Interview by Jason GrossAs much as I loved her albums, I didn't know quite what to expect when meeting Lene Lovich. Having been instantly attracted to her weiro hit from 1978/9, "Lucky Number," her wild fashions, her wonderfully goofy, child-like music, I couldn't help but wonder what she would be like in person. After a string of late '70's, early '80's albums for Stiff, she seemed to disappear, briefly popping back in 1990 and then only reappearing recently with a new album, Shadows and Dust (perfect for any upcoming Halloween celebrations or spooky evenings), and her first stateside shows in quite a while. Not wanting to squander this opportunity to interrogate her, I made arrangements for lunch with her publicist, later realizing that Lene had a history of supporting animal rights causes- as such, I thought a vegetarian restaurant would be best. Arriving with her husband and longtime collaborator Les Chappell, she was as stunning as ever to look at, with her long braids tied up under a large scraf. And she was a really sweet person to boot- in all of the photos I'd ever seen of her, she always looked so stern so I didn't know what I expect when I met her (as you can see in the interview below, she laughed a lot about her own life). In between mouthfuls of our lunch, we chatted about how London and New York are both getting more and more gentrified, making it harder and harder for artists to survive in either place. Luckily, she and Les were smart enough to move out to the country long ago. My one regret that I had later was that I never asked her about the famous story of how she managed to track down Salavador Dali back in her student days. Luckily, her publicist confirmed this later with her: "Lene did indeed meet Dali at his house in Spain many years ago."
Special thanks to Chris Good, Mike Thorne and Stefanie Shapira.
PSF: Could you talk about the music that you heard when you were growing up?
Well in my house, we didn't have a lot of music. We really just had basically three or four records. One was "March Slav" by Tchaikovsky and (laughs) one was "Molasses" by Spike Jones and the other one was "Bali Ha'i" from the soundtrack to South Pacific. So, mix that with a little bit of early Motown and that's pretty much my musical influences.
PSF: You have a Yugoslavian background?
Yes, on my father's side of the family. My mother's English.
PSF: Do you think that had any bearing on you?
Well, I wonder if it does. I did actually do a hypnosis regression experiment that wasn't very pleasant so I don't recommend it. Apparently, this is quite normal, that a lot of your most unpleasant memories are very close to the surface and the nicer ones are kind of tucked away in the back. So anyone who does that is likely to tune into something really quite tragic. So, not a good idea...
PSF: You moved away from America to England in the '60's, when you were young. How was that experience for you?
It was a tremendous relief because there was a lot of family upheaval. My mom ran away from my dad so there were personal family problems. Also, I lived in quite a... heavy, violent area of Detroit so there was a lot of unpleasant things going on there. And so it was a tremendous relief. England did seem to be a step back in time, much more relaxed, happier.
PSF: What did you think of the music when you came there?
It was really quite exciting. In America, it seemed to be mostly solo artists that you were hear on the radio. But then, quite soon after I got there, some bands started to play and they were young bands. In the past, I don't know, it just seemed to be like older people on the radio all the time, for years. (laughs) Very good but just not of our generation.
PSF: Where there any artists who caught your imagination then?
Dusty Springfield. I know she's not a group but she had a big influence on me. (laughs) Groups like the Animals, eventually the Rolling Stones. And then later on, some of the more progressive stuff like Led Zeppelin. Also bands that are not so hard rock like, later on, the Incredible String Band and also Pink Floyd but early Pink Floyd- I lost track of them half way through their career. I got sort of distracted on to other things.
PSF: You also worked as a busker. What was that like?
You know, it's a great way to start because if you can't play a instrument, you got to start somewhere (laughs). I also worked in hotel bands so I played like five hours a night. And we had to do a full range of music from pre-dinner music to bossa nova's and all that kind of thing.
PSF: That's when you were playing saxophone?
Yes, mostly. I mean I couldn't playing very well. For the most part, I was probably just a bit of stage decoration. (laughs) But it was a good start and I learned a lot.
PSF: You also went to art school around that time.
When I left high school, I really wanted to be a doctor or go to art school and be an artist. Because my education was a bit mixed up with all the upheavals, with the family life and moving to the country, I didn't do so well at school. So I went for art school. I was quite disappointed when I got there. I thought it would be a wonderful free place where you could just really... look into your mind and use all the ammunition that you've got there. But at the time, it was very restricted and only if you did work like the tutors did, then you could have any kind of success. They didn't like the kind of work that I was doing, which was fairly figurative and it was abstract sculptures that was my thing. I enjoyed welded, I really did- I wanted to make things out of abstract shapes. I'd work on mental images, things that I saw in mind and perhaps learning towards surrealist, which was really frowned on at the time. (laughs) It was like the worst thing you could do.
PSF: Is that where you met Les?
Well, we knew each other from high school. I went around with Les and his friends. It was like one girl and a few guys together. We were just like a gang that just did crazy things like hitchhike to the seaside in the middle of the night. You know, those sort of crazy things... It would probably be a bit dangerous to do these things now. It was a different kind of world then. So we'd go hitchhiking and just turn up in places that we've never been, just because we didn't have any money and it was a fun thing to do. (laughs) Lots of adventures together.
PSF: Eventually, you started a group. Did you have to work up the courage to do that?
Yeah, it took me about five years to gain enough confidence to feel that I could actually do something in public that people would like to hear. I was very shy at art school. When you've had a lot of criticism, it's very hard to feel good about what you do. You have to sort of somehow rebuild that confidence so... Doing the busking, working in other peoples' bands, the friendship that Les and I had together just eventually led us to eventually write our own stuff.
PSF: Then you also co-wrote a disco hit on the side (with producer Cerrone).
Well, that was totally coming about by accident. We were in a soul band at the time and somebody rang up the studio and said 'Look, this French guy wants somebody to write disco lyrics. Anybody here wanna do disco lyrics?' YES! (laughs) Because I just wanting to do everything at the time. I'm still totally unprejudiced music-wise. I just thought what a wonderful opportunity to meet this French guy and do something new. So I did a lot of stuff for Cerrone. And eventually, we had a hit record ("Supernature").
PSF: Then you also decided that you wanted to do something on your own.
Oh, yes. But it was a tremendous education because I was working with all the top session musicians in London at the time. Also, it was sort of pre-programming... Nobody worked on computers at that stage. So all the strings were real strings. I was able to sit on the real horn arrangments and real string section. It was very thrilling.
PSF: How did you go from that to having the guts to call up a BBC DJ and say 'Nobody's giving me a break, I wanna be in a band'?
Well, I was ready! What can I say? (laughs) Les and I... we were so keen. We just couldn't wait. We just had to do something and this guy had a great show. Charlie Gillett- fantastic guy- gave breaks to a lot of people like Elvis Costello, Dire Straits. We listened to his show every week on a Sunday on Radio London. We though 'this guy, he knows everybody. He could help us. He must be able to!' We didn't know at the time but he had been managing Ian Dury and so he already knew the people at Stiff Records. There had been a bit of a revolution at Stiff Records, just at the time. Jake Rivera had gone with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe in one direction, which left a sort of empty space with Dave Robinson (Stiff co-founder). So we just more or less walked in the door with Charlie at the right time.
PSF: Didn't you think that it was happening so fast?
Very fast. Oh... But it was like just at that sort of punk revolution time. Honestly, things happened so quickly. One minute you were just twanging your guitar in your bedroom, the next time you were on Top of the Pops on TV. It was crazy.
PSF: What did you think of that scene otherwise?
Very exciting. And it was always what I wanted to do. I wanted to be where I could be free and just be expressive and... follow my own creative path. I wouldn't say that we were 'punk' in the classic sense but a lot of doors were opened at that time. A lot of record companies, major ones, were quite confused. (laughes) So, a lot of interesting people came through the door at that time.
PSF: How did you feel worked with Stiff? Was it a good relationship?
Fantastic in the early days. For me, it was the best. I felt like I had found a home. And they more or less left us alone because.. we were probably more together than some of the other people that were on the label. They just gave us the money and said 'just make the record.' Not a lot of money... (laughs)
PSF: But enough to do it?
PSF: Did you feel any kind of kinship with the other women in the music scene at that time?
We were kind of moving in a lot of different directions. I didn't really meet too many other people. Pretty much straight away, I wanted to come to Europe and America whereas a lot of the British punk bands stayed in England for a while. So, I was moving around perhaps more than they were at the time. So I never met people like Siouxsie (Sioux). I met Poly Strene later but not at the time. Eventually I met Nina Hagen- we met in Amsterdam.
PSF: Could you talk about the Stiff tours that you did?
Oh, that was great fun because we were on tour on a train to start with. The record company hired a train so we went everywhere.
PSF: Like a Stiff revue.
Yeah, it was! And there was about four bands with us, I think: Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie, Wreckless Eric, Mickey Jupp. So we were also staying at railway hotels, which we were wonderful, old fashioned huge places. Maybe they've seen better days but they were very grand so that was exciting. But what was more exciting was that you would arrive and there would be like 50 people with you so... you suddenly just took over the place. There was a lot of fun things going on.
PSF: From the tour photos I saw, Rachel Sweet would be doing a set and you'd be playing sax with her.
It happened pretty quickly once we got to know each other. Things might have been a bit competitive to start with when we didn't know each other. But we soon found out that we're all so different that there was no real jealousy or in-fighting. In fact, we used to make up stories because we thought the press might find it too boring if we ever got along together. (laughs) I don't know, maybe Eric had a little bit of a hard time to start with. But he's so talented, a brilliant songwriter. My favorite songwriter, really.
PSF: When the singles started coming out and you had a hit ("Lucky Number"), was that a big surprise to you?
Total surprise! We were absolutely amazed. Even the record company didn't know it was going to do that well. It was just a song that had gone down quite well live. They just thought 'Well, we'll put that one out and maybe someone will play it on the radio.' I'm not saying that Stiff weren't ambitious but I don't think that they expect to have the success that they did have.
Actually it was a great downfall too. (laughs) Once they had the taste of success, there would be kind of a drive to recreate it, which was quite hard for artists.
PSF: I've heard from the Feelies that when they were recording for Stiff, the label played them "Lucky Number" and told them 'this is what you should be doing.'
Wow... That's so unfair. I don't think Stiff had a lot of respect for artistic... identity. They just wanted to be successful.
PSF: You found that was so in terms of your work also?
Yes. Not at first but that was maybe just because they were so busy and confused and learning and not sure what to do next. But as soon as they got a handle on it, they really... doing everything they could to have a hit record.
PSF: In terms of appearance and style, what did you want to project to an audience with the way that you looked? You had a really unique appearance with your long braids, for instance.
I never thought about it. I never gave it one thought! (laughs) I never did. I'm wearing the same clothes that I did when I was at art school. I've always had long hair and I suppose maybe it's because I think my head is so small (laughs), so I had to big it up a bit. But I spent a lot of time with my head stuck in the cement barrel in the art class so it was very practical for me to tie my hair back and put a scarf around it. It was just totally to keep it from solidifying!
PSF: Did you realize though that it was pretty striking though?
It's just me! (laughs)
PSF: How would you describe the way that you do songwriting with Les?
Well, we usually start off with something's that's a catalyst, something that's a small idea. Could be just a sound, could be something that Les was just doodling around with at the time. On guitar or synthesizer, you'll find stimulating sounds. And really, it's just evolution from there- one thing leads to another if you work it out. Usually, a mood becomes creative so it's like I imagine people like a soundtrack to a movie- there's the mood that they're feeling. The atmosphere, you know what direction it's going but we may not know all the poetry of it, even the title but you find an exciting road and you go down it.
PSF: I notice that in your work, there's this kind of child-like quality to it, kind of a sweet innocence to it.
Oh, I never had it described to me before that way. Perhaps I just never grew up! (laughs) Could be true.
PSF: There's a lot of theatrics to your work. As you were describing movies before, do you see some of your songs as scenes?
I do songs (to make them) like movies. I'm hearing this music, this sound in my head so it's like a movie in my head. But I don't intentionally create a theatrical appearance or presentation. I like to it's expressive and maybe dramatic but not theatrical, if you know what I mean. When I think of theatre, I think of something that's coming from a totally unreal world. I think everything that we do pretty much is... Some of it really has to do with us personally.
PSF: Could you talk off time you took of time from music in the late 80's and 90's when you focused on other kinds of art?
There's not denying that we came to a point when we weren't having hit records... It's the curse of the hit record! (laughs) Once you've had one hit record, people expect you to have them all the time. And it's just no good if you don't have a hit record. So we... never lost money for the record company because we had a lot of supporters and we were always doing live work so money was coming in. But no big hit. There was a lot of pressure on us to change and become something else and it really wasn't as much fun. It got to a point when it was time to leave the party, really... (laughs)
So, I suppose a bit of money was coming in for the first time in our lives, we had enough to put down a deposit on a house. We had done a big tour, almost worldwide, apart from South America and Africa. It was everywhere. When we came back to our little rathole in London, somehow it just didn't seem right. We had worked so hard and hadn't really moved on. It wasn't very comfortable and it wasn't nice. We were just around the neighborhood. So we just decided that we're just going to stop for a little while. And thought that we could build a studio and become a bit more independent because we've already realized that's the hold that the record company had over you. They financed the project so unless you had a way of doing it independently, you had to do what they say. So, that was very important to us.
So we moved further and further out of London, looking for a cheap place and finally found one with a lot of space. And then... as soon as you stand still for five minutes, you have children suddenly appear! We had two children and just didn't want to keep going on.
PSF: Sometimes you did come back, around 1990 and now. What led you to do music again?
Well, I always wanted to but I suppose it was meeting people that were willing to help us. It was just too daunting to try and do it on our own. Maybe if we had been a bit more business orientated, maybe we could it but we just really didn't know how to do that. So, when we had the record out in 1990 with March, we were just finding Pathfinder Records, who were a little jazz label really. They just liked us so... They were very kindly. And now, we're with (producer) Mike Thorne's Stereo Society. We've known Mike for a long time, back to the Stiff days. It just didn't happen (before that) for a lot of reasons. We were wanting to get off Stiff Records but the only way we could do that was to make a record with our own money. So, we decided that we'd make some demo's and if they distributed it and America didn't like it, then Stiff wouldn't release it and that's what more or less happened. That never came out- it was tracks that eventually contributed to March, which we re-recorded. They couldn't see the pop potential. The usual story! (laughs)
PSF: Listening to your new record, and it seemed that there was a goth influence to it. When I listen to the older records, it's there also but now, it seems more pronounced.
I always found spooky things quite interesting. I've had quite a few experiences that pointed me in that direction. I don't have deja vu but I have kind of like mega deja vu. I had a dream when I was very young, about 8 or 9. I dreamed that I was in a space ship and we were having a party, balloons and streamers. I woke up and I was very keen on space, very serious about it when I was a child. Of course, you couldn't have a party in a spaceship, with a helmet and everything. It just wouldn't work. It's just a stupid dream. But then many years alter, when I was in a soul band, when we was recording, it was the producer's birthday so while he was out to lunch, we went out and bought all these balloons and everything and completely decorated the control room. We hid behind the desk, the recording console. When he came in, we jumped up and said 'surprise!' And then I suddenly remembered, that was my dream! All of the lights. I thought it was a spaceship as a child but it was a recording studio. There have been some times when... I don't know.
PSF: What do you listen to now?
I like a really wide range of music. I do listen to a lot of music. Just anything with a score, like the soundtrack to Romeo and Juliet and I love the incidental music as well as the actual songs. Even down to things that remind me of the old Hollywood stuff, like the soundtrack from Basic Instinct. Fabulous stuff. Morricone of course- just about everything that he'd done. And Fellini. And all the gangster movies. It's so stimulating. It's not like instrumentals, like meandering. Maybe because it has to go with a dramatic content. So there's thrilling moments to it and it has a shape.
Also recently, I've been reunited Hans Joachim Roedelius (of Cluster). We just last year... he had his first music festival in Lunz (Germany). He did a collaboration with an American guy called Tim Story and they've made a CD called Lunz and you must get it if you don't have it. Absolutely fabulous.
PSF: You knew him back in the Cluster days?
Yeah, in fact my favorite album which I play to death is Jardin Au Fou, which is sort of pre-Cluster. So I've been a fan for a long time. It was a great excitement to meet him. Because of it, we're going to do a project together.
PSF: Could you talk about your interest in animal rights?
Basically, it was through Nina Hagen. She came to my house because she was recording a demo for a foreign news program or something she was involved. We talked a lot and right there at the kitchen table, we just wrote "Don't Kill Animals" (1986) like in about five minutes. She was very concentrated and intense. I had been sympathetic for a long time but she was the first person that pushed me to do something. I've done a lot of work for PETA. I've gone on tours with them of dance clubs in America, which is quite radical because there was a lot of footage that they had which would never be shown on TV. It really influenced a lot of people- that's the educational side of it that interests me most. Most people aren't bad people but they really don't know anything. They don't know the whole experimentation thing where they're repeated around the world. Maybe five animals need to die instead of five million. They repeat things. But I see it as an evolution of the human race. We have to... remain sensitive. If we don't, we're going to turn into something that's not human anymore. To me, it was very exciting and very liberating. I was no longer looking at things to think if they're real leather or not, like shops at the shop. I don't do that anymore. Now we eat very cheaply. I really try to keep cruelty-free in my choices.
PSF: What do you do outside of music, just for pleasure or hobbies?
I'm sort of uncontrolably creative so unfortuantely that seems to cover everything. I can't tell you how much junk I have at home but I can't part with it and put in a dumpster. I have to restrain myself from crawling into them. I feel like a fireman. It sort of goes back to the old art school days, looking for raw material. I'm just always making things. I make presents for people and I make things for the home, like sculptures.
PSF: What are some of your favorite albums?
Going back to the early days, I suppose... the Doors' record Waiting for the Sun. That's one album I can play back to front. I like some of the early Kraftwerk albums. More recently, I like Rammstein. They had such lovely shade in their music. I actually like a lot of the new bands that are coming out now. My daughter plays Bloc Party. They're great. Do you know a band called the Electric Six? I like that. And I like the White Stripes. I have big wide tastes.
See Lene's official site at Blue Hotel
Also see our previous article about Lene
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