The original indie pop prodigy holds forth on everything from the current state of the music industry to Mark Lanegan filling in for Siouxsie Sioux and Johnette Napolitano to, naturally, his addictive new album, Fresh Flesh.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been more than two decades since Jonny Polonsky put out his stellar indie pop debut, Hi My Name is Jonny. Since then, he’s added one interesting chapter after another to his life’s work. He’s toured and recorded with a slew of diverse musicians over the years that seemingly have no obvious imilarities, everyone from Neil Diamond and Pusifer to Audioslave and Johnny Cash.
All the while, he’s continued to put out his own records, including his latest, Fresh Flesh, a smart, fun rush of British Post Punk and Polonsky’s fantastically addictive wry wordsmithing. A spur of the moment recording, Polonsky and crew spent all of two days in the studio recording Fresh Flesh, but the result is anything but slapdash.
Polonsky was kind enough to trade some questions back and forth over e-mail recently.
BLURT: This album sounds a bit different than some of your other records. Was that a conscious decision?
POLONSKY: This album really just fell together almost by accident and had no premeditation at all. I had put a band together, we worked up a bunch of new songs and were playing lots of shows in Los Angeles. We were offered free studio time, and we took it.
You have to work with what you’ve got in any situation, no matter the limitations of time, money or materials. That’s something I learned from David Lynch. We had two days to make the record. I knew we could just go in and play our live set and it would sound good. Because we had such little time, I knew it wasn’t gonna sound like The Joshua Tree, so I went into it knowing it would be kind of loose and raw. No click tracks, no auto tune, no drum edits. Just lay it down and smack ‘em yack ‘em.
We recorded all the songs, most of them first takes; I did a few overdubs, most of the vocals were one or two takes, and bada bing – a bouncing baby record! At the time I was really into a lot of English punk and post punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, X-Ray Spex… and also really liked how smooth and dreamy some of the Horrors’ records sounded, particularly Skying. That was the general aesthetic – hopefully not the general anesthetic, for those of you still with me… But it wasn’t really planned. It’s more like looking in your fridge to see what you can cobble together for a meal.
I like making records where you really labor over everything too, but this way is a lot of fun because you don’t overthink anything.
I’ve been a fan since the first album and, while I love that you aren’t constantly writing the same album over and over, I still listen to Hi My Name Is Jonny all the time. It’s been decades since you first worked on that one. Do you still identify with that record or is it just too different from where you are now?
It’s a corny analogy, but true, that it’s like looking at old photos of yourself. You know it’s you, you remember how you felt back then about certain things, little details about your life and personality… it’s you, but it’s not you anymore. I still have tons of great memories and a lot of fondness for those songs and that record, but it feels kind of faraway now. Every once in a while, I’ll do one of those songs if I’m doing a solo show and someone wants to hear it, but it feels like I’m covering someone else’s song.
Kevin Haskins plays on this new record. You had mentioning getting into a lot of post-punk; was/is Bauhaus a big influence on your music?
I love Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, and Tones on Tail. They’re all really imaginative bands that know how to create a mood, and not paint themselves into any corners. They get labeled as goth for obvious reasons, but the music is really diverse, dynamic and multi-dimensional.
Kevin and I first met a few years back through Zander Schloss. Zander was the guitar player in Joe Strummer’s first solo band, post-Clash. [Also a member of the Circle Jerks and Weirdos, along with a respected indie film actor. —Strummer Ed.] When I was a teenager, I bugged Zander on the phone and would send him tapes of my stuff because I loved his guitar playing. Still do. Anyway, Zander had set up a tribute show to Joe Strummer. Kevin and I were part of the house band. We did one or two more Strummer tributes over the years, and I also played on a horror film soundtrack that Kevin scored. He and I became buddies over the years, and I was real excited to have him play on that song—he gave it the perfect extra lift.
Lovely guy and great drummer. Poptone [Haskins’ band with Bauhaus’ Daniel Ash] is awesome too. I saw them last year and they were great.
Did you always envision Mark Lanegan for the voice over the intros “Solar Child”?
Actually, I initially wanted a woman to do the intro. I put out feelers for Siouxsie, Diamanda Galas, and Johnette Napolitano, but didn’t get anywhere. I love Mark Lanegan, he’s a huge hero to me. Incredible singer, great writer. A mutual friend connected us, and he agreed immediately. Wouldn’t let me pay him, either. Pure class. Gargoyle was one of my favorite records from last year. [Lanegan songs] “Goodbye to Beauty”… “Old Swan”… forget it.
You started out in the music business in the mid’-‘90s—obviously a very different time than now for the industry. What are some of the pros and cons of where record labels are now?
Honestly, I really haven’t had anything to do with a record label in years. But the benefit of being on a label is money, if they have it (duh). Making records can be expensive, touring is very expensive, publicity is very expensive. The downside is if they don’t want to spend that money, then what’s the point of being involved with them? Unless you are fortunate enough to be hooked up with some really smart, visionary people who can offer more than cash—like good ideas, clout, new adventures, red wine, dark chocolate, hiking, no hookups… I’m so sorry! My Bumble app just went off.
Anyway, the benefit of doing everything yourself is total freedom of expression. The downside is you have to find a way to pay for everything, and you have to find a way to reach your listeners. You just have to be crafty, frugal, patient, and have realistic expectations.
Any plans to tour when the record comes out?
There are a couple shows planned for Los Angeles. [Polonsky performed Jan. 29 at Love Song Bar and Feb. 9 at Hotel Café; the video above and the photo below is from the latter gig, courtesy of Polonsky’s Facebook page.] But nothing on the books after that. I’m working on some ideas to get us on the road.
What’s next for you? Are you working on or with anyone else?
I’m not working with anyone right now. I haven’t done any work as a side musician in several years. I love playing with other people, but I really want to concentrate on my thing. I’ve got lots of new songs. I’ve been doing some recording with a drummer friend, but I don’t know what will happen with those tracks, we’ll see.
I’m also doing a bunch of recording at home. I’ve got a couple albums’ worth of good songs, we’ll just see where it all lands.