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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Feature – Personality Crisis. An interview with The New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain

It’s not often you get to interview one of your all-time heroes, but this April I was graciously allowed to speak, even if only over the phone, to Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls. Of the two remaining live original Dolls, I was initially offered David Johansen (who it has to be said I’m actually a little scared of) but  I eventually chose Syl as he came highly recommended by at least three friends who knew him personally and described him as a “warm, friendly, bubbly mountain of information”. This he proved to be – and more besides. So, for all you lonely planet boys, human beings, dancing monkeys and bad detectives out there, here it is….
Shindig!Dancing Backward In High Heels does represent a slight change in sound for the Dolls. I can still hear all your usual influences there – the girl groups, Motown, R’n’B, Spector, Joe Meek, rock ’n’ roll – but whereas before they were always buried under loud rock guitars, they’re now laid bare, with the whole shebang – strings, horns, organs, vocal harmony doo wop parts, right to the forefront. Your agent tells me this is “the album you always wanted to make”, so does that mean your previous albums, and in particular the last two, were not? Or that they were, but this one is even more so?
Sylvain Sylvain:  Well first, let’s not worry too much about what Peter has to say (laughs)!! But yeah, the creative process of going into a studio to write a record – I mean, you have to restrict yourself from contact with anything that’s gonna take it away from being pure and creative, you know? We tried to go in there without much thought prematurely, and write it on the spot. To take all our experiences of years of live performances and everything else, like our Little Rascals’ attitude to showbusiness, and bring that, and record it. You know, let the record take its own… natural course. And to try to produce the song, rather than the singer or the guitar player, or even anything else. That’s why we called it Dancing Backward In High Heels cos we still have that swagger in our walk, in our dance, and we can say to others, “Hey, you think you’re hot ? Well, we can do this shit whilst dancing, and backwards, and in high heels!!” And that’s pretty much the only thing. It’s just that the songs were recorded differently from the other four records, so that’s probably why they sound different.
SD: Sami Yaffa and Steve Conte contributed quite heavily to the writing on the last two albums, but they’re not here anymore. Were they at odds with a direction you wanted to pursue, was the split amicable or acrimonious, or was it simply that Michael Monroe wanted to work with his former collaborator again, thus creating a case of split loyalties?
SS: Well you know what, that’s really a question for them to answer. All I can say is  that we asked them both, we told them last June that we had this deal, up in Newcastle (as in On-Tyne, folks, where the new album was cut) and that we wanted to take it, as it was a great opportunity, and they passed on it. So that was that. And being the musicians that David and I are, knowing the musicians we know, we went to the drawing board, and made some phone calls, and I introduced my good friend Frankie Infante, who had played in Blondie, and he flew in…
SD: Yeah- Frank plays on the album, but you’ve got Earl Slick playing live. So what’s behind that?
 SS: The confusion there stems from the fact that Frank wanted to make the record, but didn’t feel like going on the road for the next two years- largely because he’s still out there making records of his own. But on the other hand it’s a dream come true to play with Earl Slick. It almost feels like he’s been there since day one!! And he loved Johnny (Thunders) too, which is really a plus, and probably the one and only thing that wasn’t fully embraced in, or was missing from, the last lineup.
SD: There’s not an awful lot of loud guitar on the new record- was some of it done when you were between lead guitarists, when Steve had gone but Frank was still on his way in, or when Frank was done but Earl was coming through? I mean, there are several parts where I can hear your rhythm, but there doesn’t appear to be any lead…
SS: Again, we went for the song first, and I did a lot of the writing on keyboards – that’s how it came out, and we’ll get back to that later, but you mustn’t forget that on the very first New York Dolls album in 1973, it says on the sleeve “Sylvain Sylvain, guitar and piano”. I played it on ‘Personality Crisis’, ‘Private World’… it was actually one of my first instruments, before guitar. And I’m a self-taught kind of a guy, so the key of C is my domain – I should say, my only domain… anyway, I wrote a lot of these babies in hotel rooms, and the first song that kicked it off was ‘End Of The Summer’. I did that in Blackpool. We were playing some festival over there, and it reminded me of Coney Island, cos it’s like a big city, but it’s also the end of the subway… you have that element of the beach.
Also, in my home, over the years, I’ve been a huge collector of vintage keyboards, like the Vox… I also have a double Farfisa , with one keyboard for organ sounds and the other for pianos and harpsichords and stuff, but I also have a Vox Jaguar, which is just three octaves, and the colours of the keys are reversed, so the whites are the blacknotes, and vice versa. It’s very cool, and very simple – it kinda reminds me of a Les Paul Junior guitar, with one pickup and two knobs. But they have that sound, you know, and over the years I’ve plugged ’em in through fuzz pedals, and done a collection of tunes on them, so I used them here. The second song I wrote was ‘Talk To Me Baby’, and that’s got some guitar, cos that’s my beautiful fuckin’ T- Rex influence, if I could call it that, coming out… the fuzzy, fudgy riff. And that’s another thing that’s a little bit different- not that we haven’t done this before, but usually I’ll come up with a tune in demo form, and I’ll give you the chord changes, and the arrangements, and usually it’s 80% there. And sometimes I’ll even come up with a hookline, like “Talk To Me Baby” was my line….
SD: So does David still write the majority of the lyrics otherwise?
SS: Oh, of course. He’ll write all of the storytelling and the verses, but he kept some of my hooks this time around, and that’s the thing that was different. The other time he kept my hook was “Dance Like A Monkey” on the One Day album. That was mine. And I think it worked better that way maybe, because maybe my sense of dyslexia has merit to it, and allows me to create hooks, because of the simplicity, I don’t know. And like I said, ‘The End Of The Summer’ was mine.
SD: That’s quite a happy sounding tune on the surface, because of its reggae feel, but the lyrics seem dark, apocalyptic…
SS: Exactly. And that’s the collaboration between me and David – I’m the sun, and you can bask in my warmth, so to speak, but with him sometimes, he almost seems like the dark side of the moon (more laughter)
SD: He does seem a little dark onstage – at The Old Vic Tunnels, he was ranting about “existentialism NOW!” , and on the One Day It Will Please Us album he mentions Schopenhauer – is he a deeply philosophical person at the moment?
SS: Well, not only at the moment, he’s always been. When we first started, I was coming out of the rag business in New York, and this guy was already attending classes and being part of theatre groups, The Theatre Of The Ridiculous for one, and he’s always been very well read, both of his parents are librarians… but he's also of course very New York, and I think if anything this record really brings out the New York in The New York Dolls.
SD: It does – because all the different musical sounds you might hear on the streets of New York are there in the album.
SS: Well, I dunno if you’d still hear ’em today, but you know what I’d like to hear – I was just a kid then, but, as you were coming out the subway, above ground level into the suburbs, over every street, there’d be a bridge, and guys would be either above or below it harmonising, doo-wopping, as they called it, and that was such a groovy thing….
SD: It sounds fantastic, but sadly we never had anything like that on the London Underground to my knowledge.
SS: And talking of the past, I’ll tell you who I miss over here, and that’s Long John Baldry. I’m kinda family with him, because he married my first wife’s brother! Now he’s gone, of course, and through the ’80s and ’90s he lived in Canada, so he was reclusive. But he had that song ‘The King Of The Boojie Woojie’, pronounced that way, (Ed: he’s obviously referring at this point to the preamble to ‘Don’t Lay No Boogie Woogie On The King Of Rock And Roll’) because of what the officer said when he found him busking down on Wardour Street. He had him arrested, and the judge said “What the hell did you bring this guy in for”, and the cop said (mimics London accent) “He was playing the boojie-woojie”, so he wrote that song. And he would tell that story practically every night he performed!!
SD: A webzine recently referred to you as a “collective”, inferring that rather than a band with a regular lineup, The New York Dolls are essentially you, David and anyone else you find yourself working with, such as the Geordie pub backing singers on the new album. Is this true, or are you working towards another stable lineup now, with Earl and Jason? Brian’s been on drums constantly since you reformed, but it’s the originals people notice…
SS: You never set out to set yourself on anything. It’s all about change, and how fast you move and adapt, and being pragmatic and doing the best with what you’ve got in hand. I didn’t want to be confronted with having to get new members in the band two weeks before I was going in the studio (more laughter) but unfortunately I was confronted with that, so what the fuck was I gonna do? Just say “I quit”? No!! You gotta do what you gotta with the budget you have these days. I mean, everyone’s got a littler budget now, but you’re always at the top of that – if they give you $10, you’re gonna spend $10. They give you 10 million, you spend 10 million. So you do things album by album, and they’re like beautiful little babies, to their parents. They’re gorgeous, our little angels. Some have dirty faces, some have scars. Some have beards, or even glitter in their beards. How can I best tell you that? But that’s how it is.
SD: You say nothing is premeditated, but it does seem that with the musical experimentation and development of the last two albums, the Dolls could go almost in any direction from here. You’d always sound like yourselves, but taken one step further. Might we maybe see your concept album, or your New York street opera, at some point? Also, songs like ‘Fool For You Baby’ and ‘Kids Like You’ are quite psychedelic –is that a route you’d like to further explore?
SS: It’s all open really. Especially now – I can’t wait to get into the meat and potatoes, to use a musical term, of working with Earl Slick. I wanna see where that’s gonna take us, but I hope to God we never change as far as being a surprise. When you bought any New York Dolls record, even the first one, it was a BIG fuckin’ surprise. A shock to some. It was three years after we’d written those songs, and they were already well known anthems, so they were basically recorded live. We went into the studio, and it was good enough that we had Todd Rundgren, who kept it like it was, rather than trying to overproduce it or try and make us sound however. That’s how we were live, and that’s how it came out on record. You know the song ‘You Don’t Have To Cry?’ That’s a ballad – what else can you say about it, that’s what it is!! But it wasn’t planned like that… I wrote the melody on my smartphone, like a dummy, in some little hotel room, and at the time I was listening to early Kinks..
SD: I know Ray Davies is a big influence on you, and talking of influences, I’ve always seen the Dolls as several cuts above every other band that tried to use them as a blueprint but misunderstood them. However, you’re touring the US later this year with Motley Crue and Poison!!
SS: Ha ha ha, speaking of being misunderstood!! Well you know, rock ’n’ roll to me is one step above being a go-go dancer,  and sometimes you gotta take the dance the way it comes. As musicians, we’re glad and still amazed at how many people we’ve influenced – we wouldn’t have even gotten back together in 2004 for that Meltdown festival if it wasn’t for Morrissey, so that was really cool, and we have these wonderful musicians who are artists now – not that they’re any more important than our fans who don’t play music, but these special people became something, and they don’t forget us, and they come-a-calling. And I think part of it is that we always took chances, and we still do, just by making records today. We could easily become a revival band, and stick to the old stuff… but we wouldn’t want that!!  Because when it comes down to it, we love what we do, and part of it is writing, and recording. It thrills the shit out of us. Like what I was saying earlier about that first album – this is kinda weird, cos I’m going round in a circle here – even that was a surprise. So, when you buy a New York Dolls album today, it should be some kinda musical “WOW!!!!”, no matter what direction it is. And I think that we stuck to our guns, especially on this baby.
SD: Absolutely. But I suppose to a lot of people, the Dolls are representative of an ethos, the whole glam-punk-sleaze-trash thing. Now, I know you’ve advanced way beyond that, but there are some very sad people who still want only that, and some are narrow-minded enough to claim that you should never have reformed at all. Those people piss me off, but you get them every day, don’t you?
SS: We got the same thing at the beginning too. But thank God we didn’t listen.  We’re The New York Dolls, and we were born to write ’em and sing ’em, and write ’em and sing ‘em we’re gonna do.
SD: And that’s what I hope you carry on doing. Talking of the beginning, are any of you still in contact with (early guitarist) Rick Rivets? When I was a promoter in the early 00s he sent me a demo, so I know he’s still around, but do you or David still have any connections with him? Has he ever expressed interest in being a Doll again, or have you thought about asking him?
SS: I know he lives out in Long Island, and every now and then he goes out in New York and performs, but we really haven’t crossed any paths or rubbed shoulders together lately.
SD: On the subject of meeting people in the city, I’d like to talk about ‘I’m So Fabulous’, which seems like a rant, and starts with something called “Fabulous Rant”, against the current crop of New York fashionistas. This is obviously a huge bugbear for David, but is it the same for you? Do you get pissed off with trendsetters and tastemakers? Are you aware of how bad things are in London right now, or what “Shoreditch twats” are?
SS: No, I haven’t heard of those, you can tell me about ’em later!! But I’m a victim myself of this cleansing, if you will. New York, I pity the newcomers, because they either have to be sponsored by their parents or whatever these days. It used to be that $2-300 (Ed: I presume he means “calendar monthly”) could get you an apartment somewhere downtown. Then you could call yourself an “artist” for about six weeks and see if it worked out. But that’s getting harder and harder and harder now. And that why I left New York and now I live in Atlanta, Georgia. We have the same thing there too, and in every urban city that’s either upcoming or well-established, they’re always looking for their “moments”, but yes, there is that new influx. Me and David used to do this almost every Spring – walk round the Lower East Side together, and say “Look at this one!! I haven’t seen them before, aha, must be a new one!” And then you’d see them , they’d hear their “calling” and try to establish themselves in whatever craft they were about to manifest in, but like I said, nowadays it’s getting harder, so I was asking David, when we were in the studio, and I was in the control booth with Jason, “What the hell’s this one about, I’m So Fabulous?” And then I pissed him off in a way, so Jason hits the engineer and says “Push the record button!”, and this winds up to be the intro, where he’s tellin’ me all about it… it was accidental.
SD: I think you and David could get an entire albums’ worth of inspiration from coming over here and people-watching, albeit in a misanthropic kind of way….
SS: Well, it kind of is like that. David always graced all The New York Dolls’ lyrics with such colour and variation. And it was always about New York City, deep inside. And as much of the intellectual, connoisseur, poet, and well-read guy that he is, he always had that New York street sense. Like in ‘Trash’, just having that as a title!! Y’know, “Pick it up!!” It’s all about your life, y’know? And again ‘Streetcake’ from the new album is fabulous, and “Fabulous” itself, which is actually a New York saying. I remember there were kids in school being tough, picking on “punks” as they called them back then, they were the “fabulous” whatever. Back then, if you were a punk, you were scared. You were a pussy. That’s what it meant.
SD: It also used to mean the guy that takes it up the arsehole in the regiment, in the Army…
SS: I guess… in your army though, not ours!! Hahahaha!!!!! (cracking up into giggles) But anyways, the saying he uses in that song is “I don’t even know how they even let you on this subway”, meaning that they’ll just about let anybody on the subway as long as it’s wearing something…
SD: David certainly does have an incredible way with words. To my knowledge, he’s the only ever lyricist I know to fit the word “lustre” into a rock song, on ‘End Of The Summer’. I can’t think of another one…
SS: Oh yeah. And in that beautiful toon, ‘You Don’t Have To Cry’ I came up with, like I said, the hook, (sings) “You don’t have to cry, I don’t have to go, dee-dee-dee-da-deee…” and then the twist he put on that, where at the very end, he says “But let me see you smile”, it makes you melt, and ‘Kids Like You’ the storytelling there is incredible, and even a title in itself like ‘Baby, Tell Me What I’m On’, all those things…
SD: Well, again, him being such a natural wordsmith – such lyricism is one of the key things that elevates the Dolls above the likes of Poison and their ilk. And if you do go on tour with them, don’t let your drummer get in any car driven by Vince Neil… you know what happened to Razzle!!
SS:  Ha ha, I don’t even wanna go there, man….
SD: Well, I know you have to go now, so let me ask you one final question, on a personal level. Do you know a tall Canadian girl called Ashley, a rock DJ from Toronto? I’m not sure if you lived there, but she’s one of my very good friends from years back. She used to stay with me in London, years before the Dolls reformed, and she always spoke highly of you, saying “You gotta meet Syl, he drives cabs now, but he’s still 100% rock ’n’ roll, such a great guy"…do you know her?
SS: I think so….Wait a minute!! Ashley from The Bovine Sex Club!! Yeah, I know her, she’s an absolute sweetheart. She’d always be spinning for me. I’d come in and say “What Ramones tunes you got this week”, and she’d dig ’em out. You give her a great big kiss from me when you see her. But hey, I gotta go… see ya, baby.
The New York Dolls will be supporting Alice Cooper on his Halloween Night Of Fear Tour.

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