Metro, March 29
By Cara Jepsen
It's difficult to be in a relationship, let alone a creative one. A friend of mine who sings with her husband in a band says they used to experience a lot of tension. In many ways singing with someone--or sharing any kind of art--is more intimate and revealing than simply sleeping together. I remember the ego-shattering fight I once got into after showing a rough draft of a story to a lover. "So what's the point?" he kept asking. At worst working together is like revealing your soul and having it stepped on. At best it can be like seeing your soul reflected in someone else's, making both of them stronger.
I'm not sure on which side Boss Hog's husband-and-wife team, Cristina Martinez and Jon Spencer, falls. In 1989 Spencer and Martinez--both part of the band Pussy Galore--formed Boss Hog, reportedly to fill in a last-minute cancellation at CBGB; Martinez, the story goes, performed their first show entirely in the nude (she also appears naked on the covers of the band's first two releases). Boss Hog's mix of garage, punk, and blues is a sultry, full-sounding departure from Pussy Galore, which mixed adolescent yet caustic humor with a distinct lack of musicianship on their stripped-down, bassless songs. Boss Hog are a lot less humorous. Their music is bottom-heavy and undulating; 1993's Girl + is all bass and horns and deep throbbing grunge presided over by Martinez's sexy swoon. Interestingly, the record does not mention who wrote the songs, though Martinez is listed as the producer. The album cover bears her headshot; inside she and drummer Hollis Queens smoke cigarettes and wear suits. Spencer and bassist Jens Jurgensen aren't pictured.
When I first saw them perform a few years ago at Lounge Ax, it looked like Martinez and Spencer were totally in sync. Martinez was clearly in control of the situation, goth-rock sexy in long hair and a long dress, while Spencer, who looks like a dark-haired action hero in a leisure suit, backed her up on guitar, knees bent and feet wide apart, occasionally chiming in with a hiss or backup vocal. Martinez and Spencer looked at ease, and the two produced a captivating sexual tension.
Martinez seemed less comfortable at subsequent concerts. In the fall, when Boss Hog played Metro, something was awry onstage; the band acted more like Jon Spencer Soul Explosion. Martinez's movements were jerky and disconcerting, and it was difficult to hear her vocals over Spencer's hissing and guitar onslaught. I kept waiting for him to yell "blues explosion!"
Either the band was simply exhausted from a grueling North American tour, or the age-old issue of boundaries had finally come into play. In a heterosexual relationship it's usually the male who tries to gain territory from the female. In my experience this often manifests itself in the bedroom when you're trying to sleep. He crosses the center of the bed and pushes you into a corner. No matter how much prodding you do he won't wake up. He stays in your space, and you have to sleep around him or move into another room.
In a professional relationship it's even more difficult to establish boundaries and maintain one's identity--especially, it seems, in a band in which the female sings but doesn't play an instrument; the failed marriages of Ike and Tina Turner and John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X come to mind. Indeed, a friend of mine says she cannot watch Boss Hog without thinking of X.
"Sometimes it's awkward being in a band with my husband, but it's what we've always known," Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon said in the 1994 book Women, Sex and Rock 'n' Roll. "You don't want to alienate the other people in the band by making them feel like you're a couple, and that you become powerful because there's two of you. But Thurston (Moore) and I don't always agree on things....I think it's more important to fight to be yourself in that way. But Thurston's a Leo, so he has a natural leader-type quality, and you can't fight that. The biggest problem is being onstage if Thurston's having a bad time technically. He's got better at it, but he used to really freak out, and when you're so sensitive to someone's moods, it's kind of hard. You have to learn to ignore it because otherwise it can be really nerve-racking."
Things appeared to have evened out for Boss Hog at last Friday's sold-out show at Metro, though it got off to a slow start. Martinez, wearing black go-go boots and a mini dress, smiled and laughed throughout. But the guitar and keyboards drowned out her vocals at the beginning. Spencer and Martinez mirrored each other's movements; during the chorus of the second song, "Winn Coma," the two ran up to the mike, sang their parts, and jerked away from it. While Martinez danced, jumped, clapped her hands, and smiled, she didn't seem entirely comfortable--she was too aware of being onstage. A few songs into the set Martinez said "thank you very much" to the audience, and Spencer yelled "Chicago!" even louder.
The band played mostly new songs from their 1995 Geffen release Boss Hog. (Interestingly, the record credits Jon Spencer and Steve Fisk with producing; it's "reduced" by Martinez, whatever that means. More interestingly, Boss Hog has a major record deal, while Jon Spencer Blues Explosion remains on Matador.) The new songs are still fluid but are faster than those on Girl +. Up-tempo, furious songs like "Skibunny" are well-suited to driving fast. The 70s funk/dirge "What the Fuck" evokes more fast-car imagery; one can't help thinking of Russ Meyer's cult film Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! with its large-breasted women and drag racing. No wonder Friday's 18-and-over show was filled with college students.
While Martinez and Spencer are the band's obvious focal point, drummer Hollis Queens is a joy to watch; oblivious to the rest of the band, she tears away at her minimal kit (tom, snare, bass drum, cymbal, and cowbell), providing a solid foundation for the band's rhythm-driven songs. While you can hear typically stoic, unmoving bass player Jens Jurgensen, there's not much to watch there. There's also a keyboard player hiding on the side of the stage. But your attention keeps turning back to Spencer and Martinez.
They hit their stride three-quarters of the way through the set, during a staccato cover of Ike and Tina Turner's "I Idolize You." The couple sang to each other--Spencer in a high falsetto that mimicked Martinez; if you weren't paying attention it was hard to tell who was singing what. He literally played circles around her while they looked into each other's eyes and sang. The song was a turning point; the band finally came together. Martinez was easier to hear, and more sparks started flying between the two.
During the encore they played their modern answer to "I Idolize You," the tongue-in-cheek duet "I Dig You." Spencer began the song in a hard voice, "Late in the evening / I fall down drunk / You got me feeling / I'm not drunk but drowned." Then Martinez chimed in to finish the verse, and Spencer's voice softened. "I dig your groovy hips," he sang. Martinez replied, "I dig your BBQ lips." Later Martinez's voice turned hard as she commanded Spencer to send her some money.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump.