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Jon Spencer & the HITmakers Defy Rock 'n' Roll Gravity

Following up 2018's Spencer Sings the Hits!, prolific gunk-punk dynamo Jon Spencer returned last year with the second HITmakers album, Spencer Gets It Lit. After the Blues Explosion quietly broke up in 2016, Spencer moved to Kingston, New York and formed his new band, the HITmakers, a supergroup comprised of underground heroes Bob Bert (Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth), Sam Coomes (Quasi, The Donner Party), and Mike Gard (M. Sord, Boss Hog). Ahead of his return to Rochester, we went one-on-one with Spencer to learn all about the formation of the HITmakers, meeting Alex Chilton in the '90s, and the how the classic Blues Explosion track "Bellbottoms" planted the seed for Edgar Wright's high-octane film, Baby Driver.

Photo by Michael Lavine

When the original NYC underground-rock legend Jon Spencer released Spencer Sings the Hits, it was credited as his first solo album, but is really the first HITmakers album with Sam Coomes playing keyboards, M. Sord on percussion, and Bob Bert eventually joining the on-stage lineup to play trash — literally, Bert is armed with a hammer in each hand and pounds on car springs, gas tanks, exhaust pipes, and more, bringing the band's dirty roadhouse rock 'n' roll even deeper into the mud. Like Pussy Galore's Dial 'M' For Motherfucker or the Blues Explosion's Orange, Spencer Gets It Lit is more of a proper introduction to his new band.


Released through In the Red Records, Spencer Gets It Lit is a variation on the classic frontman's long-established raucous fusion of swampy blues rock, scrappy noise rock, and hard-grooving garage punk that drips with radioactive soul. The opening cut "Junk Man" is loaded with a wave of primal distortion that courses through the spine. "Get It Right Now" is a greasy manic number that's propelled by Spencer's hyperactive vocals and demonic swagger. "Death Ray" injects the spirit of early '70s Beefheart punctuated by Coomes' squirting lo-fi keyboard lines, Sord's no-frills backbeat, and Bert's percussive noise. The blistering "Primary Baby" is weaponized with sci-fi skronk while "Worm Town" takes the fractured, burn-it-down boogie of the Blues Explosion and melds it with narcotic psychedelia. The closer "Get up & Do It" is a deconstructed, tongue-in-cheek basement blues party skronk that's reminiscent of the Blues Explosion's past collaborations with Delta blues legend R.L. Burnside.


Ahead of his return to Rochester for a show with local stunt rockers Aweful Kanawl, we went one-on-one with Spencer to learn all about the formation of the HITmakers, touring with Alex Chilton, and the how the Blues Explosion track "Bellbottoms" planted the seed for Edgar Wright's high-octane film, Baby Driver.

Paperface Zine: What was the vision when forming the HITmakers and how has this band felt different compared to your previous bands like Blues Explosion or Boss Hog?


Jon Spencer: So it's funny because Spencer Gets It Lit is actually the second HITmakers album, even though our debut Spencer Plays the Hits was only attributed to me, which I have no idea why. But with this new record, we added a new member, M. Sord, who's played in Boss Hog. With the Blues Explosion, we did tour our last album [2015's Freedom Tower-No Wave Dance Party], but a member of the band got sick and that grinded it to a halt. I moped around for a few years and tried to start some projects with people that I admire, but nothing happened. Instead of trying to form a band I thought, why not record an album, write an album and have that be the first chess move. I wrote a batch of songs and reached out to a few people who I thought were great musicians and had sympathetic personalities. Sam Coomes was one of them. He has a running band called Quasi, he's played with Elliot Smith, he was in Heatmiser and Donner Party too. He's my age, and a guy who has kind of been around the post-hardcore and indie scene for the same amount of time as I have. He kind of came out of the same loot. The other person is Mike Sord who is a fantastic drummer. He's from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I met him because I was at a studio in Harvard, Michigan, which is close to Kalamazoo and I was working at a studio called the Key Club, which is a recording company and that's where both of these records were recorded and mixed. When I heard Sord play I was really just gob smacked — he's such a wicked drummer, so good. So I wanted to make a record and it was sort of an experiment or a shot in the dark. So we met up at the Key Club and this would be 2017, and I had a batch of songs and we set up and went through song by song. We would play a song and when we got to a good point with it, we would press record. We made Spencer Sings the Hits in 2018 and played some shows in support of it. The first tour we did was supporting The Melvins. On that first record, there is a lot of percussion and a lot of banging and clanging pieces of old junk and metal being hit. I wanted to have that sound live so I reached out to an old friend Bob Bert, who played in Pussy Galore. Bob and I still knew each other and were friends. Lucky for me, Bob agreed and that became the HITmakers. I began referring to the band as the HITmakers two or three shows into the tour on stage. We spent the rest of 2018 and 2019 touring, we played a lot of shows and with all of those concerts and all of that touring, it really all clicked. We were able to get along and we could live and work together. I think that all the shows and the experience of the tour greatly influenced the sessions of the new album, Spencer Gets It Lit. With this record, I really wrote it to each musicians' strengths, sort of like I was writing a TV show or something. Like I remember saying, I know this would be great for Sam to sing or be great for Bob to play. Before the first record was made there was a definite sound in my head — I knew that I wanted to have a synthesizer, specifically a synth-bass. I knew I wanted to use metal percussion again like I had done in Pussy Galore. I also knew I wanted to have a lot of fuzzed out and sometimes trebled guitars. It was a sound that was in my head for sure.


PZ: Even though you had this vision in your head, were there any songs on this record that turned out way different that you thought they would?


JS: Yes, I think so. "Rotting Money" changed quite a bit from inception to what's on the record. At a certain point, once we had mixed it, I began second guessing it, and we began reprocessing it and editing it. I think that things always change. For both records I made demos — very basic demos that were on my phone. I always leave room for my band members to make a part of their own. I think that is true in any band really. There were some songs that we weren't planning to record. When we went into the studio, we planned on 12 songs, but when we tracked all 12 we had some time so we did some extras. So those three extras were "Junkman," "Worm Town," and "Strike Three." Those three were a little less worked out, but there's a little more spontaneity to them and a little more spark.

Photo by Bob Coscarelli

PZ: I feel like this record fits perfectly with your past work, particularly your earlier records with all the industrial sleaze and brain-boggling freak beat. What drew you to create such pure and chaotic rock 'n' roll?


JS: When I was a kid I didn't think about being in a band. I wasn't really a rock 'n' roll fan when I was a kid either. I started seriously getting into music and buying records late in my teens. I didn't start playing in bands until I was 19 years old. I can't say that this is something that I have always wanted to do. It got to a point, though, where my obsession with punk rock became so overwhelming and all-encompassing that I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to have a band and make records and play shows and so that was it for me and that's what I did. I dropped out of college with my friend Julie Cafritz and started Pussy Galore. I think right from the start of Pussy Galore there was a really strong influence of ‘60s garage. It's coming from an enthusiasm and obsession for rock 'n' roll music — if we can just use that as an all encompassing term. All of these elements and influences begin to stew and come up in all of these bands. It's punk rock, industrial, ‘60s garage, hip hop, country, western, and rockabilly. I guess for me as I get older it's more homogenized and things are not as much on the surface. The band Cabaret Voltaire is a big influence. I can't say I listened to Cabaret Voltaire when recording the new HITmakers album, but it's something that's sort of baked in.


PZ: What was it like finishing Spencer Gets It Lit?


JS: It's always kind of a soft finish, because there are so many processes. There is a series of soft finishes. I still feel that it is not finished, I am too much in the woods or thick of it still. I make records for myself because I guess I am a selfish person in that sense. I am not making a record or playing in a band because I think it's going to make me famous or make me money, it's because I feel almost compelled to. So it is selfish in that way. I don't think about what other people are thinking about it — I think about what I think about it. Does it give me goosebumps and hit me in the gut? That's my focus. With that said, it is wonderful to have people like what you do.


PZ: Was there anything different about your songwriting for Spencer Gets It Lit?


JS: I wrote a lot of the songs by myself which is atypical for me. I used to write a lot of songs by myself back when I first started Pussy Galore. One of the things I have always really liked about playing with a band is making music and art with other people. Before I really got into bands, I was into making films. Filmmaking can be really solitary at times. I think a big difference between Blues Explosion, Boss Hog and the HITMakers is that the songwriting with those bands was truly collaborative. As far as my approach, sometimes I start with these ideas that flicker in my head and bounce around in there. I have to be careful to try to write or make some notation of them somehow. I used to be able to hold onto and retain them and now if I don't make a note it becomes completely lost. When it's time to make a record it becomes time to focus on songwriting and it's like cramming for a midterm. Some people write for six hours every day and I am not that person. I spend a lot of time playing guitar by myself and figuring things out and letting my subconscious come out. If something sounds good then I will make a little recording of it to retain it.

Photo by Sébastien Faits-Divers

PZ: Back in the spring, Janet Weiss filled in on drums for some HITMakers shows. What did you admire most about her that made you contact her?


JS: When Sord called me and said that he had to step down for a while, I was heartbroken and truly upset. Janet came to my mind. I am a big fan of Quasi and Sleater-Kinney — in fact, most of what I liked about Sleater-Kinney was watching her drum. She's a big part of the DIY and indie scene and kind of an oddball drummer, which is definitely required to play with the band. There were already some discussions about playing a tour with Quasi, but there was some concern about competition because Quasi was working on a new album for Sub Pop but it hasn't been released yet. We didn't want to be competing for each other's attention you know?. But when we thought about Janet joining as a drummer, that was another series of conversations because it meant Sam and Janet playing two sets each night which can be quite difficult, but it all worked out somehow.


PZ: What do you enjoy most about playing shows and touring?


JS: Losing myself really and cutting loose. A performance is an opportunity to get outside myself and exchange energy with a crowd.


PZ: Some people are just finding out that the Blues Explosion has disbanded for good following Judah Bauer's health issues. Reflect a little on your time in that band. How magical really was it?


JS: We played together for almost 25 years. We were all very close and almost communicated through telepathy when we played music. We never used a setlist. I was able to just call out songs or start songs and Judah Bauer would just hit it. We were a really tight band and hardworking band. One of the great things about Blues Explosion is that we were able to meet and play with some of our heroes. Someone like R. L. Burnside, Rufus Thomas, Alex Chilton, Tony Joe White. We were extremely lucky and at times, it was truly magical.

PZ: The Blues Explosion played some shows with Alex Chilton in 1998. What was it like meeting him?


JS: So we did one tour with Alex and a rhythm section for just a couple weeks. Alex would do mostly covers and rockabilly stuff. He didn't do many of his own songs but he did do one Big Star song. At the time that terrible show, That '70s Show used "In The Street" and every night, Alex would play it. He would play that song and he would introduce it in reference to the show. We were such big fans, but he was a little quiet and stand-offish. I remember when we got to the first show in Canada on the tour in either Montreal or Toronto, Alex's band showed up for sound check and we got the news that Alex was stopped at the border. Alex traveled by himself in a late-model sedan with his stuff in the trunk. He got stopped at the border and for some reason he didn't have the right papers or had something on his record. So he just turned around and stayed at a motel and joined us a couple nights later in Boston or Buffalo. Alex was a real hero to us and we were lucky to be able to watch him for a couple weeks.


PZ: What do you think about the revival of "Bellbottoms" after its usage in Edgar Wright's film Baby Driver?


JS: I think it's wonderful. When I first met Edgar Wright it was around 2005, around the promotion for Shaun of the Dead. I can't remember how I met him but when I did, he told me, "I got this idea for one of your songs, I'd like to use it in a film." And it was "Bellbottoms," so I said, "Okay, let me know!" Then 17 years later, it finally made the movie. He told me listening to "Bellbottoms" was the thing that sparked the whole film. It was humbling. When it finally came time for the film, Edgar sent me the permissions and other paperwork. He even sent me a script to the film which came with a playlist. It was like a ballet in that sense. I also made a cameo as a prison guard at the very end of the film. So I went to Atlanta and this is just Edgar being Edgar, and he said, "You're going to be in the start of the movie with your song and the end of the movie in the prison." I hand Baby a letter in the film. I remember there was a choreographer on set and the scenes would be counted in. The entire film was choreographed to a beat, rhythm, and music. It was a trip watching the film when it was finished. It is an incredible sequence and I got a kick of it. The action of the scene and the sounds in the movie paired with the song is a different experience in itself. The police sirens are pitched even to fit the song. So cleverly done.


Spencer Gets it Lit is out now through In the Red Records. Purchase tickets to the upcoming show at the Bug Jar here.


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