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Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano on the Anniversary of Bloodletting and Turning Down Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson

L.A.’s Concrete Blonde, who plays Webster Hall tonight, is celebrating twenty years of its gothy rock-and-roll masterpiece Bloodletting, the album that birthed the infamous triplets “Joey,” “Caroline,” and “Tomorrow Wendy.” Though singer-bassist Johnette Napolitano has a harrowing, soulful voice, she prefers to let her fingers do the talking when it comes to interviews — she has no landline and didn’t want to jack up her cell-phone bill. Napolitano e-mailed Vulture about vampires, magic molé, and denying Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson.

What do you remember about the Bloodletting sessions?
We had to send our drummer [Harry Rushakoff] home from London the night before we went in the studio. He was really strung out, and I just had to send his ass home. We'd had a gig the night before and Paul Thompson, the drummer from Roxy Music, was there. He loved us and just fell in. I remember [producer] Chris Tsangerides wanted Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden to sing with me, and he showed up in the studio and I was just, no fucking way. All respect, dude, but no fucking way.

There's a notion that Bloodletting was your "Goth" album.
Well I'd been spending a lot of time in New Orleans. That was when the Vampire Lestat was all the rage and I was really into those books. New Orleans is as Goth as any place I've ever been. It's funny: When it was finished, I didn't really feel that it was a cohesive record, but now I can see that it very much was. I can be a pretty funny chick, but I started writing songs when I was 12 and childhood wasn't very happy. Music was always a safe place for me to go to be alone. That's been the function of music my whole life. It's just now I'm able to step back from that, enjoy the songs as if they weren't my songs, enjoy them musically, melodically. I'm in a good place in my life. I'm very lucky.

The title track "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" was about eighteen years too early to capitalize on the Twilight-induced vampire craze.
I would be lying if I said I hadn't thought about that. I'm working on something with David J from Bauhaus/Love and Rockets and our friend Shok on a project called Tres Vampires. We have a few things recorded that are so damn creepy, vampire love duets. We’re trying to work on that and hopefully, in the fall, stream a show. Hell, we're not dumb — if we can cash in on that shiz, we may as well.

How did you come to cover "Tomorrow Wendy" by Andy Prieboy?

We met Wall of Voodoo when we opened for them in Australia; we were close friends. Andy is a genius songwriter, and I just could not NOT do this song, a true story about a woman with AIDS. I had to do this song, and people just needed this song to exist. So many people have been comforted by it. For some reason, little kids love it too. I think the “Hey, hey, my my” nursery rhyme thing is what it's all about for them!

A bulk of the album deals with loss and pain, but redemption and triumph are integral parts of both the lyrics and the music.

Well, there really is no other way to deal with, process, assimilate, and move on from grief and pain but for art, which exists to relieve us. There was a great Mexican film, Like Water for Chocolate, and the girl is cooking in the kitchen and weeping, and her tears fall into the molé, and everyone at the dinner who eats the molé starts weeping. The listener is moved because he can relate to the experience that the artist has expressed. The art is successful if it has expressed what the listener cannot and evoked emotion [in the listener]. With this record, the thing that was a huge surprise was that it was mine. It was intensely personal, and when I started getting mountains of mail from people who related to it so strongly, I was blown away at the common human experience. The closer to the bone, the closer to the heart, the more alike we find we are. I could go for "blood" metaphors, but ...

What do you get Joey, Wendy, and Caroline for their 20th birthdays?
My Dad and I had a great trip to New Orleans back in the nineties, and I've spent a lot of time down there this year. I would love to buy them all a Flamenco club called Blood down there next year, and have all my Flamenco friends play.

Photo: Kelly A. Swift/Retna