Jon Spencer, front man for the way-past-cool Blues Explosion, still says “rock ‘n’ roll” without irony — and with plenty of machismo — because he just believes in it.
Even if playing it loses audiences and confounds music critics.
“We’ve always been a rock ‘n’ roll band, and we’re still doing it,” Spencer noted in a recent phone interview. The Blues Explosion have been labeled everything from blues-punk to neo-soul to techno-rock over the past decade.
“Besides the name, we weren’t so much about the blues,” he admits now. “We’re not a calculated synthesis of any musical genre, especially the blues.”
And while Spencer says he isn’t interested in tearing down his rock-critic-anointed brethren The White Stripes — who shot to prominence working one of many styles, blues-punk, that JSBE has perfected over the years — and other groups, he admits to some professional jealousy.
“It’d be nice to be getting all the hype those bands are getting, but we had a share of that before,” he offers. “It bothers me when people make comparisons between the Blues Explosion and other bands, but we had it coming. Now [that The White Stripes are] the flavor of the month, we are being compared to them.”
But Spencer, who lists rock ‘n’ roll and the space program as two of the greatest American achievements, continues to see his band — their new album, Plastic Fang (Matador, 2002), is a dark mess exquisitely recorded by rock veterans Steve Jordan and Don Smith — as something different.
“Some of these bands have a real pop angle to them,” he points out. “There’s a division; [there’s] just less pop in some of the stuff we do.”
Not that he doesn’t appreciate the fresh faces.
“They’re cool,” he continues, diluting his vitriol. “But there’s a je ne sais quois, a certain element missing — and that’s the rock ‘n’ roll.
“But,” he adds quickly, “there’s room for all kinds of music. [There’s] even … room for disco.”
Spencer, who realizes the Blues Explosion’s twists and turns throughout the decade have angered and confused fans and critics alike, sees his band as following in the tradition of Little Richard, Elvis and other important rock ‘n’ roll artists who remain alternately revered and hated.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do with us, so they tear us down,” he admits. “True rock ‘n’ roll is shocking and sometimes confrontational. It turned a lot of people on, and confused and frightened some people.”
Plastic Fang, released a year ago this month, was the Blues Explosion’s first album since 1998’s sample-sprinkled Acme (Matador), which ended a productive, widely recognized two-year period that also included a more traditional effort (1996’s Now I Got Worry, Matador) and a popular side collaboration with bluesman R.L. Burnside. That unlikely pairing yielded 1996’s Ass Pocket of Whisky, solidifying the connection between Oxford, Miss.-based Fat Possum Records’ roster of Social Security recipients and college kids rediscovering the blues.
Those who know Spencer solely from that two-year sliver of an almost 20-year career (Spencer’s 1980s band, Pussy Galore, has even more claim to igniting the blues-punk sound) may persist in filing him with the Moby who made Play (V2 Records, 1999), a financially successful marriage of vintage-gospel field recordings and congenial electronica.
But Plastic Fang, with the band employing a producer for the first time, shows that Spencer casts his net further than the blues revivalists he shares sentences with in Rolling Stone.
“They’re just a lot of songs about monsters and ugly creatures,” he offers. “There’s a strong history of that in rock ‘n’ roll. When we were working on [the album], it was my perception that it was a dark record with songs about shame and guilt.”
While the album doesn’t feature the sampling and 12-bar patterns that defined the band for most fans, many songs, from “She Said” to “Money Rock ‘n’ Roll,” show that Spencer is entrenched in a deeper, more comprehensive America than even classic blues reveals.
With his last show in Asheville coming just after his 1998 album — and in the middle of a surprise snowstorm — Spencer’s performance this time, in a larger venue and a changed city, should be an appropriate opportunity to demonstrate a refined sound.
Spencer, who strongly criticized the current war in Iraq during the phone interview, said the show will be a good antidote to the 24-hour news coverage of events in the Persian Gulf.
“What we need,” he believes, “is less talk about bombs and ships and planes and more music.”