RUSSELL SIMINS AND JUDAH BAUER: THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have been kicking ass and taking names on stages near and far since 1991 and in case you had any doubt as to whether they still have the stuff to kick your testicles up into your esophagus in 2015, then I got news for ya punk…the blues is still no.1! Still offering a no frills, balls to the wall performance of two guitars and minimalist drumkit, the JSBX released a string of records throughout the nineties that established a sound that was uniquely their own, and in doing so, paved the way for other outfits trading in the blues/rock game to not only survive but flourish…we won’t name any names!
Spencer, axeman Judah Bauer and timekeeper Russell Simins are touring behind the recently released Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015 and show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Just two hours before they would blow the doors off of Lee’s Palace, chorusVERSEchorus dragged Simins and Bauer to the Bloor Street Aroma for dinner and a conversation that touched on the past, present and future of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
chorusVERSEchorus: So, you guys have been at this a long time. Are there certain countries that the Blues Explosion does better in these days?
Judah Bauer: Not really…they can all be great, or they can all suck! I mean the turnout is the same, but you get certain countries like Italy that have more extroverted concert-goers. In Germany and Scandinavia everything runs on-time but maybe the audience is a little bit older.
cVc: You guys have always been road warriors, but is it still fun for you?
JB: Jon and I are always haggling over how much time to spend on the road. He always wants to do more more more and Russell doesn’t really care, but voices give out, ears give out and it pushes people to the limits. I hear what people put up with in their 9-5 jobs and I wouldn’t be able to handle that…it’s nice to get out of town and go to a new one. It puts a different spin on things.
cVc: You had your own project (20 Miles) as a going concern for quite a few years, do you have any interest in doing anything else away from the Blues Explosion?
JB: Nah. I tried that shit and nobody fucking cared!
cVc: Don’t give up the dream Judah!
JB: No, give up the dream! I see all these assholes holding the flame and they all work at fucking Guitar Center! That’s great but don’t delude yourself…if it hasn’t happened yet, then it’s not gonna happen! I see these guys doing a version that is kind of a young man’s game...you’d be better off playing jazz and still be able to play it when you’re old.
cVc: Are the people who work around the touring circuit and maybe just the business in general different today then when you started?
JB: People are different now because they know they can make a living at it. When we started no one was making a living. I guess Nirvana got it to the point where now it was on someone’s radar. Look at it now…who would’ve thought that The White Stripes and The Black Keys could sell this many records? I never thought that would happen…that the culture would evolve to that level. I was in a Chipotle recently and they were playing a song from the first Suicide album and I thought to myself: ”Damn, this shit has changed!”
cVc: Did the Blues Explosion ever cross paths with Nirvana?
JB: Nah, bands were like gangs…especially back then. We were a New York band and it was a different scene. There was no fit at all between the Blues Explosion and Nirvana, or Seattle.
cVc: Speaking of The White Stripes and The Black Keys…the Blues Explosion was pushing a blues sound almost a full decade before the arrival of both of those bands; so what is your feeling on their success? Are you happy the mainstream co-opted some decent music or are you just repulsed by the whole thing?
JB: Well, I don’t sit around and listen to The White Stripes, but I’d rather hear that than…whatever. I like his version of “Death Letter” though. I like The Black Keys’ music but I can’t handle that guy’s vocals because it reminds me too much of 70’s rock…and I can’t deal with 70’s rock. I can’t deal with Zeppelin! We are just too unintelligible lyrically and melodically…it’s just not going to happen for us. They have a pop sensibility and we just cover too much ground.
cVc: Do you think if you released a song like “Bellbottoms” or “Wail” ten years later, in the internet age, you could have had some kind of similar success to that of The White Stripes or The Black Keys?
JB: I think we would have been bigger because we were before the internet, but I think you gotta give people a little bit of melody and some intelligible lyrics and that’s not happening with us…that’s just my opinion.
cVc: Where do you want the Blues Explosion to go at this point?
JB: I want us to groove more. This band started as an art-punk band and we all got better as players and so we became a rock n roll band, but I want us to groove more, man. The tempo is too goddamn fast! I like to bitch about the tempo being too fucking fast, but I’m lucky to play in a band that is so well versed in so many styles. I would be bored in any other band!
cVc: Russell, in the early nineties you also played in the Seattle-based trio Crunt. Given the craziness of those times and everything that was going on in Seattle, I was curious as to what your memories are from that period?
Russell Simins: I was living in Seattle and I was dating someone who was in the band originally and she ended up leaving and Kat (Bjelland of Babes in Toyland fame) took over. It was a great time and it was very easy. I knew Kurt (Cobain) and he was hanging out backstage one night and he was gonna jump onstage with us…it was a good time.
cVc: How involved were you in the songwriting?
RS: I wrote them all. Most of those songs are my lyrics and I wrote the music. Some I co-wrote with Stu Spasm.
cVc: Do you have any plans to reissue any of that stuff?
RS: People have been clamouring for it. We have recovered the masters from Grand Royal (the label founded by The Beastie Boys) and I hope we can get it out. I just need time to focus on it, especially now that people have been talking about it. Now the time is right and there’s an appetite for it.
cVc: You mentioned Grand Royal and they had a good run through most of the nineties; what was your experience like in dealing with them?
RS: We were friends. I mean, we signed the contract on the back of a napkin. It was great and we continue to be great friends and we are on very good terms.
cVc: So you guys are back on the road in support of Freedom Tower; are you happy with the crowd response to the new record?
RS: “Yeah, I mean we don’t have a setlist or anything, but about half the set is the new record and we are enjoying playing it.”
cVc: I wanted to ask you about your minimal drum kit. One of the first things that comes to my mind when thinking of you is your kit…how did you come to play on such a sparse kit?
RS: “That’s all I need. It’s the same kit set-up that I used as a kid and I don’t need more than that. Being great at drums isn’t about the size of the drum kit, it’s about the flavour or the swing…the feeling! Sometimes I will add a rack tom if I am playing with a singer/songwriter or something, but that’s about it.”
cVc: You haven spoken in the past about your love and respect for old-time drummers like Charlie Watts, Mitch Mitchell and Jim Keltner: have you taken anything from their style and incorporated into your own?
RS: “Always. What I take from them is the simple, tasteful and sexy way that they play. Rock n roll drumming should be sexy and those guys had that.
cVc: What is your take on Meg White and her drumming style? She has taken a lot of criticism for not being able to keep time and for having a somewhat child-like technique.
RS: She’s ok. I mean she is a little bit spastic, but she has flare, she has style and sexiness…it works! Playing music should be sexy!
cVc: The Blues Explosion has worked with some notable producers and engineers, such as Steve Albini, Doug Easley and Davis McCain and Jim Waters…which one do you think was able to get the best out of the band?
RS: They all did. Albini did his thing and we did ours…same thing with Waters. The main thing is we did our research before we went in there and things worked out great. Rarely have we been in a position where things didn’t go as planned. This is where it all happens, this is where your babies are born!
cVc: What do you think you would be doing if not for being a musician?
RS: I would be dead! I mean I love film, I love art, I love poetry…but I need this to make my life make sense!
cVc: What is next for you?
RS: Touring with the Blues Explosion for the next while and then I’m going to hook up with Joseph Arthur again...we like working together. But I’m always working on music.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has been an indie rock institution for going on twenty-five years now, and it that time they have seen musical fads come and go but throughout it all they have been a consistently stellar act in a sea of mediocrity. Do yourself a favour, if you haven’t already: get with it!
- Johnny Hooper