Barefoot, in baggy jeans and a blue T-shirt, Sean Lennon ambles across his living room, picks up a double bass, and plunks out the opening bars of Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” “It sounds nice, right?” he asks, nodding at the instrument. “It was a present from the Beastie Boys.”
Lennon, 22, is a few weeks away from the May 19 release of his debut CD, Into the Sun, on the aforementioned Boys’ Grand Royal label. To anyone looking around the sprawling West Village loft he shares with his girlfriend, 37-year-old Yuka Honda, it’s obvious Sean Lennon is no dilettante cashing in on his last name. Nineteen guitar cases are strewn about the house, as are vintage keyboards, effects pedals, turntables, multitrack recording units, mixers, plus a drum kit, a sitar, a theremin, and a Steinway grand. The apartment’s upper level houses a small digital-recording studio. God only knows what’s stashed at his SoHo rehearsal space.
For the past year or so, Lennon has been going through a Beach Boys obsession. “Every morning I wake up and I listen to Smiley Smile or Pet Sounds,” he says, referring to Brian Wilson’s most intricate, laboriously produced late-sixties albums. Sitting on a sofa – if you can call a series of half-on-furniture, half-on-floor postures “sitting” – in his living room, he’s all good-natured hyperactivity. “Smiley Smile is like the Beach Boys’ White Album,” he says, grasping for a way to convey the record’s import. “No. Smiley Smile is like Sgt. Pepper.”
“I live with Brian Wilson,” jokes Honda, sitting on the floor and spreading cream cheese on a bagel.
In a way, there’s nothing too surprising about the revelation – the Beach Boys’ experimental-pop phase is trendy enough these days. But it was also part of the most heated rivalry of its decade – one that involved Sean’s own father. Pet Sounds, notes Lennon, “didn’t kind of inspire Sgt. Pepper. It literally did. Like, Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds and said, ‘We ought to do something as good as this.’”
Sean Lennon’s own eclectic sound is equally indebted to both camps, with smatterings of bossa nova, sunny Stevie Wonder-esque soul, and experimental jazz thrown in. “Home,” the album’s first single, conjures John Lennon’s approach to melody, George Martin’s ornamental curlicues, and Brian Wilson’s tweaked-out harmonies. Such propensities, though, make Lennon as much a child of his era – in which the influence of Pop-with-a-capital-P is as pervasive as it’s been at any point since the sixties – as of his lineage. It’s a fortunate position, one that allows him to put his patrimony to use without raising charges of simple appropriation.
Into the Sun was produced by Honda, who also happens to be the keyboard-playing half of the indie-pop outfit Cibo Matto. “I probably could have asked for any producer in the world,” says Lennon. “Not to brag, but I have the juice to do that. And I asked for Yuka. She’s the best producer on the planet.”
Working with older women has been Lennon’s forte for years now – he has, after all, spent most of his life as the only child of a single mother. “As a kid, I was in fact more into my mom’s music than my dad’s,” Sean recalls. Three years ago, he put that enthusiasm to use, collaborating with Yoko Ono on the album Rising. “I know every song she ever wrote. I’m an expert in Yoko Ono’s music, basically. So in the studio, when she’d say something like ‘Make that guitar part more ocean-cricket,’ I’d know exactly what she meant.”
Defying celebrity-offspring type, Lennon comes across as a preternaturally well-adjusted being, comfortable discussing his emotional life – quirky maternal issues included – without being an exhibitionist. “Beyond her just being my mom who I love and adore, she’s also a really good friend,” he says. “I’ll call her up and be like, ‘What do you think of this lyric?’ Any decision I have, I’ll ask her about it. And she’ll call me about everything else. ‘I’m going to the bathroom now.’ ‘I got out of the bathroom, and I’m drying my hair.’ ‘Okay, now I’m on my way to the door.’ I’m like, Mom, you called me eight times in the last ten minutes.”
Despite their unusual bond, mother and son haven’t lived together in a decade: Sean shipped out to a Swiss boarding school at 11; when he returned, at 15, he enrolled at Dalton and moved into his own apartment on the seventh floor of the Dakota, down the hall from Yoko. “It actually kind of ostracized me from the kids I went to school with,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘Hey, you want to go do whip-its after school?’ ‘No, I think I’m going to go home and be domestic with my older Italian girlfriend.’”
For the son of the most influential figure in the history of pop music, working in the indie-rock idiom – which, even if it embraces certain of pop’s aesthetic choices, eschews stardom, Top 40 hits, and other commercial trappings – might seem an easy out, a way of escaping inevitable comparisons. And who could blame him? “I read a review of one of my shows,” Lennon says. “And the guy said that I was not a great guitar player, which is fine because I’m not. But they never say Bob Dylan isn’t a great guitar player. Or they never say Beck isn’t. They never say Lou Reed isn’t a great guitar player. None of them are John McLaughlin, but because I’m John Lennon’s son, he has to say it.”
John Lennon had devoted much of his life to being Sean’s father, building world peace from the ground up, when he was shot outside the Dakota. Sean was 5 at the time. “I remember when my dad died,” Lennon says matter-of-factly. For the first time in the interview, he stops fidgeting. “That whole early period of my life became kind of cemented in my mind. I think it was a desperate reaction to him going away that my memories became that much more clear. You don’t really miss anything specific. You just miss them breathing, just being there. I miss the way his skin felt, the sound of his voice. Him tucking me in at night.
“I remember him showing me how to clean the tip of my penis with a piece of toilet paper after I’d peed.”
“That’s nice,” Yuka says.
“I guess that’s the kind of thing dads show kids when they’re 4. I mean, I don’t think it’s that weird. But that’s what I remember.”
He pauses, his eyes still focused on some invisible point above the coffee table. “We went on vacation to the Caribbean, and a lot of that I remember, because he said I could swim like a fish. I was a really good swimmer. I could swim, like, way better than I could walk. And he’d always be like, in his best Liverpudlian accent ‘Sean can swim like a fish. Look at him!’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah!’ Whoosh!”