Monday, September 14, 2009

Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) interview


If Concrete Blonde had have been the fully fledged goth band in frilly sleeves they were often painted as, maybe they could have broken through commercially. Then they could’ve gotten on with pretending to be vampires and stealing fans off The Cure until they turned into a parody. The truth of Concrete Blonde however is far greater than their misconstrued image. In their first incarnation (1984-1994) they released five albums veering wildly through many different styles; peaking commercially on 1990’s reflective Bloodletting album and finishing on 1993’s flamenco-influenced Mexican Moon. Guiding the Californian trio was a passionate, raven-haired Italian-American named Johnette Napolitano. Totally uncompromising creatively and with a head for business, she was always destined to be passed over in a town hungry for the next big thing eager to sign on the dotted line.

The singer has imposed on herself a colossal work load - the kind that comes from knowing no other way to do things. Today, even as we speak Johnette is running between her home studio in Joshua Tree – where she has been pouring song ideas out into her personal recorder – and LA to master the new works for the third installment of her Sketchbook projects. These albums have been made independently and released through her website; “I’m more conscious of how people buy music now,” Johnette explains, “I wanted to offer something a little more so these CDs are going to be signed limited editions instead of just selling individual songs for 99cents.” There will be a major release next year, but for now Johnette is happy not dealing with labels. “It’s just that there are hardly any dudes in the business that you can just hang with and talk to.” She says, “It’s rare to find people who aren’t jaded by the business, and still love music. I’ve walked away so many times because I didn’t want to just churn out the music that somebody else thought we should be making. It has to mean something to me or else what’s the point?” Walking away sometimes meant from her band as well, Concrete Blonde fell apart in the mid-90s, weighed down by personal problems and malfunctioning relationships.

The second incarnation of the band (2001-2004) happened in the strangest of circumstances. During 2001 Johnette was plagued by horrific nightmares and an impending sense of doom which ultimately led to a frantic hunt for her former band mates. “I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I was going to die and if that was going to happen then I was determined to finish what we had started as a band.” Johnette explains in chilling conviction, “I thought I wouldn’t see those guys again and we didn’t end on a particularly great note the first time so it was my wish to make it right with them.” As she describes the realization that her visions were a prelude to 9/11, the subject of Johnette’s ‘gift’ (she is a spirit medium) opens up. “I have never had such a vivid ‘warning’ before or after that period in my life. It was so extreme and I kind of cracked for a time because of these visions coming through of people falling from skyscrapers and mothers running from falling buildings with babies in their arms.” Despite some gruesome ‘information’ from the other side, Johnette maintains very pragmatic view of her gift. “Spirits make themselves known to me I think because sometimes these people need to feel connected to the living world for various reasons. You know, my father died recently and his presence was so strong just as it had been when he was alive, and so I took a lot of photos there in his house because I was so sure he would show up in them.”

Johnette’s father John Napolitano was an Italian builder working in Hollywood who hadn’t known what to make of his daughters musical career until a chance meeting with one of his idols. “My father built a pool at the house of Robert Cray (blues guitar legend) and my dad absolutely loved Cray’s music. One day Robert brought out an interview with me in the local press and asked my father about me and my band, and I think my dad just went ‘Oh wow Robert Cray knows who my daughter is, holy shit!’, and I think that was the first time my dad really acknowledged what it was I was doing. I’ll always be grateful to Robert for that.”

Any obvious gothic overtones in Napolitano’s work seem trite to mention, but Johnette’s eye is cast over all of her own and Concrete Blonde’s visual output, and the recurring theme of skeletons visible through the skin in her artwork and videos reveals a surprising foundation. “I’m from LA and there’s always been a strong Mexican influence there which meant a lot of traditions also remained like the El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) where people leave gifts of bread, liquor and cigarettes for the dead souls. I loved that they celebrated the spirit instead of mourning over the body.” Johnette elaborates, “The other thing that really cemented my interest came during the time we toured in Paris and I visited the catacombs underneath the city where the walls are just lined for miles with human bones and there are huge chandeliers and artworks made from hundreds of skulls.” Johnette continues breathlessly, “The overwhelming thing about it all was that there’s no black, white, male, female, gay, straight - it’s just endless rows of bones and that profoundly changed my outlook on everything. It really doesn’t matter you know dude, getting so caught up in each others physical differences when at the end of your life, your body just becomes this piece of rubbish, indistinguishable any other one.”

Recently Johnette moved to Joshua Tree – a Californian desert town – from her Hollywood birthplace. Despite the world famous city’s soulless reputation, Napolitano speaks affectionately of her Hollywood; “You have to remember I was born there, I didn’t get on a bus and go there to become famous.” She adds with some infectious laughter, “The Hollywood I know is Spanish and Italian immigrants, the old Mafia suburbs and tattoo parlors, where to go and how to get shit if you don’t speak English and of course, where to get the best pizza.” One Spanish immigrant in particular struck a chord with Johnette, the surrealist’s surrealist Salvador Dali, whom she pays tribute to on the track Riding The Moon from her new Sketchbook 3 CD; “Dali to me was an anarchist in his art and his life, and that’s such a beautiful thing to see. He knew how to communicate with and capture children’s imaginations in particular. Children have this really surreal view of the world which we all eventually lose, but Dali was somehow able to hold onto that all through his life.”

Johnette herself is a sculptor active in the Joshua Tree arts community where the one rule is materials from the local area only are to be used in the works as way of keeping a very old tradition alive. “When the Indian natives were in this area, they would live in the same place for generations and everyone from young children to the elderly made sculptures from whatever was available in their settlement. No one really traveled away from their community so these artworks were such a huge part of their identity.” It was her strong, arresting guest vocal on the Andy Prieboy song, Tomorrow Wendy that Australia really identified Johnette with in the early days. Although it was not a Concrete Blonde song, the cult hit forged a decent enough path for Johnette’s band to walk when they decided to focus on Australia as their first international destination to tour. “I really didn’t know what to expect going there. I do remember clearly walking around St Kilda at about four in the morning thinking how European it all looked.” She adds; “Plus Melbourne has a lot of Italians there, so I kind of felt at home!”

On this tour, her first visit in over a decade, Johnette will present a more stripped back affair. “I’ll be playing bass and guitar, while my ‘monster drummer’ Gabriel Ramirez keeps the beat.” She adds, laughing; “We’re calling ourselves Not Quite The White Stripes!” Ramirez played drums in Concrete Blonde 2002-04. “We’ve developed this sort of musical telepathy which has really come from playing together for years. He’s definitely my favourite person to play with.” This tour will only include Melbourne and Sydney because of Johnette’s commitments to several other music projects, most notably a tribute album to Morphine lead singer Mark Sandman who died on stage during their 1999 tour. “That’s just been completed,” Johnette tells me excitedly, “It’s me and Jim (Mankey – Concrete Blonde guitarist) and Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick bassist). Tom just ripped it up man, he was such a cool guy!” Their cover of Morphine’s Buena will be released as Concrete Blonde featuring Tom Petersson, but a full Blonde reunion is not on the cards. “If it happens it happens, but at the moment I’m kind of bored with even talking about it.” She adds with a final burst of machine-gun laughter; “I don’t ever plan stuff like that!”

Johnette was simply wonderful to talk to. She agreed to do two interviews (This is a composite of both) because her father had just died and she was still fairly raw during our first talk. Not only is she an amazing singer, she's got this rare, totally infectious energy just flowing out of her. A captivating speaker and easily my favourite so far.


You can follow Johnette's activities and buy exclusive music directly from her official site, here: Full


  1. yeah johnette rocks!

  2. Thanks, that was a great article. I saw Concrete Blonde at the Metro in Melbourne in the 80's and they were awesome. I have had Bloodletting as the only CD in my car stereo for the past year and my 8 and 10 year old kids love it... The Beast is our favourite!

  3. Thanks, I'm pleased you enjoyed it. I still rate Johnette as one of the greatest artists out there. I'm a bit jealous you got to see Concrete Blonde in their heyday... there's actually a rumour going around that they're coming back this year some time! I really rate The Beast highly also, plus The Sky Is A`Poisonous Garden and Bloodletting are stand-outs. So brilliant that your kids are into her too! ;-)

  4. I am a huge CB fan and have been for many years. Most articles miss the fact that they have been an ongoing band since 1982 pre CB and were once called Dream 6, they also released a single called "Heart Attack" under the name Dreamers on a D.I.Y. album. It wasn't until later in time that the band got the name Concrete Blonde form Michael Stipe who just so happened to be on the I.R.S. label around the same time. I too have been lucky enough to have not only seen CB but meet the whole band. I recall the jokes that Jim was telling me and my friend/ guitarist at the time. I love and cherish this band of artistic musicians and am blessed to have meet and befriended them all. <3 I will forever be a Cement Head...(Term for a life time fan)

  5. Hello, my name is Darren Barakat, and I am writing a book about great underrated rock n roll songs. I would like to use about a 60-word quote from this interview in my book. Please let me know if that would be OK.