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Pistol Swap

The only thing shocking about Johnny Rotten these days is the fact that the notoriously smarmy Sex Pistols singer sounds like a finger-wagging grandpa at times. But c'mon, how's Rotten going to scandalize anymore, now that swearing at people while spouting inflamed rhetoric is the stuff of navy-suit network news?

Once known as one of the more difficult, confrontational front men around, this reputed nightmare interviewee is just about the most agreeable, chatty bloke imaginable. No inflexible refusals, no hang-up. But don't believe for a second that this punk has settled down. New Times: Considering your reputation and all, we'll start by asking what you don't want to talk about.

Johnny Rotten: What is my reputation? You tell me. I guess the biggest one is that I'm difficult to work with. That's because I do have standards. I won't put out cack or rubbish. I've never made records just for the sake of making them. If I don't feel I'm in a creative mood, I won't do it. That's why I'm seen as a problem in the music industry. I stopped that when I started my own studio years back, here in my house.

NT: You just record yourself?

JR: Yes. That way I don't have to face those ridiculous demands like, "Well, we'd like two hit singles on the album." What the fuck is a hit single but a load of promotion money -- and recoupable, at that? I'm not paying a record company to put me at No. 10. I don't need it.

NT: You don't need it? You're doing all right, at this point.

JR: Well, yeah. You know, you sell what you sell. But I'm not in this for the multimillions. Everyone I know in this industry who's made a fortune is incredibly unhappy -- lonely, isolated, lost and confused. Money doesn't bring you happiness, it brings you jealousy from everyone around you. I've never been in the industry. We don't need the industry. This is the Pistols here, and we don't have a label, for fuck's sake. Who cares!

NT: Yeah, you don't have a "best of" out, or anything. And this tour kind of came out of nowhere. I guess you can't be blamed for jumping on the neo-punk bandwagon, like you were accused of during the last tour [1996], since that whole trend is gone. Why tour again?

JR: Well, last year we did a Jubilee thing in London. So much red tape and negativity was raised against us playing there that it raised an eyebrow. So off our own backs and independently, we rented what was a derelict, Olympic-sized stadium in Crystal Palace, set it up ourselves, and filled it with 30,000 people. There are as many disenfranchised people in America, too. So, just 12 shows for this tour -- and according to the agency, that's all we can get. That's enough. I've got too many things going on, anyway. This tour's short, sharp, simple, sweet. Low ticket price, no huge, elaborate stage designs. All costs cut. I want to get down to the nitty gritty. That's part of my life I can't get in other bands. This is the Pistols, and this is our little thank you to the disenfranchised.

NT: Ever talk about recording new songs?

JR: All the time, but who would that be for? Internet train-spotters? If we do, we do, but it would happen au naturel. But I'm not going to promise anything. Besides, in the middle of all this, I'm making my solo album.

NT: You're putting that out on your own label?

JR: Yeah, there's many ways. I don't see it working out with a label. I think big record labels have had it. The greed over MP3 file sharing is annoying! If you can hear a record on the radio, why can't you hear it on the Internet, right?

Do you know how much money a record company makes on a recoupable advance? That's the biggest bill they hit you with. You have to pay for that promotion. They make a fortune out of you. The Internet reduces the need for any of that. That's too big a business for the labels to lose.

Anyway, I'm really proud of my new solo stuff. It's like dance music -- if you've got a body like a sack of potatoes. I'm working on a book about [Public Image Ltd., a storied post-Pistols band]. Then a serious debate book. Anything to have a row with Bill O'Reilly. I'd love to put that idiot in his place.

I also DJ at soul clubs, under different names, because it tends to get judged against me, like, "Oh, that Rotten's trying to get into dance music." Hello -- know my history, mate? I probably fucking invented dance music with PIL.

NT: With everything you do, you always say how important it is to move forward. How is reuniting the Pistols moving forward?

JR: After the Pistols broke up, yes -- I was pretty damn disgusted. I was left penniless and had to fight a really serious court case against me. So I went ahead with PIL, and I didn't want to look back. But after I put out my book, I looked at it and thought, what the fuck? Why should I be ashamed or embarrassed, or run away from what is me? But getting back together, it would have to be fucking new.

NT: And how is it new?

JR: Look, we're four very volatile personalities. We're very definite about our likes. I'm not going to sit down and discuss, "Well, how can we make this one sound different?" When we originally wrote those songs, we had nothing in mind.

NT: Well, maybe an Alice Cooper or New York Dolls song.

JR: No, fuck no. I was a bloody reggae DJ, for fuck's sake!

NT: You never had one of those life-changing live-concert experiences?

JR: Yeah, Hawkwind, Neu, Can -- all that German stuff. Turkish, Irish folk music. Reggae especially, because that's what I grew up on. I didn't realize reggae was a black or white thing until way later.

NT: But again, how is this reunion new?

JR: Well, like with the Pistols then and PIL, when we got ourselves into corners, too angled into one direction -- then it's time to stop. But the live stuff is live, and who knows what happens live! Anyone who expects us to be note-perfect from the record is missing the point.

NT: Got anything to say about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

JR: Huh, the Hall of Shame? I wouldn't give a toss about it. A few years back, while I was doing Rotten T.V. , there was a suggestion I go out there and tape an episode. See, they have some lyric sheets up that they say are mine. And they're not! The phone call to them went something like, "I'm sorry, but our sources are irrefutable." But I'm Mr. Rotten, and they are not mine! So how on Earth would I think they'd give us any credit? It's a joke. It's a third-rate Disney commodity.

NT: Is it ever strange to you that it sometimes seems like the kind of anger-as-motivation ideas you have promulgated have filtered down to the whole lame, "extreme"/mook metal/candy-punk stuff on the radio today?

JR: It's professional angst. It's rubbish -- it sells shoes. Those bands aren't saying or doing anything that is in any way relevant. Any attention they get is usually because of a drug bust. And that whole world based on the Sid Vicious heroin thing is so fucking sad. Those people should be ignored. They're selfish losers. I don't know what philosophy they think they're following, but punk was never about uniforms, rules, or blind obedience to some negative isolationism. And if you're going to judge me because I don't have a Mohawk, well, hello -- I never fucking did have a Mohawk!

NT: Do you think the whole Internet/stay-at-home music discovery will kill ideas of music as being a communal thing?

JR: Well, you can't really get communal with gangster rap, can you? Yapping on about raiding the Korean store and shooting people and how many bitches you've got. Fuck that! Why do you want to listen to people yelling that kind of shit at you?

NT: Some would draw an attitudinal line from old punk to rap.

JR: Maybe. I would connect more to Jay-Z. No, Public Enemy or Tupac. But Tupac was a bit fake. What's that Juilliard School he went to? That's all right; we all suffer a little.

NT: So you live in L.A. now. What's the difference between Americans and Brits?

JR: People here are much more open, more friendly. Irony isn't understood, though. Canadians don't quite get it, either. If you're getting irony from the Canadians, you might as well not have it.

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Eric Davidson