Jon Spencer has been making punk and garage rock for more than 30 years. That began with Pussy Galore in 1985 in Washington, D.C. and continued with later bands like Heavy Trash and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Now, he’s on his own. He has incredibly talented support from Quasi frontman Sam Coomes, M. Sord and his former Pussy Galore bandmate Bob Bert, but his latest record is officially the debut under his own name. Jon Spencer Sings the Hits! was released at the end of 2018. There’s no major difference in sound, but it’s the first time that Spencer has found himself largely writing on his own.
Before his return to Birmingham, he talked about that shift and where his other projects stand.
Why was now the time to release your first “solo” record?
I wanted to get back on the road. I wanted to get back to work. I didn’t have a band of my own anymore; both Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash had kind of run their course. I was working with Boss Hog, and we made what I think was a really great record; the album Brood X, which came out a couple of years ago. And we did some touring, but I missed having a band of my own. Rather than search around for players and put something together and start practicing, I thought I’d make the record first and then start playing.
So, yeah, I wanted to get back to work. And it’s not like this is a huge shift. The reason I used my name is because it was a shortcut; the quickest and easiest way to tell people what to expect when they put the needle to the record.
Does that mean that Blues Explosion completely dissolved at this point or…?
Ehh. We didn’t dissolve. Our last record was Freedom Tower in 2015, and we were in the middle of a big, long touring cycle and Judah Bauer got sick. We had to cancel everything. Judah’s okay – he’s doing alright – but he can’t go out on a tour. He can’t work like that anymore. So there was never any full stop or any official announcement. But I think for my own sanity and to just get on with my life, I had to think like, “Okay. This is done. I need to put it down, put it to bed and move on.” I couldn’t keep waiting around.
And you’re calling this band the Hitmakers?
Yeah, I had Sam Coomes and M. Sord – the two guys that played on the record with me, the rhythm section that played on the record with me, and we’re really happy to have them playing live. And we’re joined by my friend Bob Bert – Bob was in Pussy Galore with me a long time ago in the ’80s. We’re now on our third tour. The record was under my name and I guess [laughs] I just started calling them the Hitmakers. I’m a sucker for a band. I like being in a band. I like groups. So, yes, that’s the name of this one. Sure.
When it was time to make this record, did you write in a different way? Did you sit down with the intention of writing “Jon Spencer” songs or were these songs that had long existed in some form and you honed in on them a bit and formed a collection of tracks?
I guess there had been a year and a half or a couple of years where I wasn’t doing my own thing and maybe the ideas had been percolating. I did write by myself, and that’s unusual. Typically, I would write with the rest of the band. I like to collaborate with people. But, like I said, I didn’t have a band.
I had a sound in my head. There were things in my head which I knew I wanted on the record, such as the metal percussion, such as the simple guitar lines, the fuzz guitar, the feedback, a heavy influence from ’60s garage rock. And I wanted to use a synth instead of an electric bass guitar. There were things that were in my head, but I don’t think there was a greater theme. I wasn’t trying to write what you called “quintessential Jon Spencer songs,” I was just trying to write things that tickled my fancy.
Will you still be exploring the entire catalog? Pussy Galore onward? Or will the live show focus mainly on the new material?
Yeah, yeah. We play everything from the album. We do some Pussy Galore songs, we do some Blues Explosion songs, we do Heavy Trash songs, Sam Coomes does a couple of his songs. So we’re definitely exploring some history, for sure.
On most of your trips to Birmingham, you’ve played Brian Teasley’s clubs – you played BottleTree often, you’ll be playing Saturn this time. Did you ever play with any of his bands? Did you play shows with Man or Astro-Man?
Sure! Oh yeah. We shared bills with Man or Astro-Man? many times, yes.
Last time we played Birmingham, we played some kind of weird, interim space because the Saturn wasn’t ready yet and the BottleTree had closed. So I’ve never actually seen Saturn and I’m excited to see it. BottleTree was a really nice place. We’ll also be playing with Dan Sartain – a guy that I go back with. I’m very much looking forward to this gig.
How is music different today than when you were playing with Pussy Galore?
Honestly, not much. It still moves me in the same way. I think it still affects anybody and everybody in the same way. I suppose the way that it is distributed and consumed has changed a great deal, but that’s packaging.
I think I had my finger on the pulse more when I was in Pussy Galore. I’m older. Things are different for me and what I’m looking for out of a group or a record or a night out.
You’ve always done this with a DIY approach, so I guess maybe that’s why it hasn’t changed for you, necessarily.
That’s true. I learned the ropes from hardcore; the American hardcore scene is where I saw the light and learned how to do stuff. There were bands and individuals that have been a great help and a guiding hand and big influence along the way. It’s probably not the best business plan, but I’m not doing it for business. I’m doing it for aesthetics; I’m doing it for art. It’s my passion. It’s still just like it was in the beginning; I like playing in a band. It’s not about getting a gold Cadillac or a swimming pool; it’s something that’s in me and it’s got to come out in some way.
Is there anyone new out there today that’s making punk or hardcore that you’re inspired by?
The first one that pops into my mind is a group from Italy called The Devils. They’re on Voodoo Rhythm. It’s a duo; a man and a woman. They play almost a metal, thrash kind of Cramps punk. I really enjoy them a lot.
What is the biggest problem in America today?
The current administration and the people that are enabling the current administration.
Did you ever think that someone from your backyard – New York City – would connect to middle America the way that the president has?
The whole thing is bizarre and ridiculous. People in New York City have lived with this fool for decades. It’s always been that way; he’s always been a fool. That he has portrayed himself as someone for the common man and for the working people, it’s unbelievable. It’s shameful. My son is grown – he’s 21 – but I keep coming back to, if my son was young like so many other parents that have a young child, “This is the example?” What are you supposed to say to a young child?
Jon Spencer comes to Saturn on Thursday, January 17. Birmingham’s own Dan Sartain opens the show. Doors open at 8 p.m., and the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15.