Beneath the razzle dazzle, Las Vegas is, more than anything, a tough gig. You don’t need to ask Elvis or, indeed, Siegfried and Roy – whose careers were infamously cut short when one of them was mauled on stage by a white tiger named Mantecore – to know this in your bones.
Even Iggy Pop, the great survivor of punk, fell victim to the Vegas voodoo when he broke a foot (ironically, performing ‘Search And Destroy’) just before he was due to perform at the strip in 2011. And yet here he is, larger than life, holding court with a twinkle in his eye, some five years later. Then again, this is a man known for slashing his own flesh during gigs. A man with live albums punctuated by the crowd breaking bottles onto the bands’ guitars. Hell, he lived with Bowie in Berlin in the Seventies – not exactly a scene for the faint of heart – and sang, without irony: “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”. Enough said.
Iggy’s latest album, ‘Post Pop Depression’, co-written and recorded with Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age, is due for release in March but he’s keeping that close to his chest. Mr Pop is in town, ostensibly, to promote Marshall, the fabled purveyor of amp stacks, and to talk tech during the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Nevertheless, he’s happy to meander in a way that today’s media-trained whipper snappers so rarely are. For instance, Iggy is keen to explain how feedback has affected his body chemistry, what would compel him to drag his, no doubt, weary carcass out to a gig these days and, strangest of all, to reveal the one question that he most wishes he’d been asked but, oddly, hasn’t.
More than anything, he wants to riff about the ways in which technology is evolving music. When this is first put to him, the great man tips his head, quizzically, as if bemused anyone might think this is a new idea. If he suspects that, as a rock veteran, he’s expected to bridle at the idea of change, then he is too polite to say so. Instead, he patiently points out that to understand the present, we must first rewind. “A lot of the great folk-blues heroes [he cites R L Burnside and Lightning Hopkins] really hated playing acoustic guitar because the electric one has more soul.” He pauses for effect but the point is clear: true musicians embrace the new. “People who are keenly aware of Frank Sinatra’s talents know that it was the way he learned to work a mic – and the way the mic picked up certain timbres in his voice – that totally changed singing. With that technological jump, all you had to do was croon.”
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Iggy isn’t just talking about how to make tunes in a mechanically more efficient manner. He’s interested in the way that tech can unlock whole new types of sounds which, when enjoyed at loud volumes, affect our whole experience of music and perhaps even change us a little. “I used to spend a lot of my time just like this [stands with hands raised like in a stick-up] embracing any amp on ten, feeding back for hours. I think it changed my body chemistry, I really do.” Surely, this is no different from the Nineties ravers who regularly tasted the squelchy acid bass-lines of a 303 synth seeping into their soul at warehouse parties and then felt altered by the whole experience. Naturally, the drugs helped too.
Sensing he is lurching off the reservation, Iggy gathers his thoughts. After all, he’s here to support Marshall, which has evolved beyond bone-shaking amp stacks for rock venues to making headphones in recent years – and has just released its first ever mobile phone. This Android handset, dubbed the London, showcases classic Marshall style and is optimised for recording live music as well as playing it back.
Shortly afterwards, Konrad Bergström, president of Zound Industries, the firm that makes Marshall accessories, is eager to elaborate on this point. “Marshall has huge credibility within the music world. After all, it’s been bringing the house down since 1962 – so we didn’t want this handset to be a gimmick. We didn’t just want to take something off-the-shelf and simply slap on a brand name; we wanted to build this from the ground up. And when it comes to recording live music, the new London phone is unique, as it has a dedicated soundcard. This means people can record lossless audio (FLAC) files as they perform live. That’s pretty cool.”
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I was thirty at the time I wrote that – and I was pissed off.
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Being able to make music with everyday gadgets is a thread Iggy is also keen to pick up on. “I’d say the two great innovations are that recording technology is now so cheap and really good – or not as cheap and even better – and widely available to the individual, so you can have great DIY artists. Kids who can do it themselves in the their bedroom.” The way in which tech has democratised music making clearly excites Iggy because, well, that plainly wasn’t the case way back in the day. For instance, he muses about his experience of recording 'Lust For Life', which was, let’s not forget, co-written by David Bowie. “I was thirty at the time I wrote that – and I was pissed off. Basically, I felt that the means of production in my field were controlled by people who didn’t really ‘feel it’ and they didn’t really respect the listener. And I thought that I did – and that my reward for being really touchy feely and really ‘into it’ was basically to be penalised.” This raises the question of whether this very frustration acted as some sort of crucible for the material itself? And whether the ability to knock stuff together in a bedroom and then distribute it globally, while in your PJ’s, makes things too easy today?
“People who play music, do it for love and to feel good. And loving and feeling good are pretty close to degeneracy. They are amazing”, he chuckles, as if this whole idea is risible. “The music is gonna follow whatever is easy to do”. He’s adamant that there is no downside to the bar being lowered for the tools of the trade in music production. “There’s a wonderful company called Burger Records in Fullerton. It’s a couple of nuts who sleep in a strip-mall storefront and they make great records. Great, great records by people like Cherry Glazerr or The Go – and the new tech makes all that possible.”
So how does he keep up-to-speed on current bands? “I listen to a college radio station in Miami called WVUM and just kinda steal their playlists. A lot of it I don’t like. I just think: ‘oh, you pretentious kids – boy does that blow’. But I try to stay open to it because sometimes I find good stuff.” Even more surprisingly, he’s still keen to sneak into live gigs – and Iggy has an unusual method for choosing which ones to attend. “Sometimes, you’re just looking in the classified ads and you see a name for a gig. And the name sounds cool. And every time the name sounds cool, I always check it out – and I always like it.” In short, trust your intuition.
Over the years, he must have been asked pretty much everything – or so you’d think. For instance, he’s sick of talking about why he used to cut himself on stage and so this gets shut down out-of-hand. But is there anything he’s never had the chance to address publically. He pauses for a beat, before revealing: “nobody ever asked ‘why do you stage dive?'” and then chuckles again. So why does the great man do this so much? At first, he plays this down. “It’s just ‘cos it’s like really fun to mix it up with everybody”, before admitting surprising insecurity. “You know, I get self-conscious and think: ‘what am I doing up here, it’d be a lot easier if I could roll around for a while – and that’ll kill a guitar solo or two.' And the next thing you know, the gig’s over.”
There plainly is more to this than the opportunity to take a breather on stage. Iggy talks candidly about the distinction between having a public and a private persona. About how people perceive him to have “wiggled outta” the travails of everyday life before reminding us that he is, more than anything, human too. “You don’t see the suffering [affects a mock swoon] and the compromise. I get busted all the time – and I have to eat shit like everybody else”. He pauses again to take in the reaction to this. “You weren’t looking for that were you?”
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Words: Alex Pell
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc.
Iggy Pop’s new album, Post Pop Depression, which was co-written and recorded with Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age, will be released in March on Loma Vista Recordings. He will be playing at The Royal Albert Hall on 13th May 2016. See postpopdepression.com
The Marshall London Smartphone costs £399 from marshallheadphones.com