When Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray began writing their third Heavy Trash album, Midnight Soul Serenade, they had no intention of detailing the tragedies and triumphs of love. In fact, their intentions were quite different.
"We were slowly writing and threw around some ideas," says singer-guitarist Spencer. "After the second album, Going Way Out, we did a bunch of radio ads that were all 30 seconds to a minute long that we posted on the Internet. We enjoyed that process so much, we decided to make an album that way, where the songs were written and recorded in a few hours. But we didn't do that."
What eventually came out of the Heavy Trash writing and recording session was a batch of about 30 standard-length songs, within, as well as beyond, the duo's manic garageabilly style. As they whittled the song choices down to the tracks they wanted on the record, they realized a theme was emerging.
"There were a lot of great songs that we were playing live and were knocking the audience dead, but I was staying away from those," says Spencer. "The songs I was wanting for the album, the ones that kind of fit together and gelled, were different sounding. Some of them were slower. They were different styles, and they all thematically seemed to fall together in this group about love. But it's not just love. It's devotion, adoration, sexual obsession, infatuation; there are many different facets of love and attraction and relationships. It's not all good, it's not all bad. I don't think this record is about 'love is a bummer.' Not at all."
From the manic doo wop of "Gee, I Really Love You" to the swampy blues swing of "Good Man" and the psychobilly cover of LaVern Baker's "Bumble Bee," Spencer and Verta-Ray and their rotating cast of studio supporters (Lambchop drummer Sam Baker, storied New York bassist Simon Chardiet, Scandanavian rockabilly purists PowerSolo and pianist Mickey Finn, among them) created an album steeped in rockabilly/blues authenticity but one that never gets so lost in its influences that it forgets its place in contemporary music.
"We're not slavish about influences," says Spencer. "There are always certain ones that loom larger. James Brown is a huge influence on me, and I've always loved Charlie Feathers. They're inescapable; that's why I'm playing in this band. For Matt and I — and maybe it's a part of getting older, because I still love discovering new bands and consuming music — it's such a stew of so much stuff over the years. There are things that are so deeply ingrained in my head and body — like Elvis or the Stones or the Fall or Public Enemy or James Brown — they're just always in there. If I can pay myself a compliment, it's that we can take this stuff and do something new with it."
One of Midnight Soul Serenade's most interesting departures is "The Pill," which plays out like a James Ellroy short story set to a psychedelicly unhinged rockabilly soundtrack with Spencer narrating over the top like Jim Morrison during his heavy poetry phase. Spencer admits the song followed a different creative track than the bulk of the material on the album.
"That was a bit of an experiment for us," says Spencer. "I don't remember what jump-started that one. That one is pretty much just me and Matt by ourselves.Maybe it was the drum machine that sparked it. We were challenging ourselves as a team to do something different, and at one point Matt referenced Serge Gainesbourg. We had a track recorded, and I came in later with some words and put them down. Then we mixed it and much later we did a whole other mix at another studio. What's on the record is actually a combination of the early mix and the later, dub-heavy mix."
Midnight Soul Serenade shows different facets of Heavy Trash, which started as a side project for Spencer and Verta-Ray in 2005 but quickly morphed into a full-fledged band. Heavy Trash have evolved over the past four years, from two-man, stripped-down rockabilly mayhem to a more measured and mature incorporation of a variety of other styles.
"Around the time of the second record, we found out we could make it work as a live entity," says Spencer. "It was a challenge which Matt and I took upon ourselves [to] pick guys and make it work. We threw out a lot of old songs and focused on the new album to make a new show. That's ongoing and we're still figuring it out, but it's very enjoyable and very exciting."