Photo: Pierce Johnston
One Night In The Eyes Of Eternity: How 'In Common III' Speaks To Jazz As An Intergenerational Form
Saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens' new album, 'In Common III,' features an enticing guest: the legendary bassist Dave Holland. It's a reminder that jazz provides particularly fertile soil for intergenerational dialogue.
Jazz may be a web, but the strands can become somewhat calcified. Musicians can get too comfortable playing with the same people over and over; expectations can grow static. For saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens, that reality planted the seed of In Common, a multi-album series featuring outstanding musicians of all ages and backgrounds in fresh combinations.
"We wanted to get outside of who our normal touring circles are because sometimes that can be pretty specific," Smith explains to GRAMMY.com. "You see a million other people at your concerts, or you go to their concerts, or you see them at festivals, but there isn't always an opportunity to play with everybody that you want to play with."
For the inspired third entry, In Common III, released last March on famed jazz label Whirlwind Recordings, the pair teamed up with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. (Previous installments involved vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Nate Smith and other heavyweights.)
But aside from simple camaraderie and getting out of comfort zones, the In Common series opens up a window into jazz's unique capacity as a intergenerational artform. Smith, Stevens and Davis are in their forties; Carrington is in her fifties; Holland is 75. Age isn't merely a spectrum of "younger" or "older" in jazz; it speaks to a taxonomy of lineages and schools of thought.
Holland played with foundational figures like Miles Davis and Chick Corea and recorded cerebral classics as a leader, like 1972's Conference of the Birds. But before diving into the In Common crew's experience playing with him, it's worth examining their performances with younger musicians, like Ross.
Despite Ross being in his early twenties, playing with him wasn't merely a case of bolstering an emerging musician. Ross has been central to the recent boom period for Blue Note Records signings, acting as a hub for monster talent from his generation, like saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins.
And although he was playing with musicians two decades his senior on 2018's In Common, it wasn't a one-way street of elders instructing youngsters.
"I would not say we were nurturing younger talent because when we played with Joel, he was the bes. He was way better than anybody else," Smith says. "So, he was nurturing us, even though he was very small." (For 2020's In Common II, they enlisted pianist Micah Thomas, born in 1997, who Smith also describes as "very small" at the time.)
Carrington, who's won three GRAMMYs and been nominated for four, calls herself something of a "bridge between generations." When considering intergenerational interplay, she thinks of her "biggest influence and mentor," the drum godhead Jack DeJohnette.
Before In Common III, Carrington hadn't worked much with Holland over the past 35 years — she'd played with him as a teen at DeJohnette's house, but that was mostly it. But when she reconnected with the bassist, it clicked. Holland and DeJohnette's deep-rooted stylistic connection — like in Gateway, the pair's '70s trio with guitarist John Abercrombie — meant playing with Holland was a breeze.
"Sometimes, I try to move away from that time period [represented by Holland and DeJohnette]. I'm not saying I'm successful, but I do try," Carrington tells GRAMMY.com. "But then, if I play with somebody like Dave, it puts me right back into that feeling of nostalgia, in a sense. It's this certain bounce, this swing that I often try to run away from in some ways."
"My dad once told me you can't run away from who you are," she adds. "And that stays in my brain."
You Can’t Learn That In School
It would take a lifetime to grasp the enormity of intergenerational dialogue in jazz. Charles Mingus cited his formative influences as Duke Ellington and church, and played on Duke's classic 1962 trio album Money Jungle with drummer Max Roach. And numberless jazzers learned at the feet of Barry Harris, a sort of Gamaliel of Detroit when it came to bebop language.
But it's worth noting some more contemporary examples, starting with the experiences of the In Common gang. When Davis first played with the far-out bassist, composer and educator William Parker, who's now 70, she had an experience that would be foreign to an average jazz-school student.
"I was in my early twenties, he called me for a gig, and I came to his house for a rehearsal," Davis, who also heads the independent label Pyroclastic Records, tells GRAMMY.com. "He pulled out this piece of paper with his composition, and it was all crumpled and barely legible."
At first, this didn't jibe with what Davis considered "professional" in music — neatly-written charts, clean presentation. Then, she had a lightbulb moment. "I was like, 'Oh, wow! This can be done in different ways,'" she says. "We're going to play the gig and the music's going to happen, whether the paper's crumpled or not."
When he was a similar age, Stevens remembers rehearsing with the organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith, who passed away in 2021 — as did Harris. As in Davis' experience with Parker, the very un-New School casualness of the affair belied entirely new educational pathways.
"He was watching some daytime talk show, and he didn't want to start rehearsing until it was over," Stevens tells GRAMMY.com. "So I pulled up a chair from his kitchen and watched the end of 'The Tyra Banks Show' or something like that."
Stevens thought he had arrived prepared: "He'd been like, 'Learn this record,' and I'd learned it and made notes for myself and it was a really big deal for me." But then Dr. Smith had him throw all of it out, instructing him to play tunes the elder musician sometimes didn't even remember the names of.
"If I asked him what a chord was, he would be like, 'I don't know; come look at my hands. It was that kind of thing: 'It's this sound; it's not that,'" Stevens remembers. Despite only playing with Dr. Smith a handful of times, that comfort zone-exploding experience stuck with him or life.
Today, Stevens is an educator and references that moment with his students. "It speaks to the process of how the elders learn and teach the music," Davis says in response from a parallel Zoom window. "That's something you can't gain from your peers or [those] younger."
When Walter Smith first played with the GRAMMY-winning drum pioneer Roy Haynes, he got a crash course in the primacy of melody. After getting chided once or twice for not playing a line note-for-note in the Cole Porter tune 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy,' he played a variation he thought worked — and learned a lesson in response.
"What are you doing? If you don't play the melody the way it's supposed to go, it doesn't line up with what's happening with the lyric," Haynes told Smith, as Smith paraphrases. "I set it up, and if you're not going to play it through my setup, then why are we doing this?"
"That changed how I looked at playing melodies forever," Smith says.
The elders also laid perspective on these musicians. When Carrington played with 11-time GRAMMY-winning saxophone legend Wayne Shorter when she was 21, she exited the bandstand feeling defeated and self-loathing about her performance. Shorter replied: "Music is just a drop in the ocean of life."
"He got me thinking differently about that. Develop your life and the music will come, because it's just a part of life," Carrington adds. "And if you focus too much on the music, it's never going to happen because you're not developing the rest of yourself.
"I used to complain about hotel rooms," she continues. "He told me, 'What's one night in the eyes of eternity?' Which really helped me to this day when I get to a hotel room that's s<em></em>*y."
Shorter's attitude tracks with his uber-ambitious opera with the much younger bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, Iphigenia.
A Diversity Of Interplay
If you think intergenerational give-and-take is just in the province of small-group jazz, it's not — it applies to every context and format. Iphigenia is worth singling out, as it’s unconventional a jazz format as you could imagine.
An update of Euripedes' classical play Iphigenia at Aulis, the program marked the fulfillment of a long-simmering dream for the now-88-year-old Shorter. When he proposed it to Spalding, she felt a "stirring in my spirit."
Spurred by both creative inspiration and Shorter's physical limitations due to age and a metabolic tremor that precluded writing music by hand — much less playing the horn, Spalding made sure his vision would be realized, taking a year off from Harvard and heading to Los Angeles.
You'd have to see it to grasp it, but it includes eye-popping Frank Gehry set designs and the simulated slaying of five women and two deer — set to music by an orchestra and Shorter's longtime quartet: pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, all who are GRAMMY winners themselves.
Spalding — who has won five GRAMMYs herself, including one in 2022 for Best Jazz Vocal Album — wrote the libretto and sang the lead role of Iphigenia. "My gift is that I'm not in opera. My gift is that I don't know how to write these stories. My gift is that I don't know the tropes," she told the Times.
And coming to that idiom with a clean slate — as well as working with a musician who helped form the building blocks of her idiom — resulted in something breathtakingly strange and gorgeous.
Keep Seeking Out Examples
How can you keep abreast of intergenerational jazz — past, present and future? You can start by following the musicians that played in In Common III.
For a project by 78-year-old saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill — a 13 album boxed set called Baker's Dozen — Carrington recently recorded with a handful of younger musicians, including trumpeter Milena Casado and bassist Devon Gates.
"I'm excited about that because it reminded me of when I was younger and in my twenties and you had just one day to go in the studio and make a record and you couldn't fix anything," Carrington says. "I was trying to approach it like that."
Smith cites many other examples: drummer Johnathan Blake with 78-year-old pianist Kenny Barron, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw with 97-year-old Haynes, pianist Jason Moran with 84-year-old saxophonist Archie Shepp.
But in the immediate rearview is their experience of playing with Holland on In Common III — and all involved cite it as positive and upbuilding.
"He bridges both worlds, as maybe I do in some ways of improvised music and playing more straight-ahead musical forms," Davis says. "And I think we share a commonality there and the understanding of the music."
Do younger and older musicians often find each other more similar than different — as the title of the In Common series acknowledges? Absolutely.
But in jazz, as in so many other areas of life, the truth remains: Only by learning, absorbing and appreciating the knowledge of those who came before can you believably take a swing at success.
Source Photos (L-R): Courtesy of the Recording Academy® / Photo by Jason Kempin for Getty Images © 2023; Courtesy of the Recording Academy® / Photo by Alexandra Wyman for Getty Images © 2023
The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing To Honor Trailblazers Terri Lyne Carrington And Judith Sherman
The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing will honor three-time GRAMMY winner Terri Lyne Carrington and revered classical producer and 13-time GRAMMY winner Judith Sherman at its annual GRAMMY Week event in February.
The Recording Academy has announced Terri Lyne Carrington and Judith Sherman as honorees for their accomplishments as pioneering women in jazz and classical music. They will be honored at the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing GRAMMY Week Event on Feb. 1 at The Village Studios in Los Angeles. The 15th annual event will return in-person for the first time since 2020, to kick off GRAMMY Week 2023.
In addition to celebrating the achievements of three-time GRAMMY winner Terri Lyne Carrington and revered classical producer and 13-time GRAMMY winner Judith Sherman, the event will celebrate the year-round work of the Producers & Engineers Wing and its members. They advocate for excellence and best practices in sound recording, audio technologies and education in the recording arts, along with proper crediting, recognition and rights for music creators.
"We’re thrilled to return live to The Village Studios for the first time in three years to celebrate two groundbreaking music creators who are dedicated to innovating both creatively and technically in the recording field," said Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy. "Both Terri Lyne and Judith have made indelible contributions to music, and we look forward to bringing together producers, engineers and artistic professionals to honor these incredible artists and kick off our GRAMMY Week celebrations."
Terri Lyne Carrington is an NEA Jazz Master, Doris Duke Artist, and three-time GRAMMY-winning drummer, composer, producer, and educator. She is the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, as well as the artistic director for both Next Jazz Legacy program (a collaboration with New Music USA) and the Carr Center in Detroit. She has performed on more than 100 recordings over her 40-year career and has toured and recorded with luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Esperanza Spalding, and numerous others.
Her artistry and commitment to education has earned her honorary doctorates from York University, Manhattan School of Music and Berklee College of Music, and her curatorial work and music direction has been featured in many prestigious institutions internationally. The critically acclaimed 2019 release, Waiting Game, from Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, earned the esteemed Edison Award for music and a GRAMMY nomination. In the fall of 2022, she authored two books, Three of a Kind (The AllenCarringtonSpalding Trio) and the seminal songbook collection, New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets By Women Composers. Her current GRAMMY-nominated album, New Standards Vol.1 (Candid Records), and her visual art curatorial debut at Detroit's Carr Center, Shifting the Narrative Part 1: New Standards, have accompanied the songbook release as part of the Jazz Without Patriarchy Project.
Carrington is a 2022 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is co-executive producer and musical director for the newly formed Jazz Music Awards.
Judith Sherman has made an indelible contribution to the catalog of recorded classical music.
She is an 18-time GRAMMY Award nominee and 13-time GRAMMY winner, including six GRAMMYs for Producer Of The Year, Classical (at the 36th, 50th, 54th, 57th, 58th, and 64th GRAMMY Awards). Early in her career she was employed at WBAI-FM in New York City, beginning as an engineer and over the course of four years working her way up to become producer and then music director. She was the recording engineer for the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont during the summers of 1976 through 1994 and worked as audio faculty at the Banff Centre in 2006 and 2008. A member of the board of directors of Chamber Music America, Sherman served first as secretary in 2002, and thereafter as vice president. She currently works as a freelance recording producer and engineer in New York.
Sherman has collaborated with a vast number of artists throughout her career including Rudolf Serkin, Ursula Oppens, Marc-André Hamelin, Llŷr Williams; with the Kronos Quartet and the Cleveland, Ying, Takács, and Pacifica String Quartets; with eighth blackbird and the American Brass Quintet; and with conductors such as Christoph Eschenbach, Donald Runnicles and David Zinman. Her recordings in the field of contemporary classical music have been particularly noted, including work with such composers as Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Steve Mackey, Charles Wuorinen, John Adams, Shulamit Ran, David Rakowski, Philip Glass, Eric Moe, Joan Tower, and Terry Riley. Her recordings have appeared on many labels, including Nonesuch, Telarc, Cedille, New World, Avie, Albany, Signum, Hyperion, and Bright Shiny Things.
"The Producers & Engineers Wing is privileged to pay tribute to two women who have pushed boundaries both in and outside of the studio," said Maureen Droney, Vice President of the Producers & Engineers Wing. "As GRAMMY nominees this year, Terri Lyne and Judith are awe-inspiring honorees who represent the best of the recording industry and whose contributions to their respective genres continue to resonate with our music community."
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].