Catching Up With Sean Lennon

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It’s hard not to mention Sean Ono Lennon’s heritage when talking about him. If you even know a little bit about music, his famous parents are a touchstone for all things pop and avant garde. But that’s really as far as it needs to go. Beyond that, Lennon has carved out his own musical path and has never apologized for taking unexpected turns. His latest project, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, is a collaboration between him and his longtime partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl that finds the two putting their own stamp on everything from folk to psychedelia.

Paste : It’s great to have you here. You’ve got your band, which is your band. This isn’t a side project. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is now your main focus, right?
Lennon: Yeah, I mean it started as a side project, probably five or six years ago, and it sort of took over as the main focus of my life at this point. I’m very happy about that. I’ve always wanted to be in a band, truthfully. I think I was a solo artist mainly because it was just too hard in Manhattan to find people who could commit to a single group.

Paste : You’d think it’d be way easier in a city that big.
Lennon: You’d think that. Maybe it’s just not Manhattan, but modern life is such that great musicians tend to have too many commitments. So I always wanted to secretly just have a band. It was just hard to get it together. Meeting Charlotte sort of facilitated that. At first, because it wasn’t a “serious project,” it sort of flourished more. It blossomed more naturally than something that we treated too preciously. It happened organically, and it’s been really fun.

Paste : You put out this amazing record, Midnight Sun, that I guess is technically the third one.
Lennon: It’s technically the second one.

Paste : Because there are EPs and tour-only discs…
Lennon: The thing called La Carotte Bleue was just an EP that we did for France only. That’s why there’s a French language song on there. We designed it just to sell at the French tour. It kind of became our de facto second record, but it was unintentional. It was parenthetical. The first record was also just a bunch of demos to us and that wound up being more of a debut album, because after we released it, surprisingly we got booked on Fallon, and then we got booked on a few tours. So then we had to figure out how to represent that live.

Paste : It’s a good problem to have.
Lennon: Yeah, it was nice, but we actually planned on just coming out with an electric album right away, but I wound up working for my mom for a few years. And there were a couple other projects that postponed it. But I think it was all meant to be, because in the end we wound up crystallizing our vision in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Paste : You’ve been a part of so many projects and so many different sounds, a history of turning pop on its end.
Lennon: Which end? Its rear end? I think I’ve had the luxury to play around a lot because I was never pursuing pop stardom really. I was privileged enough to choose to play music that I wanted to play, and I wasn’t working for “the man” as it were. And so I think I’ve been able to experiment more. Also, I’ve had a lot of weird influences, from my mom being avant garde to just being exposed to lots of different stuff. I was the bassist in Cibo Matto. I hung out with John Zorn, who was like a jazz guy. So I had a lot of people influencing me in different ways, so I never really felt the need to, you know, join a boy band or something. Not like they would have taken me. I never had that calling. I never felt the call.

Paste : I like this style of freedom that it’s given you, because not everybody has that opportunity. When a band starts out, it’s about “How do we survive? We have to write the radio hit.” But you’ve been able to experiment. When you’re writing that music, the way you’ve done your entire career, has it ever been where you thought, “Hmm, that’s got to be more catchy because of x, y and z”?
Lennon: The truth is, I think the times that I have tried to anticipate what people would want and to try to chase my projected vision of what I thought was popular or commercial, I’ve always sort of been embarrassed with the results. So I haven’t published those things. There’s an entire album I made once that I canned because it was too polished. I’ve also done a few movie score things, a couple commercial things in Japan here and there. I don’t feel like that’s my forte necessarily. I think honestly, I’m not against pop music at all. I listen to George Michael, and I love Prince. If I could make the perfect pop song that was super successful, I probably would. I think what I do is what comes naturally to me, and I’m doing the best I can do with the talents that I have.

Paste : I guess looking through your entire career got me thinking about how you really in a great way haven’t had to pay attention to genre and to definition and to parameters. I started thinking of this line that you can get from Igor Stravinsky to The Strokes, by going from Stravinsky to Steve Reich to The Velvet Underground…
Lennon: From Bach to Beatles.

Paste : Yeah, it’s very easy to do, and I think a lot of bands get caught in that trap. Like, “these are the parameters and this is what we can do,” but you were able to push through that.
Lennon: I’m lucky that I grew up in the ‘90s. It was a really experimental time. It was normal for people to go to festivals, and you would see Radiohead playing with the Beastie Boys playing with Wu-Tang Clan. That just felt totally normal. Now where I think things tend to be a little more segregated are like the hipster festival or the hippie festival or the jazz festival, whereas I grew up at a time when genre-bending, Beck and those type of people, were really mixing it all up. The Beasties were doing bossanova and R&B and funk and hardcore hip hop and hardcore punk all in the same record. That just seemed natural to me, so I think that’s the world that I grew up in essentially.

Paste : So with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, there was one interview where you mentioned writing music that has purpose and meaning.
Lennon: Did I say that? What was I saying, that you should write music with purpose and meaning? It’s interesting because I’m wondering how I would back that up, because I don’t know if I believe it or not. I think grandiose or general statements about art are difficult territory to tread, because it’s hard to say anything meaningful in words about music. Music is so intuitive and so spiritual, so anything that I hear myself say in an interview about art, I tend to cringe and wonder what I was talking about. It all sounds so esoteric and up your own ass or something.

Paste : I guess there is the cliche bit about where you’re making art for yourself and it has to be meaningful for you.
Lennon: That makes sense to me. I think that what matters is not imagining or anticipating an imaginary audience, just making something that feels good to you. That I do really believe in. The idea of purpose, I’m not so sure of. There’s this whole Oscar Wilde quote about how art is something that has no purpose. That’s how he defines art. Anything that has purpose like clothes or baking bread or doing architecture, that’s functional, so that’s what distinguishes from pure art, which is something that has no actual pragmatic function. And I kind of like that idea, because in a way it sort of frees art from the confines of the mundane and the every day and it allows you to do something that ultimately is kind of frivolous, but has some personal, spiritual purpose to it…this is the kind of rant that I hate hearing from myself. It sounds like bullshit.

Paste : No it doesn’t. I like the debate, but it seems like we’ll always debate ourselves on a topic like this. But as a fanboy of rock and roll, and as cliches go, I believe in rock and roll. So it’s wanting it to be something. It’s wanting it to be more that just a phoned-in three-minute piece. I like when people put the thought into it.
Lennon: Yeah. That I believe in, too. People often ask me, “why are you doing psychedelic music?” To me, it’s not so much that we’re doing psychedelic music, it’s just that we’re really trying extra hard to make all the sounds exciting and to make the narrative journey of the music exciting and to take you places that are unexpected and to make you feel like you’re on a journey, or listening to a mind movie. That’s what psychedelic music is to me. It’s really sort of developed and it has narrative tension and dynamics and it takes you somewhere. It’s not just a plateau. So therefore Stravinsky could be considered psychedelic because it is to me. You close your eyes and you’re totally tripping out. So that’s all I really think about in terms of what we’re trying to do now is to put a little effort in to make it more of a journey, more of an arc and a structure that’s interesting and hopefully entertaining.

Paste : On the subject of that, this record came out, as you said a psychedelic record, but you all wrote a hundred songs or something, but these are just the songs that worked together. So it would seem to me, if you take any of those other songs then you have another collection of songs that work together, it’s going to sound completely different. So if you’re trying to establish your band, you come right out swinging with an identity problem. Folk duo to this one, and then next could be a different sound.
Lennon: We already put out a 10-inch with about six new songs that are all from songs that we were working on for this album. They were ones that didn’t make the sequence of the album, but they weren’t necessarily less good. So we’re trying to get all of that music out as well because we don’t want to use that music for our next record. It would be like looking backwards. So we’re trying to put it out as bonus vinyls here and there, peppered throughout the next year or so. And then we’re going to follow it up with a new record, and who knows what that’s going to be like, something new and interesting to us.

Paste : You mention looking backward. Most of the reviewers have the new album harkening back to ‘60s music, and maybe this is another question about art as a whole, but is it looking backward to move forward?
Lennon: Sure, you got to have one foot in the past and your eyes on the horizon of the future. That sounds kind of cheesy. But it’s true of everything. I think it is important to know history, or you’re doomed to repeat it. And I think in any craft, if you give half a shit about it, you should learn about the history of it and what people have done before. And then you should move on after that. But that’s just how I feel. Some people do it with complete rebellion. But again, you can’t really rebel against something unless you know what it is you’re rebelling against. Even punk rock was only a rebellion in relation to what came before. If there were no sense in that, then it wouldn’t have been interesting. So I do believe in incorporating the history, but then also trying to be progressive. But who knows, it’s fucking hard anyway.

Paste : Right. And I feel like we’re to a point, or we get to a point in popular music, where a lot of the sounds are looking back. A lot of the bands that come out now are looking back. Maybe the last album that came out that didn’t really sound like anything before it, what…Kid A? Are we to a point where we wonder if there’s anything new left to mine in music? And I know that’s a concern every decade in music, but how do you get to that point?
Lennon: It’s a question that I ponder often. I think about it a lot, because when you look at completely new paradigms that change the world, musically, just musically, rock and roll, punk, hip hop, funk, R&B. In a way, we haven’t had a new significant genre since hip hop, unless you count techno, drum and bass, Skrillex, but all of those are just reimaginings of dance music. And those movements haven’t transformed the globe. I mean hip hop, people are dressing in hip-hop styles in the Philippines and Malaysia. Everywhere on the planet. So that was a global transformation. I don’t know what it takes for something like that to happen, and I do think that as the world becomes more decentralized, that type of thing is harder, because the shared culture isn’t there anymore. There’s no single pulse of the youth, because there’s all these different subcultures. So I don’t if it’s even possible for that to happen again, but on some level, mathematically speaking, there’s an infinite number of possibilities of the way you can arrange music and words and rhythm.

Paste : Rule of odds.
Lennon: The reality is that classical music died pretty much after spectral composition and Schoenberg, so there’s no reason rock and roll should live forever. There’s no reason hip hop should live forever either if classical music didn’t. But then again, classical music was around for centuries.

Paste : But you have avant garde artists who take music and rip it up and throw it in the air.
Lennon: But even noise artists now aren’t taking it any further than John Cage did it. That paradigm of abstract noise has been around in dissonance. All that’s been done in a million ways. So I don’t really know. I have no idea.

Paste : I am more fearful of the future now that I have talked to you.
Lennon: Well I think about it often, and I have no clue. One of the things I wonder about is, do people, when a revolutionary paradigm is innovated, is anyone ever really truly conscience of it? Anticipating it as they’re creating it. Did reggae know that raggae was happening as it was happening? Did hip hop know that it was being birthed until it was already birthed? I feel like it happens organically, and I don’t know if you can intentionally will a new genre into being. I think it sort of happens by accident. I’m sure it’ll happen again, but I don’t think you can force it.

Paste : What we have going for us is that new people are being born all the time. They haven’t heard Thriller.
Lennon: Sure, but I think the Beethovens of today would tend to be more interested in communications or computer programming, microbiology or neuroscience. Those fields didn’t exists in the 1700s. I’m not sure if the most genius humans being born are even going to go into hip hop. You know what I mean?

Paste : So for folks like us, you keep your head down, you make your art, and the rest of the people enjoy it.
Lennon: Well that’s what I mean. I tend to have pretty humble views. I just try to make music that I feel good about, which is already hard enough. So once I do that, then I feel like I’ve done my job.