Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Spencer

Interview by Diane Roka
(February 2008)

I was excited to hear about Jon Spencer's side project, Heavy Trash, because I love everything that those words represent. Drive-in movies, muscle cars and kustom kulture in general. When I went on the web site, the aesthetic made me happy. Colorful suits, slicked back hair, Matt Verta-Ray and Jon smoldering dangerously in front of graphic black & white backdrops. And, of course, the whimsical art of Tony Millionaire.

When I called Jon's publicist to schedule our interview, she warned me that Jon is in fact a quiet and serious man. That turned out to be an understatement. Jon is so soft-spoken that the transcription process was tortuous, and I inwardly cursed the quiet gentleman as I struggled to hear him through the hiss. But we had a nice chat, nonetheless.

PSF: Well, I wanted to ask you about Tony Millionaire. How did you guys get together?

JS: You know, I've never met him. So, we've got to get together. I'm about to go out to the West Coast with Heavy Trash, and I don't know how close I'm going to be to Pasadena, where he lives. But I want to invite him to a show, if it's nearby.

But, I think maybe Matt [Verta-Ray] met him a long time ago. He used to live in the New York area. Matt think that they ran into each other a long time ago.

But, both Matt and I are fans of Tony's stuff, the Maakies strip. And, there's a graphic designer named Chip Kidd who lives in New York and I worked with him on a couple of different things. And once he said to me, "Let me know when you've got another record ready because I've got a perfect, really good idea for someone. And Matt and I were just about finishing this "Way Out with Heavy Trash" record and I was starting to think about the packaging. And so I e-mailed Chip, "What was that perfect, great idea you had?" And he said, "Well, it's Tony Millionaire." And I had actually been kind of kicking around some ideas inside my own head. And Tony was one of them. So it just sort of seemed to... OK, let's try Tony. Chip knows him and works with him. He's designed some of the Maakies books for Tony.

So, Chip made the phone or e-mail introduction. And I talked to Tony a little bit about the band and sent him some music, and we took a lot of digital photos in New York City. Matt and I took photos of each other and then e-mailed Tony photos so he'd have some reference.

So, I talked to him about the new record, sent him tracks. And we talked about some ideas, and some themes. And Tony just went and did his thing, and he basically just did a four panel strip. And then Chip put it together, did the design.

Initially, I think, Matt and I were a little taken aback because when we'd done our first record we'd worked with another artist, Paul Pope. And Paul lives in New York City, so we spent a long time - we had a few meetings with Paul and we looked at sketches and there was a lot of just throwing stuff back and forth. And that didn't happen with Tony. So I think it was like a splash of cold water when we saw Tony's drawings.

And we asked for some changes, but we didn't end up using any. He was a nice guy and made some changes, but we didn't end up using any of the adjusted versions. We used his originals.

But, one of the things was, there was some talk about the way that Tony had portrayed me and Matt. And, at one point Tony told us, or wrote to us, that, "Trust me, the big noses are funny. You're going to want that." And, so we had to respect [that], because I don't know, Tony Millionaire knows.

But, I think that the sketching at shows, I always find that very interesting. You run into some people who do that every once in a while, you know, in different cities. And every once in a while you run into someone who paints, who will paint the show. And you just see someone in the corner, just working away. And it's a neat thing. So, my hat is going off to you.

[ED NOTE: Diane completed the illustrations below for this article in a sketchbook during Jon's live show]

PSF: Well, thanks. I mean, it was interesting, because I had seen you perform years ago. And something about your performance just lends itself to wanting to do something visual with it. And, so even before the Spencer Dickinson show, I had brought it up to one of the people at Yep Roc. And he didn't really get it. But, Angie [Carlson, Jon's publicist] got it right way. She said, "oh no, Jon's worked with Mike Mills, he'll understand what you're trying to do."

I wanted to ask you about working with the Sadies. How did you connect?

JS: Well, Matt and I made the first record. We made it with mostly just the two of us in Matt's studio. We had some help from some other people, but there was no band. And we'd never played live.

But we had made the record, and we thought, "well, let's try and play live." So, we needed help. And we thought of the Sadies. So they very nicely agreed.

PSF: And what was the dynamic like working with The Sadies? Are they really as solemn as they come across?

JS: No, I think that one of the nicest things - I mean, Matt and I have probably worked with 3 or 4 different bands. Heavy Trash bands. On the Way Out record, there are 3 different bands, there were 3 different sessions for the record. There were the Sadies, there were our friends from PowerSolo and Tremolo Beer Gut which both are Danish bands. And then there's our New York City rhythm section.

And, one of the nice things about working with these different groups is that there is a different dynamic, different feel, different vibe with these different players. And I find it really nice to pack up and just go to another place and meet up with our friends and play.

And, they don't all sound the same. There are differences. And Matt and I just go with it. I think that's part of the whole deal. We embrace it, and we don't really get hung up on, "You've got to play it like this!" (Laughter) We really respect all of these different musicians and we want them to feel comfortable, to do their thing.

But I think part of the reason that Matt and I wanted to include these people on this second Heavy Trash album was not just that we were having some good shows and that the music was sounding good, but that we were having a very nice time just hanging out with these people. That these were good friends of ours. So, Dallas and Travis Good are, no, they're not that solemn. None of the Sadies are that solemn. And Matt and I had some real, very nice times with the Sadies. And there's been a lot of joking and carrying on. So, it's not (laughs softly) solemn.

[Illustration of JC Benz]

PSF: Now, I'm just wondering, because it seems like there is a lot of collaboration between the different Yep Roc artists, is that sort of encouraged by the label itself, or...?

JS: No, Yep Roc have not really encouraged us to do that, or really to do anything - God bless ‘em. They just let us do our thing. But, when I first had the idea, if it was my idea, to ask the Sadies, I think that I ran it by Angie - who, Angie Carlson used to work at Yep Roc. And she definitely said, "Oh, yeah, that's a great idea. You should totally call them." (laughs softly)

So, in some ways they've encouraged it, but it's not in any pushy way. And that's an instance of me saying to somebody at Yep Roc, "I have an idea about this, what do you think?" And it's not like someone from the label called up me or Matt and really bullied us into doing something.

PSF: Well, it's interesting, because I realized that a lot of the people that I wanted to interview just happened to be Yep Roc artists. And, I guess it's along the same lines as Bloodshot Records, where you start to realize, "Wow, there really is some sort of a connection there." And, I don't know if you've thought about what it is that connects the artists on Yep Roc?

JS: Gosh, I hope this answer doesn't upset you, but I honestly don't feel much of a connection! Certainly with the Sadies. And, Southern Culture [on the Skids] I know from way back. But, I've been on labels where, like for instance, the Blues Explosion was on Matador Records, a New York City label. And it wasn't just that I really had felt like part of a scene with some of the other bands on the label at the time, but also that the people who worked at the label. It's a local label. These were people I'd known for years. And these are my peers, they're my same age, and I came up with them in the indie scene, to use that term.

But, it's just not that way. I don't really feel a connection with - I mean, there's some very nice people at Yep Roc and people working for the label, and there's some really great bands on the label. But I really don't feel a real strong sense of connection or community or something. So... I'm sorry.

PSF: (laughs) Oh, no, that's okay. I guess maybe it's just a sensibility. Like the sort of things that they choose.

JS: Well, I mean, I think there is something tying the bands together. And, I suppose that's a question more for Glenn Dicker or some of the other people at the label. You know, I'm just there.

PSF: Now, just wondering, because I haven't spoken to Matt, what is the dynamic like between the two of you? How do your personalities mesh?

JS: Um, well, it's very easygoing, very friendly. We're very supportive of each other. And we respect each other's ideas. The band started just kind of on a whim, and Matt and I were just hanging out, and talking about music and rockabilly in particular. And playing music, just for kicks, and then we started writing our own songs. It wasn't -- it's not like it was an idea hatched on paper. It just came out, grew out of a friendship. And one thing that I really enjoy with Heavy Trash is working with Matt as a singer - me as a singer. I think Matt, having him as a producer, for when I do record vocals, I really value his guidance. It's enjoyable. The whole thing. (laughs softly)

PSF: Well, it's nice too, I guess, that you're both in New York. I just can imagine that if you have some inspiration that you can go down to his studio and get together and work.

JS: Yeah, we are very lucky to have - Matt does have a studio, you know and that is a big plus, to have a place where we can go and work something out.

PSF: Does he engineer at all?

JS: Yeah - he has a studio for hire. And he's for hire as well. Yeah, he engineers and produces stuff for other people, sure.

PSF: Now, I also heard that you just came out with "Jukebox Explosion", which Angie didn't tell me about, but I read about on-line.

JS: Yeah, I think that it's on the In the Red label. Angie's not working on it... It's just being put out there. And it's a collection of... a lot of it's old, and most of it is rare songs that the Blues Explosion recorded and released as singles.

PSF: And what's coming up next?

JS: Oh. Well, Matt and I are going out West next week and we're doing a tour of the West Coast of America. And that tour will be with PowerSolo. And then next year I think we're going to be going to Japan for the first time. And we will also be doing a tour of Europe with the Sadies.

PSF: I want the Sadies to come here, but Angie says that they don't want to come to America.

JS: Where are you…you say you're in Philly? They've played Philadelphia a bunch of times.

PSF: Well, I saw some tour dates but I think that there were only about 5 in America and they weren't here. But, yeah, I may have to fly out. (laughs) I'm a fan. I guess it's just one of those things.

Well, I just felt very luck to see PowerSolo too, because I don't think that they come here very often, do they?

JS: Uh, no. That was the first time that they ever played in Philly.

PSF: That was a small stage. I was worried for you guys.

JS: That was a great club!

PSF: It was! It was a great crowd. Everyone just was very interested in being there. I was kind of walking around trying to get the best vantage point of where to stand, but, you know, I ended up just sort of setting up at the bar. But they do have that nice sort of, not a terrace, but a mezzanine. It was almost like everything was in miniature, but it was a very cool way to see a band.

JS: Mmmhmm.

PSF: Did you get to walk around at all, in the venue.

JS: Yeah, oh yeah.

PSF: Yeah. It was pretty interesting.

JS: I liked it.

PSF: You know what I always wanted to ask you about? Part of the reason why I wanted to do drawings when I had seen you play live before was there was so much exuberance and so much energy and just sort of happiness with what you were doing. And, I think that it's just you having a really good time, but I think that there are some people, purists, that will look at the different genres that you're taking on and that will feel as though you're making light of it in some way or that you're being ironic.

JS: Those people are ignorant, because the music that's fueling what it is that I'm doing with Matt or anybody - there's many examples of people, (laughs quietly), many examples of exuberance. (both laugh).

Those are the records that I'm listening to. Those are the people that I've seen play. And that's the stuff that's inspired me. Stuff like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis or R.L. Burnside. It goes on and on and on. I think that that's... yeah, I like to quote a song. I like music that makes me feel alive.

And, I don't know, I think that there's this really wrong view of popular music or rock n' roll music that exists in this country that for some reason, it has to be like this heavy, serious thing. And that's not really what rock n' roll is. Yeah, there's been some heavy, serious statements made with or through rock n' roll. But, me, I don't think rock n' roll is Bruce Springsteen or Radiohead. Or, I don't know - not that there's anything wrong with what those artists are trying to do. I just think that the kind of thing that I like has a little more life in it, a little more joy. And I think it's unfortunate that, especially in this country, people would want to dismiss something that is alive and playful and full of joy. And that it's not taken seriously, not considered serious... Um, so that's what I have to say. (Both laugh)

Also see our 2013 travelogue with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

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