An Interview with Johnnette Napolitano of Pretty & Twisted
An edited version of this Pop Stops feature interview was originally published in the December 1995 Illinois Entertainer magazine.

Pretty & Twisted:
Last Tango in Paris

Early in 1996, following this tour, Marc Moreland left the band because he didn't want to tour anymore. The band was reportedly set to continue without him, but since that time, Napolitano's most visible efforts have been her work on the new album and tour by The Heads.

They could have called the band The French Connection. The three members of Pretty & Twisted have all spent time as expatriots living and working in Paris over the past couple years. In fact, it's where two of them met.

When Concrete Blonde leader Johnette Napolitano escaped to France last year after walking away from a record deal and declaring her longtime band at an end, she was looking for a much-needed break from the American music scene. A cultural kickstart. She ended up coming home with two fellow Californians to create a new trio as vibrant and exciting as Blonde ever was. Sometimes you have to go far to find what's closest to home.

The roots of Pretty & Twisted go back to the early days of Blonde, when the band toured with Wall of Voodoo. It was during the tour that Napolitano and Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland struck up a friendship that outlasted both bands. Then, in a Paris bar last summer, Napolitano met San Francisco drummer Danny Montgomery. They clicked immediately.

"There's something you have in common when you meet people somewhere else who are from where you're from," Napolitano laughs, looking very European at this moment in a black dress, heels and chapeau. "You're looking for the same things, seeing things the same way."

"I won the swimsuit competition," Montgomery quips.

We're backstage at Metro and the band has just had a raucous soundcheck. Napolitano waves at Steve Wynn, who will join the band later that night on stage for a rare duet on Nick Cave's "The Ship Song."

"We haven't played here in years," Napolitano grins. A local promoter walks through the room and welcomes her back to town. "We're having fun," she nods, adding "Nobody knows us from Adam right now. But working your way back up — that's the fun part."

Certainly she's not lacking in tunes or talent for the climb. Pretty & Twisted's eponymous debut on Warner Bros. has all the mood, energy and eclecticism that made Concrete Blonde one of the sharpest acts to survive the early '80s L.A. punk scene. From the ominous opening guitar snarls of the eerie "Highs Are Too High" to a well-chosen cover of Roxy Music's "Mother of Pearl" to the breezy, singalong single "Ride," Napolitano proves in the album's first handful of songs that she hasn't lost her touch.

But she has lost her interest in ever being Concrete Blonde again. The years of touring and "hit" expectations from her record company after the Top 40 success of "Joey" took their toll. After being "sold" to Capitol and not finding much sympathy there for her artistic vision, Napolitano decided that it was time for Blonde to die.

"It depends on what you think death is," she bristles at that description. "The reason that you record is because recordings outlive you. Somebody can always go out and buy a Concrete Blonde album. They are all out there."

"Wall of Voodoo has been dead a long time," Moreland says, without a second thought.

"I've been working with Jim (Mankey, Blonde guitarist) on a co-production project with another band, so it depends on what you think the death thing is," Napolitano continues. "I don't want to do it ever again. I love that band very much, but I'm really happy now and I really like the music better now. It's a different time. There's a certain grace and art to knowing when you have run your course and a lot of people don't know that."

Napolitano says the chemistry of Pretty & Twisted works better than Blonde.

"I co-wrote more with Mark on this record than with Jim in the last five years. I think we are more like-minded. I think that we both have been closer to the same ideal, and a great group is always the sum total of the individuals that comprise the group. This band is the sum total of the individuals that are in it — we're different than Concrete Blonde. I just feel like we are at the same place at the same time. In Blonde, there was a point that we were all at that same place, but at the end, we weren't anymore. Everybody grows and some people don't. Ten years down the line it's easier to see. I do like playing and touring if it's fun. But it hadn't been fun for awhile. I got sick of playing the same stuff. You just have to work it so it's fun; otherwise you're lying, you're cheating, going through motions. You might as well just have a day job because it's more secure and you get to stay home."

The authorship on Pretty & Twisted is certainly more varied than that of Blonde albums.

"Some things I wrote beforehand, some things Mark wrote a while ago when he was in a band in France. I worked on one of Mark's projects a couple years ago in Switzerland, but the first time I knew what our band was going to sound like and how it was going to work was when we did the If I Were A Carpenter tribute album. I'd met Danny by then, and I'd come back to do this Carpenters thing in like two days and it was a good pretty noise."

For Pretty & Twisted, Napolitano and Moreland co-wrote songs in tribute to "Dear Marlon Brando" ("you've seen it all/you are the coolest of the cool") and "Billy," a French transvestite ("hey, you look better than me in that dress"). Napolitano also shares writing credits with Charles Bukowski, Paul Westerberg and Janis Joplin.

Joplin?

"A friend of mine in France had access to the Joplin archives and there were these words that hadn't been used by anyone. She said, 'Do you want to take a crack at it?' It wasn't the easiest thing to do because I didn't want to do a retro thing. I didn't want to do another "Ball and Chain," or "Me & Bobbi McGee." It's great stuff, but I don't think she'd be doing that stuff now if she were around. I'm not sure how the song ["Come Away With Me"] went over with her family, but I really like it, it's very soothing and very uplifting. Not what she's known for. But this is not an agonizing lyric, it's beautiful. I took my heart into it, and I hope she likes it."

The Westerberg collaboration, "Stranger," a swaying, bar mug-raising ballad, came about when Napolitano was writing a song for an Irish movie.

"I had the idea and the title and I sent it on tape to Paul. He wrote the bridge and finished the words and he really liked it. The movie didn't end up using it but I did, so it's OK. I think it has a real Celtic taste to it."

Longtime Napolitano fans will be interested to know that the end of Concrete Blonde, has also marked the end to her Los Angeles art gallery.

"The art gallery had to close down because I couldn't afford it anymore," she says. "That really depressed me, but I'm a real Zen sort of person so I believe that for all the doors that have to close another one has to open. That one had to close so that this one could open; otherwise I could never put my heart into this. I can see now why it all happened, but it sure depressed me because I really did love that place. I'd like to have a bar or a place like this [Metro], that you could have alot of different rooms. You could have a gallery in one room and music in another room. It would be really cool. Buildings like this don't really exist in L.A. I'd like to bring bands up from Mexico and from other countries and treat them good and have good shows and really promote them well and get a cross cultural thing going on, but I can't really see that for quite a few years. Someday I'll be the old lady behind the bar yelling at people."

Over the summer, just before Pretty & Twisted was released, another Napolitano project hit the streets with little fanfare. Vowel Movement was a one-off collaboration between Napolitano and Holly Vincent of The Oblivious and The Italians.

"That was just a slumber party on tape," Napolitano laughs. "It was supposed to come out last year. There was a beautiful little period of time where I wasn't under contract to anybody and Holly and I ... we were waitresses together once. Her last band The Oblivious opened for Concrete Blonde and I was always a big fan of hers because she was out there rockin'. The Vowel Movement record was basically just a blow-out against all the regimentation and structure of recording. It was just an interim project and she's moved back to Minneapolis now and is going to get her own band together It was just a jerkoff, ya know? We got together New Year's Eve, Easter, a couple days in Minneapolis and L.A. and made everything up on the spot and played all the instruments. We just made the tapes and then shopped the record."

A photographer from Alternative Press pokes his head into our interview area then to arrange a photo shoot with the band. Napolitano nixes the idea of leaving the theatre to find an outside locale, and sends him off to find a spot in the building. In the few minutes remaining for our interview, I ask her what the attraction of France is for the band.

"Everything considered to be not worth doing here is worth doing there," Napolitano answers to the strong affirmation of Montgomery and Moreland. "It's not a waste of time to have a conversation; it's not a waste of time to sit and have a drink and get to know somebody, it's not a waste of time to just walk and look at things."

"It's how we met," Montgomery points out.

"Yeah, wasting time," she continues. "That attitude is not just in France, either. I'm Italian, and in Italy they take four hours off in the middle of the day to eat a good meal and be with family. Here you're considered a waste of corporate money if you don't eat at a drive-through. There's no right and wrong, I just think you should be able to live the way you want and not be considered a bump on the ass of society if you decide you don't want to work 15 hours a day for somebody who's going to lay you off after 20 years."

The song "Billy" came directly from Napolitano's time spent living in Paris.

"In Paris, every time you go, there are the same hookers, the same transvestites on the corners. They've been there for the last eight to 10 years. Some days they look good, others they're really tired. I just wondered what their lives are like; I guess that's what a writer does is speculate."

As we wrap things up, and Napolitano sneaks in a Caesar's salad before her photo shoot, she explains the album's song about, and dedication to, Marlon Brando: "He's cool. He has his priorities straight. There are very few actors, musicians or celebrities who have their priorities straight. Mark actually wrote the song in the first place and in order to finish it, I had to know what I was writing about. I researched him heavily and the more I did the more I appreciated him for his point of view and his irreverence to Hollywood. I don't think he really respects what he's worshiped for. In the long run, I think he'll be appreciated a lot more than when he was alive.

Does she hope he'll hear the son and give her a call?

"No," she shakes her head adamantly. "I don't want anything from him. Americans always want more from an artist — it's not enough to give your work, they want to know what you ate and who you slept with. The whole point of being an artist is that you put everything into your work."

Did I mention she had a salad?

 


 

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