My interview with Joe Strummer from The Clash

js_interior_grafik.jpgFor over a decade I was a freelance music writer mostly working for Alt Weeklies. I haven’t reprinted material from that career, as I was interested in keeping the creative and commercial writing separate.

I now know that writing is writing,  so I’m reviving some of the better music pieces here at 15WattLasVegas. There will also shortly be an archive button on the right where readers can find them in one place.

The first story I’m putting up is perhaps the most significant, a 2001 interview with Joe Strummer from The Clash as he prepared to tour behind The Mescalaros’ “Global A Go-Go” in the U.S..

It touches on many things, from Bob Dylan to The Pogues to the state of Punk in the early 2000’s.  Strummer was generous and funny to speak with, I only wish I would have asked better questions, considering his untimely death a year after the interview was published. I couldn’t find this interview anywhere online, it was published in a few different places in the pre-tastemaker music blog era, as far as I can tell all have vanished even from the Wayback Machine. So without further ado, reprinted as-is, please find below the fold:

“Everything Cool  is Accidental”
An interview with Joe Strummer
by Jonathan Bond

To bastardize Gertrude Stein: Joe Strummer is Joe Strummer is Joe Strummer. Everybody knows he was in the Clash, so why rehash and bore you with the past? He wants to talk about the present anyway, which finds him with a promising new band, the Mescaleros, a new album entitled Global A GO-GO and a fall U.S. tour.

Strummer was cool enough to call me from London and it was all I could do not to say upon answering “yes, is this London calling?” I was nervous and wanted to ask all the right questions and a few of the more academic questions (like the ones that begin this story) he quickly brought down to ground – in a friendly, English way, of course. We pick up a few minutes into our conversation:

Basement-Life: Let’s talk about Global A GO-GO a little bit. You’ve been politically interested in multi-cultural aspects in your music for a long time, but this album is really an amalgam of many musical styles. What made you decide on the disparate styles you incorporated on the record?
Joe Strummer: Well, firstly, in truth, nobody decided anything. We kind of stumbled into the session and when it got going we just kept running with it. So I wouldn’t say there was much of a plan you could write on the back of a postage stamp.

The lead off track, “Johnny Appleseed” – what inspired you lyrically for this song? Well I don’t know. I think we were touring up north and I met a guy who was really enthusiastic about Punk and he wanted to run a fanzine, kind of a writer guy, and his name was Steve Appleseed, or he coined that Punk rock name for himself. This was last fall up in the North of England, and it was a great night. You know one of those great nights when people have got a lot to say. You know like when you have a few beers and you discuss the state of the world. It was one of those nights and it just kind of stuck in my mind. You know, his name.

The title track, “Global A GO-GO” is giving shout outs to all kinds of musicians and bands worldwide. The whole record is very internationalist / globalist. Is this album about embracing diversity and coming together or about world politics? None really. It’s about finding nice rhymey things on an atlas! (Laughs)

I have to ask you this stuff you know. (Laughs) Yeah. I know. We all know that all the countries in the world are all going on at the same time. Right now in Indonesia they’re running around arguing about something but that’s kind of an abstract concept because it’s so hard really to realize that. I saw this idea come into play at this radio station where they broadcast to all parts of the Earth, round the clock they go and that really brings it home to you because you can’t help but slam into the concept head on. When you are playing a record and they are hearing it in Brisbane and in Paris you know? It rams it home somehow. So that song was kind of trying to describe that feeling.

It’s a pretty mellow recording. Yeah. I don’t know why we were feeling so mellow. Maybe is was wintertime in London and the nights were drawing in and the rain was coming down, so you want to cozy up in a small room crouching over a two bar heater.

Would you mind telling how you found the other Mescaleros? Well, everything cool is accidental so it seems. I got a hold of Pablo Cook when I was trying to make an acid-house-punk-rock-fusion group with a guy called Richard Nice from the Grid, which is a British house band. Through Pablo I locked into a sub-strata of London musicians, people that were playing around on or guesting on albums by bands like Elastica and Pulp, the interesting side of that Brit pop movement. We met Martin Slattery from Black Grape, when they broke up we poached him and he knew Scott Shields, so one guy knows another, like pulling a string, or something. Now we’ve got a drummer called Luke Bullen and we’ve poached a guy from the LongPigs called Simon Stafford.

You made it very clear in the press material that this is a band, it’s not Joe Strummer and some anonymous backing band. Well this is the way we work. We’re very Democratic. If everyone agrees on something we kinda do that.

How does that affect your writing process? Well, more or less that was the set up in the Clash anyway. See what I mean? A band is a band and everyone generally has to agree when you put out a record. Everyone in the band presumably digs it. So you have a common. . .you can . . .(sarcastic) you share a common vision!

(click “more” for last page of interview, including questions about The Clash, including a Clash reunion.)

You guys are gearing up for a US tour. Are you at all frightened about traveling right now (interview was a month after 9-11) ? You can always comfort yourself by saying, ‘hey that’s already happened.’ You know the sort of feeling. God knows touch wood, yeah?

Oh yeah. I got it right here. Ha ha. I’m touching my head.

Do you still enjoy playing live? It all depends, you see, on what material you’ve got. For example, it’s a happy man that’s got a new song to sing so that really drives it. Where as if you were condemned to do a repeat bill, or something from way gone back, I think it would get a little, perhaps the energy would go inward or something. You need that forward explosive outward energy. You really need it because the road is of grueling length so you need some kind of inner buzz to keep you with the forward propulsion.

You don’t want to be doing a greatest hits kind of a thing.
Yeah. You don’t want to be in a bad movie.

This is a solid record and you have certainly produced enough important music in your life to kick back on your laurels, why do you feel the need to continue creating music in this forum? Well, you know, I tried all that kickin’ back stuff. I think its time to just get out there and show people how it’s done. I’m just kidding. It depends if you can find people to work with. That’s the base of it all. If you don’t have that you suck. You need a good unit to rock with. I’m no good at playing the guitar. I have to hide it up under a lot of other noise.

How do you feel about new punk rock? Well I play with all these groups. I’m signed to Hellcat, which is Tim Armstrong’s (Dance Hall Crashers, Rancid) label. So we go out and play festivals with Sick of it All, Green Day, everybody you can think of we’ve played with. Blink182, Bloodhound Gang, everybody around really. The Pietasters, Hepcat. We rock with all these groups and I find them to be a fantastic company (Hellcat) and also brilliant technicians, if you like.

How do you feel about popular music toady as a whole?
It is a bit of a drag. It’s fatal to turn on the radio here in Britain. I mean obviously there are some interesting programs on late at night like John Peel occasionally, but during any normal day, if you turn that radio on . . .I know everybody’s who’s age twelve is really happy with it but you think they would realize not everybody is age twelve. There’s no way they are going to loosen their grip on that.

Do you have strong feelings about the internet regarding music? Yeah I Do. My strong feeling is I wish I knew how to bloody work it! My feeling is so strong I’m gonna get in front of that thing and figure it out.

I think you might enjoy it. It’s pretty fun. I’m gonna try to figure it out. My wife can make it work so at least we’re in. I would like to be able browse the net.

Some obligatory Clash question, if you don’t mind. Do you feel daunted by the legacy of that band when you go to record new work? Not really because you see anyone that makes a record listens to that record and goes “bloody hell, why did me make the middle eight two bars too long” you know what I mean? You can’t help but be a knit-picking son of a gun. I think everybody, when they listen to their own work they’re not sitting there thinking “Oh this is so great!” They’re thinking “That damn high-hat! I knew we should of fixed that!” or some stupid thing like that. They never ever forget those feelings so I’m always picking everything apart. Everything that I do.

How often do you speak to your other Clash-mates? We keep in contact all the time.

Any chance there could ever be a kind of splintered version of the Clash? No. I think of it like four baseball cards. If you buy a set of baseball card you don’t want three out of four, you want the four. Otherwise it’s useless!

Okay. Moving on, I wonder if you could tell me what it was like to work with Bob Dylan (in press material it stated that he played on “Down in the Groove”). I would love to tell you all about it, and the truth is it was Paul Simonon that worked with him, not me. It was a mistake in the Bio so I left it in there. You’ve go to have a laugh somewhere along the line and I thought, ‘oh, that sounds good!’

I won’t tell anyone. Put it in the article.

As you wish. As long as we are on this track – you working with other non-Clash musicians, I would love it if you could tell a quick Pogues story if one comes to mind. We recorded Hell’s Ditch in Wales with the original lineup. It was the last album so far with the original eight. Everyone had gone to bed and I was just closing up the studio it was like four in the morning, and I heard this real high-pitched tone. I thought it sounded like one of the power amps that power the outboard or something was going to pop. So I looked around in the dark studio and I couldn’t locate the sound because it was really high pitched. Eventually, in the far back of the studio in the dark I saw a red light and I approached it, and Shane (MacGowan) was asleep on a sofa in the back of the studio, holding a small Casio portable synth in his lap with his little finger jammed into the top note, and it’s still playing the note!

Okay thanks. Anything else you would like to say to the readers? Yeah. Just um, everybody at my gig is a hipster!


~ by 15wattLasVegas on April 5, 2015.

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