In 1989 I sat on a tour bus with a newly reformulated Concrete Blonde featuring the bands original line up plus one. The album “Free” had just been released and the band was appearing in Denver. Here is a look at the conversation we had.
Johnette Napolitano – vocals
James Mankey – guitars
Harry Rushakoff – drums
Alan Bloch – bass
KUCB – Matthew Hundley and David Delaski
In 1986, Jim Mankey, Johnette Napolitano and Harry Rushakoff joined forces as Concrete Blonde for a self-titled debut on I.R.S. Records. The first album garnered some praise from alternative press critics.
For their second release, “Free,” Napolitano handed over bass duties to new member Alan Bloch, allowing her to concentrate on singing. It was on this tour that I joined Concrete Blonde on their tour bus for conversation along with then KUCB Music Director David Delaski.
Johnette: Did you get me a beer Al?
Alan: Yeah – but I gave it to these guys.
Johnette: Oh – that’s okay.
Alan: No I’ll get you one.
Johnette: I don’t need one.
Alan: But I’m a nice enough guy.
Johnette: I think we should ask you guys the questions. Have you heard the first album?
Johnette: Do you have the second album?
Johnette: Which one do you like better?
KUCB: For me the 2nd album had a better flow and a better over all feel.
KUCB: They’re just totally different. Not only the sound but now you’ve added a fourth member.
Johnette: Did you see us when we were a three piece?
KUCB: I caught you at the Axis in Boston. I believe you were fighting the flu Johnette. Jim you blew me away with your playing. Actually your show was tremendous. Made it hard to go back to the first LP.
KUCB: So if you were pretty tremendous as a three piece – why the move to four?
Johnette: Let’s ask Alan. Alan, these guys want to know about Concrete Blonde as a four piece.
Alan. It’s good. It’s a laugh a minute. Sound wise it helps a lot having four of us on stage. It’s really great to have musicians on stage with me that are better than I am. It pushes me a bit – which is good.
Johnette: Oh you should never have said that.
Harry: But it’s true.
Alan: For years I’ve been playing in bands where I’ve had to push people to do stuff. This is the first time I’ve played with people who are at the level I want to be playing at.
Harry: He’s a great bass player.
Johnette: He’s pretty good.
Harry: I saw his last band and you were better than all of them. You were just playing with guys who couldn’t play.
Johnette: Okay. He’s a pretty great bass player.
KUCB: So Johnette, does this allow you to do things vocally that you were unable to do when you were covering bass as well?
Johnette: Oh yeah, well I wasn’t sure at first but these guys say that I do – I think I do. I have a really good time now, it’s really no problem. I don’t dread the shows like I used to because I knew that I’d make so many mistakes and I knew that’d it’d be so much work. But now it’s just fine, I can go up and sing and have a good time – that’s what it’s about.
<Conversation about mic Johnette had been using and other tech talk.>
KUCB: I have heard your key influences call back to the late sixties, is this true?
Johnette: I don’t know.
James: I was alive in the sixties.
Johnette: He has a lot of sixties influences.
Harry: Everybody is different ages in this band so we listen to a variety of different stuff. We all come from different places.
Johnette: Yesterday we all bought cassettes. What’d you buy Harry?
Harry: I bought Grand Funk Railroad.
Johnette: I got Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits.
James: Your influences date back to the fifties.
Johnette: I don’t think there’s any one era that I listen to entirely. There’s a lot of new stuff I like as well. I was just listening to the Dead Kennedy’s and remembering how much I like them. I like The Cramps, The Lords of the New Church and stuff like that.
KUCB: How about influences from a vocal perspective?
KUCB: Let’s talk about the L.A. scene…is it good to get out?
Johnette: We don’t play L.A. very often.
Harry: Hardly at all.
Alan: We played one show just before we left. Before that it had been like eight months.
Johnette: We had played a show under a different name with some friends, but that was a special bill that we did together.
Harry: But as Concrete Blond it’s been a while.
KUCB: How long were you playing around L.A. trying to make it before things began to roll and the first album emerged and all?
Johnette: We’re from L.A. so that was where we played. Jim and I have been playing together since 1982. We put an ep out as Dream 6 which did well everywhere except L.A. It got the attention of record companies and stuff. We started talking seriously with a couple of labels and we had a demo deal with one of them. They were total idiots. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t even like the songs and I’m not sure why they bothered. We did want to do it. So we decided to record our own record again as Dream 6 on our own Happy Hermit label. We had also put out a record for a hardcore band that included my room mate and Jim’s brother. We had recorded the first Dream 6 album all by ourselves and it did fine. We started recording the second album and basically Miles Copeland heard it, we were about three songs into it, and he said he’d put the record out. We were going to put this out by ourselves anyway and we could’ve done it, that’s just how it was we had day jobs to make money and instead of spending it on clothes, or cars, or drugs, of whatever, you just put it into the record—it’s part of the experience. And we knew there was an audience and we were happy releasing records on our own, but then Miles heard it and IRS wanted it, and this was all like icing on the cake. Of course then you achieve a different status and you get into it and it’s a bigger deal and there’s more money and it’s “real” and there is touring; of course there are also problems that come with this as well. There are people who want to control your project and who seek to influence you, and it takes time to sever ties and ultimately to get back in control of the band. And money is still an issue in life and you need to get to the point where rent is paid and you’ve got to buy an RV for touring—otherwise it’s like 14 hours in a car and your doing things you wouldn’t do for your day job of even for school. The whole driving all day, playing for a couple hours, getting 7 hours sleep, getting up and then doing it again. It’s really hard sometimes. I’m not complaining, because I love playing music. But if you’re playing music when you get to a certain point it’s so little of your time, the rest of it is a lot of other stuff—logistical stuff you know. Anyhow our latest record “Free” we started a while back and finished recording and then decided to put it out on our own.
KUCB: So you had complete control of this record? You produced it yourselves and all that.
Johnette: It was born out of necessity at the time, but I think that from now we’ll do it this way.
KUCB: So how does the writing process work.
Harry: Johnette writes all the lyrics. She sometimes writes the tunes too. But most of the time she writes all the lyrics and something just happens in rehearsal and everybody starts coming in with things and she says “this sounds good for something I have.”
KUCB: One of the things I noticed on “Free” was the continuity between songs—the album flows well.
Johnette: With this release we played all the material out on tour before we recorded it.
KUCB: And it shows. With “(album before free)” there was a definite lack of continuity. And you had a number of different styles of music going on.
Johnette: It was made in the studio and we didn’t have Harry (or Allen). So we got in there and all the songs were written in the studio since we were having problems with the band.
KUCB: So what has the response been to the new album…to “Free?”
Johnette: It has been good…favorable…as they say.
Harry: Some girl gave it a bad review, but I didn’t read it.
KUCB: How does this material play out live?
Johnette: We’re just having a great time.
Harry: We get a great response from the live crowds.
KUCB: So lets go back to some of the ancient history stuff. Like how you came up with the name Concrete Blonde. I heard rumor that Michael Stipe from REM gave you the name. Of course it says in another article that Miles Copeland gave you the name.
Johnette: That’s not true. We were Dream 6 as you know. And we were making the record for our own label and Miles heard it and he called me up and I still had my day job and everything and he goes, “This is great.” You have to understand we’ve been through two demo deals with major labels that didn’t work out, they thought the songs were bad, they thought the musicians were bad, and it was just not good. So by the time Miles heard it and wanted to put it out as an independent relase we were so happy that we didn’t care. So he goes, “Dream Syndicate, Dreams So Real, Dream Academy. If I were you I’d change the name of the band.” We were just happy to get our product out there, so this friend of mine was hanging out with Michael Stipe. Michael says, “Concrete Blonde would be a good name for a band.” So I’m like, he said it so it can’t be bad and nobody at IRS would care and it’s cool, they guy can definitely put some weird words together. So it’s cool. I’m flattered. I really like REM, they are some really cool people. They are real nice. I through they might be the first band to win a Nobel Peace Prize. I’m glad they got big. I know people give them a lot of crap, but they worked really hard for a real long time.