There’s a noticeable shift in dynamic when Debbie Harry enters a room. A collective holding of the breath, if you will; a shift in temperature that lingers on the furniture, the paintings on the wall and the doorway itself.
That’s not because she’s ostentatious, of course. Carrying herself with a confident reserve, she exhibits almost regal charm, her voice still containing traces of her native New York but slightly quieter, softer. Each word feels like a subtle invitation, ears across the room pricking up whenever she decides to enter the conversation.
Blondie – or, to be exact, Debbie Harry and co-conspirator Chris Stein – are in town to discuss their new album ‘Pollinator’. It’s their 11th full-length to date, and the fifth album to emerge from the band’s enormously successful second act. Reforming in 1997, they have steadfastly refused to retread old ground – contemporaries are welcome to endlessly plod around anniversary tours, it seems, but for Blondie the future is all that matters.
“That was part of the conditions for redoing the whole situation, was to keep moving ahead,” Stein explains. “It wouldn’t feel right. I hear new music all the time that I really am attracted to, so it’s just to be part of that.”
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‘Pollinator’ finds Blondie plugging themselves firmly into pop’s post-Millennial network. Casting their net wide, the band captured fresh material from Sia, Dev Hynes, Johnny Marr, Dave Sitek and more. It’s incredibly broad, but also incredibly Blondie.
“We’ve never done anything like this,” adds Debbie, a smile easing her into the conversation. “We’ve never pulled it together like this. Seemed like a good idea at the time!”
“It just sort of evolved, y’know,” she adds with a shrug. “We got different songs submitted, and then we just thought, ‘Well, maybe we should look around for some more songs.’ It just rolled into that.”
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We had to go back to our roots…
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‘Pollinator’ isn’t so much a retreat into well-worn climes as a renewal of the primary factors in what makes a band a band. Despite the incredible variety of its guest cast, the album was constructed across a brief flurry of sessions in Blondie’s home city of New York, working with producer John Congleton in the last weeks of now-closed studio The Magic Shop.
“Magic Shop was a great environment because it was so completely, aesthetically funky. This old vibe,” Chris grins, casting his gaze back to the already mythical studio. “The furniture was all falling apart, it had holes in it, there was no sense of what you see in modern studios with everything being fancy and polished. It was just the antithesis of that.”
“We had to go back to our roots,” he insists. “I could see the fans wanted to see that, hear that. Everybody being in a room together and playing definitely shows off. I guess there’s a return to rock sensibilities.”
“So we made it in New York,” the guitarist adds. “We were the last band in The Magic Shop to do a full record. And it was right after Bowie had died – it was pretty close – so it was emotional all around”.
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Blondie are increasingly becoming a band out of time – the last hustlers in the pool hall before the lights are flicked off and the doors are finally locked shut. Each time they return to New York the city takes another step in a direction that feels alien to them, with the creatives, the vagabond talents being squeezed out, inch-by-inch. “I mean, SoHo’s fucked up,” he snaps. “It’s grim. It used to be an artist’s community and now it’s a fancy shopping mall.”
“I see a lot of really cool stuff going on all the time, it just gets pushed away from these heavily gentrified areas. SoHo is the antithesis of what it was 30 years ago. People were getting big space to live cheaply, and now you have to be a multi-millionaire to live there.”
Returning to their roots in order to move further away from their past, Blondie’s current projects are laced with glamorous contradiction. But then, it’s ever been thus: Blondie were the new wave band who made a hip-hop record, the young punks who followed a John Holt cover with a disco anthem.
Chris Stein starts to smile. “A combination of opposites,” he says. “There’s always been this hardness, with the softness of the vocals. It’s pretty and aggressive at the same time.”
“And we always did cover songs,” he adds “People don’t even get that ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ is a cover song, essentially. ‘Denis’ is a cover of an old doo-wop song.”
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It used to be an artist’s community and now it’s a fancy shopping mall.
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For Debbie, the astonishing variety of Blondie’s catalogue is the product of their environment. “We’ve always managed to include a lot of different influences, and we’ve sort of explained that as part of our heritage of being a New York band. The city embodies a lot of that.”
Aware of their heritage but continually challenging themselves, Blondie have drawn together a diverse palette of talent. Dev Hynes wrote ‘Long Time’, a wonderful piece of alt-pop that retains his Blood Orange stamp while also sounding quintessentially Blondie. The group’s friendship with the British songwriter extends back some distance, with Hynes coming to one of the band’s shows as a star struck fan.
Debbie Harry explains: “Somehow Dev had said, ‘Oh, you should come in and sing on a couple of tracks,’ so we did. They were just sort of sitting around for a couple of years, actually.”
“He gave me the tracks with his vocal on it. So initially I just tried to do what the author has put on. From there… if I feel something different, or if I want to put a little emotional thing on it somewhere I’ll try that. We talk it over.”
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It’s pretty and aggressive at the same time.
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Debbie entered music without training, at a time when female vocalists tended to be placed into very firm roles. An effortless iconoclast, she could only ever be Debbie Harry – so she simply invented her own role.
“When I was quite young I wanted to take vocal lessons and my mother said no. She didn’t think that was a good idea because she thought I would end up sounding very… Broadway!”
Part of an era that challenged ideas about the role of women in music, Debbie is openly reflective about the struggle she had to establish herself. “In the pop world… that didn’t exist before. If I had been a bit older or a bit younger it would have been easier. I was sort of in no man’s land for a while. It was strange.”
“I think it was a kind of consciousness that was changing, and I definitely was part of that. But I certainly don’t think I was alone. There were so many British singers, like Poly Styrene, Kate Bush; these were all the girls that were around. And then Chrissie Hynde, of course. We all came up at the same time.”
Debbie Harry tends to be drawn to these pop individualists, with Sia providing the wonderful ‘Best Day Ever’ for Blondie’s new album. “Oh, wonderful singer. Wonderful!” she exclaims. “You know, I think I’m not the type who latches on to a particular artist. If I hear a piece of music that they’ve done that I like, then that’s the way I feel about it. Song-by-song. The performance.”
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I think it was a kind of consciousness that was changing…
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Gradually piecing together the material for ‘Pollinator’, the band started exploring areas outwith music – Shepard Fairey was recruited for the perfectly executed retro-futurist artwork, for example, but Blondie also reached out online. Vancouver vlogger Adam Johnston was drawn into their orbit, while YouTube sensations The Gregory Brothers contribute to the Johnny Marr-penned Fleetwood Mac vibes on ‘When I Gave Up On You’.
The latter duo have a close relationship with the group, even inviting Debbie Harry to chair an online spoof based on the recent Presidential debates – as if the continuing political career of Donald Trump even needs to be satirised.
“Somehow or other there has to be some way to make sure that we don’t get the ‘alternative facts’,” argues the singer, sarcasm dripping from each word. “It’s outrageous! It’s the scariest thing. The scariest thing.”
“And the thing that Hillary wanted to do with making the US a centre for alternative energy and alternative sources, and developing that technology, was a great idea. It was really important. All of those unemployed workers could have been brought into these programmes and the whole thing could have evolved. And now we’re just stuck. We’re just stuck.”
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“It’s fucked. It’s rough,” bites Stein. “I just don’t wanna think I’m going to drop dead with everything the way it is. In 20 years, or whatever, it still won’t have changed. It’s quite possible that whatever crazy bullshit is implemented now will go on for quite a while.”
“It needs to be some kind of anthem now… we need another hero,” he adds. “Another Dylan writing protest songs that are as good as that stuff was. It remains to be seen.”
Musicians whose adolescence straddled the apex of the counterculture, Blondie feel increasingly out of place in a society that fails to recognise music as a direct life force. “It’s different now. Now it’s background for reality,” Chris argues. “The focus has changed, and the quantity being so vast now has changed the focus a little bit. Still, the good stuff comes through, and I am always affected by certain tracks. I’ll really get onto it and wind up playing certain songs about 20 times in a row.”
Raging against the dying of the light, there’s a moment on ‘Pollinator’ that underlines this sense of an era slowly passing – when Laurie Anderson, an avant-garde icon and Lou Reed’s widow, makes a short guest appearance on a Velvet Underground homage.
“We’ve known her since the ’80s or something. She came to my loft a bunch of times,” the guitarist recalls. “I see her a lot. I live near her, so I see her frequently. I saw Lou only a few times when I moved to the neighbourhood… and then he was gone, y’know.”
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I’d like to do another record sooner than later…
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Able to mourn a world they helped construct as it slowly passes, Blondie are also continually seeking out fresh ideas, forward paths. It’s part of the group’s inherent paradox: in moving away from the centre, they seek to define it once again. It’s an approach that enriches the band’s creative conflict – even if they do find themselves in competition with that classic run of hit single after hit single.
“It’s part of the trap of being the popular kid in high school,” the guitarist explains. “You don’t want to succumb to that necessarily. But it’s OK. It’s reminiscing. We try to keep moving forwards. It’s like sharks!”
“I don’t like nostalgia especially,” adds Debbie. “It doesn’t appeal to me. I understand why people want to go to see bands that they grew up with or something like that, or relive a little. But our lives have always been centred around music so to be going, ‘Remember, remember, remember…’ doesn’t really do much for your creative mind.”
“It’s feel-good stuff,” she says with the faintest of shrugs. “It’s all really feel-good. But to make someone say, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ Well, it’s kind of important to change the tumblers a little.”
They certainly change the tumblers on ‘Pollinate’. Perhaps the clue is in the title: their second album in just three years, it’s Blondie at their most daring, at their most creative.
“I’d like to do another record sooner than later,” says the guitarist. “Put this whole thing back together again. Maybe we’ll just do an all-acoustic record next.”
He looks up at Debbie Harry and smiles; she smiles, too, that knowing look fuelled by decades of incredible work, and countless plans for the future.
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Blondie's new album 'Pollinator' is out tomorrow (May 5th).
Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Agnes Lloyd-Platt
For tickets to the latest Blondie shows click HERE.