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
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
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
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.