Q&A: Sean Lennon
John and Yoko’s son on his top Beatles song, the genius of R.Kelly and the breakup that inspired his new CD If you don t live in New York, you miss out on a lot of cool performances featuring Sean Lennon. One night, he’ll play guitar and sing in a no-name folk group, the next he’ll slap a bass with an avant-garde trio. He’s forever forming bands and playing one-off gigs. But for the first time since Lennon’s 1998 debut, Into the Sun, those outside the Big Apple will get a chance to hear the Beatle progeny. Eight years to put out a second album? “I just like to make sure things are good,” says Lennon, 30. His new release, Friendly Fire, offers lush instrumentation, sweet melodies and – from the opener, “Dead Meat,” to the final song, “Falling Out of Love” – documents the collapse of his relationship with actress Bijou Phillips, who cheated on Lennon with his best friend, Max LeRoy. “The title, Friendly Fire, refers to being betrayed by people on your own team,” he says, adding that the CD comes with a DVD to accompany the tunes. “The most terrible part of the story is that Max passed away last November, and I feel very dumb for not having reconciled with him. The film and CD are not criticisms of their behavior, but an investigation into the dynamics and consequences of that sort of love triangle.”
How have your musical tastes shifted over the years?
I remember being sixteen and Joe Strummer telling me that he wouldn’t have made music if it weren’t for the Beach Boys. [At that point] I thought the Beach Boys were cheesy, because my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the complexity of their music. I regret not having the education to agree with him at the time. Every year I’m able to appreciate more and more stuff. I think I finally understand Captain Beefheart.
What do you think of Brian Wilson’s recent Smile?
I prefer the analog recordings. There’s Smiley Smile, which Capitol put out [in 1967], and then there’s the bootleg of Smile, which came out on vinyl a few years later. I love ’em both. At one point, I listened to “Our Prayer” – from the bootleg – every morning, to sort of begin my day on the right foot. It’s like Bach on LSD.
When you were growing up, your dad had a jukebox. What was on it?
My father had an old Wurlitzer in the game room of our house on Long Island. It was filled with 45s, mostly Elvis and the Everly Brothers. The one modern song I remember him listening to was “The Tide Is High,” by Blondie, which he played constantly. When I hear that song, I see my father, unshaven, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, dancing to and fro in a worn-out pair of denim shorts, with me at his feet, trying my best to coordinate tiny limbs.
As a kid, you once hung out with Michael Jackson. What was that like?
Have you seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Like that.
Your bass playing has always impressed me – how’d you get so good?
When Cibo Matto was starting to tour, Yuka [Honda, Cibo’s keyboardist and Lennon’s former girlfriend] asked me if I’d play bass. I had no idea what I was getting into. We had long hours of rehearsals, then went out in a small van, sleeping in Motel 6s, carrying equipment and playing every night. From ’96 to 2000, I worked as a sideman. Playing on the road is the best way to get real chops.
What photographs in your house are the most cherished?
I have a photo of Serge Gainsbourg in my writing room. Above my piano is a photo of my dad and me at the Hit Factory during [the recording of] Double Fantasy, which was given to me by Bob Gruen.
What song of your dad’s constantly surprises you?
I’ve listened so much to that stuff that there are very few surprises. But I do think “A Day in the Life” is always inspiring.
If you wanted to turn somebody on to your mom’s music, what would you start with?
“Death of Samantha,” from Approximately Infinite Universe. And “Greenfield Morning,” from Plastic Ono Band. I think the only thing stopping people from realizing my mom is a brilliant songwriter is that she married John Lennon. Most of her records are pop albums. The avant-garde vocalizing for which she’s received so much flak – besides being punk rock before punk rock – isn’t even her most prevalent talent. Listen to Season of Glass. It’s hands-down brilliant.
What does Bijou think about Friendly Fire?
I can’t speak for her, but she was an essential part of making the record and the film. I think she’s proud of it, as I am.
What song from the past few years do you wish you’d written?
R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” I think it’s genius, on many levels. It’s just so epic – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is short by comparison. On top of that, it was Number One – that puts it in the Kid A realm of weird shit being commercially successful.
On his upcoming album, “Weird Al” Yankovic does “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” – it’s genius.
“Weird Al” is underrated. He writes, directs and acts in all of his stuff. People don’t realize that he’s an auteur.
Besides “Weird Al,” who are the five greatest songwriters of the twentieth century?
That’s not easy for me to say, but I can name five that I think are good: Claude Debussy. John Lennon. Cole Porter. Phil Spector. Gershwin.
Besides your dad, who’s your favorite Beatle?
Each Beatle was as the wheels of a car – you need all four to drive. Lennon, at home in New York