The 1980′s was a decade of excess in many people’s eyes. There are quite a few critics who still regard the music scene of that decade as fluff; where style seemed to outweigh substance. However, there was still plenty of great music being created and one of the gems that shimmered more brightly than the rest was Johnette Napolitano and her band Concrete Blonde. Co-Founded with James Mankey (guitar, bass, vox) over 30 years ago, Concrete Blonde’s musical style was quickly labeled as “alternative,” but it combined elements of rock, punk and folk into a style that set them apart. The perfect mix of musicianship paired with the introspective lyrics of Johnette was a breath of fresh air to listeners.
Concrete Blonde signed with I.R.S. Records in 1986 and unleashed their self-titled debut album on the world. The band released several more albums and hit it huge commercially in 1990 with their Bloodletting album, which contained the Top 20 hit “Joey.” The band broke up in 1993, but reunited a few times over the coming years. They released Group Therapy in 2002 and Mojave in 2004 and have been doing things pretty much on their own terms for the last few years.
That brings us to 2012 and the emergence of two new Concrete Blonde songs being released as well as a handful of East coast concert dates in the month of December. It seems as if Christmas is coming early for quite a few lucky fans this month. Speaking of luck, I had the chance to sit down and talk to co-founder, bassist and lead singer all rolled into one: Johnette Napolitano. Our insightful conversation included such diverse topics as rescue horses, the awesomeness of YouTube, her musical partnerships of 30 years and baking yummy Italian crack.
Interview with Johnette Napolitano:
Johnny/Rock Revolt: Hey Johnette! First off, let me tell you that this is a huge treat for me. There are a lot of fans, especially East coast ones, who are feeling pretty giddy right now. We have two new Concrete Blonde songs as well as a handful of East coast tour dates. One of the dates is just down the road from me in Carrboro, NC and I am so stoked for that. So, tell us about the mini-tour.
Johnette Napolitano/Concrete Blonde: We’re really excited to go out and visit some of these places that we haven’t been in a long time. So, we thought to ourselves, “Where do we want to go?” and we picked a few places – some big cities and some smaller ones.
Johnny/RR: I was really surprised when I saw you were coming to North Carolina. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that you’re coming, but what made you pick there? Is there some history there with the band?
Johnette/CB: Well, I have family in North Carolina; my grandparents lived there. The night of the North Carolina show was supposed to be an off night for us. We talked to the club about playing and they told us that they couldn’t pay us. They told us the only way that we could play is if we decided to take the door. Can you believe that? They wouldn’t pay us! Of all the shows on the tour, that’s the only one where they wouldn’t agree to pay us. We love North Carolina and we have lots of friends there, so we hope they pack that place and make that owner sorry for not agreeing to pay us (laughs). Don’t be surprised when you’re standing in line if you see me come out and pass out cookies or something to everyone to say thanks for being there.
EDITORS NOTE: The show was packed asses to elbows.
Johnny/RR: You haven’t been doing a lot of dates here in the U.S., but you seem to be pretty busy outside of the country. Is there a method to the madness there?
Johnette/CB: You’re right; the last few years we have been very busy outside of the U.S. We’ve been to China, Brazil, South America, Argentina and more, but it’s not quite the same here in the U.S.. It’s pretty difficult to play here in the States. I mean, they want to stick us with these 80s retro, package gigs and I just don’t care for that at all. I’d rather do it on our own terms and feel fresh and new just like it did when we started. The music business is in a really strange place right now.
Johnny/RR: You just released two brand new songs, “Rosalie” and “I See the Ghost.” They are both great songs and complete opposites in their style. The first is a haunting, yet beautiful ballad of a cowboy longing for his lost love, while the second is more 80s punk.
Johnette/CB: Well thank you and you are right, they are complete opposites. We decided to release it as a 7-inch single on white vinyl. It’s beautiful! “Rosalie” just didn’t seem like it belonged anywhere else. It’s not all about trying to be old school or nostalgic. I’m not a materialistic person, but to hold it in your hand is what makes it precious. You know what I mean? Do you remember your first record and the way it made you feel? That’s what I wanted the fans to feel when they get this. The physical copies will be for sale at our shows and we may go out to a few record stores while we are in town and leave a few for them to sale as well. It’s also for sale as a digital download as well.
Johnny/RR: I also heard something about a DVD being released too?
Johnette/CB: Yes, we’ve shot videos for both of the songs and we’re in the process of editing. I took the day off from rehearsal to work on it and edit it. My laptop has just about had it though. Do you remember the old saying white trash and having the new television sitting on top of the old one? Well, the modern version of that is with laptops (laughs).
Watch the Rough Cut #1 Video for “Rosalie”
Johnny/RR: (hahaha!) I can relate! Speaking of videos, you’ve had some really good ones throughout the years with very different looks and styles. Do you like making videos and would you want to go back and do any of them over again?
Johnette/CB: First off, I would have no do-overs. I love making videos and I had a lot of control in those videos. I remember the hair dresser for our video for “Everybody Knows” was also Milli Vanilli’s hair dresser and I had to fire him. I just couldn’t handle all the teasing of the hair and everything. I’m a very visual artist and when I’m writing something, I tend to think of it in pictures. Speaking of videos…I just love YouTube. Can you imagine if that had been around in the 80s? It’s such a great marketing tool!
Johnny/RR: I agree it’s a must marketing tool for bands, but at least back then MTV still played videos! Let’s talk a little bit about you and your guitarist/co-founder of Concrete Blonde, Mr. James “Jim” Mankey. You two have been working together for 30 years now. What’s your secret?
Johnette/CB: A good drummer makes it all happen (laughs). It’s very difficult, I mean, it’s not a duo – it’s a band. Whether it’s been Harry, Paul or Gabriel; it’s that poor fucker behind the kit. You need three for a majority vote. You also need good friction; just ask Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards). This art form was created for and by fifteen year old boys and you’re dealing with the male ego and that’s a very delicate thing. I always want to bring out the best in everyone, whether it’s the mailman or the bus driver or whoever. Gabriel (Ramirez Quezadahas) has been the glue for a very long time now, God bless him. He has the patience of a saint.
Johnny/RR: There have been so many changes in the music industry and with concerts in general with everything seeming to go viral instantly. Does it get on your nerves at shows when you look out and see someone filming you with their cell phone? Earlier this year, either Tommy Lee or Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue made a statement about cellphones at shows and it went viral immediately.
Johnette/CB: Yeah, they get on my nerves, but probably for a different reason. We just did a secret show in L.A. and the room that we played in was about the size of a living room in a really nice house. There was this chick about two feet in front of me who had her phone in my face the entire time. I don’t get it; why wouldn’t you want to be enjoying it in the present – in the here and now? I mean, I know you’re taping it now and you will probably watch it later and enjoy it, but you’re missing out on living in the moment. I also have a few tricks that I can use for people taking pictures all throughout the show, but I can’t tell you because then they won’t be tricks anymore! Now, the exception is when we played Peru. I actually insisted that everyone take pictures during the show. Our fans there literally have to save all year to be able to go to one of our shows, so if they want to take pictures the whole time; then go for it!
Johnny/RR: How is the Johnette of 2012 different from the Johnette from back in 1986?
Johnette/CB: Well, I am definitely older and a lot wiser. I know better now than I did back then. I’ve got my business together much better now than before. I’m in charge of my life now and I like it. I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning and I was so pumped! The art has to come first and the rest of the day is just secondary. I still approach my songwriting today as I did back then. It’s as virgin as the lily white snow; just like in the early days.
Johnny/RR: Are you still taking care of rescue horses?
Johnette/CB: Yes I am and I’m getting two more by the beginning of the new year and that’s my maximum. I don’t want to be known as the horse hoarder. They need not only food and water, but they need exercise too. If they don’t get it, then the real damage starts setting in like arthritis. I’m switching the younger one to a ranch because she needs to be able to run. The older ones just walk around at peace and that’s great because their joints just need to chill.
Johnette/CB: Tom is an old friend of Harry’s from Chicago and he came to see us play. I get really bored in the studio after three or four hours and I suggested that he come down and play. It was a great thing too because the happiest thing for me is seeing my friends happy. Tom’s a great guy; he’s married now with two beautiful kids.
Johnny/RR: Is happiness a hit single? Was “Joey” worth it?
Johnette/CB: Oh, absolutely! There’s nothing like having a hit single. I think you would have a better chance of being elected President these days and both would probably cost just as much money too (laughs)! You know, it was worth it and you want to know why? It’s because it was my song and on my terms. People really took to that song, there seemed to be a connection to it like they could relate to it.
Johnny/RR: Over the years, I have always gotten the impression that you are a very strong and determined woman. What would you say is your strongest characteristic or trait?
Johnette/CB: Aww, thank you. You know that probably is my strongest trait – my strength. I also have a lot of faith too. We tend to complicate things too much. We just need to surf it out and everything will be o.k…everything will be cool. You know, anything that happens between birth and death is up to you.
Johnny/RR: Ok then, let me flip that around and ask you what trait needs to be worked on?
Johnette/CB: I definitely need to work on my patience. After all these years, I need to learn to be more patient. Some of my dearest friends are in their 80s and 90s and I asked them what I need to do to live a long life like they have. You know what they said? One word: patience.
Johnny/RR: You know, it’s amazing how much we can learn from taking the time to talk to an elderly person. They’re such a source of wisdom and inspiration and we take them for granted.
Johnette/CB: Absolutely, I agree with you. I met this gentleman in a pub while we were on tour not too long ago. He was a veteran from World War I. How many times in your lifetime are you going to run into someone like that? He was in a wheelchair and I sat there and talked to him and it was fascinating. He taught me these old songs and we sang together. I even took him places and bought him groceries. He was just so fascinating and full of life.
Johnny/RR: That’s extremely cool and sounds like it was a reciprocally great meeting of the minds. Well, as much as I hate to do this, I think it’s time to start wrapping this interview up. What does the future hold in store for Concrete Blonde?
Johnette/CB: You know, I only plan things out in three-month cycles now. We had to postpone touring Brazil because I fell off my horse and hurt myself. We’re going to possibly be doing a one-off in Hawaii and we’re also going to focus on Europe. We haven’t been there in about ten years, although we did go to London about eight or nine years ago. We’re also going to be going to South American as well. We may be doing some festivals in the summer here in the U.S., so stay tuned!
Johnny/RR: Wow, it sounds like there will be a lot of happy fans in the upcoming months. Johnette, this has been an absolute treat and I can’t wait to see you in a few weeks at the show in North Carolina. I know I‘ve taken up a lot of your time today and I truly want to thank you.
Johnette/CB: I’ve enjoyed it and thanks for taking the time to interview me! I took today off to get some things done like the video and stuff and to get ready to do some baking tomorrow. It’s an old recipe of my aunt’s and we jokingly call it “Italian crack” because they’re addicting. I’m going to bake up a big batch of them, they’re delicious. I’ll give you the recipe!
Johnny/RR: Well, I think I may have to try my luck at making that for our Christmas bash. They may end up being the hit of the party! Happy Holidays Johnette and here’s to an awesome rest of 2012 and a great 2013 for you and Concrete Blonde.
~ Johnny Price, Journalist – RockRevolt™Magazine
WRITER’S NOTE: Sorry, but I’m not going to share Aunt Kay’s sacred family recipe with everyone. In case you couldn’t tell from the picture, the “Italian crack” is a type of bread and cheese mixture that’s baked in the oven. I thought some of you might want some clarification on that.