After more than 40 million albums worldwide, six UK and four US No.1 singles, Blondie are back with an 11th studio album and doing the rounds again this side of the Atlantic, their youthful energy belying the ages of their key personnel.
It’ll be 40 years this coming summer since these highly-influential New Yorkers recorded their self-titled debut LP at Plaza Sound Studios, yet they continue to seek out new ground, new offering Pollinator including songs co-written with the likes of Johnny Marr, The Strokes, Sia and Charli XCX to name but four acts who hold the band with major reverence.
That in itself was reason enough to track down founder member and guitarist Chris Stein when he first visited London to promote the LP, before returning a few weeks later with the rest of the band for a launch party at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, with shows to follow next month at Hyde Park and Dublin’s Lansdowne Road, and a full tour set to follow here this autumn.
And I started by asking 67-year-old Chris if he ever could have imagined still being out there with the band 35 years after the ill-fated The Hunter tour of ’82 … or even at the turn of 1999, just before the release of rebirth album No Exit.
“No, I probably think more about the future now than I have in the past. I’m not sure we gave it much consideration back then.”
It’s some feat though, this whole story.
“I guess, but it’s hard to be objective about it, as we’re so close.”
Perhaps I should remind us how tensions were high within the band in 1982 (‘The tide is high but I’m holding on’ you could say, as John Holt had before them) after something of a commercial decline and resultant money pressures. Constant press focus on Chris’ partner of the time, Debbie Harry, to the exclusion of the others in the band reaching breaking point when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. That, coupled with the drugs, mismanagement and slow ticket sales led to a major tour cancellation, the band breaking up, and lawsuits following.
But 17 years later they were back, Chris long since recovered and a resurgence of name-checking interest through acts such as Garbage and No Doubt leading to him, Debbie, Clem Burke (drums) and Jimmy Destri (keyboards) working on new material, and scoring fresh commercial success.
And if No Exit suggested a rebirth, four albums on they’re still moving on and as fresh as ever, not least on a pumping piece of 1970s-fringed disco called Fun, co-written by Chris, Debbie and David Sitek. And that’s what the world needs right now, yeah, Chris?
“Yeah! It’s difficult seeing the way things are going. I’m seeing now this guy in the Netherlands stands a chance, which is pretty creepy.”
He’s talking about Geert Wilders there, thankfully denied power in mid-March in the Dutch general election. I couldn’t help but comment how the so-called Party for Freedom leader’s looks (and arguably his policies) suggested he may be a distant cousin of a certain recently-elected US president.
“Yeah, what with him and what’s his name, Boris Johnson … Man …”
Indeed. Which somehow brings me on to another high-profile track off the new album, the mighty My Monster, written by Johnny Marr. And from what I’d heard across the album at that point, I told him, it seemed to be a typically diverse bag, style-wise.
“It’s a little more rock’n’roll-based, with everyone in the band playing, giving it kind of a live feel.”
‘A modern take on the classic, vintage sound’, as their press release suggests. Is that inevitable when co-writing with various figures from different fields?
“Yeah, that was great and it’s very gratifying that those people are willing to donate material.”
“Well, maybe … it’s great!”
Taking one prime example, he’s clearly a fan of yours, but how long has Johnny Marr been on your radar? Were you a Smiths fan?
“They were great, amazing, and we probably bumped into him a few times over the years. And Johnny told us he wrote that song specifically for us, which is nice. It was also the first song we got out of collecting material, and we got very enthusiastic about that.”
You have the album launch at London’s Roundhouse – a scene of past triumphs and something of a spiritual home for you, yeah?
“I kind of feel I’ve been here more than I’ve been to Los Angeles. And The Roundhouse is great. We remember it from the old days when the roof was leaking!”
Remember much about that big show there in 1978?
“Kind of, and I remember seeing other shows there over the years. There was always a good atmosphere. There still is, and it’s nice how they’ve fixed it up.”
Will you be trying to sneak off with your camera while you’re here? Photography’s clearly a passion for you (as seen in print in 2014’s Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk).
“Yeah, I like the usual places, like up around Portobello.”
Any more photography books coming our way?
“Yeah, I’m trying to push one of my older street photography from the ’70s. That old stuff that looks like ancient history in retrospect!”
You’ve had a few trials with your health over the years. How are you doing right now?
“Oh, okay. I only had that one condition, and that was really stupid. A waste of time, but it was my own fault – too many drugs whacked my immune system.”
Married for 18 years to actress Barbara Sicuranza, the couple have two daughters. And I guess family life suits him well.
“Yeah, the kids are great, and I miss the wife and kids when we’re travelling.”
How old are your girls now?
“They’re 11 and 13.”
Any chance they might follow your lead into music?
“They dabble in it a little, kind of taking it for granted. I don’t know if they’re passionate about it yet.”
Auntie Debbie hasn’t warned them off then?
“No! They listen to music, and the older one likes Black Sabbath, that kind of stuff.”
We touched on it before, but are you a little surprised what’s going on down on both sides of the Atlantic right now, in fact all over Europe and America, with Trump, Farage, Le Pen and so on.
“Yeah, it’s hard not to upset people on that, and alienate people. But there’s just so much racism with the whole fucking thing. It’s annoying.”
I’m in an odd position here, talking to a fella whose high-profile ex- and bandmate for many moons was not only on my bedroom wall but countless others around the world. You were dating a genuine global pin-up. That couldn’t have been easy at times.
“I kind of identified through Debbie. I was never taken aback by any of that. It was always kind of amusing.”
As I was only born in ’67 I was too young to see you live in those days, but I was coming alive to the new wave scene and bands like Blondie, Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Jam, Ramones, The Undertones. And I have great memories of that run of singles from Denis in early 1978 onwards, like that year’s (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear, Picture This, Hanging on the Telephone, 1979’s Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl, and so on, right up there among the very finest singles from that golden era.
What I’m saying is that even if you’d never returned after late 1980’s Autoamerican, you’d have cemented your place in this heart.
“Yeah! That’s good … and we appreciate your support.”
And while I appreciated your more punk and new wave moments from the off, you never sat back on that, and were always open to wider experimentation in disco, pop and electronica. That’s carried on too.
“Yeah, sure, I like world music and have always been interested in roots music.”
On the paperwork with this release comes a description of you as ‘guitarist and conceptual mastermind’. How does that suit you?
“Okay … I don’t know! I just try to put in my two pence here and there?”
Do you think you knew where you were going with all this from day one, or were you just going with the flow?
“I was always very optimistic and always felt things were going to work out. There never was a grand plan, but I think people liked the do-it-yourself aspects of Blondie. That was part of the appeal.”
Us nostalgics tend to get rather dewy-eyed thinking about the likes of you, Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and so on at venues like CBGB. Can you see it that way too in retrospect, or were those just holes really? Backstage can’t have been too pretty.
“No, I can get caught up in nostalgia, but try not to get trapped by it. Still, we miss a lot of our friends who have gone. It’s shocking about the Ramones … all those guys.”
It’s been 44 years since Chris joined a band called The Stillettoes, featuring Debbie as a vocalist. Did he feel she had star quality straight from the start?
“Yeah, I was totally taken by her, right away, as soon as I saw her, even if it was pretty primitive. She always exuded something.”
They say you should never meet your heroes, yet in your case I get the impression it hasn’t done anyone any harm. Then again, in a conversation with The Stranglers’ bass player JJ Burnel in July 2014 he told me about a date in Brisbane when they were touring with you, when they came on in drag mid-song and put you off your stroke. Remember that?
“Ah, that was a nice moment, you know. “
He suggested you didn’t take to it too kindly at the time.
“Ah no, those guys are great! They were boisterous. I don’t know if they’d ever make up with Hugh though. It’s kind of like (fellow US early punks) the Misfits. Those guys also had a couple of dates but I’m not sure if they’ll ever mend those fences, as it were. But The Stranglers are great, and very entertaining to be on tour with.”
There’s no involvement these days from Gary Valentine (bass, 1975/77 and 1997), Jimmy Destri (keyboards, 1975/82 and 1997/2004) and Frank Infante (guitar, bass, 1977/82), nor English import Nigel Harrison (bass 1978/82, 1997) these days. But three key members remain. Is it easier for Chris working with Debbie and Clem (on board since 1975) after all these years? Have they learned to tolerate each other better with age, or was that never really an issue?
“I think everybody has their more defined roles, and we have younger guys in the band so it’s pretty well balanced. We’ve been working with our bass player, Leigh (Foxx), for more than 20 years.”
Do Leigh, Tommy Kessler (guitar, 2010 onwards) and Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards, 2008 onwards) keep you younger? Or is it the other way round?
“I think everybody just tries to keep it balanced. Tommy’s great with what he does, and Matt too – his writing’s really good.”
Blondie’s new album Pollinator is available now through BMG, the band following an album launch at the Roundhouse with late June’s Dublin and London appearances supporting Phil Collins. For details of those and all the latest on the band’s plans for a UK tour this autumn, head to their official website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.