Photo: Charlotte Patmore
British Singer Sam Fender On Getting A (Literal) Taste Of America And Why "Everyone Needs A F—ing Elton John"
Sam Fender is riding high on the success of his hit "Seventeen Going Under." In the midst of his first stateside tour, GRAMMY.com spoke to the singer/songwriter about everything from growing up, to the best American sweets and the heroics of Elton John.
Sam Fender wants to "smash America" – and he's right on track.
After years of scoring hits in his native U.K., the Geordie singer/songwriter is breaking through to U.S.audiences with "Seventeen Going Under," a tale of growing up confused and yearning, told without inhibition in an upbeat style.
Fender's growing stateside success is due in part to a banner year in his home country, where he headlined Glastonbury Festival earlier this summer and performed to 40,000 people in London's Finsbury Park. His second studio album — also titled Seventeen Going Under — won a BRIT Award and was named Album Of The Year by NME.
Fender's music has broken free from the estate councils of his northern England hometown and obliterated the seen-it-all attitude that permeates London music culture to engender awe in America. His appeal comes from his ability to straddle the line between rock anthem and indie heartache with his songs, delivering jolts of universal emotion in the key of U2, Bruce Springsteen and early aughts guitar rock. The singer has also drawn legions of fans on TikTok, who find commune in his deeply personal lyrics.
Fender is in the midst of his first U.S. tour, a portion of which has him supporting Florence + the Machine on major stages such as Madison Square Garden. On stage, Fender and his five-piece backing band of childhood friends rollick through songs with political and parental influence — buoyed by fist-pumping choruses and Clarence Clemons-worthy saxophone wails.
Though Fender already knows he won't be playing many shows next year — just a handful of performances "headlining something massive," he confides — in the meantime, he's culling his fan base.
Fender sat down with GRAMMY.com to discuss his growing international audience, writing process and a very special gift he received from Elton John.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
You're a bit on the precipice here in the U.S. How does that feel to you?
Everything in the UK is f—ing skyrocketing at the moment in terms of our career. We're doing a f—ing huge headline show at home which we're gonna announce really soon, like 50,000 people. The reason why I was talking about this — I wasn't just outright bragging — is because it’s really humbling to come over here when nobody f—ing knows who we are.
But you were on the biggest stage at Outside Lands in San Francisco.
But we don't have the usual amenities — we couldn’t get a tour bus. So we're in a f—ing RV which aren't designed for sleeping on while moving; that's so uncomfortable. There's four of us in that one. And it's sweaty, and you can't sleep at all.
It’s been a challenge, it’s been testing. But it’s lush because that's when I think this band really kind of bears its teeth. When we're like f—ing struggling it just takes us back to when we first were touring around Europe, but it's kind of bringing back all that excitement. It's like we've got to fight for it a bit more, which is really quite refreshing.
Have you felt that audiences were particularly responsive to you here?
People are picking up on [the themes of my lyrics]. It’s a small-town existence. It's lovely to see the songs connect on that kind of level in a place that is so far from home, you know?
I heard your band are childhood friends.
Me and [guitarist] Dean [Thompson] have known each other since we were 11. Joe [Atkinson] at the back [on keys and guitar], we've known each other since we were 14. And Johnny [Davis], the saxophonist, he's my brother's mate. My brother is 10 years older than me, so Johnny was always another sort of big brother character. I thought he was the coolest guy. It's like a family band.
What have you guys been doing in the RV when you can't sleep?
We don't watch anything because we don’t have any internet connection. It's been pretty dire to be honest. We've just been eating chocolate bars and reviewing them.
So what has been your favorite so far?
Butterfinger. I f—ing love them. I think they’re amazing. I like Baby Ruth and I like PayDay as well. All the nutty ones.
I'm with you on that. Except for the Butterfingers. It's a little OG for us.
It's like it sticks to your teeth and everything. I came to America to get hit by the most disgustingly sweet things. I think this is exactly what America should taste like.
Beyond getting the taste of America, has it been any different touring for American audiences than British or European ones?
It's sort of similar in a lot of ways. But I think the crowds are more enthusiastic from an early stage in your career.
We were told that LA was going to be really somber and nobody would give a f— sort of thing. So we were like, “Oh it's going to be like London!” But it was the complete opposite of what we expected — the whole room was bouncing, and we had them in the palm of our hands. That was the best feeling. Everyone kept coming up to us after like, "That doesn't happen in LA."
What's been your favorite song to perform during this tour?
"Get You Down" and "Spit of You" — I haven't seen my dad in a while, and that song's about him. So I think the further apart I am from him, the more I start to sing that song with conviction. It's been lovely and it's been going down really well. When we started playing it., there was just some kid in the crowd like, "This is my favorite f—ing song!" and it just really f—ing pumped us up.
Do you think that a lot of your fans are from TikTok?
Well, when you hear "Seventeen Going Under" and they scream two lines and then the kind of volume drops off [laughs] — yes. But they've stuck around and they're still singing other songs as well. So I don't give a f— where they're from.
I used to kind of poo-poo TikTok. Even at 26, I was like, I feel old to be on this. But then obviously, it all kicked off, so I'm not complaining. The way I look at it now is this — it's just another medium for kids to discover music, which is f—ing amazing. Because if they do come to the show, and they only know that one line from TikTok, probably by the end of the show, they'll know some more songs. A lot of these young new fans have come through — it's recurring. It's not like they've dropped off the face of the Earth.
It must be really interesting to see so many people engage personally with these very specific lyrics that you've written. A lot of people probably don't get the chance to see that.
It was a bit of a headf—k to be honest. At first, it was a bit overwhelming, because a lot of these initial stories and TikTok were like a lot of the posts that were like really heavy stuff [like] kids talking about being victims of domestic abuse. It was really quite a harrowing thing to kind of be constantly bombarded with notifications of that sort of level of story, and it kind of put weight on ["Seventeen"] for us. Even though my song touches on violence and things like that, it's not about my parents or anything.
It's essentially about being a skint [British slang for poor], how my mother being skint, and it's about how the government in my country treats poor people. How they go after people like my mum when she wasn't very well — not all the f—ing corporations that slide their taxes in the Cayman Islands.
That's the beauty of it, though, isn't it? I write about [that] and then the kids dig it, and it means something to them. And that's what it should be like; There's loads of songs out there that mean something to me for some memory that might [not be related to the artists' intention].
I think that all of your songs sort of sound a little bit different. Like there's some U2; I could hear like a little bit of Beastie Boys in the intro to one of your tracks. There's so much Bruce Springsteen in your sound to me. Who are your biggest creative inspirations?
You actually just said three bands that I adore. I f—king love Beastie Boys. I love U2 and I love Bruce Springsteen. I love the War, Achtung Baby, Joshua Tree era U2. I love Springsteen's entire catalog. Beastie Boys I f—king adore. We actually walk off to "Sabotage." The opening to "Spice" has that sort of visceral energy.
My dad used to sing in the social clubs back in the Northeast, and he used to sing all of the soul songs. And the first time I ever drank a whiskey with my dad, I was 15 or 16. I came downstairs and he was listening to, I think it was either "She Is My Lady" by Donny Hathaway, or it might have been "A Song For You."
He had a tear in his eye, poured us a glass of whiskey, and said, "Sit down and listen to this. This man is the best singer you will ever hear.” And then I started learning Donny Hathaway songs as a kid.
What were your creative goals during the creation of Seventeen, and how do you see yourself evolving from that?
I wanted to do an album that was more cohesive than the first one, but it's not mega cohesive. From "Aye" to "Last To Make It Home," those are very different sounding songs. But I think lyrically, as a whole, [Seventeen] was more concise, and had more of a continuity with the story. It was more about growing up. It was all about mental health, love and loss, and all of the things that you have experienced in your early adult life.
What happened after with the success of it in the U.K., was something that I never ever thought. I never, ever dreamed of charting a single because guitar bands don't really get into the charts over there. The last time a band got into the top 10 before us was the Arctic Monkeys and that was in 2013. And they got to No. 8; we got to No. 3. That, for us was a real eye-opener as to how [the album has] connected.
Are you writing anything right now?
Yeah, I'm 16, 17 songs into another record.
Has that success been influencing what you're writing?
The actual writing of Seventeen itself was a catalyst for the next album. I had done such personal songs on the first album, the second album, I did a bit of therapy and that gave us so much to write about. Which was really cathartic for us and it really kind of helped my mental health.
To be honest with you, the only time that I feel sane is when I'm recording and when I'm writing. All of the distractions that you have in life, whether it be drugs, drink, sex, whatever, all of them things don't come f—ing close to just blackening out a page. It's more necessity than inspiration. I opened Pandora's box with that record. And I can't close it, but I'm good because it's cathartic. And it's a healing process as well.
It's the best way to pick up a shot at self esteem. It's the best way to grieve something. I had a really big breakup a year and a bit ago, so I've had a lot to write about that. And a lot of writing about my own failures as a partner and the trials and tribulations of trying to keep a lover when you're doing this as your job.
So it sounds like your next record is going to be very mature.
It's self deprecating and self-effacing, so nothing much has changed. [Laughs]
"Alright" was the most recent single that you released – why was that the one you chose?
I totally thought it was gonna go on Seventeen, but then I'd wrote 60 songs for Seventeen because of the pandemic. For the first two, three months of it; I was alone. I've got a health condition…so for the first three months I was completely stuck and wrote "All Right" 'round that time.
[The song is] about depression, but it's also about the idea that I felt like I've always cheated death, because I got ill at such a young age. So is this idea that I feel like I've just always cheated death somehow and my number is going to run up at some point.
You've been supporting some pretty awesome artists – is there anyone who you'd love to share a stage with?
We've [supported] Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Stones. It's like, I just need Springsteen. And then I just get to die happy.
Then your number will be up. Speaking of greats, I read in NME that Elton John says you are the one man that's like putting out good rock music.
Elton's like my uncle now, my fairy godfather. Elton and David [Furnish, John’s husband], they're just like my f—ing dads. They took us well under their wing. I was being unhealthy and doing too much of everything else, and they were the ones who scooped us out of that pit. I stayed with them for f—ing two and a half weeks.
I sat up all night with Elton, night in, night out, just listening to music. I'd play him stuff and everything I played him, he'd heard. He is a f—ing encyclopedia of music.
There's so much music that he showed me that is now a part of my soul. For example, the Band. I've never really listened to the Band, I only heard a couple of hits. And then next thing you know, I go back home and there's this knock on the door. This guy just walks up with a box full of f—ing vinyl. And all of the things that we listened to, he bought on vinyl and got couriered to my house.
I've never ever met another artist that is so f—ing devoid of jealousy and envy. I mean, it's probably because he's one of the biggest rock stars ever, but he's so, so open and he loves so many different types of music. It's so f—ing inspiring. Like the amount of kids that he's pushed, including myself — the little punk band, the Linda Lindas, he loves them as well, shouts them out. He doesn't have to do that. He's Elton f—ing John, and he literally spends half his time just pushing kids to achieve their dreams.
He is such a wonderful human being. Everyone needs a f—ing Elton John.
Lastly, do you have any larger goals? Either in the coming years or immediate term?
I would love to maintain what we have. Like, I hope it doesn't peter off. I think my personal goals are that every single member of my band has a house that is theirs. Once I've achieved that, then I know that I've looked after the boys. These are my friends who've sacrificed to follow my dream. Once they have got that, then I know it was worth it.
That and, uh, smash America.
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Outside Lands 2023: Watch Performances By Alvvays, Joy Oladokun, Lovejoy, & More
On Aug. 11-13, Outside Lands returned to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for the 15th time. Check out some stellar performances from the multi-day music and food festival.
In the midst of an unseasonably chilly August — a San Francisco trademark — Outside Lands raged once again.
Some 75,000 attendees flocked to the Bay Area to enjoy delicious food and an eclectic array of entertainment — among them Janelle Monáe, Foo Fighters, Kendrick Lamar, and other leading lights of today's music.
GRAMMY.com was there to soak up the tunes and the atmosphere — and film some truly inspired sets. Below, revisit Outside Lands — or, if you weren't there, experience it from afar — with some top-tier performances.
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Outside Lands 2023: 10 Female And LGBTQIA+ Performers Taking Center Stage, From Lana Del Rey To Megan Thee Stallion
Outside Lands is stacking a sensational lineup for its 15th anniversary from Aug. 11 to 13. From aespa to Janelle Monáe, here's 10 awe-inspiring female and nonbinary artists who are ready to rule San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of San Francisco's Outside Lands, and while the festival always boasts the Bay Area's best, the 2023 lineup is especially stacked with incredible female and nonbinary talent. From aespa making K-pop history to La Doña's homecoming, the fest's latest iteration is bound to be badass.
As San Francisco transforms Golden Gate Park into a lavish festival ground for three days, check out these 10 performers ready to electrify the city.
Megan Thee Stallion
Time to get lit like a match. Megan Thee Stallion has been hitting stages across the country this year — from LA Pride to her hometown of Houston for the Men's NCAA Final Four — and there's no doubt she'll bring the heat to Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Though the three-time GRAMMY winner is known for her high-hype, feel-good freestyles, her latest album, Traumazine, opens up about anxiety and the importance of self-care. So whether you're having a hot or healing girl summer, her headlining set will be the spot for festgoers to let loose.
On Friday, Janelle Monáe will usher San Francisco into The Age of Pleasure. Sensuality and freedom flood the singer's most recent album, and for Monáe's headlining show, fans can expect bursting psychedelic soul, pop and hip-hop in an evening full of color and love.
Emphasizing intersectionality and identity (Monáe identifies as nonbinary), her wide-ranging performance will traverse her trailblazing concept albums like GRAMMY-nominated Dirty Computer and The ArchAndroid. Having conquered both the big screen and the stage as a multihyphenate, Monáe's set will be nothing short of a spectacle.
Hot off supporting Taylor Swift's Eras Tour, beabadoobee is headed to Golden Gate Park on Sunday afternoon. The Filipino-English singer/songwriter has carved out a space for herself between indie rock and bedroom pop, first becoming known for her sweet, spacey falsetto and her sleeper hit "Coffee" in 2020. The indie star has since expanded her worldbuilding abilities rapidly, spinning intricate scenes from her debut Fake It Flowers into her scenic second album Beatopia — similarly, beabadoobee's Outside Lands set will likely flaunt the vitality of her imagination.
Raveena is the definition of grace, and her Friday Outside Lands set is sure to swell with serenity. Mindfulness is the objective of the singer's soulful music as she grounds herself through tranquil mixes of R&B and pop. From her 2019 debut Lucid to 2022's Asha's Awakening, her voice epitomizes comfort whether it floats through delicate strings or stony drums. At Golden Gate Park, Raveena will bring momentary, blissful peace to the festival's chaotic fun.
Ethel Cain is ready to take concertgoers to church — even on a Friday. The experimental breakout star is known for dissecting dark, Southern Gothic themes in her music, establishing herself as a rising leader in the modern alternative genre (and also in the LGBTQIA+ community, as she is a trans woman). Her debut album Preacher's Daughter only came out last year, but the critically acclaimed album swiftly earned the musician a cult following. After bewitching Coachella audiences back in April, Cain's upcoming Outside Lands set is sure to be compelling.
More than 10 years after she wrote her first original song, NIKI is ready to storm the Twin Peaks stage. Her deeply sincere indie pop drifts with bittersweetness, and it's powerful to witness how well the Indonesian singer's intimacy translates to massive crowds.
Signed to label 88rising in 2017, NIKI soon found herself playing concerts for a growing global fan base that resonated with her heart-to-heart songwriting. Ranging from the dramatic depths of her debut album, MOONCHILD, to 2022's earnest self-titled Nicole, NIKI's Outside Lands set will be perfect for listeners who want to escape with their head in the clouds.
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is the reigning queen of summertime sadness, and she'll be doin' time at Golden Gate Park as one of Saturday's headliners. Known for spinning tales of tragic romance, the GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter plans to enchant audiences at Twin Peaks stage following her release of Did You Know There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard. Her discography haunts and aches, filled with everything from folky gospel to trap pop; if one thing's for sure, Del Rey's highly anticipated performance is bound to be a spiritual journey.
Born and raised in San Francisco, La Doña is making her city proud by performing at the Bay's biggest annual music festival. Taking the Lands End stage with her 11-piece band on Friday, the Chicana musician has come a long way since picking up the trumpet at age 7.
Centering around personal identity and community, her music beautifully merges traditional Latin folk with modern cumbia, reggaeton, and hip-hop. La Doña's progressive sound just earned her a spot on Barack Obama's annual summer playlist, and less than a month later, her hometown will get to see what all of the hype is about.
When aespa takes to Twin Peaks stage Friday, they'll make history as the first K-pop act to ever perform at Outside Lands. Exploding onto the music scene in 2020, the innovative South Korean girl group gives K-pop a fresh edge, distinctively inspired by hyperpop and hip-hop. The group's name combines the words "avatar," "experience," and "aspect," representing their futuristic style that's often embellished by a metaverse aesthetic. Their mind-blowing Coachella and Governors Ball debuts hinted that aespa is ready to pull out all the stops for their Outside Lands crowd.
Maggie Rogers knows how to break free. The 2020 Best New Artist GRAMMY nominee will get the crowd hyped for Saturday headliners Foo Fighters with an enthralling set. Although her debut album Heard It in a Past Life pulses with steady revelations, her alternative follow-up Surrender leans into sweat and desire. As she's proven at many festivals past, Rogers' show will be infused with bright energy, from the slow emotional burn of "Light On" to the exhilarating "Want Want" as the sun goes down.
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].