The Big Read – Iggy Pop: “Punk has to have a sense of hopelessness about it”

Iggy Pop is not exactly who you think he is. Yes, he’s the punk powerhouse behind some of the greatest live performances in rock ‘n’ roll history. And yes, he's the man behind an embarrassment of killer tracks – among them ‘The Passenger’, ‘Lust For Life’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, ‘Nightclubbing’, ‘Real Wild Child’ – that set a manifesto for rock ‘n’ roll excess. But, as NME Editor Charlotte Gunn finds when she meets with him in London, he’s also a kind, contemplative and curious soul who likes pink, fluffy clouds, collaborating with young artists and “rhythm tracks that go BOING BOING GGRRRRRRRR”. As he releases his eighteenth solo album ‘Free’, Pop ponders whether – after five decades at rock’s coalface – he’s finally won his “million in prizes”.

Seven floors up, in London’s grand Savoy hotel, Jim Osterberg is looking out the window.

“It’s a little embarrassing” he says chuckling, his trademark drawl a little softer than usual. “Why should I get a view of Big Ben, y’know? The tourist from Bumfuck?”

Er, well maybe, sir, because you are THE Iggy Pop? Punk pioneer, sinewy stage-diver and one of the world’s most influential living musicians? The man who throughout a 50-year career has continued to reinvent himself, attract swathes of new fans and put on one of the most energetic, joy-filled live shows the world has ever seen?

“Well, sure.” he looks bashful. “It’s nice if you can get it, I suppose.”

iggy pop
Photo Credit: Rob Baker Ashton

What brings Iggy to this swanky establishment is the release of his 18th solo album, ‘Free’.

For this one, Pop, for the most part, lends his voice to others artists’ compositions, lyrics and poetry. The result? A jazz-tinged, melancholic collection that is quite unlike his previous work. One thing morbidly springs to mind on first listen: please don’t let this be his ‘Blackstar’.

Upon further inspection though, we can relax; the record is as cheeky as it is introspective. Tracks such as ‘James Bond’ and ‘Dirty Sanchez’ draw on Pop’s sense of humour and zero-fucks-given stage persona, something that comes across when we speak, but less as an arrogance, more as a mischievous twinkle.

Pop giggles frequently at memories of ridiculous characters from his past (the “run-of-the mill criminal” who funded a movie just to make his girlfriend a star, the old manager who bemoaned him for not generating a return on his investment: “the douchebag got the money from the record label anyway, in return for my hide!”). He is modest, interested and thoroughly good company. And at times, he is the Iggy we have come to know, the slow, deep tones of his voice recounting, in detail, studio sessions or recording techniques with his two key collaborators on ‘Free’, the musicians Sarah Lipstate – aka Noveller – and Leron Thomas.

If their names aren’t familiar to you, then you’d be forgiven. Despite a lifetime spent in rock n’ roll and more than a few famous compadres to speak of, this is not a mega-star-studded record like 2016’s remarkable ‘Post-Pop Depression’, the album that saw Pop do an Avengers Assemble with Josh Homme and Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders to make the most commercially-successful Iggy Pop record to date. This time, Pop discovered his collaborators while doing homework for his 6 Music radio show, Iggy Confidential.

“I got seduced by the principal artists on the record – Leron and Sarah – and I started to think maybe I could do something with their stuff. Leron is an advanced, schooled musician and Sarah is very neutral with what she writes. She doesn’t lay on the syrup. I didn’t think it was going to be a record but then I realised, if I spend a little more money and really form it, this could be a record that I would really feel good about. I could afford it and I had the time, so that’s what happened.”

Sort of an album by accident, then?

“Accidentally them, but not accidentally me. I was looking for something.”

The record sprawls from Leron’s jazz trumpet on album opener ‘Free’ to the sexy snarl of ‘James Bond’ and on to two beautiful poetry readings: one is Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and the other is a verse written by Lou Reed, titled We The People.

“I hadn’t heard We The People until recently,” says Iggy. “A book of Lou’s poetry came in the mail and I opened it up and it was the first thing on the first page. I read it and I thought I understood it. I thought it was now. And reading it, I could hear Leron’s piano and trumpet solo in my head and thought, ‘That’s a match’.”

In the poem, which – he’s right – could have been written in 2019, Reed tells of the ‘berserk nation’ we live in. Is that how Iggy sees the world?

“It’s been that way for a long time. It goes that way at times. It feels like it’s lurching a little bit right now. I’d like to think it will all work itself out but I gotta be honest, there’s part of me that feels really fortunate that I am the age that I am, if you get my meaning.”

Oh. I think I do.

“That’s terrible! I’m sorry! That’s terrible! That’s no good at all! But I do think that a little bit. Things are rockin’ in a strange way.”

iggy pop
Photo Credit: Rob Baker Ashton

Perhaps surprisingly from the Godfather of Punk, validation is something Iggy has been craving throughout his career. Despite generations of artists citing him or his band The Stooges as seminal figures, the numbers told a different story. It was a long slog to get to the kind of commercial success ‘Post-Pop Depression’ saw; an album that earned him both his first US Top 20 spot and a Grammy nomination (an award he lost out on only to David Bowie’s final album, the aforementioned ‘Blackstar’). Fifty years of grafting, by his own admission, bred a “chronic insecurity” in Pop, though it’s something he kept well hidden.

“I never projected myself like that. I think I overcompensated for years and that’s OK. But now as more and more people are studying musicians in such detail, I’m starting to read writers wondering, ‘Well, is the music industry causing mental illness?’ Which is hilarious!” he laughs, “Because of course! Of course! What do you think?! And on the other hand, being an old-timer” – he puts on a windy, old-timey voice – “my attitude is, ‘Yeah and you better earn your spurs and you better get that mental illness and suffer like I did’!”

Iggy chuckles again. “Not really, but something barks within you at that point when you hear about this stuff. These days it’s all about the quick buck. My claim in the industry is: The. Long. Buck.”

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Photo Credit: Rob Baker Ashton

So when he’d finally cracked the winning formula that leads to money and critical acclaim, was the temptation not to follow suit and do it again?

“When you’re a bit of an outsider, you can work with someone who’s more ‘inside’ but you have to gauge the time and commitment carefully and make sure you don’t fall into orbit,” he says. “Because these people always have a lot of people stuck in orbit around them. So I wanted to just get out right away, get out of it and do my own thing.”

So right off the bat of the Post-Pop Depression tour – a period in time also remembered for the loss of his dear friend and former flatmate David Bowie – Iggy headed out on the road with his band. But back-to-back touring is exhausting at any age, let alone when you are pushing 70, have osteoporosis, and are grieving the loss of a loved one.

“It was a triple year and I was whacked,” says Iggy. “Internally and in a lot of ways, stuff that’s personal too. I just wanted to get out but I couldn’t really get out. It wasn’t clear what I could get out to.”

A fascination with new music – and the continuation of his 6 Music residency from his home in Miami – proved a form of catharsis for Iggy and brought him to Leron and Sarah and this latest record.

“When I started doing my show, I was your typical old timer.” He slips into that grandpa-on-the-porch accent again. “‘Pah, kids today, this all sucks’, that kinda thing. ‘Fun House! Yeah!’”

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Photo Credit: Rob Baker Ashton

But now, at 72, Iggy has a better grasp of modern music than your most Soundcloud-obsessed mate. He’s the epitome of a genre-bending artist who takes a little bit here and a bit from over there, sprinkles some Iggy magic on it and sees what comes out the other side. Tune into his radio show and you can expect to hear everything from modern thrash-punk like Amyl & The Sniffers to jazz legend John Coltrane. It’s quite the trip.

But it’s neither a buzzy guitar band or a legendary artist that Iggy chooses to mention next.

“I was so interested in the construction of a song a while ago called ‘Gucci Gang’,” he utters quite out of the blue, about Lil Pump’s ode to the high-life. “He took, what, a minute to write it?” he asks, chuckling again. “He went straight to the hook and did the hook have a melody? Nooooo. Did it have a phrase? It had no pre-chorus. It’s just ‘Gucci Gang Gucci Gang Gucci Gang Gucci Gang Gucci Gang’, and I thought, ‘This is great!’”

Hardly one to berate an artist for a lack of lyrics, Pop’s mantra when he started out was to never write a song with more than 25 words. Looking at a track like ‘No Fun’ by The Stooges, could a comparison be drawn with Gucci Gang? Is this, in fact, the punk of today?

“Part of the thing about punk is that everybody knew right from the get go that against the machine, it was hopeless” he says with a goofy smile.

“There has to be a sense of hopelessness about it, which is a terrible thing and I don’t want to sit here and advocate hopelessness but you know what I’m saying, right? There’s gotta be some of that. You see that with some of the kids with the purple hair and the little odd braids and various drugs and all that. Different little rebellions seem to come up. SOPHIE made some stuff for a while. You’re not supposed to have a rhythm track that goes ‘BOING BOING GGRRRRRRRR,’’ it sounds so random! But that was very nice. Very, very nice. And some of those related PC Music people. They seem to be having a rest now. You don’t hear about it so much anymore. Maybe, they’re in rehab or something! Maybe the noises upset them!”

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Photo Credit: Rob Baker Ashton

50 years is a long time to wait for your crowning glory but if there was one moment that epitomised it, it was the ‘Post-Pop Depression’ show at The Royal Albert Hall, one of London’s grandest and most storied venues. Its opulence, juxtaposed with Iggy’s topless, stage-diving punk spirit (the rest of the band wore lounge suits), merged together to create one of the gigs of the decade.

“I used to loiter outside the Albert Hall in 1972. I would just loiter around, thinking about lyrics, waiting for The Stooges to get out of bed. I was the one who got up in the morning so there wasn’t much to do other than take a walk. I was living in Fulham and I would wander around Ken[sington] Park and Hyde Park. At that time though, there was no gilt on the statue of Albert. Everything was lower rent.”

Five years before he was promenading around the Royal Parks, Iggy was in Detroit, where he and a pair of brothers – Ron and Scott Asheton – and a bassist called Dave Alexander got together to make music as The Stooges. The band would go on to release three albums together before finally breaking up in 1974, due to a combination of Iggy’s heroin abuse and a sense that he was becoming bigger than the band.

“Until very recently, when I think back to that time, it was always the same emotion. I would get very choked up when we would play [Stooges] songs and the whole house would be rockin’, because for so long, it didn’t. People either resisted it, stepped back or just stared at us. Some people just couldn’t get with it. So for 47 years, I had these tears of inner rage. And now I just have an affection for the audacity of this questionable group of youths who were going to put this thing together, and a certain respect for the simplicity of form.”

iggy pop
Photo Credit: Rob Baker Ashton

Half a decade later, here he is. Iggy Pop, the wildest of a peer group that included Lou Reed, David Bowie, Wayne Kramer and Joey Ramone – and yet the one who’s lived to tell the tale. I ask Iggy what it means to him to be free.

“It’s got to be a relative term or you won’t survive it. To be free, to do the things you like to do, it’s a feeling. So sometimes I can…”

He kicks off his shoes.

Kick off your shoes?

“I could take off my shoes, for example. That’s got a bit of a free feeling to it. I can drive a convertible and put the top down. I can drive a convertible that’s twenty-two feet long and that costs an embarrassing amount of money for a while, but these are just crutches. I’m the type of person that can get 10 per cent of my daily freedom from that. I can get another 10 per cent from looking at nice cloud formations. I like clouds. We have very good clouds in Florida, they’re fluffy and pink and nice. And then some of it has to be personal, some of it has to be artistic. A lot of it has to be personal and private.”

“Freedom is being able to respect your own feelings and act on them but not all the time and not too much. I’ve tried that in life. And I got to a certain point and thought, that’s not gonna go [any more].”

In the documentary, American Valhalla which details the recording of ‘Post Pop Depression’, Josh Homme says to Iggy, “Nobody wins at the end, but you have.” Meeting him now, it feels more apt than ever.

“Oh! Did he say that to me? Him and another very large figure in the contemporary art world said to me, “Hey, you won, alright?” And I was like, “Who, me? I won?”

Do you not feel like that?

“I’ve gotten to that point, yeah. I’m in the book, put it that way. But that’s a good thing. I had a lot of help.”

Iggy Pop, then: punk master, innovator, cloud appreciator and humble legend.

You enjoy your Thames view, Iggy. You bloody well earned it.

‘Free’ is out now on Caroline International. Listen to it below.