The guitar-shredding firebrand Jon Spencer on creating a dystopian party album for the impending apocalypse, and the eternal power of rock’n’roll
Anyone who had any kind of soul in the 90s listened to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a trio so ear-splittingly fabulous that the infamous music journo Stevie Chick once dubbed them the greatest band ever to have lived. This writer, for one, listened to their seminal album Orange more times than he can remember, a record that surely fast-tracked a generation of slackers to the mid-life arena of acute tinnitus. It was, however, the coruscating anti-everything sound and fury produced by Spencer’s earliest manifestation as Pussy Galore that first brought his unique talent for untethered sonic maelstrom to the attention of the world in the mid-80s, on the likes of the brilliant Dial M For Motherfucker. And while there is an all-too-peddled myth about the most rock’n’roll among us dying young enough to leave a good looking corpse, Spencer is living testament to the counter-argument that authentic rockers rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light. In fact, the palpable anger that fuels the engine of the latest offering from the prolific avant-garde bluesman Spencer Gets It Lit is nothing short of incandescent. The dark yet strangely effervescent second album from his latest incarnation as Jon Spencer & The Hitmakers takes the listener on a warped journey into the dark heart of the zeitgeist – one in which myriad existential crises plaguing the 21st Century get unpacked, chopped-up, refried, and served up as filthy futurist electro-funk grooves, with a side of lo-fi genius, a dash of humour, and a some deliciously explosive sci-fi licks beamed in direct from the dark corners of The Twilight Zone.
Here, on the eve of their UK tour, the incendiary frontman and guitar-slinger discusses the conceptual genesis of his latest uncompromising slab of sound, as well as post-truth, societal breakdown, the impending apocalypse, and, of course, sticking it to the man, forever.
Can you remember what first turned you on to music as a child?
As a little kid? Well, I wasn’t listening to rock’n’roll music, because my parents certainly weren’t into it. I think my earliest impressions of rock’n’roll growing up in the 70s came from television, and I guess, most specifically, Saturday morning cartoons and terrible sitcoms, because for a period of time, it seemed like every show had a rock’n’roll band. The Sandells would appear on The Munsters or Gilligan’s Island, and on cartoon shows the characters would often have a band. So, I suppose, those things formed my earliest, and totally inaccurate impressions, as to what a band could be – watching terrible reruns and make believe bands like The Monkees, made an impression, you know? I guess I was always most into the horror and science-fiction shows as a kid, and the bands I got into when I was a teenager, like Devo and Kraftwerk, had a very heavy strong visual, and somewhat futuristic element.
What led you to form Pussy Galore, what statement did you want to make?
I mean, as a teenager, I think I was very confused about what kind of statement I wanted to make. I was definitely very pissed off, and very angry, and some of that anger and frustration, was directed against the music itself. Pussy Galore was in some ways kind of a statement about the bankruptcy of rock’roll. When we started in 85, during the height of the MTV era, the idea was that it was just a completely dead and corrupt language, and that it was devoid of meaning; a husk. But as I began to play more shows and explore rhythm and blues, and soul music, I began to fall in love.
I guess, in the very beginning, I was always drawn to playing in a band just because playing live was something that really made me feel alive – it seemed the best way to satisfy whatever creative itch, or psychological itch was in me. I’ve always been drawn to music that has a kind of sublime, perverse or extraordinary quality to it – people like Little Richard and Elvis Presley, who were these kind of bold, bizarre and beautiful creatures.
What do you think is so special about those figures in particular?
They just had such an immense and profound effect on American society, and the world. I mean these were not guys writing political songs, but just the fact of their very being, and what they were doing on stage with their music, created all these massive aftershocks and ripples in society. The kind of music they made was just in and of itself a political act. I think it was Wayne Kramer of MC5 who said something like, just picking up an electric guitar – that’s a political act.
Do you think of Jon Spencer Gets It Lit as a political record?
I suppose I would like to think some songs on this album are raging against injustice or stupidity. On this current tour, I’ve been elongating the introduction of the song ‘Get Up And Do it’ and asking: ‘what’s it going to be? What side are you on?’ And it has become much more pointed live in calling out the current events of the day, and in calling out The Supreme Court on Roe v. Wade. I can’t help talking to people, and being like, ‘Hey, look what’s going on! You know our rights are soon to be taken away?’ They want to start by overturning Roe v. Wade and, if they take that away, it opens the door for a lot other things. There are already so many states where it’s nearly impossible, if not impossible, for a woman to get proper healthcare, let alone an abortion. If this thing comes down, then there’s a precedent being set.
The record feels angry, but it’s definitely a lot of fun to listen to…
Thanks. I think initially it was going to be a much angrier record and a much darker record, just because there’s no shortage of bad things going on in this world. But then there was a pandemic that we were all going through, and it felt like this record was also a chance to reaffirm life. Because the most terrible thing for me about the pandemic was just seeing how selfish and stupidly people were behaving. It was shameful. I guess I’m naive, but I thought, well, surely this is the time when people will come together and help each other out, but no way – and then there was all this anti-science nonsense. It was just despicable. I was kind of pulling my hair out at the ways in which people were just politicising a natural catastrophe. In America now it’s like we are seeing what happens if there’s no common ground, and if this continues – if you can’t agree on facts, or any idea of the truth – then I don’t know how we can even function as a society.
You talk about people ‘pushing hate’ on the album opener ‘Junk Man’ – who specifically inspired that song?
Well, it’s inspired by people like Donald Trump, and members of the Republican Party in the US. But sadly, there are people like that all over the world – all of these wannabe autocrats, or just straight up fascists and creepy religious types. In the US now, we’re actually getting dangerously close to minority rule. If you look at issues like guns or abortion, then the great majority of people in this country feel one way, yet there is a minority that is taking control and setting the agenda for everybody. The system is broken down, and I think it has been falling apart since Reagan. In fact, you could probably even go back to Nixon. I think Nixon was the first one to adopt the creepy pro-life people, and those people have worked very hard, and they have played a very long game – you just have to look at The Supreme Court in this country now to see that. It’s packed full of creeps that the religious movement, and a bunch of extremely wealthy industrialists, have paid to install. It’s all to do with The Federalist Society, which has this program about getting judges in that will allow industry to do whatever it wants, while pushing a super conservative Christian ideology.
Well, the record definitely feels like music for the end of the world. You grew up in The Cold War, do you think we are back to that 80s paradigm of imminent nuclear destruction?
(Laughs) I like that – music for the end of the world! You could use it for your headline Well, yeah, it was a real worry for me growing up, but I was also extremely concerned about the world ending because of the abuse of natural resources. My mother was very involved in the conservation movement in the early 70s, so I was going to those events, and I was also watching films like Soylent Green, where the planet is all used up. But here we are, 50 years later – the planet is in even worse shape, and things look really bad in terms of a tipping point and weather patterns changing. I guess I should actually be more scared now, but I’m not stockpiling weapons, or anything. I still vote. I still protest. I’m hopeful that things will get better.
Spencer Gets It Lit is out now on Bronzerat Records.
Jon Spencer & The Hitmakers are on tour now in the UK
Photography Michael Lavine