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On the Road, ‘Alone’ with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders
“I adore her,” Chrissie Hynde says of fellow rock legend Stevie Nicks, on whose current tour Hynde’s band the Pretenders are filling the supporting slot. “Stevie’s shows are great, and she’s a darling. She’s got an incredible voice, and it’s a good audience.”
While the Pretenders have been fitting in the odd headlining show while supporting Nicks on her U.S. trek, Hynde says it’s been good for her band to stretch their collective legs.
“If we can go out on our own, do our own show, it’s going to be a little more crazy,” Hynde admits. “I like that, and I know the guys in the band like it.”
But for fans, it’s a dream bill: Two of the most powerful female singer-songwriters of the past 40 years bringing down the house each night on a coast-to-coast trek that’s been filling arenas since it began in September.
However, Hynde admits the pairing was all down to luck.
“It was just availability,” Hynde says with a shrug. “Management asked if I was into it, you know, how all tours come about. It just depends on who’s going out, who’s available, what’s compatible.”
Hynde, of course, founded the Pretenders in 1978, along with ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers. A fantastic self-titled debut album, produced by Chris Thomas, plus a follow-up and a string of groundbreaking singles followed, but Honeyman-Scott and Farndon died drug-related deaths in 1982 and 1983, respectively, leaving Hynde battered and broken.
She regrouped, and continued under the Pretenders moniker with a rotating cast of bandmates and mostly stellar results throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, before she began taking her career at a more leisurely pace, though with no less enjoyable results.
She released an excellent, if left-of-center solo album, Stockholm, in 2014, and a memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, in 2015, but hadn’t released new music as the Pretenders since 2008’s Break Up the Concrete.
But Hynde and the current lineup of the Pretenders, which includes original drummer Martin Chambers, aren’t just out on the road on a victory lap. They’ve got a solid new album to promote, Alone, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
“It was kind of the thing where, even if you weren’t a fan, you knew all the songs,” Auerbach says of growing up in Akron, Ohio, also Hynde’s hometown, and hearing the Pretenders seemingly everywhere.
“It was like Tom Petty, in that there were these bands that, even if you’d never owned one of their records, you knew all of their songs somehow, miraculously, just because it was part of the fabric of the community. And those songs were always on the radio, constantly.”
As great as Alone is, Hynde admits it’s those glory years that everyone still wants to hear about, though she says it’s just part of the job.
“I’m not really moany because everybody wants to keep talking about the same thing over and over again,” Hynde says. “Besides, I always say that whatever you said in your first interview I think you have to keep repeating for the rest of your life. But if people still care, that’s really not such a bad thing, I guess.”
In fact, Hynde brightens when talking about the early days of the Pretenders, and says setting the record straight was one of the motivations for writing her memoir last year, especially as it relates to Honeyman-Scott’s status as an unsung guitar hero.
“One of the main motivations for the book was because I see Jimmy as one of the great guitar heroes, and he didn’t really get his due,” she says. “If I was a professional widow, I could spend the rest of my life just digging up the deceased to give myself some prominence in the world. But because of the nature of the whole way it went down, I didn’t see any dignity in talking about it. It was a tragedy, it was very sad and I was probably a bit traumatized. So I chose to just keep doing what we started and honor what we set out to do. We set out to make this music and I wanted to keep making it. I wanted to keep doing the songs, and that’s why we carried on and didn’t change the name, so we could go out and do them. And also, I didn’t really have too much time to think about how to go about doing that. It honored them by keeping it alive. And then I had to keep explaining that for 40 years!”
Still, even though Chambers doesn’t appear on Alone, Auerbach, who appeared with the Pretenders recently, says his spirit is an important link to the band’s history and to its current live sound and dynamic.
“Martin is such a character,” Auerbach says. “He’s a lovely guy and his drumming is so fucking amazing. And he’s a nutjob, too, in the best possible sense.”
While the current tour with Nicks is obviously chock full of arena shows, Hynde says she’s learned over the years that smaller venues pack a better punch.
“It’s funny, because we toured here two years ago after the Stockholm album and we were playing in theatres, and every night I asked the guys, ‘Isn’t this better than arenas?’ But of course you become what you criticize and now I’m playing arenas again.”
Still, she admits, whether the crowd is 300 or 30,000, it doesn’t really affect her performance.
“I don’t do anything different,” Hynde offers. “A couple of weeks ago we played to 300 people in a club, and that was great. But all we’re doing differently (for the arena shows) is we’ve got to have a shorter set. And it’s not really our audience, necessarily; it’s Stevie’s audience. So we have to do more of our greatest hits, so people will recognize us. I understand that. But to me it’s always the same.
“We just stay the same wherever we are. It doesn’t really matter where we play. I prefer the smaller clubs, for all the obvious reasons, because if I’m going to see a band I want to see them. I don’t understand big gigs. At a certain level you have to play them because you have that big of an audience. I never wanted to really try to rein everything in and keep it right in the middle at all times. So I’ve played a lot of arenas, and even stadiums, supporting the Stones and Neil Young, The Who, and we’ve played amphitheaters, because I like going out with other bands together and doing those. My feeling is, if you’re a working band you take what becomes available to you. Personally, my preferred thing is it stay in the middle and keep it relatively small, a couple thousand, but you have to take what comes your way and not take that for granted, either.”
Hynde has always been outspoken about her views, even if she’s never been outright political, but she says during the current tour she’s been shocked at the change in the typical music journalist she’s met.
“I think my politics are pretty fucking obvious,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, I had a (female reporter) ask me the other day if I was a feminist. I said, ‘What do you fucking think?’ Stupid question. Any woman should know better. But journalists now seem obsessed with this sort of gender thing that’s going on and the politics of all that. I just think it’s pretty obvious what I am. It’s annoying.”
She’s also used to getting asked questions about the ever-changing Pretenders lineups since the days of Honeyman-Scott and Farndon.
“I understand very, very well the confusion about it,” Hynde admits. “But really, after 40 years, things are gonna change. The dynamics of a band changes over time, and the personnel sometimes changes for a variety of reasons, death sort of being the most conclusive.”
While Hynde did enjoy making and touring Stockholm as a solo artist, she says she’s happiest as part of a gang.
“I don’t even want attention, I want to put it on the band,” she says. “That’s what I get off on, on stage, is looking at the audience and seeing if they’re thinking, ‘Fucking hell, where’d she find him?’ I think my bass player is a joy to watch. I mean he’s totally on 100% of the time. The whole band, they move great, they’re elegant, they have a real finesse, and they play great. But mainly the thing is that they have the vibe. They’ve always got the vibe. So it always works like clockwork, and that’s what turns me on. When it’s too polite there’s always the danger of overplaying something, or playing it too often or over rehearsing. No one wants to go through the motions up there. So they’re always paying attention to each other, and that keeps it kind of exciting all the time. No one is thinking about if they have to call their girlfriend in 20 minutes.”
Hynde also sees her role in the Pretenders clearly, and it’s not just as the singer.
“I am certainly the weakest player up there,” she says, with a laugh. “But my job is to orchestrate it, and I will sometimes just fuck it up a little bit so that the guys never quite know if I’m gonna change it or rearrange it, or even when I’m going to end the song!”
When I mention that’s how Bob Dylan operates, she laughs again. Hard.
“Well, that’s an extreme,” she says. “I don’t try to fuck them up that much. I just want to keep them on their toes. I mean, Bob can do whatever he wants because he’s Bob!”
I ask Hynde about Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize, and she immediately gets excited.
“How awesome is it that he didn’t say anything for two weeks and then he said he was speechless?” she asks, full of laughter again. “The thing that people don’t realize about Bob, which I’m always quite amazed by, is that he’s fucking hilarious. And I think because he’s a poet — and he’s a genius and all that — people take him so seriously. So I think they miss a lot of the humor. But you can hear it in his music, if you pay attention. Anyway, I thought that was just hilarious.”
While Hynde runs a relatively democratic ship in the Pretenders, she’s all too aware she’s the focus of attention as the frontperson, even if she’s humble about her place in the scheme of things.
“I try getting my guys up front, and addressing the audience, because I spend most of my time up there,” she says. “But I know what an audience wants. I know they want to be engaged. They don’t want to watch a sound check or a rehearsal. They want to be part of it!
“You know, when I go on stage, I know my position when I’m out there,” Hynde continues. “I know who I am when I’m out there. I have to. But in my heart of hearts, whenever I stand on the side of the stage, and I’m about to walk on, for me it’s a happening. Everyone in that whole place is part of it. Whether you’re in the third row, or you’re in the balcony, or you’re on the lighting towers, or you’re doing the sound, or you’re on stage, we’re all part of it and everyone has to do what they do best. That’s what makes the whole thing work. So I never think it’s all about me. If I thought that, I would just find that kind of boring.
“Like I said, I don’t like solo things. It wouldn’t hold the interest for me. What interests me is to turn around and see those eyes, you know, the guys in the band. They started playing when they were kids, and it’s the thing they love the most in the world. On stage, that’s when they feel the most themselves. If you just wind them up and turn them loose it’s just a joy for me. And when you look into the audience, and see people looking to the bass player, saying, ‘Fucking hell, I wish I could still play bass.’ That’s amazing. I can tell everyone in the audience who used to play and hung up their guitar. You can see it and you’re thinking, ‘You wish you still played, don’t you?’ Because there’s no better feeling than doing what we do. There just isn’t.”
When Hynde first got the tour schedule for her trek with Nicks, she found it a bit too leisurely. So she spoke to her management and filled in some of the gaps with Pretenders headlining shows.
“There were so many days off on this tour that I started freaking out when I saw the schedule,” Hynde explains. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna go fucking nuts.’ Because you know we don’t really do days off. I mean, a day off after three shows, maybe four, is fine because if I do more than that it’s against me,
psychologically, and I start to get a little fucked up in the head. I’ve got to take a break from it. But there were a lot of days off on this tour. I don’t know how Stevie organizes it but what we’ve done is we’ve popped in a lot of our own shows between on some of these days off.
“There we can do a lot of our new songs, because with Stevie I can’t expect to go out for an hour to an audience that isn’t there to see me and say, ‘Hey, listen to all our new songs!’ They’ll be, like, ‘Well, fuck you. Who are you? I don’t even know who you are.’”
“So we hit them with stuff they know because that’s the name of the game. But for our audiences, at our own shows, everyone that’s going to come probably has listened to [Alone], because when we did it with the Stockholm album, and we went out and toured it, certainly everyone that I could see up at the front seemed to know all the words. They’d been listening to it. And it’s actually a pleasure to do the new songs, because you feel like the audience knows what you’re talking about. I mean, the thing is, when you’re in a band, every time you do a song in front of a new audience it’s like the song is new again. So if it’s an emotional song, it’s just as emotional as it was the day you wrote it. But there’s also an element of over doing something and that’s why it’s good to have the option to move some songs around and to try some different ones. So you don’t get jaded. To do the material that you’ve just been working on more recently, that’s how you get the biggest kick. Let’s face it, it’s got to be.”
Still, Auerbach says that even though the Pretenders touring band is a crack unit, the sessions for Alone began as a Chrissie Hynde solo record. It was only once recording was well under way that Hynde thought of calling it the Pretenders.
“I think that what Chrissie was feeling was how much of a band feel it had,” Auerbach says of the Nashville sessions. “We weren’t sticking to the demos. I’d picked these musicians because I love what they can do on the fly, and how they can improvise. That’s why they’re there! And I guess she just felt it was really a band effort. It wasn’t just Chrissie making a new record. And she really loved that, and everybody did. I think it’s just when you’re able to really have success, making something, creating something with a whole group of people, it can feel so much more satisfying in the end. Because the more people you add the more the odds are just stacked against you. It’s going to be more and more difficult. So when it actually works, and it did work in this case — we did the whole record in 8 days or something like that — it’s a really overwhelming feeling, it just feels extra special, and I think that might be why she called it the Pretenders.”
Hynde, typically, is more blunt, if a bit more evasive.
“I think the thing with Stockholm was that I thought I’d try something different. I don’t know what to say, call me a whatever. It’s a band, and I’m out with the band, and it’s my own damn fault, because I just don’t like solo stuff. I like bands and Alone was made by a band. Everybody wants to get my take it, and I’ve talked about it for 40 years now, whether it’s a solo thing — if it’s just me — or if it’s a band. So let’s say it’s a band.”
August 2, 2021