Rare Interview: Jonathan Richman Corresponds With Us About the Internet, Air Conditioning, and Being a Punk Godfather
By Emma Silvers
Wed., Jun. 27 2012
Like so many Jonathan Richman devotees, we first fell for the lanky singer-songwriter after hearing the Modern Lovers’ homage to the Velvet Underground, “Roadrunner.” From the nasally, gleeful count-off to the plaintive “Come on you girls of modern rock ‘n’ roll!” (What? What do you need? We’re right here!), we’ve been wrapped around his finger ever since.
Whether lamenting relationships gone awry or the difficulty of buying jeans, celebrating wine, lesbian bars, or the crap Pablo Picasso got away with, Richman naturally exists in the kind of nakedly genuine, endearingly eccentric world some indie bands pay PR people to fake for them. At 61, there’s no question he’s a cult music icon; if he weren’t so damn innocuous, he’d make a great cult leader. In recent years, his performances are solo but for drummer Tommy Larkins, a guitar, and a tendency to sing in three languages.
The Boston native and erstwhile Berkeley resident also tends to turn down interviews, which is why we were giddy when he agreed to answer a few questions ahead of his show this Sunday, July 1, at the Make-Out Room — provided we include a snail mail address. Thanks for the letter, sir.
So many of your songs are really anchored in a geographical place. Do you write a lot about your surroundings, or more from memory?
Sometimes I make up songs about “now,” sometimes about “the past.” I can’t predict it. Just whatever moves me at that moment.
Can you describe your relationship (or lack thereof) with the Internet?
As far as the Internet is concerned, I don’t have a computer and don’t know how to use one.
You’re also known to be anti-air conditioning. Is there one bad air conditioning experience that stands out to you? Is it a metaphor for refusing to be human (a la “when we refuse to suffer”?) Or does sweating just automatically make a show better?
I’ve got two problems with it. 1) It’s loud 2) It feels weird.
What are some newer (past decade?) bands that you listen to?
New music? Oh…”The Dirty Three”…among others.
What do you think of the term “Godfather of Punk”? Has anyone ever called you that to your face? Does it make you laugh or feel uncomfortable or something else?
I think it’s very nice. I’m glad our old band could have influenced other musicians — given them a “way,” so to speak.
In the last “interview” you granted, the poem you wrote and recorded earlier this year for UK’s Mojo, you said it was strange to be turning 60 but playing shows where “the people stay 20.” Why do you think your music is so perennially appealing to young people?
With the younger people at the shows, we’ve asked some of ’em how they know about us and they say they see clips of us on YouTube, then they come. Oh, incidentally, my music has not always appealed to young (20-year-old) people. Especially when I was a 20-year-old people! Also in the late ’70s through the ’80s it was hit or miss… and I think that was partly because of a rigidity in my music at that time. It’s now that it’s the best time: we have (me and my drummer Tommy Larkins) the best, overall, times with audiences of all ages, in the U.S. and everywhere, right now.
… Answers to questions you didn’t ask me:
A few of my favorite guitarists are Los Amaya, a Spanish group of the 1970’s, and Raimundo Amador, Paco Del Gastor, Juan del Gastor and Diego del Gastor, and Clifton White (Sam Cooke’s player).
In San Francisco, my favorite guitar player in town is Kenny Parker. Also Tommy Dunbar, whom I’ve worked with in the recording studio recently. When I record I still sometimes work with Greg Keranen on bass who I’ve known since he and Tommy Dunbar and Donn Spindt all played on records with me in the ’70s. Donn has been on recent recording sessions of mine, too.