Q: Let's talk about the "Armed Forces" box set, a new reissue of your 1979 album.
A: I will say that this box is obviously a gift you’d give to somebody. It’s an expensive item because that’s what it costs to do something on this scale, not just the scale in terms of the amount of music, but more importantly the undertaking of doing all this art in this way and presenting it coherently. That said, my friend Gary Stewart, who I worked with at Rhino, we did the previous coherent edition somewhere in the early 2000s. This set is dedicated to Gary because, you know, we lost him last year and I really miss him.
Q: As a kid, I couldn't totally understand "Armed Forces," but I liked how the words fit together. And in "Green Shirt," what's the Quisling Clinic?
A: I went to Madison, Wisconsin, for the first time in the winter of ’77 and saw the Quisling Clinic. It was a medical building with the same name as the Norwegian fascist Vidkun Quisling. I imagined some dark, sinister thing happening within those walls, which is not really fair to the people who were there. But I didn’t see it as being about accuracy. I thought everything was like a signpost to an idea, to a feeling. And yes, it was all happening at speed. And some of the language I wrote . . . I was using the words to do with political systems of control to write about my feelings about the way we were treating each other. It was also about the excitement of being in the United States. People would talk about swinging London and everything, but that was all gone. Whereas America, even though to the local people it might have seemed very mundane, to me it was like another planet. Record stores that stayed open until midnight, clubs much later. You could go out to a club at 4 or 5 in the morning in Chicago, and it was everything I had ever read about in the history of jazz, blues, all the music I loved. Truthfully, I didn’t then and still don’t really like rock music. I mean, some people might say I play it, but not in my head. None of my reference points are rock. The whole ’70s rock thing went by me.
Q: I feel like you probably weren't a huge fan of, like, Grand Funk Railroad — not to single anyone out.
A: Well, I’m not even a huge fan of Led Zeppelin. I’ve never owned a record by Led Zeppelin. I have no idea what they sound like. I once did a guest appearance with Sheryl Crow and I sang “Peace, Love and Understanding” with her band. I’d opened up and she said, “Do you want to come out for the encore?” I said, “Sure, what’s the song?” And she said, “Rock and Roll.” I said, “What? Rock-and-roll? Which song? It was like a “who’s on first” kind of thing.
Q: I want to ask you about some of the music on your new album, "Hey Clockface." A song like "No Flag" sounds as if it could be on "Armed Forces."
A: I don’t know that it would have been actually.
Q: Go with me for a second. And then you listen to "They're Not Laughing at Me Now." And that's about one of the most beautiful ballads I've heard you do.
A: Thank you.
Q: And you actually beat box on this record. And when I say that, I think people are going to be fearful. But I'm telling you, it works.
A: It’s not supposed to make you say, “Oh, now he’s a rapper.” I’m somewhat limited technically as a musician, so I just created over the broken pieces of what I’m capable of doing. And combining my vocal percussion with some other prerecorded drum to add to the accents on the organ just expresses the rhythm a different way, which frees you then to perform the song the way you hear me singing it. You know, you mention “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now,” one of the songs that we recorded in Paris. Well, I think if you listen to what happens in the bridge, where the drums come in, which I recorded, actually right where I’m sitting, you know, I just played those drums.
Q: That reminded me of the bridge in "Sleep of the Just" off "King of America."
A: I learned a lot from [drummer] Jim Keltner. I mean, it’s just a simple backbeat. It’s not complicated. The cellist on the track was French, and I don’t speak French. He wasn’t totally conversational English, but he did communicate to me. But while we were doing that track, he said, “I like to stamp my feet sometimes.” I said, “Go right ahead.” And he is the kick drum. So all I had to do is on the snare.
Q: In the liner notes of "Hey Clockface," you thank [your first producer], Nick Lowe. From what I understand, you played a show on March 13 in London, and you were set to go into the studio with your band, the Imposters. Was Lowe going to produce that?
A: We played the Apollo in a completely sold-out house with lots of empty seats, and then I heard the next morning that the border was going to close and I’d better get home to Canada now. I was really trying to hang on, and we all were because we were excited. We were going to go into Abbey Road originally with Sebastian Krys, our producer on “Hey Clockface,” to cut some songs. I still wasn’t making an album, just doing recording sessions.
It just so happened that that afternoon, Nick and his wife, Peta, were coming over to see me before they got out of town. They came over to my hotel room, and by then I realized there was no way Sebastian could leave L.A. to fly to us with the situation deteriorating. And I was still holding on to the idea of the session the following Thursday after our last shows, even if they were canceled. So I asked Nick, “Would you consider sitting in the chair as producer?” And he said, “Do you want me to just sit there or really do something? You know, old chap, I don’t really do that kind of thing anymore.” And I said, “Yeah, but I know you can.” I’ve known Nick since I was 17. It was very, very emotional for me to ask him, because there’s really no reason why we haven’t worked together again after 1996. So Nick and I walked to the door and almost went through it to make another record again. I see no reason that when things get back to normal, or whatever we laughably call normal, why we wouldn’t get together and make some music again.