Sean Lennon: "To me, psychedelic just means those records that were the most ambitious"
Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
Sean Lennon could have coasted on his name alone -- he's a child of privilege, with two of the most famous people in the history of pop culture for parents. And sure, some doors were open to him that wouldn't be to just any other teenager. He collaborated with Lenny Kravitz for "All I Ever Wanted," which appeared on 1991's Mama Said.
But it was in the mid-'90s that Lennon met the members of Cibo Matto and became that band's touring bass player. Through that connection, Lennon was offered the chance to write and record an album for Grand Royal Records by Adam Yauch himself. Into the Sun, from 1998, revealed Lennon's gift for delicately textured melodies, gorgeously subtle layers of sound and evocative use of space, firmly establishing him as a noteworthy songwriter and musician in his own right.
Following the release of the 1999 EP Half Horse, Half Musician and the 1999 Cibo Matto album Stereo Type, Lennon went on to collaborate with other musicians and play a side role as a session player for several years. But Lennon is typically humble about his collaborative efforts.
"I think it's mostly learned," says Lennon about whether his talent is more natural than cultivated. "I didn't take lessons so much. But I did play a lot and I practiced and studied on my own. Nature versus nurture -- it's hard to measure that kind of thing. I'm sure I have some kind of natural talent for music. I played a little bit when I was younger, but I certainly wasn't a prodigal talent. I wasn't one of those people being shipped off to Juilliard at an early age."
It was until 2006 that Lennon released the sophomore album bearing his name, Friendly Fire. It was also at that time when Lennon met his current girlfriend and musical collaborator in Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Charlotte Kemp Muhl at Coachella. The two found an immediate kinship and premiered their new musical project in 2008. Named after a play Kemp Muhl wrote as a child, the band released an acoustic album in 2010 and the more electronically-inflected La Carotte Bleue in 2011. This year, the duo, now with a full band, released Midnight Sun, a record of ambitiously creative pop songs created with a kaleidoscopic palette of sounds ever so slightly reminiscent of the best Elephant 6 bands at their peak. As accomplished and as promising as Lennon's earlier albums were, his work with Kemp Muhl seems to have unlocked a new vista of his sound scaping.
"I think it was refreshing," says Lennon about writing with Kemp Muhl, who was an entirely self-taught musician at a young age. "Certainly it is refreshing because she comes at music from a different place. She hadn't been playing professionally in the same way so she had a maybe less jaded view of music. Or she has a different perspective on it and that was definitely inspiring for both of us to come to each other with new ideas that the other wouldn't have had on their own."
As a producer, Lennon cites George Martin as one influence for his ability to arrange sounds. There are other big names, too.
"I think I'm more like Brian Wilson," says Lennon. "Obviously, I'm not a genius like him, but I like to layer vocals and experiment with sound and I'm self-taught. I've been obsessed with Brian Wilson since 1997. That was when I first really got into him."
With such root inspirations, it's not too surprising that Lennon, who told AZ Central that his favorite era of music was the period from 1967 to 1973, would write music that has some similarities with modern psychedelic music. But it is really more akin to what the more interesting indie pop bands of the '90s were doing.
"I shy away from really qualifying things too much with the word 'psychedelic,' because it sort of implies that our music is retro," explains Lennon. "And I don't think our music is retro. It does sort of have elements from the past, but I also think it sort of has its eyes fixed on the horizon of the future, hopefully. To me psychedelic just means those records that were the most ambitious. You know,Pet Sounds
were the most ambitious records that they did. And that happened to be during the psychedelic period. The reason I like them is that they're the greatest accomplishments, not because they're called psychedelic."
Lennon's inspirations come from world's outside music, as well.
"When you make music, you're sort of just following your enthusiasm and inspiration at that moment with a specific song, or a specific sound or lyric or whatever," says Lennon. "And all of the people who have ever influenced you whether people you've read, or people whose films you have watched or people you've spoken to or your friends or intellectuals that you've met, they're always with you inside and they're always a part of what you do. They're always a part of your world view. So there's always those sort of elements of their influence present in your work. It's not like when you do a fashion show and you say, 'Okay, these are the three colors that are going to inspire us for this season.' I'm sure you could do that if you wanted to but we don't really do that. I might do that if it was, say, a film score because film scores are so specific in terms of the palette that you have to use because you have to really fit with a certain type of aesthetic that is pre-defined.
"But when you're making an album, no one's tell you that it has to be vaudeville or that it has to be punk rock or whatever," continues Lennon. "You do what you want and then you follow your inspiration, and then hopefully you internalize things from different artists and different books and different movies that have inspired you and hopefully they influenced you positively. That's really what happens."
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.