Sean Lennon has a story that precedes him wherever he goes. He’s the son of a Beatle and tragically lost his father, John Lennon, when he was only five years old. His mother, Yoko Ono, is one of the most prolific and visible artists of her generation. And Sean has established himself as a thoughtful, engaged, and influential artist in his own right, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator in projects that range from Cibo Matto to Yoko to his latest effort, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger.
Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger—who will kick off this Sunday’s lineup at Rock the Garden—is a collaboration with Lennon’s longtime romantic partner, Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Together, the weave together a patchwork of psych guitar washes, surreal lyrical imagery, and swirling sound collages. Their latest album, Midnight Sun, is out now.
We’re excited to see you play at Rock the Garden this weekend, which is at the Walker Art Center. I know that you’re mother has a special relationship with the Walker, and some of her pieces are on display right now, including Painting to Hammer and Nail In. Do you have a relationship at all with the Walker?
Sean Lennon: Only through my mother, because she’s the artist. That piece specifically that they have, the Painting to Hammer and Nail is quite famous because that was the piece that she had at the Indica Gallery in London in the ‘60s, which is were she met my father. So that piece has a personal significance for our family. I drew a poster for one of my mother’s rock concerts, and that wound up being in the MOMA at her new exhibit there, so I was very excited to have one of my drawings indirectly at the MOMA, but that’s the only art I’ve ever really done.
Rock the Garden is a big outdoor festival. Is there a different way that you prepare for that kind of situation, playing outside?
It’s interesting, because it took me years to get used to playing outdoors, because what happens is the sound just goes out there and doesn’t reflect back at all. And I’m used to playing small clubs where the sound bounces off the walls, so it took me a while to get used to it. Basically what you have to do is make sure that you have the drummer loud in your monitor, because if you forget to do that—I’m used to just hearing the drums in the room, but when you’re in an outdoor festival you have to plan on not necessarily hearing the person directly because the sound waves just kinda go up into the sky. It took me years to realize what I needed to get by, but now I’m kinda used to it. It is nice to be outside anyway. It’s much more pleasant.
Do you feel that there is an added pressure to maintain the audience’s attention in that kind of setting?
Every festival is different, and every festival has it’s own character and personality, and I think a lot of it has to do with the weather on that day. I played rock and roll fests in the ‘90s in Brazil and there was a tropical torrential kind of downpour during our set, and we were getting soaked, our instruments were getting soaked, and the audience probably couldn’t hear anything because it was thunder and lightning. Often I think if you’re playing just as the sun sets people tend to really be focused, but if you’re playing midday people tend to be more preoccupied with daytime activities. So it’s always different. One of the worst experiences I had was in the ‘02. I played Glastonbury, and I was really excited to play because it’s a great festival, but it was raining again, and there was so much mud that our gear got covered in mud and started malfunctioning. In fact I still have some pedals that have sand in them because they got so soaked in mud, and the mud dried into earth. I still have some gear that has the memory of Glastonbury on it. But I’m looking forward to this one. I prefer playing outside because it’s nice if the weather is good.
I want to talk specifically about this project, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Can you tell me about meeting Charlotte?
Yes, because this year we played Coachella, which was the 10th anniversary of us meeting at Coachella. I was living in L.A. and Charlotte was out there and I remember she was friends with friends of mine. We met and we hit it off right away and we watched a bit of Radiohead together I remember, and we wound up kinda hanging out that weekend and we became friends, and I guess a year or two later we started dating. But it was this 10th anniversary of us meeting, not dating. That was at Coachella.
So how soon after you began dating did you know that you wanted to try making music together?
Actually not right away, because she was sort of shy about the fact that she played music at all. We’d been dating for about maybe six months to a year when she mentioned that she’d written some songs, and I was like really? How did you not tell me that? So she played me a couple of her songs and I was really blown away and I still love those songs—these early songs that she wrote before she started really taking music that seriously. And so when I heard the songs I thought wow, we’ve gotta try writing. We wrote a song together called “The World is Made for Men,” and I actually still love the song. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve worked on. At that moment I thought we should have a project together. And it was kinda killing two birds with one stone, because it was exciting to play music with her, but it was also a good way of guaranteeing that we would actually spend time together. She was very busy. She’s always very busy doing modeling and stuff, and I was busy touring my last song record, Friendly Fire. And there wasn’t a really good prospect of seeing each other very much because I was always on tour. So we both realized if we had a project together it would sort of guarantee a certain amount of time spent together. Then cut to us having a band together and touring all over the world. I don’t think we ever planned on that happening. At first we considered it to be just this side project, but it definitely took over our lives.
Can you talk about your label, and specifically the name Chimera—how did you decide on that name?
Charlotte and my friend Yuka [Honda] and I, we started that label around that time because I was looking to get out of my major label deal. I didn’t feel like I really belonged on a major label, and also the record industry was going through a transition at that time, and it just felt like a good time to start self-publishing. The reason we liked that name is because a Chimera is an animal that’s made of many different animals, like part human, part horse, or part human, part goat or whatever. All of those animals like unicorns and Pegasus and Minotaurs, they’re all chimeras, and we felt like the three of us were kind of these very disparate personalities kind of fusing into one super organism, so we thought a chimera was a good symbol for what we were, a conglomerate of artists—a kind of artist collective.
You had previously been, before the major label, on the Beastie Boys label, right?
Yeah, Grand Royal was what my first album came out on.
Do you feel like you learned things by interacting with that artist-run label that you can apply to your own label now?
Certainly. In fact the Beastie Boys were a really big influence on all of us. So one of the main inspirations and the impetus from starting Chimera came from having seen the Beastie Boys do Grand Royal, and to this day I still think that Grand Royal is one of the coolest labels of all time. Certainly from the ‘90s it was the label for cool, hip stuff. I felt very privileged to be on that that label, to be a part of it and to see how they ran things and how different it was in terms of how they ran their label vs. the major labels, and it was very casual and artistic and open and they didn’t really have contracts. It was just like they’d sign on their napkin or something or just do handshakes, and everything was very artist-friendly. The whole purpose of the label was to support their friends and artists that they believed in and it wasn’t about commerce and capitalism. It was a really good model for us, so certain Grand Royal was a direct influence on us doing Chimera.
I’m curious to know more about your collaborative process with Charlotte. Can you tell me more about how you write together?
I think we’ve gone through a lot of different phases of what kind of writing process we utilize. At first it was just really straightforward sitting with a guitar and writing in our bedroom kind of quietly. And then she started getting really good on guitar, so at first it was me playing guitar, and then we started trading guitars, switching off. And then her piano playing started getting amazing. Then we started writing on piano together, and by the time we made the electric album, Midnight Sun, we started writing kind of jamming with drums and electric guitar, drums and bass, switching off who played what, and we started writing that way. So I think the style of songwriting had a lot to do with the ultimate result. When we started writing revolving around drumbeats and heavy distorted bass lines our music started getting more rock. At first I think our music was more intimate and quiet because we were sort of writing in a bedroom setting.
That’s interesting. I think you can definitely pick up on the collage aspect that there’s a lot of different instruments being played and that you’re even trading off who’s playing what at what time.
Yeah. She just really surprised me because she learned one instrument after the next. She became the bass player in the band and she only had like three months to learn all the parts, and within three months she was a great bass player. Like every time I would put her in front of an instrument she would get good at it surprisingly quickly.
I’m curious about working that closely on a creative project with someone that you’re in a relationship with. I know that you’ve also worked closely with your mother on music, and I think that’s something that a lot of us really can’t imagine, is having that kind of intimate creative relationship with someone that’s also that important in our personal lives. Can you talk about navigating those relationships and having these multifaceted relationships with the women in your life?
I think working with my mom from an early age is what laid the groundwork for me being able to do that with friends and people I was intimate with. I think the truth is that it’s not actually easy. It’s not like it’s a – it’s not that it’s easy because I’m close to them. It’s hard in a way. But in all those cases I think it was a reflection of me wanting to spend really quality time with somebody. Like with my mom I’d rather be making a record with her than going to a lunch or a restaurant, like going to her house and watching TV or something. It just kinda feels more superficial, so I was always looking for a way to connect with her more intimately. I think that applies to my relationship with Charlotte as well. It’s like it’s challenging because you’re sort of throwing yourself into the lion’s pit in a way because it’s exposing yourself to a lot of difficult emotional attachments and ego bruising and all that kind of stuff. So it can be hard, but the reward is worth it. So in the end that’s why we make that choice, I think. It’s because we get a lot out of it, but of course it’s really complicated at times, and especially now that it’s a professional situation and it’s not just a hobby or a side project. The pressure is more serious and the stakes are higher, but that also makes the result in the end more worthwhile because we get a lot out of it.
Do you think that being in love has changed the way that you approach making music?
That’s an interesting question. Certainly meeting Charlotte has in itself radically influenced me and changed the way I make music because working with her really opened my mind. She’s a really interesting person. And that’s not isolated to just the music, but that’s just in general. I’ve learned a lot from her, and I think we influence each other in a lot of ways. So in that way, sure, love is a huge part of my music, but on the more abstract level I think it’s true that music in a way is connected to love in general in a more philosophical sense. I think love is at the heart of creativity or something.
This also kind of an abstract question, but I found myself thinking about it as I was getting ready to speak with you. Having such a famous lineage and a story that most people feel like they “know” already. I’m wondering, when you do interviews or are just interacting with people, do you feel like people expect a certain access to you more personal or private details that they maybe wouldn’t with other people?
I’m not sure. I think I would say that people might already have more knowledge of intimate aspects of my life because a lot of my dad and mom’s story is so public. But I think in general the format of interviewing artists and musicians sort of creates a condition that I think people in general think they can ask me that they may not ask a stranger or a friend. But I think that’s true of anybody who’s being interviewed. And I think it’s part of the character of a certain kind of journalism, is to wanna get a juicy story, so you kind of put social niceties and politeness aside for the sake of getting something – getting some juicy response. I don’t think that’s specific to me. Let’s put it that way.
I wanted to talk specifically about the sound of this new record because I just love the way it sounds. It’s so pleasing to me to put on, and I do think that there are this modern crop of artists who are reclaiming this kind of psych music and doing new things with it, like Tame Impala and Flaming Lips and people that you’ve shared bills with. I’m curious–what drew you to that particular sound for this record?
It had been percolating for such a long time. I think it just had to do with what we were listening to, and it also had to do with us having had the experience of touring acoustically and just feeling really sort of held back in terms of the impact and the dynamics and the volume of everything. It’s really hard to go into a club where people are used to hearing a rock band, and playing an acoustic guitar and singing folk melodies. It’s just really hard to put on a good show. I think we felt really restrained and like we wanted to rock out, and we’d already been doing anyway, and we had a lot of recordings that were electric even when we put out the folk record, so I think it was just a natural evolution from refining our concept of how we wanted to present ourselves and what kind of music we wanted to find ourselves playing on stage.
One thing that I really enjoy about the record is there’s kind of bizarre and surreal imagery in your lyrics especially. Where do those images come from?
Our songs are obviously pretty dense lyrically and have been for some time, and I think in order to have that kind of density of surrealism you have to look everywhere. You have to look everywhere for inspiration and content, and luckily it’s a very complex and dense world we live in, so you can look anywhere and get inspiration—from the newspapers to movies to your personal life, to things that people say, to your at parties or you overhear a stranger saying or a conversation that you might have with somebody. Everything is fodder for content. You just have to look around and write things down. Some of it is vey specific, like we have a song, “Casanova”, on our new EP, and obviously we just specifically referenced his life in that song. We have a song called “Don’t Look Back, Orpheus,” which all we had to do is look to the story of Orpheus in Greek mythology. And then there’s other songs that are more about the world, like we have a song called “It’s a Brand New World Order” on the last EP we did, called “The Long Gone EP,” and that was sort of about conspiracy theories and genetic GMOs, genetic modification, cloning and all that kind of weird sci-fi science that’s running around these days. It depends on the song, but I think the world is a very exciting and complicated and bizarre and disturbing place. There’s a lot of content to be taken. You just have to look around a little bit. You just have to scratch the surface and it’s all there.
Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl perform as Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger this Sunday, June 21, at Rock the Garden alongside JD McPherson, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Babes in Toyland, and Modest Mouse. Tickets and more information are available here.