It’s almost 6 p.m., and Iggy Pop is midway through his last interview of a day spent promoting his new album, “Beat ‘Em Up” (due July 17 via Virgin). With tired eyes and exhausted limbs, he’s lying like a wet rag on a leather sofa — explaining the genesis of “Mask,” the scathing rant that opens the album — when a heavenly breeze floats in through the window of Virgin Records’ Park Avenue offices.
The veteran rocker pauses for a moment and starts over: “I’ll tell ya the truth. F*ck it. It went like this: I went to a Slipknot gig last year, when I was making this record. And it was a really good gig, and they were really nice guys. And after the gig, they went au natural again, no masks and stuff. And the type of chick that hangs around backstages and stuff came up and started talking to one of their guitarists. And her opening line was, ‘Hi, which mask are you?'”
“The phrase fascinated me. That’s never happened to me. I’ve never had that experience, because if somebody comes up to me after the show, they know who I am.”
“And then I thought, ‘Which mask? Does she care which mask he was?’ It was just an interesting thing. And you know, masking goes back to Venice, there’s old masked balls and masked rituals that go back to f*ckin’ vernal equinox and Stonehenge and primitive religion.”
On “Mask,” perhaps the most blistering track on “Beat ‘Em Up,” Pop lambastes “chunky frat boys in their shorts” and “sensitive, smart-aleck college graduates,” among such others as pimps and “sex hoochies of the jungle.” By the end of the track, Pop is searching for soul amid a society full of phoniness.
Pop says the track owes as much to Slipknot as it does to late Beat writer Allen Ginsberg. While recording the album, Pop had a collection of Ginsberg’s poems, among other books, in the studio. “I had been reading Ginsberg, stuff like, you know, ‘Oh America, when will you stop dropping bombs and learn to love sunflowers,’ or whatever. [His stuff] is like preaching. So that somewhere crept into me. What I was really trying to do was fully state something about the human condition here.”
One reason why the song — written and recorded in about 25 minutes — succeeds is its raunchy foundation, a nasty bassline delivered by former Body Count bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts, who was murdered shortly after work was finished on “Beat ‘Em Up.”
With his new disc, Pop says he was looking to create a garage-rock album that was also “kind of a ’70s revival, classic rock album.” At the same time, Virgin was hungry for an album that was “mindful of new rock,” one that could “be played on the radio and will appeal to the new demographic,” he says. The result is a solid mixture of both, a batch of songs that veers deeply into Pop’s Stooges past on one track, only to leap decades into the future and mimic a Korn/Slipknot/Limp Bizkit riff on the next. “I wanted something with some integrity to it. And then, having said that, I wanted to try and make it as accessible as possible.”
Pop says that it was with Roberts that he was able to breathe new life into his band, which also includes brothers Whitey and Alex Kirst on guitar and drums, respectively. “I wanted to shake them out of all complacency. I didn’t want anybody comfortable. So, I said, ‘We need a new bass player. And we need something hot.'”
After jamming with Coal Chamber’s Rayna Foss, among others, Pop settled on Roberts. “The first day he came in, it just was great. He had all his Rhyme Syndicate gear on, big gold chains. And we knew, we just knew. It just clicked. It was magic. [At one point], he said, ‘It’s gonna be all right.’ He could tell we were all nervous. We were coming from such a cultural divide. He had never played with white people before. And he lived in the ‘hood, in South Central.”
Roberts, Pop says, was the victim of a drive-by shooting last February. Roberts was in the driveway of a friend’s South Central Los Angeles house, helping the friend install a car stereo, when he was shot in the back. He was 38 years old.
The weekend that Roberts was killed, Pop, who now lives in Miami, was in Los Angeles taking part in an Apple Computers commercial that also featured Liz Phair, Smash Mouth, and fellow Michigan native George Clinton. Pop thought it was “really weird” that the bass player hadn’t returned his pages that weekend.
“I thought maybe his pager went dead,” Pop says. “It didn’t make sense, because he really wanted to get a hold of me. Before I left, he said, ‘I’ll be calling you when you get there, page me right back.’ So it had been understood that we would meet.” Pop’s son, who doubles as the singer’s tour manager, called to give him the news.
With a string of European concert dates already booked, Pop then tried, unsuccessfully, to hire former Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. The singer’s former guitar tech, Pete Marshall — who had played sporadically on Pop’s recent albums — filled in. He has since become a full-fledged member of the band.
The songs on “Beat ‘Em Up” — produced by Pop and engineered by Danny Kader — are among the first batch Pop has written since his recent move to Miami, ending a run of more than 10 years in New York.
After “Avenue B” (which Pop says was made “at home in Manhattan, with the shades drawn and the candles lit and the door locked — it was very much that kind of ‘don’t play this record before two in the morning’ kind of album”), the singer says he was “careful not to overproduce” the garage-rock tracks on the album, songs like “Mask” and the loungey “V.I.P.,” Pop’s hilariously sarcastic reflections on his rock-star status and the benefits it brings.
As far as “strong sonics” and “pure bravado” are concerned, “Beat ‘Em Up” can stand beside any of Pop’s previous works, insists Ray Cooper, co-president of Virgin America. Cooper says both the artist and the label will benefit from a beefed-up online presence marked by the launch of the first official Pop Web site, iggypop-virginrecords.com, which was created by Black Dragon, the firm that has created sites for Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Slipknot.
While Virgin expects heavy print and online-media coverage, the album should also get a boost from the singer’s appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” next month. Meanwhile, Pop will hit the festival circuit in Europe, playing gigs in the U.K., France, and Switzerland.
So, why does the 54-year-old Pop still crank out new material? What drives him? “A fierce desire to do something that doesn’t suck,” he replies. “Basically, I’m trying to do something that doesn’t blow. It’s a lot of work [these days]. And I really have to work at it. I can’t do three takes of something like ‘Mask.’ I’d get a massive migraine, blowout. People get aneurysms playing this kind of music, like the guy in R.E.M. All sorts of shit happens to me.”
“I’m like a car. I’m like a really well-kept classic car. You might be driving along the road in it — it’s got a great paint job, everybody’s checking you out, girls are going, ‘Whoa! Love your car’ — and then you go blowing a piston through the hood. It’s like, ‘Oh, f*ck. Gotta call AAA.'”
“There’s all sorts of care I have to take, ’cause I’m in a reality. Yes, I’m a 54-year-old dude. I’m not like Peter f*cking Pan. I’m not even trying to be, but I do music in a certain style because that’s the way I like it. It’s my job. It’s what I do.”