Iggy Pop: Croon & Destroy

From his Stooges days to a surprising recent collaboration, the punk pioneer discusses his jazz past

Photo of Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop (photo by Ross Halfin)

There is at least a slight news-of-the-weird element to Loneliness Road (RareNoise), the recent album from the trio of pianist Jamie Saft, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte: The program features three vocal performances by punk architect Iggy Pop, who wrote original lyrics for prerecorded tracks and overdubbed his offerings in his hometown of Miami. It’s surprising, sure, to hear the Stooge’s artfully downcast croon punctuate a creatively swinging and lyrical piano-trio set. But it’s certainly not without precedent. Pop, 70, is a wide-ranging appreciator whose path from garage-band drummer to cosmopolitan rock-and-roll sage has intersected jazz and blues with fascinating results. What appears here is a taste of that history, with talk of the new release; his two eclectic chansons recordings, 2009’s Préliminaires and 2012’s Après; the fuzzy truth about the night the Stooges met Miles; and more. EVAN HAGA

JazzTimes: How did this recent project come about? I think a lot of people were genuinely surprised by the lineup.

IGGY POP: Bill Laswell contacted me and said there are some guys who really want vocals on something, and Bill’s very careful about what he says. He didn’t categorize the music; he just said, “You should check it out,” and he mentioned that it was on a special label, not a conglomerate. He didn’t give me names or anything, and I just asked that it be sent along.

It was the right time for me to get that music. I’d been out rockin’ for a long time and doing music that hits heavier, and I don’t always feel like hitting heavy. [laughs] So along came these three pieces, and I thought, “Wow.” The playing was beautiful and each one was different. They told me I could contribute to one or two or all of it, and I asked if I could do all three. I never did much talking about it after that. I just listened to it a lot.

Did you know much about the trio?

I didn’t. It took a long time before I even asked for names, and then I recognized Bobby’s name and I recognized Steve’s name from Carla Bley’s album Andando el Tiempo. I’d never heard of Jamie. But it really doesn’t matter—it’s kind of better that you don’t know. … It had a different vibe, and it was going to be challenging to try and contribute something to it. That was enough for me.

Steve Swallow, Jamie Saft and Bobby Previte (from left) (photo by Vin Cin)

With this recent recording and your two French albums, I feel like the press and public perception has been “Iggy does jazz,” like you’re doing your Great American Songbook record. But I hear much more from the singer-songwriter tradition here—Serge Gainsbourg or Tom Waits or even Leonard Cohen. Does that make sense?

I tried to avoid the former like the plague. But I don’t mind singing something that I didn’t write, and I really don’t mind singing something that isn’t primarily about me. I love that.

If you don’t mind getting specific, Préliminaires, it had a whole range of approaches. I did “Les feuilles mortes”—that is the original French of what we know as “Autumn Leaves.” I was asked if I’d [contribute music to] a documentary on the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, and I saw some footage on him, and he just looked like someone who’d known a lot of sadness and loneliness. And I thought, “That looks like ‘Autumn Leaves’—what I feel about ‘Autumn Leaves’ the music.” But I wouldn’t have thought that if I hadn’t appreciated the song. So I’m someone who’s really open to a lot of sorts of sounds, and I like the sound of the sea breeze. I ended up singing it in French, because I told them I wanted to sing “Autumn Leaves” and they got back to me a couple weeks later and said, “Well, for you to sing that and attach it to our film, the Americans want a fantastic amount of money. But if you sing the original we can do it cheap.” [laughs] And I didn’t know there was an original. The French lyric is much better. Johnny Mercer, as great as he is, the original is wow. There was another piece [on that album] called “King of the Dogs.”

I was going to ask about that. It has a co-writing credit for Lil Hardin.

[laughs] Here’s what happened. She played piano in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, and my favorite cut of theirs was “King of the Zulus.” … I wrote this song, and before I handed it in I was listening to the Hot Fives again and thought, “Oh shit, I ripped off ‘King of the Zulus.’ I better ask.” So I sent the publishers the track and said, “Look, I did this, it’s a lot like yours.” … There were a few different approaches: Part of it was jazzy; I did a porch blues … That kind of led into Après, which came about because French TV asked me to do a music hall. … I ended up singing quite a bit of French that day and enjoying it. And there were so many good French chansons that I couldn’t do on that show, and I thought, “Well, shit, there’s some connection between this and the Sinatra bel canto that I’ve always liked.” And there’s also “Michelle”—I’ve always loved that song. That’s how [my chansons recordings] came to be—it was sort of, “I like this music. I better do this now or I’ll never get a chance to do it, and I don’t want to end up stuck in a rut of obnoxious noise.” [laughs] To put it bluntly.

Were there any specific singers in the back of your mind when you were working on this project with the trio?

[laughs] This probably won’t make a great impression on you, but the first one of those three songs that I was able to feel I could get right into was the one that ended up being called “Everyday.” I was listening to it and sort of humming, and I had to make due with whatever the range was. So a couple of [the tracks] were really strange for my range. But that particular one, I just kept thinking, “Barry White could sing the hell out of this.” And I also thought of Teddy Pendergrass. These are not really jazzy people you think of.

The piece called “Loneliness Road,” I was thinking of a pianist, [“Nashville sound” innovator] Floyd Cramer, because of the way he voices the chords. I thought of trying to express myself in a way using lyrical phrases that derive from country. And there’s several good country or country-rock songs that use the idea of a road or a boulevard or that sort of thing. So that was kind of what I was after.

It was interesting to learn that Sinatra’s September of My Years was an important record for you.

I want to say I was 16, and I lived in a mobile home with my parents [in Michigan]. And my great father, and my mother, they were very diligent about allowing me open access to culture. … My father bought a piece of colonial-faux furniture that had a stereo in it, and we had that record by Sinatra. Before that, the trailer next door had a sick aunt who my mother took care of, and she was a Sinatra nut and listened to him day and night. And then, when I was about 7 years old, I think it was 1954, Frank had the hit “Young at Heart,” and I would ride around in the back of my parents’ car and my father would sing along—he loved the song. [Sings, “Fairytales can come true/It can happen to you.”] I still feel a lot of emotion toward that song. … It’s personal. I didn’t like “High Hopes” as much. [laughs] … [Sinatra] would from time to time try and be a cheerful, regular guy.

When I decided I wanted to be a vocalist, I would stand in the fantastically tiny living room of that mobile home, and this was after I’d graduated high school and quit drumming. I had a period when I lived with my parents on and off in my late teens. I had a Tom Jones album, a Them album, a Rolling Stones album and September of My Years. Those were the four templates for me when I didn’t know what to do. And then I had Muddy Waters’ The Real Folk Blues, and those were the sort of songs I wanted to write someday.

That was pretty much it. My father had an album by Lester Lanin; I didn’t like that so much. But he did have a compilation album that had “Cherokee” by Charlie Barnet on it. I thought, “Oh, wow, that’s bitchin’.” I didn’t hear hipster or free jazz until late 1968, ’69, [when] I met a guy who knew a guy.

I interviewed [MC5 guitarist] Wayne Kramer, and we spoke about the Detroit Artists Workshop, with players like trumpeter Charles Moore. Did you spend much time around that scene?

Not as much as they did, but I was aware of them. The key person there was [MC5 manager] John Sinclair, who knew his jazz. And he had a friend, a wonderful guy I suspect was a hashish connection for him, named Jimmy Silver, who became the Stooges’ manager. … I went to talk to him about being our manager, and he broke out some really strong Afghan hash with the government stamp on it and he put on A Love Supreme. I’d never heard anything like that. I really dug it for the first five minutes, and then when Coltrane started blowing crazy, when the sheets of sound came in, I had kind of a nauseous reaction. I shouldn’t say this—it was like the first time I did dope; I got really sick, and then two days later I wanted more. So there you go—you can edit that any way you want. But the dope was malevolent and the music was not. The music was benevolent to me over the years.

In 1970 I went to California to record [the Stooges’] Fun House, and [writer and legendary scenester] Eve Babitz played me Bitches Brew. And I thought, “Well, this has some things in common with Fun House.” From that I started listening to Jack Johnson and On the Corner. But I didn’t hear Sketches of Spain until ’84 or ’85.

Legend has it Miles was a Stooges fan. Is that true?

I have no idea. I know this much: We did a couple of stands of gigs at a joint called Ungano’s [in 1970]. I remember that it was on the Upper West Side, and I think it was near Miles’ apartment. … I don’t remember whether he was [at the gigs] or not. [Stooges guitarist] Ron Asheton says he came and that we met backstage, and I read somewhere somebody quoted [Miles as saying something complimentary about us]. But I have no idea, and that’s all I really know about Miles and the Stooges. [laughs] But why not? When we copped a groove, we copped a groove.

There’s an album called Have Some Fun, which is us live at Ungano’s, and the sound quality is almost unbearable even for me, and I like shit that sounds terrible sometimes. But the actual playing … Man, it’s real good. We did some good in the world.

How did the Stooges come to have Sun Ra open for them? What do you recall about that gig?

Again, this is only as good as my memory, but I think we were offered top billing at a very small, modest festival. I want to say it was in Jackson, Mich. … I want to say it was there in a tent, and I want to say it was just a few hundred people. I remember being asked, “Who would you want to play with you?” And I said, “Give me Sun Ra.”

What I do remember about it, and what I’ll never forget, was, besides the music, the fantastic visuals. And one particular part of the visuals, and you could probably trace this back to New Orleans, was that the horn players were able to do a kind of back-to-back, rolling, somersaulting ball of sax players that they could take off the stage and move through the audience as they played in their fantastic, sequined Middle Eastern robes. They would undulate as one; it was fabulous. And then he was immovable behind his instrument. What a rock; what a great guy.

For the Arkestra it was very important to live in the house. And that was something that, until we grew up, the Stooges did that for all those three records. I continued that tradition.

Iggy Pop (photo by Ross Halfin)

Did you seek out jazz in Chicago when you were working there as a young drummer? Were you being influenced by jazz drumming?

I remember that I subscribed to DownBeat for at least a year, and I would see these pictures of Elvin Jones—“Elvin Jones Plays Gretsch Drums.” How cool he was … I was aware that there was jazz around. But no … Look, if you’re 19 years old and you’ve been playing drums in a cover garage band and then you hear something in 5/4 time, you really don’t gravitate there. … I didn’t really pick it up.

The closest I came was to a guy who had an interesting style, Fred Below, and those people in the blues were great. But if you listen to Sam Lay, and if you listen particularly to his work on the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, listen to the cymbal work and the snare tone and the choices he makes rather than always playing a straight backbeat. It’s pretty near a jazz drummer’s approach, in that he doesn’t hit a rim shot—very seldom. He hits the snare properly. He’s not bashing a crash cymbal; he’s using the ride correctly and doing some real great things with both hands on a shuffle beat.

John Densmore … [the Doors] wouldn’t have been possible without his approach to the drums. Listen to how carefully and understated and quietly he drums until it’s time to let one go, and then you really hear him speak. How could you possibly otherwise organize a rock-and-roll rhythm section around a stride piano; you couldn’t with a two-fisted rock monkey drummer. He studied with people who know. Another guy I really benefitted from playing with was Hunt Sales, who actually got lessons from Buddy Rich, because his father, Soupy, was a jazz and R&B nut who put on shows.

How did your collaboration with Medeski Martin and Wood come together on 1999’s Avenue B?

That could have been [album producer] Don Was. I knew about them; the most successful thing we did was “I Felt the Luxury.” That was a spoken-word thing I had. I went to their loft and the four of us sat in a circle—no bigger than where each guy could reach out and touch the other guy. We sat in a circle facing each other, and we played the song with a live vocal, live drums, the works. … John was running the [recording] machine; he’d reach over. [laughs] It was like that. It was a great experience. I got them to do a rock track with me too. I didn’t think that was as successful. But I really like what they do.

When you were living in New York during the ’90s, were you checking out jazz in the clubs? Were you hearing bands at the Knitting Factory or the Village Vanguard?

I went to the Knitting Factory at least twice in my life. The best was when it was the old Knitting Factory, on Houston Street. It was upstairs, it was a fucking dump; it was a bare, long room upstairs with unpainted wood and these benches you could sit on. And the reason I went was I saw this thing in the Voice, and it said Gil Scott-Heron was playing. And I was like, “I’m there.” I saw Gil Scott, and he played—I want to say it was an Hohner. He played an electric set there. There were definitely way less than 20 people who came for this. I would say it was like 12, 13 people in the room. He just sat there and played the shit out of the thing and sang and it was so fuckin’ great. And the other time I went was to see Lou Reed, when they got their fancier digs downtown. … I went to Iridium to see Pharoah Sanders … and that was also wow. I wish I’d seen him earlier. If I’d known better I would have seen Tito Puente when I could have. That would’ve been well cool, you know? [laughs]

Being in Miami, has your enthusiasm for Afro-Cuban music and Latin-jazz been bolstered at all?

You can’t help it because you’re around a lot of Latin people here. Very early on I went to a couple of … People tried to start little rock venues in Miami Beach and they failed every time. But I would notice these little rock bands being started often by Hispanic kids who played so much better than any rock musicians because they learned from their uncle or their dad. The talent level was really high around here. And then there used to be a place called Tobacco Road, an important club here, that would book really good street-level jazz jams, R&B jams, all sorts of things like that, and I met a lot of good musicians down there. But I always had in the back of my mind that it would be great to put together a band of those [musicians] and try to mix it into what I do. But I haven’t found the right occasion yet. I’m not gonna really say [affects stern, fatherly voice], “Go read a book about the Stooges and study my mid-’70s period.” I wouldn’t want to do that.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Preview Loneliness Road album on Apple Music.

Read Mike Watt’s Artist’s Choice playlist on John Coltrane.

Read Jeff Tamarkin’s article on Iggy Pop’s jazz album.