After decades of growing up in public, Sean Lennon still hasn't caught up with himself. "Even though I'm 40," says the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, "I might be — you know, mentally — more like in my early 20s. Maybe late teens, if I'm being honest."
All of which would seem to put Lennon on an equal footing with current collaborator Les Claypool, whose musical persona hasn't always been the model of modern maturity. But if anything, says Lennon, the Primus leader is the solid, stable and reliable force within their currently touring band The Claypool Lennon Delirium.
"He's a good leader, and he's a good businessman, and he's got his shit together," says Lennon, who joined forces with Claypool after the two toured last summer with their respective bands Primus and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. "Between the two of us, I think that Les is probably more mature as an adult."
But from a musical perspective, that's not necessarily the case. On The Monolith of Phobos, released two months ago on ATO Records, Claypool's hyper-Zappa histrionics and Lennon's melodic songwriting gifts shift in and out of phase from song to song. The title track travels the space-time continuum back to Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine," "Mr. Wright" finds Claypool in twisted-hoedown mode, and Lennon's "Bubbles Burst" is a small masterpiece that will thrill any mid-period Beatles fan.
Lennon is no stranger to unconventionality. He was 5 years old when he appeared on his mother's haunting Season of Glass album, and has since been all over the map musically. Extracurricular activities have include a stint with the eclectic Japanese pop duo Cibo Matto, his improvisational Mystical Weapons project with Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, and a 2011 collaborative EP with the Flaming Lips and the Plastic Ono Band.
In the following interview, Lennon talks about his work with Claypool, the music his parents played at home, and the year of childhood he lost working with Michael Jackson.
Indy: Going into this album with Les Claypool, what kind of musical expectations did you have?
Sean Lennon: I didn't really have any preconceived notions. It was more like, "Les is cool, let's jam together and see what happens." Maybe this is a fault, but I don't go into a record with a crystallized idea of exactly what it's gonna be. I think I used to try to do that when I was young, but over time, I've come to feel that trying too hard to realize exactly what's in your head is a mistake.
In another sense, though, I was surprised how easy it was to make music with Les. I was nervous that he would be beyond my ability musically — which he is, in a way. I mean, as a player, he's very proficient and athletic. He's a prodigy of his instrument, and I'm not. I'm a decent songwriter, but I wouldn't say I'm a prodigal player. And no one else would say that, either. [Laughs.]
Do you think that you may have made him a little less quirky, and that he might have made you a little more quirky?
I'm sure that's true, because he is sort of the godfather of quirk. But I wouldn't say I'm like the most middle-of-the-road kinda guy, either. So I think it depends on your barometer, you know? He's definitely left-of-center to the point that he makes me seem moderate. Kind of the way Noam Chomsky would make Bernie Sanders seem moderate.
Which of you has the darker sense of humor?
That's tough. I think maybe in daily life, I may say things that are less politically correct. But in terms of song content, he's the one writing songs like "Mr. Wright" about, you know, watching girls pee and stuff. So it's hard to say.
You wrote a song on the album about Michael Jackson's monkey. As a kid, didn't you appear in one of his videos?
I'm in the Moonwalker video, which is more of a long-format movie that he did.
What are your memories of that?
Well, I was out there in LA, on and off, for almost a whole year. I had tutors in a trailer to help me get through sixth and seventh grade. So yeah, it was surreal and wild and fun and exciting and really different. It's just one of those hard-to-believe experiences, you know, hanging out with Bubbles at Michael's house.
I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but what was Bubbles really like, personality-wise?
Well, you know, it's hard to say, because I don't know a lot of other chimpanzees. But I know that he likes to be tickled a lot. You could tickle his neck and he'd freak out with this joy that was unbelievably cute. But the trainer would tell me, "Oh, he's a baby now, but when he grows up, he's gonna have 10 times the strength of a man and he'd kill you with a swipe of his hand."
And that sort of terrified me. I remember thinking, "Wow, this animal was brought here knowing that you'd have to get rid of it at that point." There was something that resonated with me. He was dressed up as a little toy, like with overalls, and he was all cute, but there was this subtext of knowing that his time was limited in this playland. And I felt like that was an interesting thing to hang the subject of a song on, because it felt like an interesting metaphor for a lot of things, you know, puberty being one of them.
I want to ask about the origin of your more avant-garde projects. You've worked on a lot of albums with your mother. Do you feel like that's what set you on that path?
Sure, yeah. Growing up with my mom, I got to play a lot of music with her. She was really into improvisation and noise music and avant-garde music, and that sort of immersed me in a scene where I got to perform with New York improvisers and experimental musicians like John Zorn. So yeah, that would definitely be something that my mom gave me.
Who controlled the stereo in your home?
I would say that, growing up, I definitely did. My mom would play piano and write songs, and mostly listened to all this heady stuff like Kurt Weill and Schoenberg. But also, when I was very young, there was a jukebox in our house that my dad had filled with 45s, so I did get to listen to that a lot.
Did your dad have any really interesting records on there that jumped out at you?
My dad's jukebox was very, you know, predictable, like Everly Brothers, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, that kind of stuff. And my mom's record collection, I would say, is odd. You know, like most people don't listen to Schoenberg string quartets, but that's where her tastes lie. Whereas I was mostly into just classic rock, like Hendrix, Zeppelin and Beatles songs.
What'd you think of that band?
They're alright, you know, they're pretty good. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I got into jazz and alternative stuff after my ears developed. Miles Davis albums — like On the Corner, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil — those kind of opened up my mind to jazz.
What would you say was the weirdest record you've ever made, or the weirdest experience you've had while recording?
It's hard to say. I feel kind of embarrassed, because I can't think of anything that remarkable. I mean, you know, there've been no ghosts or apparitions. I've never recorded dolphins singing my songs. And I've never, you know, had to receive oral sex while doing a vocal track. The most interesting thing I can think of was, one time, I got cables long enough to hang all of the drum microphones out of the window and record outside. It got a very tight drum sound, like a Steely Dan record, versus what I imagined at the time was gonna be like John Bonham.
So at this point in life, are there any things you wish more people knew about you?
I honestly don't know. I think I grew up more exposed to the public than most people would have liked. And I think if you're at all in the public eye, people don't really get a clear idea of who you are, although they might think they do. But I think that's just life. Any public figure is gonna feel misunderstood, you know? And I wouldn't say I'm a public figure — I'm like the son of a public figure — so it's even more obtuse.
But do I wish people knew the real me, the way my friends know me? Or would I want to be totally exposed intimately like on some reality TV show or something? I don't think those things would appeal to me, either.
It's definitely a mixed bag, but I don't have any feeling of, "Oh, I wish people knew that I collect flowers" or "If only people knew that my favorite director is Ken Russell." [Laughs.]
I mean, my whole life has been adjusting to the fact that I'm never gonna be fully understood. I think I just accept that.