For the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Akron, Ohio has always been a hometown in permanent decline, a place she fled for England. Now America’s greatest ex-pat rock ‘n’ roller sees the future in her past: a reborn urban core where counter-culture businesses, including her own new restaurant (vegan, of course), are helping restore progressive community to a downtown trashed by short-sighted greed. That sense of small-is-better renewal runs through her band’s new album, which features the playing of James Walbourne, an acclaimed young rockabilly guitarist who joins Hynde here for an exclusive conversation with Arthur’s Oliver Hall.
Photography by Lauren Bilanko.
Chrissie Hynde is in Hollywood on a short promotional tour of the United States to promote the new Pretenders album, Break Up the Concrete, which comes with a piece of seed paper that will grow flowers. Hynde likes to joke that the paper contains high-quality cannabis seeds, but my feverish experiments have yielded naught, perhaps because the “soil” in my neighborhood is plaster sand and the “water” is pure chlorine bleach. Just the sort of ungreen conditions of city life that Hynde wants to break up. Accompanying her on this trip is the Pretenders’ brilliant new guitarist, James Walbourne, fresh off of stints playing with The Pogues and Jerry Lee Lewis. Walbourne, a contagiously excited Brit in his late 20s, is about to join us here in their hotel room, and Hynde wants to make sure I’m going to bring him into the conversation when he arrives. “This magazine is different, so you don’t have to do the Chrissie Hynde Story,” she says.
For this tour Hynde and Walbourne have been playing mostly acoustic sets in radio stations and record stores. In L. A., they played at Amoeba Music and made an unannounced appearance at the McCabe’s Guitar Shop 50th anniversary show at UCLA. They briefly shook up the sleepy programming at KCRW, and I met them shortly after they’d performed on Sex Pistol Steve Jones’s local radio show, Jonesy’s Jukebox. At Amoeba, Hynde took the stage and declared “I’m a wreck” before undoing the top button of her jeans. The Amoeba show and the KCRW appearance were delivered from a fiery fuck-you-it’s-live point of view. The shows were a thrill, since Hynde’s voice sounds gorgeous as ever, and because if she occasionally got lost trying to remember one of her lyrics—which is not hard to do when your lyrics have as many non sequiturs as a Beckett play—Walbourne would improvise their way back to the song.
Chrissie Hynde’s voice as a writer and a singer is a hell of a thing. You could talk about the dramatic range of a voice that can sneer “You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man” and break your heart with “Kid” on the same album, or you could talk about her expert control of tone and pitch and the effect of her voice on an audience, or you could talk about her vocal tremolo, which immediately distinguishes her from other rock singers—you could talk about all these things, and I hope that you will, but the cold fact remains: your band will never, ever be able to pull off “Tattooed Love Boys.” For my part, I suspect that Hynde’s performances are so emotionally affecting because she has never given up on the hard work of trying to imagine a public domain in which she and her art and her bandmates and her audience might more perfectly coexist. On their 1984 recording of Hynde’s song “My City Was Gone,” the Pretenders depict what it feels like to return home and find yourself in an urban-renewalized ghost town, where all local distinguishing marks have been erased or paved over, and everyone works at the same shopping mall. I imagine that if the late, great radical environmentalist Edward Abbey were still above ground, he would be merrily whistling the new Pretenders song “Break up the Concrete” while jackhammering up great chunks of the interstate and throwing beer cans heedlessly over his shoulder.
Hynde herself wrote about rock music for NME briefly in the early seventies, having moved to London from Akron, Ohio, where she was born September 7, 1951. In the initial punk years, she was a comrade of the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Motörhead. The original Pretenders took shape in summer 1978 when Hynde, drummer Martin Chambers, bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman Scott recorded the “Stop Your Sobbing” single with Nick Lowe. The band’s debut album, Pretenders, which followed in 1980 on Sire Records, contained the hit “Brass in Pocket.” Shortly after Hynde, Scott and Chambers kicked Farndon out of the band in 1982, Scott died of drug-related causes; Farndon died the following year, also from hard drugs. The different versions of the Pretenders Hynde has led since then continue to develop a singular vision of rock and roll that makes the reggae, soul, country and western and punk genres sound continuous. If you live in the United States and have an FM radio, then you have heard “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Brass in Pocket,” and, if you are lucky enough to have an antenna that picks up “deep cuts,” then you’ve heard “Mystery Achievement” too.
Hynde has been a staunch advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism since at least 1969, when she became in her words “a fairly dour vegetarian,” and is a longtime PETA supporter and activist. In 1989, at a Greenpeace press conference, a reporter asked Hynde what she had done for the environment; she said, “I’ve firebombed McDonald’s.” A McDonald’s in Milton Keynes, England was subsequently bombed. Asked whether she regrets “advocating violent protest” for the U.K.’s Independent in 2004, Hynde replied, “Well, that depends on what you’re protesting about. In the case of McDonald’s, we’re talking about a company that makes its money out of animal slaughter. So you have to steam in there, guns a-blazing. You can’t talk them out of it, can you? Sometimes you’re forced to use force.”
Break Up the Concrete is the first new Pretenders album in six years. Hynde says that Shangri-La Records chief Steve Bing approached her just as she was “about to throw in the towel,” saying, “Let’s try it. You don’t need a producer, just go in and work.” Usually when I hear a new record with rockabilly licks on it, I reach for the nearest handgun, but when I heard James Walbourne’s playing on Break Up the Concrete, I reached for my Kleenex box. In Walbourne’s hands, the rockabilly idiom has nothing to do with the light entertainment, lite beer nostalgia cult that is still popular in some American suburbs. The pain, joy, frenzy and sheer number of surprising ideas Walbourne is able to communicate in his playing ought to make anybody think twice about pop genres commonly assumed to be dead. Walbourne made his first appearance on record as a teenager, on Peter Bruntnell’s 1999 album Normal for Bridgewater, and subsequently worked with the Pernice Brothers and Son Volt, whose Eric Heywood plays pedal steel guitar on Concrete. North London punk Nick Wilkinson is the Pretenders’ new bassist, and on the album, legendary session dude Jim Keltner—named by Neil Young as one of his three favorite drummers—commands what I hope at this point in his career is a very comfortable, ergonomic drum throne. Original Pretenders drumaniac Martin Chambers will return when the band tours next year. Catch ‘em: They rule.
Back at the hotel, we’re trying to have tea. Hynde is wearing a T-shirt with detourned Coca-Cola logo reading Enjoy Akron. At the Amoeba gig, Hynde wore the same Think Rubber t-shirt she wears in the Break up the Concrete liners…
ARTHUR: So the Think Rubber shirt — is that another Akron shirt?
CHRISSIE HYNDE: Oh, it’s all these Akron shirts. I’m sort of pumping Akron’s profile at the moment. Well, you know, I’ve got a vegan restaurant there—the VegeTerranean.
A: How’s it doing?
CH: Amazing, it’s a phenomenon, it’s a big success. No one could believe it. Everyone said, “Don’t do it, you’ll lose everything.”
A: Cuz they thought it was the wrong place for it?
CH: Well, they thought that, y’know, most vegetarian restaurants go under and, yeah, it’s in Akron, Ohio, there wasn’t one vegetarian restaurant. It’s full every night and people absolutely love it.
A: Great set at Amoeba yesterday. It seems like there were some intense people up front.
CH: Yeah, but you know if you’ve been around for a while, you collect them after a while. What can you say? But there are the all right ones who— I mean they’re fans, y’know, without them we wouldn’t, et cetera. But then there are some who, y’know, it’s not funny. Some followed us to the hotel last night, and they had a big stack of [records]— “Oh, but we’re big fans,” and they wanted me to sign all this stuff. I said, “Y’know what—don’t buy any more of my records. Y’know, don’t be a fan, okay? Don’t be a fan.” Cuz they were lying to us.
JAMES WALBOURNE: You kind of worded it a little better at the time [laughs].
A: Do you mean when Chrissie said at the in-store, “Did you ever think maybe you’re already dead?”
CH: Oh, no, that was some other thought. Have you?
A: What’s that?
CH: Thought maybe you’re already dead?
A: Oh, sure.
CH: Oh, okay, well, it’s obviously something going around. I mean, we did all that signing [at Amoeba] and that was nice, but then they come with a stack of stuff. . .
CH: See, I don’t mind people selling stuff on Ebay and making money out of me. But you know, if I don’t have that much time and there’s a queue of like, however many people, 75, 100 and we’re signing, then it’s what the English call “taking the piss.” So these guys came [to the hotel] and said “Ooh, we got pushed to the end, we couldn’t get in,” or something, and—[to Walbourne] you loved that, you hadn’t seen that before, had you? The “Ebay Special.”
JW: No, I have, that’s what pisses me off with it.
CH: Cuz it seems to be modified every year—one year it’s just a card, now it’s getting more and more—it’s frameable. Now, it’s all ready to go into a frame. But, like I said, I don’t mind someone making a little bit of money, but don’t—you know, we were chased by someone who had a stack of records he wanted us to sign. So I signed one, and I said, “Okay, cheers, thanks for coming out,” and he goes, “They’re all different.” And I go, “Well, I’ve gotta get to another radio station,” and he was pissed off! He followed us through red lights.
A: People feel entitled.
CH: Well, they’re not. So, you know what? Turn that dial. When the Pretenders come on, turn it off. I won’t bother you, you don’t bother me. Unless you wanna have the kind of exchange that we all live for, which is what [legendary Stiff Records rock and roll singer] Wreckless Eric described as a secret between the audience and the artist. Y’know, where it’s really personal and you feel like the rest of the world don’t know about it. That’s why we’re there.
A: He’s great, I saw him last year. With, I think, his girlfriend—
CH: His wife, now. The missus. Yeah, the new album’s great. We saw him in Pennsylvania. We were in one studio, and they were in the other, and we sort of bumped into them. Yeah, we’re big fans, and that’s what he said to me once — that there needs to be, like, this secret between. . . I mean, I’ve spent more time in my life as the audience than I have as the artist, that’s for sure. But there are certain things you don’t do to strangers. I wouldn’t do that to a stranger. If you think you know me, then why didn’t you already read that I’m not a very nice person, and will tell you to fuck off?
A: I think I remember John Lydon saying in an interview that he moved here because people left him alone.
CH: He’s a compulsive liar. He moved here because he could be a big shot and have barbeques and live in the sun and have a private swimming pool.
A: It sounds to me like the new record was mostly recorded live, is that right?
JW: It’s all live. Actually, there’s probably an acoustic overdub. . .
CH: Accordion overdub, an acoustic. . .
JW: But that’s it.
CH: It’s live. All the mistakes are in there.
A: James, is it fair to characterize some of your playing as like Western swing?
JW: I never thought of it like that—I guess on this one, more rockabilly. But it’s weird, because on one of the solos, one of them is the song “Almost Perfect” which I thought sounded like Western swing; that’s why it sounds so fucked up. I heard it as Western swing, and that’s what I had in my mind. As for the rest, I play more rockabilly, I would guess. [to Hynde, on the balcony] You out for a cigarette?
CH: No, I’m just getting the ashtray.
A: You can smoke in here, I’m a smoker—listen to me, here I am telling you that you can smoke in your own hotel room, that’s how Americanized I am.
CH: That’s how crazy it’s getting. No, I mean, we’re losing it here, actually.
A: I heard on the radio today that every month in Britain around 60 pubs are going under, that pubs are just closing. [Walbourne looks grief-stricken]
JW: Yeah, they are.
CH: Well, you know what’s happened—they’ve become gastro-pubs. So, what they’ve done, because pubs—well, actually, James, correct me if I’m wrong here—
JW: Oh, it’s so depressing.
CH: Yeah, I knew it would be depressing. He’s a real pub guy.
JW: It’s close to my heart.
CH: I think they used to be more for, like, working men, and women didn’t really go in them, probably, when they started.
JW: Back in the ’70s, nowhere.
CH: In the ’70s? Well, I’m talking about a little further back than that. When I arrived, in the ’70s, you couldn’t get a glass of wine in a pub. And if you asked for a tequila, they didn’t even know what you were talking about—it was like asking for a cup of coffee somewhere, they only had powdered coffee.
The other thing that’s interesting about pubs—well there’s a lot interesting about pubs, just the names of them are interesting—but if you were to ask a London cabbie a direction, over here they would say, “It’s on the corner of La Cienega and whatever,” whereas there they direct you by, you know, “It’s by the Dog and Bone.” They have a different system over there, and the pub’s a real important part. But what’s happened? Women started going; I think that kinda changed the vibration.
JW: It was an escape, for a man, I think, an escape from the women. That’s what it was.
CH: After you were working, if it was in a coal mine or whatever it was, you could get together and relax—like a halfway house between going [to work] and home, probably.
JW: They’ve become like bars. Gone are the carpets, and the dartboards are gone. One up near where I live recently got rid of all the pool tables.
CH: They used to have pinball machines, and then they got rid of those, and then they got Space Invaders, and now they’re getting televisions. Gastro-pubs, and they’re really run by Australians and Kiwis and stuff. Which is fine, but it’s changed the flavor of what it was. I mean, I was never really a pub person, but being almost like an honorary guy myself—I don’t cross the line, I don’t hang out with the guys when I know I’m unwanted—but I can really appreciate what the ethos of the pub was, and what a shame it must be that it’s going. . .
JW: You know it’s going wrong when there’s not a dartboard in there. Really, to be honest. That was the last straw.
A: Was that a focal point of the pub? Everybody played darts?
JW: No, no, not really, but there was always one there. There was always one, and now they’re gone.
CH: Now they’re too loud, and it’s bad music—it’s all wrong. Everything is all wrong.
JW: You can ask anybody, they’ll say the same. It’s all disappeared, the best things about London.
A: So what do working people do?
CH: Get arseholed—absolutely fucking ARSEHOLED.
JW: There are pubs, but the pubs just aren’t nice to go to now—it’s like going to a hotel bar, or an airport bar, really.
CH: Especially in London, it’s become this binge drinking culture. So you get, like, a gaggle of screaming girls. Y’know, nobody likes that. But then, as my daughter pointed out, she goes, “But, Mom, if girls didn’t drink, guys would never get laid.” [laughter] It’s nice when your daughter can fill you in.
A: Could you tell me about the Robert Kidney song on the new album?
CH: He is a guy from—I don’t know if he’s from Akron or Kent, somewhere in northeastern Ohio—and when I was 16, there was a coffeehouse where you could score pot and stuff, and I used to sneak out and go there on the weekends. It was called the Berth, and he used to be like the resident sort of singer/songwriter. And he would do some like Jesse Colin Young songs and stuff, but I thought he was amazing then. But then he got in this band called the Numbers Band, 15.60.75.*
My brother Terry was the musical one in the family—they called him Benny when he was a kid, after Benny Goodman, and he was really into jazz. He’s the one that told me rock and roll wouldn’t last. It’s the one time that he really made me cry, but I tortured him more than he tortured me. Anyway, so Terry got in the band, and the Numbers Band has been playing for, like, 40 years. Real excellent musicianship, real, real high standard, so musical, but they’ve never left Kent. They still have their families and stuff, you know, whereas us—you have to forgo a certain amount if you want to really go out into the world, on the road, or most people do.
So Bob Kidney has been writing songs for the Numbers Band and playing with them all these years. One of the last times I saw them, I noticed that they did this new song—much different than the way that we’ve done it—and I said to Terry, “Would Bob have a recording of that song?” cuz I was just about to come out here and we were just gonna go in to record. So he sent me this—I wish I had it to play you, this gorgeous demo of him. It almost sounds like he’s writing the song as he’s going. It’s real bluesy. And we all loved it. It was great to play it for Jim Keltner, he’s going Wow! And I’m thinking, it’s so nice that Bob can get his—I don’t mean his due because he’s on a Pretenders record, but his due that people like Jim Keltner can hear him and think so highly of him. And Jack Kidney is one of the best harp players in the world.
Jack plays—I dunno, they have saxophones and keyboards and things, and then there’s Bob who’s very bluesy, and he really gets out there. He’s got this kind of hypnotic. . . it’s very intense. Very intense. They came to London and they did something with Pere Ubu, and they called it “50 Years of Pain”—it was 50 years combined of Pere Ubu and them, they’d been together 50 years [combined]. And it was so intense—I turned to the people I was with and said, “Make that 50 years and 38 minutes.” [laughter]
A: How does Akron seem these days? Is it depressed, or what?
CH: It’s turning a corner. Tony Troppe, one of our local people in the downtown area who’s buying old buildings and restoring them and stuff, said “They called it urban renewal, but it was really urban removal.” So now it’s going in another direction, where, like, I’ve got my restaurant and it’s in a new building that’s downtown. And the whole idea of my restaurant was to put it in the downtown area, to try to bring more life into the downtown. It seems to me that Akron shows the way the trend is going in the cities that lost their industry and lost their downtown areas, and what happened with mall culture and strip malls and everything. There’s no retail down there or anything, and unfortunately, the way they seem to restore most American cities now is by putting up a baseball stadium in the downtown area. All sports bars and stuff.
A: Yeah, even when there’s already a perfectly good stadium to use.
CH: Usually, yeah. But the trend to independent—that’s why James and I are out here at the moment, we met these record distributors. I dunno why, the record company set it up. But these are the real music lovers, who have independent record stores, and we talked for a long time, and we really got the impression that vinyl is really coming back, turntables. And our whole thing is to think small, and think in that small community, because that’s where great music has always been born. Maybe things are also different because of the internet, and all that, I don’t understand that so well. But as far as community—you know, the greatest thing if you’re in a rock band is if there’s some kind of a scene. In London, during those punk days, everyone was in a band or trying to get a band together. And that makes you feel, even if you’re only traveling with a few bands, it’s still like you’re in a traveling circus or a fun fair or something.
A: What’s your impression of the record industry these days? Obviously, the big guys are in some sort of trouble because of music downloading—
CH: Well, they weren’t very fast off the mark when all that started changing. I think they had a false sense of who they were. And the kind of money they were spending on certain artists was so obscene, that they’ve destroyed themselves with their own greed now.
JW: I was talking to [Sex Pistols drummer] Paul Cook about this at dinner. I don’t think there’s much of a record industry left in London, or England, so much. It seems like they’re in real trouble. I think the internet is the main—learning how to market CDs, books, cuz nobody’s buying the things. You can go back to vinyl, maybe, and try to make that something that people will want, but I don’t think kids are really buying music.
CH: There’s still that experience of going into a small record store, and being able to spend the afternoon in there, and kind of search and hunt it down and find it, which is again a kind of real personal experience—
JW: And it’s something to do.
CH: —and music lovers love to do that, and I think despite the calamities that we’re in, those are trends which I see as being very positive.
JW: A lot of the record shops have gone in London especially. I used to go down and spend all day looking through [mimes finding an amazing LP]. Most of them have gone. It’s really weird. Here, too—it’s like Amoeba, Virgin, and that’s it.
A: There’s a couple specialty shops left.
CH: But in Akron, Ohio, there’s one called I think Square Records in the Highland Square area.
JW: They’re about, there’s just not many of them.
CH: I think there’s a swing back toward that, because people like it. And once you get those smaller communities, you get—
JW: —but with Ebay, nobody wants to go out because you don’t have to. You don’t have to search—which is the great thing about it. It’s the excitement of finding that record that’s brilliant.
A: Yeah, I found my first Pretenders record in a thrift store, Learning to Crawl on vinyl for like fifty cents. I probably owe you money on that. [laughter]
CH: Keep it, keep it. But these are the things that made it exciting. Your local radio station, where the disc jockey was what I would describe as kinda like your local guru, who could turn you on. Like we did Jonesy’s Jukebox today, and he played five or six records I didn’t know what they were, and they were new records, and they were really good. He’s a great disc jockey.
In the ’80s, when I came back to the States with the Pretenders, I was devastated when I saw what radio had become. It had all become very corporate, and where you had to go for good radio was to go on college stations. My understanding now is that those college DJs are going more into independent radio stations, so all that seems to be going in the right direction again, kind of coming back.
A: Is that what Break Up the Concrete is about?
CH: Oh, yeah, totally. It’s just about the whole way it’s gone. That song and that idea was born of touring, and that’s all you’d see, just concrete and cars.
JW: Cracker Barrels.
CH: Y’know, where’s the countryside? Where’s the land? Where’s the trains?
A: Yeah, the regional differences have kinda evaporated too, it seems like.
JW: Unbelievable. It’s all Cracker Barrels or Waffle Houses if you’re down south.
A: Big Boy up north.
CH: Bob Evans.
JW: Denny’s, that’s everywhere. The only way you can tell is from a Waffle House, if it’s down south, cuz they’re not anywhere else really.
CH: Even truck stops used to be—when I first got in a band, we loved it when we got to a truck stop, cuz you could buy really cool belt buckles, a shirt and stuff, and even those have become like strip malls almost. But again, I think there’s a trend in the other direction now. And maybe people are being more forced to do that. I don’t wanna get into the reasons why, because I hate to talk about oil or anything, I think it’s too disgusting even to talk about.
A: Not even a little bit, for Arthur?
CH: Well, okay.
A: Y’know, there’s that line in Break Up the Concrete” where you say “we was so worried ‘bout them dropping the bomb / we didn’t notice where our enemy was really coming from.” Who’s the enemy to you—men of industry, or what?
CH: Yeah. Well, we can see what’s happened now with the stock market, hedge funding and all that. About 15 years ago, I started thinking “Where did all this money come from? Hang on a minute.” When I grew up, I never saw a gold watch; you never saw people with Porsches, I mean, you’d heard of them. And suddenly there’s all this money everywhere, everyone had so much. I think in the ’80s it sort of came to a crescendo. And now London is just carved up by people in Ferraris, and real expensive [cars]—I find it all very pornographic.
A: Do people drive SUVs in London?
CH: Yeah, but they became really unpopular. People would put hate notes on them and stuff.
A: Oh, good.
CH: And now, people don’t want them here either. But, for example, James doesn’t drive; he doesn’t have a license and can’t drive.
[Walbourne twists himself into a grotesque of an utterly helpless person. Hynde laughs.]
CH: If you’re in London, and you’ve been touring for 10 years, since he was 18, and you’re on the road—y’know, you don’t need to drive. You get to London, you can take the Underground, you wouldn’t have time or you wouldn’t think about it, cuz you don’t have to. And that seems like that should be your choice, if you wanna drive or not. But Americans, if you don’t drive, there’s something wrong with you. You have to have a car. And to me that shows something is really wrong with the system.
A: Do you see a connection with vegetarianism there?
CH: One hundred percent. One hundred percent.
A: I mean, aside from the cruelty issue, there’s something offensive about the idea of everybody being able to live like a Roman emperor all the time, feasting and having all this stuff.
CH: Oh, it’s horrible.
JW: Tell him about the bicycle.
CH: Dan Mathews [PETA Senior Vice President], we were talking about it the other day, and he made a statement that I think is really a good one to summarize the whole situation: A vegetarian driving a Hummer has less impact on the environment than a meat eater on a bicycle.
We were in a restaurant this afternoon after we did Jonesy’s Jukebox, and James Cromwell [actor and vegan activist] walked in, and I flew over to him and threw my arms around him and said “Thank God we have you.” At a PETA gala, over 10 years ago, he gave this great speech. He said, “No one who calls himself or herself an environmentalist can put their hand on their heart and say ‘I’m an environmentalist’ if they’re not a vegan.” Finally this connection, and this is what’s been making me crazy for years, amongst other things—these environmentalists, they can talk green, they can talk a big talk, but the one thing they really can do to pull the plug and to start to heal the situation and redress the squandering of the world’s resources—they still will pay someone to put a bolt in one of those beautiful animals’ heads, and call himself an environmentalist. Without the vegetarian thing, none of this is going to be possible, cuz that’s the future. And it’s the past. People say “[meat-eating] is how we’ve always done it,” and that’s just another lie. If you bear in mind that little country called India, for example.
A: I know you’ve said in the past that you don’t like promoting records, is that right?
CH: Yeah, I’ve said that many times.
A: And is part of that that you don’t like marketing? Or the song “The Nothing Maker,” that’s such a beautiful song, a love song to a guy who doesn’t make anything, and who isn’t driven to remake the world in his own image.
CH: Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s about. Y’know, my thing is to make the record, and then I promote it by goin’ onstage with the band and playing it. That’s all I got into this for. I wasn’t trying to promote myself, I wasn’t trying to be somebody, I just wanted to be in a band. The first thing I said to my [new] record company is, “I’m not doing any press.” But, of course, then we made the record, and I think the record is worthy of being out there, because I really dig the band, the chemistry, the whole thing, and I wanna go out and tour. And I certainly have done many tours on the back of a dud, where maybe the records weren’t so good; you never know when the planets are lined up right, it just happens.
That was the idea [for the Hynde/Walbourne promotional tour], to just go into mainly, if possible, independent radio stations. We’ve done all sorts now—I mean, we’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks, but just to go out to those, talk to the DJ, they play a few records and we do a couple songs live. Cuz to me that’s keeping it real. And I also was a victim of the ’80s, and made some hideous videos; we all kind of got drawn into that.
JW: It’s great when you can play live, like the Replacements or something, instead of playing like, I don’t know, Sting or something. But, you know, that’s the opposite—
CH: Today, Jonesy said, “I’ve seen him before, did he used to play with Sting?”
[Walbourne groans and winces.]
CH: I know. That’s what I said. I said, [waving away the smell] “Who left the barn door open?”
JW: That’s awful. And what’s he doing watching Sting, or playing Cliff Richard?
A: Are you gonna do a full band tour?
CH: Yeah. We’ve done some [performances] for Yahoo, iTunes, where we do a set and then they put it on their—however they do it. And I loathe being on television, for the most part, and I certainly hate the sound of my voice, and talking on television or doing talk shows—forget about that. I’d just be miserable trying to be that guy, y’know, that bubbly personality. But that’s the way people see music now, and that’s the way it’s done, and that’s fine with me. Y’know, I’ve said “We’ll play wherever, garden sheds, bar mitzvahs, that’s what we do, we play.” So when they said, “Come to Amoeba and play”—fine. It’s still real sitting down and playing. Although I didn’t wanna over-promote the James and Chrissie show, because that could get misleading. It was just a vehicle to go on radio. You can’t take a band in a small radio—
JW: It’s been low-key, really.
CH: Real low-key. When we tour next year, it’ll be the proper band, with [original Pretenders drummer] Martin Chambers.
A: Oh, he’s gonna drum?
CH: Oh, yeah. I mean, he stepped aside for Keltner but, y’know, Keltner’s something else. Everyone wants to have a chance to play with him.
A: How’d you put this band together?
CH: Martin’s been reinstated many years ago. We got [bassist] Nick [Wilkinson] from a North London karaoke punk band, which is such a great idea I don’t know why there aren’t more of them. They’ve got about 100 punk songs in their arsenal, and then someone would come in and go through the book like you would in a karaoke bar, choose the song they wanted, then they get about twelve songs, the band would go backstage and put a set together, and then come out and different singers would come up and get to sing with the band. It’s really cool, you’d think that every town would have one.
Nick, he’s just the perfect band guy. He plays great, his attitude, his thing—I love being onstage and looking over at him. He’s just always on. And since we got him in the band, people started saying, “Wow, Martin’s playing great.” Cuz that’s what a band is about, it’s about setting up the other guy. I’ve got very primitive skills, I’m not much of a player, so I need a lot of help around me. So I got Nick in there, and I really felt that I needed some other energy. The fella Adam Seymour I played with is a great player, but after 13 years, I needed something else. And Martin knew James from down the pub in Muswell Hill, and he brought him in, we did one gig, and I went out and looked at the soundcheck before the first gig, cuz I wanted to see what James was like to play with before we went in, to keep recording, cuz I didn’t wanna end up with someone who didn’t wanna do it—then I’d have a record without a band. But I’ve got him on the one side, Nick on the other side, and that’s fine for me. Cuz I feel that my role in the band is to set up the guitar player, so I need a real guitar hero there, y’know, who wants it. Who wants the girls, who wants the—I dunno, what do you want?
JW: Well done, carry on [laughter]. Nothing more to add.
CH: What I want out of it is that I look into the audience and I can see in their faces that they’re looking up at the band, not at me. I can’t stand being that much the focal point of it. I wanna read reviews where they talk about the guitar player and the band. I can’t stand it when it’s me. If it was just me and a guitar, you never would have heard of me. So when I look in their faces and I can tell they’re thinking what I used to think, where you look up at a band and you think, “Wow, that guy is SO FUCKING COOL.” Where if you were a guitar player, you’d wanna be that guitar player; if you were a drummer you’d wanna be that drummer. Or at least you’d think, “oh, that makes me wanna get onstage.” Cuz that’s the excitement—that’s the thing that Wreckless Eric said, it’s like a secret between the audience and the performer. It’s a very intimate thing.
A: Although you’ve wound up in a position where you’re usually playing large venues, right?
CH: Well, mainly because we’ve been supporting big acts. But I wanna put an end to that because I can’t stand their catering anymore. I can’t stand it! I can’t go into the catering and have, like, ribs and—I just can’t do it anymore.
JW: I like clubs.
CH: Oh, they’re great.
A: There are good acoustics in toilets.
CH: Not always, but there’s a vibe.
A: Oh, you mean clubs. I was imagining like a giant bathroom with tiles.
CH: That would be perfect.
JW: No, they’re awful, toilet tours. But it’s good being close to people, I like that.
CH: It makes it more surprising and different for the band. You have to have to be able to see the audience. It’s supposed to be a laugh, isn’t it. You’re not on display to show your virtuosity.
JW: Unless you’re Satriani, I guess. Yngwie Malmsteen.
A: Did you study at Kent State? Were you a student there?
CH: I was a student there.
A: . . .but you didn’t study?
CH: Well, I studied, but I had my own curriculum. I was more studying men and substances by the time I got there. I was a real late developer in some areas—probably not in substances.
A: But you were there when the shooting happened? [On the Kent State campus in May of 1970, the National Guard ended a student protest of the Vietnam War, and the Nixon Administration’s recent decision to extend the war into the neutral country of Cambodia, by opening fire on demonstrators. Four people were killed, nine wounded. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young immediately recorded and released Neil Young’s “Ohio” in response to the massacre. Richard Nixon referred to the incident as “the Kent State thing” in his 1977 interviews with David Frost.]
A: I always wondered if that had anything to do with you leaving the country.
CH: Not really, no.
A: I imagined it would be hard to trust the US government after that.
CH: Well, I wasn’t particularly disillusioned, because I didn’t have that many illusions. I wanted to see the world; I didn’t want to buy a car so I could get to work to pay for my car—I could see that was gonna be a big trap. I thought it might be nice to get out of Ohio cuz it had no downtowns, no vibe, nowhere to go. I loved English music. All my life I was in love with that English vibe, I was a real Anglophile. So, when I was 22, I had a bunch of different jobs, and I tried Kent State, and I was kind of hanging in some crowds of people that I shouldn’t have been messing around with, and it was feeling like it was getting a little dangerous for me. And, y’know, I was depressed. So I just thought Hey, let’s go to England.
A: And you just picked up and left?
CH: Yeah, I had about 500 dollars on me. I saved up some money and went over there.
A: Does “Boots of Chinese Plastic” have anything to do with Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”?
CH: Yeah, it’s kind of a nod to that. And the way things have changed, and I’m personally trying not to promote leather.
A: Right, the object of your desire wears boots of Chinese plastic.
CH: Well, that song has all sorts of different things in it. These songs, I don’t like to really try to explain them because, y’know, I don’t know what it’s about. It has various philosophical [traditions]—it runs through Buddhism, Vaishnavism, Christianity and Islam. Someone asked me, “Why isn’t Judaism represented?” and I said, “Well, the most famous Jew in history is referred to, Jesus Christ.” And that philosophically they all have a lot in common with each other. The Chinese plastic is a statement on the present world, that everything’s made in China, and we buy our shoes at Payless. Although, I have a nice assortment of Stella McCartneys. I am a rock star, so I gotta have some nice stuff. The boots that I’m wearing in the video are from Hollywood Hustler, I got ‘em in Nashville, and you can get some tasty shoes in there, too. I don’t know what I think about most of the gear in there—I’m not that kinky, but, y’know, I like the boots.
A: So, James, you’re making a solo record?
CH: Everyone that hears James wants to work with him. Steve Bing, who sort of oversees Shangri-La Records said, “Well, what’s his stuff like?” I said, “I actually haven’t heard him myself.” And he goes, “Well, I’ve seen him play, and I’ve heard enough—we’ll sign him.” Just like that.
A: Are you singing, too?
JW: Yeah, me and my brother Rob. We’re trying to do the brother thing—singing together, y’know.
A: Like the Delmore Brothers, harmony singing?
JW: Well, it ain’t the Delmore Brothers, but we sing in our local pub—we sing old Everly Brothers tunes, and try to learn to sing together like that.
A: There’s always something sweet about the sound of two brothers singing together.
JW: It is different. It is really very different. I don’t know what to say, it’s a different thing.
A: You got to work with Jerry Lee Lewis—what’s he like?
JW: He’s great, actually, he’s in really great form. He came in every day on time, and really enjoyin’ it, y’know, cuz Kris Kristofferson was there doing background vocals, and we had Ben Keith and Rick Rosas from Neil Young’s band play, and then me and Kenny Lovelace would play together, and Jerry Lee would come and sit there and play—read the lyrics, and we did stuff like “Cripple Creek,” and “Whiskey River.” He’s just great. Then he would play “House of Blue Lights”—it was an amazing experience, and I was nervous as hell going in. He’s one of my heroes, and we all know the stories, y’know. But he was nothing [like that], he was a sweet guy, he was great. It was a great experience.
CH: I couldn’t wait to see James when he got back, so I went up to see him in Muswell Hill, and I said, “Tell me about it!” And he goes, “Well, at one point he said, ‘Pick it for me, boy.’” And we were like, Wow!!! And then the next day he goes in and says—what did he say?
JW: Then he comes up to me: “James, I didn’t mean anything by callin’ you boy.”
[everybody laughs] I said, [brightly] “Oh, I don’t mind!” Fuckin’ ‘ell, I can just stop playing now, that’s what I thought, really. Amazing—so great.
CH: Steve Bing brought Jerry Lee to the Akron Civic Theater when I was opening the VegeTerranean, and they tied it in with some other Akron events in the downtown. And I said “I really need a big name in the Civic Theater for this,” and Dan Mathews, the vice president of the PETA organization, introduced me to Steve when we were playing last year with ZZ Top. So I kind of had met Steve a little bit, and I could see that Steve really got rock music. So I said to Dan, “Please help me find a celebrity, cuz my restaurant’s opening, and we’re doing all this,” and he comes back to me and goes, “I spoke to Steve, and he said ‘What about Jerry Lee Lewis?’” And I was like WOW. So Jerry Lee and his whole band arrived, played about five songs—it brought the roof off of the Civic Theater. Everybody was just blown away. It was the coolest thing ever.
And that really planted the seed for me, too—that’s when I started thinking about this other direction, this other sound I was going to get. That happened even before I met James.
A: It makes me hopeful in a way. Maybe if records become more about people independently producing their own records and trying to sell them through mom and pop stores, there might also be more of an emphasis on live recording. Just people getting together and making a record, and that’s what you wanna hear—you don’t need that whole apparatus.
JW: Y’know, it’s kind of gone, isn’t it, really?
CH: Well, it’s going.
JW: I’m not talking about the Billboard Top Ten.
CH: It’s slowly happening, y’know, this lo-fi. . .
JW: I just made an album in a couple of weeks with Ric Menck from the Velvet Crush and Matthew Sweet and Joe Pernice from the Pernice Brothers. We did it all ourselves on a little hard drive thing, played all the instruments. Y’know, it costs nothing.
A: That’s right.
JW: You have to find someone to put it out, I guess, still. Or maybe not, but that’s still where it gets hard.
CH: Yeah, but at least people are doing it that way. People are surprised that this Pretenders album was made in less than two weeks, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just thrown together. There’s a great interplay between the musicians and a real good chemistry. There’s a lot of work and thought that went into it, and it happened fast because it could.
JW: We played the songs over in different styles, just trying to get the right feel.
CH: They were learning the songs.
JW: That “Rosalee” one went from being a really soft one to, in the end, everybody was so pissed off with it, so at Keltner’s count-off, Eric [Heywood] came out with that riff and we did it. It was kind of organic like that.
CH: We averaged two songs a day. We’d go in and we’d sorta wrestle ‘em to the floor. We’d come back and we’d all listen. I was the only one in my head, really, so I would maybe say “No no no no no no no, this is all wrong.” Cuz no one quite knew. And I didn’t have any notes or anything, it was done so quickly. Like on “Break Up the Concrete”—it must have been the first or second take, because no one knew the song. So when we got to the first gap—[sings] “break up the concrete, break up the concrete, break up the concrete”—we were all in the room together, we were in our booths but we could all see each other, I’m looking at Keltner and he’s waiting, like, “Now what?” That’s why I go “DAK DAK DAK DAK DAGGA DAGGA DAGGA DAGGA,” cuz he didn’t know [when to come back in]. So when we came out, I was horrified, but Jim said, “No no no, we have to leave that in.” And because we left in him saying “Oh, I’m just getting worse and worse,” I had to relent.
A: Was there a lot of stuff left over from this session?
CH: No. We went in and that’s just what it was. That’s all I had. [laughs] In fact, we threw in a couple background vocals while we were waiting for our car to come take us to the airport to leave. And we didn’t know how we were gonna do that, either, so that was done very quickly. So just a few touches here and there. But I always love the sound of the men’s voices—like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, those kind of background vocals, where they sound manly and they sound, y’know, rough. I think that’s a real nice touch.
A: I’ve always wondered where you learned that you could do that tremolo with your voice.
JW: As have I, actually. It’s quite impressive, I think.
CH: I guess the voice is like an instrument, and I never really learned how to play the guitar very well, and I’ve often thought—because I love the guitar so much—I often thought, if I never sang or thought about writing songs, if I just played the guitar maybe I would have put more into it, and I would have been able to express myself on it better. But as soon as I found out that with two chords you could start humming melodies, that was always more my. . . In actual fact, I think even if I couldn’t sing or write anything, I don’t think I could have ever been a good guitar player. But, y’know, I like to think maybe. We’ll never know.
A: You’re a good rhythm player.
CH: Ugh, y’know, whatever. I do the job [laughs]. Or I do a job. But I don’t know. It’s just rock singing. I guess like [James] played along to records and that’s how [he] learned different styles. I just listened to the radio.
A: Yeah, but even on a shitty FM radio, your voice just comes through clear as a bell. I guess it’s a quality of your voice that you didn’t make.
JW: Yeah, I think that’s what it is. It’s you.
CH: Well, I was such a big fan of Iggy Pop. Y’know, I think every singer in the last 30 or 40 years has tried to sing like a black man. But with Iggy, his voice was so much him, and when you hear his speaking voice, it’s real American. And me being such an Anglophile, I think I would have been in denial of that. But I admired him.
What I found early on was that the things that embarrassed me most about myself on a record were the things that other people seemed to like the most. So usually those little quirks you have that you think, “Ecch, that’s a bit much,” they’re the things that make you unique to anyone else. In other words, only you can make your mistakes. Anyone can copy perfection, but no one else can come up with the kind of mistakes you make. So you kinda stumble along. And now I have no shame. Before I was self-conscious about it.
A: That’s really interesting, cuz I feel like a lot of the stuff that I hear on the radio, my biggest objection to it is that it represents this kinda weird ideal of a perfect studio record, and what you can do with all this technology. And perfection maybe isn’t what you wanna aim for.
CH: Nothing to do with it.
JW: Sometimes you hear—
CH: Smokey Robinson or something that really is perfect.
JW: Yeah, or the Beach Boys.
CH: It’s nice to be well-crafted, but it’s not about being The Best.
A: Yeah, or superhuman. People have their voices going through Autotune.
JW: Because you can make it sound perfect. You can play it badly, but still make it sound perfect.
CH: But you lose the vibe.
JW: It’s wrong.
A: So how do you get the vibe? It’s just the room and the people in the room?
CH: Yep. That’s all it is.
JW: We had a great engineer called Don Smith, who was fantastic. All the gear was old. Really small amps, but they sound huge when you hear ‘em back. He got great sounds.
CH: Cuz we pulled it together so quickly. They hired in these gorgeous guitars, and every night, Roy, who brought the guitars in, would take ‘em all, pack ‘em up and take ‘em away somewhere, because each guitar was worth like seventy grand or something.
JW: It’s ridiculous. A ’51 Tele. . .
CH: And what about the mandolin?
JW: The mandolin’s a prototype Gibson. Louvin Brothers, you know—it didn’t even look—
CH: Played on which song?
JW: I don’t think we used it.
CH: Well, we used it on the HWH [pronounced “Hugh,” for Heywood, Walbourne and Hynde] sessions.
JW: Oh, “977.”
CH: Right. James plays great. We went in to do a bunch of B-sides, extra tracks that would be given—
JW: It’s on the album, but only from iTunes, or something. So I’ve read.
CH: And it will be sold in Wal-Mart. We did a track with Willie Nelson, Steve Bing brought that together. He produced that song.
A: What song did you do?
CH: A song called “Both Sides of Goodbye.”
JW: It was a song Willie liked.
CH: Steve had been doing some record, and it was this guy’s songs, and nothing happened, but that was one of the songs.
Their idea was, if we went in and did some versions of old Pretenders songs or something, just for B-sides—what we call B-sides, which are extra tracks for different outlets. And I guess there’s a sticker on it, you can download it—I dunno how it works. Eric Heywood was still in L.A., so we went in as Heywood, Walbourne and Hynde, and Eric said, “Or ‘Hugh.’” So those are the HWH tracks, and that’s where you get to hear that 200-year-old mandolin.
A: Do you have a fondness for country music, Chrissie?
CH: Yeah, if it’s good.
A: Well, what’s the good stuff to you? I hear country changes in some of your songs.
CH: I never really listened to it when I was growing up, but maybe it was just too close to the. . . It’s funny in this country how there was the rock industry and the country thing and that they didn’t really mix at all. I was listening to rock radio, so I guess I just never really heard it.
JW: It must be ingrained, though—
CH: I was in denial—
JW: —because “Back on the Chain Gang” does have a kind of [country] thing to it.
A: Or “Kid,” or even “Talk of the Town.”
CH: That has a lot to do with the guitar players I’ve played with, who’ve all loved that sort of stuff. That… [sings the beginning of the lead guitar line from “Kid”].
A: [Killer first Pretenders guitarist James] Honeyman Scott was a country guy?
CH: Oh, he loved that—he was like James, he loved the cowboy shirts and that kind of thing.
JW: Robbie [McIntosh].
CH: Robbie, same. Again, that’s not my sound as much as—but there’s no question that, sometimes I hear Connie Francis in my voice, and I go, like, [cringes]. Cuz it wasn’t really the right thing at the time. Now I see that country is—y’know, I just listened to radio.
JW: It’s all about good songs, innit. Country, rock, punk—it’s all the same.
CH: Yeah, exactly. The industry’s tried to separate it. But when you hear a song and you find yourself crying, you know that it doesn’t matter if its classical, or if it’s—I only draw the line at marching bands.
A: That’s a fair prejudice to have, Chrissie, I think I’m with you on that.
CH: And even that, maybe I just haven’t heard the right marching band.
JW: Othar Turner. Have you heard Othar Turner, the old guy from Mississippi? It’s kind of different, I guess, but it’s a fife-and-drum band—that’s amazing.
CH: There’s always the exception to the rule.
JW: And that’s a kind of marching band, they play marches but it’s with a fife, it’s more spiritual. That’s amazing, Othar Turner.
CH: I think it’s just American films where they’ve got—[sings brassy fanfare], and they’re coming through town, flags waving and stuff.
A: Have you ever had your music used in a movie in a weird way?
CH: I dunno.
A: Well, I guess there’s that thing with Limbaugh, right? [Rush Limbaugh uses a Pretenders song, “My City Was Gone,” on his radio show. According to an agreement he made with the Pretenders in the ’90s, Limbaugh is to donate all royalties from his use of the song to PETA.]
CH: Oh, that rages on and on. It’s kind of embarrassing cuz I’ve never heard his show.
A: Is he still paying PETA?
CH: Y’know, I don’t know how it works. I don’t know if it was just a little loop of the song, cuz I’ve never heard it, and it wasn’t really enough that he had to ask permission, or how that worked. And then I started to get people running up to me at airports, going “You’ve gotta stop it! You’ve gotta stop it!” It seems to me, having not heard his show—I know my dad likes it—I think he stirs people up and he gets some sort of a dialogue going, and perhaps that’s a good thing, I don’t know. Calling us “vegeterrorists” and things like that. Again, I’ve never heard it. I feel in some ways negligent, that I should have got in there. But it’s not just about what’s going on in the United States. Y’know, I live in England and I have other concerns. If I had heard that they were using my music for a Burger Chef ad or something, I would have been out with my Molotov cocktail immediately.
A: What animal rights stuff are you doing?
CH: I don’t really do anything if I have no profile, because I don’t wanna be like a professional celebrity who does [that], even though I would do anything for [PETA]. When I did my protest of the Gap [in 2000], we just piggybacked the tour we were on. So every time we got to a city, we’d buy a leather jacket from the Gap with a PETA credit card, go out in the street where we had invited the local press, show them the tag inside that said “Made in India”—and that’s very close to my heart, slaughtering those beautiful cows in India, where that’s so wrong. And then we’d take it back into the shop and say, “We want to return this jacket because it’s made in India and it’s using illegal leather from a black market trade.” And they’d say, “Okay, thank you very much,” and they’d give us our money back. So we did that in every city until we got to New York, and they still kept saying “We’ll get back to you. We’ll source the leather.” Cuz they said, “It says ‘Made in India,’ it doesn’t say that’s where the leather comes from.”
So we thought, Okay, we’ve heard this lie now for about six weeks. So then when we went to New York, we went in and bought the jacket, the press was there, we took it back in and said “We wanna return this jacket,” but instead of leaving the store then, we all—me and Ingrid Newkirk and Dan and Paul—leapt into the store window, with all the press standing outside, and we just stood there and wouldn’t leave. But the [store] manager was going, “Don’t do anything, just leave it leave it leave it,” cuz they don’t want the bad publicity.
The thing is just to get some attention—you feel like an idiot, but you don’t care. So we’re beating on the windows, going “We’re not leaving till the cows come home!” And I’m thinking, y’know, I have a gig to do the next day. Dan says, “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” So, y’know, I’m saying “Arrest us, already, get us out of here, arrest us,” and the manager’s going, “No, no, no, don’t arrest them.” So we had to start ripping up the displays, and taking the jackets off the dummies and ripping them up and knifing them. It was starting to stop the traffic and stuff, and the manager’s going “Don’t do anything, don’t do anything,” so finally they hauled us off. And the Gap stopped using black market leather after that.
But the interesting thing was, I had been asked if I wanted to donate a song to the Gap’s “Everybody in Leather” campaign. And my manager looked at it and just put it in the files, cuz she knew that was a no-no. So when she heard I was doing that, she goes, “Oh, that’s odd, because they asked to use one of your songs,” and I said “Send it to PETA immediately—someone at the Gap isn’t doing their research.” And [PETA] put it out to the press to make them look like what they were.
We had been talking for an hour and a half, which is about as long as you can reasonably expect people to talk to you without tea or something stronger. I walked out into 100-degree heat on the Sunset Strip and I wanted to tear it all up.
*One of the author’s favorite albums is the Numbers Band’s incomparable Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town, recorded live at 15.60.75’s gig opening for Bob Marley and the Wailers in Cleveland in 1975. It is available in splendid CD sound from the great David Thomas’s label, which has both an esoteric and a demotic spelling: Hearpen, or Hearthan, Records.