From the late '80s to the mid '90s, New York City's Boss Hog purveyed an exhilarating brand of sleazy, noise garage rock that served as a somewhat more upscale update on Pussy Galore's scum-punk blasphemies. The common link of those groups are vocalist Cristina Martinez and her husband, guitarist/vocalist Jon Spencer. After 1999's Whiteout album, the power couple put Boss Hog on the back burner while Spencer focused on his Blues Explosion and Heavy Trash bands and Martinez devoted much time to raising their son and going back to work as a production director for Bon Appétit magazine. But Boss Hog—who also include Hollis Queens, Jens Jurgensen, and Mickey Finn—have come roaring back in 2016 with an explosive EP titled Brood Star on In the Red Records, which shows them reclaiming their old ass-ripping moves while also going off in electronic and funky directions. (An LP called Brood X will follow later this year.) To support this recording and to thrust themselves back into your consciousness, Boss Hog will embark on a short West Coast tour, which hits the Crocodile Monday, July 11. The Stranger reached the NYC-based Martinez by phone to discuss why she and the group decided to reunite, what motivated the new music, posing with guns, appearing nude on record covers, and other topics. (Boss Hog also perform live on KEXP July 12, 12 pm, 90.3 FM/kexp.org.)
The Stranger: What motivated you to record after a 17-year hiatus? Did those Pussy Galore royalty statements start to taper off?
Cristina Martinez: [laughs] This is a funny question. We've toured on and off and played some shows here and there through that period. We didn't record, for sure, but we would occasionally play. When we got to a point where we recorded so many bits and pieces of songs that we decided we should record them. Also, money did accumulate in the Boss Hog coffers, so rather than distribute it, we said, why not make a new record, go on tour, and have some fun? We've been working sort of underground, offline, the whole time. Just now, it seems like there's enough stuff to record a new record. Like I said, we never stopped playing together.
It seems like you were way under the radar for many years.
What were you doing besides Boss Hog between 1999's Whiteout and this year's Brood X?
The biggest thing that happened is, I had a son. During Whiteout he was on tour with us. But when it came time to go to school, I didn't want to disrupt his life and have tour-bus life for him. So I gave up touring to be the anchor at home. Jon continued to tour, but even though we'd be playing, I didn't want to tour anymore, so that I could be there for our son. That was the major reason we stopped being so active. Once he got to the age where he didn’t need me there all the time, I still couldn’t go away. I had a lot of time on my hands. I went back to work in the square world. [laughs] I’m the production director for Bon Appétit magazine. I work with the editorial and art departments to get the magazine to the printer. I went back to publishing, which is something I did to make money when we first moved to this city.
Do you like working there?
I absolutely love the crew of people working here. I still consider it a day job, because it doesn’t fulfill all of my needs. But if you have to work, it’s a good place to do it. It’s good for that part of my brain. I’m a highly organized individual. It comes naturally to me to organize and schedule things. The band part is the other part of my brain; the messy part where you work out all the rest of your life.
How did the songwriting process for the new material differ from the earlier records, when your lives were probably much more different?
Interestingly, it did. We used to write a batch of songs with the idea that we’d play these songs and the recording came pretty well down the line after writing. We would play them out and sort of practice them and change them. They’d evolve as time went on. This record, because we hadn’t been playing out a lot, we took pieces that were almost 100 percent there, maybe 90 percent there.
Lyrically, it was a completely different process for me. Ordinarily, in order to perform live, you have to have set lyrics. But when we went into the studio this time, I did not have and I was improvising stuff. I had basic structures of ideas and stories to tell. I had been enjoying ad-libbing. I wrote a lot of stuff in the studio when we were mixing and now I’m having to learn those. I’m sort of doing it backwards. Fingers crossed I’ll remember those when we get to Seattle. [laughs]
What's the division of labor like in Boss Hog now? Does it differ from how it used to be?
It’s what it’s always been. The only difference is that we have another member, so the chemistry’s slightly different. But we write together and, for lack of a better word, it’s jamming. We’ll play together and write riffs. Jon really takes the lead when it comes to structuring a song. I write what I sing and whoever sings to back me up writes what they sing. It’s everybody bringing their part to the table, but things get edited out as we’re structuring sometimes. The instrumentation sort of changes. Also, when you’re trying to make a song have some interesting movement to it, things may get muted or deleted. But as far as the actual writing process, it’s the same. We sit in a dark basement together and play instruments like teenagers. [laughs] We rehearse in the same East Village basement where we’ve done since we moved to the city in 1986.
We recorded [Brood X] at the Keyclub Recording Co. in Benton Harbor, Michigan. It’s run by Bill Skibbe and his wife and partner Jessica Ruffins. It’s a really cool studio. The Kills have recorded there, Franz Ferdinand, Fiery Furnaces.
What was the motivation to go there?
I like what [Skibbe’s] done. Also, it was like destination wedding. If we recorded in the city, everyone’s got their own life going on and it’s hard to unplug and give it 100 percent. Bill’s got a super-nice setup there. They will house you. It’s kind of like being in a casino. It’s this old warehouse and there are windows only in one part of it. It could be any time of day; it’s always the same lighting. It’s an immersive experience.
So we all flew out there and recorded everything and I’ve been back a couple of times to do vocals and mix with Jon and sometimes with Hollis Queens. Bill has a great collection of synths, the board sounds great. It’s an all-around great place to go. Bill’s fantastic. He’s got a great ear.
Did you go analog with Brood X?
Oh yeah. [Said in a tone that suggested there were no other options.] He has this console that was originally custom built for Sly Stone.
Brood Star is a strong release, that sounds like it has a split personality, with two tracks recalling the old, full-on raunchy punk Boss Hog and two reaching for something more electronic and funky. Is this apparent dichotomy going to be on the new album or will there be even more styles on it?
No. Brood Star is like the remix record that comes out after the album. What happened was, we were offered this date on the West Coast for the In the Red anniversary show. It was sooner than we were hoping to release the record—we’re not quite done mixing it. So we decided we need to release something, so people would have something to hear and write about. We figured as long as we’re going out there to do this one date, why don’t we do a run of the West Coast? In order to make that more of an event, we decided to pre-release some songs. They are remixes of songs that will appear on the LP, which will come out later in the year. Some of the songs, there will be more straightforward versions on the record. There are a couple of things that won’t appear on the record so that it’s separate and different—just weird, crazy riffs we came up with in the studio that we thought were so great so we remixed them a bit, but they don’t really fit in with the LP.
What’s up with Mickey Finn? Why did you bring him in?
I met Mickey in 2008 when we did a run of dates in Europe. We were looking for a keyboard player because our keyboard player, Mark Boyce, had moved to the West Coast. So Mickey started playing with us. He’s a really great keyboard player, a really nice guy, we all got along really well. Boss Hog are just friends getting together to play. We never made money off of this band. What little money we do make we generally put back into the band. It’s not a money-making venture. It’s more like friends getting together because we enjoy playing and recording. Mickey’s been playing with us for the last eight years or so. We’ve been writing with him. It was very natural and organic how this new person fell in. I love keyboards and think they add a lot to Boss Hog, so it’s nice to have him there.
Do you ever listen to your old records, like Drinkin' Lechin' & Lyin'? If so, what do you think of them?
I do, because we just reissued that. Tom Hazelmyer [Amphetamine Reptile Records boss] wanted to do a special edition with his artwork, so I had to re-listen to a bunch of stuff. Also, when we decided to tour, we revisited all the records to see what we wanted to play on this tour. It sounds great. It holds up. The only thing we sort of missed on is that the vocals on Drinkin’ Lechin’ & Lyin’ are super-low. At the time we felt like it should be really loud and noisy, but I like how experimental and weird they are. I think the records are all great and it’s nice to listen to them. Right after we made them, I thought I wish I could’ve done this or that better, but now the distance is a lot more forgiving for me. I feel like I go back to those. I’m quite proud of what they are.
I listened to Drinkin’ yesterday after not hearing it for a long time and I still felt the same jolt of exhilaration from when I first heard it in 1989. That’s a rare thing for a rock record from that time to have that kind of durability.
Thank you. I feel the youthful exuberance of that record is palpable, for sure. It’s intense.
Do you feel like in the ensuing years since your debut, becoming a parent and having other adult responsibilities have diminished that sort of feeling?
I have to be able to sell these songs when I perform them. This is also a topic of discussion of concern for me, sometimes, because as the singer in a band, you can’t get up there and sing shit you don’t believe in. You have to get 100 percent behind those words. Words that I sang then I certainly don’t feel the same way about now. So you have to sort of lose yourself a little bit and remember what it was like. Why the hell would I say, “Fuck school”? I give my son shit about working hard in school. [laughs] At the time, I remember that and he reminds me of how in that moment, school doesn’t seem like the important thing. And it wasn’t for me. I’m a college dropout.
There are a couple of things I wish I hadn’t glamorized. There are a couple of references to guns in our songs; while I wasn’t specifically talking about a gun, I was thinking of it as a metaphor. Nonetheless, the word is there and that bothers me sometimes. Again, I just have to go with it and realize I’m not a pro-gun person.
This recently came up. I don’t do our social media. I despise it in every respect. Let me rephrase that. I do not partake in social media. Other people in the band take care of that. Because of all of the gun-control talk in the news now, because of the Orlando shooting, my husband wrote, “Fuck guns,” or something. It’s totally how we all feel. And then somebody replied by posting a photo that Richard Kern had taken of me, probably in 1986, of me holding an AK-47. It happened when I was a kid and Richard Kern was taking a photo of me. It was art. I wasn’t trying to promote anything. It is something I did and have to take responsibility for, because it was glamorizing a gun in a way. Richard Kern has a whole book called Girls with Guns and I’m in there. That’s the kind of thing, like, oh, what a drag. I don’t want it to translate into I’m some sort of pro-gun person. It was an art project. Making the comparison between now and then and how things change sometimes concerns me. That’s the kind of thing that often comes up.
Have you received much grief from feminists over the years about your risqué appearance on some Boss Hog record covers?
Slut-shaming? Have I been slut-shamed before? Of course I have. My take on that is, it was my own personal choice to do that. I grew up in a very strict, conservative, Catholic household. I was rebelling in every possible way that I could. I wasn’t thinking about being a poster child for anyone or making any grand statement about it. It was super-selfish and I stand by it. I thought it was punk rock and badass. I can still accept that side of it. Would I do that today? No. But I think I should do that today, because I’m old now. Now’s when I should be doing that. [laughs] Like, fuck you! Haha. I have to stand by what I did and be proud of it, and recognize the good and bad parts of that.
Will the live show be a mix of old and new material, or will it emphasize the new stuff?
No. It’s been a long time since we’ve been on the West Coast. I hope there are fans who will want to hear the old stuff. We’re very aware of that. We’re just going to play a couple of new songs, some of which are on the EP, because [Brood X] isn’t properly finished yet. Then, like a greatest hits.
How was it working with Steve Fisk on the self-titled record?
He was great. It’s been a while, so I don’t know if I can remember any anecdotes. I remember him being the voice of reason. The control room had a kind of bar you would sit at, a high desk he would sit behind like a judge. He had a lot of good ideas, he was very clever. I was a fan of his and he was really nice to work with.
July 11 - Seattle, WA - The Crocodile
July 12 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir Lounge
July 13 - Eugene, OR - HiFi Music Hall Lounge
July 14 - San Francisco, CA - Slim's
July 15 - Los Angeles, CA - Echoplex (In The Red 25th Anniversary)
July 16 - San Diego CA - Casbah