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The Strokes in 2001

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'Is This It' At 20: How The Strokes Redefined Rock

For the 20th anniversary of the Strokes' groundbreaking, industry-shaking 2001 debut album 'Is This It,' GRAMMY.com pays tribute to the band and release with an industry round-table tribute featuring the artists and music biz professionals they influenced

GRAMMYs/Jul 30, 2021 - 12:28 am

The Strokes were impossible to ignore in the early aughts: they were synonymous with rock and roll. Formed in 1998, the band  —  comprised of Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr., Nikolai Fraiture, and Fabrizio Moretti — led the indie-rock revival, shaping a sound and ethos other artists would try to emulate. The group’s common thread happened to be Casablancas: He began performing with guitarist Valensi and drummer Moretti while teenagers attending school in Manhattan, later adding childhood friend and bassist Fraiture into the mix, as well as guitarist Hammond Jr. whom he knew from a stint at boarding school. Combining the grit of downtown New York with the glamour of rock and roll, The Strokes helped redefine alt-rock when there wasn’t necessarily a unified vision. And it all started with their 2001 debut album, Is This It

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After their debut EP, The Modern Age, ignited a record label bidding war in early 2001, it would be Is This It that would put them on the map. Initially released in Australia on July 30, 2001 (and later in the U.S. on Oct. 9), the record quickly sparked a frenzy and eventually a garage rock resurgence. Influenced heavily by The Velvet Underground and '70s art-rock, Is This It had a no-frills approach to its Brit-pop-influenced sound. It made creating music with your friends "cool" again, and it wasn’t long until other bands followed suit.

The album, produced by Gordon Raphael, earned widespread critical acclaim and helped establish The Strokes — and vocalist Julian Casablancas — as power players in rock. The group’s second single "Last Nite" would become their first to enter the U.S. charts and peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Alternative Songs. While the album wasn’t GRAMMY-nominated, arguably, Is This It provided the foundation of credibility that the band needed to eventually win awards. 

Years and albums later, the band finally took home a coveted GRAMMY Award: Their first record in seven years, their sixth studio LP The New Abnormal, earned them their first GRAMMY win for "Best Rock Album" at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards Show. 

For the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album, GRAMMY.com pays tribute to The Strokes with an industry round table tribute featuring artists the group influenced and industry professionals who worked with them.

The Strokes Shaped New York’s Culture In The Early Aughts

Nick Marc (DJ/Promoter/Music Curator/Consultant at Tiswas NYC, Take Me Out and more): It was the beginning of a new millennium and people were ready for something new and The Strokes fit the bill. They were cool, from New York which is attractive, especially if you are stuck in suburbia, and they were different from everything else going on at the time. To top it off, they wrote great songs which, while buzzing with energy, were accessible. It was time for a reboot and The Strokes provided it and broke the door open for all the bands that followed.  

Jim Merlis (former publicist for The Strokes): The band had a huge impact on New York’s culture, and it wasn’t just their music. The band really gave back to the scene by taking New York bands/artists like The Moldy Peaches, Regina Spektor, Longwave, and The Realistics on the road with them. No two of these bands sound alike, yet they all made sense opening for The Strokes.

Robert Schwartzman (film director and bandleader of Rooney): When I moved to New York and went to college there, for that first semester, The Strokes were playing shows in New York, and they were the "it" band, I guess you could say. But it wasn't all over pop radio, they were the "cool" guys showing up at parties in New York, and I started to become close with those guys because my cousin Roman [Coppola] directed their music videos early on. By proximity to knowing people in their circle, I just got to hang out and spend time with them. They were almost like big brothers, where I really looked up to them musically, 

Gordon Raphael (producer of Is This It): As soon as the first songs from The Strokes were released there was a visceral and palpable change in youth culture and music culture, pretty much worldwide. An entire generation that grew up hating their older brothers’ rock and roll, suddenly went out to purchase their first leather jackets and guitars, then formed their own bands. 

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Marc: There was already a burgeoning scene in NYC before The Strokes came along but with their emergence, they became the focal point of something that had been bubbling under the surface for a while. It’s not like there wasn’t already an alternative/garage rock scene before The Strokes came along but they were the ones who brought it to the masses. They brought a sense of excitement, energy and danger that was missing in music at the time. Most of the alternative music pushed by the labels at the time was fairly dreary to be honest, "dad rock" as it was called at the time, and The Strokes were definitely an antidote to that.

Ian Devaney (lead vocalist of Nation of Language and member of machinegum): My parents spent their young adult years going to see bands like Talking Heads, The Clash and Blondie. For my friends and me, [with The Strokes,] it felt like this was a chance to have our own version of that. There was a sense that, whatever magic those older bands had that could still capture young imaginations decades later, The Strokes were carrying a bit of that magic with them as well. Being a teenager in suburbia, pop-punk and emo really felt ascendant around that time, but none of that ever resonated with me. The Strokes allowed me to see something else happening in music that felt like it was worth aspiring to. 

Merlis: Not only was their music great, it sounded cosmopolitan and very New York City. There hadn’t been much of a music scene in New York over the twenty years prior to them with a handful of good bands here and there. The city was desperate for something cool, especially as [Mayor] Giuliani was turning the City into a safe, Disney-themed town. The band sounded cool and looked it. It also certainly helped that most of the national media is based here. 

Jake Faber (drummer for Sunflower Bean): The Strokes came into my life right as the band was starting. I was at a crazy point in my life where I was trying to do a semester of college at SUNY Purchase, while rehearsing almost every day of the week in Long Island with Sunflower Bean, on top of the beginning of new romance and friendship in my life in Brooklyn. As you can imagine there was a lot of driving around the New York metro area, [and] Is This It soundtracked almost every minute of it. [It] sonically brought it back home for me as it was kind of like The Velvet Underground, but rockier and so poppy. It totally filled the void that one can feel when driving around New York every day for months on end, tending to the most exciting things that have ever happened in my life (at that point) all while wondering "is this it?"

The Strokes Were Polarizing: You Either Loved Or Despised Them

Eric Ducker (writer and editor; wrote the band’s first-ever cover story in 2001): When it comes to the New York rock revival, The Strokes weren’t the best band (that would be TV on the Radio), or the best live band (that would be Yeah Yeah Yeahs), or even the first band (that would arguably be Jonathan Fire*Eater or The Mooney Suzuki), but at least initially they were the best at making it seem like being in a band with your friends was the most fun thing in the entire world. In the years that immediately preceded them, a ton of people in rock bands — from nu-metal mooks to post-Fugazi indie rockers and British gloomsters — seemed totally miserable.

Devaney: Their music just makes it so much easier to put up with everything about living in New York that is irritating and tedious. It's like a kind of urban mindfulness — reminding you that you chose to live here for a reason, and the filth and the difficulty are actually character-building and romantic. 

People still move to New York from very pleasant places that are very far away specifically to place themselves inside the world that exists in these songs. Play a song from Is This It in a crowded dive bar late at night and people lose their minds — it's the apex of their notion of what New York life would be.  

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Ducker: Part of the reason The Strokes became a great New York band was because you either loved them or despised them. Or, you pretended to despise them but secretly loved them. For such an argumentative city where everyone thinks they know best and are always happy to tell you why you’re wrong, a band you can be super passionate about holds a lot of appeal.

The Strokes Created A Template For Bands In The Early Aughts

Schwartzman: They were a part of this new world of this cool, edgy slice of music that they had injected into the young music scene like on the alternative rock side of things that was a breath of fresh air, in a way, for that genre of music. At that time, alternative music didn't have a real identity. The whole world they built just had this great consistency: They knew what they were and they stuck with it, and people, I think, really appreciated that. 

[The Strokes] were this British sensation. It was amazing. They conquered the music scene overseas, so they brought with them this amazing kind of cred from having won over that side of music fans and magazines. All those bands out of England that followed, you could hear direct influences: the vocal style and the same kind of sound and sonic approach to how they produce those records. 

On the radio at that time, it was like P.O.D., Linkin Park, Puddle of Mudd—that stuff all over the radio—and then you had the strokes, paving this new road, amongst all these bands that were very, very different musically. I thought that was just so cool, to be young and aspiring in that whole alt-rock world, and see how they were kind of shaking up that whole scene. They really turned alt-radio on its head because they were this odd-band out. But they really brought in a whole new wave of influencing a lot of bands. I remember when we were out touring, you would hear all these bands, and you would be like, "This feels like a Strokes-clone band." There are indie bands that followed that were straight-up cut from the same, old cloth. They sang like Julian, all low and droney [with] those prickly guitar parts that were kind of bouncy. 

Marc: It would be safe to say The Strokes broke down the doors for not just fellow NYC artists such as the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, The Rapture and the whole "garage" revival. That fact alone helps cement The Strokes’ legacy.  

Ducker: In the years after Is This It, some of the acts that would become the biggest rock bands in the world were able to replicate what The Strokes did, but with their own specific twist. To reduce it to the most basic level, Kings of Leon were the Southern Strokes, The Killers were the Las Vegas Strokes, Vampire Weekend were the "Ivy League Strokes," Phoenix became the "sophisticated French Strokes," and so on. The Strokes reformatted a template that other acts built off of, even as The Strokes themselves seemed to pretty quickly lose interest in it. 

Is This It Left Lasting Impressions On Artists And Music Industry Professionals

Ducker: When the promo for Is This It came in (original artwork, leather glove on naked butt), I think I had heard The Modern Age EP already, but I hadn’t gone to any of their Mercury Lounge residency shows. At that time there wasn’t social media or blogs to drive buzz for artists. For The Fader’s staff, much of that buzz came from what London-based culture publications like The Face were into, and they were already fully on-board for The Strokes. I was vaguely anticipating Is This It, but it wasn’t until I heard the advance that I quickly realized that this was a group and an album that I could, and would, love intensely. That CD didn’t get pulled from the office stereo for a long time.

Marc: I first bought Is This It when it came out in the UK, but after seeing them live on numerous occasions over the previous year or so as well as already owning their debut EP, I was already familiar with much of their material. What struck me first was how vital it sounded compared to the rather pedestrian nature of most indie artists at the time, and it signaled a welcome shift in the direction of indie-rock music. Its accessibility struck me too. I knew I had heard a game-changing record, and even back then, I believed Is This It would be regarded as a groundbreaking debut album that would stand the test of time. 

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Merlis: A former intern of mine when I was at Geffen Records, Ryan Gentles, was their manager. He sent me their three-song Modern Age EP. Within the first note, I knew it was really special. I remember standing up and pacing with excitement. I called Ryan immediately and asked how I could be involved.

Devaney: "The Modern Age" is one song that has particularly stuck with me through the years. The title is bold — you automatically feel like you're listening to something generation-defining — and just by tuning in, you're included in the moment. It hasn't really changed either: The moment may be different, but putting on this song, or any song off of this album, makes you feel like the city is the place to be. 

Julia Cumming (lead vocalist and bass player of Sunflower Bean): When I was in high school I would watch the MTV $2 Bill performance [of “Is This It”] on YouTube often. I just accepted it as the pinnacle of a great rock performance. As a bass player, and as someone who always loved the bass the most in songs, "Is This It" really made me think about what rock bass lines could be and how I could always work harder to make them more creative and special. 

Marc: There remains a certain charisma concerning The Strokes, and they have joined that plethora of classic acts as icons of popular indie/rock/music all the while remaining relevant. I still DJ and it is safe to say that pretty much any track from Is This It still brings the bodies to the floor, but especially "Last Nite" and "Someday," which remain bona fide classics. Both those songs enjoy a crossover appeal that many "rock" songs don’t these days. 

Schwartzman: I went on the road with them. They brought Rooney on tour with this band called Sloan. It was a dream bill for us. Watching them play every night was so awesome. Hanging out with those guys on their tour bus [and] having that band camaraderie was amazing. We were young, like 20 years old, opening for The Strokes. I mean, it's crazy.

The Unity Of The Strokes And Their Vision Has Helped Them Remain An Integral Part Of The Rock Canon

Marc: I feel The Strokes were maligned for their privileged backgrounds which I always felt was unfair as they did work really hard. They were out every night in the early days handing out flyers, promoting their shows and building their following. They did not take anything for granted. They were obviously well-rehearsed as they were tight as hell!  

Cumming: The Strokes are a band, truly and simply. Most popular music today is made alone in bedrooms with laptops, or with teams of songwriters coming together to make the most addictive product possible. Bands like The Strokes show that there will always be something inexplicably important about musicians just playing together, writing songs and being united in a vision. That’s all a really great band can do. 

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Ducker: Sometimes having cool jackets can take you pretty far, but if you write songs that people want to sing when they’re drunk-but-not-too-drunk, plus you have cool jackets, you can go a lot farther.

Merlis: One of the things that was rarely discussed about them was how hard they worked. They practiced constantly, played shows regularly, not only in New York but in Boston and Philadelphia. Toured nationally with the Doves and Guided By Voices, all before the album came out. They never waited for their big break; they created it.

Marc: I do not think The Strokes, or the NYC scene they emerged from, would or could happen now. I have always had a theory that The Strokes and the whole NYC scene that followed was the last truly organic scene before social media became prevalent. It was before the days when we lived life online. The Strokes and their contemporaries relied on traditional promo routes, such as flyers, posters, mailings and such, rather than the social media-based promotion of today. Any given night of the week in the early 2000s in the East Village there would be various band members making the scene at any of the numerous parties or bars pushing their next show and that gave rise to a certain comradeship. 

Ducker: A lot has been said about the death of the rock band in the 21st century and rock’s lack of cultural standing over the past decade. I don’t totally agree with that, but I think after The Strokes, people in successful bands realized again that it was a pretty awesome job to have — if you could get it.

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Wallows Press Photo 2024
Wallows

Photo: Aidan Zamiri

interview

Wallows Talk New Album 'Model,' "Entering Uncharted Territory" With World Tour & That Unexpected Sabrina Carpenter Cover

On the heels of releasing their amped-up third album, 'Model,' alt-rock trio Wallows detail how their "very unabashed" approach has expanded — and landed them in arenas for the first time.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2024 - 07:11 pm

Over the past five years, Dylan Minnette, Cole Preston and Braedan Lemasters — together, known as alternative rock band Wallows — have acutely constructed a sonic landscape of earworm guitar hooks, snappy drums and sing-along lyrics. And their third album, Model, helps lift their career into a new sphere of guitar-driven stardom.

Wallows' growth from the indie-pop breakouts of 2019's Clairo-assisted "Are You Bored Yet?" to full-fledged alt-rock stars is abundantly clear across Model's 12 tracks. Produced by GRAMMY-winning alt-rock whisperer John Congleton (who also helmed Wallows' 2019 debut album, Nothing Happens), Model amps up their vintage-meets-contemporary sound. It's an album that sounds perfectly written for arenas — and that's by design. 

On The Model World Tour, which kicks off on Aug. 6, the trio will hit arenas and amphitheaters in North America, Europe and the UK, and Australia and New Zealand, including iconic venues like Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks and The Forum. With the tour in mind, they wrote wavy melodies fit for the masses to sing along, like on the racing "Your Apartment" or the howling chorus of "You (Show Me Where My Days Went)."

If the polished sound of Model sounds like the work of a band who has sharpened their talents for decades, that's because it is. Though they made their official introduction as Wallows with the 2018 EP Spring, Minnette, Preston and Lemasters — all in their late 20s — have been performing together since they were just 11 years old.

As Preston asserts, their longtime partnership has resulted in "this kind of synergy happening." It's seemingly helped them become more vulnerable, too, as Model sees the Wallows guys singing overtly about love for the first time, like on lead single "Calling After Me": "I knew the feeling would be forming/ After I took a look into your eyes/ But are you ready for it, darling?"

In celebration of the release of Model, Minnette, Lemasters and Preston mused to GRAMMY.com about their creative journey, why they recently became the unlikely scorn of Sabrina Carpenter fans, and how they're "filling a space" in mainstream alt rock.

You're about to embark on an arena tour, playing venues like Madison Square Garden and The Forum for the very first time. Does this feel like a new phase in your evolution as a band?

Braeden Lemasters: Yeah, I think it does. When we started the band seven years ago, when I look back it's been a very natural progression; it's not like we went straight from 200 capacity clubs to arenas. 

We've gone through the stages and right growth, and now we're entering this uncharted territory. We actually haven't even opened up at these venues for anyone, so it'll be our first time playing an arena. We have no idea what to expect.

Model as an album sounds bigger than your past ones, especially songs like "Anytime, Always" which may sonically fit right in at an arena with its sing-along hook. Did you have the arena tour in mind when you were working on Model?

Cole Preston: Yeah, this record was the first time we did know the tour routing [during the album process]. It didn't necessarily change the way that we worked; we always adapted a similar approach to writing where we naturally want it to be catchy and full, which all lends itself to the live show. But understanding that we're going to have this level of a moment, we'd need to make a record that represents that moment that belongs there.

You guys are an alternative rock three-piece, which is rare in today's musical climate. Does it seem that way to you?

Dylan Minette: Yeah, I definitely feel like there's a space where we're sort of filling [with] the way our music is and sounds. There's other bands that are playing the same rooms and can, but all of us feel pretty different from one another. 

Our music is very unabashed, and there's nothing we're trying to subdue or be cool, or worry about it sounding too pop. I'm not saying we're the only ones doing that, because that's obviously not true. But our favorite bands growing up — like Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire or The Killers — weren't afraid to go for it and let the music be larger than life. There used to be a lot more bands that just dominated and went for it, so we try to make sure we're filling that space that isn't really being filled right now. 

Were you guys always interested in this genre? I would think for the majority of people from your generation, the inclination would be to do bedroom pop  or electronic music, and not to start a band.

Lemasters: The interest for me stems from my dad, who was a guitar player in Ohio  local bands. I alway thought it was so normal; I'd be 5 years old and my dad would be playing a stratocaster around the house and listening to the Beatles. He bought me a guitar when I was really young and taught me how to play, so I've had this connection to these classic bands. 

When I met Dylan, we bonded over that, because he also liked that music at a young age. I think it was rare for a kid our age to like that kind of music. Cole was also just a very talented musician at a young age too. So we all loved band music at a young age and wanted to form one; there was no other reason than that. We didn't have to search out our passion for it. It was already there.

Speaking of, I've loved your distinctive covers, from "My Worst Enemy" by Lit (which you put a melancholy look at it) to "Espresso" just recently. What's the key to a solid cover and how do you decide what songs to put your spin on it?

Minette: We definitely don't have songs in our pocket. We always try to do something unexpected or unconventional to get people talking about it, otherwise what's the point? 

Cole recommended "Espresso," which I hadn't heard at the time — but if he's saying this new, popular song is good, I trust him. When I listened to it, I thought it'd be great, and when we worked on the first version it had a drum machine and was funkier. When we stripped it back and it became more emo, it was hilarious. 

Though there are some Sabrina Carpenter fans who are really mad I attempted to sing that song. "You could never be Sabrina!" I'm like, "I know I can never be Sabrina!" But you know what? She texted me recently and gave the seal of approval. That's all we needed.

Since you've all been playing together in some capacity since you were 11, what's kept you together all these years?

Preston: When we were young, our brains were super mushy and we all had a big influence on each other as people. We're all very different now as people in a lot of ways, but we all know each other enough to predict how someone will feel or react about something. 

So there's this kind of synergy happening because, since we were 11, we were practicing every day and performing original music, and we just didn't stop. By the time we became Wallows officially, we had been a band for seven or eight years at that point. 

Speaking of, I know you recently connected with the person who indirectly inspired your name? What's the story behind that?

Minette: So Wallows was named after a skate spot in Hawaii on Oahu, which we first heard about from the video game Tony Hawk's Underground where it was part of the Hawaii map. Braeden played it growing up and at a certain point he said it'd be a cool album title. Eventually, when we were thinking of band names, we realized Wallows would be a great name. 

Last week, we were on "The Today Show" and they said "We have a surprise for you!" And it was a message from Tony Hawk, which was so full circle. To go from being kids with all ambitions and dreams, and now Tony Hawk is surprising us — it was crazy. If our 13-year-old selves were experiencing this, that'd be insane.

Model was produced by John Congleton, who was also behind your first album. What brought you together again for this third record?

Lemasters: When we first started making music, we worked with John; he made some St. Vincent records and we really respected his work. We were just naive enough to be so excited to go with him and we didn't meet anybody else at the time. He did our first EP and first album. There's something really special about that connection and bond you make, that first time. 

For our second album, we worked with Ariel Rechtshaid, which was incredible and who we always wanted to work with. When we decided to work on Model, we didn't know who to go with, but we went in with Congleton again to record some demos for no project at all. We asked him what he pictured for us regarding a new album, and everything he said is exactly how we were feeling. 

I also always admired an artist working with a producer multiple times, like Nigel Godrich with Radiohead or George Martin with the Beatles; there's a camaraderie where you always know where you've been. So it was a no-brainer to go with John again for Model. I think it's our best work yet, and best production yet, and that's largely because of his passion for the project. 

What's the most gratifying part of the musical process as an artist: writing and producing, or going out and performing them on tour?

Lemasters: It's such a hard question, but my answer would be it's whatever process you're currently experiencing. Writing and recording is so exciting, but going on tour and seeing people sing the songs is the most rewarding thing. I know that's the most cop-out answer. 

Does it change over time?

Minette: Exactly. It's a cycle, when you're on tour you're thinking, "I can't wait to go back into the studio" by the end for sure. I'm interested to see what happens when time slows down to step away from both and take a step back. I don't think we're near that, but I'm already thinking ahead to the next album, and we haven't even toured this album yet! 

Right now, I'm more excited for this tour than ever, but I'm also more nervous. It all adds to the excitement and intrigue of it.

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Twenty One Pilots performing in 2022
Twenty One Pilots perform at GPWeek Festival in 2022.

Photo: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images

feature

Twenty One Pilots' Road To 'Clancy': How The New Album Wraps Up A Decade-Long Lore

Three years after 'Scaled and Icy,' Twenty One Pilots' seventh studio album is here. Dig into the rock duo's journey to 'Clancy,' and how it further showcases their knack for vivid world-building.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 07:28 pm

Long before Twenty One Pilots developed a cult following, the Columbus, Ohio natives were determined to not be put into a box. From their first EP, 2009's Johnny Boy, they've blended elements of emo, rap, alt-pop, electronica, incorporating hardcore and hip-hop into their shows. "No one knew where to put us," drummer Josh Dun told USA Today in 2014. "But we've approached live shows as a way to build something from nothing."

In the decade since, the band's sheer determination and eclectic onstage personality have made them one of the biggest rock groups of their generation. They're equally as spontaneous and intriguing in their music, building an entire world through dynamic soundscapes and visuals — and their new album, Clancy, ties all of it together.  

As the band revealed in a press release upon announcing the album in March, Clancy "marks the final chapter in an ambitious multi-album narrative" that began with Blurryface in 2015. But it certainly doesn't feel like an ending; Clancy further expands on the theatrical style and eclectic sound they've showcased from the start, offering both a resolution and an evolution.

While the makings of the signature Twenty One Pilots aesthetic began with its original formation as a trio — lead singer Tyler Joseph and his friends Nick Thomas and Chris Salih — it truly took shape when Dun replaced Thomas and Salih in 2011. Dun and Joseph had a common goal to re-formulate the way songs and shows were crafted; the drummer utilized samples and backing tapes at their gigs, helping the band dive deeper into their alternative style by fusing everything from reggae to pop together.

As a newly formed duo, Twenty One Pilots issued their album Regional at Best in 2011 — their last release before they signed to a major label (though, as they told Huffpost in 2013, they since consider the record a "glorified mixtape"). After significant social media buzz and selling out a show at Newport Music Hall in Columbus, the duo was courted by a dozen record labels, which set the stage for their big break.

"We went from no one in the industry caring to all of the sudden it was the hot thing for every label, independent and major, to be interested in some way," Joseph told Columbus Monthly in 2012 upon signing to Fueled by Ramen, which the singer said they were drawn to because they were able to retain "creative control" — a factor that would become increasingly more important with each release. 

Their 2013 album Vessel — which featured a combination of new and re-recorded songs from Regional At Best —spawned the band's first charting single, "Holding On to You," a rap-meets-pop track that oscillates from sensitive indie ballad to energetic anthem. Not only had they begun making a mark commercially, but it seemed to be the album that Twenty One Pilots felt they were hitting their stride creatively, too: "I know some people might not like this, but I kind of view Vessel as our first record," Joseph told Kerrang!at the time.

Though the character "Clancy" first came about with 2018's Trench, Twenty One Pilots actually introduced the world that Clancy would eventually live in with 2015's Blurryface, which focused on a titular character who embodies depression and anxiety. "It's a guy who kind of represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around me, are insecure about," Joseph said of his alter-ego in a 2015 interview with MTV.

To convey the "feeling of suffocation" caused by insecurities from what he creates, Joseph began wearing black paint on his neck and hands in music videos and on stage to represent the "Blurryface" character. As Joseph told the Recording Academy in 2015, the "common thread" of all of the songs on Blurryface was that Joseph's alter-ego would be defeated, and each song wrestled with the dichotomy between darkness and optimism.

While Vessel kickstarted the band's commercial success, Blurryface saw their popularity explode and resulted in the band's best-selling single, the eerie rap-rock anthem "Stressed Out." The commercial success of Blurryface helped their hot streak continue into 2016 with the release of "Heathens." While the song served as the first single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, its haunting production fits right into the world the pair had begun building with Blurryface. Their acclaim continued to grow, with Twenty One Pilots earning their first GRAMMY in 2017 for "Stressed Out" in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Category — and, in line with their affinity for stunts, dropping their pants as they accepted their award.

Ahead of the release of their 2018 concept album Trench, the lore surrounding "Clancy" really began. Twenty One Pilots began leaving clues for fans on a website known as DMAORG, which featured black-and-white images and letters from "Clancy," who ultimately became the protagonist of the album. Twenty One Pilots fans (often referred to as the"Skeleton Clique") began clamoring to deduce puzzling clues and posting their theories about the narrative's endgame online.

With Trench, they found more characters and a deeper narrative. The overall album depicts "a world where nine dictatorial bishops keep the inhabitants (Tyler included) of a fictional place named Dema from escaping its controlling clutches, with the help of the Banditos — a rebel organization (featuring Josh)." On a larger scale, the album grapples with mental illness, suicide and an expansion on Joseph's insecurities from Blurryface

But Trench isn't one cohesive story; rather, it's a series of songs with clues embedded within. For instance, in "Morph," the character Nico is introduced, who is also the subject of "Nico and The Niners." From there, fans gleaned that Nico was one of nine bishops controlling the citizens of Dema, and those nine bishops were represented by each of the songs on Blurryface. The bombastic "Pet Cheetah" references that the house has vultures on the roof which alludes to it — and Joseph's home — being Dema. 

As with Blurryface, visuals became an integral part of the album cycle. This time, they used them to illustrate life in the dystopian Dema, which personifies depression through the trilogy of music videos for "Levitate," "Nico and The Niners" and "Jumpsuit." While Joseph's black-painted neck and hands signaled the Blurryface era, dark green clothing marked with yellow tape signaled the Trench era. During this time, the "Clancy" character remained shrouded in mystery — though through videos and letters shared by the band, fans theorized that it is an opposing force to "Blurryface."

By the time Twenty One Pilots' 2021 album, Scaled and Icy, came around, fans quickly noticed that it paid homage to "Clancy" as an anagram for "Clancy is dead," while also acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic as a shortened phrase for "scaled back and isolated." While Twenty One Pilots could have leaned into the harrowing events of lockdown, they instead chose to focus on what has driven the band itself, the power of imagination — something that has been behind much of the band's work since Blurryface.

With the album came three singles — the propulsive "Shy Away," the heartwrenching banger "Choker" and the funk-pop-tinged "Saturday — which were recorded when the duo was working virtually during the pandemic. Unlike the past two projects which grappled with this doomed slant, Scaled and Icy pivoted toward a sunnier sound, signaling a shift in the narrative. But it didn't mean the dark world of Blurryface and Trench were completely in the past; upon Scaled and Icy's release, Joseph revealed to Apple Music that there would be "one more record" and "an explanation and book end" before moving onto another story.

Three years following the release of Scaled and Icy, fans began receiving letters from the "Sacred Municipality of Dema" — a reference to the fictional city featured on Trench, signaling what appeared to be a new era diving deeper into the band's lore. Since the previous record featured an anagram about "Clancy" in its title, it seemed natural that the next album would be named after the character. 

"'Clancy' is our protagonist in this story we've been telling, stretched out over the last several records. 'Clancy' is the type of character who, for a long time, didn't know if he was a leader or not, didn't want to take that responsibility," Joseph told BBC Radio earlier this year.

As the singer had hinted in the Scaled and Icy era, Clancy brings fans back to the darker narrative that began with Blurryfacet. After Joseph's character escapes Dema a handful of times, joins a rebellion, then is captured again, he finally has the same abilities as the bishops and aims to free the people of Dema. The album attempts to answer a few conceptual questions along the way.

Clancy's blistering first single, "Overcompensate" is inherently hopeful, and answers the long-lingering question fans have been wondering: Who is "Clancy"? According to the psych-funk number, it's been Joseph all along ("If you can't see, I am Clancy/ Prodigal son, done running, come up with Josh Dun.") As Joseph further explained to BBC Radio, "[With] 'Overcompensate', there's a bit of a confidence and swagger in it that the character needed to embody in order to take on the new role in the story we've been telling, and Clancy is gonna rise up as that person."

But much of the album focuses less on the literal lore, instead tackling the overarching themes of its counterparts: Joseph's struggles with mental health. Despite the darker, anxious nature of the album's lyrics, the majority of Clancy has a self-assured breeziness to it, jumping off of the upbeat Scaled and Icy sound. 

On the ballad-like closer, "Paladin Strait" — named after a fictional body of water off the coast of Dema —Twenty One Pilots really digs into the narrative of "Clancy" the character in a literal way again. What's revealed is the final battle between "Clancy" and "Blurryface" with no apparent winner — alluding to the idea that there is not necessarily a triumph over depression. In the final line, the band offers a callback to a lyric from Blurryface: "So few, so proud, so emotional/ Hello, Clancy."

While the ending may remain ambiguous, it may not be a coincidence that Twenty One Pilots postponed Clancy's release date by a week (from May 17 to May 24) in order to finish filming music videos for each of the tracks, all of which were unveiled upon the album's release. So, there's still hope that fans will find out definitively what happened to "Clancy" — or maybe it means his story isn't completely finished. 

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Photo of Lenny Kravitz wearing dark black sunglasses and a black leather jacket.
Lenny Kravitz

Photo: Mark Seliger

interview

Feel Lenny Kravitz's 'Blue Electric Light': How The GRAMMY-Winning Rocker Channeled His Teen Years For His New Album

'Blue Electric Light' is a laser beam through Lenny Kravtiz's musical ethos: a rocking, impassioned and defiantly Lenny production. The Global Impact Award honoree discusses his first album in six years, and the flowers he's received along the way.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:22 pm

Lenny Kravitz is a vessel — a divining rod of creative direction. 

"I just do what I'm told. I'm just an antenna. So what I hear and what I receive, I do," he tells GRAMMY.com.  It's with that extra-sensory, spiritual guidance that Kravitz created his latest album, Blue Electric Light. "I just saw and felt this blue light — electric blue, almost neon light —radiating down on me."

Out May 24, Blue Electric Light is Kravtiz's first LP in six years and fittingly flits through the rocker's cosmology: Arena-ready booty shakers like "TK421" (the music video for which features the nearly 60-year-old unabashedly shaking his own booty), Zeppelin and Pearl Jam-inspired rockers like  "Paralyzed," and shared humanity-focused groovers like "Human." There's plenty of '80s R&B sensibility throughout, giving  Blue Electric Light a perfectly timed, timeless feeling.

It's as if Kravitz took a tour through his own discography, landing right back where he started: In high school. In fact, two of the album's tracks — "Bundle of Joy" and "Heaven" — were written when the four-time GRAMMY winner was still a teenager. While Kravitz's latest may lean into the sounds of his young adulthood, the album's underlying themes remain consistently spiritual, intimate and emotional. "My main message is what it has always been, and that is love," Kravitz told GRAMMY.com in 2018. And by staying true to himself and this message of love, Lenny Kravitz is thriving.

"I've never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. I've never felt more vibrant," he says today.

Kravtiz has also had a big year. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, during 2024 GRAMMY week, was honored with the Global Impact Award at Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors. At the ceremony, Kravtiz was lauded for his work with his Let Love Rule foundation, and his iconic discography celebrated in a performance by Quavo, George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

Reflecting on his achievements, Kravitz remains humble. "Success is wonderful, but I only want success by being me and doing what it is that I'm hearing, as opposed to following something or a formula."

Ahead of releasing Blue Electric Light into the world — just a few days shy of his 60th birthday on May 26— Lenny Kravitz spoke with GRAMMY.com about revisiting his past, following his gut, and stopping to smell the flowers.

You haven't released a record in about six years. Why did you feel now was the time to put new music out, and what was inspiring you?

Well, it was just by virtue of what was going on. So I released [2018's Raise Vibration and], I toured for two years. Then COVID hits two and a half years [later]. It wasn't like I went away or wasn't inspired. I had a whole other year planned. I was going to tour for three years on that last album.

But [when] COVID happened, the world shut down and I got stuck in the Bahamas for a couple of years and a half. And so during that time I was just being creative. I [wrote the whole album] during that time and a little bit afterwards; [I wrote] just maybe two songs afterwards.

When I finished, then I had to figure out when I wanted to put it out and how. I did the Baynard Rustin song ["Road to Freedom" from the Academy Award-nominated film Rustin], and then I ended up pushing my album so I could fully promote the film and the legacy of Bayard Rustin.

Anyway, here we are. Everything happens in the time that it should, and I'm looking forward to putting this out and getting back on the road.

I read that this record was like an album that you didn't make in high school and it has this very young spirit. What took you to that place?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I released a book called Let Love Rule, and it ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. It was about my life from birth to the first album [1989's Let Love Rule], so around 24 years old. In this book, I spent a lot of time in my teenage years when I was developing. That came out at the beginning of the pandemic and I was doing a lot of press for it.

And I think because I was exploring that time so much when I was writing the book and then talking about that time so much when I was promoting the book, it just came out. And it was a time in my life that I never really celebrated. I never put music out at that time.

When I found my sound [on] Let Love Rule, all that material I was working on at that time got buried before. And so I just went to that place. I didn't plan on it, it just happened. In fact, two songs on the record ["Bundle of Joy" and "Heaven"] are from high school. 

So it's a blend of where I am now and where I was then. And it's a really fun record and I had a really beautiful time making it. It's a celebration, and it's sensual and sexual and spiritual and social and it hits all the marks. I'm looking forward to getting out there.

You were obviously deep in your memories, and it sounds like you were probably listening to a lot of Prince in high school.

There's a lot of things. There's a blend of '80s technology and drum machines, and real instruments and synthesizers that I pulled out from then. During that time, yeah, I was listening to a lot of Bowie. I was listening to a lot of Prince, a lot of Rick James, a lot of just soul and R&B in general, and rock.

Are there any songs on the record that you are particularly proud of or that are really meaningful to you?

All of them. I hear it all as one piece. So it's just one flow of consciousness, but I'm really proud of the record. 

One of my favorite tracks would be the opening track, "It's Just Another Fine Day in this Universe." I just think it's such a vibe and I love the way the chorus makes me feel. I think "Stuck in the Middle" is really pretty and sensual.

Speaking of vibes, when I'm listening to the record, it feels very hopeful. Is that generally how you've been feeling or how you go through the world these days?

I'm pretty optimistic. But now even more than ever, just on a personal level, I've never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. I've never felt more vibrant and I'm becoming more comfortable within myself in my skin and in my place. 

I've learned that listening to that voice inside of me and sticking to what it is that was meant for me, my direction, has paid off and it feels good.

What do you attribute that growth and that deep comfort to, both personally and creatively?

Just [having] time to see the results. I'm blessed to live, to see the results of being faithful to what it is you've been given and told to do by the creative spirit, by God. People have always been trying to push me in different directions: "Do this, do that, follow this, go this way. This is what's happening right now." Follow the trends because they're looking at it as a business and they're trying to make money and have success.

Yes, success is wonderful, but I only want success by being me and doing what it is that I'm hearing, as opposed to following a formula that one thinks would work. Because once you follow that, you're already late, it's already happened. And I am not about being late. 

I don't mind setting the tone or the trend and being early and not getting recognized for it at the time. Because I'm not doing it for the reason of receiving accolades or whatever. I'm doing it to be expressive and to truthfully represent myself.

I think that's a fantastic way to be. People come around eventually, right?

Yes. I've been reading reviews of my heroes back in the day, and I remember seeing Led Zeppelin reviews just ripping them to shreds. Led Zeppelin [are] praised [for] being classic and genius, but at one time they were s—, somebody said. So if you live long enough and you keep doing what you're doing, if you're doing the right thing and what you're supposed to be doing, you'll see that shift in people's opinions. 

Not that that matters, but when you see it, it feels good because you know that you did it the way you were supposed to do it. 

I hear a little bit of that defiance on this record too, that and the centering of your own truth on "Human." Can you maybe tell me a little bit about that track and how it came to you?

Well, it just came like they all come. So I hear it and I think to myself, Okay, that's interesting. That has this real pop anthem, very uplifting feeling. [The song] speaks to us as spiritual beings having this human existence on this planet.

We are at our most powerful when we are authentic to ourselves. When you're authentic to who you are, you're shining and you represent what it is that you're meant to represent. And so the song just speaks on that, and really using this human existence to learn and to walk in your lane to reach your destiny.

In life since we've been born, we've been told what to do and how to do it: "Don't go this direction, go that way," and "No, don't do this, do that because this is the way it's done" or "This is what's safe." And we're all born with a gift; we're all born with a direction. And we don't all hit the marks because sometimes we don't accept what our gift is. Or we're too busy looking at others and what their gift is and we want what they have, and we leave behind what we were given. We go chase something that is not for us; it's that other person's calling.

So the more we shed all of that and really just walk in our lane, the better. And I am enjoying this journey of humanness and learning and growing, falling, getting up, climbing up the mountain, falling again, getting back up, continuing up. That's what it's about. It's not about how many times you fall... It's about how you get up and keep going. We're all here to live and learn and, hopefully, love. 

I'm curious if the title of the record translates to this idea at all. Does Blue Electric Light manifest in any real way to you as a spiritual guide?

To me, it's a feeling. I just saw and felt this blue light — electric blue, almost neon light —radiating down on me, and that light is life. It's God, it's love, it's humanity, it's energy. And just metaphorically, that's what that represents to me.

Right on. To take it away a little bit from the existential and the spiritual, you just received the Global Impact Award at the 2024 GRAMMYs. You said you're not doing these things for accolades, but I'm curious how it felt to be recognized for this aspect of your work something that isn't inherently musical that's a little more outside yourself.

Where I am in life right now is, if someone's going to hand you flowers, then stop, smell them and enjoy them. And that's what I'm doing. 

I make my art because I make my art and for no other reason, but when handed these flowers, I'm appreciative. I'm grateful, and I will enjoy them because I spent my whole career not doing that. I was always moving so fast and [was] not only concerned with the art and moving forward, that I didn't enjoy those moments when you get awards or things. So I made a promise to myself years ago, moving forward when the flowers are delivered, that I will stop and smell them, take a moment, breathe, and then move forward. 

And that's what I'm doing, because every day of life is beautiful. And when you can celebrate, why not celebrate?

Amen to that. It's that presence of mind and spirit that you have been talking about this whole time and seems to have flowed through your artwork as well. With regard to the work with your Let Love Rule foundation, are there any projects that you would love to tackle next?

There's so many. From some things I've been doing with friends, like building certain foundations in Africa with someone that's on the ground there, doing it firsthand with orphanages in schools, to the medical situation in the Bahamas, to continue providing medical and dental care for free to the people so they can have their basic health issues taken care of. 

And then also working with kids in the arts and helping to give them a foundation to work from. These are things that I'm interested in.

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Slash
Slash

interview

Slash's New Blues Ball: How His Collaborations Album 'Orgy Of The Damned' Came Together

On his new album, 'Orgy Of The Damned,' Slash recruits several friends — from Aerosmith's Steven Tyler to Demi Lovato — to jam on blues classics. The rock legend details how the project was "an accumulation of stuff I've learned over the years."

GRAMMYs/May 17, 2024 - 06:56 pm

In the pantheon of rock guitar gods, Slash ranks high on the list of legends. Many fans have passionately discussed his work — but if you ask him how he views his evolution over the last four decades, he doesn't offer a detailed analysis.

"As a person, I live very much in the moment, not too far in the past and not very far in the future either," Slash asserts. "So it's hard for me to really look at everything I'm doing in the bigger scheme of things."

While his latest endeavor — his new studio album, Orgy Of The Damned — may seem different to many who know him as the shredding guitarist in Guns N' Roses, Slash's Snakepit, Velvet Revolver, and his four albums with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, it's a prime example of his living-in-the-moment ethos. And, perhaps most importantly to Slash, it goes back to what has always been at the heart of his playing: the blues.

Orgy Of The Damned strips back much of the heavier side of his playing for a 12-track homage to the songs and artists that have long inspired him. And he recruited several of his rock cohorts — the likes of AC/DC's Brian Johnson, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, Gary Clark Jr., Iggy Pop, Beth Hart, and Dorothy, among others — to jam on vintage blues tunes with him, from "Hoochie Coochie Man" to "Born Under A Bad Sign."

But don't be skeptical of his current venture — there's plenty of fire in these interpretations; they just have a different energy than his harder rocking material. The album also includes one new Slash original, the majestic instrumental "Metal Chestnut," a nice showcase for his tastefully melodic and expressive playing.

The initial seed for the project was planted with the guitarist's late '90s group Slash's Blues Ball, which jammed on genre classics. Those live, spontaneous collaborations appealed to him, so when he had a small open window to get something done recently, he jumped at the chance to finally make a full-on blues album.

Released May 17, Orgy Of The Damned serves as an authentic bridge from his musical roots to his many hard rock endeavors. It also sees a full-circle moment: two Blues Ball bandmates, bassist Johnny Griparic and keyboardist Teddy Andreadis, helped lay down the basic tracks. Further seizing on his blues exploration, Slash will be headlining his own touring blues festival called S.E.R.P.E.N.T. in July and August, with support acts including the Warren Haynes Band, Keb' Mo', ZZ Ward, and Eric Gales.

Part of what has kept Slash's career so intriguing is the diversity he embraces. While many heavy rockers stay in their lane, Slash has always traveled down other roads. And though most of his Orgy Of The Damned guests are more in his world, he's collaborated with the likes of Michael Jackson, Carole King and Ray Charles — further proof that he's one of rock's genre-bending greats.

Below, Slash discusses some of the most memorable collabs from Orgy Of The Damned, as well as from his wide-spanning career.

I was just listening to "Living For The City," which is my favorite track on the album.

Wow, that's awesome. That was the track that I knew was going to be the most left of center for the average person, but that was my favorite song when [Stevie Wonder's 1973 album] Innervisions came out when I was, like, 9 years old. I loved that song. This record's origins go back to a blues band that I put together back in the '90s.

Slash's Blues Ball.

Right. We used to play "Superstition," that Stevie Wonder song. I did not want to record that [for Orgy Of The Damned], but I still wanted to do a Stevie Wonder song. So it gave me the opportunity to do "Living For The City," which is probably the most complicated of all the songs to learn. I thought we did a pretty good job, and Tash [Neal] sang it great. I'm glad you dig it because you're probably the first person that's actually singled that song out.

With the Blues Ball, you performed Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher" and Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," and they surface here. Isn't it amazing it took this long to record a collection like this?

[Blues Ball] was a fun thrown-together thing that we did when I [was in, I] guess you call it, a transitional period. I'd left Guns N' Roses [in 1996], and it was right before I put together a second incarnation of Snakepit.

I'd been doing a lot of jamming with a lot of blues guys. I'd known Teddy [Andreadis] for a while and been jamming with him at The Baked Potato for years prior to this. So during this period, I got together with Ted and Johnny [Griparic], and we started with this Blues Ball thing. We started touring around the country with it, and then even made it to Europe. It was just fun.

Then Snakepit happened, and then Velvet Revolver. These were more or less serious bands that I was involved in. Blues Ball was really just for the fun of it, so it didn't really take precedence. But all these years later, I was on tour with Guns N' Roses, and we had a three-week break or whatever it was. I thought, I want to make that f—ing record now.

It had been stewing in the back of my mind subconsciously. So I called Teddy and Johnny, and I said, Hey, let's go in the studio and just put together a set and go and record it. We got an old set list from 1998, picked some songs from an app, picked some other songs that I've always wanted to do that I haven't gotten a chance to do.

Then I had the idea of getting Tash Neal involved, because this guy is just an amazing singer/guitar player that I had worked with in a blues thing a couple years prior to that. So we had the nucleus of this band.

Then I thought, Let's bring in a bunch of guest singers to do this. I don't want to try to do a traditional blues record, because I think that's going to just sound corny. So I definitely wanted this to be more eclectic than that, and more of, like, Slash's take on these certain songs, as opposed to it being, like, "blues." It was very off-the-cuff and very loose.

It's refreshing to hear Brian Johnson singing in his lower register on "Killing Floor" like he did in the '70s with Geordie, before he got into AC/DC. Were you expecting him to sound like that?

You know, I didn't know what he was gonna sing it like. He was so enthusiastic about doing a Howlin' Wolf cover.

I think he was one of the first calls that I made, and it was really encouraging the way that he reacted to the idea of the song. So I went to a studio in Florida. We'd already recorded all the music, and he just fell into it in that register.

I think he was more or less trying to keep it in the same feel and in the same sort of tone as the original, which was great. I always say this — because it happened for like two seconds, he sang a bit in the upper register — but it definitely sounded like AC/DC doing a cover of Howlin' Wolf. We're not AC/DC, but he felt more comfortable doing it in the register that Howlin' Wolf did. I just thought it sounded really great.

You chose to have Demi Lovato sing "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." Why did you pick her?

We used to do "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" back in Snakepit, actually, and Johnny played bass. We had this guy named Rod Jackson, who was the singer, and he was incredible. He did a great f—ing interpretation of the Temptations singing it.

When it came to doing it for this record, I wanted to have something different, and the idea of having a young girl's voice telling the story of talking to her mom to find out about her infamous late father, just made sense to me. And Demi was the first person that I thought of. She's got such a great, soulful voice, but it's also got a certain kind of youth to it.

When I told her about it, she reacted like Brian did: "Wow, I would love to do that." There's some deeper meaning about the song to her and her personal life or her experience. We went to the studio, and she just belted it out. It was a lot of fun to do it with her, with that kind of zeal.

You collaborate with Chris Stapleton on Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" by Peter Green. I'm assuming the original version of that song inspired "Double Talkin' Jive" by GN'R?

It did not, but now that you mention it, because of the classical interlude thing at the end... Is that what you're talking about? I never thought about it.

I mean the overall vibe of the song.

"Oh Well" was a song that I didn't hear until I was about 12 years old. It was on KMET, a local radio station in LA. I didn't even know there was a Fleetwood Mac before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. I always loved that song, and I think it probably had a big influence on me without me even really realizing it. So no, it didn't have a direct influence on "Double Talkin' Jive," but I get it now that you bring it up.

Was there something new that you learned in making this album? Were your collaborators surprised by their own performances?

I think Gary Clark is just this really f—ing wonderful guitar player. When I got "Crossroads," the idea originally was "Crossroads Blues," which is the original Robert Johnson version. And I called Gary and said, "Would you want to play with me on this thing?"

He and I only just met, so I didn't know what his response was going to be. But apparently, he was a big Guns N' Roses fan — I get the idea, anyway. We changed it to the Cream version just because I needed to have something that was a little bit more upbeat. So when we got together and played, we solo-ed it off each other.

When I listen back to it, his playing is just so f—ing smooth, natural, and tasty. There was a lot of that going on throughout the making of the whole record — acclimating to the song and to the feel of it, just in the moment.

I think that's all an accumulation of stuff that I've learned over the years. The record probably would be way different if I did it 20 years ago, so I don't know what that evolution is. But it does exist. The growth thing — God help us if you don't have it.

You've collaborated with a lot of people over the years — Michael Jackson, Carole King, Lemmy, B.B. King, Fergie. Were there any particular moments that were daunting or really challenging? And was there any collaboration that produced something you didn't expect?

All those are a great example of the growth thing, because that's how you really grow as a musician. Learning how to adapt to playing with other people, and playing with people who are better than you — that really helps you blossom as a player.

Playing with Carole King [in 1993] was a really educational experience because she taught me a lot about something that I thought that I did naturally, but she helped me to fine tune it, which was soloing within the context of the song. [It was] really just a couple of words that she said to me during this take that stuck with me. I can't remember exactly what they were, but it was something having to do with making room for the vocal. It was really in passing, but it was important knowledge.

The session that really was the hardest one that I ever did was [when] I was working with Ray Charles before he passed away. I played on his "God Bless America [Again]" record [on 2002's Ray Charles Sings for America], just doing my thing. It was no big deal. But he asked me to play some standards for the biopic on him [2004's Ray], and he thought that I could just sit in with his band playing all these Ray Charles standards.

That was something that they gave me the chord charts for, and it was over my head. It was all these chord changes. I wasn't familiar with the music, and most of it was either a jazz or bebop kind of a thing, and it wasn't my natural feel.

I remember taking the chord charts home, those kinds you get in a f—ing songbook. They're all kinds of versions of chords that wouldn't be the version that you would play.

That was one of those really tough sessions that I really learned when I got in over my head with something. But a lot of the other ones I fall into more naturally because I have a feel for it.

That's how those marriages happen in the first place — you have this common interest of a song, so you just feel comfortable doing it because it's in your wheelhouse, even though it's a different kind of music than what everybody's familiar with you doing. You find that you can play and be yourself in a lot of different styles. Some are a little bit challenging, but it's fun.

Are there any people you'd like to collaborate with? Or any styles of music you'd like to explore?

When you say styles, I don't really have a wish list for that. Things just happen. I was just working with this composer, Bear McCreary. We did a song on this epic record that's basically a soundtrack for this whole graphic novel thing, and the compositions are very intense. He's very particular about feel, and about the way each one of these parts has to be played, and so on. That was a little bit challenging. We're going to go do it live at some point coming up.

There's people that I would love to play with, but it's really not like that. It's just whatever opportunities present themselves. It's not like there's a lot of forethought as to who you get to play with, or seeking people out. Except for when you're doing a record where you have people come in and sing on your record, and you have to call them up and beg and plead — "Will you come and do this?"

But I always say Stevie Wonder. I think everybody would like to play with Stevie Wonder at some point.

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