Q&A: Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde
Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano likes to laugh. Her conversation is peppered with hearty guffaws as she recalls her career -- past and present.
Anything is fair game, from her life on a five-acre ranch in Joshua Tree to her accidental meeting of Dennis Rodman in the 1990s in suburban Detroit to the band's forthcoming tour.
According to a press release, the tour and a new single were prompted by the recent deaths of Napolitano and James Mankey's fathers, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the masterpiece "Bloodletting" in 2010. The collection spawned the hits "Joey," "Caroline" and "Tomorrow Wendy."
Concrete Blonde released five studio albums on I.R.S. Records, starting with its self-titled debut, through "Free" (1989), "Bloodletting" (1990), "Walking in London" (1992) and "Mexican Moon" (1993).
After breaking up in 1993, Concrete Blonde reformed in 1997, when they released "Concrete Blonde Y Los Illegals," a collaboration with the L.A. Chicano punk band, and then again in 2001, recording "Group Therapy" (2002) and "Mojave" (2004), the latter featuring current drummer Gabriel Ramirez.
Concrete Blonde recently released new material: the country lament "Rosalee" and the vintage punk rock of "I See the Ghost," on white, 7-inch vinyl single. It will soon be available at all digital outlets.
SoundSpike: How do you like living in Joshua Tree?
Johnette Napolitano: I love it here. It's just great. It's really nice. It's nice right now. The horses are on the porch and the goats are hanging around. It's all very mellow, which is nice. It's either really chaotic and full-on, and when it's not, I need to be as turned off as I possibly can. At the same time, because of the environment, it's very easy to be receptive to creativity to ideas. It's lovely. It's the best move I ever made, easily.
Are you excited about your December tour?
I am because we have all the people we like. It's gonna be good. I hope people can have a good time because I know we're going through some places that were pretty fucked up by the hurricane. I hope people will have a good time for a night. That's basically the task at hand -- to lift everybody out of stuff for a little while. We're looking forward to it, definitely.
How's the setlist looking?
We span our whole thing pretty much, from day one to the new single, the two new songs. We're happy to play all the stuff people like because they're our songs, too, and we like them. That's why I wrote them. I wrote them because I liked them. [Laughs] We're happy because we get to play our new stuff. We're happy to play our old stuff. But we've got to play the new stuff, too. It's good. It's really good. We played China last year and we played South America a couple times and Australia. We've been doing a lot more internationally in the last five or 10 years than stateside. A lot of people have seen this band for the first time in this incarnation. A lot of people on this planet. To them it's new. It's kind of cool. We're in a really cool place. We're lucky to be. But we've also worked hard and maintained a certain stance that would enable us to do what we do for the rest of our lives. Keep enjoying it. Part of being fun is being excited by creating. It's not just sitting around saying, "Here is a bitching song I wrote 20 years ago." No, it's the last song you wrote that makes you cool [Laughs]. We're happy. We're in a good place for ourselves. We're in control of things. Work with who we want. It's just gonna be a blast.
Since Concrete Blonde was founded in 1982, you must have seen the music business and the making of music change.
Even since I started, I was taught by people who were there in the very beginning, who recorded Neil Young demos on four track, and who mastered records. I know all about that because I worked for all the old guys that used to do all the hits, all the Phil Spector stuff. I know the guys who recorded all the stuff. I know how they did it. I know all the stories. That knowledge, the older I get, the more appreciative I am of having been around people like that, that were around when the record business started in the very beginning. To know that, and since things really started changing in the '80s, but there's always slack picked up. They were doing vinyl then. When Brett [Gurewitz] started Epitaph, his first thing was a 45, it was vinyl. I worked on it. [Laughs] But I knew how to do it. I have respect for those guys. There's a saying, the more things change the more they stay the same. I've seen a lot of mediums come and go, but basically good music is still good music. Thanks to the Internet -- I don't know why people complain about that being evil -- but young people are being turned on to music they would never hear otherwise, thanks to YouTube and the Interwebs. It's remarkable. It's really, really good for bands, especially if you're lucky enough to still be able to tour. It's all in a good place. It all helps. We've got vinyl, but I'm editing two videos now for CD singles because not everyone does have a record player and wants vinyl. We've never done a DVD before so this has been fun to work on. It's a new thing for us. What haven't we done? It's fun for us. We're pretty happy right now.
When you recorded the singles "Rosalee" and "I See the Ghost," did you record them any differently knowing they would be for vinyl?
Yes, definitely. We had an assistant there that was on the phone wanting for the tape to run from the studio to Fed Ex to send it to Nashville to the pressing plant, just like I used to do at my old job. That was my old job. When the lacquer master was cut, the guy from the [plant] would pick it up at 4 in the afternoon. It was in a Styrofoam box and it can't get hot. He has to rush its ass into a special bath by that evening so it won't go bad. It was like pretending to be in the '60s or '70s, especially the '50s, but I'm not a '50s kind of a person. [Laughs] I liked the fact that we were going we have to cut a couple sides, man. We're gonna have it out. That's the way they used to do it. They used to come right from the studio. When I used to work for Sam and Dave, Sonny Bono was the song runner for Phil Spector. He was basically the guy who would cut it right out of the studio. He'd run the acetate right up the street to the radio station and the radio station would play it and that was his gig. That's how Sonny Bono got started. The first DJ to get it was a big deal. That's fun. We've got the downloads and that's cool, too. The way this music sounds on vinyl, I couldn't be happier with the vibe that you get.
What do you have planned for 2013?
Next year, a lot of Europe, I think. We haven't been in Europe in well over 10 years. I've done a couple solo things over there in the last 10 years, but the band hasn't been in a while. I think that's what we're concentrating on. We're talking about doing a short little run in February and going back in may for the festivals and getting back over there to see what's going on. We try to be pretty regular with everybody. Every two years, we say, "Where haven't we been? What haven't they heard?" We play close attention to that, the set. "Did we do this the last time we were there?" We play close attention to that. We want to make sure when everybody knows when they come to a show, from start to finish it's going to be worth it.
I saw you a long time ago at Pine Knob Music Theatre in Clarkston, MI. You dedicated "Joey" to one of the Detroit Pistons.
[Laughs] OK, here's the deal. On that tour, we were on tour with Sting off and on, and we had our own shows in between his shows. So I used to go work out before the shows. I'd have to find the gym when I was in town. The promoter takes me to the gym. But the only gym that was open, because it was a holiday, was a Detroit Pistons locker room. I'm by myself. I'm in the gym and I look and see this huge pair of feet in blue flip-flops. And I look up and it was this massive basketball player dude or whatever. He was huge. I was like, "Hi," and he was like "Hi." He was the only other one in the gym there. It was cool. He was huge. The promoter picks me up and says, "Did you see Dennis Rodman? Dennis Rodman was in there with you." I go, "Really? Was that Dennis Rodman?" I had no fucking idea who Dennis Rodman was. So we go to the gig -- this is how weird Dennis Rodman is but it's cool that he's this weird -- I open my gym bag in it and there's a blue flip-flop in it. I'm like, "That was a funny thing to do." And so we're all sitting around saying, "That's pretty bizarre." Then we play the show, I said something about Dennis Rodman and the crowd goes crazy because they know who Dennis Rodman is. So, the other blue flip-flop goes flying up from the crowd. [Laughs] That's the honest to God truth. That's one of the funniest road stories, I think. I mean, what a mind! That's so fucking interesting. When did he put that in there? Did he put that in there when I was in the shower? What a strange thing to do. It's absolutely true.