meta-scriptMatt Berninger's Optimistic Malaise |
Matt Berninger's Optimistic Malaise

Matt Berninger

Photo by Chantal Anderson


Matt Berninger's Optimistic Malaise

On his solo record, 'Serpentine Prison,' the National frontman's introspection belies optimism

GRAMMYs/Sep 24, 2020 - 08:07 pm

Matt Berninger is a self-proclaimed optimist—which, given his songs, might come as a surprise. Best known as a vocalist and songwriter for GRAMMY-winning indie-rock standard bearers the National, Berninger’s lyrics are often mired in reptilian fantasy or drunken exploration; there’s a flickering television or a stiff drink, a miscommunication or a revelation. Similar malaise follows in his side projects, from the band EL VY to the score for Mike Mills’ short film I Am Easy To Find.

To harp on those examples, though, would ignore Berninger’s witty, sardonic, self-mocking tendencies: there’s nothing quite like hearing "It's a common fetish for a doting man/To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand" or "I’m a perfect piece of ass" wedged in an otherwise morose track. 

Berninger tells me he always feels optimistic, "even in the worst." Right now, he feels hopeful about America and about art, more than ever before—though "it’s probably going to get darker before it gets brighter...somehow I actually am genuinely optimistic." He points to recent releases, from Bright EyesDown In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was to Cardi B’s "WAP" to Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters to Taylor Swift’s Folklore (produced by National bandmate Aaron Dessner) as proof that songwriting is at a peak.

"Artists I know are making their bravest most interesting, most honest work right now, and that's what artists do: when everything is chaos, they interpret the chaos," Berninger says. He adds, genuinely: "It’s not a political song that’ll change the way someone votes: a love song will."

But you can’t reckon with global issues before you reckon with yourself: that’s what Serpentine Prison, his first solo album, tries to do.

"Everything I’ve ever written—at least, the good stuff I’ve written—I’m always reckoning with myself, and that's political: reckoning with my own fears and reckoning with my own desires and my own problems," Berninger says. "Mostly, when I write, I'm just trying to sort myself out."

All the same, he calls Serpentine Prison the most collaborative album he’s worked on. Produced by Booker T. Jones (a GRAMMY-winning record producer and musician), Berninger brought in a number of artists, including Scott Devendorf, Walter Martin, Matt Sheehy, Gail Ann Dorsey, Sean O’Brien, Harrison Whitford, Hayden Desser, Brent Knopf and Mike Brewer. His wife and frequent collaborator, Carin Besser, wrote alongside him.

At first, when Berninger went into the studio with Jones, it was to make a covers album. He wanted to record songs he loved as a way to get out of his own head.

"I started sharing some originals [with Jones] that I’d written with a bunch of different people, sort of orphan songs," Berninger says. "By the time we went into the studio to make this covers record, we had more originals than covers." (The covers will be included in the album’s deluxe edition.)

The originals that make up Serpentine Prison are true to name: labyrinthine explorations of the psyche, they oscillate between pleading and desire, between dependency and assertion. Even the somewhat silly-lined opener "My Eyes Are T-Shirts" ("My eyes are T-shirts, they’re so easy to read") quickly turns into a paean ("When I see you, something sad goes missing"). 

The hypnotically meandering "Silver Springs" is a duet in parts; "Distant Axis" worries over timing and communication; "Oh Dearie" wallows, warning others away so they don’t get dragged down: "Name the blues, I got ‘em/I don’t see no brightness/I’m kinda startin’ to like this."

On The National’s 2005 album Alligator, Berninger sang, "I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/It went the dull and wicked ordinary way." Serpentine Prison seizes on this image, combing through depths for quotidian answers.

In an interview with The Creative Independent, Berninger said all good songs are either about love or fear: on his title track, that fear seeps over love. "Serpentine Prison" is deeply overwhelmed and exhaused, grappling with global disaster, mental health, and identity: it’s a winding self-exploration. The song’s biggest concern? Passing on these worries and this instability: "I don’t want to give it to my daughter."

It harkens to Berninger’s hypothesis about human interaction: We’re all water, and any moment you meet a person, whether they say hello or curse at you, that affects your own water’s color. Your identity, your life, is altered; in the tiniest ways, we’re constantly changed by the touches of those around us.

"You always have to be writing about your own water, and, in doing that, you’re writing about everyone that’s made you you, and you’re writing about your world, you’re writing about your politics, you’re writing about your history, you’re writing about your future," Berninger says. "All of those things are ideas and you do manifest whatever it is, but it's all you. It’s all you, and you’re everything."

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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The National's Aaron Dessner Discusses New Album 'First Two Pages Of Frankenstein': "The Beginning Of A New Chapter"
Aaron Dessner

Photo: Rob Kim for Getty Images © 2023


The National's Aaron Dessner Discusses New Album 'First Two Pages Of Frankenstein': "The Beginning Of A New Chapter"

With new album 'First Two Pages of Frankenstein' on the way, the National's guitarist and co-founder Aaron Dessner detailed his rise as a songwriter, producer and engineer at a Recording Academy "Up Close & Personal" taping in New York.

GRAMMYs/Apr 21, 2023 - 06:38 pm

One pivotal moment for Aaron Dessner transpired in his attic. Upstairs at his former home in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, he recorded the heart-exploding horn outro to what might be the National's signature song, "Fake Empire."

"You hear the four-over-three rhythm and the piano, which is kind of confusing," Dessner explained at a recent live Q&A for Recording Academy members at the New York Chapter office. "But then there's a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and then nothing happens." 

The band sat around, unsure of how to wrap it up — and then it clicked to do a cathartic brass fanfare.

"Fake Empire" ended up being the opening track of 2007's Boxer, their critically acclaimed fourth album that put them on the map. Once Barack Obama used it as his 2008 campaign theme song. "Without the words, with just the music," clarified Dessner. Regardless, "it became a real life-changing moment for us."

Another pivotal moment for Aaron Dessner happened at his kitchen table. "John, you were there, right? When I got the text?" he asked the prodigious engineer Jonathan Low, who's worked with the National for years, seated to his right. It turned out to be Taylor Swift. That text led to Folklore and Evermore. The former won a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year.

This true story of Dessner's ascent to the upper echelon of recordmaking seems slightly unbelievable, if only because he's so bracingly normal. Speaking to the small crowd at the newly established four-story office in Murray Hill, Dessner projected zero egotism as he held forth on his rise from indie darling to unlikely pop impresario.

Speaking to music industry giant Nabil Ayers, the two-time GRAMMY winner began the chronology of the conversation in 2009. That was the year Ayers began his tenure at the label 4AD — he now works with their parent company, Beggars Group — and the National were making High Violet, their follow-up to Boxer.

At that juncture in his career, Dessner and his brother, Bryce, had co-produced and curated Dark Was The Night, a compilation spilling over with indie stars that benefited the Red Hot Organization, a not-for-profit that raises awareness of HIV/AIDS. "We came there with a big, phony million-dollar check for you to give to Red Hot," Ayers noted mirthfully.

In that garage studio behind Dessner's house, Ayers realized he was dealing with a different kind of cat. "Oh, this guy's not just the guitar player in this great rock band," he remembered thinking, "but actually, he's the person who's very closely involved with the recording and making of the records."

Dessner, a born tinkerer, had built that studio with the Boxer money; in some ways, he was at the very beginning of his journey as a recordist. "That's when we met, and that's when I felt like I was a producer in my own…" he said, hesitating on what was probably the word "right." "I didn't know what that meant at the time."

Eager to learn through experience, Dessner forged ahead in that 400-square-foot space, and began recording albums for artists outside of the National: Sharon Van Etten's 2012 album Tramp, released around the time his band was making Trouble Will Find Me, was the first.

At that point, Dessner brought up Low, whose resumé is astounding; it includes a little album called Midnights. (Well, two tracks on the 3am Edition.) The two men met around the turn of the decade, when Dessner entered a Philadelphia studio to record drums on Tramp; Low was working there.

Since then, Low's worked with the National extensively — on 2013's Trouble Will Find Me, on 2017's Sleep Well Beast, on 2019's I Am Easy to Find. "From that day forward, I basically made it my life goal to lure him wherever I went," Dessner said. "Now, I try to not let him go anywhere else."

Dessner's story then took him to the birth of his three children, and the related move to Hudson, New York, where he bought an 18th-century farmhouse and began recording at various studios upstate. This led to his purchase of a barn in Hudson Valley that Dessner converted into Long Pond Studio.

"It's built on the scale of a church, so it's got very high ceilings," Dessner says, praising its cedar treatment and sauna-like smell. "We had to build it really fast, because we had to basically make a National record to pay for it." The result was 2017's Sleep Well Beast; the structure looms on its crepuscular cover.

From there, Dessner's work as a producer for outside artists exploded: he helmed records by Local Natives, the Lone Bellow, Frightened Rabbit and others.

After a decade of gestation, his duo with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Big Red Machine, released their self-titled debut album in 2018; the lion's share of it was recorded in the converted barn. (In 2021, they released a follow-up, How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? Featuring a litany of guest vocalists, from Swift to Anaïs Mitchell to Fleet Foxes.)

At the New York Chapter office, Swift's presence loomed heavy, and Dessner's gratitude and reverence toward her shone through his expressions. He met her in 2014, when the National played "SNL" and Swift was deep in her 1989 era.

"She was just so lovely and kind and interested and cool, and I could tell she was a fan," Dessner recalls. "That was such a perfect record. It was just this weird meeting of: we were in such different worlds, but it was cool."

Five years later, Swift saw the National perform in Prospect Park; when he and his brother got to talking with her, their collegial friendship deepened. 

"I think she already knew that we write music first," Dessner said, foreshadowing his work on Folklore and Evermore, as well as similarly conceptualized works like Ed Sheeran's upcoming Subtract. "It's what we call sketches, but they're basically fully realized musical ideas that don't have words and vocal melodies, but have a lot of internal melody."

In March 2020, he pressed send on a massive Dropbox folder of those "sketches." Deep into that night, "at 2:00 a.m., my phone buzzed, and it was a voice memo from her," he remembers. "With the song 'Cardigan.'"

After the pair completed Folklore, they simply couldn't stop making songs. "She's a real magic person in the sense that she has such an incisive, acute songwriting ability, and a crazy sense of melody," he said.

The most goosebump-inducing part of "Up Close & Personal with Aaron Dessner" was Dessner's description of how they made the Folklore and Evermore songs remotely — without even management knowing. "Sometimes, I would send Taylor an instrumental, go for a run down to the Hudson River, run back, and there'd be a song."

That uncanny sense of alchemy was unlike anything Dessner had encountered before: he even found himself growing superstitious on those runs. "Occasionally, I would see a snake down at the river, and I would research the snake," he said. "It was a copperhead, that was good luck — so I was looking for the copperhead." Clearly, he remains in awe at the creative arc he co-piloted. 

Dessner then made his way to recording Ed Sheeran's latest, as well as the National's new album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein — out April 28. The experience of making the former, as detailed in Sheeran's recent Rolling Stone cover story, was revelatory.

"He felt disarmed," Dessner said of Sheeran. "He wasn't trying to perfect something that would work commercially, or write the perfect pop statement. [He was] allowing himself to bring to page, and write to — and also be inspired by — someone else's music."

As per First Two Pages of Frankenstein, it wasn't even a given the National would make another record. "[The National singer] Matt Berninger, who lives in LA, had been going through a hard time personally," he admits. "There had been a lot of friction in the band." Still, Swift laid a fascinating prognostication on him.

"She predicted that what would happen after all this was that we would lean into each other and make our best record, because we would have all this perspective," he recalls. At first, the process was slightly awkward and hesitant — and then it rapidly gained steam.

Speaking to before the event, Dessner connected this creative flourish to his numberless hours as a studio rat. "When I came back into the band, it was like I had gained a lot of experience," he says. "Almost like I'd been in some sort of accelerated crash course in production and recording."

Dessner is thrilled about how First Two Pages of Frankenstein came out; he frames it as something of an ultimate National album. "You hear all the elements that make the National what it is. The simplicity on the surface, and the complexity and depth behind it… It reveals itself over a lot of listening."

It was enthralling to hear the arc of the guitarist Ayers met in that garage met more than a decade ago; the profundity of that moment made even more exciting by the intimate setting of Dessner's conversation.  First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which features production from Dessner and a Swift vocal turn on "The Alcott," also represents something of a culmination.

"It became very powerful," Dessner expressed that energy during the one-on-one interview. "It feels to me like the beginning of a new chapter." If his entire career up to this point turned out to be a ramp-up, hold on tight.

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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'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

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

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.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, 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 Bamback 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].

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