Sometime in the past few years, between digesting French literature and watching birds alight on the placid South Florida waters, Iggy Pop, the Godfather of Punk, decided, finally, that rock as we know it is a lost cause. No, actually it's worse. "It's clear that rock music, what's made right now, is the worst of all musical forms," Iggy says on a recent afternoon, installed, barefoot, in a dim inner room of what he calls his Miami "clubhouse."
So sure, diehard fans of the Stooges, Iggy's pioneering first band, may be initially taken aback by his new solo studio album, Préliminaires, due out Tuesday, June 2. Its 12 tracks are slow-percolating, a wistful collection of New Orleans speakeasy rattle, slinky lounge pop, and nostalgic French chanson that is best listened to at twilight.
Not that it's a sonic ride into the sunset. The chameleon-like icon has just shape-shifted again, and the album is still abjectly weird and reassuringly snotty in many places. It's even frisky. There is, of course, the album title — Préliminaires is French for foreplay, ooh la la! And Pop's unmistakable timbre is still intact, sounding a little more avuncular with age but even more bad-ass.
He simply doesn't need to call out foes at full volume anymore. "I Want to Go to the Beach," for instance, starts out as a sighing, meandering ballad but culminates with a chilling dismissal: "You can convince the world that you're some kind of superstarrrrr... When an asshole is what you areeeee... But that's alright."
And though Iggy begged for abasement, to "be your dog," when he was with the Stooges, now he's found glory in sniffing gutters and snarling at heels. His victory cry is the album's best track. "King of the Dogs" is a Louisiana-style saloon anthem built on wobbly piano and drunken brass. In it, Iggy celebrates his smelly rear and dirty nose while awaiting a fight or a visitation by spirits. It's eerie and dark but still danceable — the Tom Waits comparisons are inevitable, but this musical turn seems particularly suited to Iggy's voice.
Those who detect a distinct Gallic whiff as well as a movie-score quality to the songs will be absolutely right. Préliminaires didn't begin as a studio album but as a collection of tracks for a French documentary that was to track reclusive author Michel Houellebecq as he tried to make a film of his novel The Possibility of an Island. Pop had read the book a few years back, when it came out, and was taken by its air of resignation and loneliness set adrift. As in Camus' The Stranger, the protagonist of Houellebecq's novel spends much time wandering over hot sands in a fog of purposelessness.
And thus what began almost as a conceptual exercise morphed into a record, albeit one done outside of the industry machine. Instead of heading to a studio, Pop holed up in his clubhouse in Miami, his adopted hometown. While he actually lives in south Miami-Dade County, he keeps what he calls a cabin — but is really a full-blown house — as a creative playground. Located on a quiet canal, it has a densely foliated, magical-forest-hut kind of vibe. But it's far away from the crush of South Beach, where he first landed some years ago but which he now deems "a drag." Instead, Pop says, he prefers to roam the urban wilds of the mainland, where he can buy botanica trinkets and eat tacos unmolested and largely unrecognized.
I met him at his clubhouse recently to discuss the new album. And yes, he was shirtless, flexible, and still buff, a robust brown tan covering the light scars on his chest gained during his infamous onstage self-mutilations. But if Pop's an icon, the shock of initially seeing him in human scale wears off quickly; he laughs and smiles easily, holding forth while draped sideways over a thrift-store chair. Here's what he had to say about Préliminaires:
New Times: How much of the album did you actually write and record in Miami?
Pop: I wrote it here in this room, on that little Gibson mini-acoustic from 1969. I wrote the songs and recorded them on a businessman's voice recorder, like the lowest possible fidelity. [My assistant] Spencer would come over, and he'd sit there in the kitchen and plug the voice recorder right into his Apple. Then we'd send them out to the producer, Hal Cragin, in Woodstock — he used to be my bassist. Then they would get sent back as tracks with musicians. And then when I wanted to put a vocal on it, I'd go to the Estefans' studio in Coral Gables, Crescent Moon.
NT: Do you know the Estefans?
Pop: No, I just know the studio. It just happened where I bought a house out that way a few years ago with my wife, and I was looking for somewhere close to home where I could record. So I did the vocals there, and then I sent them back to Woodstock, and that's about it.
NT: How much back and forth did you have on the actual mixdown and production of the album?
Pop: You mean, did I complain or anything? I just got lots of things sent back and forth, and there was rarely anything that wasn't me. And that's because the guy was in my backup band for six years, until the mid-1990s, and we had experimented before with home tapes. He knew me really well; he was with me when I played on an album called
Avenue B ten years ago, which was my first attempt to grapple with music at this level.
NT: At which level?
A musical level, where you have finer points of melody and arrangement, where you get your point across without having to necessarily rock out. And [Cragin and I] had read the same book, coincidentally, which this album is based on. And his wife was French, so we got a free, extra, French vocal on there. Actually, originally I did not anticipate this coming out anywhere but France. I made it for France. Now it's coming out everywhere.
NT: When you originally started writing the songs for the documentary about Houellebecq, did you also have an album for them in mind?
Pop: Halfway through, I realized I wanted this out as a record. So I took my profit from the documentary's music budget to create a record myself and didn't tell my record company. With an American company, at this point, if I wanted to do a record for them, it would have to be with a punk producer, punk writers, younger people to do what with, all that crap. So I went behind their back to the French. I said, "Look, I happen to have a couple of things sung in French."
NT: Finally, EMI is in fact releasing it here through Astralwerks.
Pop: They are putting it out, and even when I first handed it in, I had to hand it in through the Americans. And I immediately got an email back from the head of A&R saying, "Is this some sort of a statement, 'Feuilles Mortes?' You mean 'Autumn Leaves' on the credits, don't you?" And I said, "No it's not 'Autumn Leaves,' it's 'Feuilles Mortes.'" And then they got it.
NT: The main quote from you about this album that's circulating right now is, of course, your statement that rock is "idiot thugs with guitars banging out crappy music."
Pop: Yeah, well, it's clear that rock music, what's made right now, has become the worst of all musical forms.
NT: Worse, even, than radio pop music?
Pop: Yes, I think it is even worse. It's somewhere in the realm of some horrible comedy. It's just awful.
NT: All rock music? Or just the commercial stuff?
Pop: Most of it; it's the form. Because even in pop music, there are people who are good at it; you can say, "Oh, he can almost sing like the black guy he's trying to sing like." But what do you get in rock? They can't dance; they moan rather than sing. It's not sexy, it's not fresh, it's not anything. And they've all adulterated themselves with the techniques of pop music! That's why I'm saying it's worse than pop! At least with pop, you get a perky teenager or something or somebody who's been entertaining since he was 5 and at least knows what to say at a dinner!
NT: So is it a question of honesty for you? It seems like one of your main criticisms is that rock bands are pretending to be "authentic" but still use these "inauthentic" techniques.
Pop: Yeah, yeah. It's comfort food. It's tuna melt. No, it's veggie melt. It's veggie-melt music, basically. There are some people working with the instruments who are pretty good, but when they're any good, it usually doesn't sound like rock — that would be MGMT or even Vampire Weekend. But that's not rock.
NT: You're a Vampire Weekend fan?
Pop: No, I don't like it too much. But I listen to it, and I know someone skillful, who's taking enough drugs to try to be creative, when I hear it. So I think, "Oh, I get it — he's trying to mix Hunky Dory with Carlinhos Brown." OK, fair enough. But "rock" to me more is like Coldplay or U2 or the Killers. It's just getting more and more sclerotic! They're only 27, and they already sound like they can't move their limbs.
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NT: With all that said, then, how do you feel about being called the "Godfather of Punk"?
Pop: In one way, it's been convenient, and in one way, it's been a drag. But I don't mind. It's a fact that at a point in time, I was involved with taking certain ideas that were present in the mid-1960s, and from about 1967 to 1972 with [the Stooges], we took some ideas where they should have logically gone. There was the idea of the sneer. The idea of the unacceptable dance. The idea of a certain intercourse with the audience, which had always been hinted at anyways, since half of all rock songs were polite ways of saying "Baby, I wanna fuck." But we actually got in there, physically. All of a sudden, it was like, "My God, his leg is on my girlfriend. Hey, he's gonna hit this guy — what's going on?" Then there were the first references to destruction. And then there was the speed. If you listen to recordings from '71 and '72 from my group, that presages all of thrash. At that point in music, there was nothing as fast as "Gimme Some Skin" or "I've Got My Right." And there's nothing else with the attitude of Funhouse or Raw Power. So there were a few specific things [that pointed to punk], but we weren't the ones who canned it. We were called "punks" to try to stop us, basically. We never sounded anything like Green Day! Nothing at all.
NT: Do you think you'll go back to making rock music ever?
Pop: Absolutely, yes, but I'm more interested in doing it for my friends and with my friends, in a live setting, than I am in recording it. I would like very much to continue working with Iggy and the Stooges. Ron [Asheton, Stooges guitarist] passed away [earlier this year], but he died in a good position with his boots on. You know, the Stooges, in 5.5 years [of original existence], we grossed $20 million. So fuck you, industry! But the rest of the Stooges, and Ron's brother, Scott, are all keen to do more work. So I would do it only with them, but otherwise, I don't think I would put out any more Iggy Pop rock albums. I did enough. I had a reason for this one.