Carbon/Silicon: Punk Veterans Embrace the Web Mick Jones, former lead guitarist of The Clash, and Tony James, once of the Billy Idol-fronted Generation X, promoted their latest project by giving music away on the Web. They released their first CD in January.

Carbon/Silicon: Punk Veterans Embrace the Web

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring a series of entertaining interviews from 2008. On this last day of the year, we're going to hear from the members of two bands - REM and Carbon/Silicon. Carbon/Silicon isn't nearly as well known as the bands the two co-founders came from. Mick Jones, Carbon/Silicon's lead guitarist and singer, was the lead singer of the seminal British punk band, The Clash, and co-wrote many of the band songs with Joe Strummer.

In fact, in Rolling Stone's list of the 10 best song writing duos ever, Strummer and Jones were number three, after Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards. Carbon/Silicon's Tony James was the bass player in Generation X, the band that introduced singer Billy Idol. James and Jones formed Carbon/Silicon in 2002. They've released a lot of music on the Internet, but earlier this year, they released their first full-length CD. It's called the "The Last Post." When I spoke to them in January, we started with the opening track, which is called "The News."

(Soundbite of NPR's Fresh Air, January 29, 2008)

(Soundbite of song "The News")

CARBON/SILICON: (Singing) People started caring about what they eat. And people started smiling at everyone they meet. And people started looking for good instead of bad. Realize what they could lose in what they always had. People started growing instead of being crushed. And people started slowing down instead of being rushed. And people started looking with very different eyes. And this information now comes as a surprise. Good morning. Here's the news, and all of it is good. Good evening. Here's the news, and all of it is good. And the weather's good...

GROSS: That's "The News" from the new Carbon/Silicon recording, "The Last Post." Mick Jones, Tony James, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. MICK JONES (Lead Guitarist and Singer, Carbon/Silicon): Hello.

Mr. TONY JAMES (Bass Player, Carbon/Silicon): Hi, there.

GROSS: Mick, your voice has such warmth, and it's a different sound than I associate with the more confrontational style of The Clash.

Mr. JONES: Well, it's the same voice, obviously. You know, I mean, I used to sing more backup vocals, and Joe used to do the main singing. Now, I sort of do the main singing and some of the backing vocals on the record, so that's - that has obviously changed. But as far as being - we're still like - we're not quite as confrontational in terms of horribleness, but in a nice way, I still feel we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: We've got something to say.

GROSS: Well, you first played together in the pre-Clash days in a band called London SS. What brought you back together?

Mr. JAMES: Well, we've been best friends for 30-something years, you know? And we never set out to form a band, you know? We just started off with one song, called "MP3," about giving music away on the Internet. This was five years ago. And you know, we didn't sit down and go, let's form a band. We just sat down and went, let's write a song together, you know?

Mr. JONES: Just sort of ended up doing it really...

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, and it grew into a band because we wrote a lot of songs together. And then, we thought maybe we'd go and play live, and then maybe we'd put a record out, you know, so…

Mr. JONES: But it still came out from other things because we'd been talking about it before we even started playing together. Again, we'd been talking about, how can you do music, if you're our age, with any meaning? We were looking for some meaning and everything that we were trying to do in order to bring some value to it.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

Mr. JONES: And so we started, like, you know, we could just do this. We had to get over a lot of horrible truths about ourselves and stuff, but we managed it. And so, like, that stuff don't matter.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another track from the new Carbon/Silicon CD, called "The Last Post." And I thought we'd hear "Caesar's Palace." Before we hear it, why don't you talk about your approach to writing songs together, specifically to writing this song together?

Mr. JONES: I just write on the bus and things like that when I'm sitting upstairs, and I'm trying not to get happy slapped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I often write a lot of stuff while I'm driving. I sit there with that, dangerous though that is, I sit there with a notepad on my nap - on my lap...

Mr. JONES: That's really dangerous, T, especially if you're on the phone with the other hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I've perfected this way of just scribbling on big sheets of paper on my lap, something about the rhythm of driving at 70 miles an hour.

Mr. JONES: Well, that's the same with the bus. It's like kadum, kadum, kadum, kadum...

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

Mr. JONES: And that's the way you first - you get the rhythm. It's actually in the air.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Caesar's Palace" from the new Carbon/Silicon CD.

Mr. JONES: We like this one.

GROSS: And this is Mick Jones and Tony James.

(Soundbite of song "Caesar's Palace")

CARBON/SILICON: (Singing) I wish we could see where the dreams all went. I wish we could see where the money got spent. I wish we could see that the greatest crime. Was to fool all of the people to spend all their time.

I wish we could see why we need so much stuff. I wish we could see that enough is enough. I wish we could see that the goings got tough. 'Cause my living room's crammed, and my passion's backed off.

Value what is necessary. Leave what is not. And tell me what I'm doing in another shop.

I wish we could see that we're outta control. I wish we could see that we binge out our soul.

GROSS: That's "Caesar's Palace" from the new Carbon/Silicon CD. And Carbon/Silicon features Mick Jones and Tony James. When you first started playing together in the '70s, in a band called London SS...

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: What was that band like?



Mr. JONES: We did MC5 numbers and Flaming Gurus numbers and the odd Stones number and numbers off Lenny Kaye's Nuggets. It was all just copies...

Mr. JAMES: Garage rock...

GROSS: So it was like garage rock, hard rock, and a political edge...

Mr. JONES: It's a tribute to The Standells.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah. Very garage rock, not especially political at that stage.

Mr. JONES: I just really wanted to be in a band, and also that was a very bad name that we had, as well. And so, obviously...

GROSS: Well, yes. Let me just say - I mean SS, you know...

Mr. JONES: Definitely.

GROSS: As far as Nazi Germany…

Mr. JAMES: Especially, we're very ashamed at that. And that was, like, when were young and stupid, you know?

Mr. JONES: And you know, I have this theory about this band, because it never really worked out - that band.

Mr. JAMES: We never played a date or recorded anything or anything like that.

Mr. JONES: Somehow, I believe that sort of karma stopped that group being a success because it would've been a very negative thing to be propagating.

Mr. JAMES: And it was a load of old rubbish anyways, so...

Mr. JONES: You look back at the, sort of, you know, at your youthful excesses, and you go, this was a stupid idea, guys. But you know, you look back and that with the experience of being a 50-year-old now.

Mr. JAMES: And that's especially funny because we're back together again. And every person who ever asks a question - everybody brings that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: And so, it's our shame that we have to bear.

Mr. JONES: It's our cross.

Mr. JAMES: Every time, we bear it. And we bear it. And we try - we feel shame, how shameful it is. But we shouldn't really be talking, like, making a big deal about it.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

Mr. JAMES: So fed up with it.

Mr. JONES: I know. See, now, we talked for five minutes about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Before you got into a more punk side of things, you were both into glam rock, right?

Mr. JONES: We'd like the New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders and those kind of bands.

Mr. JAMES: And the Stooges.

Mr. JONES: And the Stooges.

GROSS: So, can you talk about - like, were there two different styles that, early in your career, you inhabited on stage, both in terms of like...

Mr. JAMES: No, not at all, really. I mean I think, you know, we came out of - remember, the New York Dolls was '73, you know? So, the glam rock period was '72, '73. So, you know, it was '75 before we were playing.

Mr. JONES: And by that time, the platforms had got lower.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Because they were so difficult. Sometimes I used to go down - I had big platforms on, and then I'd go headfirst down the stairs. So, I was glad to all that stopped.

Mr. JAMES: It was an uncomfortable look.

GROSS: So, you did the platform thing, and the glitter, and the eye makeup...

Mr. JONES: Before, before…

Mr. JAMES: Definitely, yeah - '74, '75. It was never popular with our parents.

GROSS: So what...

Mr. JONES: We went to Bieber's(ph), and we bought a load of ocelot-type material. And then, we got someone to do us a pair of really tight trousers each.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Do you remember them? We almost had to be stitched into these trousers.

Mr. JAMES: Bieber's t-shirts only came in size zero, so you had to be really thin to get them on.

GROSS: Now, the Sex Pistols were the first, like, really famous punk band. You were already playing when they...

Mr. JAMES: Well, The Clash were already playing, right? Well, The Clash were playing…

Mr. JONES: Well, the Pistols were like about a few months - they were already going. And then, there's a couple of other groups that were going but didn't have the direction of - under than label of punk or something like that. There's bands like The Stranglers were around before...

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...Eddie and the Hot Rods. The Jam was sort of...

Mr. JAMES: Descol(ph).

Mr. JONES: ...playing worthy. And there's a lot of bands, but they haven't quite made the full transition. But the sector(ph) was when you see them it's not all over completely different thing. You know, I mean they...

Mr. JAMES: The Pistols definitely changed things.

Mr. JONES: They were like - they changed things, and that was like the new thing that came in after The Pistols, all punk groups that had come before it. They sort of weren't keyed up, if you know what I mean.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JAMES: And then the groups the came after The Pistols, where there was like a few of them...

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...that were like kind of good. But we are always saying that everybody can do it, but you still need to have a bit of an idea or something.

Mr. JAMES: Because the ironic thing was that that look was so powerful, yet people were able to change overnight because if you add long hair it was really easy to just go and cut it all off and rip the arms out off your T-shirt, and then you were on it, you know what I mean?

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

Mr. JAMES: If they'd been the other way around then you had to grow your hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: It would have taken...

Mr. JAMES: It would've taken years.

Mr. JONES: I did actually - because England's only a small place, you know, Britain's a pretty small place, it spreads like wildfire around the country.

Mr. JAMES: And it had taken a while to understand that to be different suddenly you could have short hair and ripped T-shirts and tight trousers instead of long hair.

Mr. JONES: All that stuff was really important because everybody had flares, right?

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

Mr. JONES: And then it looks - they looked at you and went like, Bloody hell, if you had straight trousers.

Mr. JAMES: That's right.

Mr. JONES: It was outrageous.

GROSS: Mick, can I ask you how you first met Joe Strummer?

Mr. JONES: Well, Joe was playing in this group, The 101ers...

Mr. JAMES: I mean we used to go and see 'em together...

Mr. JONES: That's right...

Mr. JAMES: ...all the time.

GROSS: And 101 was like the address of the squat that he was living in?

Mr. JONES: 101 was, yeah. 101 Walterton Road.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Anyway, so they were quite a happening group really, and he was a really good - and so one day the rest as we approached him - like the manager - the managers went to one of his gigs, we all went to one of his gigs - and he went around the back and said, Joe now(ph), I want you to these guys, and that was us. And so we kind of like we arrange that he would come out and meet us, and we were all in this squat in Shepherd's Bush, and he came around. And that was when we first probably met him. Although we'd seen him in the dole office beforehand, and then also down Portabello(ph) Road as you do you know sort of nodding, all right, but nothing more. And then he can't come around to where we were. And then that was it, and we pretty much(ph) said do you want to join this group, these guys. And Joe could already see the way things are going and went, yeah, I'm in.

GROSS: So I guess you know, hearing you sing on Carbon/Silicon I'm wondering like, why didn't you see yourself as the lead singer of your band?

Mr. JONES: Oh, you know why? Because I start on like a Stylophone, you know this kind of electronic organ that you hear on David Bowie's Space Oddity. And then I moved up to drums, and then I moved up to bass. And then I thought, I can handle a couple more strings here, and then I started playing guitar. And so, I always wanted to - I thought it was always cooler just to play the guitar. And I just like you didn't have to work so hard, and pressure wasn't on you. And then after Joe went sort of stepped up and started doing it, but I always wanted to just do guitar and sing a few backups.

GROSS: So you didn't want the pressure being a front man?

Mr. JONES: Or anything, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: See, now you know.

GROSS: You were actually forced out of the band and...

Mr. JONES: Yeah isn't that - imagine that. That's your own band you get chucked out of. Being chucked out of band's ain't(ph) big deal. You get hit, it took years to get over though, traumatically. (Laughing) But it was - it's like, it used to happen all the time, it was called going, can we take you for a drink, and that meant we go for a drink and that means you're getting fired. If you're in a band it's like, that's all - it used to happen all the time, you know. So I just - we got fed out with each other basically.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: But you know it was loads of fun, but in the end, you know - I mean, I think the bigger we've got the more screwed up we became. You know what I mean? Because we couldn't - we were trying really hard and we couldn't handle it. It was just too much for us. And the bigger we got the worse we fell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How much of like a crisis - an identity crisis even was it for you when you were...

Mr. JONES: It was very bad.

GROSS: ..were pushed out of the class.

Mr. JONES: It was very bad for me, it was so bad. That's right around the time of the Notting Hill Carnival, so I couldn't walk around without seeing somebody I knew.

Mr. JAMES: And actually your phone's ringing...

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. JONES: And then I kind of try disguises for a while. I dyed my hair, put glasses on.

Mr. JAMES: You looked like me now?

Mr. JONES: I grow beard. I looked like Manson, I went to Paris. I was afraid to see anybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: It was a messed up period, yeah. We seemed to became friends again, though we never just got back together again as a group.

Mr. JAMES: That's right. I mean you were...

Mr. JONES: But we were close friends after.

Mr. JAMES: You were putting B.A.D. together pretty quickly, weren't you? And you were helping me to put...

Mr. JONES: Almost straight away...

Mr. JAMES: Helping me to put together Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

GROSS: Well, actually I play one really classic Clash record while you're here. So I thought we play "London Calling," and Mick Jones, you co-wrote this. Would you talk a little bit about the song, like getting the song together?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was - at the time we were writing it there was this map that they showed you if the Thames barrier ever burst its banks. They showed you what part of London would be under water. And it was like completely all around - all the west end,

Mr. JAMES: Everywhere we...

Mr. JONES: ...and everywhere we lived. If there everything like that. If it ever broke its banks we will be flooded, and that was like the original kind of apocalyptic message of the song.

(Soundbite of song "London Calling")

THE CLASH: (Singing) London calling to the faraway towns Now that war is declared and battle come down London calling to the underworld Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls London calling, now don't look at us Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust London calling, see we ain't got no swing 'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin Engines stop running, but I have no fear Cause London is drowning and I, live by the river.

GROSS: That's The Clash featuring guitarist Mick Jones, with their 1979 recording "London Calling." My guests are Mick Jones and Tony James, co-founders of the band Carbon/Silicon. More after our break. This is Fresh Air.

My guests are the founders of the band Carbon/Silicon, Mick Jones and Tony James. Mick Jones was the lead guitarist of The Clash and co-wrote many of their songs. Tony James played bass in Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

Tony, I have question for you about...


GROSS: Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And this is going to be about how you looked in it. You know, you have talked before about how during punk hair got shorter and you could change her look. You could just like cut your hair...

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

GROSS: ...and make it short. But in Zig Zig Sputnik you had this like really long spikey things piled up high on your head.

Mr. JAMES: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Was that your real hair?

Mr. JAMES: Well, that's why that band took five years to get together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: It took five years in makeup.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, five years in makeup.

GROSS: Why did you head in that direction?

Mr. JAMES: You know what those - the colored hair were extensions. They were tied into our real hair.


Mr. JAMES: And actually the singer - it was Degville's idea because you know he had a - shared an apartment with Boy George at that time, and they both had this freaky super-extended hair, you know. And it was actually made up of bits of fur like how they used to buy this goat's hair rugs, cut it into little pieces, dye it pink and tie it into your own hair with pipe cleaners...

Mr. JONES: Hence, the word rug.

Mr. JAMES: Hence, the word rug. (Laughing) Slang for wigs in English. So all those extensions were tied into my hair, which was long, with pipe cleaners. So it was possible to take the extensions out, you know, on a weekend if you were having a day off.

Mr. JONES: Thanks for joining us for Hair Tips.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: But generally having two meters of pink hair hanging it down your back it was a pain in the ass.

Mr. JONES: And you know...

Mr. JAMES: As we're walking around in girl's high-heeled shoes. So it was a bit of a sort of a glam rock revisited. But it was a startling look, you know, and again, set it aside from everything else at that time.

GROSS: How did it feel to go into that look after coming out of punk?

Mr. JAMES: Well, it - it was - you know, again, it was shocking because suddenly everybody had short hair, and everybody look normal. So to suddenly look like this space monster was totally fresh, you know. So it was a startling look around London. Not so popular with getting girlfriends, I have to tell you.

GROSS: Why do you think that was?

Mr. JAMES: Because we looked ridiculous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, now you're on stage looking just like yourselves...

Mr. JAMES: Also, I'd have to say, you end up having sex, and then you get out of bed, and there's half a pile of pink hair still in the bed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: You know what I mean? So...

GROSS: You wouldn't take it off for your intimate moments?

Mr. JAMES: It was a real - It was a real hazard look for groupies, I tell you.

GROSS: You wouldn't take all that stuff off?

Mr. JAMES: Well, but not - oh, well, that would be really disappointing...

Mr. JONES: That takes too long.

Mr. JAMES: Take too long...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They liked it.

Mr. JAMES: In moments...

Mr. JONES: And put it over at the side of the bed.

Mr. JAMES: In moments of extreme passion...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And a glass on the side of the bed.

Mr. JAMES: Girls would pull your hair and it would come out in their hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: This was before I was married, I have to tell you.

GROSS: Oh, of course. So now on stage you look like yourselves.

Mr. JAMES: We do. We look like ourselves.

Mr. JONES: Eventually we found ourselves.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

GROSS: Is it a more...

Mr. JAMES: Hair is not an issue now.

GROSS: Is it - do you feel any more...

Mr. JONES: No good issue.

Mr. JAMES: No longer an issue.

GROSS: Do you feel any more vulnerable or naked just performing as yourselves without any special clothes or persona...

Mr. JAMES: Actually, actually I find it now more comfortable going on stage than ever because actually I'm getting up and I'm being really me. And it's just about the guitar playing and the singing, and the songs. It's not about the image suddenly, although I suppose you could say there is an image, aye, an image of 50-year old guys being themselves. But, this is not pantomime like Sputnik, and it's not an aggressive look like punk was. It's us being just ourselves.

GROSS: Mick, another question from an earlier part of your life. What - you were largely raised by your grandmother.

Mr. JONES: That's right.

GROSS: And when you were in The Clash, and The Clash was really big, you were still going home to your grandmother's place for...

Mr. JONES: Very, very often, yeah. I sometimes get myself a flat for a few months and then I ended up going back to the -

GROSS: You know, for some people it's...

Mr. JONES: Our council home.

GROSS: For some people it's so peculiar when you go back to like, the bedroom that you grew up in after you're an adult.

Mr. JONES: Oh, I know, I know.

GROSS: And it makes you feel like a child again. So what was it like after being on road with The Clash and then go home to the bedroom you grew up in your grandmother's place?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was a very - it was great, actually. It was where I learnt to play guitar, the same room. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. JONES: I was like, spent like a year solid in there playing all the people's records first and so, it was like very good. And then - before that I lived with my grandmother, her sister, and her sister-in-law. So it was like, I was brought up by like, three old ladies. So I suppose it does sound quite peculiar.

Mr. JAMES: What about when you signed the first record deal, and you played for your grand to go to America to see your mother, because your mother's in America...

Mr. JONES: Yeah, that's right.

Mr. JAMES: And we pretended that your grandmother's flat was our flat for three weeks and moved all the furniture out.

Mr. JONES: Oh, that's right. We had our rat pack pound(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: It was fantastic.

Mr. JAMES: We'd go clubbing...

Mr. JONES: We would tell you it was our flat.

Mr. JAMES: We go clubbing and bring girls back and say we had this really cool penthouse flat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: It was really his grandmother's house.

GROSS: How did your grandmother react when she came home?

Mr. JAMES: Well, we moved it all back again...

Mr. JONES: (unintelligible) she didn't know.

GROSS: Well, it's really been great to talk with you both. I love the new CD, thank you so much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you very much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you. I hope people get some positivity from it.

GROSS: Mick Jones and Tony James co-founded the band Carbon/Silicon. Our interview was recorded in January when they released their CD "The Last Post." Here's another track from it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "War on Culture")

CARBON/SILICON: (Singing) I say, I say, I say, There's a conspiracy and tryin' for a coup I think we should be free to do what we want to do. You may ...

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