AUSTIN, Texas - It’s a terrible name for a bar, and actually a pretty subpar bar all around. But the place called Friends proved to be a fitting venue for Carbon/Silicon’s main showcase two weeks ago at the South by Southwest Music Conference.
The two highly credentialed British punk-rock vets behind the band - former Clash guitarist Mick Jones and Generation X co-founder Tony James - were themselves old friends from back in the day (and actually a little before the day).
What really made Friends a great place for Carbon/Silicon’s first mid-America gig, though, were the windows behind the stage, which opened out onto the masses along Sixth Street. With the inside of the club as packed as Jones’ wallet after he cashes one of his TV/movie-placement checks, a crowd gathered outside to watch them perform.
From the street, the gig seemed very punk-rock. Or at least it looked like the guys were in it for the right reason: to have fun. You could see Jones and James swap appreciative smiles every time they turned around.
At a public interview session early the next afternoon, Jones and James tried to emphasize the sincerity of their new project.
“If I didn’t have a penny, I’d still be doing this - exactly the same thing,” Jones declared.
The two music vets arrived in buttoned-up sport coats and nearly shaved heads (hiding their bald spots). Jones also carried a Corona beer.
“To be here today, we know how lucky we are to be able to still do this at 50-plus,” James said in a rare serious moment. “We really appreciate every moment. Because when you’re young it all just goes by so quick, you never stop to look around, as Ferris Bueller once said.”
Jones spoiled the weighty mood, though: “We both had a record on the `Ferris Bueller’ soundtrack, you know.”
He wasn’t lying. Both were featured in “Ferris” with their questionable `80s-‘90s projects: Jones in the hip-hop-copping electro-rock band Big Audio Dynamite, which scored the pop radio hits “Bad” and “Rush,” and James in Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the New Wave band known more for its giant mohawks and outlandish outfits than its music. (James also went on to join the goth band Sisters of Mercy in the early `90s.)
They didn’t outright say that Carbon/Silicon - a decidedly straight-ahead, classic-sounding two-guitar rock quartet - is an attempt to reclaim their credibility. But Jones and James did admit wrestling with the question because of their ages (Jones is 52, and James is 50).
“We talked about this for about 10 years: Could you form a new group as older guys?” James recounted. “Because generally, older people reform the brand name, get back together, do all the old hits and do a big stadium tour.
“We used to have this thing we said: `What if Jack Nicholson was in a rock `n’ roll band?’ We were kind of thinking that could be cool. If you had (Jack’s) kind of attitude, maybe you can get away with it.”
Jones once again interjected, “People can relate to us because of (our age). When they hear our record, they go, `Oh, there’s still hope.”’
Jones and James were friends even before they joined their famous bands. They recalled meeting at a gig by English glam band the Heavy Metal Kids in 1975.
“You had just been sacked, isn’t that right, for not being talented?” James jabbed.
Jones feigned a mock “ha-ha” and then added, “There’s a dispute about what kind of hair he had back then. He definitely had a bomber jacket.”
James: “Never had a bomber jacket!”
Before England’s great punk explosion of 1977, the pair formed a thankfully short-lived group with a name that makes them cringe now: The London SS, featuring future Clash bassist Paul Simonon. “We were really young and stupid and trying to be like New York Dolls,” Jones said.
Jones and James remained close friends, often sharing flats and hanging out together when they weren’t on tour.
Both look back on their past groups with a tinge of humor.
“The more the Clash got famous, the more messed up we became,” Jones said. “We couldn’t handle it. We tried everything. We tried drug addiction, egomania and some stuff we thought up special on our own - like building a spliff bunker.”
Coincidentally or not, neither was a frontman in their most famous bands. Jones usually took the back seat to the late Joe Strummer in the Clash. James laughed when asked about the singers in Generation X (led by Billy Idol) and Sputnik (Martin Degville).
“One was an (expletive), and one was not,” he said.
Even after Generation X split up in 1981 and Jones splintered from the Clash in 1983 (the group sputtered on for three more years), the two friends said they did not consider working together. “We always thought it would be too difficult,” James said.
Jones cracked back, “It has been.”
Finally, around 2002 when neither was musically active, the friends began recording together in a studio in west London that Jones took over from the Cocteau Twins.
James: “We started with the one song, and it really just grew organically. We enjoy drives. We’d sit outside in the car at night listening to something we recorded that afternoon, just for ourselves. We wouldn’t get out of the car because we were digging it so much. It was that love of creating music.
“And pretty soon, we turned around and we’d recorded three albums. And suddenly we thought, maybe we could get a bass player and a drummer and go play some gigs.”
Jones: “And after three rhythm sections, we found something that works.”
James: “It’s still taken us seven years to get to this stage. Whatever level of experience you have, it doesn’t make it work. It takes a fantastic amount of confidence and drive to get to this stage.”
James literally meant the stage they were on at SXSW, where the band - with ex-B.A.D. bassist Leo Williams and drummer Dominic Greensmith - kicked off its first proper U.S. tour.
Aside from a handful of U.S. gigs this winter, Jones had not performed stateside in 12 years. To cement themselves as a live band, they took up residency at a small club in London for two months last year, a club they renamed Carbon Casino.
“It literally is right under the Westway,” Jones gleefully recounted, referring to a road immortalized in song by the Clash. “If you say you’re on the guest list, they say, `All right, just go up those stairs,’ and the stairs go directly onto the Westway.”
The tour goes hand in hand with Carbon/Silicon’s first properly released album, “The Last Post,” a 14-track collection of mid-tempo, medium-polished rock songs akin to a latter-day Kinks album with electronic rhythms thrown in. Tracks range from the ironically jubilant, danceable opener “The News” to the jangly but angry “War on Culture” to the anthemic rocker “Soylent Green” - most laced with social commentary and Jones’ poppy bounce.
None of the music is as feisty and ferocious as the members’ most legendary work, but does anyone really think they’d succeed if they tried?
“The Last Post” is hardly the first batch of songs these guys have produced. Back when Radiohead was still selling its albums the old-fashioned way, Jones and James started releasing music for free on their Web site (CarbonSiliconInc.com). They issued about three albums’ worth of material, and now they have an EP on the site that’s newer than “The Last Post.”
“It just seemed brilliant that we could make music just for us, and could upload it and put it up and out into space, and people might like it and give us feedback,” James said. “And that was all we wanted to do, not have to ask radio stations or record companies to help you get your music to people.”
Jones expressed his approval of the online music revolution (“MyFace is great,” he joked), but said he still prefers old-fashioned vinyl.
“It’s hard to roll a joint on an MP3,” he deadpanned.
Nobody laughed harder than James.