She’s the Boss: An Interview with Cristina Martinez of
Cristina Martinez expresses concern that her shaggy, black wool coat makes her look like a hooker, but I don’t think so. On the contrary, it adds to the undeniable aura that she’s someone important, someone you want to know. The coat makes the stunning, dark-haired singer for New York City’s underground darlings, Boss Hog, look like what she is: a Rock Star. Martinez and her band — which includes her husband of ten years, guitarist Jon Spencer (of the eponymous Blues Explosion), bassist Jens Jurgenson, drummer Hollis Queens, and keyboard player Mark Boyce — have been missing in action for nearly five years. Their new CD, White Out, proves Boss Hog used their retreat from the playing field as an opportunity to regroup and return with superior fire power. After releasing their major label debut, Boss Hog, on Geffen in 1995, and signing to a five record deal, things did not go as planned. In the midst of the tumultuous Universal/Polygram merger, Boss Hog were dropped from the label, but walked away with the full advance for what would have been their sophomore effort, and ownership of all their songs. Martinez considers the band fortunate. “We ended up in the best possible [position],” she says. “I had all of my songs and the money. We got to record White Out on Geffen’s tab and now everything that the record makes is profit. Otherwise, we would have never seen one cent, because [expenses] would have all been recoupable, and we’d have been with a shitty record label.” In this case, what did not destroy them made them stronger. White Out is Boss Hog’s fourth full-length CD in their ten year history. It definitely bodes well for their future.
You worked with a lot of different producers for White Out rather than just one, why did you chose to do it that way?
When we wrote the songs, we wrote them in two spurts. They ended up being very different, stylistically. The first group was very New Wave and the second group ended up sounding a lot more modern and poppy to us. I thought that it would take two different sensibilities to really deal with this properly. My initial intention was to have only two producers: Andy Gill and Tore Johanson. When Andy Gill came, he had to do eight songs in about two weeks, so by the end of it we were mixing four songs a day or something. It was ridiculous. Naturally, when that was all said and done, some of the songs weren’t quite up to snuff. I had to then deal with the fact that I had run out of money at that point and Andy was unavailable, he was onto his next project.
I recruited friends, basically, who live in New York City and who I knew would do a good job as well as an inexpensive job to fix a couple of the mixes. It ended up being five [producers] rather than two, but the initial intention was only two. Tore is the only one actually who is a producer and he is such a genius, he’s just very talented. The rest of them are performers and that’s how I knew of them, because they produce their own work. Andy produced Gang of Four’s stuff and that’s how I knew of him as a producer. Jim Thirlwell and Roli Mosimann, Wiseblood is one of the hugest influences on me, and that’s how I got to meet and know them. Jim Sclavunos, I know because of the Bad Seeds. So, it was really them as musicians that interested me in what they did.
You’ve got some big names in there, nevertheless…
I know it looks like the Who’s Who of producers, but I’ve always had the idea to take one song and give it to as many producers as I could afford, and see who did the best job and then go from there. This is sort of the back end of doing that. Instead of going to them and seeing which I should pick, it ends up where I’m seeing “Oh, maybe this one would do a good job.” And it worked out, you know, I’m okay with it. The whole point is that in the end — I call myself the Executive Producer — I have to be a person who maintains cohesion to the array of things that happen…to make sure it sounds like it all makes sense together.
The record has a cohesive retro sound, especially with the keyboards.
It’s funny, because it’s retro-modern. We used drum loops, which is something we had never done. That wasn’t really so much because I wanted to use a drum loop but because the producers wanted to. I just wanted a steady beat through the whole song, which is something that we had never done before. We wrote those songs with steady beats in the rehearsed versions and then, just for perfectionists’ sake, they were looped, but not because that wasn’t what Hollis had already played. I really like the fact that no matter what, a lot of stuff came in and out. Whatever crazy stuff was going on, there was a constant beat that was very trance-like, very hypnotic, it really locks you in.
When I listen to the record your performance, both vocally and stylistically, really reminds me of early Blondie. What’s your comment on that?
Several people have said that to me and I think it’s hilarious, because I want you to know that the first record that I ever picked up the hairbrush and did the microphone thing to was Parallel Lines, one of my favorite all-time records. I can still listen to “Fade Away…” All of those songs are just genius. It’s a tremendous compliment to me that you would say that. My voice I don’t think even comes near Debbie Harry’s voice. Her voice is amazing. If that’s in there, it’s because I love her. If it comes out at all reminding you of her, then hell yeah, that’s great.
What was it like to get back in the studio after such a long break and concentrating on being a mom?
After such a long hiatus, we were really excited to play with each other. [Because of that] all these songs are really energetic and poppy in the best sense of the word. They have a lot of positive energy happening. It was so great. All I can say about this record is, when I listen to it now is, it’s so pop [laughs]. That can be a frightening thing, you know, because I would have maybe censored all of that stuff in the past but I was just completely overwhelmed by the positive feeling, by how much fun it is to play music. It had been so long for me, I was so eager to go back and to play after two years of focusing entirely on someone else, my son. To go back and redirect all of that energy back inside and think about, “What is it that I want to do? Who am I? What is it that I want to do with my life? What do I love doing?”
I only had this much time [gestures with two fingers] to do the record because then I have to take care of my son. I have a very limited amount of time to do something. My time is so much more precious to me now. It’s not like something I can just throw away and disregard. Being in a band is something that I love to do, have always loved to do. But [before our son was born] it was just what I was doing, it didn’t seem like it was an active choice on my part. Now, to return to it was really something that I struggled for, that I really wanted to do and that I fought for and that I had to make other sacrifices for, which I’d never been in a position to do. To really sacrifice the time that I spend with my son to do this for myself is mentally rewarding and it makes me realize how much it means to me. It puts everything in perspective.
You and Jon have been married for a really long time, ten years. You guys have probably the most successful rock and roll marriage of anybody. Working together in a band with your husband, what’s that like? Do you two butt heads creatively all the time or what?
Oh sure, absolutely. You know, I just read this interview with Yo La Tengo and I have to respect them so much because somebody asked them, “do you mind people asking you about your relationship?” And Ira was like, “no, I don’t mind as long as they don’t mind me saying ‘It’s none of your business.'” [laughs]. People constantly ask because it is an odd situation — it doesn’t happen in the majority of bands. But it’s what you think. It’s all the stereotypes.
If I had one moment in my entire life that I could relive it would be to look at Jon onstage and for he and I to have that insane kind of telecommunication where we’re just, “this is the greatest thing in the world and I love you and this is so much fun!” Every piece of bullshit that you have to endure is worth that moment on the stage, or that moment anywhere else — walking down the street, or at a party, or whatever. That means more than anything to me… and it also sucks more than anything to have to tell someone you love to shut the fuck up.
You used to always say that Boss Hog was a punk rock band, do you still think that?
Absolutely, always. In ethic we are so punk rock. I can’t lie and say hey, it wouldn’t be nice to make some money so I didn’t have to do anything else. What idiot’s going to say otherwise? A liar maybe, but no one else. But that we won’t do anything specifically for that purpose? Absolutely. We’re going to do whatever the fuck we want no matter what and if somebody pays us for it, that’s great. I don’t have any problem with making money. But I do have a problem with doing anything that I don’t truly believe in for that purpose. That’s punk rock. That’s DIY. If I’m off Geffen, I’ll put my record out on an indie label, I just want my record out! I love music, I love playing and making records. Whatever enables me to do that, I’m there.
After you had recorded “Fear for You,” did you feel any kind of relief or catharsis?
Not at all.
What’s the story behind the “Itchy & Scratchy” song?
I am a big fan of The Simpsons but that’s not how the song was named at all. When we wrote that song, I did that guitar scratch part (imitates sound) in the song. We kept referring to it as the “scratchy song.” So then I named it “Itchy & Scratchy,” thinking of the cartoon. Then, when I started to write the lyrics, which we just sort of wrote and improvised, it started to take shape and it really was very much like the two characters, so I kept the title. We often have working titles and change them. Occasionally they’ll stick. In this case it was appropriate, so I kept it.
Many times people tell me that they work with great hindsight…after the song’s written they decide what it’s about.
Yeah, that’s so true. It’s a work in progress and in the end often you’ll keep a working title and often not. The CD we did, Cold Hands, where [the songs] are all boys’ names… it was because in the rehearsal space it was just sort of, “Let’s name them after different boys.” They were written and we gave them these working titles. In the end I thought it was so funny that they all had these boys’ names that I worked them into the songs and just kept them there.
[Laughs] So they were weird songs, but anyway, it’s all about our stupid sense of humor in the rehearsal space. We laughed out asses off about everything. That’s a beautiful thing about Boss Hog that makes me so happy to play with these people. Jens, Mark, Hollis, Jon, and I just have a great time. We love playing music and hanging out, cracking jokes. That, to me, is what being in a band is all about, this sense of camaraderie. It’s something I never felt. I never felt particularly akin to any of my family. To find this being my family is so much more satisfying in every way.
What I like about the title track, “White Out,” is that it has a gospel feeling to it, almost like you’re testifying.
That’s Hollis. I don’t sing that part, I must say that is Hollis Queens and her astounding voice. She has a really great voice, and pulls off the Aretha Franklin thing like no one I’ve ever heard. She’s such a talented performer with her own band, Low High. She sings and plays guitar in that band.
Also, the song “Chocolate” seems like a total rocking love song that you and Jon are singing to each other.
Well, it’s all about Jon, that song. But I guess that’s true because he sings “My baby,” and I guess I’m his baby (laughs). Then I think about what I’m singing and I’m talking about how he’s The Man and how… I love him. Yeah, it’s the “I Dig You” song on the record. There always has to be one. “I think you’re really great. I love you!”
It’s cool though, and very funky. It’s the most Blues Explosion sounding song.
Well, that’s because that’s the song that Jon wrote the most [of]. That was really the one, ’cause it’s so simple, it was written on the spot. And I think he came up with that riff, so that’s the song that I attribute more to his input. For the most part it’s really collaborative, but I think that song is a bit more his. And “Jaguar” was written by Mark Boyce [keyboard player].
What do you feel you’ve accomplished personally with this record?
What it’s done for me is that it’s inspired me to make another one. That’s all that they have to do. It’s a good record, I’m very proud of it. Anything that comes after this is really icing because to me it’s like I accomplished this. I made a good record and I’m proud of what I did. It’s better than the last record I made, and that’s all I can hope for, that I keep improving upon myself or that I believe that I’m improving. It’s like Star Wars, you know? There are people who are expecting the same record out of you forever. You know what? I’d rather disappoint those people than myself. I’m not going to put out the same fucking record forever, because then I’d be stuck in a rut. It’s about trying new things, experimenting and figuring out what you want to do and who you like. It’s about the journey, not about being stuck in the same place, but about moving. People’s initial reaction is to want the same thing. It’s hard to overcome.