“Whether it’s R&B or simple country or basic punk stuff or free jazz even, it’s all stuff that is essential to the fabric of what we do”: Russell Simins (above, right; he’s flanked by Spencer and Judah Bauer) explains why the new JSBX album is one of the most diverse yet focused record they’ve ever made.
BY RON HART
“My dad was the Commissioner of Public Works for Nassau County, and he supervised the building of the Coliseum,” states Russell Simins, longtime drummer for New York City’s own Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. “So when we went in there it was a pretty big deal for us, and for the Beasties as well. They had their videographer Ricky Powell interview me about my dad, who had passed away by then. But my mom came to the show.”
The burly backbone of the Blues Explosion is remembering the time when they—along with The Roots—opened up for Beastie Boys at the famed (and presently endangered) Nassau Coliseum in the Long Island town of Uniondale approximately twenty years ago this upcoming May 11th. From the frontlines of the general admission area, it was a bit of a fight to fully experience the concert while trying to avoid raging circle pits of Strong Island frat boys, hardcore kids, skate punks and Hempstead hoods literally trying to tear one another apart in perhaps one of the most volatile instances of mosh culture at least this writer has ever witnessed before the infamy of Woodstock ’99.
For fans of all three groups at the time, it was triple bill on par with, say, Neil Young + Crazy Horse, Miles Davis and The Steve Miller Band at the Fillmore East in March of 1970.
What landed the trio smack dab in the middle of the hottest tour in the Spring of ’95 was their classic third LP Orange, released late in the previous year. It was an album that achieved a fusion of hip-hop and bare knuckle rock ‘n’ roll the likes of which none of us had ever seen before or, quite frankly, have seen since. The way Simins, Jon Spencer and Judah Bauer incorporated the swagger and swing of Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan and even the Beasties themselves into their caustic garage rock homebrew both on Orange and its accompanying Experimental Remixes EP was the most genuine shaking of the hands between the two styles since Eddie Martinez laid down that indelible guitar riff to “Rock Box” for Run DMC.
The group’s remarkable new album is called Freedom Tower–No Wave Dance Party, and it’s a total throwback to that halcyon Orange era in every way, shape and form. The trio’s returns to hip-hop on 1998’s Acme and 2004’s guest-heavy Damage were both great, but never quite fully recaptured the natural vibe the JSBX attained in 1994-5 to such slapdash perfection. However, the city’s Dinkins days are indeed alive and well both in lyrics and licks across the 13 new tracks that comprise Freedom Tower. According to Simins, it was the opportunity to record the album at Brooklyn’s Daptone Studios that helped inspire the group to get their groove back.
“The House of Soul!” he exclaims. “Its so old school in there. It looks like what you’d envision Stax or Motown to look like back in the day. It’s all about the character of the space. They know exactly the way the room works, and how to use the little bit of computer equipment they have just to get that great sound that’s on all their records.”
Even more, from the drummer’s standpoint, is the trio’s collective hunger to immerse themselves in whatever kind of sound they are entrenched in while working out material, a trait that can be evidenced not only in the funkier aspects of their catalog like Orange and Extra Width but in the heavier, darker records like Crypt Style, Now I Got Worry and their last one, 2012’s Meat + Bone.
“We’re always listening to music we all love,” Simins explains. “And we all have very similar tastes. Whether it’s R&B or simple country or basic punk stuff or free jazz even, it’s all stuff that is essential to the fabric of what we do. If you listen to all our records, one of the common threads is a lot of different styles coming together and merging in a very natural way. And out of that comes the Blues Explosion songs. There’s nothing ever too delineated as one style. It’s always a merging of all styles that we’re into, whether it be over a range of songs or just one song.”
And it just so happens in the case of Freedom Tower, be it via Judah’s Bomb Squad guitar jabs and Jon’s full-on Chuck D. stance on “Wax Dummy” or the cornucopia of memories of pre-gentrified times throughout “Tales of Old New York: The Rock Box” the Blues Explosion aren’t only diving back into hip-hop as performers, but as fans as well based on what they seem to be digging lately.
“We have a deep appreciation for all kinds of hip-hop,” he proclaims. “And there’s a lot of new stuff that we like. The new Kendrick Lamar is great. Joey Bada$$ is really cool. Jay-Z, for all his popularity, is still one of the greatest on the mic. And personally, I’m a fan of Kanye’s, no matter what he’s doing. He works with a lot of people who inform what he’s doing. In terms of originality, his was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. It’s off the chains in a way that I can really appreciate. I really love the post-punk vibe of his last record, Yeezus. I like stripped down, weirder stuff. I even think Odd Future—musically—is some of the most original stuff out there. The delivery, the attitude, the repetition. Anything that has that flavor of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the fucked up way he made hip-hop is cool with me.”
You can chalk off the strong air of nostalgia that not only permeates throughout Freedom Tower on a sonic level but a lyrical one, too—as a kind of coping strategy of seeing the city that brought them to life being altered and homogenized before their very eyes. But according to Simins, any sense of sentiment on display over the course of this record is no different than the methodology which transpires every time these three guys get together to create.
“That’s the way it always is with Jon,” he explains. “Sometimes the lyrics will generate just based on things we’re thinking about. Or the three of us will sit around and throw out random song titles and Jon will take it and make it the title of the song or work it into his lyrics. Or we’ll be hanging out and shooting the shit and laughing about stuff and talking about everything and ideas will generate from there.
“It just so happens this time around, New York City was on our minds.”
Photos: Micha Warren