Nearing 50, Strummer's Guns Still Blaze
Joe Strummer is feeling the jetlag. The day after arriving in New York to play a five-night stand in Brooklyn with his band the Mescaleros, Strummer is holding court in the bar of his downtown hotel,Joe Strummer is feeling the jetlag. The day after arriving in New York to play a five-night stand in Brooklyn with his band the Mescaleros, Strummer is holding court in the bar of his downtown hotel, sipping beer and periodically puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette. His famously coifed hair may be graying at the temples and his face may show the wear and tear from 30 years of hard living, but make no mistake: Strummer is as serious about the business of rock as he's ever been.
Via such late 1970s classic albums as its self-titled debut and "London Calling," Strummer and his bandmates in the Clash proved that punk could be revolutionary both in music and message. After the group imploded in 1986, Strummer acted in and scored films and released his first solo album, 1989's "Earthquake Weather." But he fell below the radar for the better part of the '90s, as Clash-inspired acts such as Green Day and the Offspring took pop-inflected punk to previously unfathomable commercial heights.
With the 1998 formation of the Mescaleros, Strummer roared back to life with two new albums (1999's "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style" and 2001's "Global A Go-Go") that dabbled in everything from world beat rhythms to incendiary rock'n'roll. Ironically, both sets were released by the California-based independent label Hellcat, whose parent, Epitaph, has been home to both the Offspring and fellow Clash fanatics Rancid. It's a setup that Strummer, who turns 50 in August, says is ideal for the way the Mescaleros record.
"I'm enjoying this freedom of being able to do whatever the hell I want," he admits. "We sell very few records, and that fact alone makes us the wildest gang in town, because we can afford to be really crazy! We're free. So many other people aren't, because of constraints or big companies."
Strummer refers to his collaborators as a "team" whose roster he's been tinkering with for four years, and where versatility is the strongest asset but virtuosity is certainly well represented. "Although my name's on top of the strip, in reality it shouldn't be there, because we don't operate in the way that suggests," he offers. "A group name would more aptly describe how we operate." The group also features former Clash sideman Tymon Dogg on violin and guitar, bassist Simon Stafford, multi-instrumentalist Martin Slattery, drummer Luke Fuller, and guitarist Scott Shields.
For all the compelling music found on its recordings, it's on stage where the Mescaleros kicks things into another gear, and on this night, they pack arena-sized power into the 500-capacity St. Ann's Warehouse. Switching instruments liberally, the group lays waste to the audience with everything from Clash favorites ("Police on My Back," "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais") to solo album tracks ("Johnny Appleseed," "Shaktar Donetsk") and flawless covers of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and the Ramones' "Blitzkreig Bop."
"We did it at [New York's] Irving Plaza three weeks after Sept. 11 went down, and we've played that ever since, really," Strummer says of the latter cut, which the Clash was also known to cover. The organizers of Columbia's forthcoming Ramones tribute album asked Strummer and company to record a studio version of "Blitzkreig Bop" for the set, but he says logistical issues will prevent its inclusion.
"We were supposed to go into the studio in L.A. on a day off from another five-night stand there, but I looked at everybody and I could see that it would have been asking too much," Strummer relates. "We did offer them a live recording of it, but they said they were doing a studio album and didn't really want a live thing."
Strummer seems to be busier than ever. He has "just begun the process" of messing around with approximately 20 song ideas that may wind up on the Mescaleros' next album ("a lot of those will bite the dust, probably"). He also recently contributed lyrics to a song for reggae legend Jimmy Cliff's new release, which is being produced by Eurythmics principal Dave Stewart. "He's working with a lot of different people, [but] I feel strongly that it will probably get in there, because the lyric wasn't too bad," Strummer says.
Although there appears to be little or no chance that the oft-bickering members of the Clash will ever reform for anything beyond a special honor or induction ceremony, Strummer says he still derives immense joy from playing the band's songs live. "The team love them too," he points out. "Any musician would like to play a song that has a good beat, good chords, and interesting lyrics. It's fun to communicate with other people like that."
Speaking of communication, Strummer is on the fence when it comes to the Internet's role in the distribution of music. He was disappointed to hear that the setlist for the first Brooklyn show was quickly posted online, potentially ruining some surprises for fans at gigs later in the week. He appreciates the convenience of CD burners but fears that independent bands may see tangible sales drop-offs from their proliferation.
"There have been some rumors about some setups that would favor artists, but it's a cruel world out there, buddy," he acknowledges with a hearty laugh when asked about the potential for pay-per-use models of such file-swapping services as Napster. "If you're selling 20 billion records, you won't even notice [potential negative effects of CD burning]. But if you support your local hardcore group, I think it's morally wrong to CD-R them or download them."
As the music world in which he operates evolves at a more and more rapid pace, Strummer reflects on how his own musical outlook has evolved over the years. "We found it best to work at night, all night," he says. "We're there alone all night and it affects the music really deeply. You really get spaced out. No phones ring. See, it's really maybe about focus and continuing the train of thought until it gets to the station."
Additional reporting by Ben French