Chrissie Hynde on Teaming With Dan Auerbach & the 'Bullsh-t' of 'Grammy Culture'
When Billboard caught up with Chrissie Hynde, the 65-year-old Pretenders leader was “somewhere in Fort Lauderdale,” having just woken up following a gig in Tampa the night before playing on Stevie Nicks’ 24 Karat Gold tour. These shows have seen Hynde delivering several songs from the excellent new Pretenders album Alone, which she recorded with producer and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach at his Nashville studio, Easy Eye. As for how the new material has been going over? “No one’s booing, so pretty good, I guess.” Hynde says, then laughs. “They haven’t thrown anything at us yet.”
As she starts in on the day’s first pot of coffee, Hynde talks to Billboard about working with Auerbach, being backed by Nashville session players on Alone, and what, exactly, constitutes a Pretenders album in 2016. She also expounds on some bigger-picture musings about rock n' roll, including the “pornography” rampant in current pop and R&B, and how the culture of music in general has been watered down.
“It’s become very ‘establishment,’” Hynde says. “When you have award shows, or you have an artist and it says, ‘Five-time Grammy nominee…,’ that weakens the whole ethos of how it all started out. Sometimes I wonder, if Hendrix were alive, or Tim Buckley, or any of those guys, how many award shows would you see them at? My prediction would be fucking zero.”
Initially there was talk that Alone would be a follow-up to your 2014 solo record, Stockholm. But at some point it became a Pretenders record.
Well, what does solo mean? The last real Pretenders lineup I had was on [2008’s] Break Up the Concrete. Then I went to Stockholm and worked with some guys there, so that’s why I didn’t call that a Pretenders album. But what happened with this one was, when I brought these songs back from the studio, my manager was playing them for someone and the guy said, “Wow, it’s great to hear the Pretenders back.” And so my manager came to me and said, “It really does sound like a Pretenders album.” And I went, “Yeah, doesn’t it?” So I wrote this really long, rambling email to Auerbach -- a man of few words, but they all pack a punch -- explaining, you know, why the Stockholm album was called a solo album, and how things had gone with the Pretenders and the lineup changes, and that maybe we should call this record the Pretenders. And he wrote me back one line. He said: “Call it whatever sells the most records.” And it’s not because he’s not a bread-head…
He was saying, “Don’t overthink it.”
Pretty much. Just call it whatever gets the job done.
This is the second Pretenders album in a row on which you’re the only original member in the band. As far as calling this a Pretenders record or a Chrissie Hynde album, is there a difference to you at this point?
Well I went into it saying, “This solo-verses-the-Pretenders thing has sort of plagued me for years.” This idea of having to justify using the name the Pretenders. But I guess the real reason behind that is A) most of the original Pretenders are dead, so what can I do about it? And B) I want to carry on playing our songs and stuff. So that’s how that happened 35 years ago. And since then there’s been some lineup changes. But I’ve always worked in the context of a band. For me it’s all about bands. The solo thing is actually kind of a turnoff. So I went into it with that mind.
One other thing I’d like to add is that, for the last few years I’ve been kind of harboring a secret depression, which is that I thought bands were on the way out or just over. It’s all this singer-songwriter stuff now. But just in the last year I’ve been getting a real sense of bands coming back. I hope that happens. Because I think it’s very thin on the ground for actual bands. Having said that, I’m sure there’s a thousand bands out there that are gonna say, “Fuck you, Hynde! We’re in a band!” [laughs] And, I mean, sure. But bands don’t rule the way they used to.
In the title track to the new album you sing, “I’m at my best…alone.” People are going to read that as being autobiographical. Should they?
Absolutely. Although that’s partly an Auerbach thing. With Dan, really, the whole point of a producer is that they’re supposed to bring something out of the artist and get it on tape. And the first day we were in the studio, I didn’t know any of the guys I was working with, but they must have been talking about what they did over the weekend with their wives and stuff. And I said, “Ah, I go to the cinema alone. I live alone. I go to gigs alone. I do all that shit on my own.” Just in passing. And Dan pointed at me and he goes, “Write a song about it!” And that’s the song that came out. I hadn’t actually had the foresight to write it on my own.
So a song about being alone, you…
…yeah, I owe that song really to him. Frankly, I wouldn’t have thought it was a very interesting subject!
Clearly his involvement had an influence on the songs themselves.
Oh, totally. I think of it as his album, actually. I went to Nashville, and Dan has this team he works with who are just fucking amazing. We had a real blast. We recorded it in two weeks. I sent him demos of songs, so we had those, and we also wrote a couple songs in the studio. And Dan’s extremely focused, but he’s real easy. Nothing’s a problem with him. Which is just fucking great. Before I got to Nashville I called him and I said, “Man, I haven’t even sent you enough songs.” And he went, “Ah, that’s the least of my worries.” So I just said, “Okay…”
Then I got there, it was in November, and I had some disgusting respiratory thing. I couldn’t cancel the session, because I don’t cancel things as a policy unless I’m literally on death’s doorstep. Which I pretty much was -- I was on five medications, cortisone…I couldn’t even talk. And I got there and I said, “Look, man, I didn’t know I was gonna be this fucked up. I can’t even fucking sing.” And he goes, “That’s no problem. We’ll do all the song in the last two days. Make it more cohesive.” It was like, “Nothing can shake this guy! Fantastic!” So we went in, and Dave Roe, the bass player, who was also Johnny Cash’s bass player, wrote out charts for everything. We went through it two or three times, recorded it and moved on. That was it. These were real players.
Did it feel odd to be working with Nashville session guys?
Well, here’s the thing. Even though it was Nashville -- I mean, Kenny Vaughan, along with Dan, was the guitar player, and he usually goes out with Marty Stuart -- what I’ve noticed about musicians, and this is a generalization, is that I’d say 90 percent of the time they really fucking love rock and roll. They just wanna be in a rock band. Whether they play country, whatever. That’s their real dream, because most of these guys grew up in the '60s, when it was bands, bands, bands. That’s when the turning point happened and everybody started playing guitar. So when they see me walk in, they know they’re gonna get a chance to rock. So they were all super enthusiastic.
In that regard, for decades rock n' roll represented the ultimate form of rebellion for kids growing up. Which is not the case anymore.
Totally! We have the whole Grammy culture and all this bullshit. All the old rock magazines are now featuring starlets in their underpants. And then there’s this whole thing they call R&B, which clearly is not R&B. It’s like this branch of the porn industry. That has kinda sabotaged the way the whole thing’s gone. And it’s been easy to sabotage it with that stuff, because sex sells. And pornography makes more money than everything else. You just follow the money and you can see the way it’s going. So the rebellion that you’re talking about, a kid picking up a guitar and going, “Fuck you! I’m gonna do it the way I wanna do it!” that really got kicked in the teeth a little bit by all this pornography. Which is what I call anyone who gets onstage in their underwear. Unless it’s Iggy Pop.
Well, he’s wearing jeans, so…
Right! But even still, we make an exception for him.
Whatever it was that inspired or motivated you when you first got into rock n' roll and began writing songs, is it the same thing that still inspires you today?
Well, that’s just…you’re asking for a comment on a person’s life, really. What I can say is, I’m not really a storyteller. I’m not a folk singer. I wish I could tell stories but it’s not my genre, I guess. And there’s an infinite amount of ways you can write a song, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s just about if the person listening to the song is in tears or wants to dance. That’s the only way you can measure if a song works or not: Does it make someone feel something? But for me, when I get a bit of a song I always personalize it, because I know I’m the guy who’s singing it. I have to express myself so that I can step up to the plate when the time comes.
Finally, what’s coming up for you after the tour with Stevie Nicks?
Well, I would like to do some touring in Europe because I haven’t been there in a while. I’d love to go to South America because I haven’t been there in a while. I’d like to go anywhere I haven’t been, because that’s what turns me on. Because you can gig indefinitely in the States, but it’s a big world out there. I’ve also got a couple albums and some other projects kind of simmering in the background, but I don’t need to talk about those now. So, really, it’s just more of the same. I never change.