Alone in the crowd at Blondie, I was surrounded by a sea of 40/50-somethings couples, screaming and star-struck out, as if it was 30 years ago in NY – giving young girls at a One Direction concert a run for their money. Armed with a cape that festooned ‘Stop Fucking The Planet’, and sporting a headdress of a crown of bees, Debbie Harrie was on fine form, praising the city of Brighton and Hove for its greenness.
Blondie’s set was 90-minutes of full-on musicianship, and in Harrie’s case, showmanship. Not disappointing their fans. Blondie’s set was a homage to their classic sound, playing ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘One Way or Another’, and one of their most famous reinterpretations ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. Some of the newer material from Pollinator was lost on the crowd, however, allowed punters to restock at the bar – ready for the next iconic song. Except for Fragments, an online found song by guitarists Chris Stein, which won over the crowd as an emotive power ballad.
We caught up with drummer and one of the founding members of Blondie, Clem Burke, to talk about that distinctive Blondie sound, David Bowie, and why he loves Brighton…
The new album seems to be a return to a more band orientated, analogue instrument lead sound – what I would consider a classic Blondie, was this a conscious decision as a group?
Yeah, it absolutely was. What we found in live performance was that we were reinterpreting songs from Ghost of Download as a band. Something like Mile High or some of the other songs on the album, they seemed to come across a lot more appealing to the audiences in the live format. We had to make certain adjustments because a lot of the songs were electronic and computer generated. Whether, I had to adapt the drums, or there was a guitar line or something had to be played manually on a synthesiser that was programmed before. The songs kind of really came to life. Personally, I have been waiting to make this record, an album like Pollinator for quite some time. Blondie is a team effort; it is a group effort. I think this time we were swayed back, towards my way of thinking and making a record.
It is not good to do the same thing all the time. I think by not making a record like Pollinator for a while, it kind of really made it fresh again, and the chemistry of the band comes across because the members of the band that we have now (Leigh Foxx: Bass, Matt Katz-Bohen: Keyboard, Tommy Kessler: Guitar) along with Chris Debbie and myself – the three of us have been together longer this time than the first time round, and the others have been involved in our live performance for quite some time. We really wanted to make that fact a bit more obvious, to people who hadn’t seen blondie live for a while. It kind of brought us back to the sound of the band, while using modern technology, so kind of the best of both worlds in Pollinator. Once you get Debbie singing, it’s gonna be a Blondie song, and I like to think my drums make a contribution to the sound of Blondie, just along with all the influences that are involved. Obviously, the songwriting within the band, and also the reinterpreting the songs that came from outside the band on this particular album.
Was Pollinator written and recorded more collectively and in the present, old-school in a room with each other? Where was it recorded?
The arrangement before was preproduction was done by people composing on computers and stuff like that. This time round we were all in the same room together, with the producer John Congleton. We were exchanging ideas as far as arrangements, lyrics, tempo – all that kind of stuff assimilated into the sound of the band. Also with the outside writers, it kind of lent an objectivity to the whole recording process. Because songs were coming from other sources. There are 4 or 5 songs that come from within the band on the album as well. It was a good way kind of redo a bit of the aesthetic, making it into what Blondie is really about, a group contribution in general. Everyone does a really great job, this album enabled people to make their contributions individually, and that makes everyone really happy about performing the songs, the whole collective atmosphere around the new album, and the entire coming tour and the gigs that we have done already, it has all been really positivity.
You’ve brought a lot of outside writers to collaborate on this album, including the likes of David Sitek, Johnny Marr, Sia, Nick Valensi from The Strokes and Charli XCX – what was the reason for this?
I mean there was a lot of material from within side the band, we thought it would be interesting to reach out to other people. With David Sitek from TV on the radio, we did some shows with them, at a couple of festivals a while ago, we became friends, and he approached us, saying that he had this song for us maybe. Debbie is a fan of Charlie XCX, she asked her for some songs. With Johnny Marr, we all are just massive fans. We all kind of went to people that we thought would maybe understand the Blondie aesthetic and would be happy to contribute. It kind of worked out, and I think Chris found a song scrolling through the Internet from 2010, called Fragments, and got in touch with the fella who wrote that (an unsigned and unknown music artist and movie blogger Adam Johnston of the group An Unkindness from Vancouver BC). He allowed us to record that song, and its a really cool song to do in the show, its really emotive, and Debbie really gets into it.The Blondie show it really about mostly the classic songs, with a handful of songs from Pollinator. Sometimes we go a little deeper. There’s a lot of other songs in the Blondie catalogue that we kind of just pop in and out now because we have so much material.
How’s the audience been reacting to the new stuff?
It seems to be great. The song Long Time, people really sing along to it, we do Fun, and of course Fragments. And then there is a handful of songs from the album that we come in and out with, depending on what we feel like playing that day. We like have a least a few alternate songs, to keep the set a bit different each time. It is mostly a fixed set, but that are certain variables within the context of the show. That is a good thing to have.
There is always the risk when working with outside writers, that the album becomes a collection of disparate songs. But Pollinator very much listens as a body of work, as a cohesive album, how did you get the collaborators to all align with the feel of the album and articulate the relevant creative themes of what you guys intended?
One of the things that we have always done is take other people’s songs and make them our songs. A lot of the time most people don’t necessarily realise that, which is fine too. Something like The Tide Is High, was written by John Holt, and was from a band called The Paragons. When we did Denis, back in the day, that was a song that Debbie was fond of, from a vocal group called Randy and the Rainbows, which was kind of an early 60’s song, it would be a girl group song if it wasn’t sung by a guy. And you know something like Hanging on the Telephone, is by a power-pop band from the late 70’s called The Nerves. I think as long as we can kind of see what the aesthetic is, and are able to re-interpret it, you know to change them around, make them a little different, get Debbie singing, the rest of the band contributing, they become Blondie songs. We’ve never had a problem with doing other people songs; it is part of Blondie, a lot of our songs that were hit records, weren’t written by the band.
Where was the album recorded?
We recorded it in a place called The Magic Shop, in the Soho district of New York City. We were the last band to record a full album there. As it has closed down, due to the economics of the area. The studio has been there for well over 30 years. The lease was up, and the new lease wasn’t going to work for them, as a commercial studio. It was also where David Bowie recorded two albums, that was a bit profound for us. We went back in the studio after the 2015 Christmas break, after Bowie had died. The album is somewhat informed by David. He has been kind of a role model to Blondie in general, in the way that he wasn’t afraid to challenge his fans, or challenge the type of music that he played, whether he went from folk to rock n’ roll, to art to should, to electronic, you know. That was always a template for us, the way he was able to kind of change genres and still bring, for the most part, his fans along with him.
A lot of bands and artists our of New York, such as Lou Reed, The Ramones, Sonic Youth, had used The Magic Shop studio at one time or another in their career. It just so happened, that this time we wanted to record in New York City again, because the last two albums, Panic of Girls was recorded mostly in Woodstock, NY, and then Ghosts of Download, a lot of it was done in home studios, I did most of my drum tracks out in Northern California. So this one was more solidified. We could get up in the morning and go to work, be in the studio all day, step out and be back at home on the streets of New York, which is really the sound of Blondie. So it was great, just to be home, and in familiar territory. And I think that really reflects in the sound of the album.
In parts, the album has a punk feel to it, how connected are Blondie to the NY punk scene of the 1970’s?
We didn’t really consider ourselves punk, at the time, I don’t think any of the bands in NYC did, the label kind of came later. It was kind of just a bohemian atmosphere, a kind of an outsider feeling, which is why you got some many different bands, all each sounding different, but also have a common dominator. It was kind of a give and take, whether it would be, seeing the Talking Heads performing, or Talking Heads seeing Blondie perform. We did shows with The Ramones and Talking Heads on the same bill; we toured the UK for the first time with a band called Television. All that, seeps into the sound of the band, to this day, they really are points of reference. A lot of things that we were influenced by, were the genesis of the band, and common traits as far as major influences in pop music, such as the Velvet Underground, The Shangri-Las, The New York Dolls, or something like Kraftwerk. Heart of Glass was really inspired by Kraftwerk. We kind of took from those kinds of sources, lyrics were always really important, in lots of ways, we read a lot of books.
This is your third time playing Brighton, do you have good memories of performing in our loveable seaside town?
When we are in Brighton, I like to work out on the pier, even if it is in the dead of winter, I kind of enjoy looking out to the sea. Of the course, the whole legacy of the mod movement from the 60’s, and everything that took place in Brighton such as the scooter runs, and all that. The kind of romance of that era kind of comes to mind when I am in Brighton. I know that there is a thriving scene at the moment, cultural scene, such as theatre, arts and things like that. It’s a vibrant city, and it is always great to be by the seaside, preferably in the warmer weather, but I don’t mind it too much in the winter time. It’s a lovely town and great place, always excited to know we are going to be there.