Rock’s kick-ass rebel Chrissie Hynde returns to her roots (Akron, Ohio, by way of London) to record a new rockabilly album, Breaking Up The Concrete, open a vegetarian restaurant and tear up the road again. Her friend and former flatmate from her pre-fame days, Vivien Goldman, gets on the phone with the great Pretender for prickly heart-to-heart.
So where are you now? In a hotel? I rent an apartment in downtown Akron.
How is it coming back to your hometown? In the ’70s, cities like Akron got completely razed to the ground, so most of them are basically gone. There is no retail in downtown at all. There might be some office buildings still active, but everyone flees back to the suburbs at night. The thing that gets me the most about this country is that it’s called a “free country” but everyone is a slave to their car. From my place I can walk to my loft, but nobody walks here, everyone has a car. If I walked down there in the evening, I’d be stopped three or four times by someone who thinks I’m a prostitute, inviting me to get in their car. This is why I left the States when I was 22. I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car, and I thought, that’s not for me.
You wanted to see the world, and you did. One of the first things you did when you moved back to Akron was open a vegan Italian restaurant called Vegiterranean. There was nowhere for me to eat in the city. There was not one vegetarian restaurant in Akron. Just like there’s not one vegetarian restaurant in Las Vegas.
I thought that where there are students and a university, there is always a vegetarian restaurant. Well, that’s my big disappointment. I thought people would realize that you don’t have to slaughter animals and support factories and slaughterhouses. If you really want to live a nonviolent life, it’s your only choice. It’s a choice that most people have, but they prefer to live in their own ignorance. They’re still responsible for the ramifications of their disgusting diet. This food industry is a huge con. The color photographs of little ribs coming out of the yellow sauce… they are really depraved, but that’s what we’ve got now — it’s a pornographic society. And this thing about the diet industry and the machines to lose weight — you don’t need anything. You don’t need such a varied diet, you can eat very simply and you’ve got your own relationship with your own body. Do a very simple routine in your home. YGet out and walk every day, and you should get enough excercise.
We’re also seduced by the health industry. You just don’t need much. That’s the bottom line. I take my yoga mat wherever I go. I do my own routine, always alone, always quietly. I stand on my head. I try to walk. I think gyms are a con. Machinery is a con. All those supplements are a con. Eating meat and dairy is a con. So I came back here and I thought, well, okay then, I’ll open a vegetarian restaurant because it seems like nobody else is going to do it. I’ve rented a little apartment, which costs me about $500 a month. It’s in a lovely, leafy neighborhood in a beautiful area, but nevertheless one is still bound to have a car. You know, it’s just an indignity that one has to become part of a system; it’s forced upon you. And it’s not a good system. It’s an evil system and a destructive system. Anyway, we can certainly talk about the new record.
The buzz around Breaking Up The Concrete is that the Pretenders are experimenting with a country sound. Even though I have lived most of my life in England, I am Akron, Ohio down to the floor. I spent a lot of time in Akron before I did the record, just hanging out in bars, doing what you do to get by here, playing pool. I really got my inspiration from, let’s say, my hillbilly brethren here. What sealed the deal for me was going to Joshua Tree National Park and finding the place where they took Gram Parsons’ body. I lay down at the spot and just thought, Bingo! I had my epiphany and knew the direction and kind of record I wanted to make. I wouldn’t call it a country album, but it’s very roots-y and American-sounding. It was all recorded live in 10 days. We went in, wrestled with two songs every day and just took the best take. None of the vocals were tampered with because I was playing the guitar and singing at the same time and you can’t separate them in the mix.
It’s been six years. What made you decide to do a new record right now? We supported Neil Young in 2000 and that could obviously only be inspirational. On our last tour, we went out with the Stray Cats and ZZ Top, and I went to the sound desk and watched ZZ Top and danced my ass off because it was genius. With all this touring that I was doing and no new songs, it frankly was becoming embarrassing. I couldn’t keep doing this sort of greatest hits show. My whole thing about being in a band has been that I’m on stage to set up the guitar player. The Pretenders have always featured nothing short of excellent guitar players. This kid that I’ve got now — I shouldn’t say kid — Nik Wilkinson, is 28, and he’s a guitar hero. I met him in a North London pub where he was playing for a punk karaoke night. He brings the punk vibe to the band, like the original Pretenders, Pete [Farndon] and Jimmy [Honeyman-Scott].
To me, what connects all of your music is an intelligence. An intelligence in the voice, intelligence in the texture, intelligence in the lyrics and a sense of presence which is just you. I’m a big fan of Iggy Pop. When I was trying to learn how to sing and finding my voice, I would listen to him with his Ann Arbor accent. I never really liked my voice, but what I found is the thing that might embarrass you about your own voice is probably the thing that is most you about it. Listening to Iggy, I thought, well, just be yourself.
I’ve always loved your voice from the days when you were singing around the house. I remember sitting with you on a wall in Holland Park, and just feeling gobsmacked hearing your voice on a Walkman for the first time. I’d heard you singing in the kitchen and the bathroom and then there you were on tape, and it sounded fantastic. The reason I never really pulled off having a punk band during that time, and let’s face it, I played with guys who eventually went on to be the Damned, the Clash, and I hung out with the Slits — my problem was that my music was Bobby Womack. James Brown was my hero.
We last had a big night out when the Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. How do you feel about it now? All these accolades, awards, inductions… it’s not what music is about, it’s what sports are about. There obviously is some guy who got more home runs than anyone else. But there’s not someone who gave more chills than anyone else. It’s a very personal, subjective thing, music. I only agreed to go to the Hall of Fame thing because it meant a lot to my parents. I felt like a big hypocrite going out there, but then Neil Young played with us. And you’re never going to say no to playing with Neil Young. Through the goodness of his heart he actually agreed to induct us. I don’t think I would have made it through Kent State and all the shootings that were going on at the time without his first album. So he’s been another real important artist to me.
You manage quite a good balance with raising your kids, who are grown up now. The other day on a radio station in Los Angeles, I asked the host if he knew if I was married or had a boyfriend, and he said no. I said, and why is that? Because I don’t have to talk about it. I think it’s very important to have a personal life, and not to violate that. I don’t like to talk about anything that’s very private. If I have, I’ve regretted it very much. I don’t think I have ever been defined by my relationship with anyone. I just tread my path and stick to the plan. And if anyone wants to come along and be part of it, that’s fine, and if they don’t, fair enough. I’ve never left my philosophy to join someone else’s.
I can’t get your new song “Boots of Chinese Plastic” out of my head. It’s kind of my nod to Bob Dylan, because he wrote a song called “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
I have some quilted plastic knee-high boots from Payless. They really are fantastic. I have a lot of Stella McCartney shoes. You know she doesn’t use leather. But, yeah, Payless is the place! We all go there.
Photography by Shawn Mortensen.