Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano: "We've Never Done Anything Everybody Else Does."
At 54, Johnette Napolitano sounds like she has much creative drive as people half her age. Full of energy and desire with her work as a solo artist, a collaborator and the lead singer of Concrete Blonde, listening to her is quite an inspiration.
While her power was out at her home in Joshua Tree, California, and it was raining buckets, Napolitano was generous to speak with us about her year so far and the legacy of her band, touching on topics such as why you'll hear "Joey" live and why you won't find her band performing an album in full, live, from front-to-back.
Read more after the jump.
How has your year been? What have you been up to?
Oh, so much stuff. We went to China, which is pretty damn cool. We had never done that before. And we hope to go back again pretty soon. That was really, really great. At this point, just like any relationship, you hope to have new experiences and doing new things, so as long we've been a band it's so cool to be somewhere we've never been. That's just a shot of adrenaline. So we did that, went to Peru. We toured about the same or a lot more outside the states than we do in the states, for some reason, for the last few years. I wrote a book. I guess you can call it a book. It has a cover and pages and you can read it [Laughs.]
It's bound, you mean?
That's something I've wanted to do for a long time! I'm planning on another one. I got my tattoo license. I'm licensed in San Diego -- I'm not licensed anywhere else. I'm having a great time with that. I've been sewing like crazy. I had a sewing course. We've been doing a webcast. This is cool because we've been waiting for this technology to catch up with us. The last Sunday of every month, we've been live with this thing called Stages that you can stream from your living room. That technology's existed for a while, but to make it a reliable, enjoyable experience in the way that we'd like to see it happen, that hasn't happened until recently. This was the first time where we could stream a live show once a month and see what happens. It's been really fun. We've done three of them now. Every month we try to do one from a different place. People buy tickets just to see our show. It's been indescribably, insanely fun because it's like having to do a show once a month. It keeps us on our toes.
You guys will play Dallas just a few days before Halloween.
Oh, man! Jeez, it's going to be crazy! [Laughs.] We're trying to figure out our costumes. We've got pumpkin-carving shit going on. We just want to have fun. We can work now in a way that's very focused and custom-ed. Our biggest problem is we're doing three shows in Texas and we need different costumes for every night. We can't wear the same costume every night.
I don't know if it's pressure from promoters or the band's idea, where they do an entire album live, but has that ever come up with you guys? Like, doing Bloodletting or Free in their entirety?
Yeah, of course it came up and we shot it down. It's a trend and for a lot of reasons, it's a good idea for some bands. For us, but [Bloodletting] wouldn't have been a hit without the groundwork and the audience that we had built up to at that point. You framed the question perfectly. You don't know whether it comes from the bands, the promoters or a manager for all the money. [Laughs.] I see it happening and I see why. That came from a lot of people. We had phones ringing. We had people telling us, "You know, it's been 20 years..." So we thought, "Well OK, this is interesting." But when it got to that point where everybody's doing this, so you should do it, we're like, "No." We've never done anything everybody else does anyway and there's no reason we should start doing it now. And there are so many flaws in that plan. I mean, where is the audience from the first two records that basically built to having a hit record? It didn't just happen overnight. We did a lot of touring. We had a lot of people supporting us from the earliest days in L.A. So if you go out and pretend that's the only that matters, it's like, "Seriously?" [Laughs.] It isn't.
Something that's struck me about Concrete Blonde is how you guys aren't going to play a state fair where you play some material people might know, play some new songs, and then end the set with your best known song.
That would be a tough thing to do! We're going to piss somebody off, I guarantee you. If we went out there and played every single record, every single song that we knew, somebody would come up and go, "You should have done the fuckin' b-side off the second single from the second album, man." Somebody's going to do that no matter what we do. That's alright, because it's actually interesting now with who it's going to be and what are they going to say. [Laughs.] As a matter of fact, on the reunion tour, we did "Joey" second. We did it straight out the gate. So it was there. "Fine, here's 'Joey,' that's our biggest hit. We love it. We know it, but if this is why you came, good. If you want to go now, we can all just do what we want to do. If you want to hang around and see this is going to be a really great show and there's a lot of people that have been here for a really long time." And it worked out well for us.
Is a new album in development?
I would say yes, definitely, but if you were to ask us when we'd feel it would be something we'd want to do, I wouldn't know when. Here's something: Just for Texas, we're doing vinyl. We're doing 500 white 7-inches. After the tour, they'll be up on sale online, but the pressing plant is really working to get this done so that we can bring them to Texas. It's really cool because they're new songs. The a-side is called "Rosalie." The b-side is another ghost song, which is a true story because ghosts are amongst us.
I'm sure you've heard from a lot of fans that were introduced to the band through a song being played on the radio or seeing a video on MTV. But I'm curious: Since your music has been featured in a lot of television shows and movies, do you ever meet people who say, "I was introduced to you with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" or "I was introduced to you through the series finale of The Shield" or anything like that?
Yeah! Movies and TV are pretty much where it's at. If you're in a band now, people will tell you it's all about licensing. It's a good reason to hold on to your music. That's really big stuff. However, a lot of the time, I really won't find out about things until after the fact for a lot of reasons that really don't matter. I just did a piece of music for a Peruvian short film by this young director and it's an intense film. So I really love that. I'm trying to get back to that on the visual end of things.
I work with a lot of other people. Danny [Lohner] from Nine Inch Nails, I've worked with him on three movies now. It burns my ass because we did this song for this movie Dead Silence. I had more mail from that movie and the part was, there was a radio that goes on and then my voice comes out of the radio. And that's it. I think it's on the closing credits. I cannot believe the mail I got from that. And the thing is, my name isn't in it until the closing credits, but people recognize my voice from two seconds of this scene. That blew my mind. We were doing it as anonymous background music.
I love "Joey." Don't get me wrong. It is a great thing to have. They say you have better chances of becoming president of the United States than having a hit record. It's all about money. I think it's an incredible gift in my life. Even if you choose to do that every year -- believe me, it's a choice -- if you have one record that has reached that stratosphere, you can pretty much have a lot of fun for the rest of your life with a quarter or eighth of that audience and still make your living playing music.
You've recorded songs in Spanish before. Was that something you enjoyed doing and would you do that again?
I would enjoy doing it. As a matter of fact, I'm working on two separate things in Spanish right now. The piece dictates the language. Some things play better in Spanish. For example, take an Italian opera and try to sing it in English -- it just doesn't work. It depends on the beat, the groove, the music, what kind of piece it is. It's almost like casting a movie, writing a song. It comes out of the ear that way. I've been working with an incredible flamenco band down in New Orleans for the last couple of years called Ven Pa' Ca. You wouldn't expect to find state-of-the-art flamenco in New Orleans, but that's what's down there -- some of the most-schooled artists I've ever met between Spain and New Orleans. [Spanish] is a very natural part of my life. It's not conscious anymore. It's so ingrained in everything.
I know this is something that happened almost 20 years ago, but how did you end up knowing Bad Religion and singing on "Struck a Nerve"?
Fuck, that's easy. I worked in this studio called Gold Star Recordings and this kid came in one day and he had a punk band. This is great because I've been thinking about them a lot lately because we're doing this 7-inch single. Brett Gurewitz came in and he said he had a band called Bad Religion and we took them into the studio. They wanted to do six songs on a 7-inch and that is nothing a mastering engineer wants to do on vinyl, but Brett gets his way, he wanted to do it, and he did it. So he learned the record business real quick as we all know.
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