to listen to.”
“I could listen myself whine all day,” Martinez jokes. “I’ve tried more and more to make a story out of my hatred,” she continues. “It’s cathartic. It’s very emotional. It comes from a raw place.”
In 20,000 Days on Earth, Nick Cave talked about having to “cannibalise” his marriage to write songs. Martinez doesn’t recognise that in the Brood songs. “Early Boss Hog was all about the tumult of being in a relationship but there was clear moment after Whiteout when I shut that down.”
“Jon and I have a long history of not always being kind to each other, but also of being very much in love, or we would not have survived all the terrible disasters we’ve survived.”
“There was a point where I felt like I was betraying Jon or myself or us. I wanted to protect that a little bit more because there was a time when we nearly broke up.”
Martinez is clear that she is “not a poster child for marriage,” yet the three most apparently loving songs on Brood X – which is not a conventionally romantic album - are those in which Martinez’s and Spencer’s vocals are in some kind of dialogue. “I think it's fair to say that there is a palpable sense of romance when Jon and I duet,” Martinez admits.
“We find a way to one another,” she sings in 'Signal' against a New York back-drop of bridges and tunnels and other elements of the NYC transportation: “I take the JMZ. I take the 456. I take the C to the E. I take the IRT. You take a step. I’ll take another.”
'Rodeo Chica' is a breezy Mickey and Sylvia-style chat-up duet from a couple defiant that “this ain’t no antiques show” and that they are “going to knock it out the park”; and to hell with “that train coming round the bend - night sweat, hot flash, mood changing.’”
'Ground Control' is also a love song.
Spencer’s sings a chorus that is a counterpoint to his wife’s despair and anguish, a support in her time of need: “Hold on, I hear you cryin’ / But this heart ain’t gonna burn in the fire / Watch out / They trying / But they ain’t never gonna break us down.”
‘17’, the best of Brood Xs” trio of experimental studio constructs, is a portrait of her teenage self: “like a wild dog: all teeth, all harrow … swallowed by the noise” but also reminds her current self that when the panic takes hold: “All I need to do is breathe.” '17', and therefore the album, ends with the soothing sound of cicadas.
Brood X is eclectic but coherent, most of it the result of that long Labor Day week in 2014. “We were very happy with the basic tracks and didn’t feel the need to smother them with extra voices and instruments or turn them inside out,” says Spencer. “I think we got some of that out of our system with the EP.”
None of the Brood Star amuse-bouche/pre-mix appears on Brood X after all. “We decided we wanted the album to be totally separate and all new material,” clarifies Spencer.
Boss Hog’s re-emergence on record brings their total output to four EPs and three albums (plus a smattering of singles and compilation tracks). Theirs is a sparse but very fine body of work, yet it has been undervalued.
Boss Hog’s periods of extended hibernation have contributed to this neglect. In fact, their whole 28-year career has been marked by periods of dormancy, Kubrickian in the ever-growing gaps between projects. Whiteout, their last LP came out in the final year of the Clinton Administration after all.
A better cinematic metaphor might be Richard Linklater’s series of Before films, since Boss Hog is also a document of a couple in evolution.
Making the two Brood records would no doubt have been quicker, if 4/5 of Boss Hog didn’t have day jobs.
Finn is self-employed, running his own piano-tuning business. Even with modern technology so much of this still relies on acute hearing. Finn therefore wears custom made earplugs when he plays with Boss Hog.
He also recognises that there’s a irony in a piano tuner being in a group that was once associated with the New York “pig fuck’ sound. Even now “there’s large amount of dissonance in Boss Hog. A lot of what I do is making noises and that’s what I really like because my day job is ordering stuff and making sure it’s ‘right’. I love that too. There are two parts of sound.”
Finn first met Spencer and Martinez because he was the hired to tune their son’s piano.
Jurgensen is an assistant to Ebet Roberts, one of New York’s greatest music photographers. She’s shot a vast array of musicians from David Lee Roth to Beefheart, Miles to Madonna but made her name as a chronicler of CBGBs and the Downtown punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. For Jurgensen playing in Boss Hog provides “a release. It’s good to do something which is physical and elemental.”
Martinez and Queens both work in publishing. Queens is a Production Manager for the Rachael Ray Everyday magazine, part of the celebrity chef’s media empire. Martinez is Production Director at Bon Appétit magazine, part of the Condé Nast group. Martinez’s job, essentially, is one rung higher in the publishing hierarchy.
The dissonance between Martinez’s day job and being in Boss Hog, may even be greater than that between Finn and his. Bon Appétit is the definition of mainstream. It sits next to Martha Stewart Living and Good Housekeeping on the racks. The July issue – on the shelves when Portugal beat France 1:0 - had an emphasis on barbeque: the ‘Dogtown USA’ cover feature had “eight cookout game-changers”; “Treat Your Veg Like Meat” promised that “sad pepper-and-onion kebabs – your days are ….. over!”; and ‘Rock Out Like Adam DeVine’ - the “Pitch Perfect” star, scissor kicking with a pink inflatable guitar, shared his “surprising secret to great steak.”
The punk rock side of Martinez’s brain is not remotely tempted to mock any of this. Instead, she takes huge professional pride in her work. “I’ve done this for a long time and I’m very good at it, I’m not ashamed to say.”
She talks animatedly about work-flow and creating a layout map of the whole magazine and the required attention to detail. For example “every photograph you see in there I colour-corrected with a technician. Some people think skin tone is hard, food is far, far harder and I’ve worked on both. Food is a fucking nightmare. 1% too much blue and it goes from delicious to disgusting.”
Martinez describes her job as ‘both logistical and creative but it involves a lot of math. I equate it with packing a suitcase. I’m bridging the gap between editorial, who are only thinking about words and art who are only thinking about images. I need to bring them together and gauge what will make them print ready.”
For the masthead of the July issue, some of the staff were asked: “It’s summer! What’s your ice cream order’?
“Jamocha Almond Fudge from Baskin Robbins with chocolate sprinkles,” Martinez replies without hesitation.
The turnout in for a Monday night show in Leuven is good for a band that have done little press and don’t have a record out.
On stage Martinez – Ann-Margaret fan that she is - lives up to her claim that, “I love singing and dancing. I love a story being told through song, dance and drama.” On this EU Tour, it’s clear she’s an Ann-Margaret fan who loves Die Antwoord and also has “a girl crush” on Eva Green at her most gothic in “Penny Dreadful”.
Belgians, bless them, have clung on tighter than most to their love of punk and garage rock. They know a class act when they see one.
Yet, for the band, the show was, if not a trainwreck, then at least a rollercoaster and a test of collective nerve and will power.
Boss Hog had the jitters in Leuven. Hanging over them for weeks had been the taping of “Album De La Semaine” for Canal+ in Paris - their first TV in years, the day after. The day before had been Spencer’s birthday. Maybe Boss Hog were frazzled by a late night in Utrecht. Maybe Boss Hog were still seething about the victory of Brady and the hated Patriots in Super Bowl 51 that same night. Maybe touring less than a week after surgery is enough stress.
Whatever, the reason Boss Hog began the Leuven show tense and ragged. Then mics broke. The stage was too dark for Jurgensen to see the frets on his bass, way too high for Martinez to get back on it after swooping out into the audience, the band having to vamp on the opening bars of “I Idolise You” while Spencer formed a one-man search party.
Watching Boss Hog rally was therefore genuinely thrilling, especially the sight of Martinez nailing the double-whammy of “Texas” and “17” – the two songs that require the most from her. The band capped their triumph over disaster with a rare second encore: a troika of the Spencer-Martinez duet “I Dig You”, “Fix Me” and “Hustler” – Martinez bouncing up and down in a manner surely contrary to medical advice.
This was no antiques show.
There’s some WH Auden in “Before Sunrise” …
The years shall run like rabbits and Time shall have his fancy. Maybe tomorrow.
But not today in Leuven for Boss Hog.
Before the show, Martinez had commented that, “I’ve seen a lot of bands tour when they don’t like each other and that’s the saddest thing.”
This is obviously not the case with Boss Hog. They are not a group hug kind of a band, but going about their business after their set – signing records, loading out, getting a snack together – the camaraderie and solidarity is evident.
As much as they like each other and being in a band together, no-one is planning to quit their day job and reactivate Boss Hog as a full-time venture. Jurgensen says that, “it’s like a little vacation. It feels great. I think we’d all like to do more of it but you have to keep a constant job. Living in NYC is not cheap.”
“I study in a mystical School and I like to go away on retreats,” adds Queens. “I study T'ai Chi Chuan and that (also) has retreats so it can get complicated trying to find time to do all these things.”
“I think we all have enough perspective to know what matters to us and balance that out,” says Martinez. “I think everyone in the band would be happy to play more but you have to make choices. I’m happy with my choice and I hope everyone else in the band is. That might change, but for now, we’re good.”
There is no follow-up to “Brood X” planned.
As for touring, “I can’t imagine doing this for a lot longer,” she says. “I can’t even imagine doing it till the end of the week! But then you do it and it’s fantastic. I’ll do it, until I don’t feel it’s fantastic. When I need a break, I’ll take a break.”
“Also, not everybody wants to see old people on stage.”
If “Brood X” is to be the last hurrah of one of the great bands from the glorious last chapter of The East Village, then so be it. It’s a very good record.
Who knows how long Boss Hog will go back underground for this time? They don’t.
Maybe we’ll never hear from them again, like the extinct Brood XI and Brood XXI cicada.
Maybe it will be another 17 years.
The Great Eastern Brood would be missed.
Or maybe, if you are walking through the East Village one Sunday afternoon – maybe you’ve just had brunch – you might just hear the sound of some middle-aged weirdos playing their asses off coming up through the sidewalk.
Getting ready to re-emerge …
In the words of Cristina Martinez’s father: “Never say “The last time”, say, “Until the next time.”
“In Spanish, it makes more sense,” she adds.
So, hasta la próxima, Boss Hog.
“Brood X” is released on Bronze Rat on 24 March http://bronzerat.limitedrun.com/products/584398-boss-hog-brood-x
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