Feature interview: Jon Spencer at Ace of Cups

Andy Downing

Jon Spencer, who has logged the better part of three decades performing in bands, including Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, recently put the finishing touches on his first solo album, Spencer Sings the Hits, due on In the Red Records this fall.

His sales pitch, however, still needs refinement.

“To be honest, I wasn't that jazzed about doing a solo thing, or using my own name,” said the musician, who will be supported on tour by Quasi frontman Sam Coomes and drummer M. Sord, both of whom appear on the record (Bob Bert rounds out the live lineup, which visits Ace of Cups on Saturday, Aug. 4). “But I think it was the quickest and easiest way to let people know what to expect.”

Anyone familiar with Spencer's previous bands won't be caught off guard by his initial solo foray — “It's not leaps and bounds into some new territory,” he said — which arrives packed with clattering drums, trashy rock riffs and Spencer's now-trademark yelps and exaltations. “Kick that can!” he yowls on the album-opening “Trash Can.”

For Spencer, music has most often functioned as escapism, and he takes a similar approach here, filling songs with idle boasts (“I got the hits!”), can't-nobody-hold-me-back laments (“Why would anyone want to tie you down? You should be free!”) and surrealist asides (“I'm a ghost/Don't got a sheet!”).

“This record is not the heaviest, most personal, baring-the-soul thing,” said Spencer, who wrote the basic tracks before decamping to Key Club Recording Company in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for recording sessions with Coomes and Sord. “It wasn't like I was going to plumb the depths of my misery, or explore my innermost fears or anything like that. This wasn't my opportunity to reflect on, ‘Oh, my son has grown up and I now have a 20-year-old and that person has gone away to school and my nest is empty.' Or something like, ‘Oh, my parents are ailing.' … I didn't want to overthink it. I wanted it to just be a shot in the arm of rock 'n' roll.”

That's not to say all the lyrics are completely impersonal. “Fake,” for one, plays like a rejoinder to the various critics of the Blues Explosion who dismissed the band's blues-indebted rock as a form of cultural appropriation. (Chicago critic Jim DeRogatis, writing forPenthouse in 1997, asked,“If you really loved black music as much as you said you did, how come you could never get beyond making fun of it?”)

“Ideas are flat, and you're out of tune,” Spencer howls on the track. “Your whole shtick is tired, counterfeit, punk.” Asked in a follow-up email how much these past criticisms shaped “Fake,” Spencer remained coy. “Another good question! Probably more than a little,” he wrote before pivoting. “But I was mostly thinking about other artists.”

Elsewhere, the revelations are less sticky but just as true. “Who wants to be in a band? Who wants to rock and roll?” Spencer asks on “Beetle Boots.” A chorus of voices replies: “I do.”

“I missed having a band and wanted to get back out there,” Spencer said of this current venture, which he hopes will evolve into a more traditional group on future releases. “Boss Hog, we released a record last year, and we did some touring but we couldn't do a ton of touring — we're somewhat limited because everyone has a job. So as much as I love Boss Hog, I was looking for more action.”

With Blues Explosion also inactive (“I don't have a better explanation than that,” Spencer said), recording alongside Coomes and Sord allowed the frontman to scratch that collaborative itch — an urge he once fulfilled teaming with Jeff Evans and Don Howland in the late, loved Columbus roots-rock band the Gibson Bros., playing guitar with the rowdy group for a year in the early '90s.

“Jeff and Don were both real kind to me and really taught me a lot,” Spencer said. “Any time you're in close proximity like that with somebody, or playing with them night after night, something rubs off, or you learn something, but I couldn't quite say exactly what. Most of all, Jeff and Don kind of gave me an education in American roots music: country, rhythm and blues, blues, rockabilly.”

Now on the other side of 50, Spencer said he has mellowed some from his earliest days. (Asked how he would have described himself when he started making music, he replied, “Angry,” and paused. “Do you need more than that?”)

“Lots of things have happened that have softened the rough edges, for sure,” said Spencer. “I'm not the first to float this kind of idea, but a lot of performers are driven to fill some kind of hole from childhood or some developmental thing. I don't know how deep you want to get in this. But why does anybody write a song? Why do you climb a mountain or paint the Mona Lisa? There's something in there trying to get out.

“It's still trying to figure out where one fits in the world and how to get along — that hasn't changed. But you're looking at it from a different vantage point now than in your 20s. … Even though I'm not a kid, it's still very much like I have something to prove. It's still all on the line.”

Ace of Cups

6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4

2619 N. High St., Old North


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