all photos by Mel Mudkiss: for more of her great photos please go to Mel Mudkiss website
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John Robb went to interview Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl from Ghost Of A Saber
Charlotte: We would write very complicated stuff when we were writing with the piano or the guitar, when it was just he and I, we would just keep throwing out more weird chords and we’d have 17 sections and all these chords. So we decided recently to just start writing with him on drums and me on bass or him on guitar and me on drums- vary it around. When we write like that it keeps it simpler and more rhythmic based and we enjoy writing like that more now.
Sean: This record represents the period of both styles of writing, meaning like the traditional songs that we just wrote sitting around like ‘Johannesburg’ which we wrote in our house but later on songs like ‘Animals’ and the newer songs like ‘Too Deep’ were more jam based.
JR: When you’re jamming how do you know the point when it’s finished, does it feel finished or do you just run out of time?
Charlotte: We’ve recorded our jam to our tape machine, we have an Ampex 8-track, we’d record 15 minutes and then we just cut out the best two or three minutes.
Sean: A lot of the jams we just throw away and say that sucked. It’s not like we just jam and then it’s done. We jam a lot of different things and once something sticks out, you know, we use it. I think everyone does it that way these days.
JR: When you say you record and pick out the best parts, is that like the way Can would do it in the krautrock days? They would jam for ours and record everything and then splice all the bits together into songs.
Sean: Yes, except we’re not as abstract as Can, our verses and choruses are shorter. They would go on for 30 minutes for one verse sometimes- which sounds great but different.
JR: But they cut their long sections down from 3 hour jams!
Sean: I mean I love Can, especially when Damon Suzuki joined the band. Those guys are cool, we love all those kinds of bands, seventies underground bands like Harmonia and Silver Apples, but our music is more constructed than that I think. In a way I feel like we would like to be influenced by bands like Can and Silver Apples just for that grooviness but then we are also really into people like Dylan and people who have lots of words and songs, so we try to combine melodic things- I guess we are kind of a mishmash of a bunch of stuff.
JR: Kind of everybody is now, there’s so much stuff to listen to all the time, it all just gets mixed up.
Sean: Maybe it’s always been like that. Last night I watched a documentary on Brahms. It was really interesting. There was one symphony where he opens with an exact quote from a Bach piece and then develops that through the symphony and by the end he quotes Beethoven’s 9th- which is kind of his history of music but he quotes it in such a way that it’s an exact quote while it’s also being a counterpoint. So it’s sort of disguised and it’s also developing and then he also goes away from it. He wasn’t copying those things. He was saying this is the past and it has influenced me and we also need to escape it. Ultimately it’s a tribute to the past while also making a mishmash of all the things he loved while moving on from it as well.
JR: So it’s always gone on, everyone’s been doing it forever…
Charlotte: Brahms was the original sampler, hip-hop style. He was sampling Bach and Beethoven. (smiles)
Sean: Not many people know his real name was MC Brahms! There was MC Escher and MC Brahms, those were the first two MCs…(laughs)
JR: When you say you’re into Dylan for the words, and the music is wordy as well, are the words abstract? of course it doesn’t really matter if the words have meanings. They can sound great and that can be enough but, in your case, do they actually have anything that you are trying to convey with the words?
Charlotte: It’s like with another one of our favourite lyricists, Syd Barrett. Lyrically he does surrealism to the extreme. We like to still have an underlying meaning that’s comprehensible and not to drown too much in abstraction but we do like the surrealist flavour.
Sean: It depends on the song. With some of them we were more casual about it, like when we did ‘Too Deep’. But then with some of them we really got into it like with ‘Great Expectations’. Not all the songs are the same in terms of the way we deal with the lyrics.
Charlotte: Some are more literal and some are more abstract. But we are as much influenced by surrealist painters and writers from Salvador Dali to James Joyce as people in music.
JR: Are you trying to catch the atmosphere of the painting- is that the influence? Because obviously you can’t stick a painting into the song!
Charlotte: Yes, or we just like the idea of the juxtaposition of disparate universes.
Sean: You can even get a word from looking at a painting if you just look at something that’s crazy and describe it.
Charlotte: Like Dali’s melting clocks and his elephants with spider legs, that kind of stuff is a huge influence.
JR: It’s not like you’re putting melting clocks into a song, it’s just a feel.
Sean: It pretty much is though! We would change it a little bit if we wanted as well.
Charlotte: We would say some words like that, or describe a surrealist landscape.
Sean: We really like the idea of synesthesia. People like Beethoven or certain great writers like Nabokov were totally synesthetic. It’s cool- the idea of smelling sound and hearing colours. We like to be influenced by paintings for words and words for sound. We like to be influenced by images for music. It’s a good way to not get stuck.
JR: I think Captain Beefheart was like that. He used to tell the band to write him a song that was the colour purple. That was their task for the afternoon.
Sean: Syd Barrett was like that too! I was just reading the biography. Apparently every song and every verse had a different colour circle around it and that represented the mood. He had a big book with each song in there when he was on fire and he wrote most of classics within 6 months.
JR: Then he had the breakdown or whatever happened and after that he hardly wrote anything.
Charlotte: He couldn’t write because of the medication, right?
JR: The medication he was taking, yes. Well, the acid burned him out as well, the bad trip.
Charlotte: Then the anti psychotic medication makes you really uncreative.
JR: That was after that, when he went home. Even in the tail end of London he seemed completely burned out. When he took the very strong acid, they always say when he came back from the weekend in the country he was completely changed. people say that when hey looked into his eyes they’d gone completely black and blank, there was nothing there.
Charlotte: Wow, that’s so sad…
JR: He wasn’t a vegetable though like people make out. He did have some sort of life in Cambridge but quite a solitary one.
Sean: I do know people who sadly have gone mad and they also took some drugs and I think it’s not that drugs make you mad, it’s that if you’re gonna go mad drugs will be the catalyst for it.
JR: He was ok on the acid for the first couple of years.
Sean: I actually think that’s how mental illness works. He would have had a predisposition to schizophrenia or bi-polar which would have manifested eventually in his thirties but it can also be triggered by LSD.
Charlotte: But I think schizophrenic people write beautiful words, because they’re able to associate words that most people wouldn’t associate.
Sean: It’s sad once they’re gone but my point is that it would have happened to Syd anyway. The LSD is a trigger for it, it doesn’t create it from scratch. Even the drummer says it just shows that acid is so dangerous and I think not many people know that there’s a relationship between mental disease and psychedelics, and psychedelics will be the catalyst for triggering it but those people will already have had a predisposition.
JR: For Syd it opened up a Pandora’s box. If it hadn’t been for that one weekend apparently he would have been alright but I think also you have to add on the fact that he lost control of the band and that must have hurt.
Sean: I’m sure he was really depressed about that.
JR: Yeah, it was a great platform for him to do all that great stuff.
Sean: It must have been hard for him too because he was friends with Dave Gilmour, they were best friends and then Dave joined the band and the two of them played together briefly which must have been strange. I don’t know the whole history, I am just reading about it now.
JR: Dave Gilmour to this day says he wishes he had gone round to see Syd but he figured he would just got stuff thrown at him and chased down the drive if he had gone round to his house.
Sean: They didn’t pick him up for that gig did they? that’s how he was not in Pink Floyd any more, that was the famous moment. Who knows what would have happened if he had stayed in the band.
JR: He kept turning up after that though. He turned up at a Pink Floyd gig about a year later and sat at the front staring at them. And when he turned up at the studio in 1974 for that famous and strange moment it seemed like he was definitely trying to freak them out. When they were recording ‘Wish You Were Here’, they didn’t know he was there. They turned round and he looked so fucked up. He was holding a tooth brush and jumping up and down brushing his teeth. I reckon he did that just to freak them out.
Charlotte: I wonder if he was fucking with them.
JR: I think he was fucking with them. I think he was fucked up but he wasn’t as much of a vegetable as people were making out.
Charlotte: He was always fucking with them wasn’t he, like when they rehearsed and he wrote that song at the end and called it ‘Have you got it yet’ because that was what he kept saying to them as he taught them this song that kept changing.
JR: At the same time the demos for the second album that never came out, they’re great, if you compile them you can almost make the second Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd album and I love that record- Vegetable Man, In the Beachwoods, Scream Thy Last Scream- those are great tunes.
Charlotte: That would be amazing. You know they are doing that now with Dylan’s basement tapes, they’re releasing a whole new Dylan record. He’s not even dead though! It’s just all his old basement recordings from him and the band from his prime. They are doing that with Michael Jackson too.
JR: That’s not quite as exciting!
Charlotte: it’s creepy. I’d hate it if people found all of my old unfinished work. If I was famous and died, I would hate for people to find all my shitty unfinished work and released it to the world.
JR: When you love a band, all that stuff is the best though. Like the Stooges first album. There’s hundreds of demos and versions and rehearsal tapes and you just get the whole lot.
Charlotte: Have you heard Hendrix’s ones? They’re really bad! All his shitty unreleased stuff.
Sean: It’s not all really bad though, ‘Nine to the Universe’ is pretty amazing.
Charlotte: When I got it I felt so excited, but most of them are really mediocre jams, I understand why it was never released.
JR: That’s the trick, quality control is a big thing and that’s why they were never released at the time!
Sean: Luckily all of our stuff is just going to evaporate into the ether.
JR: That’s what you think!
Sean: In 10 years do you think you are gonna have all the data you have now on your computer? No way!
JR: But that’s what people said about loads of things. People always used to say tapes will disappear but if you bake them you can still keep most of the stuff.
Sean: Comparatively it’s getting worse and worse. If you look at Charlie Chaplin’s films compared to hieroglyphics or cuneiform writing which are set in stone and outlasting the films. The way that we keep data is more and more transient. Now it’s the most transient it’s ever been. So we’re not gonna have to worry so much about our demos. They’re just gonna evaporate.
JR: I just think you’re lucky if anybody cares and they want your rehearsal tapes! That means there must have been some good work to balance the bad work. Some people’s rehearsal tapes are brilliant. Marc Bolan for instance, every single rehearsal tape I’ve heard of him could be a crap jam and then he starts singing and you go ‘Wow!’ because the magic starts. Then 10 seconds later he goes ‘stop, stop, that’s not working!’ And you’re going no no, carry on! because it’s another piece of genius disappearing into the ether. I think he could hear it in his head but it wasn’t going there so he would just stop.
Sean: Syd was like that too. He would start singing and then he’s like, ‘oh fuck sorry!’
Charlotte: Yeah, he hits that bad note and then you can hear him talking to the engineer really embarrassed on the outtakes from those solo records.
JR: So you don’t mind collecting other people’s outtakes but you’re worried about your own!
Sean: I really am not worried about our own! First of all because I’m sure nobody would care about mine but I also think all that data is going to be gone.
JR: It’s interesting that we’re talking about the classics here, the museum piece rock & roll. But what about your contemporaries, are there any contemporary people that you’re interested in?
Charlotte: Nothing really blows me away these days but I am very impressed by a few bands like Tune Yards and St Vincent.
Sean: There’s a lot of bands that we’re friends with and we love, but I think we’re all in the same boat. We look to the past in a way because there was this sort of renaissance and this explosion of newness and creativity that happened between the mid Sixties to the mid Seventies. Somehow we are still uncovering all of these lost albums from that period. There’s something amazing about the novelty of hearing a new record that you hadn’t heard from 1968 or something. That’s where our heads are at more. There’s a lot of cool bands and there’s a lot of talent in the world but there’s something about that period that we really get excited about.
Charlotte: There was something about the Sixties and early Seventies that was special musically, that I don’t think anyone has really improved upon.
JR: Charlotte:, how old are you?
Charlotte: I just turned 27 a few weeks ago.
JR: Because they have that saying; Old people like young people’s music and young people like old people’s music! and I guess because I’m older I’m more interested in what’s going on now as well. You can’t get rid of the old stuff because it’s always on your back the whole time. And you love it, but you always want to know what the next thing is.
Sean: I was talking about the stuff that’s new to *me* that is old. When I started music, because I was Lennon’s son, everyone was like ‘why would you do music anyway’ and ‘everything’s been done’ and ‘you’ll never do anything as good as him so why bother’. For me it was never about that. There’s something exciting about writing a new song, even if it isn’t better than what’s been happening before. The fact that it’s new and it’s a new experience, that in itself is worth making art for me. It’s not about just trying to be better than something, it’s about the fun of experiencing something new and the novelty of that. I’m just obsessed with looking through old music, especially because online you can find so much stuff. I have hours of compilations of Algerian dance music from the 40’s- stuff like that.
JR: Like the Rai music? or the Gnawa from Morocco.
Sean: I love that stuff too. I mean in general I am discovering so much in the last few years because of the archival aspect of being able to hear everything. So that’s where we are at more.
JR: In the context of this conversation, it puts you in an interesting position because you’re making new music, and not by your fault but with your DNA there’s a past surrounding you. That could be frustrating because you don’t get judged as you are really are, do you?
Sean: I think everyone has that to a degree but I have it worse than people who’s parents weren’t famous musicians. I feel that in a way the novelty of me being Lennon’s son has gotten old to a lot of people, I feel like they’re less annoyed by it or something. I feel like I have been around long enough now. In the beginning they were like ‘how dare you do music’, whereas now I feel like they are more used to me. They are ready to let me be me, at least.
JR: I think you’re one of the few people with well-known parents who actually makes music that stands up. I’m not going to mention names because it’s pointless, but there’s a lot of people who are definitely trading on the past or striving for the past, for their heritage, and they can’t get anywhere near. But you’ve stepped out and found your own sound, is that because of you specifically or is it because you work in a team?
Sean: It’s definitely because of my relationship with Charlotte: and also because of a lot of relationships with other great musicians and it’s about the amount of time I put in. My first tour was when I was eighteen years old, so I have been doing it a long time now. I made a lot of music that I regret, I went through a lot of periods of totally not understanding how anything worked.
JR: You took a long time off as well didn’t you.
Sean: It wasn’t so much time off, I just wasn’t recording and touring. I am empathetic to those people you are talking about who maybe haven’t quite figured themselves out yet. It’s a circuitous route finding your voice when everyone’s like ‘your dad’s in this band and your mum’s whoever’ and it makes you feel like you’re lost in a forest. Art is like that in general and life is like that for everyone anyway. I know what you’re saying but I also do empathise. I think it’s just about time really, it took a lot of time for me to just relax into it.
J:R Charlotte:, what was it like for you entering that world, doing the music with Sean, does it bring different pressures than if you did it on your own or if you were in a normal band?
Charlotte: Oh yeah, I definitely get the carry-over of all of his baggage.
Sean: You’re lucky there’s a little less weirdos than when I first started!
Charlotte: Yes, there’s a few less creepy stalkers. I am used to it, I feel like there has not been any profitable nepotism involved with dating Sean or being Sean, in fact there’s just been reverse nepotism.
JR: I actually think it makes it harder. You have to be twice as good to get to where you would have been.
Charlotte: Exactly. It makes it way harder to get accpeted, for both of us. On his last solo record Sean wrote everything and played mostly everything and everyone was like that Lennon kid can just afford to get any musician to play everything for him, they didn’t realise he plays everything, better than any musician I’ve ever met!
Sean: I remember Howard Stern making fun of me, saying ‘Listen to him, he’s still trying to put out music. That guitar solo’s good but I guarantee you that guitar player is probably…’ he said some famous guy, I forget. But it was me! And I thought could you just turn over the fucking album and look at the credits! Even some of my fans during the Friendly Fire days would come to the show and say ‘I didn’t realise that was you playing the guitar’. It’s a strange assumption to make, when someone makes an album, to assume they aren’t playing.
JR: That would be like most pop records though that are made with session players. Your records are art records though, where even if you couldn’t play guitar you would still play guitar…
Charlotte: We’re very independent. Usually in the studio it’s just us and sometimes an engineer. We do everything ourselves, it’s very hands on.
Sean: We’ve been doing really well. NME was really mean about my first album when I was 21 and now they really love this one, they write about us nicely. England has been very nice and the shows have been fun. I feel like I have definitely turned a corner in my career and you definitely helped me Charlotte: but you didn’t have to go through the first part and that’s good.
Charlotte: The Dante’s Inferno part…
Sean: It was also a big help for me to have a band and not be “Sean Lennon- the solo artist” which in itself was awkward enough being the “son of”, and to be expressing a personal view of another person’s ideas- it was just too much to take, so being in a band is so much cooler. And obviously her talent, it was a huge inspiration, like an explosion. It was like my first LSD trip. I just really opened up a lot and I’ve learned a lot and I still do. It was like one of those chemistry things and now we have a band so I don’t have to go around like “I’m Sean Lennon”, which is just not as fun either. I like to collaborate.
Charlotte: He’s such a team player and creatively generous and he doesn’t necessarily need to be in the spotlight. Everyone is always trying to push him more in the spotlight but he’s so shy and generous. He’s always like ‘I’m fine over here playing guitar’. He’s the opposite of a diva.
Sean: I’m an avid! I don’t mind being a side man, because I was, in the beginning when I played bass for my mom. I also played bass for Cibo Matto for five years, that was one of my first tours. I do like being on the side because you get all the fun of playing the gig without having to support the energy of the whole show.
JR: Do you think that’s because you grew up sort of in the spotlight and being in the spotlight is not important to you? It’s a distraction for so much art nowadays.
Charlotte: He has an aversion to that kind of attention.
Sean: You’re probably right but I honestly don’t know. It could be a generational thing.There’s a lot of articles about how the younger generation are more cocky, self entitled and less empathetic than the older ones because of some evolutionary reason in terms of how to survive the strangeness of modernity, that you have to become a little less empathetic.
Charlotte: You’re talking about my generation now. This generation is all about being neurotic and self-deprecating being cool.
Sean: Beck and I were just talking about this, about when we were starting out it was cool to doubt yourself and now it isn’t.
Charlotte: That’s because you guys were coming out of the Eighties when everyone was so coked out.
Sean: Even in the Sixties they were so fucking cocksure, then we grew up in a post- Woody Allen light, existentially questioning yourself all the time. So now I am split between the two mind sets…
JR: How old are you now?
Sean: I am almost 39.
JR: It’s weird, you’re almost a veteran now. I still think of you being like a kid.
Charlotte: Everyone thinks of him like a kid because he is, he looks like a little boy.
Sean: That’s why I have the long beard, because when I shave it and cut my hair I look so young because of my Asian thing so I need to make it clear that I am not a child.
Charlotte: He’s are also very childlike.
Sean: In the best ways.
JR: Do you think being in pop music or making music or art makes you live in a strange bubble of youth, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Sean: I think that’s the whole point. There’s a Syd Barrett interview where he says what he’s trying to do is always recreate that moment when you first find crayons as a kid or when you first pick up a guitar and the enthusiasm is so natural, there’s no thought and there’s no hesitation. I think that is the goal, to find enthusiasm and that’s why so many people look in so many other directions- whether it’s beer or drugs or meditation or just being an asshole, whatever it is that gets you into a heightened state of mind.
I think the point is to transcend your bullshit daily mundane life and try to find something a bit magical. I liked it when Syd said that. I’m not saying I know how to do that but I relate to that idea. I don’t want to overthink this. It’s called inspiration I guess and it’s very elusive obviously but there’s two different philosophies; W. Somerset Maugham, the guy who wrote ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, he said that he only writes when inspiration strikes him, luckily it’s every morning at 9am. Whereas other writers like Henry Miller wouldn’t write for days and then he’d say ‘an entire novel just came into my head because I got drunk and had an orgy.’
JR: Which category do you fall into?
S: Hmm… No comment!
Charlotte: He’s more the on-a-whim creative and I’m more every day workaholic which is where the friction in our relationship lies, it’s the thing we fight over most.
Sean: I’m definitely not a crazy alcoholic type like Henry Miller, I feel more integrated than that, I have both sides in my personality. I don’t miss shows and fuck things off, I just like to have a bit of fun when I am writing.
JR: I guess music is where you find the magic.
Sean: Yeah, and I like drawing as well and we also both like making little film clips which are getting longer and longer or shorter and shorter depending on how you look at it.
Charlotte: We just made this short film, now we have to score it.
JR: Surely that’s the easy bit, you’ve got the band!
Charlotte: Yeah it’s gonna be fun, we’re gonna do our Atom Heart Mother shit.
JR: What shall we expect tonight, are you going to play the songs as they are or are you going to go off on tangents.
Charlotte: It’s going to be all Barbra Streisand covers!
Sean: First of all I really like our band the way we sound but we are just now approaching the jamming off longer bits thing, we don’t do that a lot, we tend to play the same number of bars. It looks like this venue has a good sound system. I’ve played Manchester before, I came here opening for Morcheeba when I was a kid with one of my first albums. It was fun!
JR: So have you not toured that much then?
Sean: I have toured a lot, just not in the UK. It’s just about where people want you to be. There was more demand this time than there was last time.
JR:There’s a lot of psychedelic music about at the moment, you were ahead of the game.
Sean: I guess there was something in the air, probably has to do with everyone finding music online or something, we didn’t expect it. I feel lucky for that. Everything seems to be working out, this is the best time I’ve had in England touring wise….
At this point Sean and Charlotte: slipped off to do their soundcheck – a rambling and brilliant psyche jam and a great hint at the gig that was coming up later which we reviewed here.