Chris Stein Celebrates 40 Years with Blondie

August 19, 2014

CHRIS STEIN HAS A LOT TO BE THANKFUL FOR. Since forming Blondie with singer Deborah Harry in 1974, his CBGB-tested, Andy Warhol-approved pop/punk posse has averaged sales of one million albums per year, topped the charts with several number-one singles, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And as the calendar neared 2014, Stein knew he had to mark four decades of Blondie with something special. The band had to go big. The result? A new twofer called Blondie 4(0)-Ever [Noble ID/ESMG]—an ambitious 24-song collection comprising two new albums, both of which are fascinating for very different reasons.

The set opens with Deluxe Redux: Greatest Hits, an album that tempts pop-music lovers with 11 of Blondie’s most popular chart-toppers. The interesting thing about this group of tunes is that while most of the songs were released decades ago, these versions are all brand-new recordings. Yes—all the songs’ vocal and instrumental parts were re-tracked and remixed for this record. (Why? We’ll get to that.)

The other album in the package is Ghosts of Download, which delivers 13 new songs that prove that after 40 years, Stein still delivers music that sounds fresh, vital, relevant, and evolved. Perhaps that’s because despite starting off with both feet firmly planted in New York’s ’70s punk/new wave scene, Stein has always enriched his music with outside influences—especially, it seems, in the case of Blondie’s number one hit singles. For example, with “Heart of Glass,” the band put their punk-rock pedigree aside to explore disco textures. (“We always said we were a pop band, actually,” says Stein. “For us, punk was kind of just a fashion sensibility.”) With “Rapture,” Blondie became one of the first bands to score a number one song built around a rap. And with “The Tide Is High,” the group conquered the charts with calypso.

With the new songs on Ghosts, Stein brings modern Latin and EDM influences to Blondie, topping things off with guest appearances by Colombian hip-hoppers Systema Solar and Panamanian-American rappers Los Rakas. It’s hard to say why Stein’s genre mash-ups work so well, but they almost always do, and that’s what the New York guitarist/producer can be most thankful for.

So, why did Blondie re-record all their hits for Deluxe Redux?

It was partially as an exercise, but also for sync rights. A lot of our income comes from licensing our music to films, commercials, and stuff like that, because more and more these days, when people need music, they come to established bands. And if you’re going to let them use your song, it’s advantageous if you own the masters and the publishing. It’s a tradeoff, because you lose the extra amount of promotion and push you’d get from a record company—which, back when we started out, we really needed. It used to be really hard to get a song out to the masses without a record company behind you. Now, with YouTube and all that sh*t, things are different.

Many recording artists moan about it how tricky it is to “recreate the demo.” How hard was it to recreate the magic of full-blown hit songs?

Well, it was a lot easier than inventing the stuff in the first place! The first thing we had to do was relearn the original studio arrangements and parts exactly, because many of those songs have evolved quite a bit on stage over the years. Then, the goal was to match the tempos, grooves, and sonic qualities of all the instruments with the original recordings. Producer Kato Khandwala helped a lot with that process. And when it came time to do guitar parts, we just used whatever amps Kato had in his studio—Marshalls, Soldanos, and Fenders, mostly. It was much more about matching the tones on the original tracks than it was about staying faithful to the original gear.

The new versions sound quite similar, but there are some subtle things that are different. Certainly some of the fans knew the difference when we used the new version of one of our songs—“Dreaming,” I think it was—on a commercial in the UK. They got on social media and were like, “What’s going on here?”

Looking back on those records, it’s amazing how every note was tracked in real time, too. There was no cutting and pasting or digital editing back then. The bass drum track alone on “Heart of Glass”—which we tracked separately—took three hours. And getting the synthesizer and Roland CR-78 rhythm machine to sync on that song using control voltage was a huge deal. It took days to get that together. Now, with MIDI, you can do the same thing in two hours.

How did you time the guitar echoes so perfectly with the groove on “Heart of Glass”?

That was done using an old Roland Space Echo or Chorus Echo tape delay. We spent hours getting every sixteenth-note repeat to be in time with the rhythm-machine track. You’d just sit there all day, locking with the groove, and playing single notes over and over again. Interestingly, when I heard the masters again years later, I realized that some of those cool wooshing sounds on that song—the high-pitched out-of-phase swishes in the background that I had always thought were from the synths—were actually coming from that guitar/tape echo track.

It’s cool how the second chord in the “Heart of Glass” progression—the VI chord—is major before going minor a bar later. Many bands would have stayed diatonic and kept it minor throughout.

Well, I knew it was a sort of harmonic trick you can do—changing from major to minor in the same phrase like that. It was a move I didn’t hear used that often, so we went with it.

What’s your live rig like these days?

Nothing too elaborate. A Soldano head and some pedals, including an Ibanez Tube Screamer for crunch sounds. My guitar is an XOX Audio Tools Handle made of carbon fiber that weighs four pounds. It plays terrifically, sounds like a wooden guitar, and is totally unaffected by humidity or temperature. It’s very sexy looking, too. I don’t hit the thing very hard, and it doesn’t go out of tune, so I use it for the whole set. [Blondie co-guitarist] Tommy Kessler, though, like most guitarists, is a guitar-changing guy.

I met with Tommy in L.A., and he said that when he auditioned for you a few years ago, you only had him play for a minute or two. Then the two of you just hung out for a few hours and talked.

Well, it only took ten seconds to see how great a player he was. What I immediately liked about Tommy was that for such a fantastic guitarist, he’s very un-egomaniacal. He’s great to work with, and he has a ton of energy.

The 13 new songs on Ghosts of Download have a refreshing sound—catchy melodies and riffs, cool grooves, and some cool world influences thrown in.

I really love the sound of modern Latin music and Latin grooves. It’s very sexy, all that stuff. I’m really into the modern stuff, like reggaeton and cumbia more so than salsa and the old-school stuff. For example, I love Systema Solar, from Colombia. I just reached out to them, and they were game to get involved with the record. They’re featured on “Sugar On the Side,” which I based on their stuff.

There’s also a strong EDM component to some of the new songs.

These days, I do so much programming and computer stuff that I’m deeper into that than I am into guitar rigs. I’ve become less of a guitar-gear-head, as I am now five years into this learning curve of working with computers. If you’re a guitarist who hasn’t worked much with software, I recommend messing around with Apple GarageBand until you’re ready to graduate to Logic. The latest update, Logic X, is great. At first, it might seem a little stripped down, but it actually does a vast amount of stuff. From cool plug-ins to its great onboard drum program, it’s more intuitive than ever. We do a lot of stuff in Logic, and then dump it into Pro Tools. I do a lot of stuff with MIDI guitar, too.

Is the sitar sound on “I Want to Drag You Around” a sample?

No, that’s actually a real Coral electric sitar. But, quite often, I would rather find a cool sampled sound in two minutes than spend two hours getting an actual guitar sound. There’s a great app out now from Jam Origin I use called MIDI Guitar—it’s cheap and it’s awesome. I use it with this funky old controller from the ’80s, I have at home called a Photon. It’s a MIDI guitar I string up with all B strings. With all the strings the same, it tracks pretty well.

I use the Moog guitar on the new record, too. I love the sustain-y things it does. I’ve always been into EBows. I used one on our second album, on the song “Youth Nabbed As a Sniper,” and became the first guitarist ever to endorse the EBow on album credits.

You’ve certainly had an instinct for developing great melodies and delivering hit songs. What advice do you have for new artists aspiring to do the same thing?

Try not to be too anti. That is, don’t be too anti-anything. I am always surprised when I hear people getting aggressively anti one form of music or another. I pretty much like anything, and I find that every style of music has something to offer. When you eliminate an entire genre of music because you think it’s stupid or whatever, you’re just hurting yourself. Also, the best advice for musicians, I think, is to play live. Get out there and play your songs for people. Do it, because your music becomes a different thing when you see how it affects people in a direct way.

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