Don't Be So Literal

Many misconceptions exist regarding the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. One of these is that Spencer is a gnarled old bluesman of indeterminate age and ethnicity. Another is that Spencer doesn't exist at all, that the band has been concocted by a bunch of artsy New Yorkers too cool for their own good. Yet another train of thought says the band's name is a joke altogether, intended as both an ironic statement of purpose and a pointed swipe at aficionados who might be lured by the moniker.

It is this last notion that contains a kernel of truth. The name, after all, is delivered with tongue somewhat planted in cheek, despite the fact that both Spencer -- yes, he does exist -- and guitarist Judah Bauer have a sincere appreciation of Delta blues. But the word that's consistently overlooked in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is the last one. For what Spencer, Bauer and drummer Russell Simins manage to do is destroy all the ax-slinging, high-gloss bullshit that has encrusted the blues and bring the music back down to its withered core, where you find the emotional truths: lots of pain, lots of energy and, more than anything else, lots of feeling.

Some might chuckle at the thought of a Brown University dropout (Spencer), a Wisconsin émigré (Bauer) and the son of New York City's commissioner of public works having enough spark between them to make impassioned music in a bassless trio. Yet this is exactly what's happening.

"When we're writing songs as a band, we're coming from a gut level, just coming from a feeling," begins Spencer. "With live shows, we don't use a set list. We just kind of come out and ride the wave of the crowd. Those are probably the two most important things we do -- write new songs and play concerts -- and there's not a lot of talking about what we're gonna do [in either of them]. We just do it. For me personally, the Blues Explosion allows me to get some stuff out, some of the gunk from deep inside. I start with whatever comes off the top of my head, straight from the bottom."

A momentary pause ensues for Spencer to consider the accidental cleverness in his unique usage of the English language, in describing something as coming simultaneously from the top and the bottom. Meaning understood. Yes, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is grounded in a sensory, visceral experience, but there's a higher level to the band. It can also be appreciated, according to Spencer, as an exercise in "the smarty-pants, intellectual stuff."

On either level, however, the band rebels against the increasing use of literalism in the popular arts. Movies, television, music, journalism -- all are increasingly created to be consumed with a minimal amount of interpretation. Sure, bright colors have always sold better than gray, and cotton candy is more fun than wheat germ. But now, more than ever, the very notion that popular entertainment might exist simultaneously on a more exalted level is rare indeed.

"The difficulty, if you want to call it that, that the Blues Explosion has had over the years is that we're a band that has a lot of different things going on -- even within one song," Spencer reflects. "There's also a lot of playfulness and humor in what we do, but we're not a joke. And it's always been my impression that people can have a problem with an artist or a band like Blues Explosion being a little more sophisticated or complicated in what they do, and a little less literal."

Therein lies one of the many conundrums confronted when examining the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. For all of the artsy cool, all of the bluster, all of the seeming indifference toward convention that has gone into the Blue Explosion's ten years and seven releases, Jon Spencer is very aware of what his band does and how the world perceives it. This is a difficult tightrope to traverse for an artist. While most of the nonincarcerated population pauses every so often to ponder their actions -- and how others perceive those actions -- artists who do so run the risk of losing their own direction. They run the risk of allowing the echoed perceptions of others to guide them.

"I try not to let it filter in," says Spencer, "but it happens sometimes. Like on the last album [Acme], the song 'Talk About the Blues' was coming from an encounter with the mainstream press, and people's perceptions of the band, and was kind of a response to that. I think what's most important to me, and what I try to keep in mind and focus upon, is just enjoying myself -- finding self-satisfaction and really pleasing my soul, like playing a concert, just getting off with the people that are there and going to another place with the band up on stage."

That particular satisfaction has not occurred for some time now, at least not with the Blues Explosion, which hasn't seen much action in the past few years. Spencer has filled the gap by performing live in Boss Hog, the band he shares with his wife, Cristina. Bauer has been exploring the Delta blues with his brother in their band Twenty Miles, while Simins has been developing his own side project, Butter 08.

While the layoff has been frustrating in some ways, Spencer allows that "taking a break has done the Explosion some good." The band did some shows around New Year's in the Midwest, testing the waters with their latest hooks. "We were playing shows to pretty big crowds, and we played mostly new material," begins Spencer, with a mixture of surprise and satisfaction. "And it was great not just that people came out to see us, but that they listened to the new songs and responded to them."

With no new recording to promote, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plans to do more of the same with its current string of tour dates. "These shows are some of my most favorite ones," enthuses Spencer. "When you're not touring a record, it's a lot more casual and free. It's so much fun to be trying out these new songs and seeing what flies, not only by how it hits the audience, but by how it makes me feel. It's been wild, because some of the songs that I really liked playing in our practice space haven't been the ones that did it for me on stage."

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Chris Smith