Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano On Halloween & The Pressures Of Bloodletting
Photos by Amber Boggs
Concrete Blonde emerged from the crucible of 1980s post-punk L.A., fueled by Jim Mankey's signature guitar riffs and the introspective lyrics and distinctive wail of singer/bassist Johnette Napolitano. Their early history is well known, down to the oft-repeated story of how Michael Stipe gave the band their name (it's not much of a story, actually, he just suggested the name "Concrete Blonde").
The group's biggest album was 1990's Bloodletting, a foreboding effort inspired by Anne Rice and the end of what Napolitano called a "particularly bad relationship." It spawned CB's only Top 20 hit ("Joey") and pegged the group as goth darlings, which was unfortunate. The band never enjoyed a repeat of that success, releasing two more albums before breaking up in 1993, reuniting (and breaking up) again, releasing two more albums (Group Therapy and Mojave) before finally, apparently, calling it quits for good in 2006.
Not to rely too heavily on the vampire metaphor, but Concrete Blonde are back from the dead again, playing a series of shows in the Lone Star State this week. Rocks Off talked to Napolitano about fatherhood, privacy, art, and what we can expect from Sunday's gig at Fitzgerald's.
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Johnette Napolitano: Good morning. I'm well, thanks. Good to hear from you. Did you get burned up in fires?
RO: I did not get burned up in fires, however Houston is now on pace for its driest year ever.
JN: Wow. The last time I was there you guys were flooding up your ass, I think.
RO: Well, that's usually the norm. We get about 5 ft of rain a year, and I think we've had 11 inches so far.
RO: But you, you're out in the desert now, correct?
JN: I am. Actually I'm out at [Concrete Blonde guitarist] Jim Mankey's house to do this. My power went off about 1:30 and it hasn't come back on yet, so I said if it wasn't on by 8 I was just going to get in the truck and cruise and find somewhere to go. I'm at Jim's house, who was kind enough to wake up early and listen to my yappings which is the last thing you want to hear when you just wake up. But yeah, it's gets wild out here, too.
RO: That's in Joshua Tree?
RO: Where does Jim live? Is he in L.A. or is he nearby?
JN: No, he's in Joshua Tree, too. His brother's lived here a long time in the high desert so he's out here closer to his mom. He lost his dad just this summer so he's out close to his mom and his brother. It's a good thing.
RO: It's been a rough year for y'all and your fathers.
JN: It happens to all of us, you know? It's really a trip. It's definitely a life changing experience. For me, it's been like the most profound thing that's ever happened to me in my life.
Concrete Blonde, 1987
RO: You had a, I don't want to say "difficult" relationship with you father, but it was...
JN: It was. It was. Extremely, at times. Towards the end it got better. I mean, we didn't speak for 17 years at one point, but then we got closer and got better and towards the end it was really on another level altogether. He was definitely a different man in the last few years of his life, and I think he knew, somehow, I think he knew...he was very afraid of getting old, he was not an old person. And he was always afraid of that all his life.
I think he knew, you know, when I think back a couple years beforehand and the things he said, he just had a feeling. He came out one Thanksgiving to the desert and just hung out and I'm really grateful for that. But I think he knew. It's strange. It's very odd.
RO: I remember a comment you made, or that he made that you repeated, that "no man's worth a shit until he's 40."
JN: Yeah! Because you know you think about that, and so I'm trying to remember if my dad and I, if he ever gave me "the talk" about guys. He used to listen, when guys started calling me in junior high, or even younger than that because I was a fast grower [laughs]. and they'd start calling and my dad would listen on the other line.
These days? No way. What these kids get to have and shit like that? No way! So I was trying to think, and the two things he told me: one was that - you could tell he did not want to have the talk, you know what I mean? But my mom pressured him into it and it was obvious that somebody had to start saying something, and so you know he's "the dad" and he just did not want to do it. He goes, "You gotta have nice feet, men like nice feet."
JN: Nice feet, and then the only other thing he said was the whole "not worth a shit 'til they're 40." But he had to be past 40 to say that, you know? Those are the two things my dad had assured me about. That [men] want your feet to be nice, and they weren't worth shit 'til they're past 40 [laughs].
RO: That's all you need to know, really.
JN: And that's all you need to know [laughs].
RO: So, you put the band back together.
JN: Well, we go on and off. We did that reunion tour, that anniversary tour for Bloodletting, which was pretty much everybody else's idea, I have to say, it was just everybody else's idea to do that. And I'm glad we did, that was right after my dad passed away. My dad would've said to do it, you know, that had a huge factor in me wanting to do it, you know? And we did it, and it was great, it was really, really great.
It was really different than any other tour we'd done, because we weren't out there to sell records, you know, because people already knew it, it was easy. We'd actually gone to YouTube to see what to play. What do people know? Because we really didn't know, it's been such a long time, do you know what I mean? So it was really fun and it wasn't like the old days when it felt like so much pressure.
So, there's a lot of other things we've always been doing, odd projects here and there for us or between ourselves or somebody else, somebody else's record or whatever. What did we do, we did Peru, we just did China for the first time...
RO: Oh, wow.
JN: It was amazing, I cannot wait to go back to China. It was just great. But we've always done a lot of foreign touring, you know, we've always really preferred that, because [laughs] that's the reason you really want to be in a band is to see groovy places, you know.
We've got South America coming up, and we're gonna be doing Argentina for the frist time, we've done Brazil several times - two or three times, I think - Peru two or three times. So, we've always been doing that, you know...look, things are different in the American music industry, so you have to do things in a different way, and then kind of figure out your niche.
RO: How so?
We were in the studio last Sunday night - this is pretty cool, I think - and we were doing a live stream on a site called Stageit, which we do the last Sunday of every month. So we do 50 minutes of a live stream, just like a show, but we were also recording a song that's in Nashville being pressed for a 45, and we had that sent out the next day.
It was so weird, because it's like I'm sitting there looking, like, back 50 years at recorded music history, and then forward 50 years, beaming it out live and making a 45 all in the same week just struck me as a very, very cool thing. I don't know.
RO: So is this a conventional CD release, is there a new CD coming for these upcoming dates?
JN: We're doing, especially for these dates, we're doing a limited edition of 500 white vinyl 7" 45s.
JN: Yeah, and it's ghost songs on both sides of 'em. One's called "Rosalie," that's kind of a desert song, and then the other one's "Ghost Song." Texas likes their ghosts, a lot, so we figured it would be really fun to do. So we're taking 'em on the road, only for this tour, and they'll probably be available online afterwards.
But we're scrambling to get 'em done, I did the labels and I'm waiting for the test pressing, all the stuff we used to do, you know, it's fun. It's really fucking cool. And so Texas is the only place you're gonna see 'em until after the tour.
RO: That's something else I was going to ask: I kind of thought there would be more dates added, but y'all are just doing our state, huh?
JN: Yep. It seems a good pace for us, just in...life. To be gone one week out of the month? That's kind of what I'm comfortable doing, you know? I don't like to be away from home any more than that, and I think we do really well with that piece of time.
It's easy to do with foreign touring: you only do one show, it takes a week to get there, it takes a week to get back, you know. We kind of like doing that because I really don't like to be away from home that much anymore.
JN: And so, we're like, "What can we do in a week?" And we haven't been to Texas in a while, and it's like Halloween Week, I mean, come on.
RO: You're actually playing here on my wife's birthday, so she's very excited about that.
JN: Oh really? That's great. Well you know, take the opportunity to wear anything you want. And in Houston, we're doing a webcast, a live stream, from sound check in Houston. Because we usually do it at 6:00 Pacific time the last Sunday of every month, but we're gonna be in Houston sound checking so we're gonna do it 6:00 Texas time. And we'll have six people carving jack o'lanterns.
It's gonna be a contest, they'll have 30 minutes to carve - so I gotta get my release forms handy so nobody fucking cuts themselves - so we gotta do that. And then, we haven't decided what the prize is, but we'll have jack o'lanterns on stage, which will be cool. So we get to do fun stuff like that. Halloween!
RO: Best holiday of the year.
RO: You had mentioned your anniversary tour for Bloodletting last year, and I always wondered what pressure you guys had on you to just coast and sort of release three sequels to that following the album's success.
JN: Oh, it was intense. It was intense. It was full on, and it was really difficult after that because you don't, it just doesn't work that way. I mean, if you care about what you do, if you're that kind of an artist. I mean because the first three [albums] we churned out pretty quick, you know. The first one took a while because we still had our day jobs and shit then, so that was like us making the first record, you know, that you didn't know what was going to happen with, and then it did.
And then the second one and then the third one...um, that was gonna make or break. I mean, that was the one, by that time, you know, it was perfect; we toured our asses off and the groundswell was there, the company had it all coordinated right for once and it just slammed and that was good. But yeah, they wanted us right in, immediately, like "go do another one." And it just, it just...you can't go and do the same thing, you know, again and again and again.
RO: And you've kind of taken that to the extreme, branching out and incorporating different styles, I know you've recently talked about your love of flamenco music...
JN: Yeah, that's been for years and years and years. For a long, long time.
RO: And you talked about going to China. Are we going to see any of that influence coming in as well? You seem to draw a lot from wherever you go and I think that's always informed your music to a really impressive degree.
JN: That's over my head, that stuff, for sure. One of the things that we did notice, and I took a lot of footage and I just got a program that I can edit decently so I can do something with it, by the Hangtze Lake there, all the old people got together on Sundays and were singing all the old songs. And it was just very moving to say the least, because you know, here we are, playing rock and roll: Here's your Starbucks, there's your Subway, there's your...Donna Karan and everything else.
Obviously, it's China and they're aware of the preservation of their culture, but there's no stopping, you know, what's happening. And so I felt like I was really blessed to be able to see those old people singing the old songs, and I'm just sitting there going: you know these people have known these songs all their lives, 'cause all the other old people knew 'em, you know, they'd clap and you'd just go "shit."It was intense. That would be the thing I'd be inspired by.
In the same sense, you go through experiences in your life, and if you're an artist that's why you're an artist, because you manifest them creatively in some way. That's what art is, basically. And so, you couldn't really go through an experience and expect to process it the same way ten years later as you did when you were maybe in your 20s and 30s, do you know what I'm saying?
So if I went through the same shit I went through back when I wrote that record, in the Bloodletting years or whatever, I wouldn't react the same. I'm a different person now so I wouldn't write the same songs about it, I wouldn't feel the same way about it. I would have a different perspective on it.
If you have the same perspective for like, 10 or 20 records, you know, who wants to do that? Who wants to hear that?
RO: Oh, you might be surprised.
JN: No, I'm not, I'm not at all.
Concrete Blonde plays with Girl In a Coma 7 p.m. Sunday at Fitzgerald's. Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview.
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