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TOM LARDNER AT HOME WITH BEING AN OUTSIDER - INTERVIEW BY MYSTERY FLAME

Photo: Tom Lardner with Alfredo

At long last I succeed in meeting up with TOM LARDNER, singer and rhythm guitarist from eclectic punk rock band EL DOGHOUSE.  I know the New Yorker dwelling in beautiful Granada has a great personal story to tell as well as wonderful musical adventures spanning over two decades to talk about.

Tom Lardner looks relaxed in front of his coffee, a glint in the eye in spite of an impossibly early flight back from the UK. It’s a gloomy and unusually cold winter day on the Malaga coast (disgruntled, he comments on the shocking fact that for the first time ever the weather was nicer in Manchester than in Andalusia).

Tom’s name caught my eye while reading about Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band, the 101ers: turns out he is in a Granada-based combo called El Doghouse with Mr. Richard Dudanski (drummer with the 101ers, PIL, The Raincoats, etc), having released two albums together and currently working on new material.

MYST: So how did you and Richard get together?

TOM:  Richard came to see my previous band, a fluid acoustic project with some brilliant local musicians named The Country Dogs. After the gig he came over all complimentary, asking if we’d mind if he jammed with us. We didn’t have a drummer, so I said why not… That was only two months before Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002. When Richard flew back to London to organize a tribute event at The Tabernacle (http://www.theclash.org.uk/reunion.htm) he asked me to step into Joe’s shoes to front the first 101ers reunion since disbanding in 1976 (http://www.101ers.co.uk/index.htm). I wasn’t so sure at first: what about my American accent for a start! But he seemed to think I had that Joe-thing going on, so I accepted. I had to learn a whole bunch of 101ers songs and a few Clash ones in the space of a few weeks, which was fun". 

 Photo: Tom Lardner and Richard Dudanski

 MYST: Which of those Clash songs did you enjoy performing the most?

TOM: “Doing London Calling felt great. And I liked Janie Jones” he grins knowingly “That’s a good song…”

MYST: What was it like to actually be in Joe’s shoes that night?

Tom shakes his head as if he still disbelieved his luck:

TOM:  “At one point I turned round and I saw a balding guy standing right next to me: only after a few seconds I realized it was Mick Jones!” he laughs out loud.

We fall silent and gaze into the void, caught by cherished memory flashbacks of The Only Band That Mattered, and then he continues:

TOM:  “Joe had a huge influence on me… When I saw The Clash back in America I was blown away by his energy and personality, so somehow I must have subconsciously retained some of his stage mannerism, you know, like the old…”

He widens his mouth into an only too familiar stupefied grimace while brutally shaking his air-guitar as if it was withholding some unspeakable secret. Modestly, Tom seems to want to justify that definite Joe-thing about him, but he is far too spontaneous and transparent for anybody to even imply he is some sort of a clone; in fact I believe it is his disarming honesty and warmth that instinctively creates the same kind of appeal that Joe had on his fellow human beings. I decide there is even a vague physical resemblance between Tom Lardner and Strummer (imagine him as the DNA intersection between Joe and Bruce Springsteen), but no doubt it was the American’s quite notable, naturally gravelly vocals that won him the hot spot at the tribute concert (which, incidentally, was later repeated in Granada, where Joe himself famously lived for a while after leaving The Clash).

On the back of such poignant bonding experience, Tom and Richard returned to their Spanish rehearsals only to jam with fresher enthusiasm:

TOM:  “In the space of a few days we realized we had something really good going: we kept pouring out new material, it felt great!”  

Re-baptized El Doghouse, the band quickly took a gritty and quite organic rock identity wherein an ample range of musical influences could happily sit together. The first album In Heat was eventually released on Andalusia Records (Richard and Joe’s label) in 2005, followed by Howl in 2009, this time on the busy Basque imprint Gaztelupeko Hotsak (http://www.hotsak.com). Both works display a passionate amalgam of the most fundamental elements of true rebel music, from punk rock to raw garage, blues and north-American folk, with not too unexpected incursions into reggae, jazz fusion, funk and even Andean folk: an incendiary array of superbly performed influences that stem from actual real-life experiences.

 “If music could talk…” lamented Joe in the controversial album Sandinista. Tom’s sharply poetic lyrics make goddamn sure that El Doghouse’s unique presence amongst the flotsam and jetsam of today’s rather bloodless and uninspired traditional rock scene is worth taking notice of. A huge part of the great appeal of this band, the lyrics tell - often with a great dose of irony - personal stories where humanity and politics densely compound to create a vivid and sweaty rollercoaster of emotions, from rage to disgust, from lust to sadness. Tom certainly knows his rock’n’roll inside-out, in fact he might well be its embodiment. How? Going back to the powerful figure of Strummer, we could argue that Tom still keeps choosing not to go where Joe - perhaps naively - went with his band only to so publicly fail in representing punk in its true meaning.

TOM:  “We all love Joe, he was genuine about what he believed in, but the truth is The Clash were a manufactured band: they were the brainchild of Bernie Rhodes even more than the Sex Pistols were the creation of Malcolm McLaren” offers Tom with a serious tone in his voice. “Bernie was even telling them what to wear for god’s sake! Everything was contrived, from the Mohican to everything else. That was not punk…”

MYST: I am sure that there exist as many different interpretations of what punk means as there are brains. Having interviewed scores of bands from all over the world in the past two decades, I still get some unexpected viewpoints. What does punk mean to you, Tom?

TOM:  “Punk means knowing what you are fucking talking about. Punk means educating yourself about what is actually going on around you, and then opting out. Not the other way around...”

That happens to coincide with my personal idea of punk, a philosophy of life that the anarcho punk collective known as Crass spread across single-handedly between 1979 and 1984. Whilst the Clash confronted socio-political issues with a lot of ingenuity and contradictions, Crass brought punk to its senses by actually applying the Do It Yourself ethos to every single aspect of their lives including, of course, self-releasing truly independent music for the first time.

MYST: When political punk came out, in the UK especially, there were very few alternative sources where you could get your information from. For today’s generations it’s so much easier to come to grips with what is going on in the world...

TOM:  “Well, in America I was taught by teachers who were anti-war activists so I have had good access to alternative information and culture since I was about 11 or 12 years old. These days the options are far greater, for examples I listen to internet podcasts. I am addicted to one show in particular called Democracy Now, which provides really consistent, progressive, hard-hitting journalism”

MYST: So, coming from an anti-capitalist background, what is your idea of democracy?

TOM:  “Democracy means basically spreading out the power as much as possible. It is certainly not in antithesis with communism just like it is not a synonym for capitalism, like most people seem to think. My personal idea of democracy is an anarchist notion of it”

MYST: At the end of the day what we all deeply desire is personal freedom, don’t we?

TOM:  “Well, people are commonly afraid and uncomfortable with freedom, and tend to erect cages around themselves in order to be more comfortably confined… We all - or at least most of us - desire personal freedom when it means being able to do what we want to do when we want to do it…but when freedom signifies having to create yourself every day, to recreate relations with those around us…to come to grips with the truths of this life on a consistent basis – those are aspects of freedom people tend to flee from”

MYST: Talking of cages, you have mentioned the degree of individual freedom Spain still has to offer to those who know how to grab it. How did you end up here?

TOM:  “Well, I grew up in New Jersey during the Vietnam War (to remind yourself of that insanity, including the staggering amount of deaths amongst military and civilians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War), went to college there and I was quite politically active. Abbie Hoffman, one of the founders of the hippy movement, was my hero and I spent some time with the Communist Workers’ Party. Then my parents moved to Florida and I didn’t like it there. When I was offered a year experience as a philosophy professor in Ecuador I took up the opportunity, and from there I went to Spain. After a few months in Madrid I realized everything was much more relaxed than back in America: basically I liked the culture as opposed to disliking it… I soon met a fiddle and a banjo player and we started to play around pubs doing classic bluegrass songs and anything else we fancied, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The Velvet Underground or AC/DC, but in a folk style. I could have not done that back in the US! Here I felt that the audience had no baggage, it just enjoyed the music without preconceptions. With La Pocilga de Tío Tom we ended up playing hundreds of gigs! That really changed my life: I had a career as a professor of philosophy and never expected to become a musician instead”

MYST: Could you ever live without music?

TOM:  “I am sure I could, one day. When I moved to Granada in 1998 all I wanted to do was to live up in the mountains, work the land and be by myself. But the place is full of excellent musicians who love to jam so I soon put together another band. For me composing your own music, playing, singing, participating… is a radical act in itself. To quote Utah Phillips, in a mass marketing economy, a revolutionary song is any song you choose to sing yourself”.

MYST: Aside the rock project with El Doghouse, you have a couple of folk ones on the go too.

TOM:  “That’s right; Alfredo and I are performing quite regularly as a duo on harmonica and guitar under the name of All Freedom (http://www.vimeo.com/8947494). I also worked with a folk band called The Rank Strangers, touring pubs and clubs in Andalusia. My latest folk project is a collaboration with Jennifer Bennett, an amazingly talented singer song-writer. I am very excited about this, her songs go right to the guts and she is incredibly prolific too. There are about 12 songs more or less put together now and I am considering taking them to this big folk festival in Colorado next summer, we’ll see what happens”

MYST: Do you go back to the States often?

TOM:  “Not too often, every time I go I feel very uncomfortable” admits Tom while shifting uneasily on his chair “I felt like an outsider there since I was very young”

MYST: Is the track on the album Heat called I can’t Stand You! about GW Bush by any chance?

TOM:  “Yes, I wrote those lyrics just after he was re-elected in 2005: I could not believe people could be so profoundly stupid to do that…”

MYST: What’s your opinion on Obama?

TOM:  “He will change nothing; democrats have been involved in more wars than republicans have. It’s all a shambles. I have always followed America’s foreign politics very closely since I was at college: Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador then the Iran-Contra affair with neo-Nazi Oliver North being hailed as a hero… When I left I was so appalled, raging with disgust. You know, it was the Reagan times, with him everything went to hell, not just politically but culturally too”

MYST: Sadly it seems like the same old story keeps repeating itself over and over: I have young friends who might have missed what went on in the sixties and eighties, but they are ashamed to be American because of what’s going on today.

TOM:  “It just doesn’t stop... Yesterday they killed 12 innocent people in Afghanistan, and that’s just the news that comes out, god knows what the fuck is actually happening there and how many civilians they are killing every day. And then they say that they are there to make the country more secure: I mean, you have to be either mentally retarded to be actually be proud of what’s been going on there, or just openly a-moral”

MYST: So having unequivocally admitted to not being comfortable with your own country’s politics, I was wondering if north-American folk means to you the same as it did when you were back home…

TOM:  “I think so, in fact musically speaking it means even more to me now. In New Jersey I was hanging around people about 10 years older than me and they were listening to Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash and Young etc., so I wanted to discover where all that came from, find out the roots. I started to listen to Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, blues stuff which was 20, even 30, years older. But I was more a consumer back then: when I started playing the guitar I was studying and working so I didn’t have the time to really explore music from the inside. That only happened in the nineties when I came to Spain and began to perform with La Pocilga: I gradually developed my guitar skills and got to discover more and more about American folk and blues by performing live day in day out. So yes, without a doubt I still relate to that aspect of my culture”

MYST: Which contemporary bands are you listening to?

TOM:  “Hmmm… contemporary for me has come to mean within the last 20 years! I listen a lot to what they are calling Americana…listening right now to a singer called Marissa Nadler…she seems to be contemporary. As for harder stuff, I am a Jack White fanatic – I think he’s the most powerful and original figure on the rock music scene in many years.  A friend recently turned me on to the Electric Six, and other bands from that scene – great stuff. I know there are a ton of great new bands out there – but they don’t come immediately to mind. Well, the Dropkick Murphys sound pretty cool… But when I’m home I usually have something rather quiet and relaxed on”

MYST: Talking about live concerts, what does the future hold for El Doghouse?

TOM:  “We might release a third album but, to be honest with you, it’s hard to keep spirits high in this climate… It is not easy to find gigs these days, venues and punters prefer to be involved with the new electronic music - or just DJs spinning, whatever - because that’s where the money is. Just imagine, in Spain today you can play live only if you rent the club outright: this makes it impossible for most musicians to go on the road”

MYST: Even a band like El Doghouse, which has had national exposure on both television and radio, is finding it difficult?

TOM:  “We play the odd festival, but we would like to tour properly. We did some dates in the Basque Country last year, which by the way was great – the people are fantastic!

MYST: Tell me about it, I have a mythological idea of the place…

TOM:  “Well, this guy from Mondragon is really into the Clash and he organized 3 gigs for us. Mondragon is at the heart of the independentist movement, it’s really Apache territory there. You get to this green valley and you find this town of 20.000 people. They are amazingly organized, even the main industries are co-operatives; I do respect what they have up there. Also, because they have a lot of youth centers and collectives, there are an incredible amount of bands, like 20 or more, which is phenomenal for a small town. It was fun and really interesting”

MYSTERY FLAME: Would you like to tour abroad?

TOM:  “We would love to! Let’s hope we can work something out, playing in the UK would be very nice!”

In the meantime, if you make your way to Andalusia, do try and catch Tom Lardner with one of his brilliant acts playing the local circuit.

For info, videos and dates check out:

www.myspace.com/eldoghouse
www.myspace.com/allfreedomtom

Interview by Mystery Flame (Alex) 02/03/10
Photos are reproduced by kind permission of Tom Lardner 

www.myspace.com/mysteryflameart