The old cliché "what happens on the road stays on the road" has little meaning for Charlotte Kemp Muhl. She's been on the road for much of her life. Early on as a model (working for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, D&G and Maybelline) and more recently as the member of a rock 'n' roll band, Goastt (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger) with her boyfriend Sean Lennon. The road can be something you use to get from Point A to Point B but it's also the seamless in-between where everything happens. Kemp Muhl spoke on the phone from a way-station in Tucson as the band made their way north on I-10 to their next gig in Phoenix. The band plays tonight at the Imperial (319 Main St.).
You've been modelling since you were a teenager — when did music become a focus for you?
Charlotte Kemp Muhl: I've been doing music since I was very young. My dad gave me a Martin acoustic guitar when I was 12 or 13 and I immediately started writing tons of songs. I was modelling at the time and I was alone a lot. The Martin guitar was my travel companion and I would just write songs in hotels around the world but I never thought it would be a serious profession until I met Sean. Almost a year into our relationship he finally convinced me to play him one of my songs and he really loved the lyrics and the melody. He said we have to write songs together and that day we wrote our first song called "The World Was Made For Men." It was kind of a joke, our band at first, I mean the name and everything is like a joke, but it slowly became the centre of our lives and now it's our full-time thing.
When you were starting out in music who inspired you?
In the beginning I was mostly inspired by classical musicians: Mussorgsky, Grieg, Liszt, Satie — but now I'm really in a psychedelic phase these days. I sort of had my cliched collegiate awakening listening to Pink Floyd and smoking marijuana for the first time. There's no going back now — I've been heavily into Syd Barrett and King Crimson and a lot of prog and psychedelia. Now I'm leaving my psychedelic ’60s phase and entering a glam-rock early ’70s phase. So it's going in waves. Right now I'm super into T. Rex and Bowie. I think the next record I do I want to do a glam record.
When you first met Sean did you have any common ground musically?
The common ground is on the first record we did which was Acoustic Sessions — at the time I was still a very acoustic-minded folk nerd listening to records like The Madcap Laughs and dorky stuff like Simon & Garfunkel — and Dylan of course. That was our common ground at the time because I had not been exposed to a lot of pop or rock or funk or anything. Our common ground was folk music so we made a folk record. Over the course of making that folk record and touring it that's when I got into psychedelic rock and then we just wanted to rock out but we were stuck touring this acoustic record.
The songs on your new album are strikingly different from the earlier stuff. I've heard that you consider some of your earlier records more like demos whereas Midnight Sun is a full-blown production.
Oh yeah, well, La Carotte Bleue, for example, was never meant to be officially released. That was just a bunch of demos we scrounged together in time for a French tour where we needed something to sell. And the Acoustic Sessions were basically demos as well. We recorded them incredibly quickly in a couple of days up at our farm very casually. Midnight Sun we consider our first real record, it's the one we spent the most time on. We brought in Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, MGMT) to mix it and that made a huge difference. Everything else we did ourselves.
Where did you record the new tracks?
On our farm. We do everything on our farm. I've been to a lot of studios over the last eight years and the greatest studio I've ever been to is the one upstate on Sean and Yoko's farm. We have a collection of instruments that the two of us have been collecting for years and it makes it like this magical sandbox of toys and weird s*** we can get inspired by. And we're finally getting a board so once we have a board we'll never need to leave.
Who plays what on the tracks?
We both play pretty much everything ourselves except for a few songs we got our new band members to do overdubs and stuff. For the most part it's Sean playing a majority of the things and I'm playing the bass tracks when we're tracking live because sometimes when we do the basic track of a song he'll do the drums and I'll play the bass live together. I also play a lot of the keyboards and some electric guitar.
How about in a live context, do you stick to one instrument or do you move around a lot?
Live I play electric bass and he plays electric guitar and sings and then for a couple of songs I play Hammond organ. And we have a full rock band finally — yea! — we have a keyboard player, a drummer, a second guitarist and then me and Sean.
Is this the first time you've toured with a full band?
This is the first time we've toured with this band. We tried touring with an electric band a few years ago but that was really old material and none of those band members are still with us.
As far as the writing process goes how does that work? Who does what?
Sean and I write everything together. Sometimes I might write a whole verse by myself and he'll write a chorus or we'll sit there and eke out every word and note together but it's a very intensive democracy. We're both very opinionated and full of ideas and we'll sit there and bicker about it forever until finally something comes out that is like a hybrid of our two brains.
Do you like to write on guitar, keyboards, do you have a preference?
I used to like to write on piano but I noticed it was making me write more complicated chord changes just because that's the nature of that instrument and so lately I've been writing on acoustic or electric guitar and trying to stick to more bar chords. The main mission of this record, which took us years to do, was to simplify and try to become more pop and that was the hardest challenge for us. It was really easy for us to do weird bizarre jazz odysseys with like five different sections and different time signatures but the challenge for us was doing something that was pop and that's what took up so much time and we ended up scrapping a lot of our old songs and writing new ones at the last second.
Can you tell me a little bit about your label Chimera Music?
We started that years ago. When I met Sean he was with EMI and he always had dreams to start his own label but I don't think he add the motivation. I came along like a second stage mother and was like, “Sean you're so good at everything: you can draw, you can play every instrument, you have radical ideas why don't you start your own label?” We did it with his longtime friend Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto who was also living with us and we did everything in-house. I don't think we were prepared for how much work it was going to be. We were literally doing everything ourselves down to the CD packaging, mailing out orders to people, all the album photography and album art, and the website design. We were doing administrative stuff and it ended up taking a lot of our time, stealing time that we would otherwise have been using for creativity. It was an amazing learning curve that forced us to grow up — we were no longer children living in this dream we had to be adults.
Now you have a whole roster of artists as well as your own band.
Yes we have Sean's mom [Yoko Ono], we have Ciba Matto, and me and my childhood friend with songs I wrote when I was a teenager on that Martin guitar and Sean's really cool avant-garde noise, improv project with Greg Saunier from Deerhoof called Mythical Weapons. Hopefully we'll have Sean's solo record on the label when he finally writes another one.
How's the tour going so far?
The tour's going great. We're having so much fun. We're not on a fancy tour bus, we're all crammed into this little van eating gas station food, sleeping in s*** roach infested motels but it's been so much fun. We're laughing a lot. We're watching Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and stuff in the van and the shows are going well. I think we're finally figuring out how to sound good live you know because our music's pretty ambitious and complicated and the arrangements are really dense and it was really hard to figure out how to sound good live. We're still in that process but it's finally starting to come together.