Band Vibe Brings Joe Strummer Alive
Most artists get a little nervous once they've finished an album and are waiting for feedback from friends, their record label, critics, and others. But, with his third solo album, "Global a Go-Go" (dMost artists get a little nervous once they've finished an album and are waiting for feedback from friends, their record label, critics, and others. But, with his third solo album, "Global a Go-Go" (due July 24 via Hellcat), former Clash front man Joe Strummer says he was a little bit more eager than usual.
After wrapping a short tour with the Who last year, he and the Mescaleros and the band's engineer, Richard Flack, "ended up in the [studio], without anything prepared," Strummer says. "And we thought, 'Well, we're pretty confident guys, let's give it a run.' So, nobody knew what they were doing, nobody had a direction. It just sort of fell into place. We just went from one tune to another. And after a while, we began to look at each other, going, 'Is this just fun or is this good?' There was nobody there to tell us if it was good or bad -- we were kind of on our own."
It's easy to understand why the reaction thus far has been positive. Created so spontaneously, Strummer and company's spirited collection of songs are as fun to listen to as they must have been to create.
The 11 tracks, which at times venture into sing-along and spoken-word territory, are peppered with violin, bongos, flute, Wurlitzer, glass harmonica, slide guitar, horns, and accordion, among other instruments. Strummer's lyrics, meanwhile, are intriguing, even if all over the place. The punk-rock pioneer tries to get back on his wife's good side with the apologetic "Bummed Out City" and ponders a likely smoking ban in the fourth dimension -- if there is even such a place -- on the wonderfully hilarious "Mega Bottle Ride."
For many, "Global a Go-Go" reassures as another item in a relative flurry of activity for Strummer. Shortly after releasing his first solo set, 1990's "Earthquake Weather" on CBS, the artist stepped out of the limelight for most of the next decade. He returned with the 1998 Mescaleros collaboration, "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style," his first release for Hellcat, the Epitaph Records offspring founded by Rancid's Tim Armstrong and Epitaph founder Brett Gurewitz. Following that album, the band hit the road for a tour that stretched over more than two years (and included a slew of Clash favorites, including "White Riot," "London Calling," and "Tommy Gun"), before returning to the studio last fall.
"I realized I was only happy in a group," Strummer explains. "In the Clash, each of us were part of a team. And I realized that that worked for me. So, slowly but surely, we've managed to reach that state of equity in the Mescaleros, because we've played so many gigs together. And with the second album, we're really down with each other, almost telepathically."
"Global a Go-Go" (which is dedicated to the late Joey Ramone) is the product of that "team" philosophy. "Everybody wrote everything, everybody played everything. Nobody was emperor. Nobody was big-boss ego. It was six guys in a room -- the five of us and Richard Flack. And everybody was just pitching in. It was such a breeze. And it sounds the way it was."
The unity among band members is instantly noticeable, says Hellcat label manager Chris LaSalle. "Between the last record and this record, the band really began to work as a very well-honed team. Before, I think people were bringing in different ideas and adding to them. On this one, they all started from scratch -- someone would play like a violin riff or someone would play a great reggae bass riff and that would be the start of a particular song." The result, he says, is a more "fully realized record."
Pitching in on violin, mandolin, guitar, and other instruments is Tymonn Dogg, who guested on the Clash's "Combat Rock" and "Sandinista" albums. The Who's Roger Daltrey adds vocals on the title track. Flack, Strummer, and Mescaleros Scott Shields and Martin Slattery produced.
While Flack, Dogg, and the band -- which also includes percussionist Pablo Cook -- came up with most of the music for the album, Strummer says there was simply a question of "getting, I guess, inspired in the moment" when writing the lyrics.
On the title track, Strummer takes on the persona of a global DJ, name-dropping some of his favorite artists and albums along the way: "Buddy Rich in Burundi/Quadrophenia in Amernia."
"He's talking about bringing all these artists and songs to different parts of the world," LaSalle says. "It's sort of like being a dream DJ, which I think is interesting because he has a radio show on the BBC World Service where he gets invited to play records. And he asked one of the program directors how many people listen to his shows, and he said, '40 million people.' To me, that song is all about living in one world and celebrating unity and celebrating our differences as well."
Strummer's work with the Mescaleros over the course of the past three years has noticeably rejuvenated the artist. One of the most refreshing aspects of the experience thus far has been working with Hellcat.
"I gotta say that working with Hellcat has been the best experience of my life, because it's the first time I've actually worked with human beings instead of a corporation. You know, the corporate thing is always a bit of a monster, chewing up people and spitting them out."
"And, also, in a corporation," he continues, "people change very quickly. I like to kind of build up human relationships with people over time. And it sort of seems to me that every three years, it's all like musical chairs. Suddenly, the guy you've gotten used to has gone to work for EMI, or he's swapped with so-and-so."
"But with [Tim and] Hellcat," Strummer says. "I've just really had a blast, because you're dealing with people and you can ring them up and say, 'Hey, what do you think of this?' And they'll go, 'No' or 'What about this?' Also, we've felt a bit liberated because 'Rock Art and the X-Ray Style' didn't do a lot of business, as they say. So, when we were licking our wounds after touring it, we looked on the bright side of it and said, 'Hey, well, at least it gives us room to experiment, because there's nobody to let down."
"I realize that I don't really fit into the mold," Strummer adds. "You know, the industry finds new talent, puts new talent on the radio, and sells new talent in a kind of a -- if you could put it crudely -- conveyor belt kind of way, like Henry Ford or something. I realize that taking an 11-year breather doesn't really fit into the mold. It was very difficult with 'Rock Art and the X-Ray Style' to get on the radio, because it just didn't fit into any kind of [format]. Nobody could understand where to fit it in. So I realized we could get play in L.A. -- and Australia, funny enough. But, in my own country, here in Britain, we can't even get one play. I don't think we even had one play at all on any station. So it's like, never mind, big boys don't cry. You can still get on with it, because it was like that in the early days of punk, anyway. So, when we were making this record, I was thinking, 'We gotta get out there and get the news out about this record. Why don't we do a whistle-stop tour, playing in-stores in any big city we can get it going?'"
Strummer and the Mescaleros will do just that starting July 16, when they play the first stop on an eight-date in-store tour at the HMV store on London's Oxford Street. The following day, the band hits the Virgin Megastore in Leeds. The band plays the Virgin Megastore in New York's Times Square on the album's U.S. release date and will then trek across North America, hitting the HMV Superstore in Toronto, Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and Tower locations in Chicago and Los Angeles.
"I'm hoping to draw people in, and maybe they'll buy the record and maybe they'll go and tell their friends. I'm trying to work a word-of-mouth network here, 'cause we ain't really a pop act. We're not really R&B. We couldn't get on MTV if we spent 6 million quid. So, you have to accept the way the world is."
Along the in-store trail, Strummer will be a guest DJ July 23 at WFMU Jersey City, N.J., and July 24 at WFUV Bronx, N.Y., as well as be a guest on CFNY Toronto. He and the band will appear July 24 on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and will open for Brian Setzer Aug. 4 at the Greek Theatre in L.A.
Hellcat, which is releasing the album worldwide, doesn't plan to release a formal single in the U.S., but the album -- released July 10 in the U.K. -- is already getting a lift from KCRW L.A., where music director Nic Harcourt is playing "Bhindi Bhagee," "Mega Bottle Ride," and "Mondo Bongo."
Stations across Europe are being serviced with "Johnny Appleseed," for which the band has shot a video. Also, a vinyl, gatefold version of the album will be pressed in the U.K. only.
The band will return to the U.S. for a full-fledged tour in October, with a U.K. tour slated for November.
Having just reunited with his Clash mates in May to accept the outstanding contribution to British music trophy at the U.K.'s Ivor Novella Awards, Strummer knows he will again be facing the reunion question as he promotes the new album.
So what's the answer? "I don't think it's really gonna happen," he says. "Maybe when the heat's off in 20 years' time, we'll get together and make a blues record or something. I often think it would be a laugh to do a tour when we're 78." That would be "really kicking," he adds, laughing loudly. "That is a punk-rock idea."