Taking Friendly Fire with Sean Lennon
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2007, Volume 14, #5
Written by Matt Parish
Eight years after garnering critical acclaim for his debut Into the Sun, Sean Lennon returned with the ambitious and deeply personal Friendly Fire. Born from first-hand loss and unrequited reconciliation, the album is dedicated to his former best friend Max LeRoy, who had an affair with Lennonís then-girlfriend Bijou Phillips. LeRoy subsequently crashed his motorcycle and died before Lennon had a chance to achieve closure, and a sense of horrific emptiness permeates the excruciatingly fragile record. The songs are very delicate, painfully precious, and dramatically insightful. A DVD of short films, one for each song, is packaged with the effort, and taken in full, it tells the story of his betrayal. Written by and starring Lennon, it chronicles this most personal of tragedies for all to see, and remarkably, it also features Bijou Phillips as the ham in his best-friend sandwich. Lindsay Lohan, Asia Argento, Jordana Brewster, Carrie Fisher, and Devon Aoki also appear in this glorious, David Lynch-like image-scape. Recently, Lennon sat down to answer a few questions about how this unique and groundbreaking endeavor came to be.
Matt Parish: Do you ever think that it was predestined that you would become a multimedia artist?
Sean Lennon: Well, when you get into a question of pre-destiny, you more or less are assuming that there is destiny at all, which Iím not sure I know the answer to. On some level, the fact that both my parents were multimedia artists definitely gave me a predisposition toward that sort of tendency. I donít know if destiny exists, but if it does, then I was destined to be a multimedia artist [laughs].
MP: Friendly Fire, with its accompanying film, is quite an ambitious project. How long did it take from conception to completion?
SL: The shooting only took 12 days because we had very limited funds and time. So, we did 12 days of shooting, then it was about editing and, because we had limited funds, it was about finding the kind of people who would edit it for us for not a lot of money. So, that actually wound up taking three to four months total, but there was a lot of time off while we were waiting for people to become available. From the beginning to the end, it was a year, but I wouldnít say we were working on it for a year. It was guerilla film-making. So, we were doing it when we could with what was available to us at different times.
MP: Was the decision to use the film to flesh out each song always a part of this project or did that come into play later?
SL: It basically happened when we had $15,000 to do a screen test for this other film that Iím working on called Coin Locker Babies with Michele Civetta, the director. Instead of wasting the money on random footage, which a screen test is ó testing cameras and film and skin tones and stuff like that ó I said, "Why donít we just write a film, something that looks like a music video, and edit it together?"
When we did the Parachute video, it took us about a day, and we did the whole thing for $1,500, or so. Once we had done that, I had realized that it was possible to do nine more and still stay within the video budget, which really surprised me because most [artists] spend about $300,000 on their videos. Well, not most people, but a lot of people with a major label deal, they spend 300 grand, and they only get one video. So, I was like, well, we could make 10 for that price, so letís just do it. Thatís where I got the idea, and then I basically just sat down with the director and told him what I wanted to do. I had an idea for every song, and we went ahead and did it.
MP: You did a great job. The texture of the film absolutely complements the CD very nicely.
SL: Thank you, I think so, too. Not everybody gets it but, yíknowÖ.
MP: You have stated that Friendly Fire was an experiment to see what it might be like to do music more publicly again. When you went ahead with that mind set, did you craft your songs differently for this album as opposed to your debut Into the Sun?
SL: Sure. I was trying to make it...to make music that was just better. Iím always trying to improve myself, but I was trying to make music that was...not intentionally difficult. My first record...I really like it, but it was definitely the result of a sort of younger attitude that I had. "This is what I think is cool, so fuck you" was the attitude. Now, I think my attitude is "this is what I think is beautiful, and I hope you do as well." I feel like something in between there is probably where Iím gonna be headed in the future.
MP: Do you think you would ever do another film with a CD?
SL: I would love to, but the music industry would actually have to still exist by the time my next record came out. I really donít know what the fuck is gonna happen. Iím having enough trouble just figuring out how to get to Japan on tour. So, in terms of where the money is for music these days, itís gone. I donít know if Iíll be able to make a film again unless, somehow, I figure out how to become monetarily successful as an artist.
MP: The arrangements on Friendly Fire are very intricate, yet they are more accessible, more pop-oriented....
SL: Well not more accessible, I wasnít trying to be difficult. Letís put it that way.
MP: A song like Tomorrow has, for me, a sound and a style that are reminiscent of, say, a í50s crooner ballad. I love the way that one is done.
SL: Well, that song definitely was modeled more after Cole Porter than it was anything else.
MP: I was going to say Sinatra.
SL: Yeah, Sinatra, sureÖ.
MP: Some of the lines written for these songs ó "well, I thought you were shallow, but then I fell in deep" from Spectacle, for example, and "take your time, but donít take mine" from Wait for Me ó are very reminiscent of your fatherís love of wordplay. Is something like that just wonderfully unavoidable?
SL: Well, I think my Dadís wordplay was more surrealistic. Mine tends to be more literal, but I actually model my wordplay after Nabakov more than anyone else. I love playing with words. I love Joyce. I like my Dadís [work]. I like puns as well...Oscar Wilde. Iím into words.
MP: Why was the Marc Bolan song (Would I Be the One) chosen? It was the only song on Friendly Fire that you didnít write.
SL: On some level, I did actually totally rewrite it, but technically you are supposed to credit it. It really has to do with this "Jewish composer" series that was done by John Zorn on his label Tzadik Records. He was doing people ó like Serge Gainsbourg and Marc Bolan ó who were famous composers that not everybody realized were Jewish. He asked me to do a cover, and he gave me that song. The budget for his record was about $400 to $500 dollars, so I recorded it on my four-track. I was never really that happy with it, but I was happy with the arrangement that I came up with. So, when it came time for putting out my second record, I really wanted to include it because I felt like it had never realized its full potential.
MP: The animation sequence for Would I Be the One really complements the song. I love the way it looks. Itís very Yellow Submarine-ish, if I may?
SL: Well itís not meant to be. It actually is modeled after this film Le PlanŤte Sauvage. It literally is. If you ever see this film, youíll realize that I was copying it. I drew the animation [sequence] myself ÖI was copying my favorite, French sci-fi [laughs].
MP: On the back of the CD, you have another one of your illustrations. It depicts what is, Iím assuming, you holding someoneís wrist. Are you holding on, or are you letting go?
SL: Itís a fine line. I donít knowÖ. I really donít.
MP: How did the band for this record come about?
SL: Basically, I knew I wanted to work with Yuka Honda and Harper Simon because theyíre just great and very close friends of mine. But, I needed a great drummer because I wanted to track live. So, my first choice was Matt Chamberlin, and he was available. That was kind of a miracle because heís incredibly busy. Once we had Matt, we just locked in 10 studio days, and that was it. We knocked out the whole thing in 10 days.
MP: The melodies on this record are so strong that they would be hits for almost anyone who would release them. You easily could have disguised these songs and made them more about a generic relationship. What made you "go for the throat" ó in this case your own ó with these very personal and cutting lyrics?
SL: Thatís just the way I am. I donít know what else to write about but my own life, really. At this point, thatís what is coming out of me. I was going through all of that, and I needed to figure it out. I needed to sort of process it in some way. So, thatís how it happened. In the future, I might start writing songs about imaginary things, but for now I tend to express myself pretty literally.
MP: Forgiveness is not only admirable but it also is an essential element of love. Has the process of writing, recording, and staging this remarkable record and film helped you to forgive?
SL: Yeah, it has on some level. It hasnít helped me to get over everything because I donít know if thatís possible. But, it definitely...I think that I expressed more feelings of anger in the music than I actually have in real life. Basically Iím just trying to use my experiences to tell a good story, yíknow? But, that doesnít mean that Iím caught up in those feelings, necessarily. I feel pretty good about my lifeÖ.
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Copyright © 2007 The Music Box