"It's still early morning for me," Yoko Ono warns, checking in from her New York studio a little past 10 a.m. No wonder she's a little bleary; she's has had one of her biggest years ever, turning 80, dominating London's massive Meltdown Festival, scoring a club hit with her Dave Audé collaboration "Hold Me" and releasing the new Plastic Ono Band album Take Me to the Land of Hell, featuring the band's current lineup – son Sean Lennon, Wilco's Nels Cline, Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda and Yuko Araki – with assists from pals including Lenny Kravitz and Beastie Boys Mike D and Adam Horovitz. In this Q&A, Yoko discusses what the Plastic Ono Band means to her, how she deals with critics and why John Lennon would have loved modern technology.
The new album seems to cover your whole range – everything from funky dance songs to some really moving, introspective songs.
I think I've done that many times, you know – on Between My Head in the Sky, too. I like to mix the formats. But also now I realize that the reason I have great musicians: people who can just do another format with no blinking.
What do you love about this version of the Plastic Ono Band?
John made that, but before I met John, I was into a very interesting kind of format of stage shows. I would go to all these universities to lecture and to do kind of my stuff, which, in those days, there were no words as performance art, but if I needed a band I would just go somewhere with [whoever was there] on the stage and that was my band. John thought that was a great idea – a different kind of idea instead of having a set band, you know. They always just made music together or something because of their limited situation and John said, "OK, let's call this band that we're going to hire the Plastic Ono Band," because it was my idea, you know. Even now, whoever I get for it automatically becomes the Plastic Ono Band and plays John and/or my music for that particular session or album. It's not sort of set like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, where they're always playing together and always arguing – nothing like that. There's no separation, because there was no separation.
Did you meet this lineup through Sean?
Sean was doing a show in Tokyo with people like Yuka and Yuko and he said, "Please, Mommy, please come," and I said, "OK. I will come and do a few songs." I just had to say, "Who are these people?" And then I realized it's just this collection of musicians that Sean was friends with. It was very good.
There are some dark songs on the album. On "Watching the Dawn," you sing, "Remember we were the defenders of thinkers and builders/but now we are breeders of abuse and neglect."
Now I think people talk a lot about the Sixties. There's nostalgia about it because they feel that it's a different age. But it is, you know. People are into survival financially, but some people are not just into survival but making money, and maybe they want to be famous – money and fame is what they are pursuing. Most of the people forgot about love, they forgot about idealism, and so I was lamenting that.
It's interesting to hear you reflect on the Sixties, saying not everything turned out the way people had hoped.
No, I don't feel that way. The reason is, when we did a bed-in, we got very bad reviews. They didn't like it – OK, we had to move on. Before I met John, I specialized in just planting a seed, and then I would move on, instead of, you know, making [something] carefully and letting it grow and to help it [so] other people can do it. And so if I kept doing one thing – you know, plant the seed and let it grow – I would never have done all the other things. And it's good that I was not a critics' choice, and the critics saying "Oh, this is great – oh, keep on doing that forever!" It wasn't like that. It was great.
You always had your critics.
Yes. I mean, are you kidding?
Did that ever bug you?
No. You can call it arrogance, but there's a group of people in this world who just want to do exactly what they think. They believe in what they love. And if it doesn't hit, well, too bad. I mean classical musicians are rehearsing every day – they're not very popular like rockers, but they devote their lives to the music that they believe in, and I was like that, you know. I come from a classical music background, and there was a situation with my family that also cared about music – that's the kind of thing that was so important for me. My real life was dedicated and devoted to what I love, which is creative work. I can't say music. I can't say painting. I can't say films. Anything that I felt has to be created.
What about the song "Little Boy Blue (Your Daddy's Gone)," one of the saddest songs on the album?
The song is dedicated to Sean. John is always with us. Sean and I are always feeling this sort of emptiness somewhere, you know. But it's not just emptiness. I think we are still with him, or he's still with us. The kind of things that I believed in and John believed in, it's amazing that we got together with the same kind of ideas, exactly the same kind of ideas, and of course there was some bitterness that we experienced before. But we had the [same] kind of the ideas. The ideas didn't die when he died, you know. And Sean's carrying it.
Do you think John would have been involved with all the progress we've made with technology?
Oh, John would have been totally excited about the computer age, because that's the kind of thing that John and I were dreaming of. Like the Smile Project [where Ono set out to make a film capturing a smile face of everyone in the world] – we were almost having that kind of format of, like, communication in our heads . . . It's very interesting to think about, that John was a person in a rock group, and what they were doing was totally different from what I was doing, but he just jumped in. He was totally open.
Is there any new music that you really like right now?
I don't have time to listen to anybody's music. I'm making it, you know.