Chrissie Hynde hates the state of the music industry, she's cranky, contradictory and still one of the coolest women around, reports ELEANOR BLACK
She talks fast, in a flat Midwestern drawl barely tempered by 30 years in England. In pointy little sentences laced with obscenities, she deftly eviscerates pop music, the music industry, big corporations, style-over-substance advertising campaigns, and the American presidential race, all in the time it takes to watch a re-run of Friends, which I'm almost certain she'd hate, too.
This is Chrissie Hynde at 52. Crabby, jaded, opinionated to the point of absurdity, offhand, just short of rude, contradictory and still one of the coolest women on the planet.
For 25 years she has led her band, the Pretenders, through a series of upheavals (drug addictions, the deaths of two founding members, soured friendships, broken marriages) and into the ranks of the great, enduring bands, with iconic hits such as Stop Your Sobbing and Don't Get Me Wrong. Now, when the group has, in her view, mellowed to near perfection, she finds herself battling manufactured pop troupes and television insta-stars for chart supremacy, and losing. It makes a rock goddess grumpy. [expletive] grumpy.
Although the latest Pretenders' album, Loose Screw, released last year, was a critical success, it failed to ignite the charts. So she's done with the album. Doesn't want to talk about it. Asked about its moody reggae flavour, reminiscent of her two hit singles with UB40 in the 80s, she is downright cold.
"I. Don't. Know. I like reggae. I've been asked that so many times I feel like a murder suspect. I'm starting to think maybe I should get out of the game. I wouldn't have to answer why I enjoy it, how I stay interested, why I do it."
Loose Screw barely received radio play, growls Hynde, too testy for someone who doesn't care, a comment she drops so often it's like a mantra. "We're now played on classic rock stations, which means the new album isn't played at all. If I'd had a hit it would have knocked me over with a feather," she says drily. She still does a killer impression of teenaged ennui, a lifetime after fleeing her middle-class upbringing in the bland industrial city of Akron, Ohio.
After a brief stint at Kent State University, where Hynde was witness to the notorious National Guard shooting of students protesting the Vietnam War, she moved to England, drawn by the punk scene. For a year she wrote first-person accounts of meeting her musical heroes for the magazine NME, then she got a job at eccentric fashion designer Vivienne Westwood's shop Sex, which attracted a predominantly punk clientele.
Eventually, in the late 70s, she got her band together, and from then nothing stopped her progress up the charts - even the drug-related deaths of bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott within a year of each other. Honeyman-Scott's death inspired one of the biggest Pretenders' songs, Back On The Chain Gang, in 1983.
At the same time, Hynde got behind Greenpeace, protesting outside various fast-food outlets, and Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which led to more protests. She developed an us-and-them mentality towards meat-eaters; she doesn't socialise with meat-eaters, speaks of them as if they were a subset of the human race, and lumps them in with atheists, whom she regards as a bit dim.
Hynde also honed her view on feminism, which boils down to: "I don't care." It's the same when it comes to American politics. "I'm not bothered at all. I don't even think it's an interesting subject. He who cheats wins. The guy who's in [the White House] didn't even win."
The last Pretenders' hit was I'll Stand By You in 1994, back when Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still singing on television's Mickey Mouse Club, but Hynde, sans band, has unwittingly scored a new dance hit in Britain. About four months ago she was asked to do vocals for a track called Straight Ahead by German electro duo Tube and Berger. The demo landed on her desk, among a pile of similar requests. She listened, liked it and figured why not?
"It's number one on the dance charts here. I still don't know who the guys are and now I'm in a video for it. I've done a couple of TV appearances in the UK. People think it's mine. I'd like to meet them. They're probably just a couple of nerdy guys in a studio."
She'll likely turn up on Top of the Pops soon, but Hynde claims to have no interest in the youth music scene. It's not her gig anymore; she's not "setting the scene". "I'm 52, ya know," she says hotly. "I don't care. I'm not judging anyone," she adds firmly, seconds before judging the lot of them. "There's millions of people out there making music. As far as what floats to the top, media-wise? It's mostly pornographic."
What of the pop idol phenomenon, whereby nobodies are plucked from the crowd and made into instant megastars? Hynde says she doesn't know anything about it, but not five minutes later is railing against it. "Nobody expects excellence. Nobody expects this artist to take you on a journey for the next 10 years. All you know is they'll probably get a couple of shampoo ads out of it. It's become so commercial."
And this is where Hynde's famous contradictory streak asserts itself, because she is not above using her music to sell products. While she is ferociously anti-corporate, and gets a real thrill out of "kicking big business in the shin", Hynde signs off Pretenders' songs for use in advertisements and film trailers with hardly a thought.
"I used to feel very, very opposed to that. If my music was associated with anything it was an endorsement of the product. These days it's background music. You okay them over the phone. I ask my assistant, Gail, 'Is it distasteful? Who's in the film? You just dismiss it. It's such a [expletive] mess out there. To me, life is too short to worry about this stuff anymore ...
"You can't even make a statement by not doing it anymore because no one knows you're making a statement, because they don't understand."
Right, so using Brass in Pocket to sell cereal (as Kellogg's does in New Zealand, to flog Special K) is okay?
"Oh." Hynde sounds genuinely surprised, and disappointed. "It seems lame and I would never have allowed it [25 years ago], but these days I don't really care unless it's something evil like McDonald's."
It was different when Revolution by the Beatles was used in a Nike ad. "I thought it was the end of the world. I thought Yoko Ono was out of her mind."
She gets similarly irritated when the music used for a movie trailer is better than the film. That's how she ended up at the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with an ex-husband (either Jim Kerr of Simple Minds or Colombian sculptor Lucha Brieva, your guess is as good as mine since Hynde doesn't talk about her relationships), enticed to the theatre by a Tim Buckley song which didn't even appear in the film.
"It was abso-[expletive] dreadful. It was such a waste of time. I would have left after 20 minutes but he was driving and I was stuck in the cinema watching this shite."
Mostly, though, Hynde's music obsession serves her well. She loves listening to it, writing it, and, above all, playing on stage with her band. The music industry's seeming preference for high-gloss, accessible, assembly-line bands makes her truly heartsick.
"If I was 16 I don't know if I'd even want to get in a band. It was a renegade anti-establishment kind of thing to do. You had to really go out and look for information on your favourite band. It didn't grab you by the lapels and slam you against the wall."
Which brings us back to where we started: Hynde reconsidering her career. What would she do after the Pretenders, besides jump on one of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ships to protest whaling? (The invitation has been extended. It's a matter of finding time.)
"I think I'm going to Brazil."
"Because I don't understand the language. I wouldn't have to answer questions."
But cool, always cool.
* Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders perform at the Wellington Town Hall on February 16, Auckland Aotea Centre on February 18, and Christchurch Town Hall on February 20.