Going “Way Out” with Jon Spencer

Jon Spencer has been reinterpreting the music of his youth since he first burst on the scene almost 20 years ago with his first band, Pussy Galore.  Since then he has been taking the blues and sounds of personal hero, rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers, and been making music that fuses the two in his various bands and side projects. 

From his longtime bands Blues Explosion and Boss Hogg, to adventurous side-projects such as Spencer Dickinson (a short-lived band with Cody and Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars), to serving as blues legend R.L. Burnside’s backing band for two albums (A Ass Pocket of Whiskey and Mr. Wizard), Spencer has constantly been making music that harkens back to the glory days of rockabilly and its maniac swinging groove.  Now, though, he has taken all he’s learned and added a razor sharp edge and aggressive sheen.

Heavy Trash, his latest project started in 2005 with Canadian guitarist Matt Verta-Ray, stays true to this form.  As Spencer says, “Rockabilly is the prime motivation for Heavy Trash.  I have to admit we are not the purist form of rockabilly, but I suppose that the music that inspires us in Heavy Trash is older music, records made a long time ago.”

Verta-Ray (formerly of bands Madder Rose and Speedball Baby) and Spencer came together and began playing and writing some new songs between them, their first album Heavy Trash, released in 2005, grew out of that.  Spencer says, “Our first record was a studio experiment.”

After the release of the album they began to tour pretty regularly, using three different bands while on the road.  The tour was also the first time any of the songs off the album had a chance to be played live, and their growth was something that excited the two songwriters in Heavy Trash. 

“The reason we made the second record was because we were having such a good time,” Spencer says.  “We wanted to do it again.  We had more things to say and more songs that were bubbling up inside of us that needed to come out.”

It also excited the two to get their very distinct road bands into the studio.  Spencer explains, “We are very lucky to have the help of some very good friends.  The Sadies from up in Toronto, members of the Tremolo Beer Gut and Powersolo in Copenhagen, and some good guys at home in New York City.  Matt and I thought it would be great to get in the studio with our live bands.  We had three different sessions, and the album is made up of songs from that.”

They also found motivation in the fact that nothing off the first record had been played live; they wanted to see how the process would work out the opposite way.  Verta-Ray and Spencer wrote a new batch of songs before hitting the road, much in the same way they had before, with the two of them in the studio “chopping away” as Spencer describes it.  He says they usually just get together and play and see what happens on the spot.  Very rarely did they come in with a fully-formed idea. 

This time they had a chance to play all the songs live before getting in the studio with their different road bands.  This was the birth of their latest album, Going Way Out With Heavy Trash, due to be released on Yep Roc Records.

One of their difficulties in recording the new album was in dialing back some of the aggression from their live shows to get the songs to work in the studio, “It took a while to nail some of them.  A record and a concert are just two such different beasts”, Spencer says. 

Their other difficulty lay in the fact that they were using three separate bands in three separate studios to record with.  While Spencer admits there was some apprehension, in the end it was a positive experience “a nice shot in the arm,” as he calls it, a chance to “travel to different parts of the world and hook up with some old friends and play.”

Going Way Out also differed from the first in that while Spencer and Verta-Ray still wrote all the songs, this time through they had the input from their different bands. 

“Matt and I gave people free reign.  We presented them the songs, but we wanted to see what they would come up with," Spencer states.  "Very rarely would we have strict guidelines as to what we wanted people to play.  That’s the fun of playing with different musicians, especially people as good as the Sadies and other friends of ours.”

Despite the vast arsenal of input available and the large number of musicians who they played with during the recording, it is a surprisingly coherent album that moves smoothly from song to song with no real distinction between who played on what tracks. Spencer was pleased.

“I think that is what is so nice about this, is that it sits together and gels very well.  It works nicely as an album,” he said.  The real strength of the album is that it highlights all the best qualities of Spencer and Verta-Ray, but comes together in such a way that sounds completely new and refreshing from their other bands.

When asked about the highlights of the album, Spencer laughs, “I like the whole album, I wouldn’t have put it out if I didn’t.”  But when pressed further on the question he admits to a few songs that stand out for him.

“I think “Kissy Baby” came out very nicely.  I had written that one off in my mind, but the final performance in the studio, the feeling and sound of it are great.  I am very happy with how it came out.”  Way Out veers from the more traditional sounds of “Kissy Baby” to the classic Spencer sound of high-energy blues on “Double Line”, to the Carl Perkins flavored “That Ain’t Right” that reminds Verta-Ray of the Johnny Cash album Live at San Quentin.

Spencer also took time to single out the closing track “You Can’t Win.”  “It changed a lot during the making of it, but I dig how it ended up.”  The song is also autobiographical, as its lyrics address the band’s struggles with people’s perceptions of them as a rockabilly band, a limiting misconception of what Spencer, Verta-Ray, and Heavy Trash are about. 

But in the end when asked about that label of rockabilly, Spencer is quick to answer, “I love it, it is my prime motivation.”

The result of those sessions and musicians is, as Spencer has said, not the purist form of rockabilly.  But he does advance the genre along, adding his own modern twist to one of the oldest forms of rock ‘n’ roll, not letting it grow stagnant or be forgotten. 

“I think overall with Heavy Trash, Matt and I show our love for rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly and a lot of older records and artists.  It is not that we sit down and try to reference a Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins album," states Spencer.  "That music is in us and that sound is what we are going for.  But we are not a stickler about it though, we also like a lot of modern sounds.” 

Spencer has already claimed his spot in the history of important rockabilly musicians. Going Way Out With Heavy Trash only serves to further cement a legacy that is already rock-solid.