Smile Politely

Horror with a twist of romance?

JSEveryone tells me that Jon Spencer is the kind of guy that you have to “get.”  Maybe his largest detractors — those that think his balls-to-the-wall purebred brand of rock and roll that would still upset Baptist preachers and mothers alike is just shtick — just don’t “get it.”  

But what isn’t to get? The man is nothing but pure and honest. He rocks and rolls because that is what he knows and that is what he loves. There is no semblance of irony or any sense that he is pulling a “gotcha!” on his audience and he wants you to know that.  

Since starting Heavy Trash with close friend Matt Verta-Ray, Spencer has launched into a rockabilly assault that almost entirely ignores recent incarnations of the genre from the Reverend Horton Heat on back to the Stray Cats. It is as if nothing significant has happened since the golden age of rock and roll-almost like Heavy Trash could fall right in line opening for Little Richard or even girl groups like the Dixie Cups. And in 2009, there is something really refreshing about that. There is something refreshing about the idea that the avant-garde doesn’t necessarily have to be something avant-garde at all.  

Heavy Trash’s latest release, Midnight Soul Serenade, stands out in Spencer’s oeuvre as a daringly romantic record, but as I learned, that wasn’t entirely intentional. Perhaps the most “get-able” of all of his records, Midnight Soul contains the horror frenzy that you would expect from Spencer in his Pussy Galore or his later Blues Explosion days, but that energy is balanced instinctively by pop-friendly ballads and surreal poetic trips.

I was lucky enough to speak with Jon Spencer last week to discuss Heavy Trash and to reflect on some general musings about his career and rock and roll philosophy.

Heavy Trash comes to Cowboy Monkey Saturday night with Cleveland’s Whiskey Daredevils.  The show starts around 10 p.m. and the cover is $12.

Smile Politely: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you; I’m a big fan. I think I last saw you on the Plastic Fang Tour and I ran into you at the record store outside of the 40 Watt in Athens. If I’m not mistaken, you were scanning Herb Alpert records.

Jon Spencer: Oh yeah! What’s the name of that shop?

SP: You know, I can’t think of it now, but if you gave me a list I could probably pick it out. It’s a pretty awesome little place.

[Note:  The record store is the Low Yo Yo]

JS:  Yes, it is, but it’s been around for a while there, that little shop.  

SP:  Yeah, it’s kind of an institution in Athens.  

JS:  Yes it is.  

SP:  Well, I have some questions about the new Heavy Trash record and then some general questions about your career and so forth. Sound good?  

JS:  Okay! Let’s go! [Laughs]

SP:  So Midnight Soul Serenade came out last month and the tour starts in a week.  Who are you taking along with you?  

JS:  Well on this tour, we’re working with an all New York City lineup. Our drummer is a guy named Sam Baker who previously played in the group Lambchop. And our bass player is named Simon Chardier and he is a bit of a New York City music legend that has been around for a long time and played with many bands. We kind of settled on this four-piece back in the summer and so far it has been great. I’m very, very pleased with the way the shows have gone.  

HT1SP:  And you’re playing predominantly smaller clubs, right? I think I read somewhere that you played a bowling alley?

JS:  In the states, yeah we’re doing smaller shows. We’re still trying to educate the people.  

SP:  It is pretty obvious that you guys spent some more time and maybe had a more calculated approach to Midnight Soul more so than on your debut or on Going Way Out. How did you go about the songwriting and recording for this one?

JS:  Well, the writing was pretty normal as always. Matt and I will get together and write the songs. We collaborate that way and we usually write them by just playing. But it’s not just jamming. We’re usually working with more traditional pop formats and structure, so I don’t think the writing was terribly different for this record.  

We did write, record and mix an awful lot of songs, probably enough for two albums — but in the process, but it wasn’t like we had any big plan. We didn’t sit down and say, “okay, for the third album, let’s do this.” There was no big plan of attack or anything set out before hand. We just kept working and working and working, then when we had this big pile of songs, we began thinking about, well, “what would make a good album?” And the songs we chose, the ones we gravitated towards, were the songs that presented something new and something different, you know? It was a different side of the band because we wanted to do something new with this third album.  

For me, the first record was a crazy burst, a studio experiment kind of, and the second album grew out of the touring we have done when the band had become a more live, living working band kind of like a growth spurt. This third album was kind of like we arrive at maturity.  

SP:  Have you enjoyed the advantage of recording and producing most of the Heavy Trash stuff on your own?

JS:  Yeah, you know — it’s great. We can do what we want and we call the shots. There is a definite advantage.

SP:  What kind of recording techniques did you use for this one? I know Matt runs his own studio and some of the guitar sounds and backup vocals just sound super dirty.  

JS:  You know, we tried different little experiments, but we didn’t change it up too much. We mixed a few songs with Alap Momin who is from New Jersey and is in a rap group called Dalek. He works a lot different, so it was good working together and we used a lot of newer technology.

SP:  Does the additional instruments on Midnight Soul have any bearing on the songwriting? “Sweet Little Birds” features turntables and the production on “That’s What Your Love Gets” reminds me a lot of Ray Charles’ country record. 

JS:  I think we’ve always overdubbed instruments but it is never done all willy nilly. We try to think, “Well, what would be best for the songs?” you know. Songs like “In My Heart” and “Sweet Little Bird” were getting into some new territory and needed some bells and whistles. We were trying to present these different kinds of moods or feelings for all the different subject matter.  

SP:  With Midnight Soul, there is a more dramatic and romantic vibe that is a lot different than some of the stuff you have done in the past. Is that intentional? You mentioned that you didn’t have any plan from the beginning.  

JS:  Yeah, you’re right, it is more of a record about love. We didn’t set out to do that from the get-go, so that kind of stuff just comes out when we write songs. You know, in the springtime when you think about writing an album and compiling it, it just came about. And later it became clear for me that we wanted to keep it that way.  

SP:  Do you feel like you are ever trying to distance yourself from the Blues Explosion sound with Heavy Trash?

JS:  [Laughs] No, not really. I really like that band.  

SP:  Do you feel like a lot of people write Heavy Trash off as a rockabilly side project?  It seems Midnight Soul contains less of a swinging rockabilly feel than your previous efforts.

JS:  We did write and record some more rock and roll and rockabilly songs [for Midnight Soul Serenade], but we just didn’t put those on the album. And it isn’t because they’re bad songs, we just felt the other songs were stronger and made a more cohesive fold. And we wanted to put something else out there that was unlike what we had done. But yeah, I agree that Heavy Trash is easily tagged as rockabilly side project.  

SP:   Kind of going back to the comment about the additional instruments and dubbing on the record, a really memorable Blues Explosion moment was on a Matador video that has to be ten years old by now, but you gave probably the most exhilarating demonstration I have ever seen of how to play the theremin. Any plans to break that back out for Heavy Trash? It seems like it could fit right in, especially with the haunting tone on the new record.

JS:  [Laughs] No, I think that is funny that you associate those two things. But, no, no new plans to mix that in with Heavy Trash.  

SP:  Cool, cool. Back to the new record, I think a lot of Midnight Soul Serenade is really haunting in a demented Leadbelly or zombie Chuck Berry kind of way.

JS:  Hey, that sounds good!

HT2SP:  Even “The Pill” has an eerie country “White Rabbit” or poetic Doors-y feel to it. Has a lot of your recent writing since [the Blues Explosion’s] Plastic Fang taken a more, horrific feel, or scary, or what’s the word I’m looking for?

JS:  Fantastic? [Laughs] Dramatic? I think all that is a big component of rock and roll, you know. All the early Elvis stuff was pretty wild and there were lots of characters and that is something I enjoy with not only rock and roll music, but also anything bizarre and fantastic.  

SP:  Do you think there is anything ironic or purposeful about the resurgence of folk music or early American rock and roll in 2009?

JS:  Honestly, I’m not aware of any groundswell of folk or rockabilly, but as far as Heavy Trash, I don’t feel any close connections to any theme or to any other bands. Also, I don’t think we do what we do to be ironic. We’re very serious about it. Not only with this group, but other bands I’ve worked with. Sometimes people get confused and play up the craziness of the sound, but there is a real joy and a spark in life in what we do. Something can be lighthearted but serious. I play rock and roll in Heavy Trash because I love it so much that I’m moved to do this. I don’t do it as a joke or to make fun of a performer or a musical style.  

SP:  Yeah, I didn’t mean to insinuate that what you are doing is ironic. I kind of feel like there is an irony in 2009 about the resurgence of early rock and roll when the gloss and sheen of bands like Radiohead or Top 40 stuff is the norm. I have always thought there is something very refreshing about what you do.  

JS:  Oh, well, thank you.  

SP:  Well, moving on to the more general stuff — you’ve been in the music industry for almost 25 years now. Do you feel anything has changed or not changed for you looking back?

JS:  Yeah, definitely, the way people consume music is very different now. If people buy songs at all, it seems to be one song at a time. When I started, there wasn’t an internet. To find out about something was a lot different. To get new records, or to find out about bands was a lot different. It was not easy. I grew up in small-town New Hampshire, and if you wanted to be a freak or be wild or find some crazy art, you had to go to the city. It isn’t so much that way any more. To find out about anything is so easy. You used to have to buy an album or then a CD. And now, most people consume music as mp3s. There are a lot of people who are up in arms about it, but the technology will always be changing and the way people consume it will change as well.

SP:  When most musicians have logged as many hours as you, they start dabbling in politics or other extracurricular activities. I’m thinking of the Bono’s and Springsteens of the world. Where has kept your or not kept you from doing that kind of stuff?

JS:  Well, I dabble in politics and I vote. I voted yesterday with the elections here. I’ve even written some political songs, but generally I’m not terribly in to that direction of art and politics. What has kept me away from that? Millions and millions of dollars. I don’t have what Bruce or Bono have, so I try to make a difference with my family or the community at my son’s school. If I am active, it is on a much smaller level and a much more local level.

SP:  You probably have one of the most distinct voices in indie rock today, but I think you don’t get the credit you deserve as a lyricist.  

JS:  Oh, well thank you.  

SP:  A lot of your lyrics have a really sensual tone to them. There is a lot about eating and drinking, touching and some vivid visual imagery. Even the sense of smell creeps in there… I think the line “take a whiff of my pant leg” comes to mind. Do you purposefully set out to paint a picture or set a scene or does that just come about from the narrative of your songwriting?

JS:  It just sort of comes, you know. I can’t say I try to paint a scene. I’ve always just tried to go with the flow and to let the inspiration take me and it is usually always coming from the sounds, the music and the feel. It just kind of happens, you know.  

SP:  Where does a lot of that influence come from? I think David Lee Roth was asked about his influences once and he rattled off a list of historical warlords like Ghengis Khan and Napoleon. Obviously, you channel a lot of James Brown and Elvis, but where do the nonmusical influences come from?

JS:  Well, everyday life, you know. And just trying to get through the day and pay the bills. Other than that, family, relationships, you know. What’s going on with the wife. We can all look to that.  We’re all, you know, doing the same thing. Beyond the everyday and outside of music, books and TV, movies, you know, just other art forms.  

SP:  Anything in particular recently?

JS:  Well, a song like “The Pill,” for instance, is almost a surrealist piece, although it wasn’t present in our minds or something we talked about when making the song. Since the album came out, people have said things like, “oh, I could see that in a David Lynch movie.” Matt and I are fans his and fans of unsettling art and strange cinema in general, so while it may not be on the surface, it is in us and art is definitely an influence.  

SP:  Looking ahead, Russell [Simins] put out a solo record recently and Judah [Bauer] has all the 20 Miles stuff going for him. Any plans for a solo outing of your own? What is next?  

JS:  You know, I’ve had bands. I’ve done Pussy Galore and the Blues Explosion and now Heavy Trash. This is my work and I’ll continue to make records, so I’m kind of already doing my own thing.  

SP:  Yeah, I guess you have a point. A friend of mine had a question for you that I thought was kind of simple at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get your take. It is kind of obvious, but, what is rock n roll, what is the blues, and what is the difference?

JS:  Oh, well… [long pause] Well, they’re both kind of in debt to folk music. Rock is an amalgamation of blues and folk music styles and ideas. There is a difference, though [long pause].

SP:  Maybe it is too early to wax philosophical?

JS:  Well, I do believe there is a difference between the two. I think this skirts the issue of race a little bit.  Last night I was doing interviews with the Australian press. Quite a few of them were asking questions about what the blacks in America think about rock and roll and about whites ripping them off. I was kind of surprised by it because I thought they would be more intelligent than that. It was kind of narrow-minded and it seemed really weird that people were talking about that in 2009 and especially since it came from Australian writers. The thing about rock and roll is that it transcended race and it changed the world with this entirely new thing. It is music, it’s not land.  It’s free for anybody. And that’s the same with blues or with country. It puts me off when people go off about cultural ownership or like you have no right to go on because you’re from New York City. It’s music, you know. Rock and roll came about because it was beautiful and transcendent. Just look at history of rock and soul and places like Memphis. There was so much happening. It just happened. It came about largely because people weren’t caring too much about distinctions of color and lines.  

SP:  That’s kind of beautiful.  

JS:  Yeah, you know.

SP:  Okay, final question. I polled some of my girlfriends to find out what they would ask you if given the chance, and the unanimous question on their mind is, “What does your pant leg really smell like?”

JS:  [Laughs] Oh gosh. Well, to put it politely, it smells like love.

SP:  [Laughs] Awesome.  Is there anything else you want to get off your chest or emphasize about your show in town next week?

JS:  Yeah, I just want to extend the invitation to anybody to come out and see us, I think it will be a great show.

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