Interview: The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde Alone At Last
By Brian Ives
Chrissie Hynde threatened to kill my dog.
Yes, PETA-endorsing, animal loving, Obama-voting-for rock legend said, “I would kill your dog if it came after me.” Of course, she was kidding… I hope.
Rock legends seem to want to create an air of stardom around themselves, and are guarded in their opinions. They bring entourages, avoid controversial topics and don’t want to alienate their fan base.
“I’m not trying to get any bigger” is a phrase that was repeated both during and after the interview. Even after the interview, we spent time chatting about a couple of things she’s currently loving, namely underground hip-hop artist Lil Ugly Mane, the Argentinean film Bombón: El Perro, and Let The Right One In: A Novel, the Swedish book on which the classic vampire film was based (and which Hynde paid tribute to in her 2010 video “If You Let Me”). Unlike many rockers of her stature in album promotion mode, she was equally interested in talking about other artists’ work as her own.
Not to say she wasn’t interested in herself. Over an hour-long discussion, Hynde discussed her first solo album, Stockholm, out June 10, and whether or not it will spell the end of the Pretenders. The conversation also offered her a bit of redemption for a particularly harsh review of Al Green’s “L.O.V.E.” that she wrote for NME in her younger days. And we also discussed animal rights. I’m pleased to report that my greyhound is still alive and well (and I’m sure she and Ms. Hynde would get along swimmingly given the opportunity).
Break Up The Concrete was the last Pretenders album; in the years since, you did [the 2010 album] Fidelity with J.P., Chrissie and the Fairground Boys. Did that project make it easier for you to take the next step and do a record on your own, without using the name “the Pretenders?”
Well I’m not on my own, actually. This is more of a collaboration than Pretenders albums have been. I’m not comfortable coming out on my own [as a solo artist] and I never intended to do it, it’s just that the guys I made this album with in Sweden weren’t prepared to come out and be in a band with me, so that’s how it worked out. I’ve defended myself as a person who works within the format of a band for thirty years while people have told me, “Yeah, but it’s just you!” And I’m actually bored with that now.
Were you a fan of Peter Bjorn and John before working with [producer] Bjorn Yttling?
I had no idea who they were. I just met him and liked him, I don’t research things. You never know until you start working with someone anyway. He has another fellow named Joakim Ahlund [of the Teddybears and Caesars], and he also works with Bjorn, and Bjorn kinda pawned me off to Jaokim. It was fun and I loved working with them.
Were you not thinking of what you were going to call the album?
I wasn’t thinking about too much. I went to Jaokim’s studio and I had been to a cathedral nearby and I got these bracelets they were selling. And Jaokim likes that stuff – “bling” – and I said, “Look what I got you!” He said, “What are these, Russian icons?” I said, “I don’t know, but that’s what we’re calling the band!” So for months, we were going to be called the Russian Icons and I was thinking it’s gonna be Jaokim on guitar, Bjorn on bass and then John [Eriksson], the drummer for Peter John and Bjorn. I couldn’t persuade them to come with me. They also wanted the album to be my name. I caved, in the end, to peer pressure, basically.
[Drummer] Martin Chambers didn’t play on the last Pretenders album anyway, which made it feel like a bit of a solo album.
Martin hasn’t played on a couple of records and it’s just worked out that way. I love Martin and he’s the most fun drummer in the world. I hadn’t worked with Martin on a couple of other things when things got funny for us after [the Pretenders co-founders] Pete [Fardon] and Jimmy [Honeyman-Scott] died. It’s understandable why people say it’s my solo project, and I guess I’ve been the one steering the project. But I’m still a band member.
I know you’re still a huge music fan as well. When I interviewed you a few years back, you lamented that you had slammed Al Green’s “L.O.V.E.” single when you were writing for NME.
I’m ashamed of a lot of the things I’ve done. Al Green’s of my favorite singers.
I actually interviewed him shortly after that and told him about this…
Oh my God!
Don’t worry! I told him you were sorry. He said, “Tell her I forgive her.”
I’m so glad! I just adore him. I wasn’t a writer, you know, I was just “blagging it,” as they say in England. But if Al Green offers me anything, I’m taking it.
Is your plan to not do any Pretenders songs when you go on tour?
I don’t have a plan yet. This new album is eleven songs that no one’s heard. I wanna go out and play these new songs with my new band, the Will Travel Band. Maybe we’ll throw in some other ones. I don’t need to increase my audience, or to get bigger. I like small places. I would do small shows forever, if it was possible, but you gotta break even. That’s all I ever wanna do, break even.
Since you covered Morrissey’s “Every Day is Like Sunday” at Rough Trade in New York, maybe you could add in other songs that you covered with the Pretenders.
We’ve considered that, and I’m glad you mentioned it. I’ve also done a lot of collaborations. Mick Ronson, INXS. I sang background vocals on a Specials song, “Nightclub.” Maybe we could bring those in, but I don’t know if that would make sense to the audience.
I love the video for “You or No One.” I thought it was about a human, until I saw the video of a guy and his dog. As a dog person, I could relate. But you’re not in the video!
I’m always begging to not be in the videos, I asked for that for years. Then I saw some Cat Power videos and I said, “Look, she’s not in them!” [Management] said, “Yeah, you don’t have to be in it.” “Finally!” [Director] Steve Glashier said, “Well, we could be driving through the desert… and we’ll have an old couple, because it’s this song about everlasting love.” I said, “Well, I’m not sure if that relates to my life very much. How about a man and a dog, which is a little more on my level?” There was a great Argentinian film called Bombon El Perro, I got Ingrid Newkirk, who started PETA, to watch it with me. It’s about a man who inherits this fighting dog, and his journey with this dog. And all I said to [Glashier], was: “Refer to that.”
It’s a pedigree dog, even though I always want to promote shelters and adoption. If you go into a shelter you’ll see some Tibetan terriers, cocker spaniels and westies, and those dogs aren’t going to be there next week. Someone’s gonna come in and adopt all the pedigrees. It’s the mongrels, ugly ones and the ones with three legs are gonna be there for months.
Back to your album, Neil Young plays guitar on “Down the Wrong Way.”
Neil is everything you want him to be…he’s a pot smoking hippie who is affable, easy-going, friendly. He’s kind of the opposite of a superstar. But I would’ve never asked him to play on my album had it been [conceived as] a solo album, because I wouldn’t have thought of going to God and ask him to do me a favor.
So, how did it happen?
For months we kept referring to it as “The Neil Young song” because it sounded like him. I was kind of f–king with Bjorn, because he’s stoic, I was always trying to get a reaction out of him. We’d talk about “The Neil Young song” and I said, “Well, we can get Neil Young to play on it.” And then I thought, “You know, I actually could get Neil Young to play on this.” It was one of those “Maybe I’ve died and gone to heaven” moments. And we were all dumbfounded when Neil walked in. The minute he left, we all dove onto the mixing desk to try and grab his guitar pick. I don’t like the word “career,” because I’m still a hippie, but that was — for lack of a better way of putting it — a career highlight.
Neil’s speech about you at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame must have meant a lot, where he said that the Pretenders had a big impact on him and Crazy Horse, and that you’re one the greatest bands ever.
I’m not big on awards, I don’t think there’s a way you can gauge how a piece of music emotionally affects someone. My manager called and said, “You’ve been inducted.” And I was like “F–k!” But if I said I wasn’t going to do it, it would’ve been a big statement. And my parents were all into it and stuff.
All of that aside, it must have been cool to hear, plus: you jammed with him that night.
Just sharing a stage with Neil Young is obviously a huge deal for anyone. I don’t remember that night very well but I remember being on stage with him. To summarize my feelings about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: when I got into this game it was very anti-establishment and it was about not joining the establishment, and institutions like that make it an establishment. So that’s why it doesn’t sit well with me, it doesn’t feel like rock and roll to me.
In your recent interview with Mojo magazine, you mentioned your admiration for Morrissey and his sense of self-worth. Do you feel you’ve undersold yourself?
I have undersold myself and I don’t care, in a way. I never wanna be the biggest, and I’ll play anywhere. But I was referring to the fact that some people are a lot more mindful about the message they put out to the public. So if you put the message out that: “Well, I don’t mind playing in the rain in Helsinki at noon at the bottom of a bill at a festival,” people will think, “Well, they’re not worthy of being at the top of the bill.” And I try to look at it more that way now. I think it’s important not to undersell yourself.
I would interpret that as an anti-diva, punk rock attitude: “I’ll play anywhere!”
You know, the small venue shows, I could play forever. If I’m in an audience and I’m looking at screens, I feel like a bit of a fool for being there. It’s more of an aesthetic. The thing I like about bands, is that bands are like ugly guys or chicks. They might have bad skin, bad teeth and be all f–ked up but it doesn’t matter because they have the right jacket, they’re making rock music and that makes them look great. There’s a certain aesthetic that is destroyed by screens. That’s just my personal perspective of the way things are.
That reminds me of your infamous “Advice for Chick Rockers,” where you said, “Remember, you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not ‘F–k me,’ it’s ‘F–k you!’” What do you think when you see the sexualization of both men and women in pop?
It’s not even interesting so I don’t pay attention. If that’s what you wanna wear and that’s how you wanna look, do what you want. Again, it’s become more “joining the establishment.” Being big, getting as much attention as you can, being in the spotlight. It’s everything I got into a band to avoid. My thing is that this music is not for everyone, most people aren’t gonna get it, which is fine. I’m vegetarian, I’m already not like the rest of you anyway. If you don’t like it, f–k off. I’m not trying to attract anyone. If someone likes it, fantastic.
You’ve expressed ambivalence over the years about one of your biggest hits, “I’ll Stand By You.”
That was a real effort by me to get back on the radio. I’d never done anything deliberately to get on the radio [before that]. It just happened. So when I wasn’t on the radio for a few years I was like, “F–k, I don’t like this. I wanna be on the radio!” I did feel a bit sheepish and it was a kind of cold-blooded attempt. There’s nothing wrong with that either, but it didn’t sit well with me, and that’s why when that song came out I was slightly embarrassed at how commercial it sounded.
Speaking of rock bands who get played on the radio today, what do you think of the Black Keys?
They’ve influenced me a lot lately actually. The thing I really love about them is, they’re all about riffs! Dan [Auerbach]‘s getting better all the time. They have all the things that I like to hear in music. If you can hear it in a fairground when you’re on a carousel while you’re having cotton candy, you’re hearing the right thing in the right place.
Have you ever found yourself as a target of the right wing media because of your animal advocacy?
I don’t live in the States, I’d never heard the Rush Limbaugh show, for example. I was warned by hundreds of people saying, “Get your music off [his show]!” [note: Limbaugh used to use the Pretenders' "My City Was Gone" on his radio show] I wouldn’t know the difference between Fox or CNN. Changing the world is not something I concern myself with. I’m a vegetarian and that’s only 3% of the population, so I’ll always be the odd one out. I’ll always disagree with the majority and I always believe that the majority is wrong.
I will say that our current president, Obama… I voted for him twice, and the first time I didn’t think he was going win. I went to sleep that night and didn’t even wait to hear the results, because I was certain [he'd lose]. When I woke up in the middle of the night and turned the television on and saw that President Obama won, I literally fell to my knees, sobbing, I couldn’t believe it! It’s the first time I’ve had someone representing me as an American.
You must find yourself in conversations about animal rights with people.
If a person wants to come up to me and start a conversation about animal rights, I welcome it. The thing is, now there’s the internet, now anyone that wants to find out anything, it takes them five minutes and they can look it up. I’m not trying to change your mind, I just don’t respect you. That’s all you have to know. You’re killing animals for your own pleasure, so I can’t respect that. That’s all you have to know about what I think about you. Go online and research the ramifications of meat on the environment, see what meat looks like in a slaughterhouse.
Do you ever try to convince anyone to see things your way?
Who am I to tell them? Am I gonna talk about the rainforest? I’m not gonna tell them that a fish has feelings. Leave them alone. And I’m not really a pacifist, there’s a time and a place for killing, but it’s not for your pleasure and it’s not for profit, and it’s not for entertainment. I would kill an animal if it was trying to kill me.
I would kill an animal if it was trying to kill my dog.
Well, I would kill your dog if it came after me.
Well, my dog would never do such thing.
I would probably be able to incite something in your dog. It doesn’t even matter if I love animals or not, to me. They’re not “ours.” Okay people, you can bathe in blood for all I care, go for it.
They don’t have to listen to my opinion, I’m not giving you my opinion. Well, I am now, because I have to do this [interview], but the thing is: I only offer my music. I don’t think that artists or musicians have to be personalities, there’s enough personality in the music. When I read books as I was growing up, I would read Ken Kesey, and I didn’t know he where he lived or what he looked like. Jack Keroac, Graham Greene or any of the novelists, you didn’t know who they were, where they lived, if they were married, and you didn’t care because you had the written word. And that’s what they offered you. And that’s what you got. And that’s as far as it went.
Do you plan to ever re-activate the Pretenders again?
Yeah sure, maybe. I would be heartbroken if I never did any more shows with Martin Chambers.
I know you said you were just “blagging it” when you were writing for NME, but what do you think of music criticism today? Do you pay attention to any of the blogs? Do you still read magazines?
I don’t check out blogs. If I have a record out, I can’t buy any magazines because I can’t bear to see myself in them. But I’ll buy Mojo, Q, Uncut. There’s so much information, it’s hard to sift through. The first time I was listening to something on my computer with the Fairground Boys, we were like, “Let’s listen to Humble Pie! Let’s listen to Spooky Tooth!” And the next day I opened my computer and there was all this other stuff that I like [being suggested to me]. And I didn’t realize that they have a composite of you. That was a weird thing because I realized instead of going out and finding it, which was a real important part of growing up - you were on this voyage of [music] discovery all the time — that in fact, now it comes to find you. “Wait a minute, I like going out! What happened to the hunt?” I’m being hunted now! I don’t read Pitchfork. I don’t go on the computer that much, because you know, life is too short, really.
I love music, I love listening to it. But I get kinda lost in cyberspace. I can’t work a f–king push button radio. Just give me a dial so I can find the station. And I’ve been like that for years because I’m not a gear person. I just turn it on and off.