The son of a legend taken before his time, Sean Lennon is dealing with that burden these days by making what he calls “soulfuldelic” sonics. Although they are — like everything, really — powerfully imprinted by the Beatles, the psych-rock explorations of “Midnight Sun,” the new album from Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT) owe as much to the “fucking awesome” grooves of his friends The Flaming Lips, as well as their forebears Pink Floyd. “Once I started playing with the Lips, I kept saying, ‘Whoa, you guys, this is the greatest show on Earth — besides Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall!’” the soft-spoken Lennon told me by phone, still a fan at 38 wise years. “I kept saying that a lot.”
Despite these intimidating predecessors, and the GOASTT’s own live shows starting in May, Lennon and Kemp-Muhl’s project doesn’t wear the anxiety of influence. As one can tell from their post-Lynchian videos for “Moth to a Flame” and “Animals” — costarring Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow — Lennon and Kemp Muhl are happily living in their own arty world. Creating their own reality, if you will, just as his legendary mother Yoko Ono regularly advises. Indeed, watching the lovers Lennon and Kemp Muhl romp in their darkly humorous videos feels like 21st-century iterations of John and Yoko doing the same, decades ago, during the making of “Imagine.”
Similar ordinary aliens, different extraordinary century.
It is Barlow who described Lennon in the GOASTT’s biography as “an alien who fell to earth and had to quickly assimilate humanity,” while Lennon himself humbly sings “I’m just an ordinary alien” in “Midnight Sun’s” raucous title track. But if Lennon is indeed this century’s man who fell to Earth, then he has landed firmly on his feet with “Midnight Sun’s” wide-ranging permutations.
With its sardonic prayers for Internet billionaires in “Animals” and gleefully nuked banksters in “Moths to a Flame,” the GOASTT’s amped follow-up to its mellow but brainy “Acoustic Sessions” should convincingly upgrade Lennon’s profile as an artist of his time and media — that is, a panoptic period of cli-fi apocalypse and yet humble optimism, which Sean seems to have to spare. As the dust of the 20th century the Beatles dominated depixelates into memory, Lennon is quietly hacking their legacies to create lasting multimedia of his own.
I read that you wanted to make “Midnight Sun” an old-school album.
Yeah, we really thought of it as an album, although that’s an extinct format. I’m old enough that I still think of it as Side A and Side B, so we tried to make it a complete listening experience. That had a lot to do with which songs made the album and which didn’t. It wasn’t just our favorites, but which songs flowed into one narrative, in a way. It’s not strictly narrative, but an experience.
With its sci-fi soundtracking and videos, “Midnight Sun” definitely feels like a multimedia experience — which is to say, actually pretty modern. Is the album trying to say anything about its time?
Well, you know, I gotta say that … there’s a reason we’re writing poetry and songs rather than nonfiction critiques of society, you know what I mean? It’s meant to be your experience of it. But we printed up all the lyrics, so you can read them and feel what you feel. I wouldn’t want to try and make a grandiose statement about anything.
Like hilariously annihilating Wall Street in a nuclear blast, which you do at the beginning of the video for “Moth to a Flame”?
It’s a parody of a banker-induced apocalypse! [Laughs] It’s sort of a surrealist dream journey, but it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Or tongue everywhere.
The part where your head turned into a turkey reminded me of the creepy chickens from Lynch’s Eraserhead, which is one of my favorites.
Yeah, we actually cooked a turkey and tied it to a tree with dental floss. There was no camera trickery there, other than me standing there one minute and not the next. It was totally old-school fun. We had an awesome time making it with our friends. We got rain and lightning and it was just insane, but we got it done. Yeah, I love that movie. I’m guilty of watching the entire series of “Twin Peaks” more than twice. The entire thing. I’m like a total dork when it comes to that show.
Well, you’re not alone, dude.
I’m really surprised that the film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” wasn’t a hit, because the show was such a hit. I think the film is even better than the show. Don’t get me wrong; the series was great, but the film just crystallized what I love about Lynch’s filmmaking. And I gotta say its music also influenced me a lot as well.
I also feel the influence of The Flaming Lips’ heavy grooves in “Midnight Sun,” which makes sense.
I think so, because we toured with them a lot. Being around those guys rubbed off on us in a good way, for sure. Let’s put it this way: When we started playing the songs from “Midnight Sun” on tour with the Lips, they were much different. By the end of the tour, we were playing them harder and better. Performing on the same stage as the Lips definitely makes you up your game, because they are fucking awesome.
You have to turn your amps way up.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] They have crazy stacks of gear. It’s my favorite show on Earth, to be honest. I was lucky enough to see one of Pink Floyd’s last tours for “The Wall,” at Giants Stadium when I was like 11 or something. Really young. I’ll never forget it. And I think I got to go twice, because I remember so many things about it. I’m imprinted with the memories of all the characters, sets, lasers and films, because that was greatest show I had ever seen. But once I started playing with the Lips, I kept saying, “Whoa, you guys. This is the greatest show on Earth — besides Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall!’” I kept saying that a lot.
Now you’re the one making the arty noise and, like George’s son Dhani Harrison, you’re creating distinctive music that sets you apart from your family name. The last thing I heard from you and Charlotte was “Acoustic Sessions,” which had intelligent, meditative songs like “Dark Matter, White Noise” and “Schroedinger’s Cat.” In comparison, “Midnight Sun” hits like a train.
We were already kind of recording “Midnight Sun” at that point, so in a way we just put out “Acoustic Sessions” to document the birth of the band. Because when Charlotte and I were first dating, we were an acoustic band and that was what we were all about. I would take a guitar to her apartment and write songs. So “Acoustic Sessions” was our way of documenting The GOASTT before it went electric and turned into a psychedelic — soulfuldelic — band.
Are you nervous at all about the record doing well, or is it on to the next?
I’m not really nervous about how it will be received, because I feel good about it. I just hope we get the right opportunities to tour and sound great live. That’s the next step: figuring out how to actually play well live. That’s the hard part. We’ve got to work on that.
Speaking of hard work, let’s wrap with fracking, which I know you and your mother have spoken out against quite a bit. What was it like going up against the EPA?
[Pauses] I don’t even know what to say. It’s so overwhelming. The power of that interest group is so large. The more I participated in activism against fracking, the more I realized what a Behemoth, Leviathan, Beelzebub it is. There’s really nothing more to say, except that it is pretty terrifying. The simplest factoid you can probably tell someone is that Hill & Knowlton — which is the oldest PR firm in America, and has spent tens of millions to spread doubt about fracking — is the same company that came up with doctors recommending Camels. The same company. So anyone who watches their ads about baby-saving, puppy-saving, daisies-in-your-hair alternative energy is watching someone completely not telling the truth. I would say it’s a kind of evil, because it’s so deceptive.
You could say that the fact that people are using the terms “natural gas” so freely, in even their learned conversations, is itself a triumph of marketing.
I know! I mean, the word “natural” has been bastardized more than any other on this planet. Natural flavoring could mean beaver anus. Yogurts with raspberry, strawberry and vanilla flavoring could be proprietary whatever. They don’t even have to tell you if it’s beaver anus; they just get to put it in there. It’s not vegetarian, obviously. [Laughs] That’s what natural means in America today.
You and your mom have been environmentalists for awhile. How worried are you about climate change, and especially mass extinction, which is just one of its many worst-case scenarios?
[Sighs] Man, that’s a good question. That’s a heavy one. I think about it a lot, and I know this sounds cheesy, but my mom says stuff like this a lot: We collectively create our future, and the future is out there for us to create. There are an infinite number of possibilities, as well as disasters, that we can create for ourselves. But at this point, climate change is the most pressing. It’s a subject that is too complex and important for me to say anything simple about. It’s as serious as serious gets. You can go deep down that rabbit hole, but in the end you might need a literal rabbit hole.
This interview appeared at Salon