Concrete Blonde is the band, and Johnette Napolitano is the songwriter, bassist, and the voice that leads the critically-acclaimed post-punk trio. Her voice is hauntingly gorgeous, enormously powerful, and always distinct. You may know her best from the breakthrough 1990 Top 20 radio hit “Joey,” but that is a far cry from the depth of what she would continue to deliver through her accomplished career.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Napolitano while she was preparing for the upcoming Concrete Blonde West Coast tour, which will stop in Sacramento and San Francisco among other cities, starting next week. She’s in great spirits, and I can already tell this is going to be a memorable interview.
Do you have a favorite touring moment past or present?
Oh man, there’s a lot of them. Jim Bianco, a very talented friend of ours, was on tour with us a couple of years ago, and during the last show, we always “punk” each other somehow. Jim has a song called “Sinner,” and during his song I stumbled up on stage in a nun suit with a Jack Daniels bottle. After that, I knew he was going to kick my ass because he’s just that good. So sure enough, we finish our set, and he’s standing backstage when we step off before our encore. He says to me, “Give me your panties now!” I said, “What do you fucking mean, that’s gross man, they’re all sweaty.” He says “Give them to me now.” I said “Fine, fuck you,” so it’s on.
I throw my sweaty underwear at him, and then I’m like, shit what’s he going to do. We go back out to do our encore, and sure enough, out on stage comes Jim Bianco in my underwear with his nuts hanging out. But that’s not enough, he has to stage dive, and while the crowd is holding him up, he’s flipping me the bird. It was insane. I could not believe it was happening. You don’t fuck with Jim Bianco. He’s going to be opening for us in Sacramento, and I am quite afraid.
What’s the most unusual place that you’ve heard your music?
I was in the produce section at Vons market, and that one really freaked me out and bothered me for some reason. I was just getting lettuce and stuff, then it came on and creeped me out. I was like, oh wow, supermarket music, that’s really weird. I just never thought of my music as something you would squeeze peaches to.
If there were an official Concrete Blonde tribute record, whom would you like to see on it?
I don’t know. I would have to put some serious thought into that. What would be interesting to me would be to go through all the songs and decide, so-and-so would sing great on this song, and so-and-so on this one. That would be a great way to really go about it, by doing some weird-ass casting. It would be a wild variety, I think.
What’s the first concert you ever saw?
Lee Michaels at the Hollywood Palladium when I was 14. I had bell bottoms with cuffs on them, and I had a joint with hash in it tucked in them that I lost. We couldn’t wait to get in to smoke that thing, and then it was just gone. Somebody found that joint, and it was a good one.
What’s your favorite collaboration with another artist?
There are several. I just got final mixes of some stuff I’ve done with David J. I love collaborating with him. He walked out of the studio screaming that I was more difficult than Peter Murphy, but we managed to get through it anyway. He’s awesome, and I am such a fan. We’ve been working on a project called Tres Vampires with a DJ out of LA, and we did a video in San Francisco. They’re three mixes so I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do with them, but they are amazing. We are both really busy, and every once in a while we can cross paths enough to do what we need to do.
I also love what I did with Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle) on the very first Underworld soundtrack. That was a special project for sure. I just had an artist from New Orleans here for a week. A young girl, a DJ who creates amazing industrial dance stuff. She’d never been on a plane, and I brought her out here and spent a week singing on her stuff. That’s probably going to start spinning on the dance floors in New Orleans very soon, which will be very cool. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge collaborator really, but when I do, I’m very picky, almost snobby about it. That doesn’t mean I only collaborate with certain people; it means that I collaborate with people that I know will be really amazing.
You’ve done some work with Tom Peterson from Cheap Trick?
Yes! Mr. Tom, absolutely. He played on Bloodletting, and he played on Walking in London. He’s an old friend of ours, Cheap Trick go way back with us all the way to the first record. Our first drummer is from Chicago; we’ve known those guys for a very long time.
When you were in the studio recording Bloodletting, and “Joey” in particular, did you have any idea the legacy and the impact that record would have?
No, of course not, I don’t think it’s possible to think that way. The creation is the creation, and the responsibility is to be true to that creation. Afterwards you really have no say over what happens or how people perceive it. Three people can hear the same song and tell you it’s about three different things. That record taught me a lot. I was so nervous about it, I was ready to scrap it. I just thought, nobody’s going to understand this; nobody’s going to understand what I’m saying here. It was very personal, and it was very deep. Things were so crazy in those days that I had nowhere to go but up; it was really just a brutal time.
Could you give me a quick comparison to how your life is today compared to early on in your career?
Today it’s much more manageable, livable, blessed really, but I planned it that way. I know that I am lucky, I’ve known that forever. I can sustain my life being an artist, and that takes a lot of planning and self-knowledge in terms of knowing what you need to make yourself happy. I’ve learned to take care of myself a lot better, I’m more relaxed, and I have a better time. I used to be really uptight. I’m a perfectionist, and that’s fine, unless you make everyone around you miserable because they can never make you happy either. I’ve learned to lose a lot of that because it just doesn’t matter. In the end, what really matters is connecting and conveying. Imperfection is just part of being human, and I’ve come to appreciate that in myself and in other people as well.
The Sex Pistols vs. The Clash, whom do you prefer and why?
The Clash, that’s a no brainer. The Sex Pistols were very manufactured, and The Clash were much more of a real band. As a matter of fact, I just saw Chris Spedding [early producer for The Sex Pistiols] play. We drove to LA to see Bryan Ferry, and Paul Thompson was also playing with him. It was a beautiful night. I just think The Clash were a better band. Musically, I like that they had Dub and Reggae going on. I know Paul Simmon, he’s an adorable sweet friend and a very talented dude. As far as what would make me get up and dance, it would be The Clash.
You released two new tracks on vinyl, can you tell me about that?
I cannot wait to do another vinyl 45, we did it on white vinyl. It was really a blast. We were like, wow, remember what it was like when you got your record and held it in your hand, and was like, we made a record! I felt like I was 14 years old.
Can we expect more new music in 2012?
Oh sure, absolutely. We are always writing something. We don’t think in terms of a whole album anymore or a big long plan. We’re doing different things in our lives, and our lives have a little more balance than in the old days when it was tunnel vision doing the same thing over and over not stopping to ask anyone why you were doing that.
Concrete Blonde play at Bimbos on Saturday, January 21st. Tickets are available here. They have a limited edition run for two new songs, “Rosalie” and “I Know the Ghost,” available now on white vinyl. Pick them up on the tour or on CDBABY.