a mutant way of existence

[interview by Nick Messing]

On March 3, Jim Carroll and Lenny Kaye performed at the Statler Auditorium of Cornell University. Carroll began by reading his poetry and prose, and Kaye then joined him for a musical set. I interviewed Kaye backstage about half an hour before the show. He seemed glad to talk with me, saying it was good to see that young people take an interest in his work. Afterwards, when I asked him to sign my Horses (reissue) CD, he looked over the photo collage and commented, "Those crazy kids..."

Nick:  How did you get into rock music?

Lenny:  I got into rock music as a fan. When I was a kid I had the luxury of growing up with rock music. One of the first songs I ever heard on the radio when I was a wee little kid was "Tooty Fruity" by Little Richard and then I kind of grew up with it. And it always gave me a sense of identity, you know, I wasn't like a athletic type, I wasn't particularly cool, but I found in rock 'n' roll a kind of a mutant way of existence and I just kept at it. I never thought I would be a professional musician. I started out as a fan and I guess I still am one.

Nick:  What music are you listening to these days?

Lenny:  I listen to a lot of weird ethnic musics, I like Egyptian music, I like Indian music, you know, but also of modern rock, I like pop records with a twist these days- I like the Cardigans album a lot, I like this girl Heather Nova, I like a group from New York called Speedball Baby. Mostly, I listen to bands from New York, you know, all the local groups, I find that I enjoy them almost as much as I do any of the national bands.

Nick:  What are you working on right now, writing-wise?

Lenny:  I'm writing songs with Patti Smith for her new record and that's about it really. I'm kind of in a little rest period, we've had a very long year, playing around the world.

Nick:  So there's no new book in progress?

Lenny:  There's no new book in progress, though I have a couple ideas that I'm working on. Doing a book takes a huge amount of time and at this point I don't have the year or two really to devote to it. But I've just got a literary agent and I probably will be getting a book project together over the next while, but it's not something to be taken lightly. I realized when I did the [Waylon Jennings] autobiography that when you have to write 150,000 words, you have to get up every day and do it for months, and at this point I don't really have that kind of time.

Nick:  Does it help being involved in music at a lot of different levels?

Lenny:  Absolutely. Well it depends, you know, some people can just be a guitarist, or some people can just be a journalist. I found that none of them really tend to keep you going for any length of time, you go through rises and falls -- I like to move sideways. I find that all these elements of my personality mean something -- I like the solitude of writing, I like the electricity and the excitement of live performance, and I find that all of them kind of combine in a certain musical self that I've been able to develop over the years. And, to me, writing a great paragraph is very much akin to playing a good guitar solo. You know, you feel the same sense of a creative rush, and I appreciate that.

Nick:  How do you feel about working with Patti Smith again after a long time?

Lenny:  Well, it's a dream come true. I mean, Patti has always been one of my favorite artists. I'm her fan more than anything else, and I never expected to be playing with her again. I was very happy with the work that we did together in the '70s, and to work with somebody of that caliber of artistic vision is a great blessing. But I never, through all the years, hoped that it would be different, or that we would return. I felt a real sense of completion with the work we did in the '70s, and it's a great honor and privilege to be able to continue it these days, with a whole new outlook and a new kind of understanding of who we've become over the past ten or fifteen years.

Nick:  We've heard that the album you're recording with Patti will be more of a "rock album" and that it will include the song "Dead City." Can you tell me anything more about the new album?

Lenny:  How do you guys find that stuff out? Ah, I mean, I don't really consider Gone Again not a rock album, it has elements of rock and all the other musics we do.

Nick:  I was at the concert in Washington, D.C., where Patti said that the new record would be a "rock album."

Lenny:  Well, we have some rock songs, but the album is just developing. At this point, "Dead City" will definitely be a part of it, we've got about a core of 8 or 10 songs and more keep growing. It's really hard to say -- one of the things we've always tried to do with our albums is not predict them, you know, so they can kind of become who they wanna become. I don't think we're going to make a rock album to compete with all the high-energy rock bands out there now, that's not our thing. I think it'll be a very variety-oriented record, just like our show, as you saw, there's some really loud and noisy stuff and there's some really beautiful, very fragile things, and hopefully we'll continue to combine those two.

Nick:  Do you know why Patti decided to produce the album all by herself?

Lenny:  Oh, you are hooked up. In a sense, it'll work the same way as all our records, Patti always produces herself. When we bring in outside producers, it's mostly to help us spin things in a certain way, personality-wise. I think at this point all of us have been making records for a long enough time where, you know, we can do it within the band and within the band we'll all do our chosen chores. I'm sure I'll handle my share of the production chores as will Tommy and Oliver and J.D., but I think that's just an acknowledgment of the leader position that Patti has within the group, as simple as that.

Nick:  Do you have any touring plans, or is that too far off?

Lenny:  Pretty too far. We've just kind of okayed this Tibet Big Day Out in June, that the Beastie Boys are organizing around the New York area. But really our next goal is to get the record done. I'm sure we'll do some playing as the summer approaches, but we don't really have anything specific in mind.

Nick:  Are the members of Patti's band pretty much set for now?

Lenny:  Well, even with our ["Patti Smith and Friends"] period, it was a pretty standard lineup. Tom Verlaine did come along to play, but right now I think we're comfortable with the band concept as it is, and I don't see anybody else coming into it in the immediate future. Patti's always liked to work within a band framework, and right now we seem to have an interesting group of people, who are not Patti Smith's group of the '70s, which was part of the program, you know, that we didn't want to repeat our textures of the '70s, which is why we don't have a keyboard at this point.

Nick:  How has your relationship with Patti changed over the years?

Lenny:  It's gotten deeper, in the sense that we understand who each other is. There's obviously something in the way I approach music that she finds helpful, I don't know exactly what that is. Like I say, I'm really honored to work with her, and after 25 years of change, of on and off working with her, I guess we kind of know who each other is. I'm able to help her get her music that next step forward. And we're friends and we're coworkers, that's a high honor in the Patti world. How has it changed? I just think we just understand each other, she knows that I will always trust her and give her all the room she needs, not only to do her work but to lead her life. All through the '80s when she was off in Detroit, I wasn't calling her up and saying 'gee, please get the band together.' I allow her the privilege of choosing her own directions and I think she appreciates that more than anything. I don't try to mastermind what it is she does, I just try to help her put a frame around it.

Nick:  What's your favorite album from the Patti Smith Group?

Lenny:  It's a question I'm asked a lot, but to be honest I don't really have a favorite. I'm not a really favorite-oriented person, in the sense that I like a lot of different things and if you have a favorite it means you define yourself in some way. We've always tried not to define, because when you define yourself you define a limit, and we'd like to have the freedom to be able to do something as maniac as "Radio Ethiopia" and as pretty as "Wild Leaves" or "Because the Night" or something. That said, I think of all of our records as kind of being little snapshots of who we were at a certain moment in time. And depending on my mood, I can be nostalgic about that era, but the fact is that they really do trace a career of a band, including Patti's solo record, including Gone Again, and I don't think you can remove one from this kind of construct and say, 'well, this is my favorite', or 'this is not essential'. They're all like the same album, in a certain sense, because they're expressions of who we were at that moment in time and how we grow. It's like saying, 'well, my favorite year is when I was 8' -- you wouldn't have gotten there if you weren't 6 and 9. I like [the albums], I think there's not a lot of them for a span of time that's older than you probably, and each one seems essential. The thing I was most concerned about when we were making Gone Again was that it not be like a footnote to our past albums, our body of work. And I don't think it was, to me it stands as important a step in the evolution of an artist as is possible. I love them all to be honest, it's like choosing your favorite kid. It's hard to really say.

Nick:  Is working with Jim Carroll a project that you plan on continuing?

Lenny:  I certainly hope so. Jim and I have worked intermittently over many years, he's a really great friend, we have breakfast once a week and we maintain our friendship. I would like to continue exploring his music with him, again it's a matter of time and energy, Patti seems to be taking up more and more time, but it's nice that I can get away with Jim and have like a little fun evening here in the wilds of New York state. And I know he is thinking of music, we do have this "Beast Within" song which we've come up with over the past couple years, and I did do the music for the Basketball Diaries audio book. So, we continue to work... he's a wonderful artist and a really great friend as well.

Nick:  After you produced the early albums by Soul Asylum and Suzanne Vega, how do you feel about the new directions they've gone in since that time?

Lenny:  I think it's great. I like them as artists, I feel when I do a record with an artist that if I do a really good job, they should move on to another producer. That's how you change your art, you move the things around you. You know, they're not going to change as people so what a producer does is highlight different aspects of personality. With Suzanne, I was there with her very early, so mostly my job was to acclimate her to the recording studio and who she was in that moment and to keep her confidence going. Same thing with Soul Asylum -- I usually work with bands early. When they understand pretty much what I'm telling them, they can go off and find their new directions. Of all the people I've produced I am their appreciator, in a sense that's one of the reasons I'm there, and so when they go off and do other records, I still appreciate it, you know, I really like it. I think Grave Dancer's Union is a spectacular record, I love Suzanne's latest record, and I like them as people, and I would hope that they would go off and do lots of different types of records... It's like the Patti Smith Group records -- each one has a slightly different personality, and you can look at the producer that we chose for each one and see how that producer highlighted what we were after. You know, we wanted an art record for the first one [Horses], John Cale, we wanted to show our rock 'n roll side more [Radio Ethiopia], Jack Douglas, for Easter, we wanted a very succinct, strong statement, and Jimmy Iovine worked with us constantly to kind of get us there, and Todd Rundgren [producer of Wave] is a more feminine one... I like progress in music.

Copyright © Nicholas Messing 1997

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