Category Archives: INTERVIEWS

A Conversation With John Lydon


John Lydon doesn’t need an introduction. A wind-up works, as the iconic punk (Rotten, late of the Sex Pistols) and post-punk (the ongoing-and-growing Public Image Ltd, or PiL) avatar is saying, singing and writing more than he has since his late-’70s start. While a second, more deeply personal and probing autobiography is now out, digging into physical ails and remarkable joys in Anger Is An Energy, PiL has just released its blabby new album,What The World Needs Now…, and an oddly comic single and video, “Double Trouble,” where Lydon presents the travails of wedded bliss through a handyman’s labor.

You’ve got one song on the new album, “Corporate,” which is about the prison of company hell, and another, “Shoom,” that seems to be about the futility of succeeding. You’ve been livingly noncorporately off-the-grid for a minute. What’s bugging you?
It’s the franchising of individuals. We’re still being flooded by mall-style clothing and ideologies. All of these attitudes are soul-destroying, wouldn’t you say? A sad example is how there’s so much great rap music, but the cottage industries around it are so sad. Nike is the biggest earners, yet their goods are not well-made, in my mind. I’ve had Nikes in my time, and they’ve fallen apart over the course of a year. In fact, they rot from the inside out.

John, a lot of things rot from the inside out.
I don’t, apparently. These are barbs against the record industry and entertainment complexes. No one should stifle you from the joy of your life. Corporate thinking is always the enemy. As for “Shoom,” well, that’s the first thing you hear on that song … a shoom from mucking about on a drum machine. The lyrics, however, are from the point of view of my father, whose sense of comedic timing was impeccable. I used to watch him from the time he came in the front door to when he was in the pub, all with that Irish accent of his. He was very dry and ironical, so “Shoom” is an homage to him and his point of view.

Were you close with your folks? Are they a natural part of your conversation outside of your songs and the book?
Well, you have to remember that I lost my memory for like four years being in a coma from having meningitis. For years, I didn’t know who they were, so when my memories returned, I wasn’t ever gonna let them go again. It’s nothing to take lightly, an amazing hardcore thing. Your personality, the core of your being; everything around you can be so quickly taken away. Luckily for me, it wasn’t permanent, but I was pissed.

One of the therapies that the doctors used was to harness your anger, yes?
Yes, to use anger as an energy. I slowly but surely recovered my memories, and I’ll never lose them again, I hope. That would be my worst nightmare. To endure that utter complete loneliness all over again, to not know that you belong to anybody—my love of humanity, my clinging to the world of other human beings would be lost. I know how quickly it can be taken away.

Would you say that you are a man surprisingly possessed of joy?
It’s not a surprise to me. I love life, but yes—I am nothing but gleeful. Sorry if it came off as something else, but no …

So, you’re a feeling man. Tender, even. Were your surprised to be so vilified at the start of your career? The Pistols, early PiL—you were demonized as an antichrist anarchist.
I was discussed in Parliament. Ah, institutions are foolish at heart. They are literally headless chickens running around in circles. If I could make that machine cease, it would be well worth any headache I’ve endured. I don’t need to get involved in pomp, circumstance and irrational attitudes.

Your ideology when you started PiL was to be self-maintaining. Has that carried on with this group (drummer Bruce Smith, guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth)?
Be outside of the shit-stem so that we couldn’t be dragged down by it—that’s always been the goal. At the start, we were still attached to the label system. They were controlling purse strings. Certain band members back then smelt money, and that led to insider problems, but it was a good idea; one that I see coming together now, because all of us respect each other and are eager to work with each other, and absolutely love what we do. This new album shows that. We can’t all be perfect plumbers or perfect singers, but you do have to try…

Do you vote? Are you fully an American citizen by this point?
Yes I do, and yes I am. Very happily, too—a great idea, that. I got my membership. Made me very proud.

Are our politics funnier than England’s?
No. England is much more false and petty. They are absolutely still trapped in regime, some being thousands of years old. That club is a stranglehold that is very hard to achieve anything with or through beyond what you were born in or to. That’s a punishing regime—a form of enslavement. Here, you’re still young and there’s still many levels of hope, mostly personifi ed by our president and Obamacare. That is so particularly new American, and I’m more than happy to be here for that. In my mind, any society that doesn’t take care of its own—the unfortunate, the disenfranchised, the afflicted—is uninformed; the Wild West. At least England came up with a National Health Service, so good on that. That’s how a smart society handles things. All that and, still, America does have Donald Trump—a headless chicken if ever there was. He’s our best Christmas gift, and he’s arrived early.

—A.D. Amorosi

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A Conversation With Tame Impala


Kevin Parker is no less of a lone wolf on Tame Impala’s newest album, Currents, than he was on Innerspeaker or Lonerism. Yet, this time out, he’s focusing on more active (still melancholy) aspects of the isolation he’s felt/written about in the past. The moving parts of disgust and bitterness are found in the heartbreak within the record’s electronic framework; a sound with its guitars tuned down and the light spattering psychedelia of his previous albums wiped clean. Currents, then, is that: a new Parker, now.

Dog man or cat man?
I used to be a cat man—still love them—but my girlfriend is a dog girl and I dig walking her dog, so I’m in the middle. I’d probably get a dog before a cat at this point.

Last time I saw Tame Impala, you were touring with Flaming Lips and Sean Lennon’s Tiger band. That sounds like a hoot. Were you shocked when Lennon told you that you sounded like his dad?
That whole thing was like a festival atmosphere—the habitual drinking and such. The Sean thing? I hate to get into a big thing about it. I get the feeling it’s just something he said o the top of his head one night. I mean, wow, that’s his dad.

Let’s talk about someone else: Mark Ronson, who had you on his new album. Tame Impala is one of his favorite acts. You don’t do a lot of guest spots. How was that hookup? What was the takeaway?
He was fun to work with, if for no other reason than he’s got all these other artists around him—Bruno Mars included. He gathers an amazing team—musicians, singers, authors—and uses them like an orchestra, just conducting. Brilliant minds that in any other situation you’d be worrying about the old “too many chefs spoiling the broth” cliché. Mark had this great way of bringing people together and bringing out the singular thing in each of them—but shows there’s no one way to do things. He finds inspirations in groups of people, and that provides another layer. Collaboration is his instrument, I think. None of that reflects on me and the way I make music on my own, but I see it.

As a person now, do you like your own company more than you like the interaction of friends?
I appreciate both these days. I do need time alone to allow thoughts to rattle around my head—for instance, that’s the only time I hear melodies—but I do want to connect with people. That’s what Lonerism was all about, just that wanting to connect.

That’s fine for Lonerism, but what about Currents? Do you think you have the goal you set out for?
There’s not a story per se. I’m not playing one character, but I do think there is a realization. The feeling that we’re not so disconnected is there. Definitely.

You’re in this, I know, but are the other characters pieced-together facsimiles? Fictions? People you’ve observed? Are they closer to you than that?
There’s definitely something autobiographical about Currents. I don’t know if I would be able to pull such meaning from subjects more distanced. It wouldn’t be as meaningful to me. Then again, I can always run out of true stories.

Woody Allen just said that, given the chance, he would remake every one of his films. Even his newest. Considering where Currents goes sonically, how different it sounds than anything in you catalog, think you would you change anything?
That’s a hard question. I have to force myself to say no. There’s always that temptation, and I know there are flaws, but I like accepting it that way. People have done things with and people have fallen in love to my records. Luckily, I’ve gotten better at making records, but I think I like what each of them does in their present state. I can make them sound better, but I can hear them for their romantic crustiness. I can hear the romance in the ramshackle way in which they’re put together.

How did the new sound become a thing— your thing for this album—in the first place?
I’ve always loved electronic music and wanted to make more of it; I just had to find a way to make it mine. Air. R&B things that use electronics. I probably listened to that more than, say, the sort of music I was making at the time, but I’ve never really had a way of mixing it into my music, my songs—or had the courage, really. To bring those two sides of me into one sound. For instance, I’ve always been into Michael Jackson, but I never found a way of expressing that influence.

Courage—that’s a funny way to think of it. I don’t want to analyze every word you say, but why that?
I think because eventually you have to stop second-guessing what you do, not be careful anymore. I think I have been too careful in the past. Before I took a next step, I self-analyzed every reason why and why not. It’s a blessing and a curse, really, because you do have a filter—what to leave in, what rubbish must come out—but it also stops you from making brash decisions, finding the wild and crazy, the joy of things. I think it takes courage to say fuck it, to dodge the consequences.

What motivated “Gossip”? It felt very Bowie Low to me, which is what—just an album of interludes, really.
I love interludes on an album, a thing that connects everything, comes out of nowhere, but act seamlessly. “Gossip” is its own little thing.

Are you a guy who keeps notes/letters from your past, or writes down volumes of lyrics? Currents come from a deep emotional wellspring that I imagine you ruminated upon somehow.
I’ve got that dreaded book, but I’ve never really written down a whole thing in my life. I just scribble some things down, but mostly just put what’s coming out of my head onto tape or whatever, attach  them to a melody and hope they stick—and that I at least remember them all when I’m onstage.

—A.D. Amorosi

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A Conversation With Denis Leary


On a summer evening, while hail raged onto Manhattan’s streets, Denis Leary took the stage of Webster Hall with fellow comic actor Robert Kelly (Louis C.K.’s brother on Louie) and comedy newcomer Elizabeth Gillies (a Nickelodeon star) to hawk their FX series, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. Conceived by Leary to skewer the tropes of ’90s excess as it’s played out in the PC/abstinence-filled/mopey indie/social media-centric present, its creator stars as a prototypical one-time sensation taken down by the (now) terrible trio of its title and looking for a comeback. The show gets funnier with each episode, there are appearances (onscreen and off ) by your indie-rock faves, and Leary’s hair looks fantastic.

This is a very specific moment that you start the action of the show—the year you broke. What were the models for it? People you knew?
A lot of guys I played with in Boston at Emerson College stayed my friends when they left town. Some of them, like Adam Roth, who I still play with, hit NYC and became the guitarist in bands like Jim Carroll’s and the Del Fuegos when each of those acts was hot. Then there was guys from Boston who made it super big, like the Cars. That fame, though, was much less interesting than watching the guys who didn’t make it, but wanted to be famous.

These bands had the same problem big bands had—the lead singer and guitarist not getting along?
I still know those guys. When we were filming Rescue Me, I would run into some of them on the Lower East Side, when you could still afford to live in that neighborhood. They were still doing it—few had given up the idea of stardom even in their 40s. Some, though, were bitter angry; blaming anyone they could for stealing their sound, their aura. My experience in show business? Everyone who’s famous has a dozen people left behind blaming them for their failure. For my Johnny character, those guys are Greg Dulli and Dave Grohl—that should have been me. But you’re not. You’re 50. Now what? You don’t find that in other professions.

Men who don’t make it in other professions rarely wear Cuban heels and leopard-skin pants.
You gotta pick a look. I remember running into Lenny Kaye—all in black, but in slightly baggier pants than usual. It wasn’t a new look. His daughter made him get rid of his skinny jeans and his jewelry because she was embarrassed when he took her to school. When I created Johnny, I had to consider guys who have had the same look their whole life, for better for worse. Bono chose a good look. My guy chose the wrong look, and it’s not aging well.

Why 1990? I had you sussed as a late ’70s/’80s music guy. Or was that to make the daughter a more plausible character, play into tropes such as the Twitter hoaxes you use in the show?
I started it in 1990 because that’s when I first got famous. My insight on fame came from me coming up doing all that MTV stuff like Remote Control. One of my best friends, Ted Demme, created Yo! MTV Raps, so I had that exposure. Big rock guys and up-and-coming rock guys were everywhere—the Stones, Grohl, Dulli’s Afghan Whigs started to kick. That was a rich time; I wasn’t into grunge, but I liked Nirvana. The Whigs got tied into that Seattle thing, even though they went against trend. They just thought they were rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why I picked Greg and Grohl—I had to find guys for Johnny to blame, and who better? You have two forms of the rock star: the giant star, which Grohl is, and the critically acclaimed indie god like Dulli. Johnny’s failure is reflected in those two guys. When they went onstage, they went to work—something Johnny had problems with then and now.

You invoke Bowie quite a bit during S&D&R&R. The title song sounds like “The Jean Genie.” You bring him up seven times in the first two episodes. Do you think his talent dried up before Let’s Dance, like Johnny says?
No … but Johnny believes that. And I thought the Let’s Dance tour was great. In my pantheon of stars, Bowie is at the very top. The Stones and the Who got me through the ’70s until the Clash arrived. Bowie was huge throughout all of that. I met him doing a television show from a London West End Theater where Bowie was the musical guest. I stepped outside to smoke when Bowie arrived, and all of a sudden, he asks me for a light. Swear to God, I couldn’t talk. Then he asks me what Bobcat Goldthwait, Sam Kinison and Steven Wright were like. I told him, they called him in for sound check, and that was it. I’ve never met him again, and I wasted the entire fucking conversation talking about Bobcat Fucking Goldthwait!

Are you really not much of a Radiohead or Morrissey fan, as portrayed in the show, or were you just looking for someone to hang mope-rock jokes on?
I’m actually a huge Morrissey and Smiths fan; Radiohead, too. Here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of pretentiousness. That’s tough, though, because some of my favorite rockers can be pretentious. Before Springsteen did “The Rising,” he was getting there. I hate pretense, prog rock, Yes and all that fucking bullshit. I like three-minute songs. After “The Rising,” though, I gave Springsteen a free pass to do anything he likes because that was an extraordinary comment about what we went through on that day—and so quickly after that event. Radiohead, I fucking love, but they get denser as they go along. Morrissey is great, but, dude, really—I can’t have a fucking hot dog? C’moooon.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Exclusive Excerpt: Yo La Tengo Interviewed By Actor Michael Shannon


Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

For three decades, Yo La Tengo has been one of the most important, diverse, influential and, well, best bands on the planet. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew (along with former member Dave Schramm) revisit their classic Fakebook album on its 25th anniversary with latest LP Stuff Like That There, an odds-and-sods collection of covers, reworkings and new songs. MAGNET had Oscar-nominated actor—and longtime YLT fan—Michael Shannon sit down with Kaplan, Hubley and McNew to talk about their little corner of the world.

Yo La Tengo. “I have it.” Along with being one of the most formidable three-pieces in recent rock history, they indisputably have one of the greatest band names, as well. So banal yet exotic; so ethereally ambiguous, capable of embodying optimism and pessimism in equal measure. What do they have? The answers? The solutions? Or some affliction of the soul? All I can say is, after I heard I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One for the first time, they had my undivided attention. This band seems capable of inhabiting so many different realms, despite their claim that they aren’t terribly proficient at playing their instruments. On their new release, Stuff Like That There, they present yet another wonderland of popular and obscure covers, the occasional new song and, yes, covers of their own songs, which is where things get really interesting. Because when you listen to the new version of “Deeper Into Movies,” you realize you have aged quite a bit since the first version. Not just in years, but miles traveled, thoughts and feelings collected and expelled. And so has the band. And the song you used to rage to is now the song you listen to whilst sitting in your armchair sipping an IPA and staring out the window. And it’s the same song! That’s what Yo La Tengo has. I don’t know what it’s called, but I need it. Recently, I sat down to chat with them. I had no idea what to ask, even though I had been thinking about it for two weeks. So, here it is. —Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon: So one night—this is years ago—Gary (Wilmes) calls me and he says, “I’m hanging out with Yo La Tengo at this bar—do you wanna come by?” Because he knew I was a fan. I said, “Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute.” Then I came by, and I didn’t know what to say. I was just kind of sitting there … and then after 20 minutes or so, I was like, “Well, nice to meet you.” Then I left. Do you keep up with Gary? Do you still see him occasionally?
Ira Kaplan: It’s been a while since we saw Gary.

Shannon: How did you guys know Gary?
Kaplan: Through Jon (Benjamin). Did you ever see the Midnight Pajama Jam?

Shannon: No.
Kaplan: Do you know Jon Benjamin, too?

Shannon: Oh, yeah.
Kaplan: A thing they did together was a talk show where Jon Benjamin was the host and Jon Glaser was the co-host voicing two hand puppets—an eagle named Scott Fellers and an Octopus named Lumpy. And Gary was their bandleader for a while. He was replaced finally; I guess he became too busy for that. He did it in a Star Wars
James McNew: In a C-3PO mask.
Kaplan: And he would just lip-synch or mime—you know, he’d have a Casio—but it would always just be the Star Wars theme.

Shannon: Could he play the Star Wars theme? Some of those Casios have pre-recorded …
Kaplan: So, yeah, that’s how we know Gary.
McNew: I played Gary’s son in one production of the show. I also had a mask.
Kaplan: It was right across the street, wasn’t it? What was that place called?
Georgia Hubley: Yeah, it was.
McNew: It was a live show.
Kaplan: Marquee?
Hubley: I don’t know.
McNew: It started at that place up the street, which I think finally became The Daily Show studio or something.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah, I think you’re right.
McNew: The one you did was in Brooklyn.
Kaplan: No, the one I did was across the street. I missed the one in Brooklyn.
Shannon: But I remember meeting you, because I was thinking about it: That spot must have been around here somewhere. I was thinking, “I hope I have more to say now than I did that night. Because if it’s like that night, then it’s not gonna be a very good interview.” I think that’s actually what it was—it must have been after you guys had done that show.
Hubley: We really haven’t seen Gary in ages, actually. We saw him in a play the most recent time.

Shannon: Did you see Gatz?
Kaplan: Yeah.

Shannon: Wow, what’d you make of that?
McNew: Amazing.

Shannon: Yeah. I never had eight hours to make it through. How did you guys? You must be terribly busy all the time.
Hubley: We weren’t then. There’s no way we could do it now. [Laughs]
McNew: You were busy as hell that day, though; you watched a play for eight hours.
Shannon: Now they have The Sound And The Fury going on.
Kaplan: We saw that one, too.

Shannon: Would you recommend it?
Kaplan: Yeah, I’ve never read it. I think I probably tried and got like a page into it and went back to a comic book. But it’s amazing; the night we were there, they happened to have a panel talk afterward with John Collins and a couple of scholars, and I felt like I really should have started reading it that night.
McNew: But they don’t do the whole book, right? Just the first part.
Hubley: Yeah, and it’s like two hours.
McNew: Did you ever do any long-form or experimental type stuff?

Shannon: None of that, no. Not to that extent. But I’m a big fan of this playwright named Eugène Ionesco—last year I did a show of his called The Killer, out in Brooklyn in a theater for a new audience. That’s a pretty long show, pretty bizarre.
Kaplan: Rhinocéros?

Shannon: I’ve never done Rhinocéros. I’ve seen it. But I’ve never done it. You’re very cultured.
Kaplan: Highly cultured band.

Shannon: There’s a really interesting dichotomy, I’ve noticed, between your music—which a lot of times seems to be very emotional and quite moving—and the things that I read about online and the things you write and the people you hang out with: You seem to be constantly searching for humor and good times. I don’t know how to put it, but it’s this kind of interesting juxtaposition. You listen to one of your albums; you wouldn’t think that you guys like to hang out with Jon Glaser or somebody. I guess it kind of makes sense.
McNew: I think those guys, their work is intensely personal. You totally laugh more at them than you do at our reference. Just the way Jon Benjamin will say anything and the way Jon Glaser will, too …
Kaplan: As long as he’s wearing a mask. [Laughs]

Shannon: Like one of my favorite characters of all time is Ben on Dr. Katz, one of the characters that Jon (Benjamin) voiced.
Kaplan: I remember watching it and liking it and going back and realizing, “Wow, I think I’ve met everybody on this show.”
Hubley: Were you ever on that show?

Shannon: No, I didn’t break that threshold. It was a little bit before I had the juice to get on something like that. So, there’s some pretty big numbers being thrown around here, like 30th anniversary, 25th anniversary of Fakebook. Does it seem like you’ve been doing it this long?
Kaplan: Sometimes. [Laughs] Some days.
Hubley: Not really. Not to be … I mean, it does kind of take me by surprise how long it’s been, that’s a really, really, really long time. I don’t even feel like I’m that old … which, obviously, I’m older. [Laughs]

Shannon: Maybe something about the fact that it’s music and it always stays vital versus working in an office for 30 years, which makes you feel like you’re being attacked by vampires. It’s that feeling of doing what you’ve always wanted to do.
Hubley: Yeah, you know, we pretty much do what we want. We do different things, and we do a lot of different things. Sometimes maybe too many in one week. But it makes it more interesting and it doesn’t ever feel … sometimes touring can feel like a lot, for me anyway.

Shannon: You hear that a lot—touring’s a real gauntlet. I think as like a fan out in the audience, the fans are going, “This is the greatest night of my life,” and you guys are out there like, “Hmmm … ” I guess when you’re actually up there performing, it feels different.
Kaplan: I’m not sure we all feel the same way about it. For me, right now, I feel like we’ve really got a lot of very different things going on simultaneously. It just felt kind of overwhelming at times. And I think, consequently, touring can be one of the most relaxing things to do because it’s only one thing. You wake up and even though you can be tired or something, the focus is so much easier. Georgia has more difficulty being away from home for a long time than I do. I’m happier to be out there for extended periods of time, I think.

Shannon: Right, the regimented nature of it, you enjoy. I feel that way when I’m doing a play; I know what my day is gonna be. It’s gonna finish this way, and some people don’t like repetition, but I’ve never minded repetition, really. It’s a good way to figure out what you’re doing. What are some of these other things?
Kaplan: We just started a movie score like a week ago. We’ve been working on that pretty much every day.
Shannon: Is this the first time?
Kaplan: No, we’ve done them a good amount for the past 10 years or so. We do them all ourselves at our place in Hoboken. We have a little recording setup, and we all kind of huddle around the screen and watch the picture and just kind of compose. That doesn’t really seem like the right word, but I guess technically that’s what we’re doing. It’s fun. It’s a really fun, interesting way to make music, as opposed to just jamming and the way we usually make music. I really enjoy it.

Shannon: It’s a real tightrope, because it takes so little to make such a big effect. I had a film recently that had a score that was just way over the top and overwhelmed the entire movie. And the director insisted on it, like, “This is a real old-fashioned score, it’s an orchestra; they didn’t make it on a computer or anything.” And I’m like, “You don’t understand—you’re ruining the movie.” But a lot of the best scores are just a few notes, kinda like a haiku. It’s funny—you can really get into a scene and think, “Oh, I have so many ideas,” and while you’re doing them, they probably seem like amazing ideas. But marry them to the film …
Kaplan: I think we do that without movies, too. When we’re making a record, we try to keep an open mind as far as, like, “Well let’s take out the drums.” Or, “Let’s take out this entire instrument and see how it sounds.” Just change parts that one of us was singing just to hear it. We try to stay open to trying new things just for the sake of trying.


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Exclusive Excerpt: Ben Lee Interviewed By Actress Rose Byrne


Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

On the new Love Is The Great Rebellion, Ben Lee continues his spiritual journey toward enlightenment and happiness. MAGNET asked Emmy/Golden Globe-nominated actress (and fellow Australia native) Rose Byrne to sit down with Lee in his L.A. home to discuss love and death. And why everything is OK.

Ben Lee and I met when I was 19, standing on Broadway in New York City. It was summer. I had been hearing about him, his name, his music, his friends and his world for some time, and when we finally met, it was an immediate mutual and lovely recognition—of respect and friendship. We went on to act in a film together, to start a pop-up cover band, to share a New York Christmas together and an enduring friendship.

Ben Lee is a music prodigy. He spent his early teen years heading up Noise Addict, being discovered by Thurston Moore and the Beastie Boys, then being thrust into the spotlight with a celebrity relationship and a hit record. I feel protective of him. He has been provocative—with his music and his words—and as a result, he seems to be a divisive figure for people. They want to rip him apart, then put him back together when it suits.

From the raw and rough-hewn DEF and Grandpaw Would, to his embrace of pop on Breathing Tornados, to the wild success of Awake Is The New Sleep, to experimental album Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work, Ben is always seeking new frontiers. Of music, of love, of what it means to be alive. He is always striving.

We got to sit down in Laurel Canyon and talk about his new beautiful album, Love Is The Great Rebellion. We talked about philosophy, pop culture, a career and faith. About the idea of how having a great future does not require a great past. About rectification and reconciliation. This album is a love letter to his fans, to his music and to life. It is asking us back in and marrying his pop with his spirituality. We are in for a treat, ladies and gentlemen. —Rose Byrne

Rose Byrne: I was wondering when was the genesis of this whole thing?
Ben Lee: The Ayahuasca album, the last album, came out … I can’t remember [April 2013 —ed]. But it sort of was intended as a continuation of that. This record, when I went into it, it was going to be an even more abstract, dense, non-linear album. All of the thinking around the Ayahuasca record and the way music can reflect a shifting sense of consciousness—it got me interested in this music connection to death and dying. So, I started studying dead midwifery and hospice volunteered and all, and I started looking at how music interacts with that process. I was going down the road so that this record would really be a soundtrack to dying—I was going to call it Music To Die To. [Laughs] I thought, “That’s gonna be commercial—if you thought Ayahuasca was a flop, just wait.”
But I kind of realized at a certain point after a few songs came, the few songs I wrote with Jesse (Chapnik Kahn) at the beginning—“Body Of Love” and “Forgiveness,” those two basically—they came really spontaneously. And I was like, “They sound like radio songs, like singles.” It was really unexpected; there was no intention to write songs like that. It sort of opened up this idea that perhaps in my attempt to move into this abstract territory, I was kind of shooting myself in the foot. I’ve kind of realized more recently, when I looked back over my career, that I’ve had this impulse to move against my audience. I’ve sort of thought of them as the enemy, and I’ve always wondered why. And you know me—you know I’ve been through a lot of things. This feeling of “well, I’ll show them—they think I’m like this.” It was this sort of bratty impulse, and I think a lot of young artists go through that. I kind of realized more recently that I was really barking up the wrong tree in terms of where to put my rebellious energy. The people that understand my music, they’re on my side. And to put this energy into working against them and surprising them and working against their expectations, it’s really taking away from what I can do in the world in a larger system.
So, these early pop songs that came on the record, they made me think about re-exploring the idea I had some years ago of using the pop song form—talking about radical ideas and talking about dangerous ideas psychologically, but within a medium that kids like. And I always liked music that you don’t need to know before you go to the concert, and so much of modern music, it’s almost like you need an education in a band before you can appreciate them live. So, if you go with a friend that’s really into them, they’re just in ecstasy, and you’re like, “Ehhh” … After a few songs, you get bored. It’s not designed to engage you in that way, and I’ve always liked the idea that music should be like a pre-school teacher. Just going, “Come on, guys!” So, anyway, I got more and more down that road of, let me explore putting these ideas in a format that would be more accessible.

Byrne: Yeah, right. Wow, so you’re sort of leaning in a bit more.
Lee: Right, and I’m even embarrassed to say it—that’s the most radical thing about this record. It’s the first record, while I was making it, I did consider—and not in a compromising way—“What would a Ben Lee fan like on an album?” And I’ve never asked that. I think most artists probably ask that all the time, and then they make decisions. I am now 23 years into my career, and I never considered that. In a way it was, I hope, a beginning of a stage of generosity with my audience. I mean, I think you’ve gone through this, too, realizing that great achievement occurs because you embrace what’s actually here right now.

Byrne: Oh, absolutely.
Lee: You can have ideals all the way home, but you can’t build anything on ideals. You have to build it on the opportunities available. What can I do with them? And if people think of you as one type of artist, you don’t just throw that away. You say, “Let me start there and see what I can do with that,” and that’s the rule of alchemy. What have you got? What can you build? So, I’m just starting to think like that. And I look at a lot of my peers who have built, in a sense, a career that is much more stable than mine.

Byrne: Who do you consider your peers?
Lee: I’m not sure. Like Bright Eyes or Ben Folds—you know, singer/songwriters who have had long careers, but sort of worked in a medium where there’s a lot of reliability with their audience. And there’s been a dialogue. They haven’t constantly been going, “By the way, you can’t trust me,” to their audience, which is what I’ve been doing. Not that I necessarily want to go to another extreme, but I’m realizing that there’s been an absence of generosity on my part, or perhaps a fear of intimacy, with my audience. Instead of going, “Hey, these are my people—let me speak in them in a language we developed together and continue to bring in new ideas, but with a way that builds on trust and doesn’t dismantle it every time.”

Byrne: No, it felt like that with the songs, like a return to form. I suppose more of a classic pop and rock, but it did feel like it was with a different voice. Like it was trying to marry the two, almost. You reaching a different point personally in your life—I loved all the stuff about the past, and reconciling with it and kind of acknowledging it. I definitely feel like, as an artist, you can just look back at your past and just go, “Why did I do this, why did I do that?” All of these repetitive mistakes and you’ve just gotta reach a point where you love yourself for it, you know?
Lee: Yeah, and you’ve also gotta, like, truly move on. If you’re still punishing yourself over mistakes you made 10 or 20 years ago, how much energy do you have for the present moment? That’s kind of what I realized—undeniably, there were errors, personally and professionally. There were types of ignorance that I displayed in my relationships and in my professional life. They’re undeniable, they involved selfishness, and they were sometimes mean-spirited. It’s always like part of you in the future wants to find a way to defend it and reconcile it and go, “Well, that was where I was at the time.” We have this funny culture, too, of, “Well, I learned from that mistake, so I’m glad I made it.” Whereas I don’t really believe you learn from the mistake; I believe you learn from coming back to the truth after the mistake. You know, the mistake didn’t teach you; the mistake was an act of stupidity. But, we each have an inner voice, a conscience inside us that ignites whenever we’re making a mistake, and that’s what we’re grateful for. It’s dangerous to have too much gratitude for our mistakes. I think they were mistakes, I’d rather not have done them, but here we are now.
You know, someone said, “To have a great future doesn’t require a great past.” And I realized the courage that it takes, and that’s a lot of what the album is about. What does it mean to say—I’ll be 37 this year—to say I would have done things very differently had I the chance to do them again? Do I now just fall into a sort of bitterness and resentment, or do I go, “Well, let’s start today”? What are the values I wish I had then? Let me implement them now. I’m not gonna be anybody’s victim, I’m not gonna just spend my life apologizing; I’m just gonna change.

Byrne: Yeah, I loved also—which I could relate to—the ebb and flow of a career when you sort of work steadily and have incredible lives, and I definitely relate to that. Constantly being the next big thing or the comeback or the big break, and I guess every artist’s journey is so different. Some people obviously hit really hard, and then other people never do. So, I very much related to that idea of the ebb and flow.
Lee: If you spend your life considering, “Well, where am I in the scheme of things,” you realize you have no relationship to your craft yourself. It’s all based on validation and considering, “Well, what do they think of me, or what do they think of me?” It’s all based on considering others. Instead of realizing, “Oh, this is a craft.” To some degree, we are here to get better at something. It’s really nice if you’re given the fortune of it going well for you and having an income, but there’s responsibilities that come with that, too; you know suddenly you’re managing a business. It’s one of those things where I have to become a grown-up and say, “OK, we’re artists, we’re in it for the long haul. This isn’t just about that glamorous bit that started.” Do you remember when we went to see the Vines at the Troubadour?

Byrne: Yeah.
Lee: And I was on one of those down bits where I couldn’t get a record made, I couldn’t find a label to put it out. Me and you were standing there, and there’s like such a sense of excitement around this band we’re watching. And you know, they’re a good band, good rock ‘n’ roll band and everything. But I felt so envious, not of the band or the music, but just of the moment they were at, of that sexy, exciting early 20s—everyone wants to be a part of it, you know? And that has truly been resolved in me in a sense that I actually see that now as one of the most dangerous times for an artist. Because the seduction into a wrong valley system is so intense that, if you make it through that and still want to be an artist, you’re doing great. But at that point I was like, “Ah, if only I could recapture that!” And with one of the songs in the record, “Everything Is OK,” I say, “What a waste/I tried to turn back time instead of chasing my destiny.” Because I realized I spent so much time trying to recapture a moment with the public or with my craft or something instead of moving forward. And the most dangerous thing is to stop moving forward.

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A Conversation With FFS’ Russell Mael And Alex Kapranos


Ron and Russell Mael formed Sparks in 1970, and since then have crafted iconic albums well-versed in high-pitched power pop, glam rock, art skronk, electronic disco and beyond, with startlingly sardonic lyrics. That’s their thing. What’s not been their thing in a 45-year existence is collaboration outside of the brothers’ very immediate circle. (Todd Rundgren, Giorgio Moroder and Jane Wiedlin aside.) Enter Franz Ferdinand, the hit-making, dancey post-punk ensemble and admitted Sparks fans, whose eponymous first album just happened to thrill the Maels. Along with forming a mutual admiration society, the bands united as one—under the name FFS—for a seamlessly interconnected self-titled album that sounds like both and neither simultaneously. We spoke to Russell and FF frontman Alex Kapranos about the union.

Russell, there’s this great Sparks-fan documentary being made by two documentarians, one in Israel, another in Philly. Have Sparks hooked up with them for your side of the story?
Russell Mael: I’m aware of that thing. We’ve chosen not to be part of it. There are slews of people who want to do documentaries on us.

Look at you.
Russell Mael: I’m not dissing it. We’re happy someone wants to do a film on us. It’s just that we have to pick and choose because of how we might be represented. We don’t really have time to sit over somebody’s shoulder. We could do the film on our own if that’s the case.

Which you are doing with one of two musical movies you’re making soon.
Russell Mael: Yes, neither of which I can talk about until the ink is dry. We like different parameters and conventions—nothing strict or defined that doesn’t allow us to retain 1,000 percent of our personality. Funny thing is, with the musical genre, there are negative connotations surrounding it—the razzmatazz of Broadway, the cringe-worthy stuff of people breaking into song and all those affectations.

Are you saying Sparks doesn’t like razzmatazz?
Russell Mael: Razzmatazz is so 2014.

Alex, let me duck back to that fandom thing. When did you get turned on to the Maels?
Kapranos: I actually didn’t come across Sparks until I was a little bit older. I was too young for their big British hits like Kimono My House or even the Moroder era. However, in my early 20s, I happened onto a secondhand copy of “Amateur Hour”—I would buy anything on the old Island label—and it was totally amazing, a genuinely different approach to songwriting. I realized too that they were still going, a band with great history, still active and still innovating.

What’s interesting, too, is that Sparks loved your first album and “Take Me Out.”
Kapranos: Really? I mean, they never expressed that to us per se. It’s a very male thing to tell other people about how you feel about them, but not the guy himself. Then again, American men are surely more emancipated.

You guys rarely work with people outside the brotherhood. I wouldn’t say you operate in a vacuum, but you do stick to your own lane. This sounds Oprah-ish, but is it hard to let people in? And why Franz?
Russell Mael: It’s not, in a certain way. We just happen to have an unwritten credo of what we stand for—our image, lyrics, melodies—and we have fashioned our own world. In that sense, it’s hard to open yourself to outside influences or input. The vision is strong. You want it to stay pure. (Upon meeting FF), there’s a kinship that’s hard to verbalize. Ron and I knew when we heard and met them that we wanted to see what it would be like working with them, as we got along personally and musically. Out tastes overlap. It wasn’t a stretch.

I know working together has been a long-delayed process from when the idea came about. What broke the ice?
Kapranos: It was supposed to have happened 10 years ago, but things got crazy for us. I’m sure the same happened with Sparks. We barely had time to record our own music, let alone one with someone we respected. When we met up again right before Coachella, we committed to making a time for the album. And as soon as we started sending songs back and forth, it came together quickly—like really quickly considering that’s two bands with their own identity doing something with its own separate identity.

How did the “Piss Off” demo you guys recorded set the tone for what followed?
Russell Mael: I’m not sure it did, although the album definitely has an irreverent spirit. Not every song is about frustration symbolized by something foul. Yet it does resonate.

Is it fair to say you share a sense of humor?
Russell Mael: The laughs were kept to an agreed 12 to 15 per day due to the tight recording schedule.
Kapranos: We do. Remember, too, that the lyrics are occasionally dark. It’s funny, though, when I think of a song such as “Collaborations Don’t Work.” They started the ball rolling, and their first whack at it was really ballsy. We had a good laugh. Then we hit it back hard and worried whether Ron and Russ were going to love it or totally hate it and never speak to us again. Humor prevailed and they loved it.

Ego—do you have to put it aside to be FFS?
Kapranos: Both bands have gargantuan egos. I’m wary of bands who say they don’t have one. For any band to work, you better have loads of it.

You said something previously about upholding your image. What is that? Does FFS suit it?
Russell Mael: I don’t know if it’s always up to us. You see Ron: what he says, wears and plays. He is that guy. I am this guy. The world we’ve made is us. We’re not in a boardroom and haven’t calculated it. There isn’t a Sparks brand or some method. What is methodical is that we work all the time to come up with new material, new ideas and new angles of presenting what it is that we do. FFS is definitely that.

—A.D. Amorosi

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A Conversation With AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno


AWOLNATION (a.k.a. Aaron Bruno) is the coolest music nerd ever. Dressed in a summer-appropriate pink-and-blue collared shirt, baby-blue rimmed sunglasses, tan Keds and sporting a mop of stylishly disheveled blond hair, the Southern California born and bred Bruno speaks of early memories breaking down the chords and bridges of a Madonna song while in elementary school. “I became an obsessed fan of the music I liked,” he says. While he may have flirted momentarily with the idea of becoming a baseball player due to his success as a pitcher in middle school, he never deviated from his desire to pursue career in music, even when one record deal, and then a second, fell through.

Bruno sat down with MAGNET before his set at Firefly Festival to discuss his early years, his creative process and his current success.

How has your Firefly experience been so far?
Well, we just played a short, little, intimate four-song set at the Treehouse Stage. It was really cool, they spent a lot of time building that stage and it had a good vibe for sure. So far, so good.

Awesome. Well, first things first. When did you develop a passion for music?
I don’t know … as far back as my memory goes. It always seemed so untouchable to me, though. It seemed way too far-fetched that I could actually be a part of it. I just loved it and the way it made me feel. Early on, I became an obsessed fan of the music that I liked. I do remember at a pretty young age noticing chord changes and chord progressions and what that meant in terms of an emotion for me. Other things didn’t make me feel quite the same way, like sports. I played sports, surfing and swimming, like most Southern California kids. But I remember when I was younger, asking my mom what a part of a song was—apparently it was a bridge of a Madonna song, and it went to a minor chord progression, and that really impacted me. So I guess at an early age I was already trying to study music and figure it out, figure out why I was feeling certain emotions.

Not a lot of kids think about all the little elements of a song. They just like a song.
I know! My mom still brings that up to this day. It was a fun moment for her. It was a telling sign, I suppose.

Did you play any instruments as a kid?
Yeah, my dad and mom taught me how to play guitar, right around that age. I was never a shredding guitar player or anything like that, but I got good enough to be able to fiddle around in my room.

Have you always had a music career? Did you try anything else?
I wouldn’t call it a career, really, when I was younger, but that is always what I was most focused on, yeah. I had other jobs to make ends meet, of course, but there was never any other option for me. I mean when I was really young I was a great baseball player, believe it or not, so at one point I may have been thinking … I mean I was only 12, so who the fuck knows what you’re going to do at 12. But from age 11 to 14, I was the pitcher, so maybe at that point I was thinking I might pursue that. But that wasn’t going to happen either though because I never grew after that. It’s always been music, I’ve always been chasing it. When I was about to turn 30, my dad had a serious sit-down with me. It was a real moment to decide what the hell I was going to do to figure out how to survive.

At that point, had you had any success with your music?
Well, I’d been in two other signed bands. Which in a way is worse than not being signed, because I had false hope—twice. Two different times I was told by everybody that I was gonna blow up, and then it completely crashed and burned. So that is kind of my story in a nutshell. Then I started AWOLNATION, and it took off.

Did you get signed by Red Bull Records before or after you started AWOLNATION?

Read More »

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A Conversation With Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann


Bill Kreutzmann was part of the culture crunch that was the Grateful Dead for as long as it existed—a drummer whose peaceful, groovy dynamics were as much a part of the band’s jam ethos as its lifestyle. In his memoir, Deal: My Three Decades Of Drumming, Dreams, And Drugs With The Grateful Dead, Kreutzmann talks about the Dead’s music, its vibes, its spooked-out bliss—all that’s Deadhead-y in a warm, conversational tone with weird time signatures not unlike his drumming. Kreutzmann is also busy touring with Billy & The Kids (one of his post-Dead ensembles, in addition to 7 Walkers, SerialPod, BK3 and Rhythm Devils) and readying for not only this month’s tribute event to the late Jerry Garcia in Maryland, but July’s last shows with his Grateful Dead brethren in Chicago.

Having seen you for decades, I’ve always understood that your intuitive talent as a drummer was that you were as interested in exploring the rests as you were punching through the chords and keeping busy. You’re not afraid to not play.
That’s a great compliment to your ears and my playing, as well as getting to know something about me, personally. Playing music should be about knowing the importance of rests. It’s dark and light—you don’t have a contrast until those are in place. A lot of times, I’m leaving holes because of what other people are playing. In the case of the Dead, say with Garcia playing a solo, you might complement, but you really don’t want to play over him. Then again, maybe I’m just relaxing.

Having a nap. That’s a funny thought. So, Aron Magner and Tom Hamilton are in Billy & The Kids. We’re a Philly-based mag, they’re Philly-based players. How do they differ from other ensembles you’ve played with?
These guys will try and do anything. Some of those bands of mine—say, 7 Walkers—have a single groove and stick to it. With Kids, we can go anywhere, especially EDM territory, which Aron increasingly turns me onto. I can be freer. I like EDM a lot. I like anything, as long as you’re not playing soft jazz.

I remember after Jerry passed that you moved to Hawaii to heal, to rejuvenate. How did clearing your head prepare you for Deal?
There was a nice gap between being in Hawaii and starting the book three years ago. I had to take that time after Jerry was gone. I was pretty tired from being on the road all the time. I needed to not be in the Dead. When I met (co-author) Benjy (Eisen), I found a kindred spirit and felt like, with him, I could tell the certain things that I wanted to.

Certain things. Is Deal, like your drumming, as much about what’s left out?
I didn’t spend three years of hard work on something to speak bad of anyone—not that that is what you’re implying, I wanted to make sure there was positivism to it. Plus, I didn’t necessarily have to leave anything out because there’s nothing in my life that I would be embarrassed about. I think I write a very complete picture from when I started to play drums up until, well, this conversation.

I just missed the cut then. No, it’s a fondly remembering book.
Yeah, it’s hardly an exposé. I don’t have the spirit or the memory for that. I wanted to do this time-overlapping thing. That comes from me being a drummer. I have the weirdest timing. Two years go by and they seem like a week. Time doesn’t exist anyway—it’s scientific fact. That’s how I am with stuff. That’s what makes Deal.

Did you know when you wanted this out—timed as it is to the Dead’s 50th anniversary? Did you want another member to go before you, as Phil Lesh did with Searching For The Sound?
No, it’s not as if his book spurred me on. I think three years ago I just had a feeling about doing this, and I was lucky to find a friend to do it with—and not necessarily someone who was an author. I didn’t want someone doing my life in another voice.

Throughout Deal, you sound as if you are closer to Garcia than you are Bob Weir or Lesh, musically and personally.
Wow, if that came across that way, it wasn’t something I intended. That’s interesting, though, really. That’s a cool observation.

Garcia was a more concise player and songwriter; a funny notion given his improvisational largesse.
Yes, definitely. Each had different manners in how they approached songs, but Jerry would come with the most complete version of a song; Bobby came in with skeletons and the hope that the process would fill it in—the whole jam thing. I don’t think I would ever have let on that one was better than the other; each is reflective of the man’s personalities.

No embarrassment. Lots of drugs and death. Were there aspects of Deal easier for you to recall then relay?
Gosh … there were certainly aspects that were hard to write, even if I’m not quite certain as to why that is. I mean, memory is an issue. Tragedy was another, and there was plenty around the Dead. That brought back memories I would rather have not reconnected. Writing about Jerry’s death, of course, was particularly sad.

Sad as you were, Deal sounds as if you found solace, an epiphany.
Most certainly. I fell deeply in love with Amy, the woman who became my wife. I also came to realize—no joking—how amazing the Dead were. ’Cause you forget as you’re in the center of it. She’s a Deadhead. God bless her, she’ll tell you that that straight away. And she would say, “You want proof? Listen to the Spring 1990 tapes.” I did, and she was right. We did some incredible stuff. So, Deal had a double epiphany. I found two loves: her and the Dead’s music.

Like your wife, do you pay much attention to the archival stuff? The Dick’s Picks, the new live volume from 1971 with Pigpen?
I do. I listen, but I can’t quote verbatim like her. My wife works at KKCR in Hawaii when she’s home and does the Dead Hour. She’s got the To The Vault and the Dick’s Picks memorized.

You once said the Grateful Dead without Garcia was like Miles Davis’ band without Miles. That being the case, how did it come to pass that you’re doing the Maryland tribute and the July finale?
They both mean so much to me that I’m practicing non-stop. I mean, I always practice, but now I’m doing double time. I think it’s going to be damn good. Seriously, I think they’re going to relive a place—it’s not the same place as before, but it is going to be a very high place where we’ve never been before, a peak we never achieved. Having Trey (Anastasio) play guitar, I think he’s going to hold his own and then some. It’s going to be wonderful. I can’t wait.

—A.D. Amorosi

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A Conversation With Mark Ronson


He’ll be forever known as the powerful producer of Amy Winehouse’s best material (to say nothing of behind-the-board stints for Bruno Mars, Paul McCartney, Kaiser Chiefs, Duran Duran, Black Lips and Rufus Wainwright), but Mark Ronson’s solo career has found traction and soul equal to that of his clients. His newest album, Uptown Special, follows the sights and sounds of Manhattan at the end of an era (clubland in the early ’90s) with an arsenal of name contributors (including lyrics by novelist Michael Chabon), but it’s Ronson’s warm, wild, brassy sound and bold, un-obvious melodies that stand out.

I know that you’re not a touring animal. Are you comfortable out in front of the mixing boards and the band?
I think if I do it more than every four years, I can remember how to stand up onstage in front of people. Then again, If you get someone such as Bruno Mars doing the brunt of the work, there’s very little that you need to do, save for standing. It’s a strange thing. When I did the album Version, I was making these cover songs in my bedroom with several great singers. I would have been just as happy putting those songs on those other people’s albums. I don’t necessarily need the limelight. Plus, I don’t know if I can get away with what most of these singers do, you know?

See, now, I know that you have sung a bit on your albums, but can you really sing?
I could fake my way through it onstage if I had to. The whole idea of having to warm up for hours, though? It’s just not worth it for what comes out of my mouth. When you discover so many other great voices out there, as I had to do when searching for singers for this new album, and you find and hear the amazing vocals that I did, you realize how much you don’t have that thing.

You mention limelight. I wanted to ask you a further question about success. A few years ago, I interviewed you with Rufus Wainwright for his Out Of The Game record that you produced for him. He was very specifically interested in making a charting pop record. He laughed while saying it, but he was serious. OK, the album didn’t sell billions. He seemed disappointed, but pragmatic. What is the marker of success for you?
There’s different degrees of success and different things that are important at different times. Like, before “Uptown Funk” came out, I never had anywhere near this level of success under my own name. I don’t know if one of my singles even cracked the top anything. Then again, I don’t know, or don’t remember, if I was ever disappointed. DJing, producing: It’s always opened another door for me, so that’s cool. With Rufus, I remember the situation clearly: He was happy with his music, but concerned about how far it reached. He wanted to make his clearest shot at an accessible record, and that’s what I gave him: a great meat-and-potatoes Rufus Wainwright album without the more ornate touches that some people find challenging. I’m proud of that record.

You should be. It was a lean, mean Rufus record. OK, then, Bruno Mars—pop superstar. Forget about singing. I know he hits the skins here. What sort of a drummer is he? Is he an easy rhythmatist?
Yeah, the more I work with him, the more I find that he’s the most talented arranger, musician, co-producer and writer I’ve even been around in the studio—and that’s saying a lot when I realize just who it is I’ve worked with. And even I forget sometimes. I’ve been in that zone with him for a while, having this amazing run, and it’s definitely electric. He’s at a point where he can’t do any wrong. Everything we’re doing is about making every element better—that bass line, that turnaround. Yeah, so he’s a great drummer, especially considering that a song like “Uptown Funk” has no traditional chorus.

What made you want to work with the guys from Tame Impala on your new album? They’re not the first cats I think of when I think of your stuff.
I hear something—a song, an album—and I become obsessed. Especially if I’ve never met them before. Tame Impala might be my favorite rock band. Around 2012, I became a massive fan of their recordings. I just knew. I heard them in my songs, thought they’d be perfect. They were warm people, and everything they wanted to do surprised me. You get the feeling with them that they are off quietly in their bedrooms like mad geniuses. Working with them is as daunting and joyful to me as having Stevie Wonder playing on the record; like, how does it even make sense that this guy is my favorite musician, probably someone who has influenced my music more than anybody else, literally playing this melody that I wrote? The whole thing was amazing, beautiful and gorgeous. All of it. Tame Impala, Stevie Wonder. It’s enough to make my brain snap.

As far as teenage ennui goes, so much of this album has the feel of late-night early-’90s Manhattan. I know why that moment stands out in my mind. What about you?
I just started going out then, doing some early DJ gigs. I think that was the end of NYC’s golden club era. Before bottle service, before cell phones, before you were able to buy VIP tables, you just found a spot on the dance floor and you stayed there all night. You never even played your first hip-hop record until after midnight; you were too busy playing dance classics. I remember DJing, looking out and seeing the same people on the dance floor in the same spot that they started in earlier in the night. Seriously, that was a nice feeling. That’s the vibe that I wanted to recapture.

—A.D. Amorosi

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A Conversation With Todd Rundgren


Along with creating Tin Pan, blue-eyed-soul masterpieces (Something/Anything?), prog-rock epics (everything his band Utopia recorded), psychedelic garage classics (his Philly-born Nazz’s “Open My Eyes”) and Technicolor soundscapes for productions clients like XTC and Patti Smith, Todd Rundgren long ago laid down the multi-layered blueprint for much of what EDM pop is today with A Wizard, A True Star. “At least, that’s what they tell me,” Rundgren says with a snicker, before discussing his newly released, 25th solo album (the electro-glide soul of Global), an upcoming collaboration with Norway’s Lindstrøm (Runddans) and time playing and writing with Ringo Starr.

You’ve been gigging with Ringo since you cobbled together a Jerry Lewis telethon band with him, Bill Wyman and Utopia in the late ’70s. You’ve been an on-and-off-again member of his All-Stars for 15 years. His new album finally features your co-songwriting credit. What took so long?
I would like to imagine that my “Jerry’s Kids” band was the inspiration for Ringo’s All-Stars, by the way. Starr was working on an album during his off-time, which isn’t much. One song we all co-wrote together happened to come from a jam with me and Gregg Rolie messing around during sound check. Ringo just wanted to make a song out of it, so we did. As for our one-on-one collaboration, it’s two days before the tour ends, Ringo sits down and says, “Fancy writing a song with me?” Short notice, but sure. There was an idea he banged out on his synthesizer-rhythm box combo with a lyric based on Beatles song titles. Then, he told me a story about a box of postcards the Beatles shared—when they were apart, even after they broke up, they stayed in touch with postcards. He wanted to call it “Letters From Paradise” until I figured that it had to be “Postcards.” I did the demo, sent it, and went on my own tour. I just heard the finished song. I didn’t realize he was using it, let alone making it his new album’s title.

Forget about production charges or cats in Utopia—since you’re pretty much a one-man band, do you find it hard to play nice, to collaborate?
It’s true. I haven’t been good necessarily in one-to-one collaborations in that McCartney/Lennon vein. I’m better at trading things back and forth, which is certainly more convenient nowadays. In another era, I couldn’t have done that thing with Ringo. Now I carry a laptop, recording software and microphones, and can do it anywhere. That’s how I got to work with Peter Lindstrøm in Norway. If somebody has a good start or something has stalled, I can usually help wrap it all up. I remember when I lived in Sausalito, Rick Springfield came to my house wanting to write songs together, and all I could do was sit and stare at him. Same thing happened when Kenny Loggins stopped by. I warned these guys, though—I’m not that guy who comes up with songs cold. I’m a ruminator. I think and think, and when it comes out, it does so in a form of automatic writing, all at once.

The last time we spoke, we discussed how you had just started to hear that A Wizard, A True Star was a big influence on EDM stuff, as well as on the nu-psychedelia.
A younger generation has gone and discovered, bored as they may be by current stuff , that particular music of mine. Curious musicians like Lindstrøm and Tame Impala, both of whom I’ve done remixes for, have told me as much. It’s probably because that album—by today’s standards—still breaks rules. People like that sometimes. Even the guys in the Roots, with whom I’m sharing tracks for a Ruben And The Jets-like cartoon R&B album, talk about how much they’ve felt for my stuff of the past.

Well, you’re all Philly guys. You don’t need that acknowledgement, I’m sure, but how has hearing that steered where you’re going now, say on Global? Did that knowledge and all those technological advances—making your studio more portable—change how you went into new music?
I’ve had a studio since my fourth record. That way of working—using the studio as an interactive compositional device—is ingrained in me. When it became possible to make that all portable and cheaper, I took advantage. I have more power in my laptop than in a tricked-out Pro Tools studio 10 years ago. Guys who started out with that advantage like my music. How it influenced State, my last album, and Global? OK, when guys like Lindstrøm and Tame Impala came to me, they knew more about me than I knew about them, and that wasn’t fair. I began doing my research, but in the confines of what appeals to me. The first result was State, which was technologically aggressive and expressive—and comfortable. As I like doing any next album differently from the last, Global has much of the same feel of State, only with simpler songs, to be more thematically concise and to use more of my range as a singer—especially the R&B part of it. This one’s more vocal.

Not that you’ve been blissfully unaware, but Global—along with focusing on your usual anti-religious stance—concentrates on universality: earth versus skyscrapers, man versus machine. Is that a condition of age or what the planet wants?
I was trying to make, essentially, a cheerleading album—a feel-good record—as much as I can. There’s my usual scolding throughout, but it’s more about looking forward than pointing downward. That’s why I wanted to make it easier to follow than my more usually obtuse work. It’s not so much of a phase, as I don’t think I’d make this record next time. Then again, I have a label now, same one as with the last record. That hasn’t been the case for a while. These guys were great; they didn’t even demand to know what it was about.

—A.D. Amorosi

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