Chrissie Hynde talks new music, technology overload, and how Sweden helped her find her groove
BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
November 11, 2014
Her new album “Stockholm” (Caroline) may be the first to bear only her name, but Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde worked with a new set of Swedish collaborators who helped energize her sound and set it on the dance floor.
Hynde has resisted cashing in on her legacy in the Pretenders by continuing to release new music and keeping things, as she says, “in the middle.” “Stockholm” is a collaboration with co-writer/guitarist Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John. The sparse production resists overt references to her past, but the album is not a total makeover, either: Packed with pop-friendly hooks and punk attitude, the album reconfirms Hynde as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most recognized vocalists.
Hynde headlines the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday. What follows is an edited transcript of our recent conversation.
Your new record is very danceable. Did you set out to make it that way?
Yeah, I suppose it is. I very, very much like that sort of groove, so I wanted that. I didn’t want it too linear sounding, where it plods along, so that’s what appealed to me the most. Bjorn was content to really get good rhythms. So I guess Swedes are more on it. It’s not that Americana thing.
How was songwriting different this time around when you are working with a collaborator?
I didn’t have an agenda. That’s where Bjorn was great. He’d come up with a few chords, and that was the trigger. The actual writing process was super, super fast. In fact half the vocals on there are guide vocals when I was writing, and when I went back to record, I liked it and we kept some of the rough ones. I never sit down and think, “Oh, I’m going to write a song about a certain subject.” It’s usually driven by the chords or the sound of the music. Or he might come up with top line, just a title that would kick off the whole thing. So that was fun. I didn’t feel I had to do so much work.
A lot of so-called heritage bands have gone on tour and just played hits, or played shows built around single albums. Why have you resisted that?
I haven’t really thought about it. I know I could go out and play the first Pretenders album and people might like that. That seems to be a trend, and people enjoy that. That’s a possibility, I suppose. But I’d rather at the moment just write some new songs. I’m not that ambitious. I’ve not made 30 albums like other artists. This last [Pretenders] album was the fastest album to write and make as anything I’ve done. It took two years because I had to go to Sweden. Whereas the last album … was arguably solo. But that album was recorded in 11 days, but I already had the songs. So it’s always a slightly different situation. But I’m never trying to increase my audience particularly. I just do what I do. If anyone likes it, fine; if they don’t, fine. I’m not too bothered about it.
Obviously I want to be on the radio, but even that is an old-fashioned thing. But I really believe in radio and love radio and don’t want to see the end of radio.
Technology has moved so incredibly fast, and I wonder how that affects creating music, especially for someone who may be used to a longer process of studio time, then promoting, touring and working singles.
That’s hard to say because as you say, it’s just fast, and when it’s gone so fast, there is no real protocol. Which is really necessary because you have to have protocol. Like don’t talk in an elevator because you’re sharing a space with people. But people don’t get that anymore, they’re blabbing on their phone in public places. But there’s going to be a corner turned on a lot of it. Like how compulsive we’ve all become with our mobile phones. I think the protocol will be people will start answering their phones twice a day. Or relaxing it a bit; the compulsive nature of it has freaked everyone out, and people are starting to recognize it in themselves.
As far as the Internet, I’m not entirely sure, because everyone has their own experience with it. I’m not really interested in social networking. I use a phone. And I have a Facebook page, which I send a message to once in a while when I remember. But I don’t really care what people are doing, and I don’t want them to care about what I’m doing.
How has it affected things? There’s definitely been negative and positive aspects. Like the obvious positive aspect is anyone can do anything and can get an audience. The negative aspect is there’s a lot more [expletive] out there to wade through. The thing about getting rid of record companies, there’s good and bad aspects to it. That’s a great thing for someone who is having trouble getting a deal. But then on the other hand you can say that is also a filter because there are supposed to be experts at the record companies who can recognize something that’s good and then nurture it.
Radio has gotten better again and disc jockeys have more power again. It had a real bad period in the ’80s when it went very corporate. But still, records don’t have a long life like they used to. Now they pull records off playlists real fast and are onto the next one because there’s just too much.
The tragedy is losing record stores. The greatest joy of a music lover was to go to a music store, root through all the bins and find something you like and then go and ask the guy at the desk to play you a couple tracks. And then it got real noisy. Now they’re playing music at bookstores. How can you look for a book and read it when they’re blasting music? It’s just overkill on everything. Or they blast you with loud music when you’re trying to have a meal, even breakfast.
You have to be happy that record stores are coming back. Chicago went through a period where they were all shutting down, but now, new ones open every year.
It absolutely is a trend. When I was in L.A. recently, someone said there was a record store that only sells vinyl and cassettes. This is people power. People like it so they get it. And then the industry has to rush to catch up with it and capitalize on it and exploit it. But they’ve been slow off the mark. Just like record companies and the Internet. They didn’t get the Internet. Technology escalates so fast that people can’t really keep up with it. Like people talking in phones in public places. Everyone thinks those guys are a——s when they do it, and then you get a phone call and you’re in a store and you start talking about picking up the dry cleaning and you realize you’re the a——.
Do you worry that things going at hyper speed will affect a generation of musicianship?
Obviously if a guy can sit alone in a room and make a whole record and put in all the parts, that’s just taken 15 hours where he could have learned how to play guitar. Do the math. It takes concentration away from honing your craft. Not to mention the fact we already had Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Johnny Winter and all these great guitar players. How much can you do with it? Having said that, a lot. Anyone can pick up guitar and have their own voice. It’s an individual thing; it’s the personality of the individual. And then, what’s a song? You can make a great record with no songs at all, just rhythms. There’s a whole area of rap music where no one is even singing. So it’s really gone through some crazy diversions. At the end of it, unanimously, everyone still likes a good song and an original voice.
How has growing up in the Midwest affected how you came to music at a young age?
Because I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and it was the end of the city center and the beginning of the mall culture, we were very isolated. Living in the colorless suburbs in a very average background, where there was no scene. Because there was no scene but there was radio, we all became music experts. Now I live in London, and I can see if I was growing up in London, I might not be as much an expert because I’d be going out to see bands and going to clubs and you’re part of a scene. And when you’re not part of a scene it’s in that isolation, like sitting in your basement with your guitar with nothing to do, so you make a little band. I became something of a music expert just from listening to radio. And I probably wouldn’t have if there had been anything else to do. It’s like drawing or reading: If you got other things to do, you probably would do that. But if you are sitting around with nothing to do, you’ll start reading a book or start drawing or something.
Less and less now because people are so overly entertained at their fingertips. Even on phones you can start watching films. But I do think there will be elements of entertainment fatigue. There’s no clear space. If you could just go into church where it’s quiet and could mediate for an hour. That’s probably a huge luxury these days.
The Rust Belt was exploding with great original punk and garage rock in the ’70s. Did you get into that first or were you mostly interested in what was coming out of England?
Regional stuff is where it all started. Then in the ’80s it got blown out. With MTV. Instead of having regional sounds, it went through one filter, which was MTV, which created a lot of porn stars. And then music took second place to the advertising. But again, there’s an element of fatigue with all that. Now it’s back to good old ugly bands again that can play.
How younger people approach music is so different in that much of it is on the computer. There’s almost a greater leap of faith to get into a garage and play in a band.
Yeah but if they want to go on tour they have to get it together. Even this last album, it was done with guys in Stockholm, but we had to redefine it and put a band together and take it on road. That is the one thing you cannot get on the computer is the live experience. If anything, I really feel for someone who had a huge hit because they made a slick video or they won a talent contest and they sold a million copies of something and then they have to go out and tour and now they’re s—-ing themselves because they don’t know what to do out there. It’s much better that you had to work your way up the old-fashioned hard way.
Your voice is one of the most distinctive in rock ‘n’ roll in that you can turn a radio dial and know immediately that it’s you. Did you have to work on your voice in any way?
I didn’t. Just lucky old me I guess. I wanted to be a singer but didn’t know if I could. I am told that a lot, you’re not the first person. Ka-ching! Whoever arranged that, thank you very much. But it had nothing to do with me.
How many of the influences on your early life remain influential to how you see music today?
Not many. Because they’re all dead now. Obviously Neil Young and Bob Dylan. And some people are coming back. Robert Plant still makes records, and I dig his thing because he went from being this definitive sex god of rock, and instead of just resting on that as his legacy, he’s gone out tried to do things that are not expected as a singer and as a musician and frankly just as an ordinary guy. So his humanity comes through on that, and you trust him, you believe it. Whatever you think about the music is almost secondary to the fact that he continues to be an artist. And Dylan, the same. He’s gone all sort of places in his career and certainly has thrown his audience many times. Everyone has some sort of view of Bob Dylan, but I’ve seen shows of his recently where he’s singing beautifully and really performing well. He does it how he wants to do it.
And then some people don’t continue to make new records and they continue to fill stadiums or they make new records that no one cares about. There’s a lot of different combinations. My thing always has been to keep it in the middle and not let it get too big and also not drop out of sight altogether.
I’m a real middle-of-the-road guy. Not in terms of AOR radio, but more middle of the road like the Tao Te Ching. I stay in the middle all the time.