Iggy Pop on Guitars, Guitarists, and Rock’s Pitiful Lack of Menace

April 20, 2006

Iggy Pop is perhaps the craziest and scariest rock icon still left standing. Just look at him. Watch him perform. Listen to him. This isn’t exactly music that’s conducive to sipping ice teas on the back porch, and his stage shows are, well, dangerous. Recently, the ever-in-motion Pop quit moving long enough to offer GP readers his insights on a number of musical and cultural subjects. Some exclusive outtakes from that discussion are included here.

You’ve always been able to work with some very raw and aggressive guitar players. Is there a certain technique or attitude that separates the players who can really dig into an instrument and destroy the world from the players who simply “play nicely?”

There’s usually something about the energy in a guitarist’s hands that makes the guitar sound a certain way. For example, no one I’ve ever encountered in the world plays as loud as [former Sex Pistol] Steve Jones. He’ll dwarf anyone—even if they have twice the equipment. He just has these enormous boxer’s hands with a lot of power in them. Ron Asheton [of the Stooges], however, has these long beautiful hands that look like they belong to a painter. He can get rough, but there’s a refined edge to his playing. It’s not exactly bar music. There’s more lyricism there.

Do you ever get involved with the recording of the actual guitar parts?
I’ve always been really involved with how we mic things, but as I’m completely ignorant of recording techniques, my ideas work about one-third of the time.

One fascinating thing about your work is your ability to tread familiar territory without being constrained by the past. It seems as if you’re constantly being motivated and excited by stuff.
I try. It takes an effort. I got to a point where I just couldn’t listen to music anymore—including my own—because you’re doing it so often, and in such grim circumstances sometimes, that, after a while, it’s like “F**k!” But it has been better the last few years. It has been easier. I made a conscious decision. I thought, “The atmosphere has to lighten up here, dude. You’d better start listening to stuff.” I started by being able to listen again to some of the old records I’ve always really loved. And then, I became able to listen to some newer releases—some of which I don’t like. If I don’t like something, but I still think it’s good, I’ll keep it in my library. I got the new Franz Ferdinand, for example, and I didn’t really like it, but I noticed there was some damn good craft in there, so it’ll stay around for a few months. That one is in the “art” section. I also got the Killers album, and I listened to the new Interpol record quite a bit.

You’ve also managed to deliver some very different sonic identities. Your music isn’t always an onslaught of feral guitars.
I’ve always gone a lot wider. I just did. This reminds me of a great review of Avenue B—an album I did that had some jazz and spoken word on it, some film scores, and, basically, some of everything. A female reviewer from Rolling Stone said, “Okay, I get it. This guy has been a professional spazz for his entire life, and now he wants us to listen to him do something serious. Well, f**k that!” And, in a way, this country is infected with that kind of attitude. It’s a very American thing, and there’s like half a point to what she said. The other half is that she missed out on what was good about that album if she wouldn’t even listen to it. Still, it stung a little bit when I read the review, so I asked around, and it turns out she used to have a band. Go figure. There was another guy who didn’t like that album, and he was like, “Who is this guy anyway?” I got a kick out of it. But even though those two reviewers didn’t dig it, other people really liked it. There are all sorts of different audiences out there, and all sorts of different individuals in the universe.

Why do you think you’re still able to deliver such brutal-sounding music at an age when many of your contemporaries are either exploring their softer sides, rehashing old hits, or mostly retired?
There are different choices you can make in this field when you get to a certain age. For instance, you can spend more time and energy promoting yourself either directly or indirectly through a lot of socializing, or you can submit to a reality TV show. You can also make the choice to be bald and fat and sit around and drink Jack Daniels all day. I don’t really do any of that. I’m sort of a normal, early-to-bed guy, so I have more energy available for music. Part of it is also that I still want to do this. For example, I got the record company to stick in a song called “Give Me Some Skin” on A Million in Prizes: The Anthology. It’s a thrash, speed guitar rave up with me just screaming like a crazy person. It was recorded in England at an 8-track studio in a style that reminds me of the early Who records—a really cheap, paper-thin, but very convincing sound. Now, that song has never been popular, but when I hear it, I want to do bad things! I get really excited and crazy, and I feel good in a way that is a bit menacing to society. Something adolescent comes out.

Although the record-label promotional teams would try to convince you otherwise, there really aren’t a lot of artists these days who are truly menacing and scary.
There are a lot of little garage-y bands that are trying to be unique and menacing, but the two things usually don’t come together. One problem is that the recording industry has become so sophisticated—in terms of collecting and distributing the money and studying the market—that there are great fortunes to be made very quickly from pushing the widgets. And it’s for everybody—the lawyers, the stockholders, and right down to the poor sap who manages to write something good on his guitar. It’s a more calculating time, and the people who seem to be doing the best are the ones who take an old Sting song, dust off the chorus, sample it, and get some thug who wants to clean up his drug money. It’s understandable, because it’s really hard to play music—especially loud guitar-based music—in a major U.S. city unless you have a lot of money behind you. When I was coming up in Detroit, all I had to do was work a few months as a waiter—while Ron and his brother worked in a head shop—and we collected enough money to get a little house together. You could buy a cheap guitar amp, make some noise, and get on stage with a minimal investment. Now, everything costs more, and it’s hard to get around. And then there are all the new gadgets that make it real easy to make music, and real easy to steal stuff. But, to me, actual craftsmanship has a terrific reward, and that’s what I hope will have a lasting value within our society.

Unfortunately, a lot of craftsmanship these days seems to go into making yourself sound almost exactly like currently successful bands or classic-rock groups. Innovation seems totally devalued.
There are pressures in society to remake a thing until we make some money out of it and create an industry. We are a very industrious society. The Europeans are also involved with this—although they’re a little more coy about it than we are. But this is where they come to work out their competitive fantasies. They come over here to try to break America. It’s like, “Hey, maybe the Americans will go for this. Maybe they’ll think I’m a space guy!”

I thought that about punk, too, when the neo-punks started. For a while, the critical rap on punk was that it was dead. Then it was, “Hey, wait a minute. It was good, but it failed to make money.” And then there was one band—I think it was the Offspring—that sounded kind of punk, and started making some money. And that made sense, because it was from a prosperous part of a prosperous American state. And then there were lots of those types of bands. And then there was kind of a formula: You get a really good drummer, you play really fast and hard, and you make sure the vocals aren’t threatening. That’s the big thing in American punk, now. Instead of some English guy snarling about what sh*t everything is—or me droning on about how disoriented I am—you get something a little less obnoxious and a little more endearing.

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