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Jon Spencer: 'Rock ‘n’ Roll gave me life'

Bob Coscarelli

With nearly 40 years behind him as a recording artist, veteran musician Jon Spencer continues to break new musical ground, as heard on his new album Spencer Gets It Lit.

Jon Spencer & the HITmakers perform at Wave on Tuesday, May 3.

The group is currently supporting its latest LP, “Spencer Gets It Lit,” which arrived earlier this spring via the In The Red label.

Since the 1980s, the New Hampshire-born musician has been active in a variety of bands, perhaps most notably The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Though not a traditional blues band, the trio -- which also included Judah Bauer and Russell Simmins -- released a series of relentlessly inventive albums between 1991 and 2015, then came to an end in 2016, apparently without the acrimony that often accompanies such splits.

Spencer has also recorded as a member of Heavy Trash and Boss Hog and was instrumental in connecting bluesman R.L. Burnside to a wider audience that saw the elder musician experience a more comfortable life during the last decade of his life. With Spencer’s help, Burnside recorded the 1996 LP “A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey,” which ushered in a series of reissues and even broader interest.

Spencer lands in fine form on “Spencer Gets It Lit,” delivering a series of songs that call on a vast array of influences that weave effortlessly between rural American music and the urban avant-garde. Inspired as much by junk culture of the ’60s and ’70s (comic books, low budget sci-fi) as strange, conceptual masters such as Captain Beefheart and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the collection proves that Spencer -- no matter what musical guise he’s working in -- remains an American original and an indispensable voice on the indie/punk scene.

Spencer recently spoke with KMUW about his current tour and the state of American culture.

Interview Highlights

So, this morning, I took a quick look at the tour itinerary and, based on that, I suspect you’re either in Chicago or maybe on your way to Milwaukee.

We’re still closer to Chicago. We aren’t in Milwaukee yet. You’re like a sleuth, a bloodhound. Like Sherlock Holmes. There’s no fooling you.

[Laughs.] I suspect that Chicago has been like a second home to you over the years.

It certainly was nice to be back. I’ve spent some time there over the years. I worked with [engineer] Steve Albini a number of times, going way, way back to Pussy Galore [in the late ’80s]. We’ve had a lot of memorable shows over the years at Lounge Ax, The Metro and had the honor and pleasure of working with Chicago bands such as The Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, Big Black, Shellac. My booking agent, who I’ve worked with since the late ’80s, is in Chicago.

It’s nice to be back but weird days with the pandemic. Touring now is incredibly surreal. So a lot of my old friends were not out at the show. I totally understand. We had a good crowd but a lot of the old crowd were laying low.

Was the new record something you’d started before the pandemic?

The initial plan was to record the new album in April 2020. Those plans were torn up with the arrival of the pandemic. It wasn’t until July 2021 when people were vaccinated and we figured it was safe enough to work. There were songs written before the pandemic but over about 15-month delay some new ones were written, others were re-written, updated, edited, changed. Some songs were just thrown away.

I’ve heard some people cite the cliché, “You have your whole life to write your first album” and say, “In 2020 and 2021, we had a lot more time to work on things. It wasn’t like we had the record company breathing down our necks for a new album after nine months.”

That’s an interesting point, though I would have been happier to get this done earlier. Touring is such a trip now. The staff at the venues have been very nice and cool and wearing masks but the majority of the audience is not masked and people are getting sick these days. I keep on hearing stories about members of Superchunk or Mercury Rev getting sick. Somebody gets sick and a tour has to stop.

There’s such a thin edge [financially] at this level and when you have to cancel or pause for a few days, it’s a hardship. It’s bizarre that in this industry there’s no real safety net. I think COVID has really shown how stupid and selfish people can be. It’s incredibly sad that things have been so politicized in this country. This is a public health issue. It’s about science. It’s such a drag to see what’s going on.

Perhaps I’m naïve. I had higher hopes for my neighbors, my family, my fellow countrymen. Some of that comes out on the record. The song “The Worst Facts” is about that. On the flip side, I tried to be careful with the lyrics on the record. I didn’t want to be too much of a bummer. I think the record wound up being one with rock ‘n’ roll spirit and energy.

It’s interesting to look at some of this. Back in 2020 there were people saying, “I’d do anything to see live music again,” but that appears to exclude wearing a mask inside a venue and practicing safety protocols.

I don't want to preach, I don't want to lecture anybody. Some of my colleagues in indie rock bands are on much more of a soapbox, making those kinds of requests. I’m totally aligned with that, but I don’t feel comfortable making those requests.

You have Janet Weiss [ex-Sleater-Kinney, currently with Quasi] on drums for this tour. When I heard that she’d being joining you, I thought, “Wow, she’s perfect for this music.”

She’s an exceptional drummer. It’s not an easy job to step in and play these songs. It’s not just about playing [the notes]. There’s an energy and vibe and performance element to the show and that’s a lot to tackle. But Janet’s really cool. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool indie rocker/punk rocker. There’s not pretense. No BS. She’s the perfect person to want to tour with.

I wanted to ask you about “Junk Man.” The lyrics describe a character who lives behind this façade that hides some really ugly things. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for that?

Oh, just being pissed off and upset with people like Trump, Musk, and Bezos. It’s mainly Trump-type people. Yes, there are some really terrible people, crummy people in the world.


And it’s not just in this country. It’s unfortunately worldwide. There are a lot of people who are fascists. I think they want to turn back the clock. It’s racism, pure evil, hiding behind walls, hiding behind religion a lot of the time. I was born in ’65 so I was growing up in this era of the youth movement, the hippie movement, the Vietnam War. There were a lot of great changes that happened in our society. It’s not always a straight line forward. There’s always steps forward, steps back, zigzags. Maybe the pandemic is exacerbating the [current] situation. Sorry, I’m rambling. Yes, you got it. “Junk Man” is about calling people out for what they are.

I wanted to ask you a question about influences but not so much on the musical front. The music is obviously influenced by soul and all that, but I sense there’s a lot that comes from schlocky horror movies, science fiction, cartoons, comic books, those areas of the culture.

Oh, for sure. I love scary movies. I loved sci-fi, the strange, the unusual, surreal, spooky stuff when I was a kid and still do. Rock ‘n’ roll gave me life and it also gave me a way to change myself. I think that spirit, that joy and spark, makes great rock ‘n’ roll. It should be a little bizarre and strange and unusual. I mean, look at where it came from: Let’s look at people like Little Richard, let’s look at someone like Elvis Presley. Incredibly strange but also very beautiful cats.

I think that’s a really important part of rock music. Keep that strangeness there in order to move the music forward. You’ve made a lot of records to this point in your life. Do you feel like you take that spirit with you still? 

I think so. It’s not like I have to make a note to myself or map something out. It goes beyond spooky sounds or the influence of bad science fiction TV shows in the ’70s or novelty records. It’s also about musical influences—Devo, The Residents, Hound Dog Taylor, James Brown, Mark E. Smith, Einstürzende Neubauten. It’s all this kind of stew, and it’s just baked in at this point.

Well, it looks like we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. Please take care of yourself out there.

I’m gonna try. You be careful, too. This thing ain’t over, and it’s really important we look out for each other.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.