U.K. Rock Vets Find New Life With Carbon/Silicon

"I'm Carbon. He's Silicon," Mick Jones explains. "I'm a computer, Mick's the song," his bandmate Tony James elaborates. "That's a bit pat," Jones counters. "I'd rather describe it as a charcoal ashtra

"I'm Carbon. He's Silicon," Mick Jones explains. "I'm a computer, Mick's the song," his bandmate Tony James elaborates. "That's a bit pat," Jones counters. "I'd rather describe it as a charcoal ashtray with a few bits of chromium diamond in the middle."

That Mick Jones can be jocular about Carbon/Silicon, his new musical venture, is a testament to the way he has picked himself up after his previous project, Big Audio Dynamite, ended disastrously in 1997 when his record company declined to release his latest long player. Bearing in mind that B.A.D.'s previous half-dozen albums had pioneered the melding of hip-hop and rock and secured U.K. hit singles, this state of affairs was startling enough. But when you also consider the legendary status that Jones already enjoyed by being a key member of the Clash, it was shocking.

Jones reacted by disappearing off the radar, spurning both music making and interviews. "I might have been bitter," he concedes, although he points out that he wasn't personally unhappy and that one motive for his inactivity was his fear of distracting his then-girlfriend from her own musical career. "I kind of gave up," he says. "I had a big long rest -- a holiday of selfishness."

His holiday came to an end five years ago when his old friend Tony James, former bassist of the early punk band Generation X and mastermind behind controversial '80s techno-glam merchants Sigue Sigue Sputnik, informed him that he had a song in mind. "I had an idea for a song called 'M.P.Free,' about giving away music on the Internet," explains James in the duo's small rehearsal room in northwest London. "We're both big fans of the Internet and I really foresaw that this was a coming revolution -- that music would end up free on the Internet. So we had this song and Mick said, 'I could write a tune for that' and that's how we started. We've been in this room for the last five years nearly, developing our sound."

The pair had worked together before: in the mid-1970s, they were both members of the influential precursor-punk group the London SS. The group is considered by some to constitute the "Big Bang" of U.K. punk. Through its ranks passed musicians who would become some of the chief luminaries of said movement, including Jones, James, Damned founders Brian James and Rat Scabies and even future Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde. Intriguingly, some London SS material exists on tape. James describes it as "an album's worth," but Jones is dismissive of its quality and simply embarrassed by the band's provocative name. "We were stupid and when we were confronted with the reality of it, we balked," he says.

In a sense, Jones was almost starting over when Carbon/Silicon began. "When we first started working together, you weren't even playing guitar," James says, turning to Jones. "You weren't even singing. 'M.P.Free' was built out of samples of other people. That's why the first album we made is an unreleasable record. It's all made out of samples and you only sort of sing a little bit over the top. It was like someone who hadn't done it for 10 years -- you were 'whispering.'"

Initial progress was tentative. "We talked for about six months," Jones says. "We started talking about, 'How are we gonna do this?' and be our age and come up with something meaningful maybe, if we're lucky. Not try and be what we were before and try and accept what we look like now and all that."

"[It was] all those things which are all traumatic things to deal with as you get older," James adds. "We have to go, 'Look, let's go out and be the people we are and be really honest about what we are.'"

This approach seems to have struck a chord with listeners. Halting though their career has been, Carbon/Silicon began acquiring a strong fanbase through their 50 or so gigs to date and three Internet-only albums. The duo's embrace of the new digital world includes encouraging fans to film and record live gigs and swap them online.

Jones and James are just now, however, preparing their first physical Carbon/Silicon releases. A single, "The News," was issued at the end of May, and an as-yet-untitled album is scheduled for September, both on their own eponymous label. That, of course raises the question of money. What will happen if people choose to share and burn said releases instead of buying them?

"I don't profess to have the answers about how we're going to make our money in the future," admits James. However, he feels the majority of the current generation don't mind paying for songs and that even if subsequent generations do, artists will still manage to get financial compensation, whether it be via new means -- like live Web casts of recording or writing sessions -- or old, such as concerts.

"I believe historically artists always get paid in the end," he shrugs. They decline to play songs by their previous groups in concert. "No one's really done it with new stuff," Jones say of musicians their age. "They only do it knocking the old ones, but once you're knocking the old ones, it's like, over, for the new stuff."

The band's name echoes that split between old and new. It was taken from scientist Susan Greenfield's writings about human intelligence as enhanced by silicon implants, a subject that seemed relevant to the duo's division of old-school musicality (Jones) and new technology (James).

A four-piece since 2004 (the most recent line-up includes bassist Leo Williams and drummer Dominic Greensmith), Carbon/Silicon clearly feel they are now beginning to live up to the reputation their leading members have. "We didn't think of it as anything, really," says James of the early fumblings. "We just thought of making music. We certainly weren't strong enough to go and play live, but that's just evolved slowly. And somehow we believe there's some unseen hand steering us in the right way."