Sean Ono Lennon

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY Vish KhannaPublished Feb 13, 2019

By his own reckoning, Sean Lennon is only famous for being the only child of Yoko Ono and her husband, the late John Lennon. But he's been a busy and prolific musician/producer in his own right, and is celebrating the release of South of Reality, the second album he's made with Les Claypool of Primus, under the name the Claypool Lennon Delirium. "It's an epic, prog-psychedelic album for the modern person," Lennon explains. "It's rooted in King Crimson and Utopia and Yes, but the subject matter is very contemporary. It's a good record to sit and reflect upon the strange surrealism of the modern world."
What are you up to?
I just finished working on some music with BØRNS; this guy Garrett Borns is a musician who I like a lot. We did about two weeks at my studio in upstate New York with his friend Tommy English, who's a producer/songwriter guy whom he works with and it was really fun. Before that, I was working on a solo project; I put that down for a while but I'm picking it up again, hopefully.
What are your current fixations?
Oh boy. I've got so many interests regarding film, music and art and stuff. It depends on how deep we want to go. Just superficially, what I've been watching is the Mike Judge series, Tales from the Tour Bus. It's probably the greatest TV I've ever seen. I just love it. That's the funniest thing I've ever seen. And you know else? This is kind of lowbrow — I've been watching this show called Norsemen; it's this Viking comedy show from Norway, it's hilarious. I guess I've been watching comedy, because the world is so scary when you read the news every day that you just want to go home and laugh. Those are the two shows that I watch.
In terms of music, I really like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. I really like those boys. There's this band called Drug Dealer that I like. The funny thing is, I mainly listen to a lot of older music. I've been mainly listening to a lot of Milton Nascimento, this Brazilian artist from the '70s. I was looking through my dad's record collection and I found a bunch of old Brazilian records, so I got really into Milton Nascimento last year and been listening to that a lot.
Why do you live where you do?
Well, I was born and raised in New York so I'm a New Yorker more than anything else, even though my parents were immigrants. But I think the main reason is because my mom lives here. She likes New York, and I wouldn't feel right if I left the city she lived in, because she doesn't have a lot of family to take care of her. I stick around mainly for that reason. Also, my girlfriend likes New York. We talk about living somewhere else, but I'm always more open to that than she is. The women in my life are keeping me here.
How is your mom doing these days?
She's good. She's 85, so she's doing great considering her age. She's always had a lot of energy and she's always busier than I am. Even the last time I went to see her, she was planning another art project with somebody. She's incredibly prolific and is always doing something. I feel really blessed to have such an active mom at her age.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
The most mind-altering movie for me would probably be The Holy Mountain by [Alexandro] Jodorowsky. It's a film that my dad produced with Allen Klein, who was the Stones' and later the Beatles' and John Lennon's manager. That's one of the trippiest movies ever. It's hard to watch it all the way through, it's so aggressively surreal. Apparently George Harrison was up for the lead role of the "Jesus" character, but ultimately that didn't work out for some reason. It's a very visual film. In fact, I don't think there's any dialogue in it. I recommend it; it's beautiful but also very terrifying.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Man, this is gonna be so hard; I've been to a bunch of gigs I've really loved. I got to see the second run, I think it was, of Pink Floyd's The Wall tour when I was young. I think that was my favourite show of all time. But aw, the other show I saw that blew my mind was Prince on the Purple Rain tour. It's hard to say, but honestly, I liked The Wall better. I'm more of a Pink Floyd fan. That was probably the greatest show I've ever seen, because they did the Frankenstein in the bed and the floating pig and it was just so mind-blowing. At the time I didn't know much about Pink Floyd but to me, it just seemed like the greatest show on Earth. I remember all the lasers and lights and it really impacted me and stuck with me. The production on that tour was so over-the-top and I've never seen anything like it since.
One time I got to see Levon Helm's "Live at the Midnight Ramble" in upstate New York. I didn't realize how magical it was, but he basically passed away a year or two after that. Looking back, that was one of the most magical moment, because we were standing right behind his drum set. It was a very small place, his studio. That was one that stuck with me, it was so beautiful; we were all in tears. Levon was so sweet, man; he was such good energy and the musicianship was so high, it blew our minds. We felt like we were witnessing something monumental.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Oh lord. I don't know what my career high is; I don't think I've had one yet. But one of the worst ones was [partner] Charlotte [Kemp Muhl] and my band the Ghost [of a Saber Tooth Tiger], we got hired to play a movie opening party at the film festival in Cannes. At the time, we were acoustic and we didn't realize they were booking us as some sort of circus sideshow where they'd gawk at us. We thought they really wanted to hear us play. I wounded up playing acoustic guitar, and it was the two of us singing in this night club, which was this super Euro-trashy disco/techno vibe. They were just blasting techno music the whole time. It was so bizarre, because we just stood there and tried to sing and play, but no one could hear us. I should've known, but it only occurred to me on stage that they obviously just wanted me there because of my dad, and her because she's a model. But we were forced to play for a good hour without being heard while a DJ played techno music.
I've played some weird places. When I was in the band Cibo Matto, we toured with the Butthole Surfers and I love those guys. But we played some of the weirdest places I've ever seen in my life, like truck stops where there were kind of weird people at the dressing room with guns and stuff in Texas, kind of threatening us like, "Y'all the Butthole Surfers? What are y'all a bunch of..." you know, bad words. I'm like, "No we're not the Butthole Surfers, it's not us." They're like, "Well I got my gun, so you all better not mess with the dressing room, my boss told me you're all miscreants." You know, people threatening us with firearms and stuff like that. I've been in a lot of low-point situations. I'm still waiting for that high moment. I believe it will happen one day — when I get to produce Bob Dylan some day. No, I'm kidding.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig? 
Lot of those, lot of those. I think it was my first show for this record I made when I was young, Into the Sun, a solo record I did. Oh man, I think that was really my moment of leaving childhood and entering the real world and it was a cold shower of reality. I had no idea what people thought of me, but really, I didn't think about it. I'd just been playing in Cibo Matto, I was a bass player, and I didn't think about what it would be like for me to try to make music on my own, and how people might have a resistance to that or resent me for it or not even want me to do it.
I remember my very first show. The front row was just all these kind of — let's just say they were much older than my main fan base. And they were… well, let's put it this way: I don't think they knew whether I was Sean or Julian or you know, even Stella McCartney. They just knew I was a child of a Beatle. And the whole show they were heckling me. Like, "Why aren't you playing 'Yesterday?' between every song. But the funny thing is — and I may be hyperbolizing in my mind — but I really think they only called out Paul songs. I don't think they purposely knew what they were doing, but it just added a depth to the humiliation that was a little odd. That was the first time I realized it was going to be a long haul, my music career. I was like, "Oh that makes sense, I see. This isn't going to be like the other stuff I'd been doing." Because I'd been playing in a band where I wasn't the leader; no one even knew I was in the band, so I got to tour and just experience it from a normal perspective and it wasn't until I tried my own thing that I realized that it was never going to be like that for me.
What should everyone shut up about?
Man, so many things, don't you think? It's hard to say.
I just did one of these Questionnaires with Jeff Tweedy. You know Jeff Tweedy? You're friendly with Jeff I believe.
Yeah, I've performed with Jeff and I was roommates with Nels Cline, his guitar player.
Right, so Jeff, when he answered this question, "What should everyone shut up about?" he said "Everything."
That's kind of what I was just thinking about. We live in an age where we all, all of us, are able to air the slightest thought that we have, on a whim, to all these social media platforms and it just feels so unnecessary. But I feel like it's not just unnecessary — I think it might even be dangerous. The cohesiveness of our social fabric is being threatened because, instead of interacting with communities in the physical world, we just kind of glibly vent our most flippant frustrations and even joys. But it's all relatively unidirectional or relatively one-sided. I mean, you can have a conversation on Twitter, but for the most part you're just kind of saying something and it's going out there. You're not getting a reaction from a physical person who's in the same city or building or room as you. It doesn't feel connected, and obviously that's a paradox, because the internet is literally the thing that's connected us the most. But it really feels as if the more we try to connect over the internet, the less connected we are as a civilization. And that sounds like an old fuddy-duddy getting mad about technology, but I'm not a technophobe. I'm not a Luddite. I like technology, but it feels like it's compromising our ability to have real conversations and to treat each other like human beings, because it's very easy to think of somebody who's tweeting or whatever, as not a completely human person, because they're only represented two-dimensionally.
Yeah, it's completely dehumanizing and as much as that's brought us together it's contributing to the erosion of decorum and civility.
Exactly. So what you have is all these slivers of people interacting as opposed to the whole person. And it feels like there are just these shadows that represent people getting entangled in these webs of confusion. And so, I honestly think it's connected to why we're so politically divided and why we have Trump in the White House. I think it's all connected to that frenetic kind of interaction.
Yeah, he's the avatar of dishonesty and treating people poorly and that's what's going on.
But not just that he represents that behaviour; I think he's a result of it, in that people started to polarize because of social media, because it's very easy to get into clicks and tribes and be like "Well, we're the people that think this and everyone who tweets otherwise is an enemy." It becomes really tribal and superficial and I think it's dangerous. And I'm hoping that we all kind of eventually unplug from the worst aspects of social media. I'm hoping that's where it's going and I do know a lot of young people are doing that.
Yeah I think so too. It's also all very anxiety-inducing.
Yeah, I mean there's all sorts of psychology studies that show that especially young girls are, you know, more prone to destructive behaviour like cutting or suicidal ideation and stuff and that's directly connected to Instagram or whatever. It's terrifying.
Well, this seems like an odd segue into question number nine: What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I was born and raised in Manhattan and it's a very self-critical culture and I'm really good at self-loathing. I have a lot of skill and talent in that department. I do often feel that the things you like about people are the flip side of a coin of the dichotomy that you don't like about them. The thing you love about them tends to turn into the thing you like least about them on some level, especially after a period of time.
Isn't it that the thing you don't like about someone else is really a thing you don't like about yourself?
Well, that's also true. I think that's a different statement. I think if you don't dislike an aspect of yourself, you won't be triggered by it in other people. I do believe that. But I also think that, let's say you're in a long-term friendship or relationship with somebody. The thing you tend to love most about them at first is a flip side of a coin of the thing that starts stressing you out the most. But in my case, gosh, I was going to say I really don't like my singing voice. It's always bothered me. I always wished I could be a better singer, because I do think I have some talent at music and I think if I could sing well — that if I could sing really, really well — I think I'd enjoy my music better. I don't like my voice. I hate the sound of my talking voice even. That's why if I listened to a radio show or podcast I'm on, it just stresses me out so much. I don't like the kind of nasal whine of my voice. It really bothers me. But I do think I'm a good bass player. You know, when all is said and done, I'm okay on guitar and piano and I'm a pretty good songwriter. But I think what I'm really good at is bass playing. And so that would probably be the thing I like about myself the most is I can pretty much hold it down on the bass. If you throw a bass into my hands, I can slap it for you.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Well honestly, the thing I enjoy most in life is, when I write a song and I record it and I don't hate it. When I love it. There's a window sometimes of a few days when I just think "Wow, this is really great," and I listen to it over and over and that's probably the greatest high in the world. That's what I do music for, is that feeling of "Wow we've made something good and it sounds great," and it's this sort of pleasure of listening to something that you like and that doesn't bother you. And often I'll record something and just think it's awful. So my favourite day is one when I record something and it turns out well and I like it. That's my favourite thing in the world to be honest. That's my favourite feeling and all of my motivation is towards getting that feeling of having done music that I don't dislike.
Ok. And so that can occur on Sunday?
Well yeah because I record on weekends for sure. I don't have a 9-to-5 so my goal is to have a good day. And recording a song that I like and that I continue to like for the rest of the day is my favourite moment in my life, when that happens.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Pretty much all the advice. It's interesting, I think about that because now I'm older and I have a nephew and niece and I'm always telling them this and that. "Oh, you be careful of this" and "Look out for that." And it's so hard when you're young and adults tell you something. Part of me knows that it's probably sound advice, but it's really hard to internalize and actually take the advice. I think, as human beings, until we touch the flame, it's hard to understand what hot is, you know? Everyone told me not to smoke cigarettes when I was young and I did it anyway. And I wonder why I did it. I think I did it for a lot of stupid reasons. My dad always smoked and he was always a hero to me. So, he always had a cigarette in every picture and in my memories of him, he's smoking, and same with my mom. They both smoked all day. So I think the stupid choice that I made was thinking that because they were cool, that the smoking must've been a part of that coolness, and it took me my whole life pretty much to realize that they would have been even cooler if they hadn't smoked, you know? They would have been really cool if they'd been doing all the stuff they did, and on top of it were smart enough to not smoke. That would have been great. Took me a long time to realize that, so you know, that's the kind of advice I didn't take. You know everyone told me that smoking is bad and I smoked anyway because I really identified with this idea of like, "Oh, well this is what you do if you're a musician or whatever, an artist." And it's such a dumb idea. I haven't smoked for a couple of years now but still, it's something I regret deeply.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Yeah I have. I've been in this business for some time. I've experienced a lot of things, and I don't want to mention any names, but I have had someone in a band of mine who did a couple of bad things. They were having some drug problems, which, you know, I can be sympathetic towards and tolerant of, but I had to lay the law down when it got too serious and it wound up affecting their work, and then they wound up stealing from me, from my bedroom. So, this actually doubles up as a bedroom story as well. I kicked them out of my bedroom, because they actually wound up stealing some stuff from my house and that really hurt my feelings. And they stole it to sell it to get high. That really, really hurt me and I had to kick them off the team. You have to have boundaries and the person was someone that I loved, so it's hurtful.
There was another time a tour manager of mine didn't show up to the morning call to leave Amsterdam. We were on tour in Europe and our tour manager didn't show up and I was like, "Man, where is he?" So I tried to get the hotel manager to break into his bedroom, but he said it was illegal. He was like, "No, we can't break into the bedroom," and I was like, "Look, he has the float," which is all the financing from the tour. So, I get the hotel manager to break into the tour manager's room and we open the door and it was just chaos in there. But he wasn't in there. There were like three TV's rolling with all sorts of nasty stuff on it, because it was Amsterdam, and there was just powder everywhere and clothes everywhere and I was like, "Man, he's gone. I don't know where he is." So, I rummaged through all of his belongings, I found the float, took the float, and I wound up road managing the rest of that tour. We get on the plane and I get a phone call from him and I'm on the plane and I'm like, "Hey guys, it's him." I'm not going to mention any names, but my band looks at me. This is like nine hours after he was supposed to be getting us to the airport and I'm like, "Should I pick up?" They're like, "Yeah." And I pick up the phone and he just goes [whispering], "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." And hangs up. That was it. Never saw him again. I think he got a little bit too excited to be in Amsterdam. Let's put it that way. And believe it or not, he tried to get on the next tour with me and I'm just like, "I'm sorry man. That's too much. You can't do that and keep working with me. I do have limits."
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, I guess would be the first thing. I think about my friend Rufus Wainwright and his mom Kate and his sister Martha and that family. I remember touring up there with Rufus when I was young and getting to experience Montreal. It was so cool. And their scene was so cool and they're all so talented. They used to sing Christmas carols and stuff, as a family. I just remember being blown away by that experience. But yeah, I think about Neil Young. I think about John Candy. I think about comedy and music and the cold I guess.
What was the first LP/45/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I remember this very well. I used to get money for my teeth from the tooth fairy. I think they were like silver dollars or something, but they weren't silver; they were just like these coins that I would get, one for every tooth, when I was young and I saved those all up and I went and bought a Human League LP. It was the one with that song "Fascination" on it. That was my favourite song ever at the time. And I also just remember the video for that song "Don't You Want Me." [sings] "I was working as a waiter in a cocktail bar," that one? And I remember seeing the guy had, like, eyeliner and lipstick on and he just looked like the coolest, sexiest dude I'd ever seen. And I just remember the whole thing just confused me, because I was all titillated by the song and feeling all sorts of strange feelings and getting excited about it and I think it just messed me up in a good way. It was an awakening of some sort. It was so edgy at the time; to see their brand of sexiness was exciting for me. So yeah, that was my favourite album when I was very young and I went out and bought that with my tooth fairy money.
What was your most memorable day job?
I went straight from college to touring with Cibo Matto. That's not really a day job. But I mean it's not a 9-to-5. I've been working as a musician my whole life. So, I've never really had to work in an office or anything like that.
How do you spoil yourself?
Honestly, the thing that I've been really worried about is I have a little bit of an addiction to synthesisers — to buying vintage synthesizers on eBay. And I think sometimes it goes a little far and I guess I feel like it's dangerous. At this point, you can just open up your laptop or cell phone and you can buy music gear. I never got into cars or anything. I don't really care about most stuff. It's music equipment that I have a weird kind of fetish for. So yeah, I got myself this keyboard that's called a Waldorf Quantum and I bought that the other day. And when it arrived, I just felt kind of like, "I shouldn't have bought it." I just feel like, "What am I doing man?" I don't need this thing and I thought I needed it and I thought it was the coolest thing and it is a great keyboard, but I have enough synths and I'm just going to return it, because I feel like I'm just going nuts with that stuff. Like, I don't need a seventh synthesizer in that one little studio I have. It doesn't make sense. So yeah, I definitely am a little spoiled when it comes to synths and guitar pedals, I'm just nuts about it and I might have a little bit of a problem.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
Definitely a visual artist or movie director. In fact, I think I'm way better at drawing than I am at playing music, probably, which is weird because I should do that then. But I think it's just too lonely, drawing. I like to play music because it's a social activity and you get to interact with your friends and make music with people. But drawing, you just spend so much time sitting there all by yourself and, as much as I think I have talent for it, I can't, it's too lonely. I have done an animation once; I did an animation for a music video of mine for this album I did called Friendly Fire and, you know, that was collaborative. It was fun, but I don't know, I don't have as much of a passion for it as I do for music. Let's put it that way. But I do think I have a maybe better innate talent for it probably. My mom is very good at drawing. [My dad] certainly was. But my mom is really good. I started to draw because of my dad for sure. You know he… all of our magazines would be covered with little UFOs and guys running around. Like, he would draw on photos and National Geographic and stuff, and he'd like to do collages and cartoons and I started drawing because of that. In fact, he used to do drawing games with me. So, he'd start a drawing and I'd finish it and vice versa. It was fun, but then I think I got more serious about it when I was older because of my mother.
What do you fear most?
Besides death? I mean, what else is there? I mean, gosh, in this day and age, there's just such a long list of things we're supposed to be scared of, from meteor impacts to pending ice age and the Anthropocene, human-caused mass extinction, and nuclear war — I mean all that stuff is terrifying. I think right now the thing I'm scared most of is America moving towards some kind of irrevocable discord — some kind of cultural civil war or something. That really scares me right now. To me, it feels like our country is being torn apart from within and it's very sad. And I hope that we find a way out of this darkness into a time when we are able to listen to each other again and have real conversations and not just yell at each other from across the canyon of the internet.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Well, I've got a very low threshold man. Just gimme a box of Manischewitz and I'm down. I'm naked right now. No, no, I'm wearing socks. Not on my feet though. You're getting hot, aren't you?
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Well, I don't consider myself a celebrity. I think people get confused about that. I'm the child of two celebrities. It's very different. Because I know what celebrity is and I ain't got that thing. Some people recognize me, but it's never because of me, it's because of my parents. So that's more like a secondary kind of celebrity.
I've got to think about it because there's some that I probably can't even talk about, if you're talking about crazy. Oh man, I've got to really tread carefully here. No, no, I can't. There are things I can never say. You know how it is.
I guess one of the strangest things, to be honest, is — I actually wrote a song about it, "Bubbles Burst," on the last Delirium album. And I think it's just one of many stories I have that are interesting from having a different kind of childhood, but it's a song about being friends with Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimpanzee, and spending time out at Michael's house in California with Bubbles and the boa constrictor and a bunch of other animals. And yeah, I think that was a super strange time, but not in a dark way. In an odd way, in a unique way. It was odd because Bubbles was all dressed up in dandy outfits and we were all running around playing videogames with this chimpanzee. It was a surreal scene. It was kind of part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, part Dr. Doolittle, and part, you know, "Motown's Greatest Hits" or something. It was a convergence of a lot of disparate universes that merged for a while. And that was a strange scene, but it was really fun. I mean it was amazing to hang out with all those animals, but there was also something very eccentric about it, you know.
Well yes, obviously. Was with you?
He was the coolest dude I'd ever met for sure. I mean people, you know, they have a lot of opinions about him and like anything else, my opinions can only be based on my experience. But he was super fun to hang out with. I mean he was like a big kid, you know? So yeah, the time that I got to spend with him was, you know — it was like Disneyland all day long. You know, he'd set up water balloon fights and pie fights in basketball courts. Just really fun stuff where he'd like, invite all his friends over and there'd be two teams and everyone would dress in garbage bags and throw pies at each other. It was like super high level fun and it was orchestrated fun and insanity and, I mean whatever happened with him and anyone else, I have no opinion of, because I wasn't there you know? But in terms of my experience, it was a really fun time. But it was a strange time and there was something weird about the whole thing. I mean, there's something odd about having giraffes in your house. There's just something strange about the whole thing. But when I talked about it in "Bubbles Burst," the song, I wasn't trying to be critical. I was simply trying to document the truth. You know, "This happened," is all I would say. I think a lot of people thought I was criticizing him or not criticizing him or whatever, but it wasn't about that. The song was really just documenting a strange time — like a surreal moment of my life that was memorable.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
It would probably be Einstein. I just think all of the deepest questions you've ever had, he'd be the kind of person you'd want to ask those questions to. I heard that he had very plain taste in food — that he pretty much ate the same thing all the time and it was pretty mild Austrian food. Just like sausages and potatoes or something, so I'd probably try to serve whatever he'd like. But you know, I'm a big science groupie. I try not to say I'm a science nerd, because that would imply that I actually understand science and I don't. But I'm a science groupie. I really love scientists and I love thinking about those subjects. You know, relativity and special relativity and quantum mechanics and stuff, and I'd want to ask him about time, basically. I'd want to ask him what he thought time was really. I mean, I know he wrote a lot about that. But it'd be interesting to have a conversation with him about that kind of thing. Yeah, I would love that, in an ideal world. Maybe Richard Feynman. But definitely I think Einstein above all other people — he just seems like such a monumental genius. Maybe DaVinci but I don't speak Italian so that would not work so well.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Probably making her dinner or something or hanging out with her more. She definitely prefers when I'm around. So, I always feel guilty if I don't spend enough time with her.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Yeah, I've thought about that. I think Chopin wrote his own requiem. And Mozart did. I think Mozart didn't write a requiem for himself, but it turned out being that. My mood changes about this answer because it depends. Do I really want people to be super depressed at my funeral? Do I want to inflict them with crying while listening to Mozart's "Requiem" or do I want to just make it easy for them and let them listen to like, I dunno, an Andrew Dice Clay comedy album? I'm not really sure. I feel like my instinct would be to play something really beautiful and sad, but then that just feels kind of narcissistic. Like, "I hope you're super sad now." Though the other part of me wants to not make a big deal about it. And I think the truth is, I don't really care what happens after I die so much. I'm a lot more focused on what happens while I'm alive.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium's new album, South of Reality, comes out February 22 on ATO.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium perform at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on April 10.

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