Joe Strummer is, at age 49, a punk rock
legend who feels he has a lot left to prove.
With his 3-year-old band, the Mescaleros, Strummer broke an almost 11-year album recording drought in 1999 with the well-received "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style." Last year, the Mescaleros released "Global A Go-Go," an 11-song CD whose music and lyrics rival his best work with the Clash.
Recorded on Epitaph’s Hellcat Records label - an association that Strummer credits with allowing him the freedom to record his music, his way, free of the trappings of major-label demands - the CD explodes with the energy of a poet-musician who has been muzzled for too long.
The London-based Mescaleros -- Martin Slattery on keyboards and horns, Scott Shields on bass and guitars, Pablo Cook on percussion and drums, Richard Flack on various effects, and Tymon Dogg, one of Strummer’s oldest mates dating back to their days busking in the London Underground (Dogg wrote "Lose This Skin" from the Clash’s "Sandinista" album) on violin, mandolin and Spanish guitar -- paint a musical masterpiece infused with world beats and out-of-this-world playing.
At the core is Strummer, picking up as if these were the records that followed the real Clash’s finale, "Combat Rock."
It was with the Clash, though, that Strummer forged his legacy.
The Sex Pistols may have fired the opening shots in the punk revolution of the late-’70s but it was Strummer’s Clash -- "The only band that matters" -- who led the charge.
Where the Pistols merely shocked the sensibilities, the Clash took up the cause -- whatever cause might be handy, in fact, from London squatters to Salvadoran rebels. More importantly, they delivered the goods, both in the studio, and even more so in the most electrifying, balls-to-the-wall live rock ’n’ roll performances before or since. Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon left it all on the floor, every night they played.
The Clash reached their recording zenith with 1979’s "London Calling," which Rolling Stone magazine declared "the album of the decade" in the ’80s, as if fans needed that clarified.
And then, just as major headliner success was biting at their ankles in 1983, the principles, Strummer and Jones, split up. After disbanding the already shattered Clash in 1985, Strummer tooled around on a few film soundtracks, acted in a few movies, played on Bob Dylan’s "Down in the Groove," served as occasional sideman with the Pogues and in 1989 released his first solo record, "Earthquake Weather."
He didn’t release another until "X-Ray Style."
"It wasn’t a deliberate decision to take an 11-year breather, but in the long run it’s turned out well," Strummer has said. "Sometimes you save the best for last."
Indeed, Strummer’s pent-up lyrical and musical energy is in full flow now with the Mescaleros, a band that seems to feed off his energy and punk sensibilities without being overshadowed. Strummer finally has a band again.
This week, Strummer and the Mescaleros settle down in DUMBO at the St. Ann’s Warehouse on Water Street for a five-night stand (April 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6). Strummer spoke with GO Brooklyn this week in a telephone interview from his home in Somerset, England, where he lives with his wife, Lucinda, and three daughters.
Interviewing Strummer, who takes a hands-on approach to promoting the Mescaleros, spending by his account, about a third of his time on telephone interviews worldwide, is like chatting with an old pal in a pub.
"What time is it there?" Strummer asks a reporter.
"2 o’clock," the reporter answers.
"In the afternoon?"
"Uh huh. What is it 7 o’clock by you?"
"Yeah, which means I can have a glass of wine and you cannot," Strummer says, emphasizing the ’not’ and then chuckling. "Sorry for rubbing it in there."
GO Brooklyn: How did you guys come up with St. Ann’s Warehouse as a venue for all five dates?
Well. I think trial and error. What were we looking at, I think
the Bowery Ballroom ... and then I think maybe we thought of
this late in the day and then probably those things are booked
and so therefore we scout around the city and you turn up things.
I’d actually been there before once, years and years ago to a
kind of charity/comedy ’30s boxing match.
GO: Really, in Brooklyn?
was in the same joint, yeah. It was put on by actors and, for
some reason I can’t remember, this must have been 10 years ago,
the theme was of Damon Runyon, everyone was in ’30s dress. And
it was pretty good fun in there, actually.
GO: Did you come dressed up?
like a fool I just got off from the airport so...
GO: The five-night gig at St. Ann’s is reminiscent of the Bonds gigs, when you were scheduled for a week and it turned into two weeks on Broadway. [In June 1981, the Clash were slated for five nights at a former Times Square clothing store converted into a huge nightclub, the Bond International Casino. The promoter oversold the shows, and then someone called in the fire marshal and the band wound up playing an additional five nights to even things out.]
well, um, actually I think five days does it here. (laughs) Yeah,
but it’s the same idea, because we’re really, we’re doing it
for us, to be honest, because it means the band and the crew
can have it in a town and hang out, and generally get a flavor
of the town. ’Cause you can imagine what it’s like when on the
usual road trip bang ... you’re in, you’re out.
Your feet don’t even touch the ground, really, literally, and it can get a bit odd, you know, if you race through 20 cities like that. You start feeling a bit strange. It’s a bit like walking through walls or you know, like you’re not exactly existing in the same level or plane of reality that everyone else is ’cause you go in and out of cities so fast. It’s just bizarre. You’re not even traveling.
GO: Have you had a chance with the Mescaleros to play any long gigs like that?
JS: Well, yeah, we started doing it, let me think, in October, no November, last year when we put up for five nights at the LA Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard, and that was kinda nice. I think it gave us the [idea that] if any city’s big enough we’ll probably try and just kick in for a few days and just chill out.
GO: Plan on checking out the nightlife in Brooklyn a bit?
JS: Well, I’d like to check out whatever’s going on, even if it’s DJs or groups, or, yeah, I’d really like to have a look around. We hear there’s a renaissance in New York.
GO: Absolutely, especially in Brooklyn.
GO: You played Irving Plaza about a month after Sept. 11 [Oct. 9 and 10]. What was the mood like for those shows?
JS: Well, for us it was great because people were glad that people were coming into town. It was just the right moment, because at first, when I saw, when that thing happened and I saw we were like booked three weeks later into DC, and then New York, I thought, "God, a rock ’n’ roll group’s the last thing they’re gonna wanna hear," you know? But finally, by that time we got there, people were going, "Yeah let’s have something. Let’s go out for a night." And so, yeah, it was good.
GO: What was your take on Sept. 11? You were in England at the time?
JS: Yeah, I mean, yeah after the shock you begin to think, you have the time to evaluate what they were capable of, like did they have an encore? I think we can probably say now -- what is it six months later? -- now we can probably, hopefully think that they haven’t got anything that big in the pipeline. Maybe that was their finest hour.
GO: I guess you hope so, although the government thought the 1993 WTC bombing was the worst that could happen, too.
JS: Yeah, I see, right, God.
GO: What do you think of the U.S. response to the attacks?
I think that it had to be done, because we shagged around in
Europe when Hitler -- Hitler was putting his machine together
from about, I don’t know ’33 -- so we gave Hitler six years really,
to build that thing into a gigantic machine, and each one of
those tanks we had to fight, each one of those shells and bullets
we had to take on, boats and submarines and what have you. And
so I think that over here there’s a very much, you get brought
up with that feeling of, "Next time we don’t let ’em get
away with it."
That was always the unsaid thing in my childhood, you know, when your fathers and people would sit around talking about the war, that was the underlying theme -- alright, next time we’ll do the guy in ’36 and not wait until 1939. Fifty million people died! So, um, from over here in Europe we’re very much of the "nip it in the bud" school, ’cause who knows what the guy [Osama Bin Laden] -- you know there was definitely, he would have had a nuclear bomb for sure. For sure, he would have.
GO: You were kind of critical of former Mayor Giuliani’s enforcement of night club rules and anti-smoking regulations. What did you think about his national hero status after Sept. 11?
JS: I think he was really just magnificent, you know, and it’s kind of like, I’m kind of like a street rat moaning about it down on the street but you know, perhaps you’ve got to look at the wider aspects of getting the city free of fear and crime, which is something that we’re gonna have to do now. You know it’s getting quite out of hand here in London. I certainly wouldn’t drive around London in a car worth more than a certain amount or wear a watch worth more than a certain amount.
GO: Not just in certain areas anymore, but throughout?
JS: No, exactly, good point, everywhere. There’s a lot of gun spraying going on around here.
GO: Are these the only US dates scheduled so far?
JS: Well, yeah, they’re the only ones. Yeah. They’re kind of a one-off, ’cause really we’re in the middle of trying to come out with a new -- a new masterpiece.
GO: A new Mescaleros album?
JS: Yeah, we’re really trying to come up with something and, um, I think it’s quite good ’cause if we can get some stuff ready we might be able to bring it out and judge and get an audience reaction on it. A couple of tunes maybe. Also, it keeps you from becoming like a studio boffin. You know, you gotta get out on the road and interact with people. I think if we were an electronic dance act probably we’d sink into the studio and never come out.
GO: But you need to get that live response...
JS: You do really, yeah. I think it really helps to push your music forward, as well, because you’re not in a vacuum. In a room it’d be easy, if you kinda never came out of that room, you might spin off into your own kind of stratosphere, but taking it on the road and playing it for people is a great thing in a million ways.
GO: What do you do when you’re not touring?
JS: Well, mostly, I’m either on the phone, OK, so you can say my year, you can divide it into three really - singing and recording and writing and rehearsing with the Mescaleros, and then a third of the year talking about it on the phone to Brazil, or Czechoslovakia, Uruguay, you know these are all places that I do phone interviews to, and then the other third, get on a bus and take it out. But, uh, it is bizarre. I’d like to get rid of the phone third. (laughs)
GO: You need to get someone to do all that promotion work for you.
JS: Well, yeah, I missed the chance, ’cause Bob Dylan doesn’t have to do any. I should have -- I don’t know, just making fun. Also, I get to talk to people like you, it is fun, although I moan about it in advance, but when you actually come to do it, it is quite informative.
GO: OK, lets talk about your music a bit ...
JS: [Deadpan] Oh, f-- that.
GO: So, how did "The Minstrel Boy" wind up on the "Black Hawk Down" soundtrack?
it’s a really weird chain of events, and it again tied into New
York, but for some reason, connected to nothing really, we decided
to record that tune and then put it on the record. And of course
after the Sept. 11 s-- went down, that tune suddenly became the
famous tune at wakes and funerals for the firefighters and the
About a year before that we started to play that, as an intro number anyway - kind of weird little warm-up number - and so we continued doing that and when we hit Hollywood, or hit LA ... a music supervisor down in Hollywood was in the audience and just thought, "This is just what we need" after all the shooting and God knows what in "Black Hawk Down," for the song that would fit in the credits, the song that you get up and grab your coat to.
It got in like that.
GO: It’s a slightly different and shorter version on the soundtrack than what closes "Global A Go-Go" ...
JS: Yeah, they figured, do a bit of singing on it and stuff so we went and cut it again.
GO: The "Global A Go-Go" version is really long, but also very moving and you just sort of want to leave it on...
JS: I know, isn’t that strange? I had to decide that. I knew that there was something really strange here, a really long bit of music but there’s something mesmerizing, and there’s not a lot on that, there’s three guys twice on it, but yet it’s something and it has that vibe -- you know, it’s a first take, one of those real moments in time. I really enjoy those. But usually you hash over and over things and like re-take them, redo ’em, but now and then something pops up that’s just fine like it is.
GO: Corporate takeover, especially of artistic outlets seems to be a theme of the song, "Johnny Appleseed."
GO: Do you think there’s still bands out there, besides you guys, that are not taken up by that?
it’s always easy for us to say, ’cause I’ve got a really good
relationship with Hellcat Records, and we have a kind of punk
thing going, but punk reliant of respect. But in other situations
it’s really difficult ’cause they do have bands over a barrel.
’Cause you’re a young group, you’re teens, you want people to
hear your music, you’re in a great place to be levered, and you’ve
got really no defense from people to make it sound more bland
or take the sting out of it or whatever, when there really, there’s
a lot of carrots to be dangled.
So it’s very difficult isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but over here they’re cutting 1,800 jobs from EMI, and then they’re blaming poor Mariah Carey for it. (Laughs)
GO: There won’t be any Clash or Mescaleros songs hawking merchandise will there?
JS: Yeah, I mean, um, we’re up for anything really, but I have a kind of - we get asked a lot. Especially Clash, obviously, Clash stuff. You know we’ve turned down a lot of beer companies, some cosmetic companies, but I still think it’s good to be available. You know, I wear jeans every day, hey, why not advertise jeans?
GO: Why not get paid for it? ...
JS: Yeah, and if there was some good liquor that you thought was good, I wouldn’t balk at that either. Providing it was decent liquor and not some cheap trick stuff, but yeah I think definitely we’ve had, uh, Levi’s adverts, all kinds of things [offered].
GO: Is that something that you and Mick and Paul would have to get together and decide?
JS: Absolutely. It goes through a very rigorous -- yeah once there was a big row, I remember, about Spanish whiskey, a mark called Ballantine, and Mick was against it, and me and Paul were for it. But Mick didn’t understand that me and Paul were whiskey drinkers, therefore we knew it was a good -- it was a good, wee dram!
GO: Do you still see them from time to time?
JS: Well, mostly it’s, um, drinks at Christmas. Maybe an odd kid’s birthday party or phone or fax.
GO: "Global A Go-Go" sounds tighter than "X-Ray Style." This sounds like it was the next step ...
GO: Did you feel more confident when you went in to record this?
JS: Yeah, I think so, ’cause we’d held it together and we’d done a lot of road work, which really hammers things together. ’Cause you’re either gonna fall apart or keep it together on the road. There’s no middle way. So you get to the end of a road tour and you think, "Yeah! We’ve kept it together," and it really makes people feel strong, trust each other, you know.
GO: Is it tough, though, keeping the band together, because they get offers for other work?
JS: Yeah, this is tough, because we’re kind of bottom feeders, if you like, but it has its advantages in that we can do more daring music, and a lot of musicians kinda like that because the more wages they’re getting paid, say in a more popular band with a wider audience, the music conversely has to be less interesting. So, although we’re bottom feeders, we always seem to attract the best players on the London scene ’cause we’re the ones who are really going out there doing the maddest stuff, ’cause we’ve got nothing to lose.
GO: That’s something that the Clash always brought to every performance, that kind of ’nothing to lose’ attitude.
JS: Yeah, exactly.
GO: It’s a necessary attitude to keep it at this level ...
JS: It’s really a great thing and, you know sometimes I look at people who are top of the pops and you think, "God, they will not have any freedom." Imagine if you’re some young, U.S. punk group and just sold 2 million records, it’s gonna put a lot of pressure on you to remake that same record. That’s what kills it. They always want the same record again.
GO: Do you think that would have happened if the Clash had had that kind of success after, say, [the Clash’s second album] "Give ’Em Enough Rope"?
JS: Yeah, yeah ’cause it -- well it’s inconceivable really, at that time, that punk records ... today they sell 12 million, but "London Calling" sold 300,000. So, that would be inconceivable, but yeah, it would have happened.
GO: You booked a lot of interesting, and often local support acts, when you were on tour with the Clash. Are there gonna be any supporting acts at the St. Ann’s shows?
we’re booking, well this is what Fuzzy, the road manager, told
me, we’re booking some local acts to sort of pick them up a bit.
I don’t know exactly who they are. But I could have Fuzzy call
[Joe calls back about an hour later with the band names. On April 1, the Realistics, a NYC-based band opens; on April 2, Brooklyn’s own Nada Surf opens; on April 4, another Brooklyn band, Radio 4, opens; and on April 5, Manhattan-based Dirty Mary opens. The opening act for the April 6 closer was uncertain.]
GO: You sprinkle some Clash songs into the sets, is that something you enjoy doing or just do to appease the fans?
I think both come into play, because --
It’s my Bee Gees theory -- I don’t want to go and see the Bee Gees if they’re not at least going to play, hey, at least "Massachusetts" or "Stayin’ Alive" or "1941 Mining Disaster." And you have to look at yourself like you’re somebody who’s into the music of that person. You have to put yourself into the audience position and say well you know, what are you gonna do, come along and be like some pompous ass (breaks into cheesy rock star impersonation) and say, "Hey, this is all the new stuff off our new record. Hope you like it."
You know, you’re up there damn it, after all, to -- people want a night out, and we’ll take them into all kinds of territory, but we’re certainly going to go through the rockin’ territory or dancing territory.
GO: What was the highlight of being in the Clash and what was the worst moment?
JS: I think the worst moment was realizing that there was no way forward, like the gap between the rhetoric and the actuality. For example, talking about all the issues that the Clash raised and what your daily life would have been like if we’d have stayed together. I knew it would tear us apart, ’cause I could see after we went Top 5 with "Rock the Casbah" there was a way for us to sort of smash forward and get up there on a U2-type level, yeah. But then I realized that your whole thing could be -- get up, interview, video shoot, photo shoot -- you know, you’d never really have a life that would be real and yet you’d be expected to say something real about life to real people and make some real sense. You know, sing something really new, and you’d just, you’d end up lying.
GO: That honesty is at the heart of what the Clash meant to their fans ...
JS: Right, yeah exactly, and you have to take that in.
GO: Did playing the stadium tours in support of the Who at that point feed in to that?
JS: That added all into it, because then you could see this is how gigs would be, while we were used to very closely communicating with a crowd inside a theater, or a cinema, you know, inside a club, and this kind of hugest, sprawled out, strange - you know you’re looking at 19,000 people in Shea Stadium and you gotta realize, well a fifth of them must be going up to take a leak or buy a hotdog, so that makes about, I don’t know, 20,000 people walking around. All the time! It’s kind of very odd.
GO: Did you have any bad flashbacks when the Mescaleros opened for the Who in support of "X-Ray Style"?
JS: No, no not at all. They’re gentlemen. They treat you well and make you feel welcome and, in fact, they were better, as a musical force, this time.
GO: Is that how Roger Daltrey wound up singing on the title song of "Global A Go-Go"?
JS: Sure is (laughs). He started hanging out in our dressing room too much.
GO: Will the new album follow the global theme of the first two or are you experimenting with some new stuff?
JS: Yeah, I think we’re always trying, as we say, to push the envelope, and we’re always gonna try and inch it one way or the other. It’s hard to really say which way we’re going to inch it but we’re gonna try and get into another style maybe, slightly, or go a bit berserk. That’s basically -- we’re most happy when we’re going berserk, as all musicians are.
GO: Thanks, Joe.
JS: See you at the shows. Cheers.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros play
St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St. at New Dock Street in DUMBO)
April 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 at 8 pm. Tickets are $35 and are available
with no service charge but for cash only at the Irving Plaza
Box Office (17 Irving Place in Manhattan). They can also be purchased
at select Ticketmaster outlets and charge by phone at (212) 307-7171
or online at www.cc.com. There is a four-ticket limit per person.
The April 5 and 6 shows are sold out. For more info on Joe Strummer
and the Mescaleros, visit www.strumm