Photo: Henry Adebonojo
Terence Blanchard On The Music Behind 'Da 5 Bloods,' Working With Spike Lee And The Lasting Impact Of Marvin Gaye
The six-time GRAMMY-winning composer and trumpeter discusses how Marvin Gaye's iconic 1971 album, 'What's Going On,' shaped the film and his own life
It's no wonder film director/writer Spike Lee and six-time GRAMMY-winning composer/trumpeter Terence Blanchard are lifelong collaborators—their level of mastery together makes for exquisite storytelling.
Blanchard first worked with the director in the late '80s when he performed on the soundtrack for Lee's 1989 breakthrough film, Do The Right Thing. The two have since worked together on more than 15 films including Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and Summer of Sam (1999). Lee's 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, garnered Blanchard his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
Blanchard now returns to the scoring seat on Lee's newly released Netflix film Da 5 Bloods, yet another gut-wrenching drama from the socially conscious filmmaker.
The epic war drama tells the story of four African-American Vietnam War veterans who return to the country in search of the remains of their fallen Squad Leader and the buried treasure they left behind decades ago.
The film's score, for which Blanchard utilized a 90-piece orchestra, features several songs from Marvin Gaye's iconic 1971 album What's Going On, which largely provides the movie's musical and thematic backbone.
"His music shapes the film in an immense way," Blanchard tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview. "The lyrics are very powerful. I remember when Spike told me he was going to use it, it automatically just sent me down a direction, musically, where I wanted the score to have a grand feel to it. I wanted it to have more of a universal theme. I knew that Gaye's music was going to cover a certain aspect of the emotion of dealing with social injustice in this country."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Terence Blanchard about the musical vision behind Da 5 Bloods and how Marvin Gaye's quintessential album shaped the film and his own life.
With the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Da 5 Bloods seems even more timely.
Sadly, I kinda felt the film was timely even without those events because we are still dealing with those same issues. With the [tragedies] of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, it's just amplified what we have been talking about for decades.
Spike has been known to constantly produce films that not only entertain, but make you reflect on the state of our social consciousness right now. I feel blessed that the movie is sparking debate, just like BlacKkKlansman did. But now, we have to go beyond debate and create legislation, change hearts and minds and really look for substantive change.
The opening montage of Da 5 Bloods, which illustrated the racially charged anguish of the Vietnam era in the 1960s, is heartbreaking to watch.
It speaks to the whole nature of … people of color [having] been screaming about injustice for decades. If people were really listening in places of power, then that portion of the movie would be irrelevant, you know? But the sad truth of it is, we haven't moved the needle as much as we'd like to think that we have. The mere fact that we have a president who is willing to have a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, [Okla.], a place where Black Wall Street was dismantled—that says a lot about racism in this country and how people are still trying to justify those actions. So when I see a montage like that, it's heart-wrenching.
But I know there are so many other stories to be told from our culture … Finally, it feels like people are starting to wake up to what is really going on and not constantly [falling] back into a position of defending. I think Spike has always been great at pushing that envelope, trying to make people reflect on what's been happening.
Speaking of "what's going on," let's talk about how Marvin Gaye's music served as the backbone of this film.
His music shapes the film in an immense way. The lyrics are very powerful. I remember when Spike told me he was going to use it, it automatically just sent me down a direction, musically, where I wanted the score to have a grand feel to it. I wanted it to have more of a universal theme. I knew that Gaye's music was going to cover a certain aspect of the emotion of dealing with social injustice in this country.
I wanted the score to partner with that in such a way to broaden the experience to hopefully draw more people to the film. One of the things we all know is that complacency is the enemy of change. We can't sit on the sidelines anymore. We have to become active and really do our part to effect change.
What was Gaye's influence on your own life?
"What's Going On"—I remember when I first heard that, it was an impactful thing. As a kid, obviously we didn't have social media back then. That song made me feel like I wasn't by myself, that I wasn't crazy [for] feeling the things that I was feeling.
Marvin's music, along with James Brown's "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud," were things that started to shape my thinking in terms of being proud of who I am, what I could accomplish in my life and hopefully what I could give back to the world.
If you chronicle what has happened in the music industry, Gaye was a heterosexual male who was socially conscious—a strong male figure in the '70s who was a R&B singer. He broke through to other areas of the music world; back then, we used to call it "crossover."
It's hard to find singers that have crossed over like that today. He wasn't afraid to talk about certain things or deal with issues. When you look at Sam Cooke, who was a balladeer, he sang a lot of beautiful songs. It wasn't until he sang “A Change Is Gonna Come" did people really start to understand that he was socially conscious.
With Marvin Gaye, we knew that; we got a sense of that. It felt he was out there speaking for us and to us at the same time.
Spike Lee (L) and Terence Blanchard (R) at a scoring session for Da 5 Bloods | Photo: Matt Sayles | © 2020 Netlfix Inc. All rights Reserved.
Working with Spike for the past 30 years, what has he taught you?
He's taught me a lot about how to follow your heart. One of the things I have always loved about Spike is that he is a film historian. He loves film and knows it backwards and forwards. He doesn't allow that knowledge of history to totally shape what it is that he does. He still has his own vision about what's possible and what could be done.
That is something that has always inspired me because I am the same way, being a jazz musician. You want to know your history, in terms of the music, but you don't want to be bound by it. You still want to use it as a springboard to move further and further into the future.
How do you use music to speak for you?
It's an interesting thing. I know it speaks for me, but I think a lot of it is me healing myself. With the types of films that Spike has done and my relationship with him, we have done topics that have been dear to my heart as well. In the process of dealing with that, you are trying to find some resolution. Hopefully, you are creating something that most people can relate to.
I tend to think there are more people going through exactly what I am going through. Witnessing the depth of George Floyd on national television breaks my heart, angers me and enrages me in such a way that I know there are a lot of other Americans out there that are going through the same thing. Being an artist, you cannot turn away from those feelings, those issues, that passion. You have to utilize that and allow it to help create the music. Not the intellect; that's how we study and know how to make things work. It's that combination of passion and brains that allow you to come up with the ideas for these projects.
What do you love more, performing your jazz music or composing?
I love performing, there's no doubt! But right now, due to the [coronavirus] pandemic, I love composing! I am a little nervous about being out in public; I have had friends and mentors succumb to COVID-19. It's just all too much at one time. It made me understand how real this issue is and how seriously we have to take it. It's unfortunate that the virus has been used for political gain. It potentially has put lives in danger.
Terence Blanchard at a scoring session for Da 5 Bloods | Photo: Matt Sayles | © 2020 Netlfix Inc. All rights Reserved.
It seems like you have a love for and commitment to socially conscious projects.
One of the things that has always drawn me to certain artists in the jazz world is their ability to chronicle what has been going on in their environment. Look at John Coltrane's [civil rights elegy] "Alabama" for the four little girls—[Editor's Note: In 1963, Ku Klux Klan members killed four young Black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.]—and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite ... I have always tried to be an artist that is always socially conscious. This is something that is a part of who I am. I feel like if I have a small, little platform, I should use it to try to raise people's consciousness.
In an interview with Variety, you talked about the racism you had encountered as a Black composer. Do you see this changing?
Of course it's changing. Like anything else, people always say the wheels of change grind slowly … We need more women and people of color to have opportunities to play. We all know they are out there. It's not a vacuum of talent; there's talent all over the place. Opportunities need to happen for a lot of folks.
What's next on your bucket list?
You know, it's that striving to write the perfect melody and the perfect piece of music, whatever that is. That's always been my passion: trying to strike the perfect tone between the intellect and the heart that will best represent any given moment of time in honor of our environmental experience—something that speaks truth to power.
You also scored the music for HBO's new crime noir TV series, "Perry Mason." What was your vision for that project?
My vision was to create something fresh that would be inviting for new viewers, but still harken to the period. Creating music for that genre is to allow the story to inform you. In any film, there will be gaps in the storytelling process, which is the reason why you have a score. The score can help push those emotional moments that help tell the story.
Photo: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage
5 Takeaways From Lewis Capaldi's Netflix Documentary 'How I'm Feeling Now'
The singer’s new Netflix doc 'Lewis Capaldi: How I'm Feeling Now' traces the pop star's path to fame, offering intimate reflections on family, mental health, and his musical process — and how that all led to his upcoming album.
From playing sets in pubs to selling out arenas, Lewis Capaldi’s career has grown on a massive scale in recent years — and the journey was all caught on camera.
Capaldi’s life forever changed thanks to his pained ballad "Someone You Loved," which was nominated Song Of The Year at the 2020 GRAMMYs and hit No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart in 2019. Four years after his breakout stardom, the singer is now poised to release his second album Broken by Desire to be Heavenly Sent on May 19.
Before the album arrives, Capaldi gave an inside look into the process with a new Netflix documentary, Lewis Capaldi: How I'm Feeling. The intimate film takes viewers everywhere from the Scottish star’s childhood home to his late nights in the studio, with an emphasis on mental health struggles as his fame skyrocketed.
Balancing Capaldi's vulnerability with his wryness, the documentary has a lot to say about the acclaimed musician. As it hits Netflix on April 5, take a look at five takeaways from Lewis Capaldi: How I'm Feeling.
Lewis Is Proud Of His Scottish Heritage — And Outlook On Life
Early on in the documentary, Capaldi acknowledges his family and Scottish heritage during a drive through Whitburn, his hometown. He's come to love where he's from, though touring makes it impossible for him to stay at home for long.
"I do love the fact that I am a Scottish person, and I like the patter that people have," he said. "I do like the mindset of realists everyone just stays on that level of like, 'Let's give this a go and we'll probably f— it up, but we'll have a good time.'"
This lighthearted mentality is clear throughout the documentary, which highlights Capaldi's natural comedic talent. Even when Capaldi is struggling with imposter syndrome or anxiety, he manages to find hope in his art and loved ones. Director Jon Pearlman excellently captures Capaldi's personality and self-deprecating demeanor — and of course, all with his thick Scottish accent.
His Parents Give Him Tough Love
"It's s—," Capaldi's father, Mark, said, agreeing with the singer’s mother, Carol, after Capaldi asked for song feedback. "You asked me my opinion, so I'll give it to you."
The documentary often frames Capaldi's parents to be big on tough love, unflinchingly sharing their sarcasm or cutting honesty. But their care and pride for their son are heartwarming above all else. Mark drove Capaldi to gigs around town when Capaldi first picked up his guitar, and Carol frequently expresses worry about her son's rising fame: "I don’t want him to change. I don’t want us to change. It wouldn’t be worth it."
How I'm Feeling shows Capaldi returning home due to the pandemic, capturing his family dynamic on screen (along with clips of the star completing his everyday chores from feeding the dog to folding laundry). The documentary flips through Capaldi's family photo albums, portraying his early interests in music as well as sharing exclusive commentary on how the singer's parents helped him follow his passion.
His Single 'Bruises' Was A Career Turning Point Before 'Someone You Loved' Existed
"If only I could hold you, you'd keep my head from going under," Capaldi belts across a montage of old concert videos. Shown early on in the documentary, the tender lyric appears to foreshadow his future emotional struggles — but the song is also the impetus for his stardom.
His crushing 2017 single "Bruises," which Capaldi released independently, was boosted through Spotify's addition of the song to its popular New Music Friday playlist — which quickly helped him get signed to a branch of Universal Music Group in the same year.
"You see the smile on his face when the crowd sang back," his father said in the documentary. "We knew that's what he was going to do for the rest of his life."
The documentary portrays Capaldi's quick escalation to fame, but it also provides a look into more intimate songwriting sessions the musician has with fellow collaborators such as Dan Nigro, Amy Allen, Nick Atkinson, and Edd Holloway. From voice memos to iPad demos, it's evident Capaldi belongs in the studio and on stage.
He's Open About His Mental Health And Tourette's
How I’m Feeling zeroes in on the impact fame has had on Capaldi’s mental health, and details his anxiety pricking up after the global success of "Someone You Loved" — especially as he felt the pressure to craft another No. 1 hit.
Amid echoey vocals, shadowy crowds, and whining microphone feedback, the documentary captures the dizzying anxiety Capaldi felt — and sometimes still feels — when confronting his career. The singer opens up about his Tourette syndrome diagnosis, debilitating panic attacks, and fear of death.
"Is it worth it? Making you feel like this?" asks his concerned mother at one point in the documentary.
Yet, as How I’m Feeling shows, Capaldi has found ways to prioritize his well-being and still continue his musical career. He regularly attends therapy, takes his vitamins, and knows when to take time off; the documentary portrays how this re-energized approach to life allowed him to pour his full passion into Broken by Desire to be Heavenly Sent.
He Still Doesn't Understand How He’s Famous
"People started getting their phones out. Why are they all so interested in what we're doing?" Capaldi queried in a vertical video, recalling a casual night out on the town. "And then I remember: it's 'cause I'm f—ing famous."
Although he said the line with his signature wit, How I'm Feeling demonstrates how genuinely easy it is for Capaldi to forget about his celebrity status. On a more personal level, he still struggles to understand why people like him — even with billions of streams and millions of followers.
"I just don't get it, I don't get why people would turn up and see [me perform], but I'm eternally grateful," he said, laughing, "I love you, but I will never understand you."
In one part of the documentary, Capaldi recalls grabbing beers with Ed Sheeran and chatting about impostor syndrome. A little while later, the singer received an email from Sheeran’s close friend Elton John, who wrote a kind note of encouragement to remind Capaldi: “You write beautiful songs that resonate with millions.”
Even so, Capaldi modestly disregards the power of his "silly little songs," and How I’m Feeling hints that he may always be in that mindset, even if Broken by Desire to be Heavenly Sent proves to be another massive success. Whether he understands the fame or not, Capaldi’s story is a reminder that achieving your dreams may not always be easy — but if you stay true to yourself, you’ll find a way to keep your head above water.
Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images
How The Nominees For Best Opera Recording Create "Rare Moments Of Transcendence"
Composers Matthew Aucoin, Terence Blanchard and Anthony Davis detail the creation of 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones,' 'Eurydice' and 'X – The Life And Times Of Malcolm X, 'which are nominated for Best Opera Recording at the 2023 GRAMMYs
Writing an opera is no small feat. The combination of poignant themes in the music score, a meaningful libretto (the written text, or script), and an elaborate stage production is nothing short of epic — a quality that is reflected in the three works nominated for Best Opera Recording at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
"I actually wrote a book about all this, and the title sums it up: The Impossible Art," composer Matthew Aucoin says with a laugh. At only 32, the Boston native and MacArthur Fellow has garnered wide acclaim for his ambitious operas and bold forays into established orchestral formats — the second movement of his 2016 Piano Concerto is bewitching.
"In a way, opera has impossibility at its core," he adds. "It strives for this union of all senses and art forms: music, poetry, drama, painting, lighting and dance. It really wants to create this avatar-level immersion into another world. The thing that I find touching about opera is that it fails most of the time — and when it does, it can look quite silly. But we live for those rare moments of transcendence."
One of the three nominated operas, Aucoin’s Eurydice — with its lush orchestrations and nods to the minimalism of Philip Glass and John Adams — has certainly transcended. The libretto by Sarah Ruhl is based on her 2003 play of the same name, reinventing the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
This year’s second nominated opera, the jazz-inflected Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened in Saint Louis in 2019, focuses on a young Black man who grew up in poverty and now must face the consequences of the sexual abuse he suffered in the past. In 2021, it became the first opera by a Black composer performed at the Met in New York. Kasi Lemmons wrote the libretto, with music by New Orleans trumpeter, composer and multiple Grammy winner Terence Blanchard.
"The first day that we were rehearsing, I had an epiphany," Blanchard told Time magazine in 2021. "A lot of them, like my dad, grew up singing in the church. And when it comes time to do [opera], they have to turn that off. One of the things I’ve been telling them is to bring that back to this."
The music of Fire illustrates the state of contemporary opera — a moment of unrestrained stylistic freedom. There are moments that are classical in style, even reminiscent of Italian masters like Puccini, but some of the melodies are also infused in jazz harmony.
X – The Life And Times Of Malcolm X by veteran pianist and music professor Anthony Davis, is the oldest of the three nominated works. Written by Thulani Davis, the opera opened at Philadelphia’s American Music Theater Festival in 1985. The nominated recording stems from a new version conducted in Boston by Gil Rose.
"Writing an opera is something that is done day by day," Davis tells GRAMMY.com. "You have to devote yourself for two years to work on one single thing."
Davis first harbored the dream of writing an opera when he was in high school, although he had yet to experience a live operatic performance. Later, when his brother was playing Malcolm X in a play at Yale Drama, he suggested to Davis that he write a musical about X. It was at that moment that he envisioned an opera as the framework for the story of a tragic American hero.
"I love the fact that when I was writing X, I knew that every day I was working towards something," he adds. "Malcolm’s story gave me an incredible pathway to the way in which I could express the story through music. I was always thinking about how the music can refer to itself. I was interested in finding funny ways to use leitmotifs and having musical ideas to come back and provide subtext to the story in the opera."
Music itself — its creation and ability to uplift — is at the heart of the Eurydice myth. This element was particularly attractive to Aucoin when it came to composing his opera.
"It’s the story of how music came to exist, in a way," he reflects. "The myth tells us that music has the power to bring you back from the dead. But then the myth brings you crashing down back to Earth, showing that we’re always going to mess things up, because we’re human. We’re not really worthy of music, in a certain way."
Worthy or not, the prospect of a GRAMMY Award has some of these composers in disbelief.
"I’d be amazed if I won," Davis says with a laugh. "It would be a great honor, but I’d also think about all the great musicians and singers who have performed this music. So many great artists contributed to the creation of the new version of X. This new generation of singers were able to rise to the occasion and create their own version of my opera. They delivered some truly wonderful performances."
"I’m not giving it too much thought," says Aucoin. "Being nominated was a very pleasant surprise. Sometimes, we composers forget that people actually listen to the recordings of new operas. It’s obviously a huge honor, but I also have a lot of friends involved in both of the other nominated works. I will be happy for whoever wins."
"Writing X was so exciting to me because I was in tenth grade when I thought about possibly composing an opera," adds Davis. "It was the realization of a dream that I had since I was a teenager."
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].