As well as fronting the Pretenders for 40 years, Chrissie Hynde has long been one of rock’n’roll’s most vital, outspoken voices. An activist as much as a rock star – as well as a former employee of NME – we called her up to talk about the band’s punchy new album ‘Hate For Sale’ and the power of protest.
‘Hate For Sale’ is out now, and the reviews are great. Is that something you pay attention to?
“Well, I don’t read any of my press and never have – that’s just a discipline. What I do is I’ll ask the dudes at my office to give me the gist and they can say, ‘well received’, ‘you’re in trouble’ or ‘they don’t like something you’ve said’.”
Is that something to do with having once been on the other side of the fence, working as a music journalist?
“I wasn’t really on the other side of the fence. I wasn’t a journalist – I was also a waitress, I was just kind of blagging it and someone offered me a job because I had opinions. I’ve kind of just generally unqualified at everything! With reading reviews, I mean, what good can it do? I suppose there’s two kinds of people; if you know people are talking about you in the other room, would you go and listen at the door or would you get out of there? I personally would get out.”
Protest is something you’ve been doing for a long time and right now, the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements are galvanising people. Does protest work?
“Yeah, it does work. It works in giving people a voice. And it’s important that you’re allowed to protest, because in some places you can’t protest – they’ll just shoot you. Does it change anything? Well, when Greta Thunberg, this teenager, says I’m not going to school, first of all, she’s got a very powerful voice, she knows what she’s talking about, but for some reason the timing just landed. Her argument, and what she was talking about was a conversation around 1990. Then there were scientists on television talking about the ozone layer, recycling, pollution, plastic, factory farming, all of it. Where was my generation? Where were the parents that were my age? What were they telling their kids? Unbelievable that we get to 2020 and people are still eating meat. That blows my mind. It really does. And that shows me something; I can’t control the timing. And if everyone wants to be unconscious, go ahead, it’s your life.”
Do you think timing has also had something to do with the global reaction to police brutality and the murder of George Floyd?
“The only reason they’re paying attention to that now is because it was filmed. Look at all the [Black] artists throughout American history. Billie Holiday couldn’t get a room in a hotel. When Otis Redding and all these guys went over to England to play gigs they were treated like kings and they went back and they were treated like bums. Josephine Baker; she’s a hero in Paris and then goes back to the States and they treat her like a cleaning woman.”
Earlier this month you wrote a letter to the Guardian condemning the treatment you witnessed of two black athletes by London police. What did you see?
“I’ve been living in West London for many, many years and a couple years ago, kids on motorbikes smashed into the shop underneath my flat. I tried to get the police on the phone and was put on hold. And then another kid got stabbed down the street and there was no police. In the 70s we were telling the police to eff off and now it’s like, ‘where are the police when you need them?’ So I saw a copper walking down the street and they had this kid in handcuffs and this lady in handcuffs. The next day I found out that they were two gold medal athletes. So that was shit. It was also humiliating for this woman, Bianca Williams, who is one of the fastest women in this country and there she is with a crowd around her – that’s fucked up. It’s all gone wrong in the last few years, but it’s always been not ideal. I just felt like I wanted to write that because I was standing there.”
Loneliness seems to be a bit of a theme on the new record – how does it feel to have written something so prescient, with so many people now experiencing isolation?
“Loneliness is a big subject. People die of loneliness. It’s an epidemic. I’m hyper aware of it, not because I’m lonely, but I always have been. I’ve always wondered about the human condition; how we’re supposed to act, who we’re supposed to be, who we are. And isolation and solitude I incorporate into my life a lot, on purpose, because it’s a kind of meditation. I’m a team player; when I’m in the band, I love working with other people. But in my own personal life, I really am kind of a loner. Now I’ve kind of run back to my hole again and I can just be probably more like I was when I was 17. I’m not a philosopher, but I would say that it’s only when you turn about 60 that you start to see the decades as they unfold behind you and you can start to see the way it all fits together.”
Your new song ‘Lightning Man’ is about the late Richard Swift, who you worked with on the last Pretenders album ‘Alone’…
“He was a blast. I didn’t know him that long, but I bonded with him immediately. I saw him noodling around doing some sketches and I said, ‘you’re doing all the artwork’ and I saw a couple of pictures he took in the studio and I said ‘you’re doing all the photography’. He was a multi-instrumentalist and Dan Auerbach’s best friend (of The Black Keys, who produced the record). I didn’t know he was having problems. He seemed like a sorted out, solid guy but as Dan said “the demons got the best of him”, which is where the lyric comes from.”
When did you write the track?
“I was on tour and I got a call from Dan saying ‘Swift’s going into hospice’ and that’s when I wrote the song – he hadn’t died yet. I thought I’d be recording it with Dan, because we were going to do another album together, but logistically I wanted to do it in London so I could get the band on it. I’d been begging him to produce it, but then I just did it here with someone else! (Stephen Street). I’m sure Dan didn’t even think twice about it. I probably wrote him and said, ‘hey, guess what? We can’t come to Nashville’. It’s not a big deal. Things change all the time. You work with different people and it’s not like someone was like, ‘how dare you?!’”
Nashville is the home of country music – are you a fan?
“I’m just a fan of music; if it’s Willie Nelson I like it, whether it’s country music or not. I guess when I was starting out, unless you were Bob Dylan and all those guys who loved country, rock and roll ruled. Rock overtook everything else and especially in Ohio for a rock fan, country was a no-no.”
Was that because it was seen as Republican music?
“Back then people didn’t think like that. It wasn’t divisive like that – in the ’60s and coming into the 70s there was one thing that divided the nation and that was the Vietnam War. And drugs. Either you were a head or you were a straight, so either you smoked pot or you didn’t but that was it. That was the division line. That was the line right there.”
Your memoir Reckless stops in the early ’80s. Have you thought about picking up where you left off and doing part two?
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to write the other one. It was a way to sort of commemorate my original band – two members of the band died from drug overdoses in one year. I thought, I can’t talk about anything after that, that was a kind of full stop. And I called the publisher and I said, ‘You know, I only have [up until] 1983 and I can’t do any more’ and they went, ‘Oh, that’s fine’. But [I’d like to write about] ARK, the environmental group that I put together with Kevin Godley in 1988, my vegan restaurant that I put in Akron, Ohio, the concert that I put together for Linda McCartney when she died because she was a mate, getting arrested with PETA… Everything leading up to the things that I’m interested in now, which is cow protection and non slaughter farms, which are very much not talked about because they don’t exist.”
Pretenders’ new album ‘Hate For Sale’ is out now