Still #1: Jon Spencer On His Debut Solo Album Spencer Sings the Hits!

Troy Nelson
photo by Michael Lavine
Transcription by Molly Wyman
"Thirty-plus years of doing this rock n roll thing and still going."

It's hard to wrap our heads around the fact that Jon Spencer is releasing his debut solo album Spencer Sings the Hits! this Friday via In the Red Records. After all, this is the man who's been bringing his sinewy style and distinctive bark to bands like Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, Heavy Trash, and (of course) The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion since 1985. But, it's true: for the first time ever, Spencer is solo.

It's not like he's completely alone though: Spencer Sings The Hits! was recorded at the Key Club Recording Company in Benton Harbor, MI with the help of the Northwest's own Sam Coomes (Quasi, Heatmeiser) and M. Sord (No Monster Club). Fans will be thrilled to hear the familiar sultry, slinky garage rock stomp and howling vocals that have defined his style for these past few decades. There's even a nod to his Pussy Galore days with some clanking metal percussion. (“Nothing like digging the gas tank from an old Chevy out of a Michigan junkyard snowbank in January,” Spencer said via a press release. “The junkyard owner kept asking me if the metal was for a school project, but as a bluegrass player he could understand the possible use for a recording session.”

KEXP DJ Troy Nelson got a chance to catch up with Spencer to discuss the new album, the recording process, and yes, Baby Driver.

KEXP: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with me. I've been wondering, what is in Benton Harbor, Michigan? You could have recorded your new solo album anywhere in the world, but you chose Benton Harbor, Michigan. I've never even heard of it. 

Jon Spencer: What is there? The Key Club Recording Company is located in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and that's where I went there to record Spencer Sings the Hits and that's really the only reason I've ever been there. This is not my first time working at the Key Club. First time ever there was a few years ago on an Andre William session. That was during a Heavy Trash tour and at the time Heavy Trash was playing with The Sadies, the great Canadian band. So, we had a day off and that was good because The Sadies had set up a session to record some stuff with Andre, and that was the first time I ever worked at the Key Club and I just fell in love with the place. It's a fantastic studio with a great collection of beautiful vintage gear and a nice space. Beautiful facility, and you can stay, there are apartments above the studio. And the company that runs the place —  Jessica Ruffins and Bill Skibbe — are the nicest people, and Bill is a great engineer. So when I had the chance, you know, for a few times now, I've gone back there. That's where the Blues Explosion [recorded the] Meat and Bone album. That's where Boss Hog recorded and mixed their most recent album, Brood X

So, you really just love this studio. 

Yes, it's a great studio. Benton Harbor itself is kind of a sad, rundown place. It's basically a ghetto, I guess. It used to be kind of a thriving small city, but that was many, many years ago. So there's not really much to do there. The reason you go there is to get to use the studio. At least for me. It is right on the shores of Lake Michigan so, you know, if the weather's nice you can go swimming. 

And, you know, like I said, they have quite a collection of interesting and beautiful old equipment. The crown jewel of which was the Flickinger console that was built specifically for Sly Stone for the album There's a Riot Goin' On. So yeah, it's a lot of great sound, and it's very clever, with sympathetic and nice engineers. 

So, did Sam Coomes come all the way out there? Was he there with you the whole time? What was his role in this recording? 

Sam plays all of the keyboards. I wanted to have bass on this record but I didn't want to have a traditional rock n roll, strings, electric bass. I wanted to have a synthesizer bass. So, I had written the songs before this album session, and I wanted to have a proper band. I needed a rhythm section for tracking the album. Because I wanted to have bass synth I needed a keyboard player, and Sam is somebody I've known for a few years. I'm a big fan of his and Quasi. So it seemed like this could be a great opportunity to work with one of my heroes. By the way, it was very casual. We were at a mutual friend's wedding, and I just said "Hey, I got this record I'm going to be making in a month and a half or a couple months. Do you want to come play on the session?" Sam said, you know, "Yeah, sure." It was pretty easy. 

Had he been familiar with the Key Club? 

I don't think Sam had ever been there before, no. So, Sam is the keyboard player. He's the bass man, and then the guy playing the drums is kind of a local boy, M. Sord, and he lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which isn't too far away. M. Sord is somebody that I got to know just from earlier trips out to the Key Club. He's a guy who has kind of worked as an assistant engineer at times, and other times he's done construction projects and a renovation project with the studio, and he also will drum. You know, he's a really good drummer, and that's something I discovered. So yeah, Sam was the other part of this little band. 

Do you know if Sam is still living in Portland? 

Yes. Sam is still in Portland, OR. Yes. 

And you've been in New York City this whole time. Have you been in New York City for your entire career? 

Yes. I mean, not the entire time. Pussy Galore started in Washington, D.C. so, I guess, the very, very beginning was not in New York City, but I've lived in New York City for a very long time now — most of my life at this point. Over thirty years. So yeah, New York City is always the base. 

It's funny because I associate you with New York City. If I hear your music or read an article or just even see a photo of you, I think of New York City. That's how much I associate you with New York City. I feel like it just comes through you for some reason. 

I'll take that as a compliment. Thanks. Yeah. Troy, were you the person that was in the studio for that Boss Hog session? 

Yeah, actually I interviewed you for that. Yeah. 

You were the host. Your voice sounded familiar. It's nice to speak to you again. 

You handed me your guitar as you were walking away while the band was still playing. 

And you showed me up. You're quite a guitar player. 

[laughs] There was some finger tapping. I don't even know what was happening. I don't know. I was just like, "I guess I'm gonna just start playing." That was a ton of fun and made for a great memory. Thank you for that. That was a fantastic in-studio. I loved that. 

You're a good sport, and that's such a beautiful new facility you have. 

Yeah, we're lucky to have it, and to have all this room for the bands to move around and be creative.  Actually, we have an interesting connection outside of that you let me play guitar with Boss Hog for two minutes. I married a person whose mother is married to Barrett Jones. 

We talked about this, yeah. And, this is connected in a way to my new album Spencer Sings the Hits because there are some definite nods to my past with Pussy Galore on this new album. Things such as the metal percussion is the most obvious one, and also the kind of heavy influence of '60s garage punk. Barrett was the person who was the recording engineer for the first two Pussy Galore records. We did them at his old Laundry Room Studio I think in, I think it was, Arlington, Virginia. 

He still calls it Laundry Room Studio to this day. That would have been in '88? 


Thirty-plus years of doing this rock n roll thing and still going. 


Do you ever think about as just, it's who I am? Do you just really love it? Or is it both? 

Maybe a little bit of both. I guess I don't really think about it in those terms, per se, but, yeah, I mean this album came out of a very quiet period. Yeah, Boss Hog put a record out last year or the year before. You know, recently, but Boss Hog didn't do some great big touring or tour all around the world. We did some, but we can't tour like crazy because everybody has jobs. So, as much as I love Boss Hog, it's not a full-time thing. And the Blues Explosion was no longer working, so, you know. And also I kind of put the brakes on Heavy Trash, so I really missed having a band. I was pining for some of that fat action. 

"So, this record was coming out of that, I guess, period of mourning and that period of longing."

Sort of the chemistry and the comradery? 

Well, yeah. But it's not like I went out and formed a band. I did it the other way around. I wrote the songs for myself and then made a record first. And so the very first shows we ever did with this new thing was this summer. We did a run, two or three weeks, in the Midwest, and half the dates were supporting the Melvins. It was a different way of going about things. But, yeah, there was a period of time where I really missed having a band. I wanted to be in a rock n roll band. So this record was coming out of that, I guess, period of mourning and that period of longing. 

Obviously, I know that a lot of other interviewers have asked you about the whole Baby Driver situation, but I was playing "Bellbottoms" on the air before I knew about the movie. And then my 17-year-old DJ assistant said, "Oh, this is the song from that new movie." I was like, "That's where you know this song from?"


So, when the younger generation hears that song, to them, it's that song that's in that movie. Was it interesting for you to see this resurgence of people really loving that song again? It's almost like it had new life breathed into it. 

It's certainly been a wonderful thing. The whole experience has been pretty wonderful. I mean, the Blues Explosion is not playing shows, so I can't really get a sense of it. It's not like I can say, "Oh, yeah. We played Pittsburgh the other week and there were twice as many people as two years ago." But that said, one of my neighbors stopped me in the building and mentioned it to me. So, on that level — on all levels — it's been nice. 

It must be so weird to think back to when you were recording that song and you're listening to it back in the studio and you think, "Hey, that sounds great. I like this." And the record comes out and people love it and then years go by and you move on and you do new records. Then, all of a sudden, something from 20 years ago is being talked about again, and it's in a movie. I can't imagine what that would feel like. 

It feels very... it's great. I mean, it feels very nice. Especially because I'm someone whose life has been changed by records that were made decades ago. Albums by people like the Stooges or the Velvet Underground. Listening to music, that, when I was listening to it, was a lot less popular than it is now. In the time since, both of those acts have kind of grown in stature and garnered some much-deserved recognition. So there's been so many instances where I've had my head turned around by old or lost or forgotten material. So, yeah, it's very nice and you were talking about, like, the passage of time, and one thing that's worth noting is that Edgar Wright — the writer and director of Baby Driver —  had the idea for that opening scene since, I think, since the first time you heard that song in '94 or '95. When I first met Edgar in 2005, that was one of the first things he said to me was that he wanted to use that song for a film. So he's kicking that idea around for a long time [laughs]. Yeah, it is pretty amazing what he did with it. 

Yeah. I just find it to be so strange that it's the same song. Nothing changed. It just kind of felt like it had a resurgence. 

Hey, you don't gotta sell the Blues Explosion to me. I always believed we were a great band. I always felt like we were number one. So yeah, damn right it feels nice for people to stand up and take some notice. 

You were talking about records that changed your life when you were growing up and listening to the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, or The Cramps or whoever it may be. Whatever those records did to you, I just want to tell you, personally, that Now I Got Worry [Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's 1996 LP] was one of those records for me when I was 15, 16 years old. 

Thank you. 

It also got me familiar with and interested in Matador Records, and when I turned 19 or 20, I actually got an internship at Matador Records. And I was there for about six months. 

And what year was that? 

So that would have been... You actually walked into the offices one time and I was just too young and, like, oh my god, just scared of you. I was a small town kid from the Midwest in New York City and I was just overwhelmed with everything, but it was actually '98 or '99 because right around that time you opened up for Alex Chilton from Big Star. 

It was the other way around. We took Alex out as a support act for a couple of weeks and that was one of those... So, you saw the show in New York City at Roseland? 

Exactly. Yes. 

Yeah, that was one of those, kind of, bitter pills to swallow. I mean, we were huge fans of Alex Chilton. It was really disappointing to see that people who were coming to see the Blues Explosion weren't really that interested in seeing Alex Chilton. That was sort of the first time something like that had happened. So maybe it was our audience was changing or... I don't know. But yeah, Alex was interesting to tour with. It was an interesting experience. 

I don't really remember the crowd. I guess I remember them being kind of quiet for Alex. 

Yeah, just sort of disinterested. But, to be honest, Alex Chilton was sort of disinterested in playing those shows. He had a "take it or leave it" attitude. A couple of the shows were in Canada and Alex would drive around by himself. He had a big, old '70s car and his rhythm section traveled in another vehicle, and Alex got turned away at the border. Canada wouldn't let him in. It was just like, okay. So, he just went and hung out in a motel for a couple of days and re-joined the tour in Buffalo or wherever the next stop was.

The only song that Alex would do that seemed to get a big response was the song is that was used for that TV show [ed note: "In the Street" was used as the theme song for That '70's Show]. So it's kind of similar to "Bellbottoms," you know. People really had no clue about it but then it's like, "Oh, it's that song from that movie," and the people in the crowd then were saying, "Oh, it's that song from that TV show." But Alex Chilton, every night before he played it, would introduce it as such. He was making sure that everybody caught it. 

I have a feeling that if the Blues Explosion was currently touring, or during that Baby Driver time, I think you would have seen a boost in reaction when you are playing that song. It would be funny to see. 

Also, I want to say that I think it was very important and very cool that you sort of brought R.L. Burnside more to the forefront. I thought that was an amazing thing, and it led me to people like T-Model Ford and the whole Fat Possum [Records] scene. I really think that you were responsible for a lot of younger people getting into these old blues guys that deserved more attention. What was your experience with that? Have you heard that from people? 

Oh yeah. The Blues Explosion was sort of a gateway drug, yeah. I've definitely heard this before. 

You worked with him, right? 

With R.L.? We toured together off and on, and we made a record together A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. Yes, we most definitely worked together. Yeah, that was very nice to see. You know, I guess that was earlier in the arc of the Blues Explosion. Maybe the difference between what R.L. was doing what Alex Chilton was doing at the time, or maybe the difference between the type of people who were coming to see the Blues Explosion in '94 versus the people coming to see the Blues Explosion in '99. But it was so nice to see people coming out at those shows, and I don't think most people, the great majority of those people had probably never heard of R.L. Burnside or heard any kind of blues like that before, and he won them over every night. People just went for him in such a big way, and it was so nice to see that. It was just a real testament to his music. 

Spencer Sings the Hits! is out this Friday via In the Red Records.

DJ Troy Nelson can be found on the airwaves Saturday afternoons from 3:00 to 6:00 PM PT.

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