Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano: At the Top of Her Game
J. Gordon
6/2/2002 10:40:38 PM

"We knew if we thought about it too much we’d screw it up."

It’s an even bigger surprise to the band than to their fans: Concrete Blonde, one of the coolest bands of the 90s, is back together, touring for their new album, Group Therapy [Manifesto Records].

“At the beginning of May [2001],” says Concrete Blonde’s singer, Johnette Napolitano, “I swore up and down to somebody, ‘Concrete Blonde is never getting back together.” She laughs, remembering that Paul Thompson said the same of Roxy Music. “So I now know better than to say something’s never gonna happen,” she laughs.

Napolitano describes the making of Group Therapy as “Fast and furious, the fastest record anybody’s ever made.”

Johnette says the band reformed over lunch one day last May. They hadn’t hooked up in several years and “decided we were all in a place where we should give it a shot.” They were in a rehearsal room the next day.

“It was pretty weird,” she laughs. “We jammed in June. Refined the stuff in July. Recorded in ten days in August. We knew it had to be fast. We knew if we thought about it too much we’d screw it up.”

The album holds true to Concrete Blonde’s big guitars, hard edge and danceable grooves, yet with a decidedly modern feeling. The band is not looking for a sentimental nostalgia trip, and they’re not trying to jump on the retro craze.

“We do exist now,” says Napolitano. “We’re into our time and we don’t pine for the past in any way, shape, or form. As a matter of fact, I’m happy to see it go!” Napolitano explains that in the band’s earlier years they were still finding themselves personally and musically, in some less than healthy ways. “[Today,] we’re better players. We’re not stoned. We’re not egomaniacs. You know, when you’re younger as a player, you’re trying to get all your licks in; show off every chop and over-sing and over-play, all that sort of stuff. Now we just want to start the song. It makes a big difference.” She adds, “I really like living now. It’s an amazing time to be alive. There’s a lot of screwed up stuff going on in the world but there’s also a lot of potential, always. At the end of the day, I’ve got to be positive and I am positive about things.”

Johnette says one of the things that keeps her so positive about the music is that Concrete Blonde is truly a collaborative band, and Group Therapy is the best example of this to date.

“We share everything equally no matter what, so all the writer’s credits, all publishing, all that stuff is split evenly. It’s a really healthy thing because anybody can bring anything in. There’s no feeling like, you get this; I get that. There’s none of that. We can do anything we want.”

Some of the lyrics, however, are patently Johnette’s. “When I was a Fool” is one of the more autobiographical songs ever done by Concrete Blonde, and one that –in this age of Britney Spears-- anyone over the age of thirty can probably relate to.

“That one was tough to write,” she says of the song. “I don’t believe there’s anything worth doing that isn’t completely honest and completely truthful. You may offend a lot of people and a lot of people may not like it, but you touch some people too. I needed to do that.”

Napolitano (who turns 45 this year), says that when she turned 40, “I didn’t fit the template. I looked at my life and, while I was happy with it, I didn’t fit the template of what a 40-year-old woman is supposed to be. I don’t have 2.2 kids. I just live a different sort of life. I had to deal with that. I had to deal with the social pressure of what you should be at any time in your life. We think we’re so advanced, so open-minded, tolerant and liberal, but you know, try being a woman on your own with no kids, in your 40s and you get some flak! I don’t moan and groan about it. But our attitude [today] towards women who choose not to have children is what our attitude was about homosexuality 20 years ago.”

Napolitano says she contemplated a lot, and realized that she was in a different place from the norm. “There was a whole lot happening that I wasn’t necessarily a part of, and I had to struggle a little bit to find my place in the universe, but it’s all right. In fact, I love it.”

Ironically, Concrete Blonde broke up primarily, Johnette says, because she had no personal life. “I hate to go here,” she says, “but for guys, it’s different. There are always a million chicks out sitting around waiting for you to come home, screw you, and do your laundry. For us-- it don’t fucking happen!” she laughs, but she means it. “I’m sorry! It don’t! And I don’t know if I would want anybody to do that, if I’d like anybody that would do that!”

“It’s different now. Everybody [in Concrete Blonde] was getting a little too comfortable, and that made me nervous. As an artist you’ve got to challenge yourself all the time. I’ve seen that happen to people, where you think ‘it’s all happening’ and then all of a sudden it’s all gone. You wonder what the hell happened. There’s a certain delusion there if you think anything is going to last forever. I wanted to go out at the top of our game. If I hadn’t we wouldn’t be here now.”

Right after Concrete Blonde, Napolitano challenged herself with a new project, the band Pretty and Twisted with Wall of Voodoo’s Marc Moreland (who she tells us, just recently came out of the hospital after having a liver transplant. Fortunately, the prognosis looks good). Maturity and events such as these have helped Napolitano realize that, while fame doesn’t last forever, the music does.

“It’s all about immortality. Whether you have a kid, or create a piece of art, it’s about leaving something behind. So I’m very proud of having done that record with Marc. Something to show for many years of knowing each other.”

Now Johnette says she’s got a good balance for her life, touring two weeks on, two weeks off, and having the best of both worlds. And she’s one of the few who’s actually excited about new music today. She’s done some work with Danny Loner from NIN that should be released this year, and she raves about bands like Babybird, the Avalanches, and Bjork. Napolitano says the music is out there, you just have to look beyond the charts.

“The music business has never been any different and it never will be. You can go back and look at a chart 20 years ago, or go back to when Hendrix was making music, and see what was on the chart. It was a bunch of crap! It’s never been any different.”

What Napolitano loves most about music, and about her place in music, is that she doesn’t have to fit into any particular categorization.

“I’ve never been hung up on being known as a female this, American that, punk this, blues that, whatever. If you stand in front of a van Gogh painting in Amsterdam and look at it, you don’t know if it was done yesterday, ten years ago, 100 years ago; by a man, woman, American, non-American, you just don’t know. And to me, that’s what’s great about Art. It’s a unifying thing that brings people together. And if any time in the world we need to bring people together, it’s now. I’m happy to be able to do that for people. It’s a real gift. That’s what music is supposed to do.

“I only know how to be one thing and that’s me. I am who I am and there’s a great freedom in finally realizing that not everyone’s gonna like you and not everyone has to. Go ahead and be yourself ‘cause you’re never gonna please everyone. So you might as well relax, and be who you are. That’s when you find yourself. That’s when you also find the people who you belong with. There’s a great freedom in that.

Yet for all this inspiring talk, Johnette Napolitano says she doesn’t intend to be a role model. “I never set out to be an influence to anyone in any way. I’m still seeking myself. Still studying, still seeing and enjoying what life brings next and what unfolds. It’s like layers on an onion. There’s just a never ending things you can be and do. I’m always interested in seeing what I can do next. Life isn’t as long as you think it is and there are so many wonderful things. It just gets better.”


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