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Live in the Clubs: Blues Explosion found way back to form following layoff

Thursday, July 4, 2013
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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has just returned from Europe and will kick off a short round of Northeast dates with a performance at Valentine's on Tuesday.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has just returned from Europe and will kick off a short round of Northeast dates with a performance at Valentine's on Tuesday.

When The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion began playing shows again in 2008 after a three-year layoff, frontman Spencer had more than a few doubts.

“I was apprehensive every step of the way — I was a little nervous before the first rehearsal, the first show, the first recording session,” Spencer said recently from his home in New York City.

“We conquered every step, but yeah, I couldn’t help myself. I definitely worried if we could still play a good show. How would it feel to play together again? Could we still make a good record?”

For Spencer, making those first steps was key to getting the trio back into fighting form — from initial shows in support of the 2007 compilation “Jukebox Explosion Rockin’ Mid-90s Punkers,” to continued touring behind an extensive reissues campaign of all the band’s previous albums in 2010.

Turning point

When it came to putting together a new album, a session to record a song for an advertisement in Australia during the group’s 2011 tour convinced Spencer that it would work.

“We found a studio, worked on an arrangement of a song, cut it — recorded it, did a quick mix, and we ended up winning the advertisement,” Spencer said.

“That was a very definite point for me. At the end of that day, I thought, ‘We really triumphed here,’ and at that point it wasn’t even known we had won the advertising campaign. It felt good — we had gone in and in the space of eight hours, we worked out an arrangement, got a good take of it and a good rough mix. So that was a definite point where we thought, yeah, we could make an album.”

Spencer, bassist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins — the same lineup that has existed since the band’s inception in 1990, following the dissolution of Spencer’s previous group Pussy Galore — are back on the road this summer in support of the album. The band returned from Europe this week, and will kick off a short round of Northeast dates with a performance at Valentine’s on Tuesday night.

So far, critical and audience reaction to “Meat+Bone” has been positive. While the album hasn’t even been out a year, the band has been playing songs from it live since before the recording sessions took place, in summer 2011.

“I think initially — I can’t quite remember. We were hoping to have the album released in the spring [of 2012], and for one reason or another we had to wait for the fall,” Spencer said.

Looking back

The raw, raucous new songs find the band looking back to early albums such as 1992’s “Crypt Style” and 1993’s breakthrough “Extra Width” for inspiration. With Spencer producing, the band went with a more stripped-down recording style, eschewing some of the more layered productions of later albums such as 2002’s “Plastic Fang” in favor of a live-in-the-room approach.

“I guess with ‘Meat+Bone’ — some of the records we’ve made, we had gotten very experimental or creative in the way in which the songs had been mixed,” Spencer said. “ ‘Meat+Bone’ ultimately ended up being in some ways more straightforward — the mix and production kept the spotlight on, this is the band, here’s the band playing, and the band is really the focus of the record.”

“Maybe it was coming from the reissues, reacquainting ourselves with our earlier work,” he added. “I was always steering the ship back in those days, and those are great records, so we thought, let’s just do it like that.”

Writing music

The writing process hasn’t changed much in the 20-plus years the band has been together. All of the 12 songs on “Meat+Bone” were written in collaboration in rehearsals.

“We’ve always written together — I guess you could call it jamming, although I’m not so crazy about the term, but it’s useful,” Spencer said. “We write by playing together. . . . We always start with a performance in the studio, with the three of us playing the songs together. Of course we don’t play it in the same way live — we perform differently in the studio than on the concert stage, because it’s ultimately meant to be consumed or experienced in a different way. But it’s still a performance, and we always like to start with getting the basic tracks, the ideas, and capturing something between the three of us — that’s what’s really important about the Blues Explosion.”

Even if Spencer was a bit apprehensive about recording new Blues Explosion material at first, his concern didn’t extend to the band’s place in the current music industry. The group’s mix of punk, blues and classic rock found commercial success in the alternative rock boom of the ’90s, while also helping to inspire early 2000s garage revival groups such as The White Stripes and The Hives. But for Spencer, the acclaim is second to the music.

“We’ve enjoyed some success — there was a time when we had quite a lot of success and enjoyed some very large audiences,” he said. “We’re not as popular as we once were, but there are still people interested in what we do. Of course, it’s nice if people like what you do, but ultimately what’s most important is pleasing ourselves. We started with this band because we were so much in love with music, in particular rock ’n’ roll, and we wanted to do this for ourselves. At the heart of it, we’re a garage band, and we still try — we’re trying to do right by our musical heroes, and play the kind of concert and make the kind of record we’d like to hear or see.”

Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or mcelhiney@dailygazette.net.

 
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