BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Sean Lennon first fell under the microscope when he released his inaugural music in 1998 on the Beastie Boys label Grand Royal. The son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he defied expectations and became an indie pop auteur in his own right, having released several albums in the years since, the latest “Midnight Sun” under the band name The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. The band performs at Lincoln Hall Sunday.
A collaboration with his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl, the album is an idiosyncratic pop album with heavy rock moments reminiscent of the prog-rock era of early Pink Floyd and King Crimson, as well as the mind-melding studio craftwork of, yes, the Beatles. But rather than retread ideas from decades past, the album digs into fresh musical territory with crunchy rock choruses, partner harmonies, and a haunting melancholia.
The duo met at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2006 and collaborations followed. Both are multi-instrumentalists and approach making music the same way: As more of a journey that reveals itself over time rather than a ready-made formula.
Lennon, 38, and I talked recently by phone. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
You’ve been playing these songs now for quite awhile — For an album that sounds like such a creation of the studio, how are you finding ways to recreate it in a live setting?
Live, we’ve been able to strip down the songs and make them really good. I actually think we improved them to a large degree. One, we have a really amazing band and two, when you play songs for awhile, you start to know how they should really go. Around now, while in the middle of touring a bunch of songs on a new album, you actually know how they should go that you look back at the recording and go, “wow I wish I could record them now.”
That seems to be key — to find versatile players. I imagine it’s a challenge to find musicians who are not only great, but are walking sound palettes.
That’s true. But luckily there’s sort of scene in New York of musicians I’m friends with. My roommate is Nels Cline from Wilco — he’s a great example of somebody who not only plays in different styles, but is also a master of manipulating styles in a modern way with effects pedals and other trickery. I’m lucky that the musicians I’m playing with are well schooled in the university of effects pedals. (laughs) There’s a lot of possibilities these days. And then there’s also mastery of your instrument.
[Guitarist] Robbie [Mangano] is amazing, there’s weird things he’s showing me how to do with harmonics. And doing minor second harmonics that make weird, crazy, dissonant sounds that I didn’t even know that you could make with the guitar. So I’m learning how to play new stuff. And [keyboardist] Jared [Samuel] has this digital Chamberlin, which is a Swedish sampled version of the famous Mellotron Chamberlin, which is this old instrument that the Beatles used, and a lot of bands used, like Yes and King Crimson.
How did you manage to settle on that specific sound, which is so rooted in the 1960s?
It was years in the making. Charlotte and I wrote 100 songs over three, four years before we found the batch of songs we felt worked together as an album. It’s a long process. I think of it as just following the light: You don’t really know where you’re going and you’re lost in this sound forest and you know there’s this trial of light you’re following and it’s a trail of enthusiasm. And you’re follow that trail until you find the place. It’s like discovering a field, or some hidden city in the wilderness, and once you find it, it seems obvious. But getting there seems like a drain.
I hate calling it psychedelic because that term is so abused these days. But it does seem like many of your peers, like Beck and the Flaming Lips, are turning back to the days of lush, cinematic music from that term period. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. That’s the kind of thing I theorize about too. But it’s hard to say when groups of people find a similar interest at the same time.
In terms of psychedelic music, I share you the hesitation to use that term. Because it’s sort of a cliché that evokes such a specific image of [The Beatles’ 1967 album] “Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band]” or [The Rolling Stones 1967 album] “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request” or [The Beach Boys’ 1967 album] “Smiley Smile.” People tend to misunderstand what I mean when I say psychedelic. At this point the word means does mean epic and ambitious. In terms of a soundscape, it implies this idea of music trying to be more than being music and music trying to be a film or a mind movie and taking you on a journey. It doesn’t have to be a concept album strictly, but it’s supposed to be a musical trip. There does seem to be resurgence. We played Psych Fest in Austin and there were lots of psychedelic bands and they’re all cool and all different.
I guess now that I’ve thought about it, since you asked me, I guess it’s because that’s the best period of music that there is for rock and roll. “Sgt. Pepper’s” is considered one of, or maybe potentially the greatest rock and roll album. And it’s psychedelic. The best period for that music is 1967-1970. That’s probably why we all share a mutual interest in that period — Because it’s still the most exciting, after all these years.
Do you agree with many that “Sgt. Pepper’s” is the greatest album of all time?
It’s so subjective, man. I don’t like to make declarations. People ask me what my favorite color is— it depends on what color my T-shirt is which will depend what my favorite pair of pants is. I don’t have a favorite color. I don’t know why. I can’t say that “Sgt. Pepper’s” is the best record. I also think that [Miles Davis’ 1969 album] “Bitches Brew” is one of the best records. I think the first King Crimson is one of the best records. Certainly, “Axis: Bold As Love” by Jimi Hendrix is also the best records, also. I can’t say “Sgt. Pepper’s” is the best because it’s impossible, there’s too much great stuff from that period. I’m saying that it’s possibly one of the best and one of the only records people unanimously agree about. Like “Pet Sounds” — both of those records fit under this psychedelic title. It was a golden period.
As someone who has dealt with fame since the day he was born, your song “Animals” sounds lifted from that experience with an opening lyric like, “Everywhere you go, you’re in a microscope/living in a fishbowl and you’re minds under control.”
I never really thought the fame thing necessarily. I think a lot of our lyrics are about how we perceive the modern world to be. By saying our music is psychedelic is sort of misleading because our music isn’t retro. It’s about the phenomenon of modernity. With a song like “Animals,” this feeling of — “Do you believe what you read on the tea leaves/messages from Jesus and the grease upon the grilled cheese” —this idea of how fascinating the modern misconceptions are and how strange things on TV are. The opening line — that’s not about fame, but about the modern world and being [under surveillance] all the time and how we’re all in our own little fish tank, even though we think we’re in our private space, we’re actually in a glass bubble being looked at.
You are touring at a time when the public is learning some pretty disturbing things about the U.S. surveillance state as uncovered by the Edward Snowden leaks. Which is reminiscent of the FBI targeting your father, and keeping him under surveillance for years. I wonder if, when you learned about the Snowden leaks, if it drew any personal connections for you.
My family was [under surveillance], but now everybody is [under surveillance]. It’s not like modern privacy issues make me think about my past at all. It doesn’t feel like it relates because the modern phenomenon of surveillance is so ubiquitous and it’s so different than it used to be. In the old days, there were physical microphones that they had to attach with suction cups to phones, with people in trench coats listening. And that’s not how it works anymore. So it doesn’t make me think about the past. What it makes me think of are the really amazing futurists; people like Aldous Huxley. The modern world makes me think about those writers who had the foresight to anticipate many things that are happening today, whether you’re talking about Jules Verne or Buckminster Fuller. They all foresaw a large amount of technological innovations that are helping us but are also taking away our privacy and our freedoms as individuals. That’s what we make me think of when you read of the Snowden issues or the Julian Assange issues. It makes me think about Orwellian futures or Jules Verne futures.
You produced the most recent album by Yoko Ono, your mother. She seems to be everywhere these days — She’s really active on Twitter, doing music videos, popping up here and there for live shows. Do you feel any sense of validation that she is being so embraced by a younger generation?
I think time sort of gives us perspective on artists and people and philosophies that maybe we weren’t ready to receive as a society or as a culture at the moment when they happening. And when we review history, sometimes we re-understand things in new ways and we’re more ready for them. And I think my mom was ahead of her time. And also her relationship to my dad made it harder for people to perceive her because she cast a big shadow, but also they resented her because of how they perceived her and her relationship to the breakup of the Beatles and that colored their ability to perceive her for who she was, on top of the fact that her art was very radical and provocative and was already making people uncomfortable to begin with, which was the point. So all of these things together created a confluence of misunderstanding. And those kinds of misunderstandings unravel with time.
I saw you perform one of your first shows at South By Southwest in 1998, and I imagine you were very nervous considering the level of expectation you were facing. How have things changed for you since then? Do you feel more comfortable musically and also as a public person?
The difference between the 1998 and 2014, musically speaking, for me personally, is a lot. First of all, it’s been awhile. The main thing is my inner mindset. My internal sense of myself, the world, my understanding is different. I think I have some understanding opposed to when I was 20-year-old, I didn’t have any understanding of what the industry was like, or what people’s feelings about me where. It was really a shock putting out my first album. I was very, very naïve, and very, very innocent, and probably very, very sheltered in a way because I didn’t know.
It was really shocking. I wasn’t prepared for the truth. I didn’t know. And the truth is essentially: my dad is so famous and so loved, that people, for the most part, don’t see a human being when they look at me. They only see a reflection of an idea of someone else that they have. And they see how I either relate to that person or I don’t relate to that person. But they don’t see me at all. I don’t think that has changed, but what has changed is my understanding and acceptance of that.
Once you got to that understanding and acceptance, did it free you up musically?
I don’t know if that’s true. Because I don’t sit around thinking about anybody when I make music. So when I’m actually making music, the last thing on my mind is how somebody misunderstands me based on their attachment to an idea of my dad. That is the farthest thing in my mind. The only way I can describe music is it’s like a detective hunt, following a trail of inspiration in the dark forest of imagination. And you follow that trail like a bloodhound, following a scent. And you follow it intuitively and enthusiastically until you get to a place that you like. And nowhere along that trail do you think about abstract ideas of how you relate to imaginary people or people who imagine things about your dad.
The only time I think about that is when I am on TV or reading a magazine article or when somebody is asking me for my autograph and they call me Julian. It is in those moments that I think about it. But not when I’m writing songs. Not just me, I don’t think anyone thinks about that. When you write a song, you’re following a trail of interest and inspiration. You’re not thinking about yourself in an abstract, critical way.
How did you know Charlotte would be a perfect collaborator for you? What connects your musical and personal life together?
It’s very hard to distinguish between our relationship and, what you’re talking about, that connective thread musically. There’s no line that separates those two worlds. Our relationship is an extension of our musical connection and our music is an extension of our relationship. We share a lot of the same tastes and interests. We share same challenges and we share same instincts in terms of notes and harmonies and lyrical ideas. So we sometimes find ourselves having the same ideas for songs separately. We’re very similar in a lot of ways, but we’re also different in a lot of ways we’re more similar than not. That’s impossible to separate from why we’re together or why we’re in love — it’s all part of the same package.
I assume it may be difficult to find a person with whom you not only feel a deep connection, but there’s also a deep musical connection. Was there an early moment when you met her that you felt both were possible?
We wrote a song called “The World Was Made For Men,” and that was the first song we wrote on our first album. When we wrote that song we realized that we shared an aesthetic palette. That it was very interesting to write together and we liked the results a lot. That was when we started the band. That was also when the relationship was blossoming at the same time. It happened in sync and it happened very early on. It was a part of why we fell in love. It’s hard to explain.
You were saying it’s hard to find relationship like that but I would say it is not really impossible to find. We weren’t looking for it, it just happened. I guess we’re lucky we met each other but we were certainly not looking for each other. And we certainly were not intending to write songs together. It all happened fortuitously, and by accident. Sometimes when you look for things, they’re elusive. And when you’re not looking for them, they show up.