Q&A with Joe Strummer
The Clash weren't the Ramones or the Sex Pistols?they knew how to play their instruments, and they wrote more sophisticated compositions. When you hear their music played on the radio these days it's hard to imagine that this was once considered shocking or a new sound. And Joe Strummer hasn't become the caricature that John Lydon has, probably because Strummer always had that serious edge to him?he's the kind of guy you know can keep a secret. And it was always about the music for him, too.
Strummer's new album, Global A Go-Go (HellCat/Epitaph) will bring jovial tears to your eyes when you hear his voice. It's raw and resistant like a reluctant horse that must be tugged into performance. Joe's musical artistry and lyrical sensibility are both very much intact, even brilliantly operational. He's one "elder rocker" that even John Strausbaugh has gotta love.
I'm a huge fan, I love your new record. I think it really kicks ass.
Ah, thank you J.T.
So, this is a stupid question, but how does it feel to have a new record out and to be doing a tour and all that kind of stuff?
Well, it feels great and I gotta thank HellCat Records here, 'cause I think it would have been difficult for me to come back from an 11-year layoff, and find a regular straight record company. I think it would have been hard to find an interest, so I feel really great to be back doing it.
But it hasn't really been 11 years. I mean, you've done other records.
Yeah, soundtracks, but I count it as 11, because that was the gap between Earthquake Weather, which was a solo album I did, and Rock Art [Epitaph]. Out of the rock 'n' roll world, you could say.
Have you just started doing the whole big press thing?
Yeah, just started really.
How do you deal with it?
Well, it's really easy, because of the position that I'm in, coming back after a long gap, I've only?I have to forget the radio, forget MTV and these things, so when you think about it, we've only got two avenues and one of them is playing gigs, which we're gonna do in the autumn, and the other is to talk to writers. That's the only way we can get through.
You don't think MTV will play you?
Well, no, 'cause they've got their formats and stuff and you know, they might play you once in the middle of the night. Once a year, you know, but...
You could put on a wig and pretend you're Britney Spears.
[Laughs] This is the best idea I've heard all day, actually.
So you know the whole Clash reunion thing? What did you think of the Sex Pistols reunion?
We were out on tour or something, so I missed it, so I can only go by the reports. But I was down with it because I feel they were the originators and the originators never sell any records, you know. It's the people that come in after them that sell records, so I thought that they deserved getting something for what they'd done. And that was the only way to do it.
Do you think the Clash will ever do that?
I don't think so, but you never know.
Why don't you think so?
I don't think so because everybody's doing their separate things?Paul's a really serious, dedicated painter and Topper's nursing himself back to health, and Mick's involved with a lot of video and projects like that and nowadays, I've got a hot new bunch of players [laughs].
[Laughs] Maybe you can put them in dresses and pretend they're the Clash. But, do you wish it could be like an Etch A Sketch where you could kind of not have people referencing all your old stuff...
Um, no, not really, 'cause you know, pride is the only thing that you can feel if you've been in a really great rock group and a lot of people give you props for it. So I'm always willing to go into it at great length. It's something I'm proud of rather than wanting to get away from really, because there's no getting away from it.
What's your life like in England, do people recognize you, like when you go out and stuff?
No. That's a good question, 'cause that really is something I think about a lot. I live kind of in the middle of nowhere anyway, kind of way out.
Where do you live?
In Somerset, which is about three hours by car west of London. No one recognizes me, but I find that a great thing, 'cause you've got to be able to think properly.
Imagine if every time you went out of the house loads of grandmas started screaming, you'd soon become a fugitive or a hermit. You've got to be able to live in the real world.
Are you married and do you have kids?
I've been married twice and I got three kids, one's a stepdaughter and they're 17, 15 and 9.
So are they like, "Yeah, my dad is Joe Strummer"?
I don't know. In Britain people are really quite ruthless and we kind of get rid of our heroes very quickly, so it's more of a curiosity than a big deal for their generation.
The Clash changed music so completely. I'm sure you've got a lot of different ways that you wish you had steered stuff or not steered stuff. If there was one thing you wish you had changed, what would that be?
I wish that we'd had the intelligence to take a year off after we made an album called Combat Rock. 'Cause we'd made 16 sides of long-playing vinyl and then done hundreds of gigs, so I think we could have taken a year off and recharged our batteries and maybe come back with another record. Instead, we kind of broke it up and crash-landed.
Do you think you guys would have stayed together had you done that?
Yeah, I think so.
Back to the new record?what kind of music were you listening to when you were writing?
This is a strange record because it started by accident. We had a Who tour booked in Britain, three weeks backing up the Who, up and down Britain. And so I just booked five days in a studio before that to see how it'd get on with making a new LP. And it started to go really well and so I just booked more time, and then as soon as we got off the Who tour, we went straight back in and we built the whole record out of nothing, on the spot, because there was a whole new dynamic in the band. One guy had left and another guy had come in, and things were really different and people began to contribute more, we began working together like a team, cowriting and co-everything, so the situation really made itself.
How long did it take to record all these songs?
We were interrupted by the Who tour and we were interrupted by the Christmas break, so I'd say over about a couple of months at least.
Do you have a home studio or did you go into the studio?
Oh, we went into a studio in London, in northwest London, and the rate there is a little cheaper than if you go in the center of town. So that helped us relax a bit more.
And who produced it, or did you guys produce it?
We did it in-house?we just figured, you know, we're all grown men, we know the music better than anyone else.
Do you work with Pro Tools or anything like that?
Yeah, but we play live into them?see this is a big, big important point about Pro Tools. Obviously, there is a polarization about it, like people are saying that it is ruining music...
Well, I don't think so. My boyfriend is a Pro Tools producer... So, are you married right now?
In other words, you're not going to be doing the groupie stuff?
No. That's for the young men, no?
Ah, I don't know about that. But how do you deal with it when you get the groupies?
Well, you know, we don't. It's been too long, really, I mean we get more like guys who are interested in the music. Who want to rap. You know, that's all.
They want to talk about recording techniques and stuff like that, right?
I know we can get almost as excited about that stuff as any babe groupie. Do you get yourself in shape before performances?
Yeah, I don't drink anything.
Do you smoke cigarettes?
Yeah, only after.
Do you think cigarette smoking has affected your voice?
Probably, but I've never had that much of a voice to begin with.
There's a lot of people who would disagree with you.
I think it affects your range. I don't chainsmoke all day.
Do you own most of the rights for the Clash's music?
We have the right to say what it's used for. Such as an advert or on a compilation, but I don't think we actually own our own works 'cause we signed the wrong contract. The original recordings belong to Columbia or Sony or whoever bought it.
But you still make money from?
?from the Clash back catalog? Yeah. It comes in dribs and drabs, you never know. It doesn't seem to have any pattern to it.
Are your parents still around?
No, no, they died in '83.
But they got to see your success and everything?
Absolutely. And it was good for me because I was in kind of a war with my father most of my life, so it was nice when he saw that I wasn't a complete waster.
Do you want to do more movie acting and that kind of stuff?
No, to be honest, I felt that?I was looking at these actors when I was doing it with Jim Jarmusch, and I was thinking, these guys have been thinking about acting their whole life. And you can't catch up with that, you know, you have to respect that these guys really know what they're doing. And I watched them closely and they had skills that I think it'd take years to really develop. I think you can come on and goof off in a little cameo role now and then, but for myself I definitely want to leave the acting to the actors.
What do you do with your spare time, so to speak?
I like to try and read books.
I interview a lot of musicians and I'm amazed how dumb so many of them are. And how many of them don't read at all. I mean, they're kind of like idiot savants?just because you're a really good musician doesn't mean you're smart about anything else, you know?
That's very true. I bear that in mind a lot, so I try and read books and not watch the television. Unless there's, perhaps, an important soccer match, that's kind of enjoyable, but I like to try and read a book.
What books have you been liking lately?
I only like to read about things that actually happen. I mean, I must get on to novels and stuff, but I like to read biographies. I like to read someone's life and how they coped with things they had to struggle with.
Have you gotten into Napoleon?
No, that's next on my list.
He's so fucking wild. He's a genius. He invented public relations.
Great. Imagine that, inventing p.r.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros play Tues., Oct. 9, at Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Pl. (betw. 15th & 16th Sts.), 777-6800.
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