interview by rutherford g. van delay
illustration by debbie


Rutherford: Where are you at right now?

Judah: Iím in Illinois. Weíre coming from Kansas City and weíre trying to make it to Chicago. Weíll meet our new drummer there, because our other drummer got sick.

R: What happened with that?

J: I donít know, but heís going home. I lucked out though, man. I was able to get another drummer; and itís a drummer that actually knows the songs.

R: Howís the tour going?

J: Iím having fun. And weíre going to be having more fun as we get into the groove. Of course, now we have to start over with the drummer, which is unfortunate because the other drummer had all the backing vocals straightened out. But now weíve got Gregg Foreman from The Delta 72 playing.

R: Cool. Okay, so youíre originally from Appleton, Wisconsin.

J: Yes.

R: At 17 you made the move to New York. What influenced you to make the move to New York, and how easily did you adapt to it?

J: Well, I read Henry Miller books and listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, so there was some artistic inspiration to it. But I really went because I had insomnia. I just couldnít sleep in the Midwest anymore. Theyíre probably going to have a name for that illness.

R: (laughs) Like the Gulf War Syndrome?

J: (laughs) Yeah. I was hearing voices. And once I figured out that there werenít, like, wires stuck inside my pillow, I decided I better leave. So basically I just went to New York to sleep. I had no other goal in mind. Thereís just enough white noise in that town to distract the desperation of trying to live in the Midwest.

R: So you finally got a good nightís sleep in New York.

J: I was able to get a good weekís sleep.

R: (laughs) Since you travel so much-- like you just wrapped up the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (JSBX) tour, and now youíre touring with 20 Miles-- how do you sleep when youíre touring in the Midwest?

J: I just try to hold my breath. (laughs) The Midwest is funny. Crowds are definitely less informed about music than on the coasts. But there are always good towns, and then thereís lame towns. But you just deal with it.

R: Do your performances change when you play the coasts versus the Midwest?

J: No. Thereís no difference. Itís still the same cross-section of people that youíre playing for, thereís just less of them in the Midwest. I think that theyíre more into the musical aspects of it on the coasts; the more artistic side of it. Whereas in the Midwest they go more for the simple and primal part of it. But, like I said, every kind of person is everywhere. Thereís just less of the ďmusosĒ in the Midwest. And thereís references they wonít get. Like if youíre making some obscure, 1965 Dylan/Hawks reference onstage, theyíre probably not going to get it in the Midwest. (laughs) Then again, who really cares if they do. But someone in the crowd will get it if youíre in Boston or New York.

R: So you started up 20 Miles with your brother Donovan originally, but he took off to San Francisco to pursue film.

J: Yeah. Thatís what he said. But now heís actually a sports car mechanic.

R: So does that mean that 20 Miles is primarily your project?

J: It always was my project. Donovan just did what I wanted him to do. He didnít write songs or practice. Being in a band was like falling off a log for him. It was easy and something to do.

R: Is he involved in it anymore?

J: Well, I actually play with him when Iím on the West Coast. And he is on a song on the new record.

R: Right on. So what purpose does 20 Miles provide for you that working with JSBX doesnít?

J: I donít really look at it that way. All I know is that I have a date with destiny, and I have to make it. I have a certain amount of lessons and things to learn and embody as a musician and an artist, so I can meet this date with destiny. I donít know exactly when the day is, but my spiritual anxiety, I feel, is closing in at any moment. (pauses) So howís that for a creative answer? (laughs)

R: (laughs)

J: I could give you the truth, but, eh. (laughs)

R: When fans of one band find out that a member of the band has a side project, they usually pursue it because theyíre hoping for something similar.

J: Oh yeah.

R: I think 20 Miles is related, but it definitely has its own vibe going on. Have you found that most of the fans are down with 20 Miles?

J: Itís an acquired taste, even for Blues Explosion fans. The thing is, we donít rock. Itís most certainly not the priority like it is for Blues Explosion. Blues Explosion is a party band. Itís about Friday and Saturday night, tearing down the house. And with 20 Miles, Iíll play acoustic and instrumentals, a Rodgers and Hammerstein type thing, with really soft notes. And I see people losing patience, because itís not what they wanted. They wanted Blues Explosion 2. But then thereís also people there that like the difference of 20 Miles.

R: Right. I think that there is definitely a rock star persona that Blues Explosion lives up to. And Iíve seen you guys live a couple times, and Russell and Jon seem to be more into that aspect of it. Are you comfortable with who you have to be in JSBX?

J: I feel Iím sincere, so Iím not uncomfortable. Itís just that because JSBX is a democracy, there are two other people having input on things that I donít necessarily agree with. Like the direction that some of the material goes, or how the energy is used. I think understatement can be very effective sometimes. 20 Miles definitely runs on a plain folk appeal platform, while JSBX is pushing the rock star thing more. But itís more just for show. Like, itís okay to be overdressed in JSBX. But it would be sin,.. itís better to be underdressed in 20 Miles. But I think Jon and Russell really love the whole rock star thing more than I do. Maybe Iíve just refined my front more, you know. Like Michael Jackson.

R: In an interview I read, you referred to JSBX as the ďmoney machineĒ. Has doing the JSBX thing become a day job for you? And if so, do you see an end in sight because of it?

J: When I say ďmoney machineĒ, I donít mean that disparagingly. I just mean JSBX is a solid thing. I wouldnít be able to do 20 Miles if I wasnít successful in JSBX, because 20 Miles actually loses money. Iíd just say that,.. I donít know,.. (pauses) I really got to stop talking shit about my band, you know?

R: (laughs)

J: I think it was evolving more before. Now it just seems that evolving isnít so much a priority anymore. And thatís not necessarily a bad thing either. Like Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones) was more about refining what was going on. I think weíre sort of in that mode right now. But because of the person I am, I need to feel like Iím evolving all the time. And 20 Miles covers that part of me.

R: A lot of the stuff Iíve read talks about how feedback on the newest JSBX album (Plastic Fang) was bad. But everyone I talk to digs it. Why do you think the feedback has been so harsh?

J: I think Jon is an easy person to hate, and itís really just the writers that donít like it. Theyíre just a fickle, touchy crowd. I think the band has its shortcomings, and I agree with them when they write about those. But I think Plastic Fang is a good record, and I donít know what their problem is. They really need to get over themselves. But the other thing is, we are getting older, and you no longer have that free ticket you had when you were hot. People just want to tie things up, and concentrate on The White Stripes or something. It must make them uncomfortable. And Jon is an easy person to attack, in a way. But I think the music is sincere. I think a lot of these writers are lazy, and they only get their information from other self-perpetuating interviews, so the same subjects keep coming up. Even with this question youíre asking me, itís talking about talking about the band. And I donít know how rewarding it is.

R: (laughs)

J: I donít mean anything--

R: (laughing) No, no. Thatís cool.

J: I mean, your intentions are sincere, so thatís fine. But other peopleís arenít. Their angle is to be antagonistic. And I donít know if thatís what they want to be, or if they just donít have any talent. But the best reviews are the bad reviews. They are the most revealing, and you can really learn a lot from those. But, as far as the negative reviews go, I donít really think about it. Itís all going to work out. Iíll be doing this for the next 40 years. Iíll prevail through attrition, and these writers will be gone.

R: With that being said, youíve worked with people that have a lot of music making under their belt: Dr. John, R.L. Burnside, R.L. Boyce. You can definitely see yourself at that age making music?

J: Yeah. Iím maturing as a person, and my music is following along. Iím not trying to have my 27-year-old masterpiece and suicide. For me, those middle-aged masterpieces always appealed to me more; like Rain Dogs (Tom Waits) or Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan). Iíve always been more into that. Even though I love Bob Dylan when he was with The Hawks, but there is just something more to say, in a way,.. (pauses) blah, blah, blah. (laughs)

R: (laughs) You are obviously influenced a great deal by the Rolling Stones. Are you still into the Stones?

J: No, no. You canít listen to Dylan or the Stones, or anything like that, past Ď78. The thing is, Keith (Richards) is playing better than ever, and Iím happy to see it. Heís not a wedding band. Mick seems like heís a wedding band. But the other guys are still vital and cool. I like the Stones, but theyíre not a direct influence. Like I would never take a riff or a-- (pauses) everyone here is looking at me now. (Note: Judah is traveling in a van with the rest of the members of 20 Miles. Someone in the van says the name of a 20 Miles song.) Well, that would be more of a bass line. (laughs) But anyway, aside from that, that one plagiaristic thing on Keep It Coming, the whole Stones thing comes from listening to the masters of the guys who lay it down, like Muddy Waters and Slim Harpo. So itís not really a direct Stones influence. And hopefully Iíll get better, and find out who I really am along the way.

R: I read that after September 11th you questioned whether or not you should be playing music. You said you wanted to become a politician or something--

J: I didnít really want to become one. I just felt that it was frivolous playing music. You need a certain amount of good vibes if you want to play music. And it just felt kind of shallow after that.

R: Looking back on it now, nearly a year-and-a-half later and with the world at the state that itís in now, has your view on your relationship with your music changed?

J: It changed drastically. It made me more convinced of the supremacy of the truth, just in my own personal life; just less bullshit. I wrote lyrics after September 11th, and I looked at the lyrics and I was just like, ďFuck all this pagan shit.Ē Other people donít feel that way, and thatís fine for them. But I just keep hearing that line in All Along The Watchtower: So let us not talk falsely now / The hour is getting late. And I think that my lyrics almost became too positive in a way. Iíd write something and think, ďOh God. Iím writing new age garage rock here. Iím a new genre.Ē And I think John Lennon pulled it off. Did you ever read the book Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad?

R: No.

J: Well, thereís an article in it that talks about the Butthole Surfers. After reading it, I realized that they deserve a knighthood for their dedication, perseverance, and the hardships they endure. Maybe theyíll never be big or sell a lot of records, but the truth will come out one day. Theyíre so true blue. So it will all come out,.. you know,.. (pauses) Jesus! Iím long-winded today.

R: (laughs)

J: So my answer is ďyesĒ. (laughs)

R: Okay. What impact do you think September 11th has had on the music making industry in general? Because Iíve heard the criticism that music has gotten soft and more friendly than it was before.

J: I didnít have an overview of it enough beforehand. All I know is that the economy is suffering, and thatís causing everything to go downhill: studios are closing, weíre all making less money, less people are going to shows, the labels are hurting. So itís definitely affecting music in that way. But as far as the artistic and creative part of it, I donít know.

R: Okay, I donít know if youíve been to our website or not--

J: Yeah, I have.

R: Cool. So then you know about our staple question: Do dogs have lips?

J: (pauses) I donít know, man. They can kiss, so I assume theyíve got lips.

R: Right on. So do you know who killed Wayne Chinsang?

J: I think it was the collective ill will of society that killed him.

R: Good answer. So whatís the next step for 20 Miles and JSBX?

J: Well, Iíve got to turn in a 20 Miles record June 12th, so itíll be out in September. Iíll be touring through the end of the year. This is the first year that I put 20 Miles first. Iím going to see if I can make it. Iíve never had to worry about money before; well, at least for the last eight years. But Iím just going to roll the dice and see how it goes. And then we already started working on a Blues Explosion record a few months ago. But I donít know if any of that is going to make it to the record. Itís kind of loose. Weíve been working with Elliot Smith and other people. Weíll probably concentrate on that this summer, and shoot for a Spring 2004 release.

R: So Plastic Fang wonít be the last album.

J: You know, itís always the last album until another one comes along.

R: Right on. Well, thatís it. Thanks for doing the interview, Judah. When the issue comes out, where should I send your copies?

J: Just email me and Iíll send you my address. Hey, did you see that (JSBX) Columbus show?

R: No, I didnít. But I saw you guys up in Cleveland the night before.

J: Man, Columbus was a fuckiní great show. I played so well. I played the best tone that whole tour that night. My tone was fuckiní perfect.

R: I heard the show got started late.

J: Thatís because we were watching the Stones backstage, man, on HBO.

R: Really?

J: Yeah. I got transference from the master; from Keith. I watched that, and it made me better just by watching Ďem.