Sean Lennon On His Father, Yoko Ono, and His Own Musical Career

'You never know about the genetic thing. Look at Brian Wilson's dad. His records sucked'

Sean Lennon
Martyn Goodacre/Photoshot/Getty Images
June 11, 1998

Sean Lennon does not need any prompting to talk about his late father, John Lennon – or about anything else. "I like to talk," he says brightly, his face – a blend of his dad's sharp, familiar features and the strong Asian countenance of his mother, Yoko Ono – aglow with enthusiasm. "On every report card I had, the teacher would say, 'Sean likes to hear himself talk.'"

He also speaks without the defensive posture you would expect from a veteran of the most daunting kind of fame: the reflective aura of a famous, absent parent. "When you've never experienced anything else, it's not weird – it's simply your life," Lennon says of the celebrity he inherited after his father was fatally shot in front of the Dakota, in New York, on December 8th, 1980. "I never knew that doing interviews and having press was weird. You take it as it comes. You don't choose your name, you don't choose your parents. You're hurled into this earth, and life hits you like a slap on the ass. Boom, you're born. Now deal with it."

Sean Lennon's New Noise Rock Duo Is 'Incredibly Liberating'

Lennon, 22, is now a musician in his own right. He played guitar on Ono's 1995 album, Rising; he is a member of the band Cibo Majo. And he has just released his debut solo effort, Into the Sun, on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. Produced by Lennon's girlfriend, Cibo Majo keyboard player Yuka Honda, the album is an eclectic survey of noise, melody and mood. There are hints of Lennon's earlier power trio, IMA, in the grizzled romanticism of "Mystery Juice" and "Spaceship." He indulges his fondness for sweet funk and Brazilian pop in "Two Fine Lovers" and the title track. And Lennons infatuation with the Beach Boys shines in the sun-splashed psychedelia of "Queue."

But Lennon knows that he remains, to many people, simply the son of a Beatle. And he is not coy about the blessings that go with the baggage. "People ask me, 'Do you feel like he's still around?' And he is, man," Lennon says proudly. He's alive in his music, in my life. Sometimes I walk into a store and hear him singing – 'Instant Karma' is playing – and I feel like that's him talking to me."

Sean Ono Lennon was born in New York on his father's thirty-fifth birthday, October 9th, 1975. It was the start of five years of domestic calm for the Lennon family. John raised Sean; Ono managed her husband's business affairs. But Sean says he quickly learned of his father's impact on the world after his death: "People gathering outside the Dakota every day, on my birthday every year – I knew it was because of the music. And because, from a very early age, people said to me, 'When's your first album?'"

Sean Lennon's debut on record was a squeaky rap on a 1984 Ono tribute album, Every Man Has a Woman; he was nine. He wasn't much older when his half-brother, Julian, launched a solo career, shooting in and out of the Top Ten with heart-sinking speed. "He got attacked, destroyed," Sean says now. "He'd say stuff to me like, `Be careful. They're really gonna get you."

During three lengthy sessions one at the New York studio where he cut Into the Sun and two at the spacious lower-Manhattan loft that he shares with Honda Lennon proves to be an eager, guileless interviewee, outspoken about his childhood, his parents and his future in music. "If it does well, that's great," he says of the album. If it does badly, it's not like that's it. I'm going to make music no matter what. He beams like any young man with a brand-new life ahead of him: "Nobody's gonna stop me."

Now that you have released your own album, do you wish you could talk with your father about his experiences making music and dealing with the music business?
Yeah, totally. [Pauses] But that's not the only thing. I wish I could do anything with him. Go to a movie. Walk down the street. Watch TV with him let alone talk about music.

I think about my friend Harper Simon. His dad [Paul Simon] is constantly showing him chords on the guitar. It's nice. He's lucky. On another level, I think it's made it hard for him, that his dad is constantly over his shoulder musically. But that doesn't mean that I don't wish my dad was around. Even if my dad had totally repressed me and not allowed me to play music at all, I would take that over him being gone.

If you could talk to your father right now, what would you ask him?
I would just play him my songs; say, "What do you think of that, man?" I'm sure he would be like, "That's a great song." Or, "That line could be worked on. Why are the drums so loud? The vocals should be more clear."

I read this interview with Tony Levin [bass guitarist on Double Fantasy]. He said that in the studio, John Lennon had more of a clear vision of what he wanted from the bass than anybody [Levin] had ever worked with. My dad made a ton of records; they're the most amazing records ever made. I'm sure he would have had a million ideas about my music.

And you know what? I think he would have liked it, too. Because it's melodic, pop-y. And it's really weird. I don't think he would have liked the jazz. I really like jazz, Brazilian music, funk. Those are things my dad wasn't into [laughs]. I can imagine him saying, "Why are you doing this fake jazz shit on your record? What is this crap?"

You're doing things the low-key way – playing clubs like CBGB's Gallery, signing with Grand Royal. Is it hard keeping the hype in check because of the Lennon brand name?
I feel really lucky because of the name – that I have an opportunity to go to CBGB's, to pack it without having released a record yet. But in a way, I am starting out slowly. My brother [half-brother Julian] came out with a record. Boom! It was gold; he was playing the Beacon Theater in New York. It was mad.

I'm on Grand Royal, this supercool alternative label with these really weird artists that most people have never heard of. I'm not trying to brag, but I could have said, "OK, Capitol, EMI, I want a huge deal – tons of money upfront, a world tour."

Why didn't you just ask for all that?
It has nothing to do with what I'm about. I'm really the bass player for Cibo Matto. That's my main gig. I got all my experience playing on the road with those guys.

I've played hundreds of gigs. My strings can all break, the show can suck, and I'm like, "Well, the next show's tomorrow." I've played in the weirdest, most fucked-up situations. Literally getting electric shocks. Playing in truck stops where the sound board is in a Mack truck and there's a stuffed buffalo above the drum set.

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