Here's the News, and All of It Is Good: An Interview with Mick Jones
The ex-Clash artist returns with a new outlook and a new means of spreading his music, but the rebelliousness remains. Jones talks to PopMatters about his new project Carbon/Silicon.
As guitar player for the Clash, Mick Jones was responsible for writing most of the band's music, as well as singing a substantial portion of their songs. Even for those knowledgeable with only the band's more mainstream songs, Jones is a familiar figure. His is the voice featured on both "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?", two tracks that continue to be pop radio staples to this day. Fans of the band, though, know that his contributions to the Clash, and rock 'n' roll history, are incalculable.
Together with Joe Strummer, Jones was part of a writing team that has often been compared to Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards, both in its ability to create enduring music and its immense impact on subsequent artists. And while there's no doubt that there would have been no Clash without Strummer, the same could be said for Jones. The band, after all, only made one more album after Jones was unceremoniously jettisoned from its ranks in 1983, and the LP was so horrendous that Strummer himself would later come to repudiate it. Strummer may have been the iconic figure of the legendary band, but Jones was a large part of its creative engine.
The Clash, however, is only one (albeit huge) chapter of Jones's career. When his days with the influential punk band were finished, Jones went on to form Big Audio Dynamite (and later Big Audio Dynamite II), a project that further cemented Jones's image as a pioneer. Combining rock with funk, dance, and elements of hip hop, B.A.D. was additional evidence that the Clash's forays into diverse genres were largely due to Jones's encyclopedic knowledge of music idioms. If not for Jones, one could argue, the vocabulary of punk might still be limited to three-chord chugging.
With such a resumé, one would think that Jones is at ease on the stage, but this isn't necessarily true. As he prepares to play a couple of shows with his latest band, Carbon/Silicon, Jones is feeling a bit anxious. "It's nerve-wracking for us," he apprehensively admits. "It's a challenge to see if you can be in command of the stage or if the stage is in command of you." That Jones would still feel jittery about taking the stage is surprising, but it's understandable when you consider that Carbon/Silicon is at a critical point in their career trajectory. To understand that, you have to back up a bit...
Photo: Oleg Tolstoy
Carbon/Silicon started as a collaboration between Jones and one of his old friends, fellow punk legend Tony James. James was in Sigue Sigue Sputnik and, earlier, Generation X, but his artistic partnership with Jones goes all the way back to the 1970s, when the two were in London SS -- a "band" more famous for auditioning members than actually creating any music, and that was also a temporary home to Chrissie Hynde, Topper Headon, and Paul Simonon. In 2002, the two punk veterans got back together and started making music in a home studio, then posting it onto the Internet.
Of course, when two legends get together and start making music, people are going to notice. From the outset, Carbon/Silicon -- named after the human and technological aspects of their early music -- attracted a following, and the duo were thrilled to once again be in a viable musical act. "It was the immediacy of being able to do a track in the studio," Jones explains, "then cross the room, upload it, and get immediate feedback and people's responses. We didn't have to wait two or three months for the record to come out, and it was liberating for us."
Perhaps because Jones and James are known for being innovators, Carbon/Silicon were quickly lauded for embracing technology, both in the creation of their music and in its dissemination. In their early days, the band used a lot of samples, building new pop gems on top of older ones. And, in a move that preceded Radiohead's name-your-own-price-if-any marketing plan by several years, the duo famously gave away their music through their web site years ago. Fans of the band were impressed by their acceptance of the inevitable and their selflessness. For Jones, though, the image of Carbon/Silicon being the band that sampled and gave away its music eventually became too confining.
"When we started we had a lot of samples and stuff in there, just to create a quick backdrop to what we were doing," he explains. As he elaborates, it becomes clear, quite surprisingly, that he and James used samples because they were simply trying to get the creative process started. "If you paint a picture, you paint quickly the sky and then the sea, and then you put your boats in. It was like that. Slowly, as we grew and developed and became more confident, we took that stuff out, because it wasn't really what we're about. It was about making an emotional connection inside, and finding our voices."
When it comes to the Internet, Jones sounds equally ambivalent. On one hand, he's grateful that it has allowed Carbon/Silicon to grow a following, which has led to the band releasing a bona fide album. "We're picking up people all the time through our website," he notes, "and we've really grown [our following] organically." Jones is also grateful that the Internet allowed Carbon/Silicon to bypass the normal red tape of the record industry.
Still, he doesn't want the Internet aspect to define Carbon/Silicon. "It was only a method of delivering music," he says. "It's not really what we're about. What we're really about are the songs and the music, and the things that we're talking about, that affect our lives." Jones isn't shunning the Web, though, and he hopes the band can strike a balance between releasing songs online and in the more conventional manner. "We're in a position now where we're still able to put stuff out on our web site, but we've made a proper record, and we've done it by popular demand, really."
Indeed, Carbon/Silicon is now a full-fledged band, not an upstart enterprise operating from the confines of a home studio. As the band's popularity grew, Jones and James were able to expand their sound, which is now augmented by a proper rhythm section. "We got a really contemporary rhythm section -- Leo 'E-Zee Kill' Williams and Dominic Greensmith -- that Tony and I play on top of." As Jones enthusiastically talks about the two newest members of the band, it's obvious why he's eager to expand beyond sampling. "We got those guys just last year," he says, "and things just really started to click for us."
And click they did. The Last Post, the band's first "album" proper, is an impassioned look at life's trials. All of the usual culprits are addressed, from war and destruction to the absurdity of modern culture, but the band's take on them is often surprising. "The News", for example, is about a day when all of the news is good, right down to the weather forecast. Optimistic to the point of being naïïve, the song sounds more hippie than punk. As Jones explains, though, he's realistic about the state of the world. "It was a fantasy, a dream, a crackpot theory. I wish it could be true. I believe so much that we're all facing a barrage of negativity, continually, on all levels. We got to speak up, but I don't want our music to bum anybody out. I want to do music that's joyous and lifts your spirits in some way."
The Last Post, for sure, is an uplifting album -- not in a self-help way, but in a militantly optimistic way. Even songs that deal with the ceaseless struggles of mankind offer hope. "Why Do Men Fight", for example, examines the numerous reasons why men kill one another, then dismisses them all. "Religion, race, colour, creed," the song states, "whatever." For some, such lyrics might seem to oversimplify the complexities of life, but Jones is adamant that they send a reaffirming message. "The record is quite triumphant. We come out strong in a way that not many people do."
Jones' more upbeat view of life, he concedes, is partly a consequence of aging. When asked how his worldview has changed throughout the years, he retorts, "I'm a lot more right-wing now." As he says this, he can't help but laugh hysterically, partly because he's joking, but also because the statement contains a small bit of truth. "As you get older," he adds, "you do see things differently, it's true. Things just speed up. Things just go faster and faster. It's just like a runaway train."
This realization that time always seems to be slipping away at a faster rate, according to Jones, has caused him and James to reevaluate their priorities, and view their art in a different context. "We have families and stuff as well," Jones says. "It's like a juggling act. You try to not be an obsessive fanatic, but at the same time keep your passion alive. How does one lose it? You lose it if you become too comfortable or complacent. Maybe you have ups and downs -- you lose your mojo and get it back if you're lucky. We have all that to deal with as well. We're realistic blokes."
If all this makes Jones sound like a mellow, middle-aged dad of the Pottery Barn variety, however, that's simply not the case. He's still got the gnawing rebelliousness that fueled his early career, as evidenced by several other tracks on The Last Post. "War On Culture" is one such example. Lyrically cryptic, the song condemns "hypocrites and liars" who "adopt a moral tone". The song is reportedly about the British media, but Jones' explanation is just as oracular as the words.
"I wrote that song in Costa Rica. I kind of stepped away from what had been going on in England. When you're in the middle of it, you can't see what's going on, but I had this chance to step away. And I looked at it from a long distance, and I felt very clearly that was was going on, very surreptitiously, was a subtle dehumanization that had been going on the last few years or so." Jones pauses here, as if he feels like he should be more specific, but only offers one more perplexing statement. "You know, you think you're free, but you're not really free."
Carbon/Silicon isn't the only project Jones is working on. One of his other longtime creative endeavors is finally becoming a reality: a Rock 'n' Roll Public Library. An avid collector of all things pop culture, Jones has long wanted to open his personal collection of odds and ends to the public, both as a way of giving back to the community and as a way of justifying his obsessive collecting tendencies. "I want to make it available to people to resource and learn from." The library is tentatively slated to open in West London, and Jones is excited to see his dream come to fruition. "I've been talking to the [city] council," he says, "and we're very close to getting a small place, for a start. For education purposes, this stuff is great: books, records, videos, magazines, comic books."
Even with so many new ventures, the past is always there. Five years after the death of Joe Strummer, Jones still wonders what might have happened if his former bandmate would have lived. Throughout the years, stories have surfaced claiming that Strummer wanted to get the band back together, but Jones is uncertain about whether it would have ever happened. "When we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we talked [about it], but we could never agree, so it never happened." When asked to elaborate, Jones concedes there were plans to regroup, but they were vague at best. "Yes, it basically was supposed to happen some time, but we could never agree," he reiterates. "But we were friends again, soon after the split, you know?"
For now, though, Jones isn't looking backwards, but focusing on Carbon/Silicon's upcoming shows in Los Angeles and New York City. To hear him tell it, the band is just trying to get their feet underneath them, but it's tempting to think he's just being modest. "I want to go everywhere, obviously, if we can manage it. But it's just a couple of dates; then hopefully we'll come back and do some more in the new year. It's just a first taste. We're looking forward to it. I haven't been in the States for over 12 years." If his track record is any indication, though, Jones may be back to the States more than he plans. For now, he can honestly say that all the news is good.