Interview – Johnette Napolitano
– by Shawn Conner
It was nearly 25 years ago that Concrete Blonde dropped the blistering single “Still in Hollywood” on a still-forming alterna-nation. Led by vocalist/bassist Johnette Napolitano, the L.A.-based band showed it meant business with the 1989 follow-up Free and its devastating opener, “God Is a Bullet”. But it was the band’s 1990 record Bloodletting – what Napolitano has come to refer to as “the vampire album” – that really struck a chord with rock fans ready for the record’s heavy, serious themes and tragic ballads, particularly what has become the band’s best known song, “Joey”.
Four more albums – 1992’s Walking in London, 1994’s Mexican Moon and, after a six-year breakup/hiatus, 2002’s Group Therapy and 2004’s Mojave – followed, but failed to ignite the public’s imagination in quite the same way.
Which is cool. Chatting with a flu-stricken Napolitano recently, it becomes clear that the singer is happy to have made her mark, and in such a way as to allow her to keep making music. Concrete Blonde is still together, a miracle in itself, with Napolitano still belting out songs of love, anger and dark humour, and guitarist Jim Mankey delivering extra rock ‘n’ roll grit that keeps Concrete Blonde a band and not just a solo project. Drummer Gabriel Ramirez Quezada, a Blonde since the 2003 album Live in Brazil, rounds out the line-up.
Recent developments in the Concrete Blonde camp include two new songs, the ballad “Rosalie” and the half-spoken-word rocker “I See the Ghost” (available at CDBaby), as well as monthly Internet-only live shows on StageIt. In May the band is off to Argentina, but before that they’ll play a few West Coast shows, including one at the Rickshaw Theatre Jan 26 – the first time Concrete Blonde has played Vancouver since 1994.
We chatted with Napolitano from her home in Joshua Tree, California where, when she’s not rehearsing with her band, promoting awareness of projects threatening to the high desert’s eco-system, or attending Burning Man, she raises rescue horses.
Video – Eagle Mountain Dump Project w/ Johnette Napolitano:
Shawn Conner: You guys were doing that StageIt thing once a month, but I think the last one was in October?
Johnette Napolitano: It’s a shame, just when people heard about it we’re putting it on hold. It turned into a lot more work than we thought it would. We thought it would be like Hey, this is gonna be really fun, but then it turned into, Wow, people are really watching this. It became just as much pressure as a regular gig. We’re going to get back to it, though. We’re talking about doing it from Seattle, because that’s when we’re going to have our soundman and we’ll have time to prepare.
SC: I know you guys have at least two new songs recorded, “Rosalie” and “I See the Ghost”.
JN: Yeah yeah yeah, and those are on a nice little white 45, a limited edition, and we’ll have those on sale on the tour. People seem to be liking that. And we sure like it, it’s real cool – it was so cool to do a single. It’s just fun, and people like to have ’em. There’s a whole generation who haven’t seen those things, and they like ’em.
On the last tour we were doing early morning Fox TV, and people were bringing – here’s something I didn’t now; just like animals or babies, people carry pictures of turntable in their wallets. There was this dude who worked at Fox Now, he was the coolest guy, I think he was Nigerian, and he was trying to tell us about this three thousand dollar turntable that he found on the curb in London that his wife wanted him to get rid of and he wouldn’t get rid of it, and he was going on and on about this turntable – Mankey would know what it is. Sure enough he sent me a picture of this thing, and we were all astounded, it’s a piece of art.
Everybody is excited about records. I love the digital age. This is my time to be alive – but records were fun, records are cool, they make you feel good.
SC: How do you feel about playing shows and everyone’s taking pictures and holding up their cellphones?
JN: It bummed me out about playing live for awhile. I know artists who will hang mirrors on the mike stands to fuck up your flash. I know how to do that too [laughs]. But now I use it to my advantage.
Here’s a great thing I just discovered; Google Alerts. The minute somebody posts anything about Concrete Blonde I get a little alert and I can go flag that fucker. Because I know where you were standing, I know you weren’t supposed to be taking that, and I will take it down. Because it will affect my setlist and the music I am able to play if things go out of control. There’s a balance, it’s a relationship. I’ll give you this, but don’t take this.
But now I’m like, how can we use this to our advantage? And we’ll launch our new songs, we have a killer lighting guy, and we use it – those are all little promotional people now.
The time is gone where you’re close up in a sweaty club and you’re seeing an amazing show, or you’re just performing and sweating. You can’t do that anymore, especially if you’re a woman. But I’m having fun with it now. We’re all over YouTube. We just did Texas and we did all this TV stuff and it’s popping up all over.
Our image to a certain extent has been crafted for us. We were on labels at a fortunate time when you had a record company to do that, and obviously the vampire record [Bloodletting] was our biggest record, and that’s what’s all over the place. It’s up to us whether we want to leave that as our last image or not.
We’ve been artists since, we’ve played China, we’re just playing Argentina for the first time, we’ve done South America many times. All those people had never seen any other version of the band besides this one. So there are more people, arguably, who have seen the band since that time. It’s up to us to combat that certain amount of fabricated image.
People take things and run with them. People leaving teeth in my dressing room… dude, it was only a record. Relax, you know?
SC: I asked for questions for you from people on Twitter and quite a few of them were about when you’d be playing various cities. Are there any more tour plans for North America?
JN: It would have to be later in the fall.
SC: After a new album is recorded?
JN: We don’t think in album terms anymore. I like the idea of singles. And we have so much stuff. We’re going to South America in May. Mojave was never released there, we’re trying to get that up. But to think in terms of albums, it makes me depressed. I just think that is the most antiquated way of working. The nature now of culture is much faster, it’s quicker, things could happen over night that could render something done now completely irrelevant six months from now. To be silly enough to think you can plan a year from now – that becomes making money for somebody else. It’s not what we need to do.
SC: And since I’ve got you on the line, there are a couple of songs I want to ask you about… One of my favourite Concrete Blonde songs is “Happy Birthday” and I wonder if you could give me a little background on that one? It sounds like a real slice-of-life, a true story.
JN: It was a true story. It was my birthday, and we were going through a lot of crap. I didn’t realize a lot of people around me weren’t really my friends. There was a little dinner somebody was throwing for my birthday but the person I really wanted to didn’t show up, and when I got home there was a message on my machine, I was very happy, but sometimes, somebody can say a lot of things without saying anything, and this person was very much like that. Just by not showing up was a disapproval of who was there, and when I look back it wasn’t anybody who cared about me, it was a manager, an agent. I wasn’t happy and those people were happy to get me as wasted as possible.
SC: Was that your worst birthday ever?
JN: Hell no. My worst birthday ever was in Orlando, Florida. I couldn’t find a bar! It was like being trapped in a weird Fellini-esque dream. Okay maybe not the worst, but it was memorable, let’s put it that way.
Video – Concrete Blonde, “Happy Birthday”:
SC: What do you remember about recording “My Little Problem” for The Replacements‘ last album, All Shook Down?
JN: We were in New York. I remember Paul [Westerberg, Replacements lead singer/songwriter] didn’t want anyone to see him. So we were in the same room, we had two mics… As I recall he put this huge mattress up between us because he didn’t want to be seen or something.
And I’m like okay, well, whatever. And we sang it. We knocked it out in the studio basically. And Paul wanted to do it again again again, and I ended up saying I’m going to get some cigarettes, and then I didn’t came back, famously I guess – sorry! But because it was done. I’ve done that many many times. When something is done, it’s done. I know when I’ve done my best. By the same token, I will thrash myself to death if I don’t feel I’ve done it good enough.
But Paul would’ve thrashed it to death. And so I was like I’m going to go get cigarettes I’ll be back and never came back. And it was done. And it was good.
Song – The Replacements, “My Little Problem” (f. Johnette Napolitano):