The Clash icon and Mescaleros frontman passed away nine years ago today. By way of tribute, we present this story from the archives. (Go here for Pt. 2.)
BY FRED MILLS
On December 22, 2002, unexpectedly and tragically, Joe Strummer died, apparently from a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect. I had interviewed Strummer twice in 2001, once over the phone from England and then again in person when he appeared at New York’s Irving Plaza for an October concert with his band The Mescaleros. Portions of those interviews subsequently saw publication in the Phoenix New Times and Magnet Magazine, and in a surreal twist, a few video snippets of me interviewing Strummer in NYC would turn up in the 2005 Strummer documentary Let’s Rock Again! by filmmaker Dick Rude (who I vaguely recalled having been present with a camera during the interview). At any rate, as today marks the anniversary of Strummer’s death, it seems like as reasonable a time as any to share with readers a vastly expanded version of my Strummer story, combining material from both interviews.
Of additional note: at the end, following the Strummer interview transcript, is a short but revealing conversation with Mescaleros fiddler (and longtime Clash associate) Tymon Dogg, and that’s followed by a posthumous tribute from the Mescaleros’ Martin Slattery, who talked to me in glowing yet frank terms about his boss not long after Strummer’s death. Slattery gets in the final words, because his are, I think, the most fitting:
“Joe was into the individual: You’ve got to do what’s right for you,” said Slattery. “You’ve got to follow what’s in your heart and not what’s in someone else’s heart. Tuning in to your own spirit: that’s what people should take from Joe.”
Around the time of the summer 2001 release of his latest album Global A Go-Go (Hellcat Records) Joe Strummer brought his band the Mescaleros to America for a promotional tour of record stores in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. The Mescaleros played one-hour sets then stuck around to meet the fans who, needless to say, were in ample supply and eager to meet the former punk firebrand and ex-Clash vocalist/guitarist. This was to be the mere tip of the Strummer iceberg, however, because the band returned in October for a full concert trek, and I was lucky enough to see the band play and interview Strummer while I was in New York for CMJ. You’ll read what the man had to say shortly.
To backtrack a moment, however, a common misperception about Joe Strummer is that he exiled himself from the music industry after the Clash folded in the wake of a critical savaging of the post-Mick Jones Clash album Cut the Crap. (There are several books available that can give you the whole poop on the Clash including former roadie Johnny Green’s hugely entertaining A Riot of Our Own and journalist Marcus Grey’s controversial but authoritative Last Gang in Town, recently updated and reissued as Return of the Last Gang in Town.) However, while having a markedly lower profile than during the tumultuous Clash years, Strummer hardly puttered around his garden shed, collecting royalties and regaling neighborhood kids of tales from the Great Punk Wars. In addition to taking on a number of independent film roles (Alex Cox’s punk-spaghetti western Straight to Hell and Jim Jarmusch’s Elvis-themed Mystery Train, plus the little-seen Walker and I Hired a Contract Killer) Strummer either scored or contributed songs to those films as well as Sid and Nancy, Grosse Point Blank and Permanent Record.
Work on the latter, in fact, prompted Strummer to form a new, ad-hoc combo, the Latino Rockabilly War, which went on to tour the UK in ’88 and ’89 and directly led to Strummer and LRW guitarist Zander Schloss recording Strummer’s first solo album, 1989’s Earthquake Weather. (Drummer on the LP: Red Hot Chili Peppers/Pearl Jam thumper Jack Irons.) While poorly received commercially, it was a credible slice of roots/worldbeat-flavored rock ‘n’ roll; unfortunately, Strummer’s label Sony-Epic decided a followup was not advisable. This effectively brought the solo career to a halt, Strummer subsequently engaging Sony in protracted, frustrating legal proceedings attempting to get out of his contract. Still, he kept busy in the early ‘90s, assisting in the promotion of the ’91 Clash box set Clash On Broadway, touring with The Pogues (standing in for the absent Shane MacGowan) in ’92 and ’94, even stepping into the role of producer on albums by the Pogues and his former Clash mate Mick Jones’ band Big Audio Dynamite.
Strummer did lay low a bit for the next few years, but when his Sony woes finally ended and he was free to sign with a label that not only represented artistic freedom but practically demanded that he make up for lost time no matter what direction the muse might steer him. So in ’96 Strummer began planning what would become his second solo record, billed to Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. It reflected both his ongoing fascination in trans-global musical styles (which his tenure with the Clash had reflected to a degree) as well as a newfound appreciation for techno (partly due to a short-lived but fascinating collaboration with The Grid’s Richard Norris, who produced a handful of Rock Art‘s tracks) alongside the requisite doses of straight-up rock. Highlights included the dub-funk ‘n’ roll of “Tony Adams,” the jagged dance-punk manifesto “Techno D-Day,” the Middle Eastern/hip-hop-flavored electro-trance of “Yalla Yalla” and the heartfelt soul-pop anthem “Forbidden City.” Throughout, Strummer’s lyrical stance seems to be one of inclusion, of looking around and rather than adhering across-the-board to the punk ideal of rejection, being open to the older lessons of experience and embracing those yet to come: “Took me a long time to get it/ But when it’s taken time/ You think and don’t forget it/ You gotta live in this world/ Go diggin’ the new.”
Coincidentally, the tail end of ’99 saw the release of the first-ever official Clash concert album, From Here to Eternity Live. Accompanying this were UK screenings of filmmaker Don Lett’s riveting Clash documentary Westway to the World and a surprisingly good VH1 “Legends” episode devoted to the band, followed shortly after in January ’00 by the Clash back catalog being remastered and reissued by Epic. Strummer and his former Clash partners willingly participated in the inevitable Clash media retrospectives, fueling speculation over an impending Clash reunion. Unfounded, it would turn out; after making the promotional rounds, Strummer went back to what turned out to be a busy Mescaleros touring schedule. (Worth noting, however: this past May, when the Clash received the Ivor Novello award for making an outstanding and lasting contribution to British music, all four members were on hand for the ceremony, once again setting the Clash reunion rumor mill spinning. However, Strummer told Rolling Stone that while such a move would set them up for life, financially, “You have to ask yourself, ‘Would it turn out to be good music? Would it be worthwhile in terms of making a brilliant record?’ But as long as I can keep grinding away and doing really interesting things [with the Mescaleros] I feel I’m vindicating what I’m doing.”)
Strummer next set to work on Global A Go-Go, and it came together rapidly, primarily the result of the Mescaleros gelling as a touring unit and knowing when the creative juices were at high tide. It elaborates fluently upon the musical and lyrical themes of its predecessor. It kicks off with a stunning triple-punch: the vibrant, Pogues-like grooves of “Johnny Appleseed” (about, tellingly, a punk rock Pied Piper/Robin Hood character aiming to undermine corporate culture); the Latino-ska rocker “Cool ‘n’ Out” (the mix is a violent stew of vocal samples, saw howls and fretboard explosions); and the title cut, a slice of reggaefied hip-hop-o-delica (featuring guest vocalist Roger Daltrey) that sends shout-outs to everything from Marconi, Buddy Rich and Quadrophenia to Bo Diddley, Baaba Maal and the Stooges. From there the album continues to hit the high notes, including the kinetic, multicultural tolerance-plea “Bhindi Bhagee,” the Spanish guitar-flecked Latin ballad “Mondo Bongo” and a sensual dub-reggae lament for the world’s dispossessed nomads called “At The Border, Guy.” There’s even an 18-minute traditional Celtic number, “Minstrel Boy,” which effectively extends the disc’s playing time to its reasonable maximum of 73 ½ minutes.
On the album the Mescaleros include Scott Shields (guitar), Pablo Cook (percussion), Martin Slattery (keyboards) and Tymon Dogg (violin); plus Strummer’s co-producer and trusty studio foil Richard Flack. The touring lineup adds bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen (subbing for Cook). And as I witnessed in person in NYC, the Mescaleros are a powerhouse, to say the least, adaptable to a plethora of musical styles and amply armed for the challenge that the material on the album presents.
In fact, Global has already generated enthusiastic reviews from corners as diverse as NPR, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Andy Warhol’s Interview and Britain’s Uncut. The positive response to both it and Rock Art has been a pleasant surprise for Strummer, who additionally remarked to Rolling Stone, of his relatively slow-starting solo career, “I realized what I’ve done is save the best for last, which is a brilliant maneuver. I did it by accident, though. Rather than burn out earlier, taking [time] off has turned out to be a not bad idea at all. When the Clash broke up it sort of all fell apart and perhaps that was quite good for my artistic ability, which was a good thing for me at least.”
Well said, Joe. Needless to say, I was thrilled to talk to the man, having ranked both Mescaleros album in my annual top ten lists without reservation. (Long-time Clash fanboy alert here too. Bootleg collectors and traders, get in touch.)
Incidentally, following the Strummer interview is the transcript of my conversation with Tymon Dogg. The fiddle player wandered into the dressing room at Irving Plaza towards the tail end of my conversation with Strummer, so I promptly placed him in the hotseat, and he seemed glad to chat.
Okay, let the games begin.
FRED MILLS: What are you listening to lately?
JOE STRUMMER: Strokes.
Any hot tips out of England?
No. [laughs] I don’t know, I’m out on the road.
One of the things I’m interested in is the artist-fan relationship — the way fans invest a lot emotionally in their heroes, and how kids in particular emulate them. Patti Smith, for example, told me that she felt the one of the artist’s responsibilities is to offer a shoulder to lean on, to illuminate the common threads in our lives. That’s a role model viewpoint. Yet a lot of public people – sports figures especially — are uncomfortable shouldering that responsibility. How do you feel about the role model issue?
I don’t agree. Just because you’re good in some particular area and you excel in that area, you’re not walking around as if you had a big jacket on saying, ‘Do as I do. Do as I say. Follow me.’ A sports guy’s good at shooting the hoop. I don’t see why he can’t go downtown and get harebrained outta his box like everyone else, y’know? Why are you hogging it all for yourself? There was a rugby guy in England, and after a tour they were busted taking Ecstasy and cocaine in a nightclub. I looked at that and thought, after 25 matches, and they won ‘em all, at the end of tour, why can’t they? Everyone else does! If it were some annual company jamboree, people get pissed out of their heads.
And the kids? You’re a parent yourself.
You’re talking about Keith Richards and heroin, aren’t you?
Yes, to an extent. However, recently there’s been a heightened industry sensitivity regarding artists in rehab, responsibility towards kids, that sort of thing.
It’s complete bollocks. Look. [leaning forward, putting guitar down] You’re born a certain way. You inherit it from your father. If your folks were great drinkers, ten to one you’re gonna be a great drinker yourself. So all of this is a load of bollocks. People are a lot more complex than, hey, they see someone doing it, why don’t they do it too? I can see the point when heroin was chic; before people realized how dangerous heroin was. Maybe there’s quite a few junkies in the world who thought, “Well, I’ll try that because heroin looks hip.”
Did you have a hero?
Bo Diddley. He’s the one, yeah.
Did you ever subscribe to the notion that to some, you’re a spokesperson for the Punk generation? People continually ask your opinion of British politics in interviews.
[dismissively] I’m not a spokesperson. Never was to anybody. They can hose off, man. I mean it. That’s a load of horseradish. And I don’t have any opinions about British politics. I resent being asked about anything. I’m quite happy not being asked about anything. [pointing to guitar] I’m happy to get that box and figure out something to do with it. I get rid of my opinions! Because some clever guy said, ‘If you have opinions, you cannot see.’ Meaning that opinions will kind of horseblinker you to see the truth about any situation. [laughing] Opinions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on!
What about issues that hit closer to home, then? Artists’ rights and contractual matters are a hot topic these days, and you’ve had your battles with Sony, solo and with the Clash.
Our fault. We signed that paper.
But how old were you when you signed it?
That’s not necessarily something you think about at the time.
There’s plenty of smart 21 year olds, man, I’m telling you. There was no one grabbing my hand and saying, “Sign that paper.” I could’ve gotten a decent lawyer to read it. Hey, any intelligent man would have done that. Not us, man. That was exceedingly dumb, but that was the way the world was. Maybe they capitalized on our eagerness and all that, y’know? But on the other hand, they got our records all around the world.
Perhaps we’ve reached a point now where genuinely artistic, creative people shouldn’t expect to find good homes with majors — at Sony you basically went on strike and waited things out – so would you tell musicians to go with indies like Hellcat?
Yeah, [with Sony] I waited it out until my hot potato had grown cold. [laughing] And so they went, “Ahh — pffft!” You gotta look at the small print, y’know? Hellcat’s sympathetic to my cause – it’s a label where the people there actually like music. It’s not just a commodity. You’ve gotta go for the [artistic] freedom. Without it you’re scuppered. And I already spent enough time trying to get out from under deals, which are quite complex with a corporation. Just to even get ‘em to address the problem takes a few years! Nevermind getting the paperwork out of it. So I wouldn’t be at all into getting back to that. If there is a young musician reading my guff, he’ll get the picture because I put it pretty straight.
It’s the George Michael argument that every musician should know about – there ought to be a book about that case! — which is basically, THEY are gonna want you to stay at whatever lucrative part of your career where they signed you. THEY are not interested in the development of the artist or having him change. So George is saying, ‘You can’t expect me to stay at my 18-year old songs now that I’m 34.’ And yet THEY want to force him to stay where he’s most well-known so they can make some bucks. The point is, you can’t force someone to do something like that.
You know, in that case, I did wonder if someone got to the judge. Because the whole industry would’ve unpeeled if George had got out of that contract. It would have led to a huge unraveling! I wonder why the judge found for the label, because George had righteousness on his side there, y’know?
Now what if you’d gone to Hellcat and said, “Guys, actually, I’m gonna pull a Sandinista! here on you. I want to put out a triple LP, 2-CD set…” Would they have done a CBS on YOU?
[laughing loudly] That’s a great question! I dunno… if you had a double’s worth of tunes to back it up, maybe they’d go for it!
Is it true that if you, Mick and Paul set foot in a studio, it’s called The Clash and you’re automatically on Sony.
Yeah, that’s a contractual thing. [disgustedly] And –it – will – never – expire. Because it states if two or three of us get together… that’s The Clash. No choice.
What’s your opinion on Clash and Mescaleros bootlegs? You should take charge and market your archives over the Internet like Pete Townshend does.
Yeah, that’s a good point. Thank you! If you heard some of them and you liked what you heard, you could recommend it: “This is pretty good…” I’m in touch with this guy in Italy who’s sort of the king of collectors, if you like, and I’m quite pleased he has all these recordings when it comes down to it, you know what I mean?
Tell me what it was like when the four of you from the Clash jointly received the Ivor Novello 2000 award for “Lasting Contribution to British Music” and Pete Townshend presented it to you.
Yeah, yeah, Pete was there. And Pete Townshend to give you the award, that made it really mean something, you know? It wasn’t like some fat cat. He said, ‘Your music sucks but here’s your award anyway!’ No, he said, ‘Well done, lads.’
Was that Pete namechecked in the middle of “Minstrel Boy,” on Global, kinda low in the mix?
That’s it! You must have ears like a bat! You’re the only person apart from me that knows it’s on there!
F: I missed it the first few listens. Also, when I got my advance of the CD for review, it had no credits, but of course I spotted Roger Daltrey’s voice on the title cut and at the time I wondered if that was a Who sample or if you’d blackmailed Daltrey into appearing on your record!
In the end it was a breeze. We’d been booked to support the Who on a British tour in November. Roger began to hang out with us as we ran up and down. He knew we were recording, so one night he said, “Hey, if you want me to come by I’d be more than pleased to do that.” I said, “Sure, come on down, and let’s get out the mics and sing!” So it was an invitation from him – he made the offer.
That was great. That makes all the people who are too cool to like a so-called dinosaur band like the Who kinda scratch their heads and go… huh?
True yeah. We can’t have any of that kind of purism. Let’s give the kudos to where they’re due, c’mon! The Who in anybody’s books must be great, with a body of work that fantastic.
The October Mojo included two Clash songs in their “100 Punk Scorchers” list, with “White Riot” at number four behind the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” and the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat.”
Goddam it! Insulting, ain’t it? [smiling] No, I like the Damned, really!
When the media drags out its perennial Punk retrospectives, do you groan and go, “Reporters will be calling again, wanting to know about 1977…”?
I have to ignore it! Yeah, because every time an anniversary comes up, they always get around to the old [in pinched, nasal voice], “So, what does Punk Rock mean to you?” I did have an answer at one time, after 58 times. Can’t remember what it was now. Yeah, you just want to scream.
Um, that was my next question. Nevermind. I’m leaving now… On another topic, what did you think of your ex-roadie Johnny Green’s Clash book, A Riot of Our Own?
I LIKE Johnny Green’s book! It seems to capture to me the feeling in the air like it was. You’re reading the story as it happened, and it’s nice how it actually conveys what it was like at the time. That book somehow captures something. It’s entertaining for starters. And it’s short! [laughs]
The Westway to the World movie comes off as very honest too….
Yeah, that’s Don Letts there, who was part of the scene anyway at the time. He was perfectly placed to do that and I think he did great. I wouldn’t have liked to try that!
I noticed that Westway to the World is now coming out on DVD with extra footage, with the Clash on Broadway film included. That originally hit the British theaters around the same time as the live Clash album, and shortly after the Clash remasters appeared too. Was it coincidence that the first Mescaleros album was released around then too? Because it was fortuitous from a standpoint of promoting your record. When doing the Clash-related interviews, did you want to say, “Oh, and guys, I got this little solo album too…”
It was totally accidental. That live album had been simmering on the backburner for two-three years so it just happened to lurch out. And in the interviews, I don’t bother. You just gotta fight your way through.
And right now there’s this new Clash book by photographer Bob Gruen, who I met yesterday. I brought these photo samples from it that Q magazine ran this month.
[looking at the photos excerpted in current issue of Q pointing at a stage shot] Yeah, that was a good one. Great shot. Bob is lovely, isn’t he?
Will you ever put a boycott on the Clash inquiries?
No, no, just carry on. [grinning at me] Don’t you want to know when the Clash are going to get back together?
I know the answer… Back in, say, 1966, we didn’t think rock ‘n’ rollers should be playing past age 30 — now there’s a book out called Rock ‘til You Drop, and one of its main theses is that 50somethings look ridiculous hopping around onstage and maybe they should just go sit on barstools and play the blues.
Not a bad idea! That’s what Johnny Ramone thinks! No, I think you should just get on with it. Look at Paul Newman. And the Sufis think people get better, y’know? Why should we assume people get worse? Just because everybody makes loads of cruddy albums, hah-heh-heh!
I was watching old Clash videos and noticed how the three of you would form this frontline, shoulders all kind of moving in the same rhythm. Is that same kind of onstage chemistry coming through for you now? What do you get out of being onstage in 2001? Do you have needs or expectations different from two decades ago?
Erm, every day is a new day, isn’t it? So I just look forward to it. It’s the same as in the old days. I narrowly missed the other night getting hit by a twizzling mosher, you know when they hold him up in a ball over the crowd, then they twizzle and their legs kick out frantically. But it’s more or less the same as it ever was. I did a gig once with just one man in the room. So since that gig you’re just glad that people are there, you know? Once you’ve done a few gigs like that with one man in the room – and that man was asleep! – you appreciate the crowds.
Every day’s a new day, really. And you can’t walk around with expectations. I don’t like to know where we’re going, actually. Because you always end up somewhere interesting. If you have a specific aim or target, and then you arrive at that point – whatever, the creation of a project, some sort of – it’s like, boring! You’re gonna end up there – and finally you end up there! There’s no fun in that somehow, is there? There’s no surprise in it. There’s no chance in it. This is a construction of chaos, really. We shamble around; God knows how we put it together! But I think we’ve got something good rolling along here. We enjoy playing live, and we all get along. You get your juices going, you get out, you gather ‘round the world again, you see the people you meet and you talk to people – it’s a very stimulating experience in total, y’know?
One musician told me being on tour was like being in a fishtank, and when he gets home the tank is drained of water and he’s left standing there trying to remember how to breathe.
It is strange. There should be a detox unit, a decompression chamber for about four days in some camp. Maybe I’ll start up a camp!
…Decompression Camp! Four days. Put ‘em in a black room with a television.
What kinds of people are coming to your shows? I picture grey-haired punks in Mohawks…
Mostly they’re truck drivers, a-hah-heh-heh! Yeah, any people, really. Quite a cross section are digging the music. Quite a wide age group.
When you look at the audience, what do you see in the faces looking up at you?
Hatred. [laughs] No, just people grooving around, you know? I did a gig once with just one man in the room. So since that gig you’re just glad that people are there, you know? Once you’ve done a few gigs like that with one man in the room – and that man was asleep! – you appreciate the crowds.
Are there times when you’re ill, or in a bad mood, and you really have to work hard to gear up to the point where you can give these people something they paid for?
Yeah, and that’s one of the real – then you feel like you’ve learned something, when you can overcome something like ‘I don’t feel like it.’ If you can overcome that AND do a good show, then you’re really learned something. Mood has a lot to do with it.
I noticed last night you were fretting about the time left before the venue doors were to be opened and that The Slackers might not get a proper soundcheck. You told your road manager to hold the doors until they did. Yet some musicians take the attitude, ‘Five years ago I got treated like shit, now it’s their turn to get treated like shit.’
That’s idiotic. People are nuts. See, when you’re being crudded upon by others, you say to yourself, ‘One day when it’s my turn, the support band’s always gonna get one.’ Because you live and learn what it’s like to be in that position. ‘Sorry, you can’t get a check because Waffleface has got [in whiny/superior voice] to mend his fuzzbox!’ You know? So you think – pffft, when it’s my turn, I’m gonna make sure. There’s lots of aimless soundchecks. They could go on for days if no one didn’t go, ‘Cuuuut!’
The back design of your album reminds me of the X-Ray Spex album cover Germ Free Adolescents. Just a kind of subliminal thing…
Oh yeah, I remember that. I must find that and have a look.
You need to make those lighters your accessories to sell at concerts… Okay, give me your spot impressions of your band members. Start with Richard Flack – he’s just in the studio with you, right?
Yeah. I’ve tried to get him out on the road, but he’s a backburner man. He’s a backroom genius – I couldn’t think of recording without him I think the band is fantastic, really. If it’s to do with “criminal matters” like breaking back into a club because we left something inside, then Simon Stafford, the bassman is the one for sordid matters like that. Then our “spiritual guru” is Martin Slattery, piano-guitar man. And if you just wanna trade insults, Scott Shield’s your man. Luke Bullen is “knock on wood,” if you know what I mean. [drums on the dressing table]. And for a new slant on things, Tymon Dogg’s your man. He’s inventing new ways to make Beethoven nervous. I’d started to play at these evenings called “Poetry Olympics.” They’re kinda like beatnik evenings, in the spirit of. Tymon dropped by one of these; I hadn’t seen him in years. I says to him, “Hey, where’s the violin?” And he said, “About a mile away in the back of the car.” I said, “Go get it!” He came running back with it just in time for our slot so we did a bit of jamming on some nice tunes. And then I just invited him in to the session we were having the following day. He sort of drifted into the session, and then into the group. For me, it’s a laugh, because I started out collecting money for him [in the early ‘70s] when he was busking in the London Underground. That was my start in the music world.
And of yourself? You’ve got one of the most distinctive voices in rock, like Dylan or Neil Young.
No, Neil’s got a pair of pipes on him. You couldn’t put him in the growling category. [My voice] is so out of tune it sticks out. I’m the sore thumb of larynxes. It’s awful. It stinks. Once I was phoning up some friends in LA in 1988, this long list because I was doing a show, of people I’d met. I rang Jesse Dylan’s number and went, ‘Ahh, Jesse…’ And he went, ‘Oh, hi Dad.’ It took me by surprise – otherwise I should have said, ‘Go and tidy your room.’ [laughing] But “distinctive” is code word for “cruddy,” admit it.
Making the new album, judging from the shared songwriting credits, you took a more democratic approach compared to the last one, which was more a Strummer-Anthony Genn collaboration.
Well, Anthony pissed off to make his own group, called Help, and make his own record. So that left a kind of vacuum. I was interested to see how it would affect our dynamic, so Scott and Martin kind of stepped into that vacuum, if you like. And it was great; it was like working in the old days. We had slotted into the studio for a five-day session before [going out on tour with] The Who. It just started to happen, and your antenna goes up when you know that you’re on a roll. Then we were out on the road following that. We just went straight back in after and kept the ball rolling. It was a very strange session afterwards, a real breeze – a nice one to be at.
Now, “Cool n Out,” that would be a bit older because it still has Anthony Genn credited, right?
Yeah, that started really at the end of the last [album’s] session. Starting to jam that furious riff out on the guitar. But it was just too late to make it onto the record. So we sampled some of ourselves playing on the last record, and Scott put the guitar riff on it. Then it kinda laid dormant for awhile until we came back to the studio and that was one piece we knew was in the cupboard even though it was only a loop and a riff, really, going on for about 12 minutes in a straight line.
Well, you could have used the whole 12 minutes and made it a 95 minute album instead of a 73 minute album! Was that what you started out to do, make an album that filled up an entire CD?
No. I said to the guys let’s record “Minstrel Boy.” I was thinking it could come in useful as a B-side, and I may have specified doing it for about 3 ½ minutes. The guys started playing – and stopped 21 minutes and 22 seconds later! [laughs] I said, ‘That’s great!’ Everybody else probably thought I’d lost my mind. So we left it like that for the time being. But as we began to reel off the final mixes and build up the album, I began to think – how long? A vinyl album is only 23 minutes a side. Say, 46 minutes before you begin to lose sound quality. But these CDs are 73 ½ minutes capacity, so I thought, well, whatever we’ve done, we’ll stack the tunes up, and whatever time’s left we’ll dedicate to “Minstrel Boy.”
It’s a very dense album, lyrically. Closer to a rapper’s style than rock ‘n’ roll. Had you worked out the words beforehand?
I had pieces of “Bummed Out City” –mostly what it is now, but just in bits in pieces. That’s about the only thing that was on the deck. The guys would start to make the music, get the tunes going, and I’d use that to inspire me, to get inspired by the atmosphere inside each tune.
I think if you’re gonna write a lyric you really got to think about it. It’s too much for one person to do the tune and the lyric. Sometimes, if you’re lucky. But in the main, I like the Rodgers and Hammerstein method, or the two Gershwins, or those two lunatics who wrote Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan.
PBS had a special on songwriters recently, and practically every classic song from the ‘50s and ‘60s era it covered was penned by a duo.
Yeah? Well, all right – Lieber and Stoller. This is good. There are geniuses like Hank Williams or Bob Dylan, these people who come along once in awhile. But for the rest of us I think it’s really good when you have the two, three, four, five guys working on it. It’s always different. Whereas if you leave it all to one person, after awhile it’ll be in the same box.
Does your method ever lead you down a path of excess where you turn around to find you’ve been riffing on a progression that went nowhere?
Well, that happens every day, what do you mean! [laughs] Yeah, and then we put it out on the record! We even considered shortening some of the other songs to get more of “Minstrel Boy” on!
Musical themes that crop up: does someone say, okay, I have this Celtic thing here, and the next guy says, let’s get this dub thing going here…
No – we don’t talk. Which, it seems to me, there need not be any discussion. People just kind of grunt. Like, you’ll say [shrugs shoulder, furrows brow], “Nggg.” You don’t like it. Or – [relaxes shoulders, softens face] “Mmmggg.” That means it’s probably really great. You have the facial stuff going too. Grunting seems to be the perfect way.
Like cavemen. Were there any “happy accidents” that you caught while the tape recorders were rolling?
The whole thing was a happy accident! Because it wasn’t planned. And you can’t do that every time. Only a maniac would walk forward like that, into a studio. Costs a lot if it didn’t happen – you’d be in the hole. I think you’ve gotta have a kind of vibe going to avoid it getting “sticky.” You know that horrible moment that always happens when you stick on a bit, keep going over and over it. A smart operator just hops over it and carries on. You’ve gotta feel like you’re achieving, haven’t you, to keep the morale up. You can’t have it stuck on something. Because it’s a very morale thing, making a record. You’ve gotta believe you can do something good.
But we’re pretty into what we do. People are either right in the room or asleep on the floor in the next room. We recorded in a very small studio on the outer suburbs of London because the rate is better. And it gives us more freedom to experiment, because in the city center you’re much too nervous – the rate would be three times what we pay out on the edge.
Any songs on the album stand out in your mind as really capturing the Mescaleros vibe?
I got no idea, Fred. We don’t know what we’re doing! Honestly, if we had any idea, we wouldn’t do it, or it probably wouldn’t be doable. But I think there’s too much thinking going on in the world – too much forward brain.
Too much calculation.
Yet at some point you’ve got to say, okay, time to let intuition fall away and bring in the craft. When do you know when you’ve got enough and it’s time to move on to the next stage – When do you know you’ve really nailed it?
Hmm…. [thinking a long while] Maybe it’s when it gets to the point where you’ve added something and you recognize it as superfluous. And then gradually the realization sinks in that maybe it’s kind of cool like it is. That kind of sideway, crablike approach to things – you’ve gotta crab up to the side of things and not startle ‘em.
With two albums and several tours in two years, does it feel like you’re on a creative roll?
Yeah, I think so. Just show us a studio and we’ll be in there like wrapped up a drainpipe. If we can keep it together I think we could do it and really hit some music. That’s what I hope, anyway. Going with the vibe seems to be the way we do things. It suits everyone. Maybe that’s why we’re still on the road even two years after we started, which is quite an achievement.
A lot of musicians claim to be mere vessels through which music is channeled from some higher energy or power: do you think of yourself and an “artist,” in quotes?
[standing up] I don’t think along those bollocks, man. You’re out of your mind! Horseradish. You gotta think of it, you gotta beat it outta your brain! [slapping his head] You can’t sit around thinking like that! What are they – they’ve had too many crisps! I think of myself as a hack. Because, one, it’s true. Two, it stops you from getting hi-faulting’ notions – above your station. And three, you’re just a hack anyway! I look in the mirror and go, “Hack! Hack! Hi hack! How’s it hanging today!” Honestly, the people out there who are true geniuses, they are the ones putting little circuits together, operating on people’s brains, you know? I mean, we’re kind of on the level of crossword puzzle writers. Compilers of crossword puzzles. And no one ever goes to them and gives them an award. Do you think they’ve got a crossword puzzle writer’s dinner and annual award? Do you think all the crossword puzzle writers get together in Florida once a year? If they do, I wanna be there! [laughs]
There’s probably an Internet newsgroup of them at least…
Yeah, let’s dial up the crosswords — www.crossword.com!
At any rate, people listening to your music do attach an emotional component to it.
Okay, that’s true. But what I mean is that it’s like a knack. Some guys can play helicopters, but they can’t play football.
So should we strive to bring artists down to earth? You’ve said that in the Clash you guys had become ‘corporate revolutionaries’ or something to that effect?
Well, if people’s platform heels get too high, yeah. There are some people that are probably geniuses, like we mentioned Hank Williams or Bob Dylan. But yeah, that’s why it had to stop. Because, you begin, right? And it all makes sense – “Yeahhh!” But then five years later you’re kinda professionally paid to be a rebel, which is insane. Isn’t that a conundrum? It’s truly insane.
And I realized that it was only going to get worse. Say we’d gotten as big as U2 – we would have been insane! I could certainly see that life from now on would only be – “Photo shoot. Do the interview. Go to the video shoot. Go do another interview. Fly to Rio. Play the Asshole Stadium. Come back in a helicopter.” And all the time you’re suppose to try and write something real, or think real, or get through to real people – or “keep it real,” as they say. In-fucking-impossible.
I’ve had plenty of time to think about it.
To be continued… tomorrow, in Pt. 2, our Strummer interview wraps up, with JS discussing his film career, 9/11, and more. That’s followed by 2001 and 2003 interviews with Mescaleros members Tymon Dogg and Martin Slattery.