I first discovered the music of Jonathan Richman during the year that I spent in Boston. Despite being written 45 years ago, the Boston-influenced eponymous Modern Lovers album gave me a feeling of belonging. What followed was an Internet journey to discover the man behind it all. Going through Richman’s discography, one could hear the trace of so many artists that started out their careers in the 70s and beyond. Hell, he even influenced an entire genre, Punk: Modern Lovers’ track Roadrunner is often called the first punk song and has been covered by the Sex Pistols.
Besides being a great musician, Jonathan Richman always seemed like a peculiar character, and a conversation with him was something I set out to make. Digging through the Internet, I noticed that he’s not a big fan of interviews. When he does give them, you can be sure that he won’t say much. Maybe his favorite way of communication was and still is music. You could see some YouTube videos from his earlier days, but one thing was sure, he doesn’t have an email and doesn’t even use the Internet. But that’s not the story. Here’s how our chat went:
How do you feel your performances have evolved over the years?
JR. I’m less self-conscious and I don’t get mad at audiences if they don’t understand my music anymore.
What do you think would happen to music 40 years from today?
JR. Good question! But I can’t even predict what will happen in my own music next week. I’m always making up songs that surprise me. On the new single that’s coming out soon, the song “The Sad Trumpets of Afternoon,” 5 minutes before we did that take I had no idea it would have melodies in it like it did. I already had written down a few sketches for a song like that. But I couldn’t tell from the few words I wrote down what the song would sound like. So I just started singing stuff, not even with a guitar and asked Tommy [Larkins] to give me a beat. I liked the one he picked, but I wouldn’t have heard it that way. That’s why I asked him; I wanted to see what he’d come up with. Half the last album was done more or less this way. “Ishkode, Ishkode” (which means fire in Ojibwe) was just a few Ojibwe words on a paper and some English words when we met in the studio.
We didn’t rehearse. I just gave the back up singers the words “Ishkode Ishkode” and we made the feel happen around that. So I can’t even tell ya what music is gonna sound like in 5 minutes, let alone 40 years.
What would you say mainly changed between the time when you grew up in American suburbia that made punk relevant and the new generation of what they today call ‘millennials’?
JR. I started a rock n roll band when I was 19; we didn’t know a thing about punk. We learned about that when we went to England 6 years later and the press talked about stuff like that over there.
What was about Boston that inspired your music so much?
JR. The feel of the whole place back there. It’s where I’m from.
Can you tell us about your experience with astral dreams? Spirituality or brain-hacking? Psychedelic-influence or discipline?
JR. To me, the thing is not to intentionally seek out astral stuff. I think it’s better if it happens by itself. Heart first; mental stuff second.
What are your views on religion at the moment? As a faith and as mass influence.
JR. Ah, that question might be a bit too large in scope for me.
What is it about the movie “There’s Something About Mary” that made you accept to take part in it?
JR. We knew the directors, I read the script and thought “Yeah, this would fit us and I hear music for it.” And Tommy liked the idea too. (I think he was the film’s secret weapon!)
Is there a film idea that you would like to see come to life?
JR. Not that comes to me. But did you see the new Terrence Malick’s movie, Knight of Cups? I loved that and the film about Amy Winehouse.
Can you tell us a bit about your political views? Do you participate in the voting process?
JR. I think most everybody running for office feels that they’re helping things, according to their view of the world. So I don’t hate anyone even if I strongly disagree with them. I usually put more attention to local voting than to national.
You’re 18 and you’re starting university, which science would you pursue? And why?
JR. I never went to college back when I was 18 and if I was 18 again now, I’d still not go; I’d be a musician again! You could say music has been the science I’ve pursued. I also now study the sciences of physics, chemistry and math as they apply to the making of bread ovens and patios and walls – which is my day job.
Photo by Pamela Maddaleno.