With the Sketchbook series, former Concrete Blonde frontwoman Johnette Napolitano finally makes the music she always dreamed about. Between songs on this tour, which stops inside at Stubb’s Saturday, she reads from her book Rough Edit, a project that satisfied five decades of yearning to be an author.
Austin Chronicle: Where am I reaching you today?
Johnette Napolitano: I’m home in Joshua Tree, California. Going over the set-list again, which I do manically and neurotically about five times a day.
JN: Yeah, yeah. I have a real thing about the set-list. People will tell you I don’t leave it onstage after I play. I always take it. And with this show, I’m reading from the book. I’m trying to work on the pacing, so it’s something I can film by the end of the year. That’s kind of the whole point.
I‘ve had a million people want to shoot and I’ve never felt like it was worth doing. I can always pick up a camera and shoot my show, but there are so many factors that are not easily controlled. I think before the end of the year it’ll be something worth showing.
AC: When were you previously in Austin?
JN: The band went to Austin in 2012. Halloween 2012. We were in Austin, Dallas – that run. It was brutal. We did Good Morning Dallas at 7am. We busted it out and then had to do the same in the next city. And we really burned on that last one. It was fun, though. That’s why I can only tour one week out of the month at a time. I can’t go out so much anymore because I’m really burned. I can’t really live that way all the time. I have.
AC: How did the idea for the Sketchbook series come about?
JN: I’m not a huge rock star or anything, but I do have people who appreciate what I do. And I’m always working. I don’t roll very large, but I like my life. I thought that if I did a series I could do one a year, and it keeps me working. I really wanted to be a writer. After my father died, I started going back to the things I really wanted to do in the first place. Like when I was 4, that’s what I wanted to do. You realize how short time is and I realized the things I wanted to do.
AC: When did your father pass away?
JN: Three years ago. He’s done some really funny things for me from the other side. How do you know there’s something after death? I’d say, “You’ll tell me when you get there.” He hasn’t messed around.
AC: You’ve gone back and forth between artistic spheres. How’s that changed your process?
JN: What do you want out of life? Do you need to exist in that stratosphere with the cars and the bling and all that? It’s a whole different game they’re playing. It’s not cheap. When Concrete Blonde was at its peak, we were on the road all the time. I’m talking seven months straight. That’s a really hard way to live. When you’re young, you’re all about that – going all over the world where you’ve never been. It’s a lot of work. Again, I go a week out of the month. That’s all I can do and still have fun with it.
I don’t want to be one of those people who are just like, “I can’t have a drink on the road, I’ve got to go to bed early.” I do have that concern, but when I’m on the road I want to party and have fun. And I’m not 25, so I can only go a week at a time. Would that be enough for a major label? I’m not willing to work as hard as they want you to work to achieve the money they need. Pretend you’re just running a household. How do you want to run your life?
I’ve got what I need to work. I just bought a dress for the tour. It’s like pulling teeth out of my mouth, I’m so cheap. You know, you just have to be practical. What do you need in life? Just philosophical questions. Are you a DIY, indie person in general? Or are you a corporate slave, you know? Some people need that association. Some people need to work for a logo. They’re proud of being associated with a big company. One thing I can say about a big company: you just can’t beat the fact that there’s 50 people on the phone every day and their job is basically to sell your record. It certainly beats having five people on the phone every day, or just you being on the phone every day.
It’s nice I can do the music I want, but the Sketchbook records just aren’t major label records. If I want to sit down and make a commercial record, I know how to do that. I know exactly what to do. Even the approach to the writing is different, very formulaic. And I love pop music. I love the formula. I love all of that. But it’s just not what I care to do at this point in my life. I’ve done that. I’m happy to collaborate like that. And I’ll tell you, anyone who says they don’t want a hit is lying. Even Lou Reed said, “I’d love to have a hit. I just don’t know how to write one.” A hit record: Every classic in the world you know and love was a hit record. There’s nothing dirty about that.
One thing I don’t do is retro gigs. We get a lot of calls from people who want to package us with Eighties bands and things like that. I turn those down all the time. People finally stopped asking. We were a guitar band, but the stuff that was happening was Duran Duran and that keyboard-bass kind of Eighties stuff – Flock of Seagulls. We weren’t that.
And rejection is good because it makes you stronger and it makes you believe in yourself. I’m the hardest one to please, and if I like it, it’s fine [laughs]. Nobody kicks their ass harder than me. I’m just turning in a song for the Pete Quaife Foundation. He was one of the founders of the Kinks. I’ve been recording for the last three nights, and I think I’ve done it over three times. At a certain point I’m wondering, “Am I crawling up my own ass here?” They like the first version I gave them, I don’t know why I feel like I have to do it again. Maybe because I know it’s not as good as I can do.
AC: Speaking of Concrete Blonde, is the band on hiatus?
JN: No, we’re finally done. We’re breathed our last in Minneapolis right before Christmas Eve 2012. It doesn’t seem like there’s getting it back this time. But it’s okay. The good thing is that the last year of touring was the best shows we’d ever done in our entire career. I felt like we’d really taken it up a level as far as the show. I want to deliver a consistent performance. In the early days, it’s all wild punk rock. We’d get up there, and what’s going to happen? That makes me really nervous now. I feel better knowing what I’m doing when I get up there, and having it be consistent. Especially if I’m working on a show to shoot, I want to see what works and what doesn’t.
AC: Are you still in contact with [Concrete Blonde guitarist] Jim Mankey?
JN: I haven’t talked to Jim since a year ago January. A long time.
AC: Just because you guys are doing separate things?
JN: I have no idea what he’s doing. I haven’t talked to him at all. I don’t know what he’s doing. But things are the way they should be. I did just hear that Chris Tsangarides, who was our producer on Bloodletting, was really ill and in a coma, which bummed me out hard. He’s out of the coma now, though. You can’t kill that old heavy metal dude at all. He found out we hadn’t been paid royalties whatsoever since 1996, maybe. Anyway, he went and hired an English guy over there to look into it and apparently they just settled it. So I may be a very, very happy girl.
And they’ve even reissued that record. Chris hit me up one day and I said, “Chris, I haven’t seen any money for that record in 20 years.” And he lost his mind. He got all Dark Lord on my ass. So bless his heart. I really owe him everything for doing that because no one here would do it. I kept saying that to people, and all I would get was, “Well, nobody gets paid.” Somebody was getting paid; I know I sold a lot of these damn records. So Chris was kind enough to do that. That would really be a miracle.
And that would be my father’s doing from the other side if that happens, because he could never understand why I wasn’t rolling high and everything. “Because, Dad, I don’t get paid for it.” He’d say, “I hear it in the supermarket.” “I know, but I don’t get paid.” So, it’s pretty wild.
But getting back to the question, you don’t do it for the money. If that deal goes through tomorrow and I’m a millionaire, I guarantee it won’t change a hell of a lot about the way I live. I would like to go back to school. That’s what I want to do. That’s pretty much the only thing that it’ll really change. And I’ll help the people out that I want. It’ll be like winning the lottery. It’ll be really cool making sure everybody I love is in a good place. Everybody else can kiss my ass.
AC: What’s been the process to become more “Fuck You” to everybody? Were you shy when Concrete Blonde was at its height?
JN: I had a lot of problems with the people pleasing thing, and it comes from my childhood. The environment I grew up in was very violent and very volatile. My job as the oldest of five kids was when the shit hit the fan to get all the kids together and out of harm’s way. If the cops needed to be called, I’d need to call the cops. As the child of alcoholics your job is just to keep everybody happy, and that was my 20s and 30s.
When I turned 40, I realized that no matter how hard I try I was never going to make everybody happy. I realized, “Wow, that’s half my life. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it to 80, and live another 40 years. And I’m not going to spend another 40 years trying to make people happy who are never going to be.”
Music has a healing effect. I know it’s where I go. It’s a really great place to be, because I don’t have to work so hard. People like the songs already; I don’t feel like I did for the first 20 years, like I’m auditioning. You had to sell it out there, man. We opened for every kind of band you can name and they weren’t always our audiences, but by the time we got off they were. That’s gotta still be there, so I’ll just do what I want. I don’t want my head to change about what I do since I was 15. I just don’t want to change my head about it. I want that river to keep flowing. And whatever it takes I’m gonna do. It’s fun.
AC: Do you still tattoo?
JN: I do. I just finished a major back piece. I just finished a real big back piece and people seem to like my stuff. I don’t do it every day because I have a job, you know, but I like my work, and I like my aesthetic. I work at Joshua Tree Tattoo. I don’t do the skulls and flames – there’s plenty of shops that do stuff like that. I really like to do custom work that’s either nature based or ethnically based. A piece that means something to the client specifically. My last client was really pleased. There were so many things on the tattoo he needed to reference, his grandmother, his grandfather. I’m always happy when somebody’s satisfied, because tattooing is a real personal thing.
AC: “Ghost of a West Texas Ladies Man,” that was inspired by Austin’s Driskill Hotel, right?
JN: I read that live. That’s a fun read live. It’s a fun story, a true story. I shouldn’t spoil it, but it’s a fun one to read live. Have you been on the Driskill’s website? Have you seen the Annie Lennox story? She was staying there in the Eurythmics days and had laid out a couple of things on the bed because she wasn’t sure what she was going to wear that night onstage. She went to take a shower, comes back out, and there’s just one thing on the bed.
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