Jon Spencer has racked up quite the resume over a career that spans decades, genres and conventions. Yet somehow it was only last fall that the indie rock stalwart finally debuted as a solo act in his own right. That decision was made reluctantly yet deliberately, more so as a clarification than a dramatic twist.
“Where I learned the ropes was the hardcore scene in the early and mid-'80s,” he tells the Dallas Observer. “I was never thinking that like, ‘I want to play in a band because I want to get on TV’ or ‘I want to have a Cadillac car and a swimming pool.’ I was thinking, ‘I want to play in a band because something was in me that had to get out.’ It wasn’t for fame or fortune.”
Despite all allusions to grandeur, from the self-styled “Swank-Fucking Master,” Spencer says the process of making Spencer Sings the Hits! was fairly routine. But ahead of his Jan. 22 show at Club Dada in Deep Ellum, he admits this tour felt like a bit of a gamble at the start. After spending so much time as part of a band, jumping into the deep end with songs he wrote on his own is something he hasn’t done since his early days in Pussy Galore.
“To be honest I was a little reluctant to make a solo record,” he says. “But the fact of the matter is, I wanted to make a record. I wanted to get back out there, I wanted to get to work. So rather than search around and put a band together, I just wrote the songs and set about scheduling a recording session.”
After a chance meeting with Quasi’s Sam Coomes at a mutual friend’s wedding, Spencer secured his assistance on keyboards. He also rounded up former collaborator and “glorified street hustler” M. Sord on drums. Spencer says he didn’t even send them material beforehand, opting to work out the arraignments in studio. Even still, the trio seems to have meshed perfectly on the album, something Spencer is quick to credit to the musicianship of his bandmates and the deft hand of sound engineer and producer Bill Skibbe.
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“A lot of it I guess is wrapped up with the worry about ‘Is this stuff gonna fly?’ and then I have spent so many years as part of a band,” he says. “It was not easy for me to say, ‘OK, I’m just going to use my own name for this.’ The reason I did that is because I thought it would be a shortcut, the quickest way to let people know what this was, a Jon Spencer record.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more apt description of Spencer Sings the Hits! than that. The album draws a through line connecting the dots from Spencer’s past bands. He dances between the metallic screech of Pussy Galore and the brash glamour of Boss Hog, all while evoking the more earthy tones of The John Spencer Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash at every turn.
Whether with a smirk or a scowl, Spencer’s stream of consciousness comes across full-blast for 12 whole tracks. From the very first volley lobbed (seemingly at the President of The United States) on track one, “Do the Trash Can,” Spencer makes sure you know how he feels. And he weaves his commentary tightly around a junkyard cacophony of fuzzy bass synths and clanging metal, with all the ease of a master craftsman who’s trying not to think too hard.
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“As someone in his 50s making a record, it’s different than when I was in my 20s,” Spencer says. “I’m more sure of myself, maybe it’s a kind of wisdom or something after years of practice. I’m not as worried about what are people going to think. Of course it’s nice to have people like what you do and get a positive response, yeah that’s nice, but this record like the others was made for myself really. And it’s always been kind of a selfish thing.”
What he calls selfishness comes off like protectiveness, truth be told. As he decries false punks on the track “Fake” and lampoons the mainstream on “I Got the Hits,” one gets the idea that any criticism leveled comes from the same abiding passion for music that drove Spencer to make his first solo album in the first place. Especially after lines like: “You think it’s easy being in a band? / Wrong priorities, misguided intentions / Ironic distance just reinforces convention.”
Spencer says the writing processes for this album weren’t “terribly belabored.” He says he worked hard to not get bogged down by the minutiae of recording. He says he made this album for himself. But at times it seems like Spencer Sings the Hits! was meant specifically for us, the average music consumer.
“The theme of authenticity does run through this album, that’s for sure, and that doesn’t just relate to the arts and to music,” Spencer says. “It also relates to the kind of media landscape we inhabit today, and the political landscape we find ourselves in, in the United States of America, in 2019. But I think it’s sort of a delicate balance between this sort of fantasy of being in a band and the reality … I definitely kind of believe in the fairy dust of it, but I like to think I’m also at the same time a realist.”