Sean Lennon, famous son of even more famous parents, has a new album out, which I am pleased to say is not just good, it’s very, very good, in fact a thing of bona fide lyrical substance and, more important, musical elegance. Friendly Fire is a not-so-surprising departure from the joyful kaleidoscopic frenzy of 1998’s well-received Into the Sun; this time, Lennon turns in a more “adult” work largely characterized by sober reflection on the vagaries of love and life and all that gray area between.
L.A. WEEKLY: Sean, your new album is beautiful. I was a bit taken aback at how introspective it is, with all this melancholy and wistful romanticism.
SEAN LENNON: Those are just feelings I was going through when I wrote that record. I was coming out of all these experiences in relationships that weren’t based in romantic idealism anymore. They were real-life experiences ending in heartbreak and, you know, hurting and being hurt.
It’s hard to do anything at all when you’re feeling achey-breaky.
I would say it’s harder for me to not write songs when I’m feeling that way. I was brought up to process my experiences — not just writing songs, but through art in general.
Even so, you’ve said you were kind of down on the whole music-career thing for a while, and it’s been a few years between this new one and the last record.
It’s the celebrity, the industry of the media — there’s something so inherently vacuous about it, and it was something of a turnoff the first time I went through the wringer. There’s something that makes me uncomfortable about being focused on in that way.
And you were doing other things, like collaborating with your mother and with Deltron 3030, Vincent Gallo, Thurston Moore, John Zorn and the Boredoms.
People wonder why it took so long to make this record, but it only took a month or two. Releasing albums isn’t the only thing that I do in my life, and I just happened to not want to do that for a while, until I had this record that I thought was strong enough that it was worth going through all the attention or whatever.
How did you come up with your collaborators?
Well, I always knew I was gonna work with Yuka Honda, because she’s been a musical partner for a very long time, starting from the Cibo Matto days. But since I wanted to record live, it started with Matt Chamberlain — you gotta have a really strong drummer.
This album is a lot more focused and measured than your first.
The last record, I played a lot of the stuff myself. It was the sound of one guy alone with lots of multitrack. [Laughs.] I wanted this record to be more refined, something not so much like a finger painting.
Were you very conscious about reining in your more experimental impulses?
Yes, I was. I have, well, uniquely varied [laughs] tastes in music. I mean, I’m a fan of King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra, so if I indulged myself entirely, I could just peel off into a 17-minute instrumental piece in an odd time signature. I had to make a decision not to, and I think it was worth it. It’s like when you’re sitting down to make a painting and you say, “Okay, I’m only going to use pink and brown” — you might get something out of that that you wouldn’t have gotten if you left yourself infinite color possibilities.
Friendly Fire seems like a big step forward in the singer-songwriter arena, by virtue of the originality of the structures and the unclichéd harmonies. There’s some fantastic guitar playing on it too. How much were your collaborators involved in shaping the songs?
I tend to have a lot of the polyphony and the parts written out beforehand, but it’s very rare that they’re not improved upon by someone I’m working with, ’cause they’re all probably much better musicians than me.
Jon Brion did some stuff on it too, right?
He sat in on organ on “Spectacle,” and he played electric guitar on “Tomorrow,” and then he did some additional drum fills, and he did the bass on “Friendly Fire.” He’s a terrifying talent, actually, it’s very bizarre to witness, almost like a freak show. He remembers every word of every song, and every chord. He’s definitely a savant.
There are a number of challenges built in. You start with “Dead Meat,” where you don’t pull any punches lyrically, though the music is sweet and lush.
Well, you know, it’s not ironic. It’s a pretty straightforward feeling of anger trying to be articulated in its most simple form. But the thing that I thought made it interesting was juxtaposing it against a flowery background. If it had been accompanied by a heavy metal-riff or something, it would have been completely trite and boring.
And you do this classic dreamy lounge tune, “Tomorrow.”
I was inspired by Cole Porter. I was watching a documentary on old music, and that song just came to me in a flash. I’m a fan of constructed melodies and chords that are kind of seamless, where every note is intertwined with every other one.
Friendly Fire includes a DVD of films you’ve made for the songs, with guest appearances by a few famous faces such as Lindsay Lohan, Asia Argento, Carrie Fisher and your ex-girlfriend Bijou Phillips.
In a way, the movies are a perfect marriage for the music; it’s almost like they don’t exist independently of each other.
So you and Lindsay Lohan are pals, eh?
She was a very good friend to do the video for me. She gets $2 billion a film, and she did it with me for free. People give her flak for whatever reasons, but the reason she is where she is, is definitely because she’s talented.
Did you play the album for your mother?
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Yeah, of course. She loves it. She was really thrilled that the response is so good.
What did your mother teach you?
I grew up pretty much without a dad, and she was the one who led the way, just through being herself — always making art, always making music. I was in the studio with her whenever she made her records, and she taught me most of what I know about art and music. So she’s my greatest influence. It’s not like she gives praise just to bestow love upon you or anything. She takes art seriously. I guess that’s why I do too.?
SEAN LENNON | Friendly Fire | Capitol