Strummer's New Culture Clash - Rolling Stone
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Strummer’s New Culture Clash

Talks electronica, the Clash and cocoa

Three solo albums in twelve years is a stat at which Joe Strummer may have scoffed during his days as an angry young white man at the Hammersmith Palais. Afterall, by Strummer’s own figuring, his former band logged “sixteen sides of long playing vinyl in five years and a thousand gigs.”

But, the real lag came between Strummer’s solo debut, 1989’s Earthquake Weather and 1999’s Rock Art and X-Ray Style, his first recording with the Mescaleros, a new unit that has proven a worthy tool of musical adventure for Strummer. After a mere two-year silence, Strummer and the Mescaleros have released their second record, Global a Go Go, a healthy ladleful of global gumbo, wrapped around a familiar voice. In a sense, Strummer is doing the same thing he did more than two decades ago: though the music sounds thoroughly different, he remains an artist who has made a career out of disregarding genre.

This weekend, Strummer and the Mescaleros kicked off a seventeen-date U.S. tour that will wrap with a four night stand at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, before they jet to Japan for a short tour and then back to the U.K.

The title Global a Go Go suggests a diverse-sounding album. Is that the case?
I have a stint on a BBC station that broadcasts around the globe. I get a half an hour record show a few times a year. I asked one guy, “How many people are listening to this?” And he flipped through a book and said 40 million. When I’m doing the show, you think about everything happening in the world at once. The global concept is very prevalent. You think of the whole world happening at the same moment, and it’s hard to believe everything’s going on at once. So doing this radio show, it began to get on my mind.

This is a team effort by everyone in the group. Everyone likes to listen to a variety of styles. It comes from having an open mind and not restricting yourself to one particular kind of music. In fact, the only music I can’t stand is classical music. And it’s only because I’m too immature yet. One day I’m gonna go opera! That’s where it’s at! But for the moment it hasn’t struck yet and I’m quite happy to listen to camel bell ringing.

So how do you sum up the sound of Global a Go Go?
We’ve got a kind of grooving, breezy acoustic bass style on some of the tracks. Always grooving. A very heavy drum and percussive section, where we’re trying to investigate all of the rhythms of the world, without getting stuck on one identifiable form from the past. And on others we go wild with an electronica vibe. However always with a groove, no house beats or anything like that, because we’re trying to forge our own style. We try to throw it all in. Every flavor was thrown into the pot and somehow it gelled. It’s not a soup that tastes bad. It’s a soup that you go, “Mmm, another bowl of that.”

Did you find it easy to dabble in electronica?
It’s terrible to get into a kind of luddite mentality. On the other hand you don’t want everything to be robotic. And ProTools, the digital editing system, it doesn’t do anything you can’t do with a razor blade and tapes, like slice that bit out. But you can do it quicker and easier. However it can take over, because everything becomes too perfect. We’ve gone in and we’ve jammed live into it and then we use it to edit, so we can move quite quickly into discarding crap bits or playing around with stuff. And by jamming live we’ve kept the human. I had eleven years in the wilderness, and most of that time I was thinking, “No, I’m going to stay away from this computerization because it’s going to make everything in the world sound identical.” Now I think it’s much better to seize these things by the scruff of the neck and make sure you’re using them and they’re not using you. Otherwise you get some poor operator, he starts staring at the screen and after a few eighteen hour sessions and you can put your hand in front of his eyes. And he doesn’t blink, he just keeps staring straight ahead. You have to talk these guys down and bring them cups of cocoa.

So this is album two with the Mescaleros. How is the band working together?
We’ve really pitched in together. All hands to the pump. I really appreciate it because there’s something human about working as a team. Somehow it brings out the best in humanity and you all pitch in together and you can work without rancor. And you come up with great results. It’s pretty gratifying, actually, and it ups the quality of the music.

Two albums in the past three years is a blistering pace for you of late.
Yep, absolutely. But, we’ve been on the road, we’ve been in a thousand situations, and done a fifty-seven city tour by bus. You begin to develop teamwork and telepathic musical maneuvers occur.

Does the new band keep things vital for you?
What’s keeping me going is the learning curve that never ends that’s delightful. On this record I learned, let the riff player riff. Let the lyric writer write, let the drummer drum. We’ve learned that together we’re better than apart. The never ending discover of it all.

Is it harder on you now then two decades ago?
No, I find it easier now because you can delete from your thinking the things that are wrong, because you can identify them easier with the benefit of experience. Rather than wasting your time barking up a gum tree, obviously not completely, sometimes I’m still wandering around lost, but I have noticed that the benefit of hindsight, if there is any, is that you can see what trees not to bark up, because you’ve barked up them before. I find it more enjoyable to work now, because I can say, don’t go down there, I’ve been down there and it’s a cul de sac.

Do you find that time dilutes some of the anger?
I think you’ve got to realize that we have to move on. Unfocused anger that’s not based on any wisdom is going to end up futile. Having said that, you still have to be questioning everything and trying to figure everything out and still be somewhat cynical. When you’re talking about political systems, never before has it been laid so bare as it is now. Corporations contribute to political funds, they get elected, rules get made in favor of corporation’s demands. That’s the way the machine has probably always worked, but it’s never been so laid out for all to see. We’ve really got to wonder what kind of system can we create that wouldn’t have this flaw in it. Or is this the only way to organize the human race. I think that’s a really interesting juncture. It keeps you on your toes.

When you started playing, did you ever imagine you’d still be doing in beyond 2000?
I don’t know. I didn’t plan it. But I realized what I’ve done is save the best for last, which is a brilliant maneuver. I did it by accident, though. Rather than burn out earlier, but taking eleven years off has turned out to be a not bad idea at all. When the Clash broke up it sort of all fell apart and perhaps that was quite good for my artistic ability, which was a good thing, for me at least.

Do you find the changes in music over that time to be exciting?
I’m pretty much into anything a bit weird or wild. We just have to accept that there’s always been a bit of a teenybopper market. I do find it hard to find anything good made over here for the pop market, though.

Anything you’ve heard recently that you liked?
Oh yeah, but we’re talking weird here.

What’s in your stereo right now?
Ok, it’s a bit weird, it’s a CD called The Call. It features Alan Skidmore, who’s kind of like a wild bebop styled guy. He’s playing with Amampondo. It sounds really wild and free. It’s a record I play after everyone else has gone to bed. That’s head music: the ones we play when everyone else has gone to bed. We pay a lot for CDs over here, so you take a lot of care. It’s sixteen pounds, so if you get it wrong, you have to lick your wounds.

The inevitable question. Earlier this year, the Clash members got together on stage to receive a Novello Award. Any plans? Does the quote about Mick drifting “apart from the original idea of the Clash” still carry weight?
No, not really. I think that old quote is probably a lot of old tosh actually. I think everyone drifts away. We asked ourselves to do a lot. I counted sixteen sides of long playing vinyl in five years and a thousand gigs and it’s too much. We just had to, for the sake of sanity, really.

You guys are among the last reunion holdouts.
Obviously, it’s a question that will forever keep popping up. But you have to ask yourself, “Would it turn out good music?” Would it be worthwhile in terms of making a brilliant record. Obviously, financially, we’d be set up for life. But as long as I can keep grinding away and doing really interesting things like this Global a Go Go record, I feel I’m vindicating what I’m doing. However, if the Mescaleros fell out with each other and I was standing around on a deserted rubbish heap, who knows? Perhaps a Clash reunion, then maybe there is another record within us. But that would be the question, and it’s the same with all the guys. “Would there be another album within us?”


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