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Among the ghosts and demons

Though alternative rock band Concrete Blonde has had its trying times, lead singer Johnette Napolitano chats about the joys of performing and the often-helpful spirits that inhabit her house.

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002


photoTen years ago, underground Los Angeles alternative rockers Concrete Blonde found their dark, gothic sound all over mainstream radio airwaves when their tune Joey became a surprise hit.

Stardom and success proved too much for the tumultuous trio, which already had been struggling with drugs, alcohol and personal demons since the band began in 1987. Drummer Harry Rushakoff, battling a heroin addiction, was replaced for several years by Paul Thompson of Roxy Music.

So fans were surprised to hear that all three original members had reunited, recorded the cheekily titled Group Therapy -- its first album in eight years -- and hit the road.

Like many family reunions, this one proved volatile when, a few weeks into the tour, Rushakoff disappeared.

Ever-resilient lead singer Johnette Napolitano, 44, takes it all in stride, laughing and cracking jokes from a tour stop in Austin, Texas, as she answers Ten Pressing Questions about drugs, dysfunction and living in her Hollywood house full of friendly ghosts.

(1) So, Harry's gone? Harry's gone again. He walked off the tour. Our lighting guy, Matt Devitt, is filling in quite nicely. We're going to keep going. We did it before. We'll do it again.

Harry is a heroin addict. What can you do? He's been in rehab for a year. He's on probation. God forgive everybody for everything, but you know, we expected it, to the point where we had plans to replace him, if this happened. It's not a shock. He split in Kansas City. We were ready to go onstage, and we couldn't find him.

You and Jim (guitarist Jim Mankey) will continue? Oh, of course. It's really good to play these songs. It's been a long, long time. We were just burned out before, really burned out. Now, it's fun again.

(2) The album is called Group Therapy. When you and Jim found each other again last year, you were crying on his doorstep with a Bible in your hand. He sent you to his psychiatrist. Is dysfunction part of Concrete Blond? No. Not more or less than anything else. In all fairness to myself, I don't think I'm that f--- up, really (laughs). I came through a lot of things pretty well. But last year, at the time, people were freaking out. There were a lot of parallels to the weird nightmare before 9/11. A lot of people were having bad experiences. Whatever it was, it got music out of me.

Is making music therapy? Music is absolutely holistic for everyone.

(3) You're still doing visual art? Yes. I'm working on a project right now. Everywhere on this tour, I look at the ground and wonder what the clay content is. I bring back bags of mud from everywhere I go.

(4) The new album has the song Violence. You had a minor hit with God Is a Bullet in the 1980s. What's it like addressing violence now with war in Afghanistan? Depressingly, the same. It's sad. Nothing has changed much. I don't think anything ever changes much. I'm convinced, with the climate we're in now, it might as well be World War II.

What does that say about humanity to you?

Unevolved. We might as well grow gills back.

(5) Your love of Mexican and Latin culture pops up again on Your Llorana: What is it about that culture? It's home to me. I'm from L.A. It used to be Mexico. Now, it's amazing to see the Latino presence all over the country, whereas it used to be just Southern California, Texas, the Southwest. Now, it's everywhere in this country and Canada. It's great.

(6) With all your songs about vampires and spooky stuff, Concrete Blonde is often described as gothic and noirish. (Screams) Ghosts!

Are you guys dark and morbid? No. We are the most boring people. Everyone plays music for a reason. I have a lot of fun in my life. I turn to music when I'm introspective or I need to work something out in my head, or communicate. Probably the greatest achievement in my life is learning to communicate with the people I love. I used to only be able to do that through writing songs. Music is the way I can do that best, music and art. That makes for good songs, but it doesn't make for happy personal relationships.

(7) The rest of us romanticize Hollywood, but you often write about its seedy underbelly. What keeps you there? Well, I don't go out much. I'd be doing the same thing at home right now that I'm doing in these hotel rooms, playing with my computer.

All my family is in L.A. I have a house that I promised I'd never sell when I bought it. It used to belong to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It's wild. The history of my house is phenomenal. There are a few entities there. Well, I don't like to call them entities; they're actually friends.

How do you know they're in your house? Well, they brought me there. I wouldn't have the house if they hadn't. They communicate with me. They tell me what's up. There's one that was very unhappy and now she's gone. I'm glad. It changed the climate of my house. The more creative work I do, the more the unhappy ones go away.

They really do literally communicate. Like, if the phone rings and I ask who's on the phone, they'll tell me. It's like Caller ID from the other side. (Laughs.)

One time my boyfriend and I were having an argument, and we both whipped around at the same time -- this cat appeared and disappeared, just as plain as anything you've ever seen. We both saw it at the same time. It was a hell of a way to stop an argument. That's what I think it was: It appeared to us to stop the argument. We saw it at the same time, and I'm really grateful because I know I'm not crazy.

Or you and your boyfriend are both crazy. Or we're both crazy! (Laughs.) Absolutely!

(8) Do you consider pop music art? It's in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I'm not particularly a fan of popular culture. I didn't even get Andy Warhol, really. But other people do, in a big way. It depends on what you think art is and what purpose it serves. To say art has to reflect its time, our trends, popular culture -- I'm not sure that's true. That would mean somebody sitting on an island somewhere can't do great art. Folk art is wonderful, and that's not reflecting anything in popular culture.

(9) Do you think there is something particularly powerful in trios, musically? I'm all into the Holy Trinity number, very, very into the power of three. The pyramid is the most stable structure. It's very deliberate. I believe in three, the whole family structure of man and woman are equal, and then they create a third. On a more mundane level, it gives you space to play, musically. There is more power in the space than in the actual note. A lot of bands make the mistake of playing too much. To lay out is very, very important. B.B. King said he could play the whole symphony in one note.

(10) Was it trippy for you, an underground band, to have Joey become so huge? I mean, it's a bar band cover song now. (Laughs.) It was pretty weird. It was all over the country. It was freaky at the time. I wasn't really prepared. I didn't have the foundation mentally or emotionally to deal with it. Now i'm grateful for it. I don't resent it. I pay my mom's rent with it.

That song is all about alcohol. Are drugs and alcohol recurring themes in your life? Yeah, Marc (musician Marc Moreland, formerly of Wall of Voodoo and The Skulls), the guy I wrote it for, died last week in France. He had a liver transplant. His body just shut down.

I drink, not hard liquor, but I'm a big wino. I take care of myself, though. I don't smoke pot anymore. I don't do drugs. I'm not an alcoholic. I don't even know anymore what an alcoholic is. I do what I do, I have my life, I'm a responsible person. I've never had a DUI -- unlike the president, may I add. (Laughs.) I don't like cocaine. I won't work with anybody who does cocaine. But all of this is such a part of our culture. It's sad. There was a time for me though when that was pretty bad, where I couldn't deal with anything without being drunk.

The band is so much better now, especially live, because I'm not stoned. (Laughs.) Believe me, quitting pot was the best thing I've ever done. I still get in another zone onstage, but now I'm choosing to be there.

To contact Gina Vivinetto, email gina@sptimes.com

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