Turns out Mick Jones, the genre-melding singer/guitarist of the Clash, boasts some fashion ingenuity, too. “If your sneakers get old, you put them in the freezer,” the London Calling legend instructed a rapt crowd of reporters last week at Brooklyn’s Converse Rubber Tracks studio. “They come out fresh and crispy.”
Paul Simonon, the band’s smash-happy bassist, paused for one deadpan beat, then glanced at his bandmate. “Yeah, but your food tastes awful.”
Clad in similar suits and sneakers, the punk veterans have reunited with dance/hip-hop producer Diplo for “Hero,” the ninth installment of Converse’s “Three Artists, One Song” series that links disparate artists for one-off singles.
The soulful cut, featuring lead vocals from Frank Ocean, is an unexpected, energizing meld of Santo and Johnny-style surf riffs with chipper doo-wop harmonies, heady garage-rock guitars and electronic underpinnings. The song is a clear and, at times, unsettling cohesion of the artists’ talents, from the volatile guitars of the Clash to Ocean’s ruminative lyrics and Diplo’s punchy production and unexpected outsourcing (the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir also ducks in to add a cherubic refrain).
“Hero” was one of five tracks the trio recorded at Damon Albarn’s London studio during a four-day tear, dabbling in Eighties pop, meandering psychedelia and electronic fusion. (Ocean chimed in from afar, selecting the final cut and titling it.) Diplo, a longtime admirer of the Clash’s punk prowess, recruited the musicians and spearheaded the production; Jones and Simonon were pleased with the final product, and tell Rolling Stone that it met their longtime goals for musical collaborations.
“It’s an instinctual thing; you just follow what you feel, if that’s possible,” Jones tells Rolling Stone, grinning broadly as he tucked into a pack of conversation heart candies. (Ever the gentleman, he bestowed this reporter with one that read “Only You.”) “You try to be at one with the universe.”
“It’s good to be open,” added Simonon, nodding emphatically underneath his familiar fedora. “If you feel something’s not right to say, the other person might be thinking the same thing, too.”
Diplo hadn’t met the Clash vanguards before the project, but shared a lucrative past connection with the Only Band that Matters: he sampled their Combat Rock track “Straight to Hell” on M.I.A.’s smash hit “Paper Planes” in 2007. “For me, the Clash represented really unexpected things with a garage attitude, so that’s where I was going with ‘Hero,'” he tells Rolling Stone, adding that he’s not sure yet what they’ll do with the recorded outtakes. “Maybe we’ll give them to Madonna.”
“Hero” Behind the Scenes With Diplo, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon
Geoff Cottrill, a vice president at Converse, tells Rolling Stone the “Hero” musicians are currently working on an accompanying video, in the vein of such previous “Three Artists” tracks as “DoYaThing” by Gorillaz, Andre 3000 and James Murphy and “Warrior” by Mark Foster, Kimbra and DJ A-Trak. (It is telling to the Clash bandmates’ reformed bond that they’re considered one artist in this equation.) Cottrill stressed that the series’ participating artists keep the rights to their material and that “Three Artists, One Song” is “our way to contribute to youth culture,” he said.
At the Rubber Tracks studio, the affable trio reminisced about their studio bond in a panel moderated by The Wake Up Show host Sway Calloway. The paternal, permanently beaming Jones (still the most happy-go-lucky soul in punk, three decades on) recalled coercing a mystified Diplo into watching all of The Vikings, a 1958 Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis action film, on YouTube. Diplo recalled toying with Albarn’s many exotic world instruments, including Tibetan bells and an electric sitar, and confessed to breaking Simonon’s iPod; the bassist groaned good-naturedly, still feeling charitable enough to liken Diplo’s collaborative spirit to Albarn’s. (Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach spurred Simonon and Jones’ first recorded reunion since 1982’s Combat Rock; Simonon was also a key figure in Albarn’s unnamed rock supergroup that released the 2007 album The Good, the Bad and the Queen.)
“When me and Mick worked together with Damon, we found it quite interesting after a long time of not performing or working in the studio together how quickly we clicked,” Simonon told Calloway. “With this project, working with Wes [Diplo], the same thing happened again and we just came together as one mind.”
Now that “Hero” has wrapped, its creators are preparing for their next projects: Jones will produce the upstart English R&B-swing band Kitty, Daisy and Lewis; Simonon plans to work on new paintings and Diplo will resume recording the next Major Lazer record.
Diplo – a prolific pop producer for M.I.A., Beyonce and his own Mad Decent label – revealed a clear reverence for his “Hero” partners. “They’re so modest and I’m not used to that. When I work with big stars, there’s a lot of ego, a lot of buffer,” he said. (Jones interjected hammily, “We’ve changed!”). “These guys are just completely open – for guys that have been doing this for so long, to have this openness to ideas? You don’t get that with young people anymore.”