It seems nearly inconceivable that it took garage-punk troubadour Jon Spencer over three decades to release a proper solo LP, but the facts don’t lie. Last year’s Spencer Sings the Hits marked a first for the onetime leader of the Blues Explosion and co-mastermind of Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and Heavy Trash, among others. To hear Spencer tell it though, things weren’t exactly planned out that way.
“It’s not my first choice,” Spencer says of working alone in a recent chat with Vanyaland. But in a period of downtime following a deactivation of the long-running Blues Explosion and a lull in other projects, the solo approach arose out of necessity. Calling from outside Austin, Texas — where he and his backing band are a little more than a week into a tour that brings them to Great Scott on Friday (February 1) — Spencer recalls writing alone in his basement practice room, “spitting out ideas, just plucking away at a guitar,” in a process he’d characterize as “atypical.”
The results, however, are vintage Spencer.
Sings the Hits offers no pop standards, though its title did originate from a suggestion by The Onion’s Todd Hanson that Spencer should do just that. In their place, it delivers what Spencer calls “my own hits.” The record’s 12 tracks — scuzzy earworms rife with riffs and a playfully out-there sense of humor — check all the boxes without rehashing projects past. And that’s thanks in part to the band that Spencer eventually recruited to commit these songs to tape, consisting of Quasi’s Sam Coomes on keys and drummer M. Sord.
Spencer estimates that he “sort of did it backwards” when it came to assembling the studio players. “Instead of getting a band together and working up a set, playing out, going to make a record,” he says, “I just wrote the songs, and then booked the studio time.” Still, things managed to work themselves out.
Michiganian Mike Gard, better known by the M. Sord moniker, came into Spencer’s orbit through the Benton Harbor studio Key Club where he knew he wanted to work. Coomes, meanwhile, was an ideal fit for a desire to eschew the traditional electric bass in favor of a synthesizer. And thusly, the untested trio “jumped in the deep end,” in Spencer’s words, and made the Hits.
On the road, that trio swells toward a bona fide supergroup with the addition of former Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert on auxiliary percussion. Accordingly, Spencer reports, the four-piece have concocted setlists that tackle his sprawling back catalog, as well as a bit of Coomes’, in addition to the new songs. They’ve also got a cover prepared for good measure.
Friday night’s show will take the band to Allston, but many of Spencer’s own Boston music memories linger up Commonwealth Avenue and across town. “[Pussy Galore] once had a really great show… with Big Black at the Rat club,” Spencer casually recounts of a noise rock bill for the ages. “Played the Middle East a whole bunch, had some nice Blues Explosion shows there,” he adds. And as a New Hampshire native who later studied in Providence, Spencer was a regular visitor to the stages of the dearly departed Rathskeller and Channel as a music fan before he was standing on them himself.
Decades later, Spencer has held court in many a rock club, and things have assuredly changed for a touring musician on that circuit. “When I first started out it was a terribly exciting time for me, everything felt connected to a scene,” he recalls. “[It] seemed like a real thing happening, a genuine underground and truly independent.” Nowadays, it’s mega-promoters on the rise, and independent venues fewer and further between. That’s a loss Spencer laments, alongside the old restaurants, record stores and book shops “gone and replaced by Dunkin’ Donuts or Duane Reade.”
But things aren’t all dire. “Times have changed. That said, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find good coffee anywhere,” Spencer concedes. “Back in the day, finding coffee or decent food was very hard. In the 30 years that I’ve been touring, the foodie takeover in this country has been nice for a person traveling around.”
His current outfit’s Boston date comes near the end of one particularly lengthy North American sojourn, which finds Spencer and the band snaking their way through the south and up the east coast. Great Scott will mark the 22nd of 23 straight nights bringing the hits. “We’re getting warmed up,” Spencer says from Texas. “I think by the time we’re up to Allston, we should sound pretty good.”
JON SPENCER & THE HIT MAKERS + BODEGA :: Friday, February 8 at Great Scott, 1222 Commonwealth Ave. in Allston, MA :: 10 p.m., 21-plus, $16 in advance and $18 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Bowery Boston event page :: Featured image by Ebru Yildiz