A-list

Out of the glare of western media, A-listers reveal a different side of themselves to Japan. Read interviews – many held under duress by phone, in conference rooms or even in the backseats of vans – with Erykah Badu, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Herbie Hancock, Jack Johnson, Pavement, Scissor Sisters, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Sonic Youth, Vampire Weekend, the Boston Pops and Blue Man Group.

Iggy Pop didn’t hold back on the relationship between creativity and drugs in his long and sometimes difficult career.

Iggy’s inner artist

Raw Power icon Iggy Pop reveals a different side to rock’s favorite bad boy.

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by Dan Grunebaum

The heroin addiction, the public self-flagellation and penis-baring, the rumors of bisexuality…these are only the more infamous elements of Iggy Pop’s status as a living legend. Unlike many of the casualties that the rock lifestyle left littered by the roadside, Pop (b. James Newell Osterberg Jr.), not only survived the ’70s but soldiered on, his ripped physique an indication of the mettle that allowed him to live to tell the tale.

But the uncompromising American singer, whose latest album is last year’s Skull Ring, has lately revealed an artistic side in an exhibition of paintings held recently with (band member the Stooges guitarist) Ron Asheton in Detroit. “Sometimes I paint my way into it,” Pop explained by phone in response to a question about the relation between his painting and his song craft, as he looked out over the Rolls Royces parked in front of his Miami bungalow. “Once you get in the music business, you start feeling like an accountant or a prostitute, and then you wonder, gee, am I still an artist? Painting is a great way to convince yourself that you’re still capable of creating something intriguing.”

Choosing to debut his art away from the glare of the New York art world, Pop says the exhibition was Asheton’s inspiration. “Ron paints a little bit, and I’ve been painting for years. He’d shown some last year and wanted to do another show, I think actually because he’d sold a couple to the actress Renee Zellweger… I’d never shown my paintings and I really didn’t want to show ’em in New York. So I thought a Detroit show with a musical hook to it sounded about right.”

Many regard Pop’s work with the Stooges as his best, and whatever your opinion, it certainly will go down as his defining legacy. At a time when the rest of the pop world was still coming down from 1967’s acid-suffused Summer of Love, a fire-breathing Pop and the brothers Asheton (Ron and drummer Scott), offered a look at the world un-enhanced by rose-tinted lenses.

The creative burst between their 1969 debut The Stooges and 1973’s Raw Power proved prescient, hinting at the punk counterrevolution that was to come later in the decade and yielding songs like the endlessly covered, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But the Stooges broke up reportedly amid acrimony, making their recent reuniting a surprise for many.

Pop downplays the difficulties between them. “The animosity among us stayed at the level of things said in print about the other’s personal qualities,” he says. “That sort of thing won’t really break you up for long. Later when it gets to the level of lawyers, and accountants, that’s what really separates bands. Pardon me, but if it’s just some shit you said to a journalist, so what?”

The bludgeon-like directness of Pop’s songs has a source, and it’s not simply the unvarnished view of life he developed growing up in a trailer park in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The son of an English teacher, Pop took his education to heart. Describing his song craft, he says that some of the archetypical elements necessary for a good rock song include a memorable title, and the what, who, when, where and why of journalism.

“I try to follow the things I learned in high school,” he says, perhaps incredibly. “In creative writing, be universal. Whatever you write, try and do it in a way that will mean the same thing in 300 years. It should mean the same thing to anybody anywhere. And then from debate-I was on the debate team in high school-tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, and then tell ’em you told ’em.”

Pop isn’t big on metaphor. “Metaphor is great if you’re Bob Dylan, just like theater’s great if you’re Shakespeare,” he says. “But each of those people [is] responsible for an enormous amount of bad art being made by mediocre people who think that if they do things as if they were great, they’ll be great. Metaphor is beautiful-“Every Grain of Sand” by Bob Dylan is beautiful-but I’m not Bob Dylan.”

Yet in addition to these basic elements of songwriting, emotions are also needed to make a song resonate. “Something that gets me sad, wistful, excited, nostalgic,” Pop adds animatedly. “It could be any of emotion-lustful, aggressive, whatever it is.”

He says that the actual creation itself shouldn’t take more than five minutes, but that making a song special could take much longer. “There might be one element that might not come together, and that could torture you till it’s right,” he says. “You might have to do something like become a drug addict and wander through cities wasting your youth until you get the lyric just right.”

But the now clean-living, happily married Pop isn’t suggesting that one take heroin, only that it’s often been part of the process. “I’m not prescribing. You asked me about a lyric, not about health issues,” he recoils. “And I’m telling you that’s one of the things that keeps cropping up. You look at Baudelaire and you’re looking at laudanum. You look at Rimbaud and you’re looking at alcoholism. Even certain periods of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, the Who-you know-good writers, it comes up. I’m not advocating it, I’m obviously not using it, and I don’t think that’s the way to go today. But you asked me and I said that’s one of the avenues that’s taken.”

Having survived his demons, Pop approaches his career as exactly that, although one with unique perks. Asked if at age 56 he doesn’t tire of playing the rock god, Pop confesses, “Well you know there are certain privileges that go with doing alright at the job, so I ain’t gonna bitch about it, you know what I’m saying?”

First published in Metropolis magazine.

Photographs of iconic rock stars in concert in Japan:

Slash at Summer Sonic 2010. Photo by Dan Grunebaum.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin at Fuji Rock 2011. Photo by Dan Grunebaum.

Atoms For Peace’s Thom Yorke at Fuji Rock 2010. Photo by Dan Grunebaum.

Patti Smith: Don’t Call Her a Survivor

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David Byrne

Back in Japan with a new album, the iconic art punk does a delicate dance with his Talking Heads past.

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Photo by Cedric Leherle

After eight years, David Byrne is in Japan with a new album that reunites him with producer Brian Eno, the man in the control room for the Talking Heads’ greatest moments. But where is Brian?

“I invited him, but the commitment was to be on tour,” says an affable but nervous Byrne just before taking the stage at Shibuya-AX. “You can do the math and see how much money he’s going to make producing U2 and Coldplay compared to being on the road with me. It’s not much of a choice.”

Not that Byrne really seems bitter. In fact, later that evening he’s effusive as the audience gives an ecstatic greeting to his “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno” tour, demanding three encores.

The songs off Everything That Happens Will Happen Today aren’t welcomed with quite the same glee as Talking Heads tracks like “Burning Down the House,” but they are intriguing—and on the day of the gig in late January, the album is in the top ten on HMV’s international charts. Not bad for two men of, ahem, advancing years.

Byrne sounds happy with the album, which walks a line between the ambient textures of the pair’s seminal My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and their catchier work on ’80s classics like the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. But it wasn’t without a sense of ambivalence that Byrne and Eno reunited.

“It ended up being easy, but we both had trepidations,” says Byrne. “We didn’t announce that we were making a record. We just decided to work on a few things, and if we liked the direction, then continue. We liked the way things were going, so we kept going until it became a record. But it was nice not to feel that a lot of people were watching.”

“Musically, it was very different in that there was a complete separation of labor,” he continues. “Brian wrote the music and I wrote the melodies and sang. I think it worked partly because we get along as people and have similar musical tastes, but also because we agreed that I would limit musical contributions. In the same way, Brian made very few comments on my words and melodies.”

Does the title suggest a will not to live in the past? “Sort of. I’m conscious of not wanting to sound too much like something I’ve done before. That invites comparisons that are bound to be a problem. I don’t think about the past very much, but when I’m putting together a tour like this, then I bring in older songs again.”

But art-school graduate Byrne has long had more than his music going for him, with an extensive resume of movies, visual arts, installations and books. What is the relationship between art and entertainment in his work? “Sometimes, there is a big difference, but the kind of art I gravitate to is very accessible in the same way the music I make is maybe unusual but never pushes people away.”

Byrne has also been celebrated for his ability to find art in the mundane. How does he avoid the risk that some might find it simply mundane? “I don’t worry about it,” he says with a laugh. “The effect of taking something ordinary and putting it in a different context, or taking a photo of it and putting a frame around it gives you a new way to look at it. It either works or it doesn’t. There is always a possibility that people will go, ‘I know what that is—just because you’ve taken a picture of it doesn’t make it special.’”

The upcoming release of Bicycle Diaries, a book of reflections on his two-wheeled explorations of cities worldwide, may also push that boundary. In the meantime, it provides him with an activity for his downtime in Japan. “I did bring bikes along,” he admits. “We were going down Omotesando, and someone was saying it wasn’t too long ago that this was funky old buildings, and now it’s been replaced by this glass thing—but Tokyo is pretty good for bicycling.”

Does it work as a city? “I just got out and about this morning,” Byrne begs off. So if you thought that silver-haired gentleman tooling around town on a bike looked familiar—yes, you were right.

First published in Metropolis magazine.

 

Rock Warrior

Idealism tempered but undimmed by the years, former Clash frontman Joe Strummer tells Dan Grunebaum why his upcoming Japan tour may be his last.

“I am looking at this as possibly our final jaunt into Japan,” says Joe Strummer in a telephone chat from his country refuge in Somerset, an area three hours’ west of London that he notes is famous for alcoholic cider. We’re an hour late for the interview due to a time zone mix up, but Strummer is friendly and unfazed.

It’s mid September and Strummer is preparing to set out on tour with his latest band, The Mescaleros. Formed in 1999, the band has just released Global A Go-Go(Hellcat), the follow-up to their 1999 debut Art & The X-Ray Style, which helped resurrect the career of an almost forgotten punk legend.

Strummer’s not trying to sound depressing, just realistic. “Sooner or later I think we’d have to be defeated,” he says. “Not that we’ll give up, but I doubt we’ll be able to travel many places in the future—and we fly economy! You’ve got to fly ten guys into Japan and get the hotels and feed them,so I would think that pretty soon Japan will be out of our reach.”You’d think the fact that Strummer fronted one of punk’s most important bands would guarantee him an audience, but the soft-spoken singer explains that the mechanics of the contemporary music business mean that nothing is guaranteed.

“Even though there are extremists in the world…we’ve got to hold on to our sanity and not allow ourselves to get crazed with vengeance.”“We exist in a kind of nether world beyond MTV where only hipsters venture,” says Strummer about The Mescaleros, whose eclectic mix of rock, R&B, reggae, Latin and techno makes them difficult to “niche market.”

When pressed, Strummer—while careful to note that the band operates as a democracy—admits that, “Calling ourselves Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros has madeit easier for us than if we were just called The Mescaleros.” This, despite the fact that the Mescaleros also include other rock illuminati such as guitarist Anthony Glenn formerly of Elastica and multi-instrumentalist Martin Slattery of Black Grape.

“It’s a very competitive world in rock,” concludes Strummer. “So if you’ve got any kind of name in the world it’s advisable to use it.”And a name he has indeed. Not only did Strummer’s The Clash change the course of rock ‘n’ roll, but his career since the group disbanded in 1985 has been varied and productive.

He’s acted in movies by Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch, filled in as Pogues frontman, and composed soundtracks for Sid and Nancy(1986), When Pigs Fly(1993) and Grosse Pointe Blank(1997), just to name a few of his accomplishments.

But Strummer’s various attempts to launch a solo career and new bands were dogged by setbacks throughout the ’90s, a period his biographer refers to as “Joe’s Wilderness Years.” After the flop of his 1990 solo debut Earthquake Weather, CBS/Sony blocked any further solo efforts, hoping in vain for the Clash reunion Strummer insists will never take place.

Unable to come up with the five million pounds necessary to buy himself out of his contract, Strummer went on strike in 1997. Finally, CBS/Sony gave in, terminating his contract and paving the way for his signing to Hellcat, the indie label headed by SoCal punk band Rancid singer Tim Armstrong, a rabid Clash fan of long standing.

Recently, The Mescaleros have been touring with many of their Hellcat label mates, who represent the new wave of West Coast punk. So how does a grand old man of punk feel about the young kids on the block? “We get to see how they play on stage as well as hang out with them. A lot of them are excellent musicians and also very witty people,” he enthuses.

On the other hand, he says that, “As far as the content, I think it’s more for younger people than I; it’s music for a different generation.” Strummer—49 and a father of three children—is confident about his band’s ability to rock out. “When we get up there and knock into it there aren’t too many people complaining,” he boasts.“We’ve done our homework, and we haven’t made anything bad.”

Strummer says that, perhaps surprisingly, fans don’t request Clash tunes, even though he does say “We play all kinds of music that I have been involved in, from all parts of my particular history.”

Strummer—who says he makes music for “his own age group”—is scathing about the current state of rock and its domination by worldwide conglomerates. “MTV has constructed its own universe—many songs are being written specifically to be the soundtrack to a video which is specifically being made to be shown on MTV 12 times a day,”he complains. “MTV, which started out as an observer, is now a decisive factor in which kind of music is being made.”

He adds that his band can’t be found on radio, either. “All the radio stations are on a corporate diet so it’s a corporate menu.”But despite Strummer’s view that “We won’t be able to survive for too much longer,” the singer is philosophical. “MTV world has nothing to do with my world,” he says. “So we just kind of get on with it.”

And get on with it they do. The Mescaleros are spending the better part of the fall touring the US and UK, with a brief detour to Japan. It’s a busy life about which Strummer has mixed feelings.“I’ve been to Japan many times but I’ve never seen anything,” he laments. “As soon as they get you into Japan they want to work you. My usual schedule is 20 interviews a day. You get half an hour to go buy some funny presents for your kids and that’s it.”

While realistic about the chances of getting his message of peace through, Strummer—who grew up all over the world as the son of a British Foreign Office employee—insists that, in a world horrified by the Sept 11 terror attacks, commitment is critical.

“The message is even more pertinent,” he concludes. “Even though there are extremists in the world, if we represent the sane people of the world, then we’ve got to hold on to our sanity and not allow ourselves to get crazed with vengeance and make an inopportune movement.”

First published in Metropolis magazine.

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