Sean Lennon Scores Big
Sean Lennon is steadily expanding his musical horizons. He’s one half of indie/folk duo The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger (GOASTT)—the other half is his smoking hot model/singer/girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl—and he recently wrote the film score for anther supernatural-sounding project, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead, a vampire comedy starring Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, Jeremy Sisto, and Ralph Macchio, out in New York theaters today. We chatted with the decidedly down to earth musical mastermind on his day off about the origins of his band’s name, his solo projects, and the truth about working with his famous mom.
What’s the new Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger album title? I don’t know if I want to say, because basically we’re working on two albums simultaneously. One is coming out now and another one is going to come out at the beginning of next year. I don’t know which one is coming out first. I can’t say. I actually don’t know. We’re not sure which one we want to come out first.
Are you in the same stage of recording with both? Pretty much, I’d say we’re about 70-75% there, maybe more. It’s a strange thing, I’ve never really done two albums at once. We did it that way because we had a bunch of different songs that we wrote at different times and wanted to represent in different ways so they would belong together.
Are there distinctively different sounds for the albums? Pretty much. The first record is going to be more stripped-down, almost like a folk record, just acoustic guitars. The other record is a full band, like an electric album. Essentially we started just as a duet with one acoustic guitar and singing, so we wanted to have one record that represented the way we began.
How did you get involved in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead? Jordan Galland is one of my best friends. I’ve known him for over a decade, maybe 15 years. I was a rotating member in his band for years and I used to play drums or bass, or whatever was needed at the time. Then we started writing songs together. We also wrote screenplays. Basically, he’s an old collaborative partner. He wound up making Rosencrantz and it just made sense for me to try to do the score, ‘cause I had done so much work with him in the past and I kind of knew what he wanted. I was always interested in doing film scores so I wanted to try it. It was almost too convenient because I was just starting a label at the time with some friends called Chimera Music. It was a good time to try releasing something on our own and it was kind of a perfect record to be a guinea pig to try our new system of making CDs and distributing them.
What range of instruments was used in the score? The truth is that it was such a small project that the budget for the soundtrack was like $700 or something, so basically I played everything myself. It’s just me playing keyboards and then guitars and drums and bass. On two songs I had a guy named CJ Rodriguez play trumpet and a friend of his play French horn, so I did have two horn over-dubs. And then on one song, my friend Stuart Zender played bass on the end of one song, the very finale. My girlfriend Charlotte (Kemp Muhl) sang on a couple of songs, but basically everything else is just me playing. It had to do with the budget being small but it also just had to do with me wanting to do it really quickly. It was the first time I had ever really composed anything that was arranged or difficult, so it was just easier for me to keep everything in my head as l hacked out all the parts one by one, so I wouldn’t forget what I was thinking. I’m really am proud of the whole record. I have to say, it was probably the most archetypal, inspired experience that I’ve ever had in terms of just feeling that thing of like “Wow I’m really having a breakthrough!”
How’s the new system working out so far? I think its working out quite well. We had some glitches trying to get the CDs into a couple of bigger stores, but it was just a question of shipping boxes to the wrong cities by accident. For the most part, everything turned out great. We put out my mom’s record for the Plastic Ono Band and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead around the same time and they showed up pretty much everywhere in the world.
Who else is on the label? The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger, there’s my mother’s Plastic Ono project with Cornelius, and then my friend Yuka Honda, who also runs the label. I used to be in her band, Cibo Matto. They were like a Japanese/New York band. She now has a band called, If By Yes. The album will come out at the beginning of next year with this girl, Petra Haden. Her dad was in Ornette Coleman’s band, the same band that coincidentally recorded with my mom in 1959. We’re not like a real record label; we’re more like a collective of a few friends who wanted to self-publish. We’re not a label; we’re not really signing people. We’re not funding other bands, we’re just self-publishing. It’s really small, only three people actually.
Do you plan to keep working with your mother? I think my mom and I are going to play a show in September. We just did a huge Yoko Ono tribute show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I helped organize and produce, that was really fun. We had people like Eric Clapton come, ‘cause he used to play in the original Plastic Ono Band with her. It was the first time they played together in the Plastic Ono Band in like 35 years, so it was really special. We also had a bunch of other really hip artists like Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. Bette Midler was there. People were wondering: What’s the connection? It doesn’t seem like Bette would be influenced by my mom’s music, but she wound up coming because they’re just good friends. Everyone covered one of my mom’s songs and Bette covered a song that was from Double Fantasy called “I’m Your Angel” that my mom had written, kind of a love song. And she did such a really amazing vaudeville job; she turned it into sort of a comedy routine. That was really successful so we’re gonna try to do something, like a friends of Yoko/Plastic Ono Band tribute concert thing. I think in L.A. at the end of the year. I’ll be working with her then, and hopefully we’ll be putting out another Plastic Ono Band record on Chimera because that record turned out to be really great. I’d like to do another one.
Do you read your reviews? I read what people write about me, although I’ve been advised not to. Bette Midler recently told me, “You should never read anything they write about you; it’s never good. It just doesn’t do any good. It’s always bad for you.” And I’m sure she’s right, but I guess I’m still sort of intrigued enough by what people think. So yeah I tend to read what people write, and for the most part I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern. I tend to remember the things that people say that are negative more than I remember the things that people say that are positive. I think it’s a psychological thing. We tend to remember trauma more than we remember a nice day. The thing I find really interesting about when someone is really mean, or says something really nasty, is that I always find that I cant really disagree with that person’s point of view. I find that to be disturbing, because usually when someone is really putting you down, there’s some sort of truth to what they’re saying. What’s interesting about criticism is that it’s all on some valid level. It’s hard enough to put yourself out there and then if you’re confronting everyone’s insights it’s kind of stifling, but I can’t really help it. I’m just too curious. I try to take everything with a grain of salt and see if I can see where people are coming from. A lot of people who hate me tend to say, “Oh he has a really nasally singing voice,” and you know I can’t disagree with that. I’ve never actually really thought of myself as a great singer, but I try to sing my best and when people criticize me for not singing well I sort of take note of it and think, “Alright well I’ll definitely try and sing better, but I can’t really sing beyond my means. I can only sing as well as I can sing.” Sometimes it’s helpful for people to be critical because it pushes you to try to be better.
Where did the name Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger originate? I’d just started dating Charlotte and I was in her old apartment and I was just being nosy, looking through her journals and her old papers. I wasn’t doing it without her there, she saw me. And I found something really old. It was a play that she had written when she was seven and it was called the Ghost of A Saber Toothed Tiger, about these people running from the ghost of the saber toothed tiger in a Natural History Museum setting. It was supposed to be scary, but it wasn’t, it was obviously very sweet. And I thought, that’s a really great title, I think we should start a band called The Ghost of A Saber Toothed Tiger, just so that we can have a cool band name.
What are your go-to places? My favorite New York restaurant was this place called Shopsin’s General Store. It used to be on Morton street. It was owned by this guy Kenny Shopsin and there’s actually a documentary that came out recently about them. They were the last family-run restaurant in New York. I used to go to 7A a lot in the East Village when I was younger, but I just don’t really go out to drink much because I guess I’m not single and I have a lot of work to do. I used to go to Beatrice when it was open, ‘cause I was friends with some people there, but that place closed, I just haven’t been out in like a couple years. I like to go to LifeThyme, the health food grocery store, because they have really good produce. I mainly go out if I’m with my mother, just because she and I like to go out to eat at a nice place. We like to go to Sushi of Gari. Actually she really likes to go to the nice Italian restaurants, like the fancypants ones. There’s a place called Il Nuno’s uptown. I took her there on Mother’s Day.