Joan Jett and The Blackhearts Bad Reputation Nation

Volume 5 Issue 3

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Blackhearts Interview

So-called 'alternative' acts may rule the radio waves, but they can't hold a candle to the excitement that mounts when Joan Jett and the Blackhearts take the stage. The band have been touring since the release of their 1994 record, Pure And Simple. Two years later, the band continues to play live dates performing new material for their hard-core audience. In between gigs, the band has been writing, rehearsing and recording material for their up-coming 1997 untitled release. In mid-July, the band started recording 20 songs with legendary producer Ted Templeman. Before hitting the road again, The Blackhearts - Tony Bruno, Thommy Price and Sean Ray Koos filled us in on the latest developments.

What's going on with The Blackhearts?

Sean Ray Koos: We've been playing around a bit and recording in Los Angeles.

Tony Bruno: We're trying to come up with the best material for our new album, and by doing so, not rushing it. We started officially about a month and a half ago out in Los Angeles with Ted Templeman. We started a while ago with Bob Rock, but we've restarted again with Ted. We've recorded about 20 songs, but I don't know how many will make the record. We've taken a break to do some shows and more writing. That's where we're at right now.

How's work coming along on the next studio record?

BRUNO: We'll probably go in the end of the summer and cut at least as many songs as we've already done, maybe 15 to 20 songs. I'm hoping that we have at least 30 songs to pick from before we even start finishing the songs like adding additional guitars and background vocals. If we have 30 songs to choose from and we pick 11 or 12 sides, it's going to be a healthy selection of tunes: the best of the best. Right now, as we speak, there has to be 10 unfinished songs, that we haven't gotten a chance to work on yet. We've just decided to take a breather and write some more songs. We hope to have another 10 songs between us, on top of the other 10 unfinished ones we already have. We can then pick the best of those, instead of just working on the 10 unfinished songs.

Thommy Price: It's still in the early stages. We're still writing and recording. It's moving along nicely. Now we have Ted Templeman producing and he's really excited about this record. We have a bunch of great new songs that we're all involved with, the whole band is writing for this new record: Sean, Tony, Joan, myself and with a little help from Kathleen Hanna. It's going along really good. Even though it's still in the early stages, we've gotten a lot of work done so far.

BRUNO: This is the only band I've ever been in that can make things happen immediately. We've gotten that response from Ted Templeman as well as Bob Rock. They were absolutely floored by how well this band works together, and how quickly and musically efficient the band is. I didn't believe this, but according to them, most bands aren't able to walk into the studio and just blast out a tune without screwing it up a couple of times. Once we have the material, we just go in and Ted says, "play this song," and we run it through. If he says, "Let's take this part here, and shorten it and let's get rid of this part and move this part over here," we'll have a five minute discussion about it and then we'll play it perfect through. Even I'm amazed sometimes that this band can play a song for six months one way and then someone makes major changes in it and we just blast through it and make it sound like we've been doing it that way the whole time. I think once we finally have the material selected that we want, it's not going to take much time in terms of the recording.

KOOS: Doing a good record does take a really long time. There's a lot of work yet to be done. I'm very enthused with what's going on. It sounds great to me. Ted Templeman really seems to be doing the right thing. I'm looking forward to it. How has Ted Templeman influenced the band? How is it different from the sides you initially cut with Bob Rock? KOOS: Ted wants to capture more of the live band and our live sound, without a lot of overdubs. He seems to be letting the band do more of what we want and just trying to capture the moment. Bob Rock does a little more overdubbing.

BRUNO: Ted is more organic than Bob is. Bob is a brilliant producer, he's one of my favorites, and I've always wanted to work with him. He tends to come from the school of layering things and listening to each phrase of the song and figuring out what goes next. Ted is more "let's talk about it, what are you trying to go for on this song?" He tries to get it with the band with minimum or no overdubs. I like that because when we play the stuff live, it sounds exact or very close to how it sounds on the record. The band gets off on it and so does the audience. That's Ted's approach. If something's not working, let's not try to fix it by adding extra guitars or effects, but rather, let's see why it's not working. The best way to put it is, as Ted views it, if you can't play a song on acoustic guitar or with just guitar and vocals, and have it get its point across, then something's not working. I've always believed in that myself. The best songs are the ones you can just sit down and play.

PRICE: The good thing about both of those guys are they are real song oriented. Both are musicians, as opposed to producers coming in and just sort of making comments and not really knowing what's going to come out of it. These guys know exactly what's going to happen and what to expect. They're both great in their own right, but different.

Whose idea was it to bring in Ted Templeman?

PRICE: It was a combination between the record company, Joan and Kenny. It just seemed like the right thing to do. When he came to us and expressed how interested he was, we really needed someone like that. We needed a new guy with some fresh ideas that we haven't worked with. When his name came up, we looked at his track record, and knew this could be a new beginning for us.

How much work has the band as a whole and individually worked with Joan on the new material?

BRUNO: I've been submitting material to her for the last year. I don't know if it's a combination of I'm finally writing the right material or she's changing a little. This album is going to take a turn in a little bit of a new direction. I'm not saying that Joan is abandoning her style, but we're taking more chances on it. Joan's started to recognize some of the stuff that I'm into and she's getting into it as well. Hopefully, between that and what the other guys are writing, we'll have a good group of songs and that it won't be a record people would usually expect from Joan Jett. This record will have a couple of surprises.

KOOS: I've written a few songs that I've submitted to Joan and Kenny. They're being considered, but I'm not really sure if we'll include any or not at this time. I've been developing songs mostly by myself and putting them down at home on a four track and sending them in. At some point we sit down with Joan and work it out for her vocals and the message she wants to get across. I can't really write for a girl or anybody else for that matter, other than for me with my viewpoint. Joan has to sit down with a song and edit it a bit. She's really good about not taking a song that was written by me or someone else and going crazy without us being there. There's at least one song that the four of us have worked on collectively that will be included on the next album.

PRICE: We're all kind of in there equally on this record.

How much input do you have in the new songs?

BRUNO: It's really hard to say, because there's one song that her and I have written together that we wrote out of nowhere. I had written a bunch of music that she really dug. Then we sat down together and wrote lyrics out on the beach. There's other songs that influenced the direction of a couple of the songs she's written. Things were I felt like this part here would be a lot hipper if she just utilized something that she does best, like riffs, instead of trying to come up with a clever melody. Just maybe use it as a music section. I think more important than what my influence is on the songs, is what seems to feel right as a band in general. We'll work on a song and when we start to play it, we'll know right then and there if it's happening or not. I think that I at least add an element of unexpected: my approach to music is more like, what would people not expect here. A lot of times she really digs that.

KOOS: I definitely write the bass parts for all the songs. We'll run a song down a few times and I come up with what I think is right for the song and if anybody has any other opinions, I listen to that. Everybody in the band has liberty to work their own parts out, as long as it does the song justice.

What it's like writing with Joan? How does it compare with other artists you've been involved with?

KOOS: I haven't written too much for other artists, except in a hired situation. In my bands, I was always the writer of songs. So this is new for me. Like I've said, I've done things for hire, but that basically works with someone paying me money and either they like it or they don't. There really isn't any sitting down together and editing things or what have you, it either works or it doesn't. I've done a lot of that and some jingle type stuff. I've also done some work with recording artists who don't write their own songs.

BRUNO: Joan is very methodical about what she does, but she's also very instinctive. She's really cut-and-dried about things. If something is not hitting her, it's very obvious and apparent. She doesn't even have to tell you, you can see it. Whereas some other artists may entertain an idea and not be quite as honest, she's genuine and true to herself. When you start working on something, if she's not getting it or it's not doing anything for her, that's it, she can't lie to herself. I really respect that because I'm the same way. I hate having to patronize someone because I'm afraid I might hurt their feelings. When we do come up with a positive idea, Joan is really methodical about what she needs to do. If she thinks she needs to come up with lyrics for one section first before she moves on to the next one, then that's what she has to do, because for her, she needs to hear that section go into the next section. So unless it's complete, it's better for her to do it the way she's used to doing it. That's fine because it's easier to work with somebody who has a pattern or way of doing things that you recognize rather working with someone who's all over the place.

PRICE: Joan is a lot more open-minded than some of the people I've worked with. There hasn't been a lot of people that I've been involved with as far as writing wise. I've played on a lot of records, but I just played. I haven't really been involved with the writing process that much besides my own record that Kasim and I put out in 1987, called Price/Sulton. That's the only record that I've had 50% of the writing, Kasim and I wrote equal amounts of stuff on that record.

You've all mentioned that the new material is not traditional Blackhearts stuff. Could you describe the new sound?

PRICE: I think it's different from the stuff she's done in the past. One or two may sound like Blackhearts formula, but there may be a new twist in it, lyric-wise, guitar sound, or a certain background thing we may be doing. The new stuff has Blackhearts written all over it, but there's a handful of songs that you probably wouldn't expect from us. We're fooling around with a lot of new untouched territory that no one has heard yet. It's going to be really exciting to play live.

BRUNO: It has all the elements of a Joan Jett record in terms of the fire power with the guitars, drums and her voice. She's not trying to do anything trendy with her voice or anything like that, but I think in terms of arrangements and maybe instrumentation, I think that it's going to be a little bit more interesting to listen to. As songs, you won't know the song after the first minute and a half, you won't really know what's going to happen next, like it's going to go into a solo, then this, or that. There's some cool twists in the songs that come from a number of different directions. Everyone's really into experimenting at this point.

KOOS: I can't say that it's traditional Joan Jett, because it's definitely going in new directions for her. It's Joan in the 90s. It's a little out there, nothing extreme, but really good.

Which of the new songs do you like best?

KOOS: "Naked" is great! I love that tune. It's a fantastic song!

BRUNO: I like "Five" a lot. There's one song that nobody's heard yet called, "Kiss On The Lips," which is going to be killer song. Right now, those are my favorites.

PRICE: It's hard to say which is my favorite, they're all great! There's a lot of songs that we've recorded, that we're not playing yet. "Watersign" is a song I like playing live because it's totally different from what we do. "Naked," and "Five" are two other great songs I like playing live. The rest are still in the early stages and we haven't played them live.

How has the audience been reacting to the new stuff?

PRICE: They LOVE the new material. They really, really like it a lot. It's great to go out there with brand new songs and play them to ears that haven't heard them before. When someone who has never heard a song before reacts at the end of the song just as much as they react to "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" or "I Hate Myself For Loving You," that's when we know we've got something good.

KOOS: I know when my friends come to see the band, they're just knocked out by some of the new tunes, especially "Naked." "Naked" is real popular and "Five" is a real crowd pleaser too.

BRUNO: The more we like the new material, the more enthusiasm we have about the songs translates to the audience and they pick up on that. It goes back to the whole thing of being honest with yourself. I don't think this band would ever go on and play a new song that we thought was lame. We feel strong enough about the new stuff that we're playing that we want to take it to the next level, to the level where we've played it a bunch of times and it's really great or just good and needs some work. I have to say that all the stuff we've put in the set, which is probably about five new songs, have gone over really well, especially "Five." That song has taken on a whole new attitude since we first learned it. When we first started playing it six months ago, it was a good song, but it seemed more like a bunch of parts, that ran concurrent. But from playing it after a while, little subtle changes made a huge difference. Also, Joan's more comfortable singing it because she has the lyrics memorized, plus I have a lot to sing in that song, which I'm not used to doing. The song has that kind of Gary Glitter vibe to, it also has elements that a lot of other songs don't have. A lot of material we have, especially on the last record, was still basically very root oriented, 1, 4, 5 rock. It was very basic chord structures, but "Five" is not an average song with the way the chords are structured, it's really different. That's what makes it fun on stage.

Joan appears to have a lot more freedom with the new material, she's not playing rhythm guitar on all the new songs. Is this something that was intended when the songs were originally conceived?

BRUNO: She made the decision on that, I don't even know why that is. When we first did "Friend To Friend," we demoed it at my house. I played guitar and second guitar on the demo and she came over and sang the song. Then I said, "Joan, why don't you do your guitar part and she was like, "No, it's fine for now, it's a demo." I don't know what happened, she just decided she didn't want to play guitar on that song. I think she really likes songs like that and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," where she doesn't have to play guitar. That's one of the things that I was talking about before when I said she's changing. When I first got into the band four years ago, I didn't think there was a chance of her not holding her guitar. Both Joan and I consider her to be a rhythm guitar player and singer. For her not to hold a guitar was just unheard of, but now, if she doesn't feel like playing guitar on a song, or the song doesn't need it, she looks at it as being fun for her. She really makes the most of it by getting in the audience's face, which is great. "Androgynous" is like that. The first time we recorded it, it was completely acoustic. We've done a few other versions of it, but regardless of where it ends up musically, I don't think live, we'll never end up playing it any different than we do now. It's not the kind of song I see Joan playing on guitar, I think she's more comfortable just getting into the words, because the lyrics are brilliant in that song. We'll see how many more songs that happens with, but I don't imagine it will happen a lot, but Joan knows when it's right for her to do that.

There seems to be a lot of communication going on between the band. When you're playing live, what are you saying to each other?

BRUNO: Usually things that weren't supposed to happen. The audience probably doesn't realize half of the time. I don't want to call them mistakes, sometimes they are, but more times they're not. There are instances that go on during the night that you think you've ironed out during soundcheck. Sometimes nights go completely smooth, and sometimes everything just seems to want to go wrong. You have to laugh and talk about it because if you just sit there and get angry about the monitor or sound guy, that can be very obvious to the audience. It comes off like we're just having a short conversation on stage, and sometimes we just talk about things we may want to change. When somebody gets a little idea on stage, we'll walk up to the other person and say, "Hey, do this in this section over here." Communication like that is kind of fun because it's keeps the set flowing better and it keeps it more spontaneous, especially with the new material. It gives us the opportunity to progress one step further before we finally record it. One of the things we've been very adamant about is writing songs and not going right into the studio and recording them. We've been playing them out because of things like that. You never know what's going to happen to a song. For example, the song "Naked" that we're doing, if you heard the first recording of it that we did with Bob Rock and then you listen to it now, I don't want to say it's two different songs, but it's definitely two different attitudes completely. That's the reason we're trying not to rush in and finish the album. We probably could material-wise, but the material would be getting the short end of the stick. Sometimes when somebody has an idea or a change it may happen at rehearsal, or it might happen in the middle of the song and shit, I don't care, I'll walk over to Sean and say "Hey, put a B flat in this section for a second." I won't have to discuss it with Joan because it's just an experiment and sometimes they work and other times they don't pan out. Maybe Joan or Thommy will turn around and say, "What the hell was that?" It's just a good way of finding out if something works or not.

PRICE: The band is at a point where the eye contact says more than anything else we could say to each other on stage. We've been playing together for so long, especially Joan and I. Joan can look at me without saying a thing and I know exactly what she's going to do and what I have to do. We might laugh at a few things that happen, but it's all in fun.

KOOS: FUN, FUN, FUN! That's all I can say. We really enjoy playing together. Every moment I'm on stage with this band, I'm just ecstatic! It's the most fun I've ever had in band. I think we can all say that we really enjoy playing together. Honestly, I've been in a lot of bands during my life and this is really a comfortable situation. I've been in so many bands where there's a tension between players or people moving in different directions musically, and that really tears you apart. Everyone here is moving in the same direction, so it's easy.

Does the band hang out when you're not working?

KOOS: Tony and I are really good friends. That's how I got in the band, from knowing him. We work in a lot of other projects together, little acoustic things and what have you, so we hang out a bit. When we're on the road, we all tend to go out together too.

PRICE: Absolutely. We're friends, it's not like we disappear and the only time we see each other is when we're on stage. I know there's a lot of bands that are like that, totally business, but we make it a point to see each other a lot. We do a lot of hanging out together, we're a band and we're a gang of people who are always together.

BRUNO: Sean and I are really good friends. We hang out the most and live pretty close to each other. When we're on the road, we all sort of hang out at different times. Joan doesn't go out and party because she has to protect her voice and alcohol is the worst thing for your voice. She's really into taking care of herself. I'll hang out with her during the daytime. We'll hang out and see things, the other guys are more into hanging and going out at night. I like to go out and see things especially when we're overseas, so Joan and I will constantly go and do things like that. To give you a good example when the whole band really hung out was when we were in Australia. We had two weeks on the Gold Coast and we all had apartments right on the water and it became this little commune where every morning we would all meet in someone's apartment for breakfast. It was really domesticated and very cool. I've never experienced that with a band before. Usually there's at least one guy who's anti-social or too hung over the next morning to participate. This band was having breakfast at 8:00 in the morning and going out on the beaches. It was a good experience and I think this is something that Joan has needed for some time, four people who actually get along really well and like each other and have fun with one another. When it comes to getting serious and making music, it's easy to do when it's not the only common thread between you.

What do you see as your role in The Blackhearts, both as player, and in the personality of the band?

BRUNO: As a player, I sort of became the person who can really verbalize some of the ideas and put them into words for the other members. This is more kind of like speaking when Kenny (Aaronson) was in the band, up until we got Sean, who is musically literate. When Joan would have an idea and she had a hard time expressing it rather than just playing it, it was really easy for me to weed out what she was doing and put it into musical terms and explain it to the other guys who may not have gotten it. That happened when we did "Go Home" on the last record. Joan had the music down, but when she was playing it, it was hard to understand what the hell was going on and what the timing was. So I sort of became the person to figure it out and explain it in musical terms. Joan is all instinct. She's not a person who likes to get into all the technical jargon. In terms of personality, I think I'm the comic relief in the band. It's something that just sort of happened. I've always had a sort of clown mentality about things and I try to keep things not so serious all the time. As it's turned out over the past year and a half, I've also become a resource for musicians. When we replaced Kenny (Aaronson), I was the guy who found Sean. He's in a group of people that I hang out with and as it turned out, it's one of the best things I've ever done. He's the perfect balance in the band. We needed somebody who could sing background. Laguna was doing a lot of background vocals with us, but that was a strain on him. It was insane and for the longest time I said: "we have to get someone who sings in this band."

PRICE: I think we've finally hit it and settled into a personnel. We've been looking for a third guy for a long time. We've gone through a certain amount of people as far as being able to sing and play, and we've always had to settle, but Sean has it all. Since Kenny (Aaronson) was such a good bass player, even though he didn't sing, we sort of overlooked it. But we needed to make a change. I always felt we needed someone who was like us: someone who was sort of into the same music, looked the same, played great and had a voice. We needed some new blood in the band to give us a spark again. I think we lost that along the way and were going through the motions. When Tony brought Sean in, and I heard him play and sing, I just thought, "Wow, this is the guy we've been looking for all these years. This is perfect." That gave us, as a band, a new beginning, a fresh start. We knew that this change could do it. The band is that much better now. Musically, this band is the best it's ever been. We have that gang spirit. I feel like we're finally there. Sean gave us that extra spark.

BRUNO: It was easy for me to find Sean, because I know so many people who do everything, play a lot of instruments and sing. All the musicians I know are people who do a lot of work, playing a lot of different instruments. They are really some well- rounded musicians because that's all they do and it's easier for them to find more work that way.

KOOS: My job as the bass player in the band is to come in and do whatever is best for the tunes. It's not really a glory position as such, but I'm real happy with my role in the band. I'm kind of like the punk guy that's really put an edge on the band since I've been in it.

Sean, what did you think it would be like when you joined The Blackhearts? How did it compare to the reality? What didn't you expect?

KOOS: I don't think I had any expectations. When I joined I didn't know what it would be like, but I've said this previously, that The Blackhearts have always been one of my favorite bands and Joan is one of my favorite performers. It's really been a thrill playing with her. I'm totally happy in the band. The shows seem to be going great and I'm very enthused about the recording. I'm just like I was the first day I joined the band, very happy to be here. What influences do you bring to the stage with you, both musical and otherwise?

KOOS: Musically, my gig in the band is to drive eighth notes up your ass! I'm the bass player and I just want to be part of it. Thommy and me putting a heavy rhythm section behind Joan and Tony is all I'm concerned about. I know I'm never going to be the greatest bass player on earth and God knows I don't want to be. My job is to keep the rhythm section pumping and that's all I focus on. I don't think my influences matter a lot, I just think there's a job to be done and I know what the job is and I do it well. Other than that I don't know...I'm a fun guy!

PRICE: I'm influenced by a small number of people playing-wise, but I don't bring that to the stage. I think I have my own space in this business and that I've made my own impression and niche a long time ago. When people hear me on records other than Joan's, they know who's playing drums. But it's not like someone would be out there saying, he sounds like exactly like Keith Moon or Dino Delnelli. I sound like me. My influences are Keith Moon and Dino Delnelli, but I don't bring it to the stage, those two guys are in my heart, but that's as far as it goes. It might mix in with my playing unconsciously, but that's the way it comes out of me. But I don't consciously think, this would be a great song for a Keith Moon fill.

Because of the success of "Love Is All Around," has there been any pressure from the record company to rush release this album?

BRUNO: No one was really counting on riding the wave of "Love Is All Around." It would have been nice, but it would have been impossible to catch the tail end of that and a huge mistake for us. That would have been rushing a record for the sake of a two and a half minute song, that may or may not have been a hit. The record company has been very supportive of us. Right now, we're in the position where all we have to do is make the right record and we're going to be home free. They're completely behind the band and it seems to be the right moment for Joan. We had a lucky hit with "Love Is All Around." It just came out of nowhere. Rather than trying to jump on that, we're looking at it as people are really ready for this band to come out with the right record. They really embraced that song so quickly, and if we come out with a record that has a first single that is just as appealing to people, it's going to be our time. I think that song was a sign that people aren't going to say, "Oh Joan Jett, she's yesterday's news." She's nowhere near that, especially when you can put out a song like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show Theme," and have people go nuts over it.

PRICE: The record company wants us to take our time and do a great record. We've got the head guy, Ted Templeman, producing the record. When he feels it's right, it will come out. There's absolutely no pressure.

What's the plan for the next few months?

PRICE: Well, we're going to finish this record. We've got some dates we're going to do in between to keep everything fresh. The thing we like to do is play the new songs live and then go into the studio and record them. What happens a lot with bands, is they record brand new songs, then take them out and play them live. While they're out on tour, they might be adding a little bit here and there, or take out a little bit, so by the end of the tour, the song's really going and they're saying to each other, "Shit, I wish we would have recorded it the way we're doing it now." What we like to do is take those new songs and throw them in the set, work out the bugs and then go in and record. That's why we're not kicking ourselves in the ass at the end of our tours saying, "We should have done this or that."

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