Photo by Danny Clinch
My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket's Jim James On 'The Waterfall II' & Finding Hope In Music
The songwriter talks to GRAMMY.com about the art-rock greats' long-awaited follow-up to their 2015 LP, the exhilaration of full-band jamming and the art of letting go
"One of the funnest things for me is moving on [from an album]," says My Morning Jacket's Jim James. "Not really worrying about it anymore or looking back." It's ironic timing: The brawny psych-rock band just released The Waterfall II, the long-awaited "sequel" to their 2015 LP. As he's quick to emphasize, these songs aren't leftovers or B-sides—they were recorded during the same sessions as the first Waterfall, and the original goal was to issue the second installment soon after the first, rather than bundle them into a bloated double-record.
Then life happened. James needed a break from touring to center himself, so the quintet focused on side and solo projects over the next several years. (Between the two Jacket packages, James released 2016's Eternally Even, the 2017 covers set Tribute To 2, 2018's Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity and the 2019 orchestral collaboration The Order of Nature.) Finally, after a handful of reinvigorating shows last August, the band's engines revved back up: They carried that camaraderie into sessions for their upcoming ninth full-length, recently tracked in Los Angeles and currently being mixed.
But as James told Rolling Stone in 2014, he's always viewed My Morning Jacket as a "circle of power"—and with the COVID-19 pandemic derailing any potential shows, they decided to table the album until the cultural energy matched their band vibe. Stuck in limbo during the early quarantine era, James discovered the atmospheric Waterfall II cut "Spinning My Wheels" on his phone during a walk. The lyrics felt eerily relevant ("Hypnotized from doing the same old thing," he sings over Bo Koster's glistening keys). And suddenly the stars aligned: Why not free the whole album from its playlist purgatory?
"It's like a time machine," James says of the old yet new LP. "I know the me back then did the best job he could. It's not about the me now. It's about the me I was back then. That always gives me some comfort."
The songwriter spoke to GRAMMY.com about the long hike to The Waterfall II, the thrills of song sequencing, the exhilaration of in-studio jams and finding peace through past pain.
Did you guys ever have a sit-down and say, "OK, we're taking a long, extended break" between these two albums, or did life just sort of happen?
I just felt like I was getting mowed down by being on the road and touring. I just didn't know how to handle it, and I had to step away for awhile and figure out what was going on. There was kind of an indefinite pause [where] we didn't know when the pause would be over. But then last year we did these four shows at Red Rocks [in Colorado] and in New York at Forest Hills Stadium, and we had such a beautiful time playing together. That got us really fired up and inspired to get back together again.
Did you ever think these songs wouldn't come out? Did it just get to the point where years had past and it felt like you weren't interested in going back there?
No, I always wanted to put it out. These songs definitely weren't B-sides or songs we didn't like. We had too many songs, and we felt that if we released them all it would have been way too much, even for our most diehard fans. It's so much music to sift through that we thought it wouldn't have been a smart thing. I knew we'd release it someday. I always thought in the back of my mind that we'd release it like 20 years from now. There's always so much new music that I'm working on solo. And when we got the Jacket cranked back up, we were so excited that we started working on new music. If this pandemic hadn't happened, who knows when it would have even released. Twenty years from now? But it was cool because it helped us not feel so helpless. No matter what you do, the pandemic has made a lot of us feel helpless. As musicians, we can't tour. It's not in our control. It doesn't matter if you want to or not—we just can't. We felt kind of stalled and sad, but then I stumbled across The Waterfall II again and was like, "Wait, this could be a great time to release this music and help us feel that we can be active in this way with a new record, even though we can't tour." So in terms of that timing, it worked out really cool, I think.
When you have dozens of songs recorded, it's easy to just pick your 10 favorites at the time. But it's obvious that Waterfall II isn't a leftovers set. It's every bit as strong as the first album. So what guided your decision-making about which to put out the first time?
Sequencing an album is always such an interesting process. So much of it is beyond your control. So much of it is the times shaping the sequence and your personal life shaping the sequence. We had all the songs done from both Waterfalls, and we were trying to decide, "Should we put them all out? Some of them? What do we do?" I don't even remember what was literally happening personally back then. It's funny—it's almost like whittling a block of wood or something. I think every artist, no matter what medium, knows to stop when you get to the right thing. If you don't whittle enough, your sculpture won't be good. But if you whittle too much, you'll ruin it. I just try to listen to the music and watch what the songs say when they're next to each other. That's a fun part of sequencing: putting together a sequence and taking a drive with it. "Oh, man, this song flows so cool into the next song." Or "Man, those two next to each other don't work for some reason." You just do it until it feels right and then move on.
You've talked recently about this project feeling like a time machine and how the Jim of 2015 sounds like a different person. Do you feel still as connected to the Waterfall material? There's definitely a soothing, searching quality to much of the second album, and it feels like the right time for it somehow. Do the songs resonate with you now as much as they did then?
It resonates more! For some reason, I like it even more, which made me really happy when I listened to the songs again. Sometimes it has the opposite reaction when I have to go back to listen to one of our records to learn a song again or whatever. For whatever reason, the 2020 Jim that heard this again during the pandemic, it really meant something to me. I liked it even more than I did back then.
Why do you think that is?
It's hard to put it into words, but there's a certain sadness in it that I was feeling back then. I was dealing with the breakup of a relationship. There's a certain sadness but a comfort too. I think a lot of us feel, when a relationship ends, that our lives are out of control and we don't know what we're going to do next. That idea of "I'll never love again. I'll never find peace again." You feel hopeless and like things are out of your control, and I think a lot of us are feeling that now during this pandemic. "Will I ever love again?" If you're single, "Will I ever meet someone again? Will I ever work again? Will the world ever be the same? Will I ever be able to give my parents a hug again?" We're all feeling trapped. But hopefully through music and friends and stuff, we can find that hope to keep going.
It seems profound that you're listening back to that old Jim with the knowledge that his sadness is temporary. Maybe that's a hopeful message for us now: The struggle we're feeling right now is also temporary.
You told Rolling Stone back in 2014 that you originally had two songs scheduled for the first album but you wound up cutting them last-minute. Do you remember which ones?
Gosh, I don't. It's tough because I always want to cram them all on there because I want people to hear them. Then you start realizing, "If I cram two super heavy songs next to each other, they'll diminish the power. If I have too many super sad songs, the whole record starts to feel sad." It's funny how one or two extra songs start to imbalance a record.
The Waterfall bonus track "I Can't Wait" has been lingering around for a decade before you recorded it—you guys played it three times back in 2002 and 2004. Does it often take you years to get a song right in the studio?
That does happen from time to time. It happens a lot in my songwriting where I'll have a song that I love but just cant finish for whatever reason. And then one day later, I find it and be able to finish it. That's happened a lot.
As I was asking you, I thought of "Wonderful" from 2011's Circuital. That song had been kicking around for a long time before you got it down.
Yeah, we tried that one a bunch of times before it ended up where it ended up. We tried it in so many different styles and keys—all sorts of stuff.
The Waterfall II songs have their own unique flow and vibe. But the "part two" connotation could create the impression that these are basically the "other songs" you couldn't fit on the first half—that maybe you didn't think as highly of them. Did you consider just naming it something else to avoid all that?
I didn't want to put a new title on it. We had mentioned so many times before that there was another half of The Waterfall coming. To me it's cool because it feels like a sequel, like The Godfather II or [the second] Star Wars. You hope people [think] it's a good sequel and not a terrible sequel. I think of it like that.
Let's talk about the other new album. When did you guys finish tracking that?
Well, we did a couple different sessions earlier this year. It's kind of like The Waterfall—just tons of songs and tons of ideas, batting things around and enjoying being together again in the studio because it had been five or six years.
Wow, that was good timing!
I know, it's crazy! Literally the guys left to head home right as the pandemic was starting to become this reality that was closing in. The timing of it was crazy.
How much material did you bring into the sessions?
There's always way more than end up on the album because there are so many ideas and you never know what ideas are going to work. It's funny—my favorite idea [never works] and my least favorite, 15-second-long scrap ends up becoming everybody's favorite song. It's funny how you can't control that. I try to entertain every idea at the time, and we just knock them all around. The ideas show you eventually if you want to come to life or not.
Two of my favorite moments on the album are at the instrumental jams at the end of "Still Thinkin" and "Wasted." Were those fairly composed, or did they develop in the studio?
Every song is different. Some songs I have more of a composition or it. "Wasted" is more of a composition I had planned for the jam. But within that, we'll take unlimited time with it and let each player speak their voice. I don't tell Bo or [guitarist Carl Broemel] what to play. I'll have this idea of the architecture of a thing, but within that everyone gets to explore and speak their voice. At the end of "Still Thinkin," that just kinda happened. We were just playing it. That's one of our favorite things to do: Once we're getting close to everyone knowing the song part of it, we'll run it a few times while everyone's still trying to figure out what they're doing on the song, and then I'll go, "This time, in the middle, before we go back, let's just let whatever happens happen" or "Instead of ending at this time, let's just see what happens." That's one of our favorite things to do, leaving that improv open.
Another favorite moment is the abrupt tempo changes on "Climbing the Ladder." How was that coordinated?
It's funny—that's kind of a nod to how much songs change. Originally, when I wrote it, the whole song was kind of slow. It was even a different rhythm. Somehow, I don't even remember how, we ended up pretty fast. We were really digging that and had that for awhile. At some point, I was like, "This thing started off slow, and I've been missing that, so let's slow it down a little bit."
You've talked about the new album being very focused on the spirit of the band playing live. Did you record it with just the five of you? Did you do it all live on the floor?
When I'm doing a solo record, a lot of the fun for me is building a structure by myself or with one or two other people. You're building this thing in more of an architectural or digital way. You're constructing it. With the Jacket, the thing about us, the core about it, is the five of us playing together live in a room. Some songs can be more architectural or constructed, but that's one thing we were really feeling since it had been so long since we were in the studio. We hadn't played shows in so long, and we played those four shows and felt that magic again. We tried to take that feeling into the studio and remember that's why we do what we do as My Morning Jacket—that joy of live performance.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys Tribute Concert To Feature Performances By John Legend, Brandi Carlile, St. Vincent, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, Weezer & More; Tickets On Sale Now
Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded lineup that also includes Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Pentatonix, Lady A, and many others.
A few days after the 2023 GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy, along with Tenth Planet Productions and CBS, will present A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys, a special tribute concert honoring the legendary, GRAMMY-nominated music icons, the Beach Boys. Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded performer lineup that includes GRAMMY-winning artists and past and current GRAMMY nominees including Beck, Brandi Carlile, Fall Out Boy, Hanson, Norah Jones, Lady A, John Legend, Little Big Town, Michael McDonald, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, Pentatonix, Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Take 6, and Weezer, who will all celebrate and honor the Beach Boys’ everlasting music and impactful career.
A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys will air on the CBS Television Network and will be available live and on demand on Paramount+ at a later date. More info on the event is below.
Wednesday, Feb. 8
Doors: 5:30 p.m. PT
Concert: 6:30 p.m. PT
6801 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
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: 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].