Interview: Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde
Concrete Blonde will be performing tonight at the Music Box at Henry Fonda Theater | Picture via Concrete Blonde's Website
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of its original release, and in support of a July 2010 remastered release (via Shout! Factory), LA’s own Concrete Blonde will be performing one of 1990’s best and most enduring albums, Bloodletting, on Monday June 28 at The Music Box at Fonda.
Boasting two of the LA music scene’s most talented and original voices from any era (the incredible and always too seldom heard Johnette Napolitano on bass and vocals and James Mankey on guitar), Concrete Blonde emerged from LA’s 1980s post-punk scene. Napolitano and Mankey had met while both were involved in Leon Russell’s back-up band and broke off to form Dream 6; They released one album, entitled Dream 6, in 1983 (Michael Murphy was the drummer on that release). Soon thereafter, the hard-hitting Harry Rushakoff replaced Murphy and the group signed a record deal with IRS Records (Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, REM, The English Beat, Fine Young Cannibals). Fellow IRS singer / songwriter Michael Stipe offered up a new name for the band: Concrete Blonde.
They became one of the most distinctive and creative forces at that time with their passionate and intense exploration of American life. Upon its release, Bloodletting was often described by music critics as ‘a dark and brooding, almost Gothic work.’ Perhaps this was true, but for some of us the album true to life—to our experiences of love and loneliness and life at that given juncture.
Napolitano took some time to speak with us about music, the band, the album, and the tour the morning it kicked off in Boston on June 8th.
LAist: Everyone is so excited about the tour and the re-release:
Johnette Napolitano: We didn’t know about the re-release. That was a surprise to us. We didn’t know anything about it. We weren’t involved at all. I wanted to be involved, and I’ve heard from everyone that they [Shout! Factory] are a great company. I wanted to be involved and they sent us a copy and I opened it up and they used a picture of the wrong band. And I was pissed off. I can’t really get behind it that hard if you package it wrong, when they used a picture of the wrong drummer. How’d they fuck that up? I mean it says Paul Thompson right on the back of the record. Why don’t you do enough research to put the right photo in there?
It’s like this whole British Petroleum gulf thing. It makes you crazy; Not only that people can screw up so much, but also that screwing up becomes acceptable. When did that become OK?
But I’m a team player. I am really excited about it. The record deserves to be released. They also stuck Little Wing on it and a live version of Tomorrow Wendy. It was all a total surprise to us.
We are really excited about the tour. People have been telling us for a while, “It’s been like twenty years.” I’ve been in the middle of a million other things, but I know my dad, who passed away last year, would have said to do it. He was such a big fan and he would have said, “Go out and do it.”
It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been calling it the YouTube tour. We’ve been going on YouTube to see what all was on it.
LAist: So will Paul be with you on this tour?
JN: No, Paul isn’t, we really wanted him to do it but Paul is out with Roxy Music in Europe this year. Gabriel Ramirez has been our drummer for easily 10 years. He did the Live in Brazil record with us and he also played on Mojave, that last record we made out in the desert.
LAist: How did you end up recording with (Bloodletting producer) Chris Tsangerides?
JN: That is pretty interesting story. We were in a legal mess then. We weren’t even allowed to record. We were being played like little pawns by the label and our lawyers. Chris had done some Thin Lizzy records that I had really liked. I’m a big Thin Lizzy fan and a big Phil Lynott fan, and it’s actually really funny. We saw his name on the back of a record and jumped on a plane to London when we had finished the Free album. We started recording while everything was screwed up contractually because there was nothing else to do and we just had to make some music. So we took what we had recorded and hopped on a plane to England.
We had nowhere to stay. We didn’t know anyone. We just wanted to find Chris and ask him to mix this record. I had the tapes with me. So, we get to customs and they ask us “What are you doing here?” And I say we are producing this record with Chris Tsangerides. So they called him! And Chris had no idea who we were, but he said “Oh yeah, sure.” So we got in and were able to meet him. I told him I had been a big fan of his work with Thin Lizzy and we were able to work with him on a couple of records.
As for the Bloodletting record, he was there from day one. We had played a gig in London and Chris was there. [Drummer] Harry [Rushakoff] was late as usual—he had missed the flight and Paul Thompson had been in the audience that night. Harry got there right before the show. I had to set up his drums! And I told my manager that I was really frustrated, just fed up with Harry and that Bloodletting was going to be a really crucial record. So I just told him “You’re not gonna be on this record,” and, “I just can’t take this anymore dude. You’re going home.” So Paul Thompson was in the audience that night and showed up at the studio the next day.
LAist: Yes, Paul relates a little bit of that story on his website. He mentioned an interesting story about the drum kit. I think it was Harry’s kit that was set up for recording.
JN: Oh, does he? Yeah, that was just a really messed up day. It was just meant to be. But Paul is just the greatest guy; He’s awesome and we’re not counting out doing a couple of gigs with him next yea, if it seems to be convenient for everyone. But Jim and I are really excited to be playing this tour with Gabriel [Ramirez]. He’s a really cool guy from an amazing musical family. They are involved with Ballet Folklorico from Mexico—just several generations of really serious musical talent. Poor guy, he’s had to put up with us for a long time now!
LAist: You mention Folklorico. I know you have a deep interest in Flamenco music as well. You have also been compiling an absolutely terrific body of work through your Sketchbook concept at your MySpace page.
JN: Thank you.
LAist: I’m interested to know if somehow these interests are going to have some expression in your approach to the music from Bloodletting?
JN: No, not really. This is very much about doing a crowd-pleasing show. This is what it is. It’s basically a celebration of that record, as well as a celebration of the fact that we’re still around. That’s plenty of reason to just go out and play this record. This is about just pleasing the crowd. I can really get my rocks off creatively.
I’ve been working with a Flamenco group in New Orleans. I try to get to New Orleans one week out of every month since the beginning of the year. I was there over during New Years. I was there when the saints won. I just have an incredible crew I’m working with and am hoping to open up a club down there sometime next year. I just love it down there.
I’ve also been working on a book. It’s going to be a series. I have my first book coming out and hope to have it available while we are on the road. It’s been quite a job. I have hand-illustrated every page. It’s very exciting. People have been telling me that I should work on a book. I feel like a little kid. You know this box is coming and there are going to be 500 little books in it. I haven’t even seen a print, so I hope it’s all right. It isn’t very long but I have put a lot of work into it. As I get older I think I would like to do a lot more writing of this type. It goes back into the lyrics of the older songs, and what they were about. People are always asking about those kinds of things. So I’ll be telling the stories about where some of these songs came from. But I told Gabriel [Ramirez], who has a couple of kids, “This isn’t anything I’m gonna want your kids to read.”
LAist: I’m thinking back to your comments about the difficulty with the re-release, and the thing going on in the gulf . . .
JN: Only my mind could have drawn a line connecting those two events to each other.
LAist: I was right with you and it gives me a thought I hope isn’t too far afield from what you wanted to talk about this morning. I wonder, with the world in the state that it’s in right now, what is the role of poets and artists at this point in human history?
JN: Thank you. That’s a very good question. You know, you would think that after the Bush years, we were all just cranking out through all of that. It was basically just raging against the machine. And there are so many things that are moot now, post-Obama, that just changes the whole game. It basically lifts the idea of oppression. There’s no excuse why anyone can’t do anything. We have a black president. People can’t complain about not being able to go as far as you want to go in this country, and I still very much believe that you can.
I think what we need now out of our artists is maybe something more practical. I like the idea that James Cameron got involved in—how to fucking stuff that hole. The resolution of the practical problems we are facing is going to take some creative thought. You are going to need to talk to artists, to sculptors—poets are always going to lend their voices to causes that need one. I don’t think that will ever change, you know, whether we feel that we are in good times or in bad times.
As a matter of fact, [producer] Chris Goss (Masters of Reality, Queens of the Stone Age) stopped by the studio the other day and we were talking about all of this. And he said, “Every time something really shitty is happening, something really good is happening.” And I think that’s right. When, in the history of civilization, has everything been perfect? There’s always some shit going on somewhere ; It’s that there is so much more information available now. Maybe if you were Amish you wouldn’t know it, you know? But since we’re all online and all hooked up and the world is a lot smaller because of communications technology, we’re aware of all the stuff going on.
LAist: In any moment there is good news and bad news, and opportunities for sadness or anger or happiness and celebration somewhere in the world.
JN: In the middle of everything it is important to also have joy in your life. That is part of your duty, that’s why you’re here. It’s taken me a long time to learn that. My dad helped me learn that. My dad was a biker; He worked hard and played hard. We had a great trip to New Orleans together. Before he passed away he tried to get me to slow down and stop working so hard and have more fun. And so I have booked myself down to New Orleans, after he passed away, for the rest of my life pretty much.
It is your job, you know. I mean, I’m a God person. I definitely believe in a Creator and I think the odds of any of us being here are very small and it’s evil to not be everything that you can while you’re here—to blossom, to celebrate life. It’s a great trip.
My dad, he passed away really quick. He lived hard and went at everything hard and every day his approach makes me remember that it’s a good life. You can only appreciate as you get older that life is a pretty . . . life is a gift, you know. And that was one of the reasons I decided to do this tour. There is never going to be a 20th anniversary again.
In fact, Jim and I were joking around that we could also go out on the 21st and 6 month anniversaries of Bloodletting.
LAist: I think of Jim as having his own place among a bunch of very distinctive sounding LA guitarists. They weren’t born in LA but this is where their sound got crafted and they achieved their recognition: Robbie Krieger, Steve Stills, Neil Young, David Crosby, Slash. It’s a pretty impressive list he belongs to.
JN: You know Jim and I were looking at some YouTube stuff the other day—that’s how I go back for all the lyrics—and we were watching our appearance on the Letterman Show, which is hysterical because I had a ‘Jerry Brown for President’ shirt on and I won’t even vote for him for Governor. And Jim said, “Look at me, I look like a guy in an LA band!” That was funny.
But, you know, he’s pretty Angeleno. Even though he wasn’t born here, he did go to school in La Puente. And you know, of course, he and his brother Earl started Sparks with the Mael brothers when they were all at UCLA. So they do go way back in the city. Earl was like the godfather; He produced the Cramps and a lot of stuff like that. So those boys go back pretty far. Also, Jim’s dad, who is just a sweetheart, is getting on in years now, but he’s a picker himself. He had an archtop so it was easy for Jim to hear; He has a whole family of players there. Jim has an incredible musical vocabulary passed down from the generations up above him. His dad knows vaudeville styles and all that front porch ‘Deliverance’ stuff white people play. And then he’s got Earl. They worked for the Beach Boys and Blue Cheer and remember the shows out on the pier when they were kids—It’s good to have a broad vocabulary like that, and Jim definitely has it.
LAist: I was reading Phil Lesh’s book (Searching For The Sound) the other day and Phil writes about how playing bass in a way that makes room for the other instruments, supporting the melody, maintaining the song’s groove and singing at the same time is ‘a black art.’
JN: That’s funny. You know, I never thought I could do it. I didn’t set out to be the bass player, it was simply a matter of nobody wanting to be in our band, you know. We couldn’t get one. We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have a following, we didn’t have a deal—and in LA you better have those things. Basically, all we could say was that we had transportation. But nobody wanted to be in our band. At that time, the Police were just taking off and I was really inspired by Sting. I thought he was brilliant. I still think he’s brilliant—I love Sting. And it’s not a matter of ‘You can do it, so can I,’ because there are plenty of things other people can do that I can’t. But I did look at it like this: bottom line, he’s a human being and he’s got ten fingers and toes and so do I. I should be able to do that and if I really practice I’m sure I can.
So a lot of the early stuff that I was writing, I could only write what I could play. And I never thought I would be able to sing and play at the same time. Now, it’s second nature to me. As a matter of fact, during our rehearsal, which went really well, I was surprised at how much easier some of these songs are to play. Back in the old days I would be looking down at the set list and thinking ‘Oh my God, song number 5,” and freaking out about song number 5, feeling like I was struggling through it. But I guess after this many years you better get better.
LAist: Do you feel a song differently when you have the bass in your hands as opposed to a guitar, or even singing without an instrument?
JN: Oh yeah! Definitely. Jim and I were talking about whether we should do something acoustically in our set, and I said I don’t really care if we do or not because I have been touring acoustically by myself for a couple of years now. In fact, I just got a new guitar yesterday—a martin that I really like to play, so we are going to do a little bit acoustically. But yeah, with the bass it’s a whole different thing, just a whole different thing.
I like the space to sing acoustically; It’s really nice, but man, I just love to rock, that’s for sure. That is just too much fun.
LAist: Let me ask you a question about your voice. You have the ability to convey such a broad range of feeling—fragility, tenderness, power, anger, sensuality—and none of that range is ever contrived or postured, it is always just you and it is always absolutely within the context of the song.
JN: Thank you.
LAist: Well, you’re welcome, and thank you. Art is an important part of life …
JN: It is so important for everybody. If people had no food, if they had nothing, they would still try and find ways to create. It is essential to being human.
LAist: Did your ability with your voice come naturally, did you just discover it, or was it something that as you became more involved in music you worked to create?
JN: Well, I have been singing for a long time—back since I was a kid, in fact. As a matter of fact, while we’re talking about creativity and expression, one of the things that I’m back into now is sewing. When I was young I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to go to fashion school. I felt like that was what I was supposed to do, but my family split up and I had to work. And one resource that I knew that I had was playing guitar. I had been playing guitar since I was eight, and I knew that when I would pick up a guitar, and play and sing at parties when I was in high school that the whole room got quiet and people listened. So I had a sense that I had something going on there. And that was all I had. And so I said, you know, I am going to take this and run with it.
So, to get back to your question, which was a very good one, when I listen back to the old records now it becomes apparent that you are young and you are making your first record. You have to show off all your licks, you really sort of over . . . over do it. And as we were rehearsing this week I was really interested in how easy it came. It never felt like I had to twist my guts up. I just kind of dive into it—you trust the music to carry you. For some reason, it is easier if I look up. If I am looking up into one light, for some reason, it’s easier for me to just hit the notes. I don’t think about it; It’s coming from somewhere else. In fact, there have been times when I felt so sick that there should have been nothing coming out of my mouth and my voice is still there. It seems pretty amazing to me sometimes.
I can’t really be objective about it because, you know, it’s me. But I do know when I’m on and when I’m not. What it’s really about is just surrendering to the entire emotion of it. That is what you hear: the emotion that’s behind it, not the singing, but the emotion. I mean, listen to Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley. Technically, in rock and roll none of us are—quotes in the air—‘real singers.’ In the studio, I just watched some rare outtakes from Neil Young back in the 70s and Neil Young must die; He’s just so good. I’m just sitting there going, “Damn, damn, damn!”—just one little ‘aaaahh’ the way he does it and you’re just saying ‘Fucking hell, man.”
Or take BB King, for example. You can play a solo with one note, and that one note better have your life and death in it; And I want to be coming from that place. It’s like the story about when Laurence Olivier was working with Dustin Hoffman on Marathon Man. Hoffman was getting himself all twisted up to do a scene and Olivier tells him “Why don’t you just try acting?” All the contortions, you know, it’s not worth it. I want to be able to feel it. I want to feel it. It’s just the purest thing in the world, you know. You feel the note coming and the music’s there. I’m on another planet, definitely another planet, and I want to take everybody else there. It’s one of the most beautiful feelings in the world to write and perform music that people connect to.
LAist: That concept of submission really resonates when you are discussing it.
JN: Oh yeah, it makes me it’s bitch.
LAist: Then it has very good taste. Just a couple more questions—and I really want to thank you for spending all of this time with me today. When you were mentioning New Orleans, I was thinking that Steve Wynn, who makes an appearance on Bloodletting, was there for Jazz Fest doing some recording of his own. Did you have a chance to get together?
JN: Oh, no. You know we tried. We were texting each other all day. He was playing and I was rehearsing and playing with my Flamenco friends—they just kick my ass! It was rehearsing full throttle during the daytime and then doing two shows at night. We didn’t get to get together. He’s all over the place, playing here and in Europe, and I’m pretty much in Joshua Tree or New Orleans. But we stay in touch all the time.
LAist: Johnette, thank you again for spending so much of your time this morning talking to the readers of LAist. We want to wish you great success with this tour and we are looking forward to the June 28th show at the Music Box at Henry Fonda Theater.
JN: Thank you so much. We are gonna be really good by then!
Concrete Blonde will be performing tonight, June 28th, at the Music Box at Henry Fonda Theater.
Interview conducted by James Eliopulos.