I took a punch to the side of the head at a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show in fall 1993 at a beer joint in downtown Fort Worth, Texas.
It was a glancing blow and a case of mistaken identity. Worse, I responded by turning and quickly hitting my assailant, who had a good six inches in height on me, in the throat. He crumbled to the floor. “Wow,” I thought. “I must be tough.”
Then I looked at the fallen warrior. He was drunk and, worse, he had just one leg. Nothing but air below his left knee. And he was laughing. I joined others to help him up, we shook paws – the animals that we were – and went back to watching the Blues Explosion decimate the place. Beer flew, real fights with real blood broke out and glass shattered.
Any room with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion playing is a tough room. Civilization takes a back seat. So imagine two decades-plus later to find that a talk with Russell Simins, the drummer from the JSBX, explores the Oscar Niemeyer architecture of Brasilia and the ramen joints of Fukuoka, Japan.
“The thing about Brasilia, the moment you get there, you see the crazy things Niemeyer did,” Simins said in a 45-minute phoner in February. “He developed it, it was all planned. The cool thing is that it was modeled after an airplane. The main strip is a line with that stuff off to the side.”
There’s something terrific about the aging of the rock ‘n’ roll creative set that has made it possible for the same people who pound on things to make us happy to also use their experiences to edify and educate.
The JSBX has been around since the early ’90s, developed from a NYC/Lower East Side scene that made some of the best noise of the end of the last century.
The trio set itself aside immediately with brawling live shows and albums that were filled with two-minute, howling jams featuring trebly guitar and animal drums. The material was tempered here and there with trip-hop beats and samples, but their forte was loud blues/R&B-based songs unrestricted by the confines of those genres.
Simins is one of those rare drummers with the outsized personality, someone who’s “there” is there. He’s clearly taken to the JSBX as an integral part of his life. He writes accounts of the band’s tours on Facebook and digs the idea of getting in the van for 20 shows in a row this month.
“We get bored if we don’t have a show, that’s what we’re out there for,” Simins said. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a day after a long run, but more than that and it slows you down. We get into a groove about 10 shows in and we don’t even think about it.”
When the band started touring, there were no cell phones and the day sheet and a map were the only ways to find a venue.
“Now, we just get the phone out and use the GPS and we know how long it will take to get there and what traffic will be like,” Simins said.
Phone calls and business can be handled from the van as well, whereas just making a phone call had to be scheduled in the old days.
“It’s a trade off because you have a phone and you lose a level of inaccessibility and privacy,” he said. “You’re always required to be on point and have to pay more attention because everything is more readily accessible.”
Those advances have made the world a smaller place, of course. The JSBX has toured the world several times. When Anthony Bourdain, long a fan of the band, called them in the mid aughts in need of a theme song for his upcoming show, “No Reservations,” they were headed for Australia.
“He contacted us through mutual friends and he wanted a cool punk rock song — this was before he was as famous as he is now,” Simins said. “We wrote the song in Australia very quickly, we didn’t have much time, and we recorded it there and sent it. He loved it.”
The Bourdain connection is part of Simins’ love of food. He’s a known gourmand, hitting up both low- and high-end places on the road, from the Waffle Houses of the Deep South that offer hash browns a million different ways — “scattered, smothered and covered, I go for it all,” he said — to the aforementioned ramen in Fukuoka.
“We eat everything as long as it’s got local flavor,” Simins said. “And it doesn’t have to be expensive or the most expensive or the cheapest as long as it’s got local to it.”
There’s a new JSBX platter out, Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015. Song titles include “Bellevue Baby,” “Dial Up Doll” and “Cooking for Television.” Like its predecessors, it’s a smack in the head.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
wsg Danny and the Darleans
Pyramid Scheme, Grand Rapids
Tuesday, April 21, 8 p.m., 21+
pyramidschemebar.com, (616) 272-3758