IT'S NOT that Jon Spencer has left Blues Explosion. It's just that after 14 years, Spencer's name no longer adorns the raucous post-punk trio featuring fellow guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins.
"We've always been a band," Spencer said over the phone recently from London as Blues Explosion concluded a tour of Europe and Japan. "It's not like there's any big dramatic change that took place in the last year. It's just something that felt right to me. I don't have a better answer than that."
Blues Explosion, touring to support its new album, "Damage," has always been a big deal outside America. Here it remains something of a cult band, albeit one with a rabid following built over years of incendiary live shows that verge on anarchy.
Blues Explosion, Spencer confirms, has had a bit of an easier time overseas. "We're afforded more opportunities, and it seems we get a little more respect away from home. Why that is, I don't know. It's a question that's certainly bedeviled me, though I don't think I've lost any sleep over it. I feel very lucky to still be doing this with this band -- we do what we want, we've made our own path. . . . But it does sting a little bit."
Spencer's diplomatic about something else that stings a little bit: the attention being paid to eclectic/electric duos like the White Stripes, Black Keys, even Mr. Airplane Man -- bands with stripped-down, unorthodox lineups playing raw blues-inspired, punk-informed rock, a genre that Blues Explosion pretty much invented in the early '90s with its bass-less twin-guitar/drum format. It was Blues Explosion that first melded classic blues and R&B with '70s punk and served it up in an alternative wrap. All these years later, the group is still closer to the underground than to the mainstream, except in places like Spain, where it was part of the annual Black Music Festival devoted to Afro-American-rooted music. That festival made room for a primitivist bill consisting of Blues Explosion, Bob Logg III (who pounds a bass drum while playing guitar) and Detroit's Soledad Brothers.
"I think it's important to remember that there's always been good rock 'n' roll bands pushing the real rock 'n' roll," Spencer says, "and some are in fashion now."
Given the irony of the band's name -- it's never been about standard blues as much as blues attitude underpinning anarchic rock 'n' roll energy -- why not give it a more appropriate handle?
"With 'blues' in the name of the band, that [expletive] up people," Spencer concedes. "Also, I think there's some contradictions at the heart of what we do, conflicting elements -- crazy is another way of putting it -- and to me, that's part of rock 'n' roll. And I think that's confusing for some people" who can't tell if it's a put-on or mere madness.
According to Spencer, "There's a great life to what we do, a great joy in our music, I believe, and I think in the U.S. there's a tendency to see that as a joke, to discredit it. I think there's a lot more attention given to what young people call rock 'n' roll by 'serious' artists like Bruce Springsteen; but for me, rock 'n' roll is Little Richard . . . and he's crazy!"
Ironically, that kind of crazy rock was not the soundtrack of Spencer's early years in rural New Hampshire, where his first instrument was . . . the banjo.
"When I was a kid, I didn't really listen to rock 'n' roll music," Spencer explains. "My older siblings weren't big music fans, and at the time and place I grew up, rock 'n' roll seemed very uninteresting. But when I hit adolescence, I began looking for something, and I got a subscription to Heavy Metal magazine [the illustrated fantasy magazine started in the late 1970s]. I won it in an art contest in school," he adds.
"They used to have a music column in the magazine and this guy would write about the Residents and Devo and Kraftwerk, and I began to send away for those records by mail order. That was the first kind of music I fell in love with, so I was into the strange sounds and the science fiction element."
In the early '80s, Spencer graduated from banjo to guitar and from high school to Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he studied semiotics and formed the first of several bands. It's also where a friend turned him on to "Back From the Grave Vol. 1." Which explains pretty much everything, because you're not going to hear Kraftwerk or Devo influences in Blues Explosion. But you will hear the raw and decidedly obscure '60s garage punk celebrated on "Vol. 1" and seven subsequent "Back From the Grave" vinyl collections from Crypt Records (reissued as four CDs in 1997), "bands that were playing like the Rolling Stones when the Rolling Stones were playing like Muddy Waters," according to Spencer. "It made me think I could play guitar, and it made rock 'n' roll seem interesting and open and possible."
In 1985, Spencer moved to Washington with another Brown undergrad, Julia Cafritz, and they founded Pussy Galore, named after Honor Blackman's character in the James Bond film "Goldfinger." Eight months later, the band moved to a more hospitable New York, where it became known for its noisy mix of metal, art-rock and anger, two EPs with titles that will never make it into a family newspaper and a track-by-track cover of the Rolling Stones' classic "Exile on Main Street." The band eventually split, with Spencer heading off to Boss Hog (with wife Cristina Martinez) and then the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, while Cafritz went on to STP and the Action Swingers, and guitarist Neil Hagerty formed Royal Trux with Jennifer Herrema.
If rock was a late discovery, blues came even later, Spencer says.
"In the same way that rock 'n' roll was a big turnoff to me when I was a kid, I didn't see anything special in it. It wasn't until I was much older and really fell in love with music and had it really sort of save my life, that friends turned me on to Muddy Waters and R.L. Burnside and Howlin' Wolf, and that's when it hit me that it could be this really powerful form of expression, the same thing as with '60s garage punk, or even the Residents."
Still, Spencer has spent more than a decade explaining that the group was never actually a blues band.
"Blues Explosion has never been a conceptual project, like we're presenting a take on the blues or we're going to reinvent the blues," Spencer explains patiently. "It was a ball, fun to do! This is a rock 'n' roll band, and it wouldn't be so without the blues. And we do take a definite influence from the blues . . . .
"But we're freaky, totally spazzed out and even in the beginning the band was totally bizarre, amped up and freaked out," he adds proudly. "It was a lot closer to No Wave than what we do now, a rock 'n' roll band. That's why I called it the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion -- that was the crazy rock 'n' roll name that seemed very much in the spirit of early rock 'n' roll."
That spirit has become more accessible on the band's recent records, beginning with 2002's "Plastic Fang," produced by drummer Steve Jordan, whose credits include Keith Richards, B.B.. King, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and David Sanborn. Jordan, the first outsider to handle production duties for Blues Explosion, generated the rootsiest and grooviest album in the band's catalogue.
Jordan contributes to "Damage," which also features production help from Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins), David Holmes, Dan the Automator (who did some cut-and-paste work on 1999's "Xtra-Acme USA" album) and DJ Shadow. Shadow (aka Josh Davis) shepherded "Fed Up and Low Down," assembled from sampled bits to sound like an electro-blues mash-up.
"It's a bit unusual for us because we wrote the song with him and we've never really done much like that, collaborating with a producer or writing with other people," Spencer says. "But it was a great experience to work with Shadow and also to have [saxophonist] James Chance on the song as well. It's a pretty good combination, and the song sounds like everybody that's involved!"
Ironically, only a few songs on "Damage" feature the trio lineup. The guest list even extends to vocalists: Martina Topley-Bird on the dub/blues "Spoiled" and legendary rapper Chuck D on "Hot Gossip." The latter collaboration came about after last year's Martin Scorsese-produced "Year of the Blues" tribute concert at Radio City Music Hall.
"That we were asked to participate was a great thrill and great honor," says Spencer, adding that "we shared a dressing room with Chuck D that night and he casually suggested doing something together. He's a real hero of mine -- Public Enemy were one of my favorite all-time bands -- and when we were working on this record we had this song, 'Hot Gossip.' It was sort of a soul instrumental and we were just kicking it, and Steve Jordan was talking about possible collaborators and one of the names he threw out was Chuck D. When I finally put words to 'Hot Gossip,' it became a political song and then it made sense that this was the song for Chuck D and we called."
BLUES EXPLOSION -- Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club with the Rogers Sisters. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Blues Explosion, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)