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September 1 2014

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Blondie Talks Revisiting the Hits, the New New York, and Turning 40

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Debbie Harry and Blondie

It’s been a hell of a week for Blondie. On Tuesday, the CBGB trailblazers released a two-disc set, Blondie 4(0) Ever, featuring rerecorded versions of some of their biggest hits, and Ghosts of Download, an album of decidedly dance-y new tracks that appear (from a cursory glance) to share more DNA with EDM than a band celebrating its 40th year of existence. Then again, Blondie’s unapologetic pop sensibility has always been one of their distinguishing characteristics, with disco-hued hits like “Heart of Glass” paving the way for significant commercial success. In between talk show cameos, the band geared up for an intimate show at Ray-Ban’s District 1937 fete on Thursday night. With help from Blondie and alt-duo MS MR, the eyewear brand feted the global launch of quintessential Ray-Ban styles in a new range of materials (leather, velvet, steel, denim, and titanium). Not long ago, Ray-Ban celebrated a big birthday of its own (75 years), so a downtown-cool turnout in the Garment District made for a belated bash of sorts. Shortly before they took the stage, we sat down with Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and Clem Burke to talk Harajuku heavy metal and the new New York.

Forty years down the line, how has your studio dynamic changed? Does it feel different making a record today than it did back then?

Debbie Harry: It’s different for everyone because of the technology and the ability to work…you don’t need a big live room to make a good-sounding record. It’s nice to have a big room and put everybody in there, but we sort of always start with the demo tracks that Chris comes up with and build on that. This time we worked all over the place. It was mostly done online. And then at the very end we have some live stuff on it.

You’ve got a pretty eclectic crew who worked on this record with you [including Hector Fonseca, Beth Ditto, and Las Rakas]. How did this group come together? Were they people you were all fans of?

DH: Pretty much. Well, we didn’t meet Hector Fonseca until we were in the studio. And the backup singers, they were just hanging around the studio and we met them and they sounded great. I guess once you’re in the process, you’re in the process and things are happening. You look around, you hear things, you talk to people. And then it just evolves. We don’t really start with a strict formula, and I think that that’s true all the way to the basics of when Chris is writing a song or creating a melody or a feel, he goes in with an open mind and just fiddles around.

You rerecorded eleven of your best-known tracks. What is it like to revisit those? Do you find new meaning when you go to record something that you’ve played hundreds of times?

DH: Hearing some of the vocal flourishes I was doing back then, they’re more or less kind of a studio representation—because it’s easier to hear, you just have more control. Some of those things I let go by the wayside. But the basic elements of the songs are all there. When I was listening to the old tracks, it was nice to hear some of the musicians that we had playing on the tracks, like Tom Scott—

Chris Stein: The guy who plays the Taxi Driver saxophone plays the horns on “Rapture.”

DH: That’s a real nice revisit.

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Do you think that your relationship between rock and fashion has changed since you started out?

DH: I’m amazed. I love clothes. I don’t think that I’m fashionable—I think that sometimes I manage to pull it off. I definitely have a punk attitude about it, and I like the notion of deconstruction and shabby chic—I don’t know if that’s really fashion.

When you were getting ready to go to a show at CBGBs, did a lot of thought go into those outfits, or was it more off-the-cuff?

DH: I don’t know. I just tried to look hot. I couldn’t go out and buy something every time. We did a lot of thrift shopping, and there were all these bums—we called them bum stores—on the Bowery, and we used to just go in there and weed around. All kinds of things. And people would give us stuff. Things got passed around.

Clem Burke: We traded clothes a lot. One time I went to England and I overpacked and these two took me to the airport and so I had to take all my clothes out, and I came back, like, two months later and everybody’s wearing my clothes. I’m like, “What’s going on? Where are my clothes?” She’s wearing it on stage!

Can I ask what you thought of the CBGB film that came out recently?

CB: I thought it was a great portrayal of Hilly [Kristal, owner of CBGB & OMFUG]. I don’t think it necessarily invoked the real scene that was going on at the time, but I think it was a good tribute to the man. If they do a movie of [Patti Smith's memoir] Just Kids, it’ll be a lot better.

Are you at all melancholy about the ways in which New York has changed, that it’s no longer a place that’s particularly hospitable to the creative classes?

CS: There’s obviously a whole generation of kids who are just figuring out how to make enough money to live here, so it’s just a different paradigm really.

DH: I think the thing that makes me saddest is the people that I came up with that I would really love to see maybe are gone, or they’re not here anymore, so that sort of makes me sad. And I had a lot of freedom then, being unknown. I was anonymous and I was a fly on the wall.

CS: The argument is going to sound a little egotistical, the “everybody is a hipster” argument. Because when we were doing what we did then, we were isolated and we were on the fringe. It was weird, you were weird. And now it’s the norm. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I can’t tell which is preferable.

DH: I mean, look, there’s so much good music coming out of today’s young bands, it can’t be bad. There’s great stuff.

Ray-Ban Celebrates District 1937 Featuring Blondie and MS MR - Inside
What newer bands are you guys excited about?

CB: I like The Stripes. Those kids are great.

DH: Blood Orange.

CS: I just heard this great song by a guy called the Twin Peaks Dudes. Great tracks.

DH: I’m the worst person to ask that question because my mind always goes blank…Deadmau5!

CS: There’s this Japanese girl trio who do heavy metal music in Harajuku outfits, and it’s really cool. Called Babymetal.

There are a lot of EDM and dance influences on the new record. Is that music that you had been listening to and enjoying?

CS: I don’t think you have to have a guitar to indicate aggression, or whatever the hell it’s indicating for the purist rock people who all want to hear guitars. I don’t think it has to be that way. It can be fuckin’ Beethoven, too—that is really powerful. We did a show right around the time of Apocalypse Now. I thought, OK, let’s have them play [Wagner's] “Flight of the Valkyries” before we come out. And we sounded like Mickey Mouse compared to that.

You’ve got a show tonight. What are your pre-gig rituals?

CB: I like to go to sleep and forget the fucking sound check.

DH: Yeah.

CB: This is a one-off show, so it’s a little different. I think when we’re on tour and we’re rolling, we just kind of go into the venue and sound check. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, but we’ve been doing a week of promotion, so…

CS: Yeah, we had to get up at 4 in the morning three days ago to do Good Morning America. It really screwed me up for the rest of the week, I gotta say.

Photo: Corbis; Ray Ban

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