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- Posted on Oct 8th 2010 1:00PM by Jonathan Dekel
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Choosing instead to focus his abundant creative energy towards projects that embrace the women in his life, the younger Lennon has devoted the last year to both rectifying his mother's legacy as a visual and musical artist with a series of all-star Plastic Ono Band tribute shows in New York (with the original line-up), Los Angeles (with the likes of Perry Ferrell and Lady Gaga) and Iceland as well as forming a new band with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, under the loquacious moniker the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (their debut album, 'The Acoustic Sessions,' is due October 26). Lennon and Kemp-Muhl sat down with Spinner for a candid conversation about his heritage, the new musical landscape and the importance of Yoko Ono.
You performed 'Yer Blues' at the original Plastic Ono Band [Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voorman, drummer Jim Keltner and Ono] show in New York. How did it feel to essentially step into your father's shoes?
That song was the most fun part of the show for me. Just playing with Eric Clapton was a big honour. I was definitely one of those kids who grew up playing guitar along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, so for me it was like playing baseball with Mickey Mantle.
Of all the Plastic Ono Band songs you could have done, why did you choose to cover a Beatles song?
Lennon: We were looking for songs Eric had played on, or that he could do without any rehearsal because neither he nor my mother are really into rehearsals. We needed something we could just throw together at soundcheck. 'Yer Blues' was the obvious choice; he played on the record.
Your mother turned 77 this year. What inspired you to create these series of Plastic Ono Band concerts now?
Lennon: Charlotte and I have this record company called Chimera Music and we put out my mom's latest album [2009's 'Between My Head and the Sky,' credited to the Plastic Ono Band]. It did really well in terms of critical acclaim and sales, especially for an indie record. Also, just before that record came out, she won a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Biennale, so it really felt like the world was accepting and embracing her in a way they never had. A producer friend of mine suggested we should do some kind of 'Yoko' thing, and I thought, 'Why don't we reunite the original Plastic Ono Band and get some friends of hers together?' Not so much a tribute show but more of a family variety show.
Did you feel that it was important that you were the one who organized it for her?
Lennon: Well, there was no one else who could or would have done it. The only other person would have been my mother. It was more like my thing that I was doing for her. I think it would have been awkward for her to arrange her own tribute. Basically it turned out great. You just have to have the hope that she's open to what you want to do. She's not the most docile artist in the world so there's lots of negotiating going on.
You helped write a considerable amount of her last album, do you feel responsible, to a certain extent, for her legacy?
Lennon: I don't feel responsible for her legacy because she did it herself. I'm just saying that this year happened to be the year of me being in a position to facilitate a lot of things.
Kemp-Muhl: What he's responsible for is bringing all these people together, creating a new record, and giving her incredible reviews and universal acceptance. She's such a controversial character and this last year has really improved her public standing as an artist. I guess it was all sort of happening anyway, but it was just beautiful that Sean got to help with it. He really loves her so much and it really did trouble Sean that people misunderstood his mother.
Lennon: It wasn't like I felt obliged or it was my duty, it just seemed like the right moment. Her record was great and everyone was excited, I was just facilitating something that was meant to happen.
Lennon: People that are still negative about her are hung up on some old dated idea.
Kemp-Muhl: She's not defined by being the wife of John Lennon anymore. Whether you love her or hate her -- and sometimes it's both. I mean, before I met Sean I knew her as this mean Japanese woman who was the wife of John Lennon and broke up the Beatles and all that stuff, which is totally untrue. She's lovely and is totally her own artist and has her own life.
Lennon: That's exactly what I mean. I think it's very obvious that she has her own life going on, and if you don't realize that, you're pretty much living in another time; you're really out of touch.
Has this new found acceptance affected the way she sees herself?
Lennon: No, she's always thought of herself in the same way. She's always waited for people to understand her. She's never misunderstood herself. She's very singular.
Kemp-Muhl: So many women are defined by their man or society but she was always, 'I'm Yoko Ono Goddamn it!'
Lennon: She never questioned herself ever, she still doesn't.
Like your mother, you seem very interested to Japanese culture. How important is connecting with that part of your heritage?
Lennon: I definitely am connected to Japan culturally, for obvious reasons. It's not just that my mom's Japanese and I'm half Japanese, and I've got Japanese family. Growing up, I was in this band Cibo Matto with Yuka [Honda, Lennon's former girlfriend and member of the current Plastic Ono Band] and through that band, I was introduced to a lot of really interesting Japanese artists that really influenced me a lot like the Boredoms and Buffalo Daughter.
So, for me, my whole artistic aesthetic was informed by '90s noise bands from Japan. So on top of having grown up eating Japanese food and having a Japanese mother and grandmother (and I even went to kindergarten in Tokyo), I was also really influenced by the neo-indie-punk scene in Japan of the 1990s.
As a both a participant and observer of the Nineties alternative music scene, how do you feel the musical landscape has changed?
Lennon: I feel like the problem today isn't the lack of good music, it's that it's so decentralized. I feel like there isn't a feeling of a pulse of the culture. There's also not only one place for music culture to exist. I feel like everyone's in their own little pocket experiencing music in their own way. That's what was great about MTV, even though I didn't like 90 percent of the stuff they aired, it still made me connect with the rest of the youth culture. When Beck came out or when the Beasties came out, or even when the Wu-Tang came out, we all shared that; we were all connected by one medium.
Whereas now we don't have that, there's no central location. iTunes is for people 30 to 50 years old. There's no location to know what everyone else is listening to.
Lennon: We have no idea. [Charlotte] has never even been in a band before. I've been in bands and I still have no f---ing idea how to break a band. All I know is that we work very hard and I really am proud of it. The stuff that I'm doing with her is my favourite stuff that I've done. At least we have a label now that we can put out our own records; we can decide what our music sounds like and our artwork looks like.
We're in a position, in a way, that we can make stuff, and the way we want it to be. I certainly have no idea about how to approach mass-marketing.
Is mass appeal important to you, do you want that kind of acclaim?
Lennon: I wouldn't want to be successful on a certain level because it kind of destroys your life, but I definitely would like it so that we could be in this band indefinitely and have fun doing. I don't need to be f---ing Justin Timberlake or something.
Kemp-Muhl: Speak for yourself.
Lennon: Well, not everyday.