Sean Ono Lennon on Reality, Magic & How Yoko Taught Him to Embrace the Weird
Sean Ono Lennon is wrapping up a press day at his Manhattan studio, once his parents’ downtown apartment. He may famously evoke his father with his bespectacled, bearded looks and wicked way with words -- but to hear him tell it, he was “birthed from the crucible of the Yoko Ono universe.”
This wasn’t by design; ever since John Lennon was tragically killed in 1980, his impression of the man has been necessarily defined by absence. Left to raise her son at the Dakota Apartments, Ono immersed him in art, music and theatre far off the mainstream path -- Cage, Duchamp, Brecht.
Today (Feb. 22), Lennon is reflecting that education back at the world. He just unveiled his most ambitious, eccentric album to date, South of Reality, his second with Primus’ Les Claypool as the Claypool Lennon Delirium.
The elder Lennon recorded mind-bending odysseys with the Beatles before his partnership with Ono took him into the personal and conceptual. But this awakening for John is a resting state for Sean. With its jabberwocky sound and references to rocket science, amphibious life and ritual magic, South of Reality betrays his tutelage at the feet of Ono. And the Claypool Lennon Delirium may be his most lovably left-field co-creation to date.
Today, we’re sharing a conversation with Sean Ono Lennon about South of Reality and being schooled in outré culture by one of its most famous practitioners.
What do you get out of making futuristic, outside-the-box music?
I’ve been doing that my whole life, as I see it. I come from a musical background that includes my mother as well as my father, so I’ve always had a natural affinity toward non-tonal instruments, including soundscapes and sound design.
It seems like you were raised to understand that the world is making music all the time.
That’s so interesting you say that, because my mom used to tell this story all the time when I was young. When she was studying avant-garde composition in Japan, her music teacher would make her notate the sound of everyday objects.
If something fell down the stairs, she’d have to [makes percussive sounds] get the rhythm structure of it. If a bus squealed around the corner, she’d try to notate it. That was a good exercise for her to transcend the confines of Western music.
You and Les seem to approach your music less like craftsmen than spelunkers, or explorers. Do you two map out your textures in advance, or do you like to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks?
A bit of both, to be honest. Les is somebody who loves to work with a lot of improvisation and spontaneity, but he likes to have that within a framework. He wants to do homework so that we’re not relying on the success of our inspiration.
So, we always come prepared. He says, “Shiner, why don’t you come with five or six ideas, and I’ll come with five or six ideas?” We have to flesh out six songs individually at least, so we have something to bring to the table.
If we were just improvising, it would be a jazz album. But if we were just preparing and structuring, it wouldn’t be us either. It would be boring as hell. So, I think we like to do both. We like freedom and spontaneity within constraints and structure. The structure has to do with doing homework and having methodology.
South of Reality is full of references to fishes, crickets, fleas and a creature known as the Toadyman. Does something draw you to the subterranean world?
Totally, man. People have phobias of animals, but I love the animals that most people hate. I love rats, and I love mice, and I love spiders. I even like cockroaches.
I don’t have anything against most animals. It may seem that I have a morbid attraction toward the less-loved critters of the planet, but I just like animals in general. I’m a dork in that way. It’s hard for me to hold anything against an animal.
One of my more mystical views might be that consciousness is more of a spectrum. It’s not binary. It doesn’t get switched on at humans, or chimps, or whatever. It must be fluid. The degree to which animals are self-aware is relative. It’s not that they aren’t and we are. I think that’s too simple.
We’re outnumbered by the microorganisms in the crust by far. They call it the Weight. The greatest mass of living cells is in the crust. Time is slower down there, too, because it’s closer to the center of the Earth. There’s time dilation. So the microorganisms that are closer to the core would be younger, or less time would have passed for them.
Even your head is older than your feet, if you’ve been standing on the planet your whole life. Gravity bends spacetime.
The track “Blood and Rockets” was inspired by Jack Parsons, the famous rocket engineer who joined a ritual cult. Why did he spark your imagination?
I read his autobiography called Sex and Rockets, thinking that it’d be a movie or a musical or something. It never panned out, so I was like, “Well, I’ll just write the song.” But it’s one of those stories that is stranger than fiction.
No one has the imagination to think of how it even ends. I mean, he belonged to a magical cult, including sex magic. He wound up blowing himself up in a chemical experiment. There’s all sorts of nefarious relationships he had with his mother that were discovered by the police.
That story was just epic, and it was a kernel of an idea I brought to the Delirium writing sessions because I wanted to flesh it out as a song.
He worked in a rational field and indulged in extrascientific beliefs with equal zeal. Are some aspects of reality only explainable through a mystical lens?
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If something is real, then it’s not magic by definition. Let’s say magic was real and I could shoot fireballs out of my hand. If that’s really happening, then it’s not magic. Then it’s some physical phenomenon that’s indistinguishable from magic.
So, are there things that are indistinguishable from magic in our understanding of science and nature? Yes. Spooky action at a distance. Quantum entanglement. We don’t really understand those things.
“Cricket Chronicles Revisited” takes aim at Big Pharma, and “Easily Charmed by Fools” explores lies and manipulation. You’ve mentioned that your father avoided processed foods and flicked off television ads because “everything in there was a lie.” Were you trained early on to be skeptical of the modern age?
I remember him saying, “Everything ever said in a commercial is inherently a lie. That’s why it’s a commercial. A commercial is a group of lies about something, so you’re not allowed to watch it, because it’s all lies. It’ll influence you negatively.”
I never thought how it would come into play in terms of my proclivity toward certain subject matter. But I’m sure you’re right. You’d be a good therapist. I’m sure that the origin of my disdain for Big Pharma and Monsanto is in my dad teaching me early on that advertising is a construct made of lies.
Your mom’s influence has only grown, from specifically going out as Sean Ono Lennon in 2019 to veering into uncharted musical territory with the Delirium. How does she teach you to embrace the weird?
My dad is my greatest influence, and his absence was so imposing that it pushed me toward a preoccupation with understanding his work and his life. Whereas it’s the opposite with my mother. I grew up physically in the same house with my mother. The first album I made with her was when I was 17, called Rising.
Her influence on me is the opposite. It’s palpable. It’s physical. I grew up with this person. So, my entire worldview, not just in art and music, but in everything else, is certainly filtered through the lens of her personality and her opinions. Arguably, though my dad’s my biggest influence, she’s a more palpable influence on me.
When I was young, I’d try to get my mom to listen to Human League or Depeche Mode. She’d be like, “Turn that off! Listen to Schoenberg! Here’s a John Cage performance!” Then, when I was old enough to have interesting conversations with her, the first thing she laid on me was the art that influenced her, like Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Duchamp and all sorts of stuff that might be off the beaten path for certain people.
Everything I do comes from growing up with my mom in that house. For example, I’m one of those people who believes that I don’t have to choose genres, or media. I can do sculpture or drawing or music or painting or directing. Not because I think I’m talented at them, but because I don’t see them as separate things. The medium is secondary.
People assume that because I have obvious influences from my dad, that’s all there is. But the truth is that the artist who is me was birthed from the crucible of the Yoko Ono universe.