Turning 31 this week, the famous progeny of John Lennon and Yoko Ono just released his second solo album, a brooding, brokenhearted affair that seems to draw heavily from his father’s work. He spoke to Sara Cardace about all that has shaped his music.
Originally, you asked to meet at the Neue Galerie. Do you go there often?
Yeah, I tend to hang out there a lot. They have a nice cafeteria there, and obviously there’s all the Schieles and the Klimts, which I like very much.
What was the last exhibit you saw that you really loved?
Well, the Dada exhibit at MoMA was really incredible. Because Marcel Duchamp had been such a big influence on my mother, I grew up thinking I knew a lot about Dada, but I’d actually never gone to a retrospective, and it was just shocking to see the level of aesthetics. The premise of the Dadaists is that they were trying to make ugly art, in a way, but everything was actually made so beautifully. You know, the nails and the hammers and the pieces of wood and the screws and the lightbulbs. So even though they were trying to make this sort of antisocial art, the result was so aesthetically astounding. A lot of the Dadaist films that were playing were incredible as well.
Speaking of film, what are some of your favorites?
When I was a teenager I was driven to watch the most turgid, existentialist things, German Expressionist films and stuff. I was that Cabinet of Dr. Caligari kid who dressed in black. I was a pseudo-intellectual. I think I was trying to be more mature than I really was. I must have been in denial about being a kid or something. It took me a long time to get into my kid’s mind and appreciate Will Ferrell movies and stuff, which I really love now.
What influence did growing up in New York have on you? Did you spend your entire childhood here?
Mostly. I did go to kindergarten in Japan and preschool in San Francisco, and I also went to boarding school in Switzerland. So I went around a little bit, but I would always return to New York. I graduated from Dalton.
Do you remember anything about kindergarten in Japan?
I remember having to eat whale for lunch and not really liking it. My taste buds were actually formed in Japan, though. My comfort food is definitely miso soup.
So how did you find the private-school environment in New York?
When I turned 12, I basically decided that America was provincial. I know that may sound really snobby, but it’s a testament to the pseudo-intellectual I was. I went to my mom and said, “I want to go to school in Europe.” I’d become obsessed with this idea of becoming cultured. Going to school in Switzerland kind of worked, but it kind of didn’t, because I missed a lot of cool stuff that was going on in America at the time, like hip-hop.
Did you watch a lot of TV growing up?
Definitely. I’m that generation. My TV was kind of my babysitter. I tended to watch things repetitively. I’d watch Bambi maybe ten times in one weekend. Or I’d watch this movie called La Planète Sauvage, this French animated sci-fi movie. I’d watch it ten times in a row, and somehow no one really cared enough to stop me from doing that. I think it stimulated me to become an artist. Watching these incredible masterpieces over and over again, to actually memorize every line and every curve and every shot, I think it was the foundation for me musically and aesthetically. Bambi and La Planète Sauvage, especially. Oh, and Yellow Submarine, the Beatles film.
How does this all relate to your musical tastes?
Well, the music that appealed to me at first was the early rock-and-roll stuff—Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, Elvis, all stuff that my dad listened to and that was always in the jukebox. The Beatles’ music really appealed to me when I was young. I think there’s something about the Beatles that really appeals to kids in a supernatural way. I stuck with that until I discovered the more psychedelic stuff. At summer camp, when I was 12, someone turned me on to Jimi Hendrix, which is what made me want to abandon the piano, because it seemed so uncool, and get into guitar and grow my hair long and start smoking pot and doing devious things. I started dressing badly and not washing my jeans as much, and girls actually started talking to me.
Does your mother often give you input when you’re working on an album?
She does. She’s brutally honest, in a cool way. She’s a doting mother when it comes to everything else—feeding you and clothing you and making sure you have enough pillows on your bed or whatever—but when it comes to art, she’s a drill sergeant. “This is bad.” Or, “You can’t do that.” Or, “This is good!” She’s very serious when it comes to art, and I grew up with that influence. The difference between artists and nonartists to me is not necessarily related to talent; it’s that artists take art seriously and everyone else kind of doesn’t. I grew up taking art so seriously that I think it’s the way to live.
Friendly Fire Capitol Records