Blues? I don't play no blues!

Naturally, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are not a blues band. But they know where they're coming from.
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UP ON stage in a venue deep in the heart of New York's rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side, the founder of Blues Explosion, Jon Spencer, is talking about the blues. Or rather, screaming about them.

"I don't play no blues!" he bawls at the audience. "Don't get me wrong - the blues is number one. But I do not play no blues. I play rock'n'roooll!"

It's the most pertinent section of "Talk About the Blues", from the Blues Explosion's latest album Acme, a work of dark and dangerous low-down grooves, some of which - contrary to Spencer's protestations - come pretty close to the blues.

The blues in its raw, unrefined form has long been a source of inspiration for young white kids with guitars, of course. Never more so than in the British Blues Boom of the Sixties, when an entire generation chose the scarifying sounds of Chicago giants such as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters over a homegrown heritage of Alma Cogan, Michael Holliday and Matt Monro. Go figure, eh? Besides obvious blueshounds such as John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, earlier chart artists - The Animals, Yardbirds and Them - drew their power from this alien energy source, and a telling TV clip shows Brian Jones and his fellow Stones sitting at the feet of the Wolf as he barks out "Smokestack Lightnin'" on an otherwise clean-cut TV pop show.

In America, meanwhile, the Sixties boom in folk music was largely carried by the genius of one man, Bob Dylan, who drew most of his phrasing (and one or two of his melodic ideas) from the acoustic blues played decades earlier by the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Jesse Fuller, Bukka White and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Since then, the form has been a standard component of most rock music, albeit often at second or third hand, disguised under a welter of sounds and styles. Most of the basic rock guitar riffs can be traced back to blues origins, as can more than a few of the basic lyrical conceits of popular music. In some cases, this borders on wholesale plagiarism.

"That's basically part of the art form," explains Spencer in mitigation. "But people get all bent out of shape about any kind of reinterpretation or appropriation of old forms. People don't understand that blues and folk are largely oral traditions."

"That's all right for, like, a line here and there," agrees his Blues Explosion colleague Judah Bauer, "but how could the Stones or Zep have recorded some of the stuff they did and not credit the originals?"

How indeed? These days, such ethical and legal concerns have largely shifted to the thorny area of sampling, while anybody actively involved in the blues has taken on the aspect of a cultural care worker. Take the Blues Explosion's splendid support act here on the Lower East Side, a blues duo (guitar and drums) called The North Mississippi Allstars, barely out of their teens. Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of the legendary producer Jim Dickinson, work up a feverish roots storm, with the geeky, bespectacled Luther especially displaying a remarkable technique that combines elements of rhythm, lead and slide guitar modes in one fiery style. For the Dickinson brothers, the blues is a living tradition, not just some sepia-tinted memory.

"Kids in bands today know so much more about all different kinds of music, because everything has been reissued," believes Spencer. "Ten or 15 years ago, it used to be they'd just know about hard-core punk or whatever, now they know about old blues and bluegrass music too."

"Some of those obscure mountain guys, like Roscoe Holcomb, there used to be only a few people knew about them, because the records were so hard to get," agrees Bauer. "But now everyone knows who he was - it just blows me away! Bluegrass is becoming a big thing."

Notwithstanding their choice of name, the Blues Explosion's disavowal of the blues is understandable, given what happened to the form throughout the Seventies and Eighties. When I met them a few years ago, they were already taking pains to distance themselves from the kind of neat, scholarly approach that purists have placed upon the genre.

"We're interested in a lot of, I don't want to say obscure blues, but the more raw type of blues," explained Spencer. "Like Jesse Mae Hemphill, RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough: people who are still around but not many people know of. Unfortunately, what most people think of as the blues is this real strait-laced approach, which is due to what went on in the late Sixties."

Since then, Junior Kimbrough has passed away, and Spencer & Co have moved on from their Burnside collaboration A Ass Pocket of Whiskey and the Blues Explosion album he influenced, Now I Got Worry, to a sound closer to their 1994 classic, "Orange", on their new Acme album. As Spencer claims, this isn't blues, it's rock'n'roll - a savage, sometimes prickly but always propulsive blend of funk, R&B and rockabilly, filtered through a hip-hop sensibility and, on several tracks, the studio nous of Steve Albini.

"Steve's whole thing is not to affect the sound artificially in any way," explains Spencer. "Steve just likes to play with the choice of microphones and the placement of microphones, and that's about it. He has a great collection of old microphones and knows how to use them well. Steve's a purist in that way - he views himself as an engineer. He's not the kind of producer who says, `Maybe that chorus should be half as long'; he doesn't make suggestions about song structure, or tell you a song should have horns on it. He just does his job. It was up to us to play these songs as well as we could, and when we get a good take, he gets it down."

Albini's no-nonsense approach apparently extends to mix-downs, according to the drummer Russell Simins.

"A mix will take him about an hour to do," he explains, "and then he'll ask us what we think of it. Then he'll mix it again according to our suggestions, and that's it. He doesn't want to do much more."

Perhaps due to Albini's reluctance to dither further at the desk, the trio took the rough mixes to a further series of engineers, including the German drill'n'bass/ distortion auteur Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. Before Empire got hold of the track in question, it was called "Caress". By the time he was finished with it, it had become "Attack". Appropriately enough.

"He basically just attacks the board," explains Simins. "Dan the Automator was there too, so they were kind of jousting; Dan was on turntables, Alec was on the board."

Whatever, the track's a fine mess, fit to finish off the album, and about as far from the blues as the Blues Explosion is ever likely to get.

"I'm a white punk, y'know?" says Spencer in conclusion. "If we were trying to play the blues it would sound stupid. The only element we really take from the blues is that we play from what we know, from where we're coming from; it's real, it's not pretence. We don't try to sound like anything."

And you know what? They don't.

`Acme' is out now on Mute Records