Twenty years ago, post-punk band Concrete Blonde surprised the world by taking mainstream America with their top 20 radio hit "Joey." Although the band has, according to mercurial singer Johnette Napolitano, "officially retired," die-hard fans (myself included) rejoiced when news broke that the band was touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their most commercially viable album, Bloodletting. Concrete Blonde perform tonight at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles. Napolitano talks to OC Weekly about why they won't perform all the tracks from Bloodletting in its entirety, writing books and how she dislikes the anniversary reissue of Bloodletting. OC Weekly (Lilledeshan Bose): You said that the 20th anniversary reissue of your 1990 album Bloodletting was unauthorized. What would you have rather seen in the reissue?
Johnette Napolitano: We never saw it and never knew about it. Nobody told us. When I found out about it I asked the label to send me one because I really wanted to participate in pushing it. What I would have rather seen is a photo of the right band. Paul Thompson of Roxy Music was our drummer on 'Bloodlettiing' and they used in the package a very early photo of us with one of our original drummers, Harry Rushakoff. It was either a lame mistake or they deliberately used younger photos for marketing purposes, which is even worse. I was pissed off at that, and the bottom line is I don't need your stinkin' reissue.
I really wanted to help promote it but the only reason I'm still here and going is because I fought like hell for every damn thing I wanted perfect. It's a shame because I hear the label is a good company but that was just lame. They could have called, you know, for all the money they put into it, why not just do it right? I have tons of photos of us from that tour with Paul, really cool stuff by some seriously world famous photographers and I could have really helped to make that an amazing package. Blow me.
What was the impetus for the reunion tour? Was it difficult to get everyone together?
Not at all. The guys were thrilled. When people started calling and mentioning it was the twentieth anniversary, it seemed like a big deal..it seemed like this was the year to do it. My dad's passing had everything to do with it. The first thing he would have said is "Are you going to make any money?" But he was so proud of the band.
It was suggested, as is the trend, to play the entire album but not only would that bore me straight to hell every night, the fans that were with us in the early days when we were all sharing one hotel room and driving 12 hours every day between gigs, you know, basically playing for beer, deserve to hear their favorites, too.
You've written a book. What is it called and what is it about? Do you prefer writing to touring/writing songs?
The book is called Rough Mix and once again, my dad's passing kicked my ass into doing the "bucket list" of things I've always wanted to do. I'm having a great time out here [touring] but I can't see myself doing it forever. I'll never stop recording, but I've wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I was the kid who would be reading and writing and drawing in the classroom while the other kids were at recess. It's a graceful thing to do at a certain point in life; and God knows I've got the stories.
There are stories behind some of the lyrics in Rough Mix that I've never told and I know the fans are digging it. Lots of drawings. I'm going to do one every year now, at least, it was so much fun to work on. But if this one was my last I would be happy with it. I did it. You can't measure your accomplishments against anyone else. You know when you've achieved for yourself, and I'm very proud of it.
Are you and the rest of Concrete Blonde thinking about recording new songs/a new album?
No. I would never say never but I'll be glad to get back to my solo album I'm working on, get back down to New Orleans to work with Ven Pa Ca, a flamenco company I cosmically met up with down there. I've been studying flamenco for 20 years, I've studied in Spain, and I learned more about flamenco singing sitting in the French Quarter drinking wine in John Lawrence's (Ven Pa Ca's guitarist/founder) car in an hour than I have in 20 years of classes.
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You talked about being in a not-good place when Bloodletting was made. What have you learned about your musical career since?
I learned that I did everything right for myself and my band. I was called difficult, and thank God I was, or I would not be here. We'd already been together 10 years then; and non-stop touring and isolation and back then there were no cellphones, no way to stay grounded, no way to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. It was really, really hard, and I was very unhappy. I was whipped like a horse and it just wasn't healthy. I had ideas that weren't being supported by the label, and it upset me, because the only thing keeping me sane through it all was the art I was trying to create and I wasn't getting the support. I had to fucking beg to make a video for "Joey." I seriously had to threaten to throw a stapler through a window. I hated being that way but you know what? Shit got done.
What do you think about vampires as a renewed cultural phenomenon for teens because of the Twilight series? Do you think there's any relation to your songs?
- I haven't seen any of the new vampire stuff, but horror movies and sci-fi and all that never really goes out of style. Every generation discovers all that, it's no surprise to me. It's fantasy, like Harry Potter, and fantasy is good. We need fantasy.
What's the best part about touring as Concrete Blonde again?
My tour manager surprised me with the new Eminem album, 'cause I'm a big fan. The first track of the new Eminem album had me in tears, he was saying exactly how I feel on this tour. I've been labeled crazy, difficult, a tyrant, a junkie, people were counting on me to be dead by now. I'm not only alive but I feel good, I'm in better shape, mentally and physically, then I've ever been and I'm a better player and singer than I was 20 years ago. I'm far enough away from the songs to enjoy them along with everyone else as just good songs, and not personal torturous expression. I'm a very happy, lucky chick.
It's been just one big smile every night seeing how happy people are to hear these songs. I'm blessed to be able to make people happy for a couple hours, everything's so weird. People feel very helpless about the Gulf, the wars, everything. Allow me to lift you off the planet for a a little while. My honor and pleasure.