Detroit Free Press Interview: John Mellencamp Takes Back-To-Basics Approach on His New CD

Detroit Free Press By Martin Bandyke

John Mellencamp long ago dropped his Johnny Cougar pop persona to become a far more complex and substantial musician. His album from earlier this year, "No Better Than This," is a beautifully realized collection of deeply felt songs recorded at three historic sites in the U.S. and produced by T Bone Burnett. Using vintage equipment, Mellencamp and his band rolled tape in Memphis' legendary Sun Studio; the San Antonio, Texas, hotel room where blues pioneer Robert Johnson once recorded; and First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.

On his way to a show in Indianapolis, only some 60-plus miles from his hometown of Seymour, Ind., Mellencamp spoke to the Free Press about his new album, his philosophy about playing gigs and his upcoming multimedia collaboration with Stephen King. Mellencamp and his band perform Friday at Detroit's Fox Theatre, with the film "It's About You" kicking off the evening at 6:45 p.m. Directed by Kurt Markus, the documentary chronicles the making of "No Better Than This."

Question: How did you come up with the idea of recording "No Better Than This" in such historic venues?

Answer: I was on tour with Dylan (last year) and had written "Save Some Time To Dream," started writing more songs, then got to the point where I needed to record this stuff. So while playing all these shows with Dylan and Willie Nelson I looked at the schedule, saw we'd be close to Sun (Studio), close to the church in Savannah and in (San Antonio) Texas, and realized we had days off there. So I thought, "Let's try and make a record."

Q: What was it like to record at Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins had their first sessions?

A: First of all, we couldn't record during the day because they have tours of the studio. It wasn't until 7 o'clock at night that we could get started. It was pretty interesting to walk out of there at 3 in the morning, walk out when all the rest of Memphis was asleep. We usually worked from 7 p.m. to 6 in the morning. Sam Phillips (Sun Studio founder and record producer) made it quite easy; we saw the X's on the floor and knew that's where the drums and guitars went, and that's where I should sing from. He messed around with the sound in that crazy little room and long ago decided what was best, and we followed along.

Q: Your very first band was Crepe Soul, which you started when you were all of 14. That would've been during the heyday of Motown Records. Was Motown a big influence on you?

A: You know when I first started writing songs I realized that what I wanted to do or try to do was be Woody Guthrie on one hand and Smokey Robinson on the other; he wrote all those Motown hits. As for other Detroit artists, I was influenced by (Bob) Seger and Mitch Ryder for sure.

Q: What was the thinking behind recording your new album with a single microphone on a vintage 1955 Ampex recorder, and in mono to boot?

A: Recorded music in the beginning was made to capture a moment, capture a performance. Now there's no performance to capture, there's only the building of a song from separate parts. What I wanted was to go back to the days of no overdubs, no tweaking, no Auto-Tuning or pitch control like we have now. I said to

T Bone, "Let's make this about music, not production. If we're going to go into these old places, let's set up a single mic and do it that way." He said, "That's taking a big chance."

Q: With no overdubs, that meant that every song on the album is a complete performance. Were there endless takes before you got what you wanted?

A: No, not really ... we had some good players. Nobody had ever heard any of the songs until I played them 5 minutes before we recorded; only T Bone and I knew the songs; I gave him a demo tape of me playing them on acoustic (guitar). But the musicians never heard the songs beforehand and that was all on purpose; I wanted to get people's first reactions.

The most we took a song was three or four takes, which was quite different than something like "Hurts So Good" (Mellencamp's hit single from 1982). We cut that song something like 123 times. It was just stupid; we made the same mistakes (every time), we were kids and couldn't play at all. "Easter Eve" (from the new album) is 7 minutes long and that song is the first take.

Q: What's the status of this multimedia collaboration between you and author Stephen King, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County?"

A: We've made a recording of all the songs, including ones sung by Kris Kristofferson, who plays the father; Elvis Costello, who plays the Devil; Rosanne Cash, who's the mother, and Sheryl Crow, who plays a ghost. They sang all the songs and T Bone produced the music.

It's the "Sgt. Pepper's" of Americana music. We did the dialogue and that includes Meg Ryan and Matthew McConaughey. We're putting it all together and are trying to get this staged in Atlanta during the spring or fall of next year. Liv Ullman, who was Ingmar Bergman's muse, will be directing. ...

This is a hell of an undertaking; just getting everybody together to read and sing is like putting kitties in a bag. Steve and I started working on it 10 years ago.

Q: How difficult is it for you to structure a concert? I'm sure you've got fans who would be more than happy with a show of familiar hits.

A: Well I have to tell you there is a lot of new material in the show. It's 2 hours and 20 minutes long and we play almost every song off the new album and try to cover the hits. ... T Bone said to me, "John, you had the misfortune to be a rock star in the '80s and '90s, and now what are you going to do?"

You're a fool to think you can keep the same intensity level or always have the same level of popularity in your career. I already have a measure of longevity, I've got 20-some albums, but you look to Dylan and Willie and John Cash and see how they did it. In any career that long there's going to be ups and downs. If I did only hits I'd be playing at Pine Knob, so the fact I'm playing at the Fox should show that this is not going to be only a greatest hits thing. All the shows (so far) have been good, reviews seem to be good, and the audience responds well. It's a balancing act; you can't just do only the hits and try to be something you were 30 years ago; you look silly.