To record his latest album, “No Better Than This” (Rounder), John Mellencamp hatched a plan with producer T Bone Burnett. They would set up a mono tape recorder and a single microphone and knock out a bunch of new songs with a small band.
It was old-fashioned recording in the extreme, with an added twist: The “recording studios” were the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., a sanctuary for runaway slaves before emancipation; Sun Studios in Memphis, one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded.
It all might sound like a gimmick, but the music’s rambunctious charm and playful spirit argue otherwise. It adds up to one of Mellencamp’s best albums, in a career that has seen the former John Cougar move from a Springsteen-lite phase (“I Need a Lover”), find his niche as a small-town storyteller (“Jack & Diane”), become the unofficial voice of Farm Aid (“Rain on the Scarecrow”) and reinvent himself as a folk-oriented singer-songwriter. In 2006, he dropped his long-standing opposition to licensing his songs for use in TV commercials; his song “Our Country” appeared in a car ad and then anchored his final album for a major label, “Freedom’s Road.” But now he’s an independent artist, and he says his days of listening to record company executives’ advice about how best to sell and market his music are over.
In a recent interview, Mellencamp discussed his life as a “recovering” rock star.
Q: Were you worried at all that the mono recording would be perceived as a gimmick?
A: It never even entered our consciousness that people would be cynical about it. No, it was just out of pure “let’s try to get as far away as we can from what music is today.” The idea of recording originally was to capture a moment, and today there is no moment to capture because everything is built one instrument at a time. Our idea was to capture a moment in the oldest fashioned way we could think of.
Q: Why the animosity toward “what music is today”?
A: We lost our way a long time ago with technology. Just because something is an advancement by going digital — that was a huge (expletive) mistake (laughs). It was a way for people to make money, but it sure didn’t improve sound or quality of record making. It made it faster, cheaper, but it isn’t as durable. Everybody bought into it, including me, even T Bone. We looked at each other making this record, and I said, “What were we doing in the ‘80s?” We would spend forever working on a drum sound, but why? Listen to the drums on this record. One microphone! They sound great.
Q: Did you work out these songs ahead of time?
A: Nobody heard anything ahead of time. T Bone hadn’t even heard the songs. I would sit with an acoustic guitar, play the song, and the band would join in. I remember cutting a couple tracks and there were some mistakes in there, and I’d say, “So what?” They were casual mistakes and it was a casual recording. T Bone and I had a conversation a long time ago about how I had the misfortune of being a rock star in the ‘80s, and got pigeonholed a certain way. I wrote a song called “Pop Singer” once because that’s what I had become. I had no other choice. Now I do have a choice, and I’m not going to do anything I don’t want to do.
Q: You felt you didn’t have any other choice in the ‘80s?
A: Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when there was still a record business, there was pressure on anyone who was fortunate to have a few hits on a major label to continue that success. Neil Young said to me, “You’ve got a problem, John, you’ve had too many hit records.” Neil had a couple hits and went the other way. People expected hits from me, and everything else I recorded got ignored. Last night we tore down the Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville) by playing acoustic songs, playing quiet, with a few hits at the end, and everyone left with smiles on their faces. On this tour, anybody who’s coming to see “the Coug,” probably should stay at home.
Q: I was at a few of those greatest hits shows and they started to feel pretty stale.
A: Yeah, I know what you mean. After a while, I started to hate it. I wanted to rip my clothes off, and burn ‘em every night. It was not fun. I’m not a nostalgic person. I’m not nostalgic about much of anything. So the greatest thing that ever happened to (my career) was the breakdown of the record companies, because there were no more stupid questions about how many hits are on the next record. It was very liberating. These records we make now are just a calling card for me to go out and play. I was on tour with Bob (Dylan), and he said it was that way when he started. He didn’t expect his records to sell. It was a way of getting out there and playing for people, and that’s the way the record business has come around now.
Q: You said recently, “The Internet is the most dangerous thing invented since the atomic bomb.” I recently spoke to T Bone Burnett and he advised new artists to get off the Internet. You guys seem genuinely ticked off about it. Why?
A: The Internet is the wrong direction for music. Think about it, we’ll be able to get online and say, I’d like to buy “Bonnie and Clyde,” but I only want the part where Faye Dunaway is naked. So they start breaking up movies. I make albums. But if you can break up stuff anyway you want, what does that do to creativity? We will suffer because of that. Nobody wants to make great albums now because nobody wants to buy them and there’s no place to sell them.
But that’s just the record business. The reason I said the Internet is dangerous is that a couple smart guys could hack into a computer and shut down the Eastern seaboard if they wanted to. It’s a terrible, out-of-control thing.
Q: But listeners have a choice about how they want their music, and they’re voting for convenience and portability over sound quality. Telling them to get off the Internet seems disingenuous.
A: I understand the convenience business and the portability. But turning music into digital was just a con, a record-company con. I remember the first time I saw a CD, a technology guy brought one to my house and said we will be able to sell millions and millions of players, and people will have to restock their record collections. It was all about money. It was all about how much money we would make, “we” being “him.” Record companies made us all take a royalty reduction because of research and development for this new technology. It started going downhill then.
Q: Tell me about the new album. Did you feel that recording at those three historic locations would somehow influence the way the music would be performed?
A: I’m not that calculating. It was just about having the opportunity to actually sit in that corner Robert Johnson had once sat to record his music. We researched it, we saw the drawings, and just wanted to experience that first-hand. We walked into Sun Studios and there were X’s on the floor where Elvis and Johnny Cash once stood to make their records; (Sun producer) Sam Phillips had fleshed that room out back in the ‘50s and made it easy for us. We knew where everything went. (T Bone) and I set up the instruments the way Sam marked it all out. Frankly, it was just an honor to be able to record in those two locations. The Savannah place was the first African-American church built by African Americans, and we recorded right on the pulpit. Again, it was an honor. The people there were so nice and accommodating, it just made for a terrific vibe, a terrific environment for music to be made.
Q: It seems to have allowed a more playful and relaxed side of your music to emerge. Did you feel that way too?
A: Yeah, with songs like “Easter Eve.” You couldn’t play that in an arena. But at places like the Grand Ol’ Opry, people hang on every word. That’s a seven-minute song. We’re able to hold people’s attention while they listen to me meander through this kind-of-complicated story. It’s enjoyable. It’s what I had hoped music was about, where you can actually connect with the audience on a level as if they’re watching a movie or reading a book.
Q: You’ve always said that at heart you felt you were a folk singer, and now you’ve actually become one.
A: I’m at an age where I would look silly doing anything else. I look at some of my contemporaries trying to emulate what they were 30 years ago and just because of the age factor alone, they look silly. You have to reinvent yourself. I learned a lot from Bob Dylan and oddly enough Robert Plant. I saw Alison Krauss and Plant play a couple years ago, and here’s a guy who once stood on stage with his shirt off like some kind of god, who is now playing with humility, humbleness and singing his butt off. I thought, that is growing old gracefully and with integrity, and that is what I need to be doing. I don’t need to be jumping off drum risers and amplifiers.
Q: Speaking of jumping off things, you were one of the last holdouts when it came to allowing your songs to be licensed for commercials. So was the car ad your last shot at playing ball with the record industry?
A: You hit the nail on the head. I talked to Bob (Dylan) about it, because when he did the Victoria’s Secret ad people gave him all sorts of (grief) about it. And he said, “I don’t care what they think. Why do you care?” And I said, well, it’s nicer if they write nice things about you. He says, “Were they writing nice things about you before? In 1988 I was written off as a dead man walking.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. If it was just up to people who wrote about me, I would have been out of the business 40 years ago.
Q: So can we expect more mono recordings from you?
A: We’ll see. But T Bone and I and Stephen King are working on a musical. All the music has been recorded. We had Kris Kristofferson, Neko Case, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, all singing different characters’ roles. I wrote all the songs, 17 songs. (T Bone) produced. It sounds like the “Sgt. Pepper” of Americana to me. Forget about the play, just the songs, the way these people sing them. I’m sitting there listening to it and thinking, “Did Rosanne Cash just kill that song or what!” The play is called “Ghost Brothers of Darkling County,” about two brothers who hate each other. If you could imagine Tennessee Williams meets Stephen King. They’re recording the dialogue now and we’re putting out a record of the entire show before it comes out.
Right now, Elvis Costello, Meg Ryan, Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey are doing table readings like an old radio play. So you’ll get all the dialogue, all the sound effects, and all the songs sung by different people so you can follow the story. The CD will come out ahead of time, and then Liv Ullmann will be directing the play. So many people are involved, it’s taken a long time. But we don’t have to worry about money or record companies — it’s our own money we’re putting into it, so we said, let’s just make something beautiful. Now we don’t have to listen to some guy from a record company tell us I don’t hear any hits on this thing. Did I tell you I really hate record companies?