bill bodkin interviews Johnette Napolitano, lead singer of Concrete Blonde, about the 1980s alternative scene, dealing with fame, record companies and the current status of the band …
Pop-Break: Where and when did Concrete Blonde get its start?
JN: Probably 1980, 1981 — it was a long time ago. I met [guitarist] Jim Mankey when I was working for [iconic 1970s singer-songwriter] Leon Russell. Everybody was a musician who worked for Leon. Working for Leon was more like a cult than anything else. For Leon, we did anything required. I worked the tape library. If he got inspired and wanted to play at 3 a.m., we got the camera running and played at 3 a.m. Sometimes Willie Nelson would drop by. I made sock puppets for Willie Nelson. [About Leon Russell] I’ve never seen someone so creative and wild before. Leon was huge during the ’70s with the whole Willie Nelson family thing. Leon was so driven by the art, and he attracted amazing minds. I mean, we had people like George Harrison dropping in. It was surreal.
Jim and I stayed in L.A. after Leon got divorced and moved back to Nashville. A lot of people went with back to Nashville with Leon. We’d just got our music going, and I wasn’t into the whole Nashville thing.
PB: Concrete Blonde was at the heart of the ’80s alternative movement in L.A. Yet, when most people think of “alternative” scenes, their minds go right to Seattle. Can you talk about the L.A. alt scene?
JN: The Hollywood scene was great time. It was pre-Seattle for sure. There bands like X, The Go-Gos — who no one one would sign — they couldn’t get arrested if they tried — Los Lobos. L.A. is a very diverse town, and the music totally reflects that. We’d have shows where there’d be three to four bands playing with absolutely nothing in common. There were no venues — just find a room, buy a keg and charge five bucks at the door. It was a very DIY thing. I had gone to work at Gold Star Recording — it’s where Phil Spector and Herb Alpert had recorded. And one day in walks Brian Gerwitz of Bad Religion, and he had his own little label called Epitaph. People recorded the records themselves back then. Very much in the DIY spirit.
PB: You have a very distinct sound, one that you can’t really pinpoint obvious influences from. What inspired your music?
JN: You’d have to go back to when I was little. My dad listened to everything by The Rat Pack and my mom loved showtunes. There was always music on in the house — a lot of Marty Robbins and a lot of Johnny Cash. My dad noticed my interest in music and gave me a piano. He then gave me a guitar for my ninth birthday. Then in high school, I was into whatever my boyfriend and his friends were into. He was a drummer and into all the “black light poster” music like Hendrix and Ozzy — you know, stoner guy bands.
PB: On your most famous album, 1990′s Bloodletting, there’s a very distinct Gothic sound to it. As we speak, you’re in New Orleans, and on the album’s title track you reference that city a number of times. Did New Orleans inspire the Gothic tinges of that album?
JN: I was really into the whole Ann Rice, New Orleans thing at the time. It was amazing being exposed to the South. It’s like a another world. The imagery and the atmosphere is so rich.
You mentioned before about not being able to pinpoint our influences — well that and our gothic nature made it a nightmare for marketing people to promote us. For instance, in Europe, the Germans loved our hard stuff, while the French loved our torchy songs. This made it difficult for marketing a single — but we’d have it no other way.
PB: The band has also been involved a lot of soundtrack work. In the ’80s, you were on the soundtrack for the sci-fi thriller The Hidden and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Given the gothic influence of the band, were you excited to be on these horror soundtracks?
JN: It was really cool, but it was more IRS Records putting the stuff into movies. I did some stuff on my own for the movie Underworld, too. I liked most of the stuff we were in, but early on the record company had more control of where the music went. Later, we had control of where our music showed up. I like film work very much.
PB: The single “Joey” off Bloodletting propelled Concrete Blonde from the streets of the L.A. alternative scene into the national mainstream. Being in the DIY movement for so long, how did you handle this sudden fame?
JN: It was weird. It was overwhelming, like a sheer tidal wave. We had been on the road too much and then, all of a sudden, we’ve got a hit. We’d been around a longtime and we were working real hard, this [Bloodletting] was our fourth record. Then, with the hit, the pressure piles on. IRS merged with EMI, so there was a lot of pressure to perform and deliver more hits. It was like a creepy out-of-body experience.
The most profound moment was when I was in the car with sister and my niece, who was about 3 or 4, and “Joey” came on the radio. She looked at the radio and couldn’t figure out how that was my song on the radio. It was a strange reality hearing your song on the radio for the first time.
But it’s all come full circle the past couple of years. We’re making records ourselves again. The Internet is a very valuable thing. It’s back to DIY again. But people don’t like self-promoting, and it’s tough, because you have to, because there’s so much music out there.
And that’s why there’s is a place in the world of the record industry. I mean, there’s a building full of people on phones trying to get you noticed. As a band, you don’t want to be on the phone — you want to be making music. I have a lot of appreciation for the old school labels, although they definitely ate themselves alive. You could see it even back in the ’80s. It’s nice to have a promotional machine behind you.
I’ve been a label and an artist, and artists can be a pain in the ass. It’s hard for them to be objective — they’re all being cool and precious. Hey man, Interscope records wants you to sell records, not to for to be cool and precious. You want to make an art record, go for it, but are people going to spend money on it? I definitely see both sides.
PB: Concrete Blonde has had a few periods of hiatus and even retirement, but last year you came back and performed for the 20th anniversary of Bloodletting. Why?
JN: Well, 1) a 20th anniversary only comes around once. And 2) my dad had just passed away, and I was still screwed up and trying to metabolize it. We didn’t have it an easy relationship for about 17 years, we didn’t talk much but by the end we got back on track. See, he never understood the monster he created when he handed me a guitar when I was 9. He was old-school, married with kids by 22. I wasn’t like that. But he stood back and watched my career from a distance and he had a lot of respect, he was extremely proud of me. I knew he’d want me to do the show. It would be stupid not to.
And the shows did really well. I was very pleased and surprised. The fans were 150 percent behind us, and we played a catalog of songs that the people knew. We owed the fans and it was fun because we weren’t pimping a record — we were playing a greatest hits setlist, and people loved it.
We performed in Austrailia, where we got our first gold record, and it was the same people there supporting us that had 20 years earlier. Seriously, it was very uplifting, “spiritual” even. It was a really happy concert.
PB: What’s on the horizon for Concrete Blonde?
JN: We’re doing a show in Lima, Peru, a one-off [on Feb. 17]. We’ve been in the studio in L.A. for the last month. We just put up a new song on the Concrete Blonde MySpace. I’s a cover of a Midnight Oil song ["Beds Are Burning."] We’re hoping to finish a record, do a big tour in the fall maybe.
I really like the way our record is coming out. It’s like we’ve gone backwards, back to the Hollywood street punk. It’s hard, man. It sounds easy, three-minute song, but Jim and I joke that live, we’ll need need to take a break in the middle of it it’s so fast. We’ve gone back to square one. And in life, why go back to doing the simple things that made you happy when you were 14? Am I I’m going back to doing what I was doing when I was 14 — drawing, playing music and sewing?