Although Sean Lennon has kept a relatively low profile throughout his life — particularly for the son of John Lennon, one of the most famous musicians of the twentieth century — he’s actually had a prolific and interesting musical career, with two solo albums, numerous original soundtracks and collaborations with everyone from the Flaming Lips to Lady Gaga.
Now Lennon is two full-length albums deep into his venture with Primus bassist-singer Les Claypool, playing haunting, fantastical rock music not unlike that of early King Crimson and Pink Floyd. On the group’s two ambitious albums, Lennon has revealed his underrated musicianship by playing guitar, drums and numerous other instruments while sharing lead-vocal duties.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium plays Mishawaka Amphitheatre, the Ogden Theatre and the Boulder Theater this weekend; Lennon spoke with us by phone before a show in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Westword: Your first record [1998’s Into the Sun] is really creative and diverse. Why do you think it was slammed so harshly by critics?
Sean Lennon: I was definitely pretty young when I was making it. There was a lot of making stuff up off the top of my head. You know, any criticism of it is valid, though, too — I don’t really mind. When people critique things, they usually have a real visceral experience. It’s fine.
AllMusic.com’s senior editor even trashed it as “the project of a privileged soul.” Have people judged your work based more on the person than on the music?
Yeah, for some reason I get that a lot. I seem to get it more than a lot of the other kids of rock stars. I don’t know why. There’s some kind of, like, branding problem happening [laughs]. There’s nothing I can do. I think people’s experience of my music is colored by something that they’ve heard about me, that they think they know, that’s usually based on some kind of nasty article, or something somebody said that wasn’t true.
What were the ’90s like for you, releasing an album on the Beastie Boys’ label in a time when it still felt like anything could be a hit?
The ’90s were my golden age, for my generation, at least, but I didn’t realize it was a golden age while it was happening because it just seemed so natural. I was in Cibbo Matto, and we got to tour with all my favorite artists. The Beastie Boys were on top of the radio, and Radiohead and Björk — they were all the biggest artists. It just seemed normal that cool and interesting, fun and challenging art was gonna rule the world, at least through the airwaves. Something happened, I guess, between the Backstreet Boys and Justin Timberlake, and then the record industry collapsing. I think the record industry became more conservative, and they were just pushing for surefire hits. I think a generation was raised on Britney Spears and stopped wanting music that was challenging. I don’t think the Beasties were challenging, necessarily, but you had to be open-minded. I didn’t anticipate the collapse of the music industry, nor did I anticipate the supplanting of all these cool artists with the kind of cheesy boy bands and stuff.
It was also a time when something like “My Name Is Mud” could be on MTV. Do you remember the moment you first heard Primus?
I do, actually. I was dating this girl who lived in Italy, and I was in a boarding school in Switzerland, and I used to take a train to visit her in this little town called Padua. Nothing was ever happening in that town; everybody would go to sleep at like 8:30 p.m. We were walking home one night, and there was this loud noise coming out of this little club, and we were like, “What is that? We gotta go in there.” It was so unlikely to hear any loud music in this town. We went in, and there were all these people jumping around, and there were all these punks, and they were crazy. We’d discovered this really weird little scene, and Les was up there with these different braids in his hair, jumping around. I was actually kind of terrified, in a cool way. He was obviously a badass, and I’ll never forget that. I went back to America, and they started getting on the radio around then.
Can you put your finger on what, exactly, you and Les connect on musically?
When we met, we were both getting into Spotify and would send each other playlists of rare music, rare bands we liked. We definitely share a lot of taste in the same areas, and I think that was refreshing for us to become friends and listen to records together and then write songs together. It’s kind of just fun, you know? Les and I just kind of see eye-to-eye in that way.
You’ve called the new Delirium album [South of Reality] “the soundtrack to the demise of the world as we knew it.” You’ve also been an activist regarding fracking and other issues. Does that mean the cause is lost?
In terms of fracking, we won in New York. It’s been banned. That’s what I was fighting for personally, because I live there, and I didn’t want it happening around me. In terms of “Have we lost?” I think America is losing. I think both sides are losing. I think we’re in the middle of a kind of culture war, and just like any other war, everybody loses. Honestly, the people I blame most are the media, for not being more responsible and balanced in their representation of things. I think they foment misunderstanding and extremism — not just the media, but politicians as well. It’s also the format. Twitter is like the center of a vortex of bad communication and polarization. I really feel pretty concerned, to be honest, about the kind of language that both sides are using to describe each other. Once you escalate language, it can lead to worse things. It already is; there have already been violent outbreaks. I worry that we’re entering territory where it might be harder and harder to go back and calm everybody down.
Do you think music can be used as a weapon in the war, or should it be used to stop the war?
I don’t think you should fight any wars. I don’t want to use anything as a weapon. I think music doesn’t have the same grasp on youth culture as it used to. Kids still love music, but in the ’60s, Dylan said something and people would really listen, politically speaking — whereas now, if any of the biggest pop stars of the world decided to push a political perspective, most people wouldn’t give a shit. Maybe because we’ve had so many protest songs, it doesn’t have the same potency as it used to.
What if someone obsessed over by young people, like Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift, released a protest song today? Would it have a positive effect?
I don’t know if any of those people are smart enough to say anything useful. I think Billie Eilish is great; I don’t mean that as an insult, but to be as smart as Dylan isn’t easy, to distill everything that’s happening in society into a song. It doesn’t seem like that’s the forte of these younger songwriters. Even Taylor Swift: She tries to talk about gay rights or something, and it’s just completely uninteresting. The way she uses language is like that of a nine-year-old. There’s nothing profound being said. The world is so complex now that it’s gonna take more than the intellect of a nine-year-old to distill what’s happening in a useful way. I think we were more naïve in the ’60s, so it seems like songwriters were smarter, but the world was simpler. It was easier, probably, to sum it all up. I think if you were smart enough to sum up everything in, like, a modern equivalent to “The Times They Are a-Changin',” the song would be pretty complicated. I think most people wouldn’t even understand it.
It would be pretty fucking long.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it would have to be an opera.
You also say that this music you’re making with Les Claypool is “to take the edge off as we sit back and watch reality unravel.” What music did you listen to growing up that might’ve also seemed like the soundtrack to reality unraveling?
That’s an interesting question. Honestly, I never felt like the world was falling apart when I was a kid. I never felt like we were headed in such a terrible direction. Our vision of the future when I was ten or fifteen years old was that things were always gonna get better and better. We took that for granted. Now it feels like people are really unsure about the future. So I don’t feel like I’ve ever listened to music that was the soundtrack to the disintegration of a society. Maybe in ancient Rome there was music like that.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium plays Friday, August 16, Mishawaka Amphitheatre, 13714 Poudre Canyon Road, Bellvue, theMishawaka.com; Saturday, August 17, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, ogdentheatre.com; Sunday, August 18, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, bouldertheater.com.