By Mark Guarino
This winter, Sean Lennon is touring with nothing to prove. “Friendly Fire” (Capitol), his second album, is dodging the scrutiny he faced in 1998 when he released a solo album that was inescapably compared to the legacy his father John Lennon and mother Yoko Ono had established years before he was born.
Now 31, their son is back after years collaborating and performing with a league of downtown New York musicians including the Beastie Boys and the electronic duo Cibo Matto. In that period Lennon has been writing songs that became this album, a collection of seamlessly crafted pop songs that are packaged with a full-length film he conceived that stars Lindsey Lohan, Bijou Phillips and others.
I talked with Lennon last week regarding the album and film. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
Q: I remember the first time I saw you perform was at South By Southwest in 1998 when your first album came out.
A: That was a fun day. I had been in Cibo Matto for a couple of years at that point. So we had been playing shows all over the world. I had already done five American tours in a van. I had already done the rounds.
Q: Yet you haven’t put out a second album until now. Have you been playing live in town all these years?
A: Yeah, I’ve been playing lots of shows. I play in New York all the time. I’m a staple performer at a place called Tonic. I play there at least once a month maybe. They let me play whatever I want. I’ve done stuff like John Zorn’s “Cobra,” which is (with) a jazz improv group. Or (Cibo Matto keyboardist) Yuka Honda and I will do something. The thing I like about New York is I am able to play unannounced shows and do whatever I want in any configuration. I was in a band with (actor) Vincent Gallo for a while. We did All Tomorrow’s Parties in England and some shows in New York and San Francisco. And I also played with my mom (in the band IMA). I play constantly. I just hadn’t made a solo records in awhile.
Q: So why now?
A: I think it happened organically. I wouldn’t say that it was a conscious decision necessarily. I do constantly write songs. The truth is, I have hundreds of songs that are unpublished. Part of it has to do with feeling unsatisfied as a songwriter having not published my music. Eventually it felt contrived not to do it. Even though I’m having a fine time being a working musician. Because I was also doing lot of sessions as well. But at a certain point I did have a record deal and the record company was waiting for another record and I felt it was more honest to myself to put out music as a solo artist as well as doing it in other capacities, you know?
Q: So why were you stashing songs away after writing them?
A: It’s complicated. I think one of the things was, I definitely had a cold feet experience putting out my first record. Because I was living in this artistic bubble. I was in Cibo Matto, I was hanging out with the (Beastie Boys) and I was part of this group of musicians who were thriving and vital in this hipster New York way. It just felt very cool and organic. We all played with each other and were hanging out and playing gigs. And then I put out a solo record while feeling I was part of this community. Then suddenly the response and the attention that I got had nothing to do with that. It had everything to do with these obvious things that had to do with the Beatles. And I did expect it but I didn’t expect to what degree of it. It made me uncomfortable because essentially there was a disparity with who I was, which was a working musician and member of Cibo Matto and a guy who got a record deal on (the Beasties label) Grand Royal. And then there was the way that the world viewed me which was this sort of a rock progeny attempting to live up to the legacy of some sort of mythology. Which wasn’t true at all and still isn’t true. So I just felt the way I was viewed was so different with the way that I was, it made me depressed. Not depressed in a clinical sense, but it just made me feel, “wow this is (expletive) and I don’t want to do it.”
Q: Was there one specific thing written about you that made you decide to lay low?
A: No, because I didn’t make a decision. I just continued to do music and I just didn’t feel I was in a position psychologically to want to deal with it again. It wasn’t like I was sitting making solo records depressed. I had a great time in my 20s and was doing a lot of productive stuff. It was more that I had come to a point where I realized that I felt it was possible for me, given my experiences, to do it again and not fall victim to the same sort of pitfalls as last time. That’s actually the case this time around. Experience and focus and purposefulness have allowed me to navigate the stormy ocean of (expletive) with greater success.
Q: It’s interesting that while people may envy your position to do whatever you want, it comes with enormous expectations.
A: I think generally the industry, not any single person or any single aspect of it, but this sort of combined personality of the industry is pretty superficial and vacuous I would say.
Q: Your new album arrives accompanied by a full-length DVD film of visuals accompanying the songs. It’s a breakup album but the film is much more complicated. “Dead Meat,” the harshest song, is portrayed as a fencing competition from the turn of the century.
A: I’m trying to play against character in a way. Obviously fencing is not something I do and I thought it would be funny and interesting. Let’s put it this way, the way in which the lyrics of “Dead Meat” play against the sort of melodious background of the music, the way that those are juxtaposed against each other, is the way I wanted the songs juxtaposed against the video. I didn’t want the video to represent directly the style of the music. I wanted to do something that seemed almost awkward.
Q: Why make a film in addition to the album?
A: That was something the record company really wanted to do. I was open to it. They were interested in the idea of selling them together because it was something unique to do. I thought if they’re willing to do that and try to make the price reasonable as possible considering there’s a CD and a DVD, then I would be open to doing that. The truth is, I had this film I had made with whatever the budget was and I wasn’t sure people would get to see it. So the fact that I would be able to have essentially global distribution through Capitol, I thought was basically a success. Because I wasn’t sure the film would see the light of day. So in a way, it was a great opportunity to guarantee that a lot of people were going to see it.
Q: Your mother, Yoko Ono, is listed as an executive producer. What was her role?
A: She was very helpful obviously. But from her perspective, in the beginning she felt like the film was a little bit mainstream or conservative. Her idea of filmmaking is attaching a camera to a fly and letting it fly around the city. I think she thought I was being kind of normal. She didn’t really understand why I was doing a traditional narrative. And then when she saw it, I think she was blown away. For a while, she was like, “look why are you making something so normal?” I think she’s so avant garde, her tastes are so different than most people.
Q: It’s interesting that while you associate yourself with this alternative musical community of downtown New York hipsters, your own music is such perfectly crafted pop. What did you learn from your peers that made it into this album or what did you bring to them?
A: I would say I learned a lot about the studio stuff from Yuka Honda. Just because her music is kind of groove oriented, that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a lot of musical stuff from her in terms of production. I don’t know if I brought anything to them as they brought a lot to me. They were a huge influence on me in terms of opening my head to lots of different genres of music. Definitely the Beasties and Cibo Matto turned me onto Brazilian jazz and a lot of early experimental groups like Silver Apples, Neu! and Kraftwerk. They influenced me a lot. In terms of my music not being experimental like (Beck’s) “Odelay”: Considering how eclectic all those people’s music are, I think it definitely allows for anything to happen. I’m not trying to emulate them as much as saying that’s where my roots are. I mean Beck made “Odelay” and then he made “Mutations.” I tend to be more interested in records like “Mutations.” But that’s just my personal proclivity.