Photo: Jim Donnelly
Dave Navarro and Billy Morrison
Dave Navarro & Billy Morrison Gear Up For Their Third Above Ground Concert: "We Have A Responsibility To Say It's OK To Ask For Help"
Jane's Addiction's Dave Navarro and Billy Idol's Billy Morrison have separately weathered the hells of addiction and lost famous friends to the disease. Via a rock 'n' roll catharsis, their third Above Ground concert will offer a beacon of hope.
Music can be a salve, a companion, a fount of euphoria. But is that enough? It gave brilliant and complicated souls like Scott Weiland, Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell a tether to the world and cemented them in history, but their inner struggles nonetheless claimed them.
That's where MusiCares comes in, and why Dave Navarro — who knew all three of those rock legends — works with them. Together, they pull music colleagues out of the maw of addiction, depression and other menaces. Navarro wouldn't be able to access that storehouse of healing, though, without a liberal helping of gratitude.a
"Billy comically brought up show 47 on a world tour, and I know what he means by that," the six-time GRAMMY nominee tells MusiCares — referring to musician, producer and Billy Idol sideman Billy Morrison, who's dragging on a cigarette in the next Zoom window. "That's when you're just kind of in the trenches and the doldrums of it all."
Gavin Rossdale at Above Ground 2019. Photo: Jim Donnelly
When Navarro feels unmoored, he looks at a taped message on his pedalboard: "You get to do this." "I need little reminders for myself of just how much I have to be grateful for," he says in a nimbus of vape smoke. "But I'll tell you one thing: when we do the Above Ground shows, I don't have to read that thing one time. because that transformative magic is happening live on stage."
That magic is about to transpire again. On Dec. 20, Navarro and Morrison will bring their annual Above Ground concert back to Hollywood's Fonda Theater for a third round (they had to skip last year amid the pandemic). The premise is that they corrall famous friends to cover albums in full — this time around, it's Lou Reed's Transformer andthe Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, with Corey Taylor, Perry Ferrell and more. Purchase tickets here.
Navarro and Morrison caught up with GRAMMY.com to discuss the origins of Above Ground, the joys of digging into classic LPs in full and the central message of their work: it's OK to ask for help.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What can we expect from the third Above Ground concert?
Billy Morrison: Look, Above Ground started like everything Dave and I start — with a conversation on a plane based around our mutual love of Adam and the Ants. We were just larking around, going, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could play that album?
In that same month or six-week period, we lost Chester. We lost…
Dave Navarro: Chris.
Morrison: Chris. And we recently lost Scott Weiland. And Dave has been very, very much a mental health advocate for a long while now, dealing with his own traumas.
Dave Navarro: What are you talking about?
Morrison: What? Your own trauma. The stuff you tweet about!
Navarro: [Scoffs jokingly.] I don't have Twitter! Twitter, that archaic device?
Morrison: You know what I mean!
Navarro: Wasn't that, like, 2007? Anyway, go ahead.
Morrison: He was spearheading mental health awareness. We've both been connected with musicians who also are huge figureheads of mental health and suicide prevention. And it just came: "Why don't we do this annual event where we get the joy of picking two iconic albums that you can't hear [live, in full] anymore?"
The idea is, you go to a concert and you get the top three songs off of each album. And we've been very pure about picking albums and playing the whole thing. Even the strange left-of-center tracks that are often on albums.
That turned into Above Ground one, and Above Ground three is just the natural extension of that minus a year because of COVID.
Navarro: Billy and I play in a band called Royal Machines, and we also had a band called Camp Freddy. Both bands are essentially the same band. And Royal Machines is a group of musicians who love playing music, who loved the songs they grew up on.
We play those songs, and we have a special guest per song. We have a different singer every couple of songs, who comes out and does a song with us. Or, a great guitar player comes out and plays.
I think we've been doing that for — what, 20 years?
Morrison: Yeah, 20 years now.
Navarro: So Above Ground was an extension of that, in a way, because we kept the same model of having friends and musicians — players that we would love to reach out to.
Some of them say yes; some of them say no. But we collect as many people that we can find interested in the event and just throw a big celebration of the music that we all loved.
In Royal Machines, it's usually a song or two from a band, but they're hits, because you want to keep the house moving. You want to keep the party moving. So it's hit, hit, hit, hit, hit.
And Billy's right. We were talking about our love for Adam and the Ants' Kings of the Wild Frontier. That's one of the first records that took me a little bit out of the heavy metal genre and into the post-punk genre, if you will. And then I went backward, did my research and that was my conduit to all things goth, all things punk.
Billy being from England and having a huge understanding of the genius of Adam and knowing our shared love of Adam, I called him one day and said, "Wouldn't it be wild to play the entire album with two drummers all the way through and learn every single nuance on that thing?"
We got into it, and it was a mindf* in terms of what those guys were actually playing and learning those songs and doing them correctly. But we did, we got together, we did that. And we also chose — this is for Above Ground one — The Velvet Underground & Nico. Which was also a monumental album to try and deconstruct and break into and figure out what's going on.
So, apart from the mental health aspect, one of the things we love in addition to raising funds and awareness is having the ability to get into these records and pull them apart and look under the hood. We become better players as a result of it.
Morrison: Oh my god. The tonality of some of the instrumentation on all the albums we've chosen is so left-of-center to where Dave and I both usually are.
When he stands on stage with Jane's Addiction, he sounds like Dave Navarro. And I stand on stage with Billy Idol and I have my Billy Morrison chunk tone. The joy for me is: Dave comes over to my studio and we are listening to guitar tones on little tiny parts that are in the right speaker and going, "OK, you use this guitar through this amp and just do this."
We take recreating in the albums very seriously to the point where, this year, we have a three-piece horn section. We have strings; we have a keyboard player. I mean, we will get whatever we need to do to totally recreate the record.
Which I think, sets [us apart]. No offense to cover bands; I'm in one of the biggest cover bands in the world. But this is more than a cover band.
Navarro: It's an extension. But it made perfect sense for Billy and me to team up on this because we've been doing covers for so long. The idea of getting into the entire vinyl LP front-to-back is an experience that has been lost in the worldwide culture at this point. We wanted to celebrate that as well.
So that's why we do two albums that are very opposing and contradictory yet fit together very well in the same way. Kind of like a Kubrick film in terms of how we select our albums. So this year you're getting Lou Reed's Transformer and you're getting Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
Only the stone classics, it seems!
Navarro: Well, the ones that I think — if I'm being honest, and correct me if I'm wrong — are albums that have shaped who Billy and I are.
Morrison: The process of picking the records is quite a long one, because I'll pick an album that means so much to me, but it doesn't mean that much to Dave. And I'm not going to mention the album, because…
Navarro: You can! No, you can!
Morrison: But then everybody's going to pressure me to actually do it.
Navarro: But you said yes! You said yes!
Morrison: Because I love you!
Navarro: I wanted that experience for you! To me, it was a gift!
Morrison: David is a huge Pink Floyd fan. And part of the Above Ground experience is we bring in way more production than any theater gig should have, including oversized video walls — all kinds of stuff. And Dave said, we need to do The Dark Side of the Moon.
Now, I am not a Pink Floyd fan. I'm just not.
Morrison: So, you've got to remember — one of my first memories is Johnny Rotten walking on stage in a T-shirt that says "I Hate Pink Floyd." And the Sex Pistols are the band that changed my life. And so, even before I ever heard the band as a kid, Pink Floyd was not cool.
Now, I am obviously a grown adult. And Dave is expanding my Pink Floyd dictionary, if you like.
Navarro: We just couldn't get it done by December 20.
Morrison: The deal is not sealed by 2021, but who knows? 2022 might bring that out.
Dave Navarro and Jack Black at Above Ground 2019. Photo: Jim Donnelly
To bridge the conversation into mental health, can you guys tell me about your connections to Scott, Chester and Chris?
Navarro: We both knew all three of those guys just through the work we do.
Morrison: Scott Weiland actually fronted the Camp Freddy band that we had for a year. He was the frontman. Dave, I know, was close with Chris. We were both close with Chester. We had Chester get up with us as one of those guests that Dave was talking about. Chester would always say yes when I or Dave called him. So, we were close.
Navarro: We were very close, and I attended both of those funerals back to back. And what a walloping we all took that year. Chester was always just a constant professional — upbeat, happy to help. Held the door for the catering guy. He was just the humblest, nicest guy. And then when he got on stage, he was just unstoppable.
So, those deaths really hit us hard. Chris's death hit me really, really hard because he and I used to do speaking panels for kids in rehabilitation programs and talk to them about, like, "Hey, we're out here, we're doing this stuff sober on tour and it's doable and we're having a great life."
We were trying to carry that message, because one of the things you've got to do in recovery is to carry the message — whatever type of recovery it is.
Scott, of course, I've known for 20 years, ever since Stone Temple Pilots came out. As Billy said, he was a member of our band for a while. And that was another loss too. They call it drug addiction, but there's something underlying that's underneath drug addiction, if we want to get into it.
So, we felt that since MusiCares was a force and has a reach as vast as it does — they also handle drug addiction and mental health issues — that's the umbrella that we felt that we would want to give back to, to help support people.
MusiCares has gotten people into hospital beds, both Billy and I know, for nothing. People who couldn't afford their own treatment. People who couldn't afford their own care. People who couldn't take care of themselves got taken care of. That's what they do.
Morrison: I think the personal experience that both Dave and I have had with MusiCares made it an easy choice.
Plus, as Dave says, the reach and the voice that they have is definitely a force. I've made a phone call to someone at MusiCares at 10:00, and the person who was dying was in treatment by 6:00. No questions asked, no money.
Those deaths that we talked about — the positive that came out of that for us — was a conversation that was revealed to Dave and me.
Or, it just articulated something that we had thought collectively for a long time about our traumas and our PTSD and depression and addiction issues that we've both been vocal about.
Dave Navarro and Juliette Lewis at Above Ground 2019. Photo: Jim Donnelly
Morrison: What it boils down to is that we have a responsibility to say it's OK to ask for help, because underlying a lot of all of those issues that people suffer from is a stigma that tells us it's wrong to be depressed. Or we don't talk about depression. Or trauma is something that we lock away and don't ever articulate.
Navarro: A lot of family systems teach their children growing up that that's how you live. And I will say, he's right.
I feel like we are at a turning point in society where those issues are being taken seriously. You hear way more about mental health awareness, care, treatment and so forth than you did maybe five years ago. It's become at the forefront. It's a movement of people that just want to see other people having their best human experience.
Both Billy and I have suffered with our drug addictions and so forth. I believe that my drug addiction was rooted in trauma from when I was a kid, and at a certain point for some people like me, it's no more about treating the drug addict side of me.
We've done this; let's get in here. Let's get into the trauma, because that physically lives in the body. That can hold somebody frozen for decades.
Morrison: Dave is right that there is positive forward motion in the mental health space these days. Which is fantastic for us, because it means whatever collective voice we have and we put together for our event is all part of the greater good around the mental health space.
Navarro: I think it's nice for people to see that — sure, it's Billy and I, but there's a lot of artists that join us that people really, really look up to and love and have followed and admired for years.
Every one of these names has either been through it, seen it, dealt with it, gone through it or experienced it, lived it like Billy and I have. One of the tenants to the principles that we practice is that you can't keep it unless you give it away.
And we like to give it away in the form of messaging that says, "Look, even the people who you think have it all together and have the ideal life, even they feel like you do." So, let's even the playing field here.
We're just all human beings trying to have a human experience, and everything is OK if we just wait for the next breath and let it be OK.
Morrison: Dave and I not only play the guitar, but produce the whole thing from start to finish. And the beautiful thing that happens with us is that we'll get a response from someone that neither of us knows.
Jack Black would be an example. The last time we did this, two years ago, Jack Black came forward and wanted to be involved, and was involved — [he] got on stage and absolutely killed it. He didn't do that because he wanted to get on stage and sing "Suffragette City"; he did that because he responded to the message that they just articulated.
So the beautiful thing for us is, we see all those other people out there that want to go, "Yes, we agree with this." Let's level the playing field, like Dave said.
Navarro: You also have to consider that the types of people who choose this line of work for a living are the kinds of people who need a lot of attention. So, there's certainly an undercurrent among all of us that we can all identify with. Most people don't need a thousand people screaming back at them to feel OK about themselves.
So, we come out and we share very intimate, personal stuff in a general way, and on a global level that hopefully can reach somebody who's struggling.
I mean, I had a friend of a family member kill himself two days ago because he got into an argument with somebody. So, obviously, the argument isn't the killer, it's the years of untreated, whatever it was that led to that decision.
I'm seeing it more and more. We saw an increase in drug addiction and suicides during the beginning of the pandemic. And now we're seeing an uptick in both of those things as the world is starting to come back together, because people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around getting back together.
Everybody is built differently, and their trauma lives in different parts of their body. Certain things are a trigger for one person, but they're not a trigger for another person.
So, we're here to say that not only can you live with those triggers, but you can have a happy and fruitful life with those triggers and not have them hijack your central nervous system and dictate your entire existence.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Suriyawut Suriya / EyeEm via Getty Images
9 Organizations Helping Music Makers In Need: MusiCares, The GRAMMY Museum & Others
Are you in a position to donate to musicians in a state of financial or personal crisis on this GivingTuesday? Check out these nine charitable organizations — beneath the Recording Academy umbrella and otherwise.
Imagine a world where care and concern is distributed in a holistic circuit, rather than being hoarded away or never employed at all. That's the paradigm that GivingTuesday is reaching toward.
Created in 2012 under the simple precept of being generous and celebrating generosity, GivingTuesday is a practical hub for getting involved in one's community and giving as freely to benefit and nourish others.
Since GivingTuesday has swelled not just from a single day in the calendar year, but a lens through which to view the other 364 days. You can find your local GivingTuesday network here, find ways to participate here, and find ways to join GivingTuesday events here.
Where does the Recording Academy come in? Helping musicians in need isn't something they do on the side, an afterthought while they hand out awards.
No, aiding music people is at the core of the Academy's mission. MusiCares, the Academy's philanthropic arm, has changed innumerable lives for the better.
And through this society of music professionals and its other major components — including Advocacy, the GRAMMY Museum and GRAMMY U — the Academy continues its fight in legislative and educational forms.
If you're willing and able to help musicians in need this GivingTuesday, here's a helpful hub of nine charitable organizations with whom you can do so.
Any list of orgs that aid musicians would be remiss to not include MusiCares.
Through the generosity of donors and volunteer professionals, this organization of committed service members has been able to aid struggling music people in three key areas: mental health and addiction recovery services, health services, and human services.
"Museum" might be right there in the name, but there's a lot more to this precious sector of the Recording Academy.
The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles doesn't just put on immersive exhibits that honor the legacies of musical giants; it's a hub for music education.
At press time, more than 20,000 students have visited the Museum, more than 10,000 students have participated in the Museum's Clive Davis theater, and 20,000 students have participated in their GRAMMY Camp weekends.
By now, the evidence is ironclad: Giving incarcerated people access to music and art dramatically increases morale and decreases recidivism.
Give a Beat is keenly aware of this, both on direct-impact and mentorship levels.
The org hosts classes for incarcerated people, in order for them to "find healing, transformation, and empowerment" through its Prison Electronic Music Program, which helps incarcerated folks wade deep into the fields of music production and DJing.
Despite being at the heart of American musical expression, jazz, blues and roots can sometimes feel roped off on the sidelines of the music industry — and its practitioners can slip between society's cracks.
That's where the Jazz Foundation of America comes in. They aid musicians struggling to hang onto their homes, connect physicians and specialists with uninsured artists and help musicians get back on their feet after life-upending natural disasters.
Headquartered in Memphis, the Blues Foundation aims to preserve the history and heritage of the blues — which lies at the heart of all American forms. This goes not only for irreplaceable sites and artifacts, but the living, breathing people who continue to make it.
The Blues Foundation offers educational outreach, providing scholarships to youth performers to attend summer blues camps and workshops.
On top of that, in the early 2000s, they created the HART Fund to offer financial support to musicians in need of medical, dental, and vision care.
And for blues artists who have passed on, the HART Fund diverts money to their families to ensure their loved ones would be guaranteed dignified funerals.
Founded all the way back when World War I broke out, the Musicians Foundation has spent more than a century cutting checks to musicians in times of need.
This includes financial grants to cover basic expenses, like medical and dental treatments, rents and mortgages and utilities. Submitted grant applications are reviewed by their staff and a screening committee. If approved, the money is dispatched rapidly and directly to the debtor to relieve financial pressure as soon as possible.
The Musicians Foundation's philanthropic legacy is enshrined in Century of Giving, a comprehensive analysis of financial aid granted to musicians and their families by the Foundation since 1914.
Based in North Carolina, the Music Maker Foundation tends to the day-to-day needs of American roots artists — helping them negotiate crises so they can "keep roofs over their heads, food on their tables, [and] instruments in their hands."
This relief comes in the forms of basic sustenance, resources performance (like booking venues and providing CDs to sell) and spreading education about their contributions to the American roots canon.
When music people are in danger, this charitable organization sees no barriers of genre, region or nature of crisis.
If you're a musician suffering from physical, mental or financial hardship — whether it be due to a disability, an affliction like cancer, or anything else — Sweet Relief has got your back.
For any and all further information, visit their website.
The Recording Academy's concern and consideration for music people hardly stops at musicians — they're here to support all music people.
They share this operating principle with Music Workers Alliance, which tirelessly labors to ensure music people are treated like they matter — and are fairly remunerated for their efforts.
This takes many forms, like fighting for music workers at the federal, state and city level for access to benefits and fair protections, and ensuring economic justice and fair working conditions.
Music Workers Alliance also fights for economic justice on the digital plane, and aims to provide equal access for people of color and other underrepresented groups in the industry.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].