Jon Spencer Runs The Voodoo Down

With a killer new album with The HITmakers, the Blues Explosion Man continues to build his legacy of cool

Jon Spencer: Passion and Warfare (Image: Michael Lavine)

On April 11, celebrated garage-punk pioneer Jon Spencer will hit the road for the first time in more than two years, and he admits he’s a bit nervous about it.

“I’m excited about returning to touring, but also a little apprehensive because, well, what’s it going to be like? Hopefully it’s going to be okay,” he says, calling from his home in Kingston, New York.

He probably doesn’t need to worry, though, because his fans are surely more than ready to come see him perform once more. After more than 30 years of being in revered bands such as Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, he’s long been one of the most revered figures in the indie rock scene. On April 1, his latest band, Jon Spencer and the HITmakers, released their second album, Spencer Gets It Lit! (via In the Red Records), so show attendees will get to witness these songs played live for the first time.

As with the first HITmakers record (2018’s Spencer Sings the Hits), “I wrote all the songs by myself, which is unusual for me,” Spencer says. “For many, many years I wrote with a lot of people – mainly with whatever band I was in. We’d get together in the practice space and write songs that way. But a long, long time ago, when I first started playing in rock and roll bands, I used to write songs by myself, so this is kind of a return to that.”

Jon Spencer and the HITmakers Spencer Gets It Lit!, In The Red Records 2022

The resulting batch of songs are as brilliantly off-kilter and uninhibited as anything Spencer has done before, but with a dash of impromptu introspection thrown into the mix.

“There was definitely a lot going on in the world and in my head with the pandemic, with personal things, with relationships, so that all feeds into it,” Spencer recalls of the time in which he wrote this new material. All the same, he adds, “It’s not my M.O. to sit down and sketch something out or think about, ‘What is my overarching theme for this album?’ I’ve never been a person that is writing out complete lyrics and then putting it to music, with the exception of lines or phrases. I tend to just write and the themes emerge – or I become aware of them.”

Starting with what he terms “very crude demos” using GarageBand on his phone, Spencer recorded the final versions with his band at Key Club Recording Co. in Benton Harbor, Mich., a studio that was already well-familiar to him.

“I’ve made four albums there – with the Blues Explosion, with Boss Hog, and now twice with the HITmakers,” he says. “I fell in love with the studio the first time I’d ever been out there. It’s a fantastic place filled with a lot of amazing equipment – most of it vintage, some of it more modern, some of it hand built by Bill [Skibbe, studio owner]. And Bill is a really fantastic engineer and producer. I think that’s one of the main reasons I keep going back there, is because I really enjoy working with him.”

 

VIDEO: Jon Spencer & The HITmakers “Junkman”

Spencer gives an example of how Skibbe directly helped shape this new album: “I think that for a period of time, maybe there was more stuff that was directly and explicitly about the pandemic, and Bill Skibbe gently steered me away from that. I think it was good advice. You can still write a song about the pandemic or a broken heart or a war and it can be done in a way where it’s not all on the sleeve. It doesn’t have to be explicit. It can be poetic.”

Spencer’s esoteric musical sensibilities started forming when, in his childhood, he began absorbing influences from a dizzyingly diverse list of artists. “I look up to people like [The Fall frontman] Mark E. Smith, James Brown, or Chuck D,” he says. “I’m doing this because I fell in love with rock and roll and punk rock, and it got to be such a thing where that’s all I wanted to do, I just wanted to have my own band. I wanted to make a record like the records that were thrilling me.”

Spencer started weaving all of those sounds into his own distinctive vocal and guitar style that somehow encompasses highbrow and high camp at the same time.

“I don’t really make a distinction between high and low art. If it works, it works,” he continues. “I’ve always been into rough sounds, punk sounds, and garage, so I think that feeling trumps virtuosity. Coming from the gut is important.”

 

VIDEO: Jon Spencer & The HITmakers “Death Ray”

Besides, Spencer adds, this kind of artistic innovation is only natural: “Rock and roll is part of a folk tradition, in that it’s always been about passing things along. People take something they like, grab a line here and there, but they make it their own and put their own twist on it.”

Spencer’s unique musical vision has connected with fans for more than three decades now, and he has a few theories about why that is. “Maybe [it’s] that I feel very strongly about it,” he says. “That I care so deeply. It means everything to me. It’s incredibly important. Maybe people can sense that level of commitment, investment, that that passion that is genuine.”

 

TOUR:

4/11 Buffalo, NY Rec Room

4/12 Toronto, ON Lee’s Palace

4/13 Detroit, MI El Club

4/14 Chicago, IL Schubas

4/15 Milwaukee, WI Back Room at Colectivo

4/16 Minneapolis, MN 7th Street Entry

4/18 Omaha, NE Waiting Room

4/19 Denver, CO Globe Hall

4/20 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge

4/21 Boise, ID Neurolux

4/22 Portland, OR Dantes

4/23 Vancouver, BC Fox Cabaret

4/24 Seattle, WA Madame Lou’s (The Crocodile Second Stage)

4/26 San Francisco, CA Bottom of the Hill

4/27 Los Angeles, CA The Echo

4/28 San Diego, CA Casbah

4/29 Tucson, AZ 191 Toole

4/30 Phoenix, AZ Valley Bar

5/01 Santa Fe, NM Tumbleroot Brewery & Distillery

5/02 Colorado Springs, CO The Black Sheep

5/03 Wichita, KS Wave

5/04 Kansas City, MO Record Bar

5/05 St. Louis, MO Blueberry Hill Duck Room

5/06 Indianapolis, IN Hi-Fi

5/07 Louisville, KY Zanzabar

5/08 Charlottesville, VA The Southern

 

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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover, Aquarian Weekly, Stomp & Stammer, Creative Loafing, Jam Magazine, Color Red, Boston Rock, and many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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