With unmistakable vocals, deft songwriting skills and a cocksure guitar stance, Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde has inspired many — just as she has surely pissed a few people off.
On March 17, the Pretenders kicked off a six-city U.S. tour in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. The trek, which closed April 1 in New York, supported the recently issued, five-disc Pretenders boxed set, “Pirate Radio” (Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino).
The collection features 81 tracks and 19 performance videos, many of which have never been released. It firmly places the spotlight on Hynde and the band’s fierce musicianship as well as its ever-evolving lineup. That said, early, live footage of Hynde and her original bandmates — Martin Chambers (drums) and the deceased Pete Farndon (bass) and James Honeyman-Scott (guitar) — is essential viewing.
Hynde, a London resident who turns 55 this year, says she is not giving much thought to a new Pretenders studio album. But, she tells Billboard, “if I enjoy these few shows we’re doing, and depending how I feel, I may go in and write a few songs.”
Q: I hear you spent the bulk of January in your hometown of Akron. For years, I’ve heard you say not such nice things about Ohio. Why the extended stay?
A: I rented an apartment in Highland Square. It’s the one area [in Akron] that’s been gentrified and looked after. It’s a very American phenomenon what’s happened. In the ’70s, all these cities like Akron tore down their downtown areas. It was all to do with racism, class, economics and all sorts of stuff. Then, thank God for the gay community, which found all the good old houses from Chicago to Akron and said, “Hey, let’s renovate these houses and do something.” If not for that one little segment of society, I think America would be f***ed up its ass right now -— big time. Gays saved America.
All across America, with gentrification, it was the gay community that had the vision, means, taste, fortitude and determination to carve something out and save what was left of these cities. No one else got it. They were all out in their condos, out in the suburbs, getting far away from the blacks.
But, I admit, I wasn’t there to stop the bulldozers. I think Akronites were pissed off at me for criticizing what had happened to Akron. But I’m going back. I want to establish the Jim Jarmusch Theater in Akron. I want the city to have an art house theater. I’m telling friends, “Don’t buy a place in Woodstock. Buy a place in Akron where you can get a great big wooden house for not a lot of money.” Flights to Akron are cheap. I have no sense of patriotism, but I do have a sense of community. And there is something geographically amazing there. Also, as you get older, your relationship with your hometown changes.
Q: When you were presented with the idea for “Pirate Radio,” what went through your mind?
A: Well, this is one of those deals where it’s going to happen with or without you. So, I thought, f*** it, my plane hasn’t gone down yet. I could be misrepresented if I’m not involved. I’ve done lots of songs for film soundtracks and things like that — stuff I’m not ashamed of, but that doesn’t represent my legacy with the Pretenders. And I wanted that represented. I also thought this was a chance to present the band in a way I’d like it to be remembered — and to represent the guys I had playing with me over the years. Once I realized all this, I got completely involved in the project.
Q: Watching the DVD brought back numerous memories of seeing the band live. Yet I couldn’t help but think that something is lost in the process. Is the live rock experience intended for TV viewing?
A: I don’t think rock works on television. Rock has to be in a sweaty club or in a hall or outdoors or in a f***ing bowling alley. It has to be a real experience. When I watched [the footage] again, I thought, This is really tame. But the live stuff does represent all the line-ups of the band.
Q: Does being onstage still excite you?
A: Not really. Which is why I only go out there when I am excited. I preferred rock when it was in the dark, when it was a secret between me and the audience, when it wasn’t mainstream. I don’t go for mainstream anything. I’m not trying to be like other people. At this stage, I don’t care if I do shows or not. I never intended or wanted it to get bigger. I never had that “we’re gonna be the biggest band in the world” moment. I’d rather be the best kept secret in show business — as long as I can get by.
I’m not trying to reinvent anything. I’m not trying to change. I just want to keep it basic: four players, boom, boom, boom, a couple notes, three chords. It’s like a real small bank job. Just enough to get by. Quick in and out. Just like those early shows at the Agora [in Cleveland].
Q: All that said, how did being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame affect you?
A: I just think, What the f***? I got in a rock band so I’d never have to be in a Hall of Fame. The people who set up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were not rock and roll people. They were music industry people. God bless them and good luck to them. I didn’t want to go. I don’t like awards and I didn’t want them. Everyone was saying, “Oh, but it’s a big honor. You should be glad.” Everyone always knows better than you how you feel and they’re always telling you. But I know how I feel.
Q: What are your thoughts on the phenomenon that is “American Idol?”
A: I don’t look at it. I don’t have to look at it. Everyone wants the chance to get to make a record and to play some shows. No one wants to be completely obscure. But it’s a matter of tempering it and getting it just right. But no one can get it just right.
Q: Does that include you?
A: Music is not my life. Being in a rock and roll band is not my life. It’s my hobby. I’ve got a life, thanks. I’m not going to sacrifice my life so I can go out on the road. I don’t want to be famous or walk around with a bodyguard. I don’t want to put myself in a jail. I don’t need to be part of a celebrity culture [wherein] I don’t have my freedom.
And I don’t need people to buy my records. I’ve always said, “Download them, listen to it off the radio. If you want to buy it, buy it. If you don’t, don’t. Do your thing. I’m not trying to sell anything here. My only agenda in getting into a band was to not be a waitress somewhere in Akron — and to have some fun. Outside of that, I have absolutely no ambitions.
Q: Do you think young artists coming up today share similar thoughts?
A: Yes I do. I was recently reading in Cleveland’s Scene magazine about this local band who did not want to play in corporate places like House of Blues. I burst out laughing, because I was feeling very proud of myself that we’re only playing the House of Blues. To me, that was like going down. Thank God there’s a little band that can still kick me in the teeth. Fantastic. I could be the kid’s mother. I’m glad he’s telling me that I’m playing at a corporate venue that he wouldn’t play at.
Q: What’s your reaction to those female rockers who say that you’ve influenced them?
A: It just means that I’m older than them, that I was there before they were. I wasn’t a pioneer. It’s not me being modest. The Pretenders were a traditional band. I never had [another] girl in the band, because I never wanted it to get too emotional. I don’t have a gender thing. For me, gender has nothing to do with rock. The thing I love about rock is androgyny. So, the minute you ask me a gender questions, I squirm.
Q: Great. I’ll ask one more, then. Do you think there’s a lack of female rockers in today’s scene?
A: I don’t care. I couldn’t care less. I’m not a feminist. I’ve never been rooting for women. I’ve never cared about women or men. I care about you, because you’re sitting here talking to me, and I care about me. I’m not here trying to save anybody or tell them what to do.
Q: Name association time: Bridget Bardot?
A: She didn’t crap out. She said she prefers her dogs to her husband. And I read something recently where she said she’s always been the man in her life. What’s not to like?
Q: Are there any bands that excite you today?
A: I have to be honest. I don’t listen to much music. I’m digging silence —- and reading, being really quiet. It’s not so much a reaction to the music out there, but to all the noise out there. There is just so much noise everywhere you go. Still, I would crawl over broken glass to see Kings Of Leon.
Q: Have you always enjoyed the quiet?
A: Yes. I spent a lot of time in the woods when I was a little kid. I’ve always had a hermit kind of gene. I’d much rather hear birds singing in the morning than anything else. And this happens often in London. It happened this morning in my New York City hotel room and it happened in Akron, too. God, we used to be so scared when someone would say, “All roads lead back to Akron.” We’d be like, “Don’t say that!” I’ve been responsible for a lot of noise in my life. So, I should be quiet for a while.
Q: In my head, I can hear all the songs you’ve written in unplugged, acoustic versions — just your voice accompanied by piano or guitar. What is your creative process like?
A: The songs are usually written on an electric guitar, unamplified, or in a room alone. I have a conversational approach to songwriting. Twenty years ago, before we had in-ear monitors, I was leaving a gig where I was fighting against noise the entire show. I got into the car to go back to the hotel, and Carmen McCrae’s voice came out of the speakers. Just her voice and piano. I remember thinking, That must be the greatest thing — to be able to sing to an acoustic piano. That must feel so fantastic.
Eventually, I tried to do acoustic stuff with a string quartet. I like to sing quietly. I’m of the less is more persuasion.
Q: I once read, in Billboard actually, that you were influenced by R&B/soul singer Candi Staton. Who else has influenced you?
A: In 1975, I was living in Cleveland and trying to put a band together. I was working with a guy who played with the Mr. Stress Blues Band. A lot of my associates of that period were listening to R&B. That’s when I learned about Candi Staton. It’s also when I learned, in earnest, that I wanted to sing. I remember crashing out on someone’s floor in Cleveland and singing along to songs by Candi and Jackie Moore.
But my big influences, singing-wise, were guys like Iggy Pop and Jimi Hendrix. The only thing you have to learn to be a rock singer is to just sound like yourself.
Q: What’s your advice to those coming up today?
A: I’m talking about rock here: Record your stuff as live as possible — bass, two guitars and drums. Keep that two-guitar thing going as long as possible. And keep it basic. I would be loath to advise someone because it’s only in your own mistakes can you find yourself.
Q: At the end of the day, is life good for Chrissie Hynde?
A: You know, I’ve never asked how many points I get or what I’m being paid. I don’t give a f***. I’ve got a manager to do that. I feel I owe it to my fans. I mean, my fans paid me. I don’t want my fans to think I’m making wise investments or making any investments or trying to save my money. You gave me that money. I’m having a good f***ing time with it, all right?