Soul benefactors 

Of all the indie-rock warhorses that galloped across the underground of the '90s, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is still a sure bet when it comes to stripped-down, adrenalized raunch & roll. Frontman/guitarist Jon Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins whooped and hollered their way through numerous singles and several successful long-plays before backing up hill-country bluesman R.L. Burnside for 1996's "A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey."

For their latest album, "Acme," they drew on a coterie of iconoclastic producers including Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey), Calvin Johnson (Dub Narcotic Sound System) and Jim Dickinson (Big Star) to record the tracks. Their raw recordings were given to remix scientists such as Dan "The Automator" Nakemura (Dr. Octagon), T Ray (Cypress Hill) and Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot).

But it's the band's current predilection for Memphis-soul aesthetics that makes the album groove. Spencer left behind the gratuitous shout-outs of 1996's "Now I Got Worry" to try on a variety of chitlin-circuit dialects, from falsetto-Elvis croons to echo-heavy Jerry Lee Lewis howls. Simins' Stax-snare slaps provide a steady foundation for the band's growing fondness for Hammond organ and Muscle Shoals-style choruses.

The process of choosing the appropriate producers and remixers for the tracks was a challenge. Bauer says that it turned out to be "a pretty convoluted process," which isn't surprising, considering the eclectic mix they ended up with. Some people picked what they wanted to do, while in other instances the band made the assignment.

Bauer was a Midwestern punk who picked up his first guitar at 15. He was inspired by the "No Wave," detuned-guitar approach of Sonic Youth and the undisciplined caterwaul of a group called Pussy Galore, which happened to be Spencer's band at the time. "That was a good band because obviously it was more of a racket than anything else," says Bauer. "I knew it was cool, but I just could not understand what they were doing. I listened to it all of the time so it must have soaked in."

By the time Bauer hit New York City in 1989, Spencer already had began writing his own chapter in indie-rock folklore. The Brown University dropout's interest in trashy movies and trashier music had led to the formation of Pussy Galore, a band that provoked extreme reactions -- positive and negative -- from the alt-rock establishment.

But Pussy Galore didn't last. Spencer hooked up with Simins and Bauer to jam on Spencer's new vision of rock & roll raunch. "I wasn't really into playing rock & roll back then," says Bauer. "I was more into No Wave and experimental kind of stuff. I thought I'd try it out for a while, and I got into it more and more and it became a pretty solid band."

That solidity kept the band together throughout the '90s. The Blues Explosion has always followed its own muse, and its mid-decade explorations of the music of northern Mississippi reaffirmed its fierce determination to remain that way.

Along the way, Bauer dug deeper to experience the fife-and-drum music that begat hill-county blues, and he recorded with its greatest progenitor, Other Turner. The sessions grew into a side project that Bauer dubbed 20 Miles, a place for him to explore his interest in country and bluegrass, styles that don't necessarily explode enough for Spencer.

But no one ever said the Blues Explosion was about blues in the first place, although the nature of the name misled one Rolling Stone writer to accuse the band of being racially insensitive parodists. "We never said we played the blues," says Bauer. "I'm sure it does get confusing with our affiliation -- playing with R.L. -- and just the amount of blues that influences the band and all that. It's not really a big deal."

More by Matt Kelemen


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