Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Interview: Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry and Blondie started out in the same place as most of their friends and peers. They were outcasts and weirdoes, making music in a scene comprising like-minded (if dissimilar) souls with no other place to go.

These days, Harry is a star, and several of Blondie's songs established classics. Yet she and the group continue to tour and make new music, and Harry herself has a new solo album, Necessary Evil, due this August, while her band's Eat to the Beat was recently reissued. We spoke to her about making music then versus now, what made Blondie unique for a punk band, and the end of the CBGB's era.
Pitchfork: It's been a little while now, but how did it feel to see CBGB's finally close?

Debbie Harry: It was sad. We played the next to last night, on a Saturday-- it closed on a Sunday. I didn't think it would be that sad, but I realized that I was kind of bending over and kissing my ass goodbye. [laughs] It wasn't like I was hanging out there every night of the week, but occasionally there would be something or somebody I wanted to see. Then to realize it's gone…

Pitchfork: It's ironic that it's living on as a fashion store.

Debbie Harry: Yeah. There's a double edge to that, too. The girls who started the merchandising and t-shirts for CBGB's are singers, Tish and Snooky. They used to be my backup singers for a little while. They had a band of their own and used to perform at CBGB's, so were really a part of CBGB's from the very beginning. They had a store on St. Mark's Place where they sold used clothes. They used to buy dresses in these huge bundles form some warehouse. They'd buy these bulk things of old clothes and just make a huge pile in the center of the floor. People would go in there and dig through. That was Manic Panic.

Pitchfork: Could you imagine CBGB's being better known as a brand than as a punk venue?

Debbie Harry: Well, CBGB's was always based on finding music. So if you're actually going to wear the logo, you're wearing a logo that's about finding music. That's kind of nice. It's really not about a trademark or designer, but about a musical philosophy, really.

Pitchfork: Something that people gloss over is that clubs like CBGB's weren't started as places for punk bands to play; punk bands played there because they couldn't play anywhere else.

Debbie Harry: Exactly.

Pitchfork: While CBGB's has become synonymous with punk, but punk was never that monolithic. Television sounded nothing like the Ramones, who sounded nothing like the Talking Heads. Who sounded nothing like Blondie. Did you ever bristle at being called punk rock? Did you even consider yourselves punk?

Debbie Harry: I think what we thought when "punk" came out as a title or description…it came out on these posters that said "punk is coming." It was all over the city.

Pitchfork: You're talking about Punk, the magazine.

Debbie Harry: Yes. That sort of unified the scene, so it became "the punk scene," but it really had nothing to do with the music. It sort of germinated from CBGB's because that was one of the few places we had to play. And all the different bands, as you said, all the different styles and sounds, came out of "the punk scene." Much later on it became a style of music.

Pitchfork: What I think allowed Blondie and, to a lesser extent, the Talking Heads to make that transition to the 80s is that you were among the first bands of the punk scene to embrace black dance music, whether disco or hip-hop. Did anyone in the scene turn their backs on that, out of either competition or fear?

Debbie Harry: There was some resistance to the disco scene, not so much to black music, especially reggae. With bands like the Bad Brains, that was never much of an issue. But with disco, there were some people who really took offense. [laughs] Maybe they still hate us.

Pitchfork: In Chicago around that time, I think a lot of negative reaction to disco and later house music came about because it wasn't just black music but black and gay music.

Debbie Harry: I think now, with this whole immigration thing with Mexico, [we're going to get] a lot of new strains of Latin music. I suppose it already exists, but I expect it to become more intertwined and amalgamated, too. There's a huge population in this country of Mexican and South American people, even in little towns.

Pitchfork: And some of those people may still be discovering punk for the first time. Do you think someone hearing Blondie for the first time in 2007 is hearing it differently than they might have heard it 30 years ago?

Debbie Harry: Gee, I suppose so. I think technology may put things into different time periods. It has a specific sound, specific instruments. So there is that. I don't know. It's hard for me to say, really. That happens to me, I'll hear something and recognize it from a specific period.

Pitchfork: A lot of people reach a cut-off point when it comes to discovering new music, when it starts to take actual effort. Did you ever hit that cut-off point?

Debbie Harry: It happened to me a long time ago, because being a writer, I tried not to have a lot of things in my head. I go through cycles with that. If I'm going out to clubs and checking out new bands, it's during down time, as it were, sort of relaxing, going out and being entertained, checking things out locally. That I really enjoy. But if I'm trying to write, I don't usually pay that much attention to what other people are doing.

Pitchfork: You performed recently with Lily Allen. Do you come across someone like that and think, hey, we should get together, or does someone suggest her to you? Some people see a lot of you in her.

Debbie Harry: Well, I don't think she sounds like me. I do think she's incredible. She's truly unique. She has this incredible voice, and she's so musical. She's really interesting.

Pitchfork: She's also pretty adept, like Blondie, at blending musical styles.

Debbie Harry: It's very urban. It has sort of this jazz flavor to it, and her voice itself is a very jazz-like instrument. Yet the style, the way she writes and her lyrics, are very contemporary and much more straight-ahead rock.

Pitchfork: You've worked with the Jazz Passengers. Is there a particular type of voice that's suited to both jazz and rock?

Debbie Harry: I don't know. I always think of a voice as an instrument, whether a voice is a trumpet, or violin, or bass. You know what I mean? A horn or wind instrument versus a string instrument. Horn instruments are definitely more toward jazz.

Pitchfork: So do you think of your voice as a horn instrument?
Debbie Harry: I don't know. You'd have to ask someone else. [laughs]

Pitchfork: When you're as closely associated with a body of music as you and Bondie are, is there a compulsion to write in that vein or to veer away from it?

Debbie Harry: I think it's hard to say. It seems to me that everything under the sun has been done. We have basically gone into "world" music. In some ways I think this is very good, in some ways I think this is sad, you know, to lose more remote ethnic sounds.

Pitchfork: Is it harder to surprise people who essentially have access to every note ever made anywhere?

Debbie Harry: It is. I think that's very true. If somebody comes up with a song that's new and really beautiful and people really respond to, it's really a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck at the same time.

Pitchfork: When you first started having hits, a lot of people saw it as Blondie breaking through to the mainstream. But in a sense, couldn't you just as easily say that those hits were leading people back to the underground scene you came from? Even in the late 70s and early 80s, the mainstream knew little about punk.

Debbie Harry: I guess. Things evolve. The industry sort of caught up with us, in a way. They didn't like us when we started, and then eventually it became normal. That's what happens, especially in the music industry, because so many people at the record companies are young and bring their tastes with them. They make it acceptable.

Pitchfork: There must have been a real feeling of breaking into the establishment.

Debbie Harry: Totally.

Pitchfork: So now that you and Blondie are so well know, is there any feeling that you are part the establishment?

Debbie Harry: I suppose, in a way. The name Blondie is an established trademark. It's a business thing. Although Blondie does not have a record deal, so there you go. I'm putting out my solo album on an indie label, doing it myself.



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