"It Feels Like A Privilege!" Sean Ono Lennon On Assisting With His Father's Legacy

"It Feels Like A Privilege!" Sean Ono Lennon On Assisting With His Father's Legacy

"I think the world needs to remember my dad..."

“Spring is officially here!”

Sean Ono Lennon is on ebullient form. The past 12 months have been difficult, sure, but the finish line is in sight. Escaping the city for upstate New York as the pandemic wound its course, he sheltered at home with his mother – the legendary artist and musician Yoko Ono – and became acquainted once more with the property that helped shape his childhood and adolescence.

“I’ve kinda gotten used to country life,” he explains. “I have an old studio in the barn on the property. I’ve been lucky, in that I was buying analogue back in the 90s. In those days, everything was really cheap, you know? I’ve got a pretty good collection of weird analogue gear that now people think is so hard to get, but in those days, you could just go to a used shop and find a million of ‘em”.

Using Zoom, Sean’s been able to continue his work as a producer. The past few years have been particularly fruitful – a noted anglophile, he’s appeared in Fat White Family videos, producing a stunning album by the Moonlandingz, and worked on Insecure Men’s superb debut LP. Indeed, those connections are still strong – he’s working on a new Delirium album, helping Childhood singer Ben Romans Hopcraft on a fresh project, while also overseeing a new record by UK space cadets Temples.

“I’ve been producing remotely, basically,” he explains. “Which is actually… good. It’s odd. I know people who had already been working that way, remotely, just sending files. I did a little bit of that, like when I did the Lana Del Rey track. She sent me a vocal and a guitar, and then I did it here and sent it back. So I actually kind of like working that way, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s different.”

“I actually have a whole solo record that I made and then wasn’t sure about. It’s odd,” he reflects. “With my own solo stuff, when it’s my name, as opposed to my band name… it’s a little more… I can second-guess myself a lot. So I actually have this solo album that I’m not sure what to do with. I did work on that a bit.” 

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Zoom became his lifeline to the outside world, and it also brought Sean some fresh challenges. Close friend Beck started a digital songwriter’s circle, where each person would write something, and then present something they have created. Accompanied by “a few artists that I really love”, Sean would write a song ever day, finishing with online critiques.

“Everyone has to write a song a day, and then we all talk about all of our songs,” he says. “That was really… it was a profound experience for me. It was very intimidating. To have to finish something in a day, and then have to share it with people that you know are great songwriters, and have written songs that you love…it was really scary at first. And then it turned into a really nice experience.”

“In the end, it helped me realise that I could put down a certain side of my brain that might second guess myself. I could focus more on just finishing. We all got a batch of cool songs. That was cool. I did that a couple weeks ago, actually. I’m lucky that my pandemic is in the studio. I’ve been doing a lot of music. That helped me survive, for sure.”

The one reason that Sean has been forced to engage with the outside world is the legacy of his father. Returning to New York for John Lennon’s birthday last year, the event was his sole visit to urban conurbations. It’s what brings Clash into his path, too – we’re here to discuss the Ultimate Edition re-issue of ‘John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band’, its creator’s first solo statement and, some would say, his best.

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Sean was involved throughout, and chaired some fantastic animations that went live on Spotify. The entrance point for a new generation into this soul-baring full length, the visuals were a contagious distillation of a legendary personality. “We’ve been sort of looking to make some visual content for my dad, and I’ve been thinking about animation because he’s not here to do some new video or piece. So, I was thinking that he loved drawing, and he had such great drawings, and I’m a huge fan of animation. I actually draw, myself. So I was thinking about how animation is a nice option to have for creating new things with my dad’s music, without limitation.”

“I had been a big fan of the I Met the Walrus (2007) short-film that Jerry Levitan had made out of an interview he did with my dad when he was fourteen. It was directed by Josh Raskin, and illustrated by James Braithwaite. So I called them. It’s really that simple. The reason I liked what they did, was because it felt…you know, a lot of people do a lot of things with my dad’s music, and a lot of it is great. But it’s really hard to do what they did. It’s really hard to capture an aesthetic that felt like it belonged in the universe of John Lennon. But it wasn’t a straight rip-off or a copy-paste of something he did, either. It was in the realm of his style. It didn’t feel derivative.”

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“It was a team of people who cared deeply about the music,” he continues. “I felt a little intimidated when pairing new images to such classic songs. People say that it’s my dad’s best solo record. There’s definitely an argument for that. Each song is certainly iconic: ‘Mother’, ‘Isolation’ and ‘God’; they’re iconic songs. I didn’t wanna do something that felt like it was trying to get attention for the songs. I didn’t wanna do something that didn’t pair beautifully with the music.”

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The results speak for themselves: wonderful line drawings which amplify the legacy of John Lennon’s work, they catch something indefinable about the man’s legacy, and his subversive sense of humour. The aim was to produce something as universal as the music itself, songs that deal with basic truths – love, grief, family, and the inner strength that it takes to survive.

“This album is especially spare, it’s really just four people playing live, for the most part. It is very personal, it is very intimate – it’s like a diary, from my dad’s perspective – and I wanted to do something that involved pencil sketches, not something polished. Animation and the visual language is universal. And if you look at the results, it felt like it matched the vibe of the album, to me. Also, if you look at my dad’s early diaries, when he was a kid, a lot of those drawings looked like that. I think it turned out nice. It’s cute.”

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Approaching a record packed with such pain must be an intimidating experience for Sean Ono Lennon, who lost his father at such a cruelly young age. Throughout our conversation his personal attachment is clear, but so to is his admiration for a fellow songwriter, for the sheer craft and emotional heft of the work itself. “It’s fun to hear my dad’s masters through modern equipment,” he says. “For me to get to play around with those tracks is just really fun, and it’s nice. It’s especially nice to get to hear the banter before and after the music is playing. You hear my dad joking around, or the band making some lude comment, or whatever. It’s nice to hear that, to be honest. It is nice that I get to be a part of that process. It feels like a privilege. But it also feels really natural, because you know, he’s my dad.”

“Being a musician, I think I do have a sense of, specifically, what my dad’s voice needs to sound like. In terms of tape slap, when they were recording in seventies, they wouldn’t print the vocal effect. It was always on an insert. That kind of stuff you have to recreate quite lovingly, and accurately, or else it gets…you don’t want to throw some modern, digital delay on there. You want to use tape delay, or whatever it was he used, because it was a character thing. It’s nice to be able to look out for things like that, on my part.”

Sean may be intimately tied to these recordings, but he’s also made a personal choice to put himself out there. He cares deeply about this music, about the album and its contents. “It means a lot to me personally,” he says, before inhaling deeply. “To be honest, where we are at in global culture at the moment, maybe the fucking youth culture, the kids need to have John Lennon and The Beatles in their lives. I really do think that. I would say that about a bunch of other bands too. But that’s not my business really. It’s not up to me.”

“I think the world needs to remember my dad. I think it’s important. For right now, in time. He was bravely authentic. He really cut through all the bullshit, you know? And I don’t think that we can afford to forget about his music, at all right now. I think that it’s really important to make sure that his music comes out, and that everyone is given an opportunity to discover, or rediscover it. So yeah, it’s a pleasure for me.”

“It’s an important responsibility, I think, to make sure that the important music from the past is not lost on the new generation. I know that sounds silly, but I do think it’s impossible that those people in bands can be swallowed up by the sands of time, if you’re not careful. I do know a lot of kids… I meet kids that don’t know stuff! Stuff you think that they would know. I think that it’s important to give everyone an opportunity to keep that music alive and relevant because it is, but it’s only going to be if people have a chance to experience it. You’ve got to keep it out there. It’s very important.”

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There are different ways of listening, though. ‘John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band’ has been given its Ultimate Edition packaging, something Sean instinctively prefers over the passivity of the streaming environment.

“That’s an interesting point,” he says. “It is passive. And it can be so passive that you just let the AI’s choose your playlist for you, which I think is honestly, something that I have an issue with. I don’t want to submit to the will of a machine. I want to tell the machine what to do. I don’t want my toaster telling me when it’s time to have toast. I’d like to decide when I want to make toast. I think that it’s the same for Spotify. I have never, ever, wanted Spotify to choose what I’m listening to. I don’t want Google to choose what search comes up.”

“I know that’s where they’re making all their money,” he adds. “I find it to be really dehumanizing. Why should I be told by a bunch of fucking robots what to think, or feel? I think it is a problem. It is a profound problem. It’s not just passive, it’s submissive. It’s subservient, man. All these fucking machines. They don’t even allow you to turn off every alert, on phones and Apple computers now, which I think is actually… it’s abusive, man. You should have the option, if you’re spending any money on a fucking machine, you should be able to turn it off. But you can’t! It’s always gonna tap you on the shoulder about something. That is not active. That is you being submissive to the fucking computer programme and I find it to be, at the heart of what’s wrong… or what’s going on with the world right now. It’s not better. It’s not improving your life. I’m against it. I think that you should go and buy records. I think you should choose, and not let some algorithm choose for you.”

Active not passive; creative, not subservient – Sean Ono Lennon’s rhetoric, and impassioned plea for individuality, and what resonates most deeply about our conversation. Think for yourself. Pay attention to what you’re being told. And keep listening to John Lennon – you might pick up a few things.

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'John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band' Ultimate Edition is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Charlotte Kemp Muhl
 

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