Dirty Shirts

In the surly and shoegazey musical climate of the '90s, New York's Jon Spencer Blues Explosion stuck out like a sore thumb. Sure, they were as loud as Soundgarden or My Bloody Valentine. Louder, maybe, because Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins all came up through the East Coast noise-rock underground, most notably Spencer in Washington, D.C. trash-scuzz pioneers Pussy Galore.

But in the Blues Explosion, the flamboyant front man performed with a sweat-dripping intensity — squarely derived from the likes of Elvis and James Brown — that was almost completely foreign to the period. The band also had a completely unironic (if not exactly reverent) appreciation of the blues, perhaps best articulated on 1997's acclaimed R.L. Burnside collaboration A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.

The threesome went their separate ways for a while after 2004's Damage, but now the Blues Explosion is back in all its signifyin' glory. Last year Shout! Factory reissued six of the band's albums, including Orange, Acme and Now I Got Worry, with copious previously unreleased and live tracks, plus the 22-track compilation Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll: The First Ten Years.

"I tried to be as complete as possible and include everything and anything that the band recorded at the time of the albums," says Spencer, who also continues to explore his rootsier rockabilly side in NYC trio Heavy Trash. "And we were a very busy band."

C: What are a few of your ­favorite previously unreleased tracks?

JS: On the Extra Width album, our second album, there's some really great live material from the session we did for a cable-access program. On the album Orange, there's a song called "Haircut," which we recorded and then just forgot about. There's also some material on the Orange reissue from a show we did at CBGB's the night before we went into the studio to record the album.

It was hard for me, because my memory's not so good. It was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle for these reissues. I'd be looking at a reel of tape and I had no idea what the title [was] — if it was a song that never made it to the album, I didn't know what it was. It was a little like feeling my way around in the dark.

C: Do you think the Blues ­Explosion was ahead of its time?

JS: Maybe a little. I think we definitely turned on a lot of people. It seems to me we inspired a bunch of bands, and (laughs) I think maybe we were a little too ahead of our time. Some of what we do, it's confusing to people. I think we're a great band, but my heroes were people like the Velvets, the Stooges, bands which were totally misunderstood or ahead of their time.

Yeah, it would be nice to be driving around in a Cadillac and be a millionaire, and have platinum records, but the stuff that made me want to play rock and roll — people like the Velvets, like the Stooges and MC5, Suicide, all these different kind of crazy bands, those are my heroes and that's the stuff that inspired me.

C: Are your live shows still as much of a workout as they used to be?

JS: Yes. We're firmly committed to that same ideal of showmanship and a transcendent, communal event that a good rock and roll concert can be. We're totally committed to that, and I think there's some kind of spark, or something that happens between the three of us that allows us to make this music.

We also work very, very hard. You can't just get up and play the kind of show that we play without really practicing and working on your moves.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray