Q&A with Carbon/Silicon's Tony James
Having once played together in a short-lived punk band called London SS, Mick Jones and Tony James have been friends for thirty years. After embarking on successful careers with the Clash, as well as Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, respectively, pair reconvened in 2002 to form a new project called Carbon/Silicon. The two gave away three albums worth of material online before issuing The Last Poet, their first official release this past October. We recently caught up with James at his home in Glastonbury, England, and asked him about working with Jones, the history of Carbon/Silicon and the story behind its name and more.
Westword (Jon Solomon): Are you looking forward to the American tour?
Tony James: I’m looking forward to it so much. You know, we had such a great time in the States before Christmas -- we only played Los Angeles and New York -- but we had such positive feedback from people who came to see us, we really can’t wait to get back there and play again.
WW: Can you tell me about playing with Mick back in 1976 with the London SS.
TJ: We’ve been best friends for thirty-three years now. It’s unbelievable. When we played back then we were just two guys who were fans of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. But we didn’t really know we were doing in those days. So it’s kind of a fitting thing that two fifty-year-old guys are back in a band together again, and we get to make the music that we really love.
WW: Do you see it as coming full circle in a way?
TJ: Yeah. We never set out to form a band this time. It was just really for the love of writing a few songs together. We were both not really doing anything. I’d written some lyrics and Mick said, “Well I could write a tune to that.” Even though we’ve been best friends all these years, we never really thought of forming a band together. That would be too big of a step. But really in a natural way, it just grew into being a band. We wrote a bunch of songs and then some more songs, and recorded all those songs and then we thought, “Hey, maybe we should go out and play live.” And we’re kind of taking every step as a tiny step forward.
WW: What was the initial spark that got you guys working together?
TJ: It was mainly that I’d written the lyrics to a song called “Mp3” around the time of Napster about six or seven years ago. I’d realized we were facing a revolution in music in that our ideas and concepts of what publishing and what copyright would mean in the future were about to change. And although we’re two fifty-year-old guys we’re not the same revolutionaries we were when we were eighteen, this seemed to be an incredibly exciting concept to embrace. So Mick just said, “I can write a tune for that.” And then we wrote that song, and then we wrote another song together, and then another one. And we realized what a thrill we got just from writing music. There was no pressure. We weren’t making an album. We weren’t forming a band. There was no record label. There was no manager. Nothing. Just the pure pleasure of writing songs. And once we realized we could have a website and give those songs away without needing to be involved in the business model as such in any way, it suddenly meant we could sit in our studio, write songs that we love and give them away to people, and that was a major thing for us.
WW: And then it sort of organically mutated into a full band and playing gigs, right?
TJ: That’s right. We’d given away three albums. We’d recorded three albums, and we thought, "Well maybe we could play a gig." We started off by playing gigs in our own studio. We have our own studio space where we record everything ourselves, and we thought, “Well, we could just put a little PA in there and invite people to the studio, and people could film it and put it on YouTube and people could see it.” It’s kind of tiny steps at a time. A friend suggested someone who might play drums, and Leo, the bass player, was already working with us in the studio. He was doing the artwork for the early stuff that we gave away. We thought, “Well, lets get Leo on bass.” Like when you form a band at school as a teenager, it just seems to happen. It wasn’t like we phoned up Rent-A-Pro Musician or we put adverts in papers. Everybody just seemed to be there, and like those magical things when the time is right, it goes right.
WW: When you guys first started out you were using a lot of samples.
TJ: When we wrote those first songs, I was deejaying and playing lots of mash-up mixes. I found it incredibly exciting of the idea that you could put a sample of the Who or the Cramps with a dance beat. The first couple of albums that we recorded were impossible to put out commercially because of the millions of samples.
So the first records that we did were all mash-ups. We were taking rock and roll samples, which at the time people weren’t really doing. People were taking funk samples. We were taking Led Zeppelin and MC5 samples and putting them over a dance groove, and then writing our tune over the top. It was fantastically liberating for us. Having both been in bands for thirty years, you’ve kind of written a lot of three-chord songs.
So it gave us a whole new palate of colors to play. So suddenly we had all this fresh stuff that was incredibly inspirational for us. But over the last five years, we’ve gradually taken the samples away, and left the pure songs again. And it’s that inspiration that samples gave that found our excitement in that simple garage rock and roll that we’d always loved.
WW: You’ve talked about the name, Carbon/Silcon, referring to carbon being the soul and silicon being the chip in the computer.
TJ: We’ve both been in iconic groups, and it’s very difficult to find a name that’s not like those names, you know, we were called, "The Something." Carbon/Silicon was a phrase I’d come across in a book about the future. It predicted a future kind of human that will be sort of a hybrid of carbon – the soul and the human element -- and silicon, which would be the computer element. I kind of liked it because it summed up the differences and the things that linked Mick and I as people in that he was carbon – the soul of the band and that organic feeling it -- and I was very much the guy with the computers and the programming and the ideas. It sort of talked about what we were. The other thing was that everyone we told it to absolutely hated the name when we first started. So we thought, “This is good because it’s totally different than anything else. Now it feels good because you read about carbon everywhere you look. And silicon, that’s going to be the next thing you read about everywhere I believe.
WW: What was the book that you took the name from?
TJ: It was a book by someone who’s the head of the some sort of futurism institute – a woman called Baroness Susan Greenfield, who’s sort of a famous astrophysicist here in England. She’d written a book about the future. There was a phrase in the book that said, “We will come to know the idea of carbon/silicon hybrid that would be just as natural as we’ve come to know horse and car.”
WW: Speaking of books, what are some of the books that are the cover of The Last Post?
TJ: For the last twenty years, Mick -- who know has been my friend for all this time -- had this fanatical thing of collecting rock-and-roll culture. So we’ve got this big studio space in this industrial wasteland in the west of London called Acton. Next door to the studio, he’s got another huge space, and every day when we’d record, he would turn up an hour late with two carrier bags, because he’d been to thrift stores buy books, right. Anything you could say vaguely represents the culture of rock and roll or the culture of rock-and-roll, every day, he would come in with these books. And I used to think it was like a madness.
And then we had a guy who was putting them in order and he’d buy records and DVDs and all sorts of things. Suddenly, ten years later, we realized we had this fantastic cultural library of everything to do with rock-and-roll, every book on rock and roll you could go lay your hands on. Every book about a television series or any great writers or great movies are all in that room. Mick had this idea when we were doing the album cover – there’s this movie called 55 Days in Peking where they made a barricade out of books. So we went and got all the books out of the library, and we built a big barricade outside of the studio. It was like a barricade of culture. What was nice was that when you look at a close-up of the sleeve you can pick out of some of the ideas that might’ve influenced us.
WW: Also speaking of books, was the song “Really the Blues” had anything to do with Mezz Mezzrow’s book of the same name?
TJ: It absolutely had to do with that. About four Christmases ago, Mick gave me a first edition, signed copy of Mezz Mezzrow’s book Really the Blues. So I was reading that Christmas, and I thought, “Here’s a great title for a track.” The track’s a bit like how we started, just that simplistic way of making songs.
WW: It’s a great book.
TJ: It’s a really great book. A guy on the edge.
WW: And then you’ve got the Dostoevsky and Sartre references in your song “What the Fuck.”
TJ: The songs works in that you take a phrase that everyone says all the times, “Oh, what they fuck.” So if you juxtapose that with the Dostoevsky reference it kind of gives a literary reference. I came about because I had this great idea of, “What if Dostoevsky was sitting at home going, ‘Oh, what the fuck is this about?’” It seemed to be an amusing idea to think of Dostoevsky saying that. The lyrics say, “As Dostoevsky used to say, 'What the fuck. You’re having real bad day today, but what the fuck.”
WW: The guitar riff kind of reminded of the Clash’s “Guns on the Roof” or “Clash City Rockers.”
TJ: It’s funny, everybody says that. On that song, it’s my guitar riff. I came in with the riff and the lyrics at a bit of the tune. Everyone thinks it’s like “Clash City Rockers.” We still love that three-chord Who riff, because “Clash City Rockers” was really a steal from the Who’s “Can’t Explain” or “Louie Louie” or something like that. But it’s a lot of fun to play that track.
WW: How do you and Mick work together?
TJ: We work in all ways, but often we’ll come in with a pitch for a song, like a movie pitch, like, “Here’s the title and here’s the idea of what the song should be about.” And sometimes I’ll come with a page saying what I think a song should be about, and then maybe some scribbled lyrics. And then we’ll assemble it.
Other days, Mick will walk in with a finished lyric. Like “Oil Well.” Mike walked in with the lyrics finished. For “The News,” I walked in the lyrics finished with a little preamble saying, “I want to write a song about positivity. Wouldn’t be great if we felt good about things? Wouldn’t it be great if the news was good rather than the news always being negative?” It always starts with a lyrical idea and the feeling you’re trying to put across in the song.
We usually write it in ten minutes. Always. We just do it then and there. So we’ll come in at three in the afternoon with the title, a few scattered lyrics and by 8 o’clock at night it can be finished and on the Internet. Mick always said, “The song is there. Once you identify what the song is about, the song is somehow out there in the ether. You just have to find it. It’s already written.”
WW: So it doesn’t sound like you guys spend a lot of time tweaking the songs and that sort of thing.
TJ: Well, once we’ve got the basic thing down, which takes about a day, then we might come back and doing a bit of messing around with the drums and fiddle around a bit. But the actual song itself, we just do it there and then on the spot. It’s magic when it works between the two of us. It’s still hard to believe that the two of us have that love of writing songs and that drive to actually go in and do it. We rush to the plate every time.
WW: It kind of reminds of story a guy who played with Thelonious Monk and said that when he’d record with Monk, he’d only get one or two takes because Monk thought there’s where all the feeling was.
TJ: Definitely. Sometimes you just identify a moment. For instance, if you take the song, “National Anthem,” on the new album: I had the chorus written on a piece of paper and the verses were lists of things. I said, “Look, I want this song to be about what we believe in, because if we say what we believe in maybe it has some kind of moral guidance.”
So I had it written on a piece of paper from start to finish. I had a loop running, and Mick sat there and he had the lyrics. And he went, “Yeah, I can do this.” He put the mike up and he sang that song, just over the loop, from start to finish in one take. And that’s the take you hear on the record. One take. He didn’t even sit there on the guitar, working out the tune. He just walked up to the mike and sang it. So it captures a moment in time when it’s for real. And that’s a great thrill to be able to do that.
WW: You guys have both worked with engineer Bill Price before. What did he bring to the table?
TJ: We recorded and produced everything in our own studio, and the versions we put out on the Internet we mixed ourselves. We’ve kind of done it in a backwards way in that most people make an album and then give away a few tunes. Well, we’ve given away four albums over the years. And now, just when everyone else is giving away their free albums, we put a record out you’ve got to pay for. To give that record some kind of added clarity --- we’ve both loved working with Bill over the years – and we went, “Well, lets get Bill Price to mix the record just to give it that signature sound.” So Bill came and mixed the record for us.
WW: Why did it take you guys so long to release an official CD?
TJ: When we first started it was just that thrill of sitting in our studio, recording the record in the afternoon and giving it away. We didn’t need a record company or radio or to be in the papers. We could just connect to the fans directly. It’s only when we started playing out and touring, we figured we needed another record in the stores.
Although I believe the future will be in free digital music, at this particular time, I still believe people like to go out and buy a record in a store. People still like to shop. There’s something magical about getting those twelve songs in the order that artist wanted it to be with the gaps between the songs, presenting the product as a whole. It’s often not quite the same when you get the record from iTunes and you only buy three or four tracks. You don’t get the whole picture.
Even though we’re in the midst of the most exciting revolution there’s ever been with rock and roll, I still believe at this particular time there’s still room for a CD to be in a store. In ten years time, I don’t know. In ten minutes time, I don’t really know what the future holds. But at this moment in time, I believe there’s still room to have a conventional CD, as well as giving the music away for free. I believe the two coexist. And it gets me to speak like guys like you, and to be on the radio and to be on TV at this time. The CD is still the currency you need to be in the game. In the future, I don’t know. People always ask, “What do you think is going to happen?” I go, “Probably a ten-year-old kid somewhere in China knows what the future holds.” He’s going to tell me what the future of rock and roll is.
WW: I’ve seen quite a few videos of your shows on YouTube, and it looks like you guys are having a lot of fun playing.
TJ: It’s a difficult thing that we go out to do – two fifty-year-old guys form a brand new band, give away all the music for free. They don’t use the old brand name. They don’t play any of their old material. They just go out and play because they love music. When you’re older, suddenly you realize how lucky and privileged we are to still be doing this, and what fun it is. So it just feels so great playing. And that’s a real emotion. This is not a fake show. We really love doing what we’re doing. And you also really learn to appreciate it this time around. We are having the best time ever. We can’t wait to get to the States to play.
-- Jon Solomon