Noise Annoys: Jon Spencer on Sings The Hits LP and Irish shows with The Hitmakers
Noise Annoys quizzes the man who brought us Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash about his latest venture, Jon Spencer & The Hitmakers, who play Belfast tomorrow night
QUESTION: When's a 'solo record' not a solo record? Answer: When you're Jon Spencer and you start off writing a record on your own but then end up making it with Sam Coomes from Quasi on synth bass/keys and drummer M. Sord.
Thus, last year's In The Red-backed John Spencer Sings The Hits – a 60s-styled document of all new noisy garage rockings, not a compilation of Mr Spencer's previous achievements – has begat live entity John Spencer & The Hitmakers, featuring the aforementioned personnel ably augmented by his ex-Pussy Galore colleague (not to mention former Sonic Yoofer and sometime Lydia Lunch Retrovirusian) Bob Bert on scrap metal percussion.
As the the band prepared to wind-up their current Euro trek here in Ireland this weekend with shows in Belfast at the Ulster Sports Club tomorrow night and at Whelan's in Dublin on Sunday evening, I caught up with Jon over the phone to find out what's what.
HOW'S the John Spencer & The Hitmakers tour going so far?
It's been going pretty good, thanks. This is our third or fourth time in Europe since the record came out, I think. Last night we played in Rotterdam and we had a very nice show. It was a special treat for us because we got to play with our old friends from New York City, Live Skull.
Sings The Hits is your 'first ever solo record' but it ticks a lot of boxes for folks who have followed your musical career to date, right?
Yeah, I don't think it's that 'way out', for anybody who's ever listened to Pussy Galore, Blues Explosion, Heavy Trash or Boss Hog I don't think this album Spencer Sings The Hits is going to be a huge surprise.
That said, I do like to think that I'm not just re-treading the same old ground, that I'm still moving forward bit by bit.
There was definitely a sound that was in my head before making the record and part of that was the synth bass and very simple guitar stuff – single string runs, the fuzz sound, the feedback.
That's coming from 60s punk and as a nod back to my past in Pussy Galore, the metal percussion that's on the record. And of course The Hitmakers are now playing live with my old friend Bob Bert from Pussy Galore.
What exactly is Bob hitting on up there – does it change nightly depending on what he finds in the alley behind the club?
Nah – he plays trash, but it's the same set of trash every night.
Have these songs gradually mutated from their recorded forms during the tours?
Yes, please let your readers know that they are even more wild now than on the record! And I'm so happy to be playing now not just with Bob but with Sam and Sord who were the guys who helped me make the record.
How integral were the other musicians to the creation and sound of Sings The Hits and why did you choose them?
Well, I wrote the record and then booked the time in the studio and hit up Sord and Sam to play on it. We met up at Key Club in Benton Harbor in Michigan and just went through it song by song.
I had made demos but I didn't play them for Sam or Sord. I would play them the songs and then we would find our way around things and work out an arrangement on the studio floor. So, yes, there were songs written and there were parts, but Sam and Sord each brought their own flavour to the stew.
I'm just so very happy to be playing with this band and this group of musicians. It's fun, but it's also more than fun – it's deeply satisfying on an artistic level. And I can also indulge myself by revisiting songs from Blues Explosion and Pussy Galore and Sam also sings lead on a couple of songs too.
The synth bass sound was something I had in my head and I'd crossed paths with Sam over the years as we were running in the same circles. He's someone I admired greatly, so I decided to ask him: we were at a friend's wedding and I brought it up all casual – "I've got this session coming up, do you want to come out and do it?" – and he just said "OK".
You're probably not someone that many people pass up the chance to work with though, right?
You'd be surprised! There were fits and starts, there were a couple of dead-ends and false leads before this came together.
Is it a misconception that any record bearing the name 'Jon Spencer' involves you calling all the shots in terms of writing/recording?
Well, not the writing. The Blues Explosion was very much a collaboration – the three of us in that band were contributing to the songwriting which was done via jamming, playing. We wrote through action. But, while that was going on, I was the editor or the captain of the ship and also the vocalist, so I was taping the songs, editing the songs, steering the songs.
I've always thought that one of the nice things about playing in a rock and roll band is the opportunity to collaborate, to share ideas – it doesn't have to be solitary mission.
I guess The Hitmakers have been touring for 15 or 16 months now and over that time we've added songs to the set. I'm thinking more and more about what comes next so making another record with these guys from the ground up is something I would very much like to do.
Were you happy to draw a line under the Blues Explosion in the wake of your two strong 'reunion' records?
Initially, no – I wasn't happy. But that was the hand that was dealt [due to guitarist/singer Judah Bauer's illness] and I think we had a good run at the end there. I like those last two records a lot and I think we did some good work over the course of our career.
Finally, do you have any idea of what your actual biggest 'hit' has been, and will these shows be the first time Pussy Galore material has been performed by original members in Ireland?
Like, as in a legitimate 'chart' thing? I don't think I've had one, any time, ever!
I'm just happy that enough people have been interested that I can keep doing this.
As for Pussy Galore, I'm the wrong person to ask about that, I really can't remember if we made it to Ireland. Now, you wanna know about the severed head of a dog – in a bag?... I'm not the right person to ask about that either.
:: Jon Spencer & The Hitmakers with New Pagans, Saturday November 23, Ulster Sports Club, Belfast (tickets via Ticketweb.ie) / with Grave Goods, Sunday November 24, Whelan's, Dublin (tickets via Ticketmaster.ie)