Written by: Allan MacInnis
Like most people, I became aware of songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist/ actor Zander Schloss in the early 1980’s, when he played the dorky but memorable Kevin in Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man. I had no idea who he was at that time, but I enjoyed his performance enough that it was really pleasing to see him, a short time later, playing bass with the Circle Jerks on 1985’s Wonderful. That was the first album that the band recorded post-Repo Man, and got plenty of spins from my 17-year-old self, benefitting greatly from the association with a film I could almost recite line for line (“There’s fucking room to move as a fry cook!”).
It was even more delightful to see Schloss as Karl the Weiner Boy in Cox’s 1987 feature Straight to Hell, a ridiculous but delightful spaghetti western spoof featuring fellow Repo Man alum like Dick Rude, Sy Richardson, Fox Harris, Miguel Sandoval and Jennifer Balgobin (to say nothing of the other lead actors Joe Strummer and Courtney Love, and the film’s many celebrity cameos, which include Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, the Pogues, and Elvis Costello). I didn’t realize until much later that Schloss also worked with Joe Strummer on the Walker soundtrack and ended up as his musical director and collaborator on Earthquake Weather, Joe’s first post-Clash solo record, released in 1989. Zander was also a touring member of the Latino Rockabilly War and collaborated with Joe on songs for the Permanent Record soundtrack – a teen suicide movie starring a young Keanu Reeves, primarily notable now for Joe’s song “Trash City.”
Schloss’ first full-fledged solo album, Song About Songs, is now available through Blind Owl Records, and has given rise to a handful of really fun videos – including the title track, for a song literally about songs – as well as the marionette-animated “I Have Loved the Story of my Life” and the suicide-themed, but nonetheless toe-tapping, “Dead Friend Letter.” It’s a folky, world-music-inflected acoustic album that owes more to the music Schloss and Strummer made for the Walker soundtrack (or to the great American songbook, discussed below) than it does to American hardcore – a musical treat for punks whose palates have grown more expansive, and no exercise whatsoever in punk rock nostalgia… though it probably doesn’t hurt to know that it’s Kevin from Repo Man singing the songs, or that Schloss’ recent Youtube cover of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” – directed by Alex Cox – was made by someone who had also made music with Joe Strummer. You can imagine that Joe himself would dig it, were he still with us.
As for punk nostalgia, with luck, the Circle Jerks will soon resume their long-protracted 40th anniversary tour – a tour that has stretched across the entire pandemic, with ample postponements, cancellations, and indeed, at least three cases of COVID among the bandmembers (More on which below; Keith Morris had still not come down with COVID at the time of this interview, but Schloss and Castillo both had. The tour is presently slated to resume in early May, and the band has announced on social media that Keith is “getting better by the day.”)
Stereo Embers spoke with Zander Schloss in November 2021 and again in March 2022, while the band was taking a breather; the following is a compilation of those two interviews.
So how is the tour going?
It’s going great. It looks like we’re getting a younger audience, which I’m happy to see, and the band sounds sharp with the new addition of Joey Castillo – great rhythm section. And business is good – it’s looking like more dates are being added. Thank God I’m in good health and able to perform my duties, because they are quite physical and quite strenuous.
There seem to be added dates in July for Vancouver and Seattle and such. It’s hard to speak for July, but right now, COVID restrictions are lifted, so assuming that that doesn’t change, it’s going to be probably a better show than the cancelled date would have been – I mean, people are going to be able to mosh, if they want to.
I’m happy to see things sort of lightening up a bit. I don’t know if you know this, but certain members of the crew and the drummer and myself got COVID on our last East Coast Run. It was the Delta version of it, so it was pretty gnarly, man – I lost my sense of taste and smell, had to go to the emergency room, dealing with not being able to breathe… It was pretty severe symptoms for about ten days, and then the long-hauler symptoms like fatigue and brain fog…
Did you end up having to cancel dates, or to play while you were sick, or…?
No, we finished our dates and, thank God, it was during a break that I was able to quarantine for ten days and recuperate. It was no joke, it was very severe, and – COVID is not a hoax, as some people were chanting in Florida – “The virus is a hoax!” The virus is not a hoax. COVID is real. In fact, I would say that the show where they were chanting that, probably in Jacksonville, was likely the super-spreader event.
Yikes. Yeah, you’ve kind of been plagued by plagues, this tour. I have lost count of how many times the Vancouver show has gotten postponed. Three? Four?
Honestly, the whole thing has been incredibly annoying to me. We had our tour scheduled in 2020, as you know, and auditioned drummers and we were rehearsing and getting set to go. And then the COVID-19 thing happened, and so basically, we just sat on our hands for a year and a half after getting out of the gate. And there’s changing compliances and there’s a lot of fear, and some people are wary as audience members of actually going out to shows… though the good news is that the lion’s share of the people that that will go to Circle Jerks shows probably have their vaccinations and are a little bit more fearless than the general population.
Okay, so I wanted to ask you about some of the Circle Jerks songs you wrote. I guess “The Crowd” and “Karma Stew” are easy enough to understand, but what is “Patty’s Killing Mel” about? I don’t understand what’s going on there.
Hahaha! This is a very obscure question, Allan. It was a retaliatory song against my father. He’s been dead 25-30 years now, but he was a chronic alcoholic and meat eater, and he’d taken on a new wife, I think it was my second stepmother, Patty. And she seemed to be feeding him, like, gin and red meat, you know what I mean? So I was kind of making a statement: “Patty’s killing Mel/ Red beef cocktails, sending him to hell.” But that’s super obscure – it’s so weird that you would ask me that.
Well, people who are going to want to read a Zander Schloss interview are probably going to be some deep fans! But I guess it’s not on the setlists for the current tour.
Well, we’re out there promoting these two reissue albums, so a lot of my tunes are not showing up, by design, if you know what I mean. I actually wrote the setlist, which does not include a lot of the songs that I wrote! But “The Crowd” is in there, and “I Don’t,” which I wrote the lyrics for. But it’s mostly songs off Wild in the Streets and Group Sex.
How is that, playing these high energy hardcore songs – songs written by someone else – several nights in a row? It seems pretty intense.
Well – in stating that it is a very physical job – I would also say that I would not want anyone to see me putting any effort into anything that’s supposed to look like a magic trick. But most of the basswork that I do, the songs are over 200 beats-per-minute, and there’s 33 of them in an hour’s set, back-to-back, it takes a certain finesse to do them, as well as attack. So when you’re doing downstrokes on that thing, hammering on it, it’s almost more like a percussion instrument in a weird way. That can really work your right arm and your right wrist a lot. It’s a very physical job, but we are specialists at what we do, playing lightning-fast music. I’m hoping some of the young people out there will see that, as a 60-year-old man, it is possible to still be striving for your potential, as a player and an artist, and getting out there and playing sharp, with attack, and generating excitement and enthusiasm in the fans. But it can be done – you’re not out to pasture, necessarily, if you keep yourself in good shape and constantly do it for the right reasons – and make sure that you’re not letting anybody see that kind of effort going into it.
Do you have a recuperation regime, when you get a few days off?
Not really. I mean, the fact of the matter is, dude, I’m built like a fucking tank. I wouldn’t recommend this for people who are frail or weak at heart, but my whole routine on the road is – “no special needs.” In saying that – if you have these very finicky dietary needs or you can’t fall asleep with the TV on or you can’t fall asleep on the bus or the plane… I can fall asleep anywhere, and eat whatever food is given me, and deal with any conditions that come my way. I really don’t recommend that people do this job if they have a number of special needs.
I’ve known vegan punks who tour. How does one do that?
It can be done, but the more special needs you have, the more hurdles you’re going to encounter.
Okay, well – coming back to the music. I don’t actually know the album Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities, but reading about it online, I see that you played sitar on it. I realize that you’re a multi-instrumentalist, but – how does one get sitar on a Circle Jerks record?
I think there was some sort of mystical intro to a song that might have even been [the Soft Boys’ cover] “I Wanna Destroy You.” I don’t really remember, that was a long time ago, but yes, I am a multi-instrumentalist. I play many different ethnic instruments, mainly stringed instruments.
Where did that start for you? What instrument did you begin with, and what’s the history of your multi-instrumentalism?
Well, I mean, I started on the guitar, and I’ve always had a real interest in Latin music, and that’s what led to me playing with Joe Strummer on the Walker soundtrack. I enjoy playing instruments in their traditional tunings and learning about different types of instruments rather than just sticking to western music and western music scales and stuff; it kind of forces you into a place where you’re starting over, learning something that is unfamiliar to you and foreign to you, and that can be a real creative encouragement to expand your horizons musically.
How many instruments can you play?
I mean, jeez, I would use “play” as a rough term, but I dabble in many instruments. I couldn’t give you a number, I’ve played so many different ethnic instruments. Currently in the last 20 years, I’ve been playing an instrument pretty regularly, the Greek bouzouki, and that’s tuned in one of several traditional tunings for that instrument; the Celtic version of that instrument is tuned in more of a manageable tuning. But yeah, I’ve got, like, a like a weird Turkish guitar and play vihuela and sarangi and bajo sexto and guitarron and… lots of stuff!
Were you playing music where you grew up, in Missouri?
I was in Missouri until I was 13 years old and moved to California. I started playing music when I was 12 [circa 1973] with the guitar and mainly listening to singer-songwriter stuff like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and also a lot of traditional bluegrass, Doc Watson and stuff like that.
This was before punk rock?
Punk rock came so much later in in my musical history. I didn’t join the Circle Jerks until 1984, so there’s a whole lot of different styles of music that I explored before that. When I got out to California, I started getting into rock’n’ roll – y’know, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, wanting to be an electric guitar hero. And in my senior year of high school, I started getting into playing jazz. I played in the big band in high school and subsequently lived with my jazz teacher for a year and had a very strict regimen of practice, transcribing Charlie Parker and John Coltrane solos, and mainly listening to saxophone players and piano players to learn how to play the guitar, just getting into more and more complex types of music. And after moving to Los Angeles and going to music school here, I joined a band [the Juicy Bananas] down in the Inglewood, Compton and Watts area, playing mainly funk and soul. That was just previous to joining the Circle Jerks. And during the filming of Straight to Hell [released in 1987] I started to develop my interest in in Latin music, mainly because hanging out in Spain, being exposed to Flamenco players and, of course, traveling to Mexico and Central America for the filming of Walker [also released 1987]. I was down there for three months and really just developed a love for Latin music. I think that’s what really intrigued Joe Strummer about me, my curiosity for all different types of music.
And you met him for the first time on the Straight to Hell shoot?
No, I was a ghost guitar player on the Sid and Nancy soundtrack in London. That was my first time meeting Joe. He was kind of coming out of the studio as I was going in. I play on the actual score, not the Sex Pistols songs themselves, but the musical score in the movie; when they’re making out in the alley and the trash is falling down in slow-motion, that’s me playing the guitar. So I had met Joe prior to the filming of Straight to Hell in Spain.
I actually did not get a chance to revisit Sid and Nancy. I made a mistake here, in doing research: I decided I hadn’t seen Alex Cox’s Walker in years, so I was going to rewatch it and get some questions about your scenes. But I didn’t notice any – I could barely even spot Joe. Where can I see your image in the film Walker?
It’s in there. You know, Alex shot something like 500 hours of footage down there [in Nicaragua, where Cox shot the film, a topical dark comedy about American imperialism in Central America]. Of course, I don’t know if you know this or not, but there was a huge cast and a pretty big budget for that time. That, mixed in with the fact that there was a civil war going on, made things a bit chaotic; and we were hanging out there for a good three months. But even Joe, and myself – if you blink your eyes, you’ll miss us. You know everybody was just kind of “on call” down there and subsequently, when it came to editing the film, a lot of stuff got cut out.
Did you have scenes with Joe that got cut?
Nothing with Joe. We did in Straight to Hell, but nothing with Joe down in Nicaragua. We didn’t interact in that. I played a Prussian soldier of fortune; I guess you can see me leading the President of Nicaragua to his execution. But there’s many times that I appear; I’m bearded and I’m in a very fancy sort of Prussian soldier outfit. I think that was actually due to the fact that, in the roles that I played in Alex’s films before that, I was always either a nerd or somebody who was kind of kicked around. I think Alex was trying to redeem himself by giving me this fancy, dignified wardrobe.
And Joe had a beard, and very long hair too. He was real scruffy in that movie! But we lived together for a short time and in a house in Granada, Nicaragua and spent a lot of time together down there.
Any particular stories or memories that stand out – was there weirdness due to the political situation…? Did you play any music down there?
I did, I did play music down there and yeah, there was lots of weirdness – we were surrounded by people that were CIA, and gonzo journalists from Time and Life, very extreme people, and a lot of different people down there that were associated with the Sandinistas – Russian and Cuban advisors for the Sandinistas, and a lot of intrigue and black-market gangsters and stuff like that. I mean, it was pretty epic. And it was really hard to track all the different factions and the changing of the guard, with a dictator being cast out of power and the Sandinistas trying to bring socialism into Nicaragua. Those kind of transitions can be pretty shaky, so there was a lot going on. It’s almost too much to mention.
It’s a singular film – though it isn’t my favorite of Alex’s films. I think I’m probably alone in that Straight to Hell is my favorite of his movies. I don’t think there are many people who love that film like I do.
I don’t know about that. You know, from my perspective, a lot of people love that film! It’s chock-full of rock stars having a big party and, regardless of the fact that there was barely a script to it, it’s a lot of fun. I think Alex originally intended on doing Walker before Straight to Hell, and then we just sort of, like. diverted and maybe almost took a vacation out in Spain and in the interim filmed a kooky Italian western spoof…
I love what you do with the character of Karl. I have Alex’s book here, X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, and I read that Joe actually co-wrote some of the songs that Karl does.
Well, Joe and I co-wrote “Salsa y Ketchup,” which is the song that that Karl sings in the film. That was a collaboration between myself and Joe Strummer, which, you know, at the time I was like [shrugs], “Oh yeah, I’m writing a song with Joe Strummer,” but y’know, I guess, retrospectively, not that many people really got to collaborate with him on that level. So that was pretty special.
Had you seen the Clash before meeting Joe?
No, I sort of worked my way back through the Clash’s catalogue. Previously I was a big Beatles fan, so I sort of saw these similarities in the Clash to the Beatles – like, Sandinista! was kind of their White Album, and that intrigued me because of the diversity of what they were doing. You could see that they were eclectic and versatile in their approaches to music, which I really, really admired, because, y’know, there’s some very strict, conventional rules to punk rock that sort of bother me a little bit. In any traditional music, even in in jazz, there’s strict rules – also in bluegrass and Latin music and stuff like that. I’m one to not veer towards conventional ways of thinking. And of course, London Calling seems to be the Sgt. Peppers of punk rock. I was kind of drawing comparisons and seeing the development of the band from their early days, making these simple, very direct songs to being more stylistically diverse and having more orchestration and stuff like that. So that intrigued me.
Were you at all starstruck when you first met Joe?
You know, I’ve never been one to be super starstruck by people. I think that’s actually why I’ve had such great luck in befriending some very talented and maybe famous people, because I treat them like anybody else; I don’t really get starstruck or kiss people’s asses. I think that we’re all equal. I’d treat you the same way as I would treat anybody else, famous or not. So I wouldn’t say that I was starstruck by Joe, because he was such a down-to-earth guy and we shared a lot of like these similarities, like our curiosity for all different types of music.
Did you and Joe take anything from each other, in terms of discoveries of styles of music or instruments or the specific influences you had on each other?
Not really! I think that it was mainly a friendship. And there was a commonality of our curiosity for all different kinds of music and cultures and history and stuff like that. We both shared a similar passion and curiosity for everything. And having really great conversations with him and hanging out with him, I felt, was more valuable than what I took away musically. Granted, he’s an incredible lyricist, an incredible songwriter, and he’s up on the platform for his talent and all the things that he’s done musically… But if you really ask around of people who have had actual encounters with the guy, he’s equally up there as – sort of like, not a humanitarian, but as somebody who was accessible and down-to-earth and generous with himself, who made himself available to everybody. So that’s something I took away from knowing him. I admired that about him, that he would stay behind after the show and sign autographs and take pictures with people. And if somebody couldn’t get into the show, he’d sneak them in the back or get them a ticket. Or we would meet people and spend the night drinking with them or that kind of stuff. Joe the gentleman was much more impressive to me than Joe the star.
I did a really fun story for a magazine here in Vancouver, Montecristo, where there are tons of stories about things like that – about the Clash playing soccer with local punks before the show, or sneaking people into the back of the Commodore, the same venue you’ll be playing in March – because they were underage or broke or whatnot. A local punk girl group called the Dishrags put a Clash cover, “London’s Burning,” in their set, when they opened for them, and were shocked to see the Clash off to the side of the stage, dancing to their cover… and a local punk, a member of a band called Rabid, was admiring Joe’s shoes – and said something about them to Joe – then was totally shocked when Joe gave them to him after the show. All sorts of good stuff.
Yeah, so that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about and everybody that has met him has a story similar to that. I just talked to a guy the other night that I’m working on a video with. He said that he saw the Mescaleros, and Joe invited them back into the dressing room, then they left the room because there was a lot of chaos and Joe kind of revealed how he missed home, and later literally laid his head on this guy’s shoulder, just sort of like rested his head on his shoulder. It was very tender, very touching to me. He was able to really read people’s souls and wanted to connect with people in that way, and experience humans and experience life. I really do think that that’s way, way more important of a lesson than any kind of like songwriting tricks or anything like that that I could learn from him. And my goal as a musician and as a writer is not to sound like Joe Strummer or use anything that I might have learned musically from him, but to sound like myself.
That was something that he was interested in, too – foregoing any kind of influence from other people. I’d see people hand him tapes and I don’t mean to pull the covers out from under them, but he’d just maybe throw the tape out the window or stuff it in a drawer. In fact, that also happened with Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan wanted us to cover a song on Earthquake Weather and he brought it to my attention and I said: “Joe, what did you do with the tape?” He said, “I chucked it in the desk with all the rest of them.” I said, “Man, if Bob Dylan wants us to cover a song, maybe we ought to take a look at that?” and we got the cassette out. It was a Pete Seeger song called “Viva La Quince Brigada (Long Live the 15th Brigade),” about the Spanish Civil War; it wasn’t a Bob Dylan song, he was just merely saying, “You guys should try to do a version of this,” and so we did and we came up with a really great modern arrangement of it. I don’t know where it can be found now [it was the b-side of the “Island Hopping” 7” and appears on Joe Strummer 001, as “The 15th Brigade”].
There’s lots of stuff out there that keeps coming to light. I only just found out that you recorded a song with Tito Larriva for the Highway Patrolman soundtrack [another Alex Cox film!].
No, I didn’t record a song with Tito Larriva. Tito Larriva sang a song that I had recorded. I brought him in to write the lyrics in Spanish. Granted, it was a collaboration, but it was a song that that I had written, that Tito was brought in on.
Okay, cool. Do you have a history with Tito as well? Very interesting guy!
Well, I mean I love Tito. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I loved the Plugz. They were a fantastic band and y’know – Chalo [AKA Charlie] Quintana smoking a cigarette as he played drums, it just blew my mind the way the smoke would kinda go up and into the lights and diffuse the light around him. I’m like: “When is he going to swallow that cigarette?” Or, like, “At what point is he going to be able to spit that thing out and how is he going to do that graciously?” I know that sounds trite, but it just was always sort of on my mind; the guy would be chainsmoking while he was playing the drums using both hands, so he just had it held in his mouth. “Is it going to burn his lips?” [Laughs] It was just really intriguing to me.
He lived up here in Vancouver for quite a while. I never actually crossed paths with him, but it was kind of interesting to discover that. Rich Hope, a local axeman, used to cut his hair.
And Steven Hufsteter was an amazing guitar player. He had a great look, had those giant fucking Jagger lips, and wore these long coats and sort of gaucho hats and stuff like that. They had a fantastic look and of course Steven and Tito were instrumental in composing the score to Repo Man, so yeah, I actually got to meet them and hang out with them.
I asked Chris D. about the song of his and Tito’s that the Circle Jerks covered, “I, I & I.” He couldn’t recall much about it, though. Where did the Circle Jerks find that song?
Well, I don’t know. I mean, Keith brought that in. He has a reverence for Chris and for Tito as well as John Denney from the Weirdos [whose songs “Solitary Confinement” and “We Got the Neutron Bomb” were both covered by the Circle Jerks, and whom Zander has also played with]. Keith is just paying homage to his peers that he admires. I don’t necessarily think there’s any kind of backstory with the exception of just, y’know, bringing in a song that he really dug that he wanted to cover.
If we could go back to Earthquake Weather – that’s a really interesting album, kind of the middle ground between the Clash and the Mescaleros. Some of it I don’t still understand – it has some very experimental elements, very daring. Some of it is really amazing, an obvious yes – like, “Sleepwalk” is on this new Joe Strummer comp, Assembly, and it’s just beautiful. But I still haven’t quite figured out how to listen to a lot of the songs on the album. What was your process in working together?
I think that Joe was interested in doing something that was a departure from what he had done with the Clash. And y’know, those are pretty difficult shoes to step into, the shoes, like, of being the guitar player with Joe Strummer. So I got my feelings hurt a lot that people were so down on me for kind of expressing my individuality as a guitar player. Like, people always want to put artists into a box and say, “Well, that’s your potential and you should always just repeat what it is that we like about you and never expand your horizons.” And I think that Joe wanted to do more kind of a travelogue, sort of ethereal, almost like a beatnik kind of approach to writing lyrics – stream of consciousness, dreamy stuff. I don’t think that the people were prepared for that, and people were not accepting of it. Maybe in retrospect, Joe was trying to get off his label by doing something that was experimental and more serene in its landscape, less biting in its social-political commentary. I think that it was planned that way.
And Joe was extremely hands-off in the studio; he’d come in with a very, very simple recording, maybe a drum machine and vocal and guitar, and it was up to me to interpret these songs into a band arrangement. At the time I was young, I also had a lot to prove as a guitarist and as a young gunslinger, and so the album was panned a lot for the fact that there was a lot of multiple layers of guitar. But you can imagine being a 26-year old kid with, y’know, two 24 track machines, linked up, automated, and probably about, you know, 20 guitars laying around and sort of just having the run of the studio… I will take some of the blame for some of that stuff being a little convoluted and maybe a little bit complex. But can you blame me? I mean, I was very exuberant and I had a lot to prove, not only to Joe but to myself, stepping into the shoes of the Clash breaking up. I know that Joe didn’t want it to necessarily sound like the Clash. So there’s some ripping leads on it and some guitar layers that that may not have been in Mick Jones’ wheelhouse, but Mick had moved on to Big Audio Dynamite, doing something completely different too, and I don’t think that he was necessarily panned for that…! I just think everybody should be free to do whatever it is that they want to do it at the time. I hate it when people you know say well, this is your potential and this is what we want and we won’t accept anything else. I just will not buy into the myth of my own history. That’s why I’m currently doing what I’m doing now.
Well, not the sole reason. I’m just doing what I do, but you know I would hope that people would embrace an artist at any juncture in his creative process.
To stick with Earthquake Weather a bit… There are some great songs on it. There are songs I don’t get, to be sure – like, a song like “Gangsterville,” I listen and I read the lyrics and there are some interesting phrases, but I don’t understand them, feel like I’m still not there. But, like, “Ride Your Donkey” comes across, and “Shouting Street”…
“Ride Your Donkey” is a cover.
I didn’t know that! Who did the original?
I don’t know, some reggae dudes! [Lloyd Campbell and the Tennors]. I mean, I didn’t do my research.
Clearly neither did I. Can you give me any insight into what that even means – to ride your donkey? Seems like a metaphor for something…
Well, dude, I think you’d have to go back in time and ask Joe Strummer why he wanted to cover that song. I’m literally just Joe’s musical director and guitarist – that’s out of my realm of understanding.
Fair enough. So do you have favorite moments on Earthquake Weather?
Yeah, I like “Dizzy’s Goatee,” and “Ride Your Donkey” was a lot of fun for me, kind of like doing my own kind of Lee Scratch Perry dub. Favorite moments… honestly, I just had my nose into my work so much. I was literally spending 14 to 18 hours a day in the studio at that point and that was the way Joe worked too. We’d stay up and we’d stay in there working until we couldn’t even stay awake. So for favorite moments… I don’t know. The whole thing was a favorite moment because of, you know, my friendship with Joe and the fact that that Joe was so generous with creativity in allowing me to express myself and not putting me in a box and saying, “Now you need to like, play like Mick Jones” or “I want to do something that sounds like something I’ve done before.” There was none of that.
It’s even very different from what you did on the Permanent Record soundtrack. Songs like “Trash City” are much more direct and punk rock, if maybe less ambitious than the stuff on Earthquake Weather. Were the circumstances very different? It was a different band – I was surprised to learn that Tupelo Joe of Tupelo Chain Sex was on those recordings.
I mean, Tupelo Joe was not involved that much in that soundtrack. He’s credited, but… Honestly, what we were doing for that is, we were doing a film score, so it has a very specific sort of purpose, to enhance the images that are in the scenes that are happening. With Earthquake Weather we were trying to actually create those scenes, and I think it was a lot more ambitious and a lot more dreamy in its landscapes, because there was no visual image attached to it, we had to create that with the music. And it was kind of like what I would call Joe’s “deep” years, y’know? So you’ll see a lot of references to different towns and travelling around, and it’s not so based on a very clear and direct message. So the music just twins the dreaminess of the lyrics on that album.
What were your last interactions with Joe?
The last time I remember was the end of the tour. It was an incredible letdown for me. Y’know, the tour had been cancelled, and we went up to our rooms and basically it was kind of like, “See you when I see you,” you know what I mean? I think he was also disappointed. But the record company obviously were interested in having a Clash reunion, and it was a constant sort of thorn in Joe’s side, and in retrospect, I think that Joe was kind of trying to kill his own myth with Earthquake Weather and assembling that band. And we were really going out and just playing shows and happy to be playing in front of a live audience, but I think the whole time that there’s also stuff going on behind the scenes where the record company is like, “Well, we’re not seeing those kind of numbers that we want to see,” and eventually they cancelled the tour and dropped Joe off of Epic, which – I can’t get into his mind, but I would imagine that it was part of his intention was to get out of that that record deal with them. People talk about Joe’s “wilderness years,” but he was very, very productive during those times after the Clash broke up, from Sid and Nancy to Joe acting in Straight to Hell and Walker and doing the Walker score, which was an amazing experience, onto the Anarchy tour that we did and the making of Earthquake Weather and Permanent Record and all that stuff. We were incredibly productive. To set the record straight, I think Joe’s so-called wilderness years started after that period of time when Joe got dropped from Epic, and I think it made him very, very, very sad. I think maybe he had some regrets about, you know, breaking up the Clash and I think that that maybe he got a little bit waylaid by the whole experience and you know – from what I hear, because we did kind of lose touch – wanted to just go to festivals and participate in watching music. And he did his radio show and stuff like that until the inspiration hit him again to make new music.
Did you get to see the Mescaleros play?
I did. Yeah, I liked them, thought they were a good band. I liked seeing that that Joe was sort of getting back in touch with it, and with maybe growing older with some grace and embracing more world sounds, and that he had a solid band behind him, that were able to track where he was going. I was happy for him.
Okay, so – let’s talk about your new solo record, Song About Songs. There are a couple of songs that were on previous solo albums, right?
No, I’ve never had a solo album. This is my first solo album!
Wait, but – not solo, but there was an album with Sean Wheeler with “Song About Songs” on it…
Nope, one song appears on the first album, Walk Thee Invisible, and the reason why I re-covered the song is because I don’t think I sang it as well as I could have on the first record. I dropped it down a minor third so that I could actually sing the song better, and I think my voice developed from that time. I was a new singer at that point, you know, strictly an instrumentalist and songwriter, and though I wrote those lyrics and recorded that song on Walk Thee invisible with Sean, it’s my song, so I get to do as many versions of it as I want.
Absolutely – I’m not criticizing!
It’s a little bit of a spiky subject, because of the way that the group was disbanded, perched on the going into the studio for our third record, which was written, and then the thing sort of exploded… Honestly, Allan, nothing against you – it’s like, all my history is fraught with certain not-so-great experiences, and that’s just the road, I think of any person who has had a long, long longevity in the music industry, that there’s going to be some not-so-great memories.
Fair enough. But I have to get this clear, because there’s something listed on Discogs by you called Dear Blue, which also seems to have some of the songs off Song About Songs. Maybe it’s a demo or something?
No, that’s a bootleg of the album. I went in and I chopped one of the songs off, re-sang and retitled “Dear Blue” to “My Dear Blue,” remixed it, mastered the album, re-sequenced it and sort of re-imagined the whole thing. When Sean and I broke up, it took me about a year to get into the studio to record, and once I had recorded the album, I went to Europe for six weeks and toured on my own, and just wanted to have some discs to sell. That artwork was temporary, the sequence was temporary. The album had not been mastered yet in sequence…
All right, good, now I understand. So who’s playing with you on Song about Songs?
Song About Songs was played live to tape, a 16-track two-inch machine, with Gus Seyffert, who is currently playing bass with Roger Waters; Jake Blanton plays keyboards – he’s played keyboards with Brandon Flowers and with the Killers; and a guy named Josh Adams, who also plays with Jenny Lewis and a number of people. We tracked that live to tape, so everybody was set up, Gus was in the control room producing and pressing the buttons, playing electric bass, and Jake was in the other room playing upright piano or Wurlitzer, and Josh was in the drum room playing drums, and I was singing and playing the guitar at the same time in the isolation booth. I’d say the basic tracks were recorded over the course of four days. We’d run the song and do about two takes and pick the best of one or two. And then we had a couple of more days for doing some lead guitar overdubs or keyboard overdubs or background vocals. The whole album was recorded to tape during the course of six days, and a lot of that was because the budget was so small and also there was a concern not to spend a whole lot of time sniggling around with automation and auto-correcting vocals. Gus didn’t want to do any of that kind of stuff. That’s what gives the album sort of the classic sound, because, y’know, you have to play well, you have to make decisions on the spot and you have to sing and play at the same time, so there are, like, little flaws. I think that give the album that kind of real classic character.
If we could talk about the song “Song About Songs,” that’s a brilliant tune. Did the lyrics come first, or the music? Were there specific inspirations?
Well, I mean I always write kinda the same way. I write the music and the melody first. I think I wrote that song very quickly actually, and I think I was kind of trying to prove a point to somebody that I was working with, that will remain nameless, who was writing a lot of songs about, y’know, swagger and money and jewels and all this other stuff that he thought was sexy subject matter, and I thought to myself, “Man, that’s not the way you appeal to women or the public in general.” I wanted to write something more sweepingly romantic, like, “I hope you find a song that loves you for all time and that song saves your life.” That’s, like, the tenderloin moment of the song. And to write a song – because I have extreme reverence for the power of music – to write a song that is suggestive of what has inspired me but never actually names those songs, to allow the listener to come to their own conclusions about what songs have helped them through troubling times, like the death of a loved one or divorce or the birth of a child or whatever it is: significant moments where that music was of great significance in their lives. So that was my intention with that song.
But you probably still don’t want to go on record with any of the songs that meant that to you, that did those things for you.
Well, I mean there are so many.., I really would rather not reveal the magic trick. Those songs that have saved my life, those are personal, y’know, and I want the song to go on record as a song that that people can tell you their list. So no, I’m not going to tell you my list.
The melody of “Song About Songs” reminds me a bit of “Long Black Veil,” which Johnny Cash did a very famous version of, and if I recall, Joe actually did a recording with Johnny Cash – I think a recording of “Redemption Song.” So was “Long Black Veil” relevant to the writing?
No, my intention at the time, and it still is, was to write things that have an influence that goes beyond a short period of time, and I generally gravitate – as far as like trying to write a song – to songs that would potentially have a place in the American songbook. You know what I mean? I’m literally thinking of songs like, “Oh, My Darling Clementine” and “Camptown Races” – stuff like that where it’s just like, unmistakably a melody that belongs in the American songbook. And the influences that I was using on that were, I guess, gospel and Appalachian in origin. If you go beyond that, those sort of influences are coming from English and Scottish and Irish folk music. Archetypes exist in melody, in musical styles as well. So I want to give people something that’s familiar, to sit them down at the table and make them feel welcome to sort of participate and listen to the song and digest it, basically like sitting them down and serving some turkey and some gravy and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. You don’t send out the exotic dishes first, that are too spicy to eat and unfamiliar to them.
So it’s musical comfort food?
Yeah.[feature image: Geoff Moore] [both Strummer/Schloss onstage images: Julian Yewdall]