Rolling Stone: John Mellencamp Finds His Freedom

The rocker on his next album, his collaboration with Stephen King and why he almost quit the biz
Andy Greene
Posted Jan 31, 2008 2:58 PM

A few weeks ago John Mellencamp brought Rolling Stone up to his 41st floor suite at the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas following a sold-out show. After playing RS his new T Bone Burnett-produced album Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp talked candidly about the new album, his forthcoming play co-written with Stephen King and why he doesn't want to play "Hurts So Good" anymore.

Rolling Stone: It's got to be nice as an artist to be in a spot where you have your audience and your following, and you can do what you want, no?

John Mellencamp: Sure. And they've got to expect to get pissed off (sometimes too, 'cause I'm not gonna do what they expect me to do. [Laughs] During the Nineties I was in and out of the music business about 150 times. I don't know how many times I quit. "I can't stand doing this anymore. I can't do this." And then I'd get all excited for a few weeks and start making a record, get halfway through the record and go, ooh, God.

RS: Do you worry about record sales, or how you'll get the music to your fans now that there are so many alternate ways to release music?

JM: You know, I don't do that. I'm a singer-songwriter. I should be singing songs and writing songs, not worrying about selling them. I'm going to keep making records. I'll keep writing songs and playing them to my family and whatever audience comes to see me. You know, if there's 10,000 people, great. If there's ten, so what? I've made twenty-four albums, you know? I've come from Johnny Cougar — I've grown up in public.

RS: Is this attitude new?

JM: Oh, sure. In the Nineties I went for a long time and wouldn't go on tour. This is the first tour I've talked to the audience in ten, fifteen years. I'd walk out and say hello and never say another word, 'cause I thought — my head was like, "They don't want to come here to hear me talk. They came hear to hear these fuckin' songs. The songs are the stars, not me." But now my attitude is different.

JM: I'm just gonna go out and be myself and play these songs and do what the fuck I do, and like I said, I'm not for everybody. I'm sure I piss some of the audience off sometimes, 'cause, you know, they're sitting there going, he didn't play "Hurts So Good." Well, I don't want to play those songs anymore. So that's the luxury of being me. In the Nineties there was a part of me that [thought] we gotta be the biggest band in the world. I don't even give a fuck, I don't even have those thoughts anymore. I'm just happy to be able to go out and play. And if I can make a little bit of difference, fabulous.

RS: When you started to think about the songs on your upcoming album, did you sit down with the intent of writing that style of dark folk song?

JM: With this record I just let them be simple in their presentation, simple in their lyrical content, and didn't try to work around it It's what I do, and it's what I should've been doing for years instead of, you know, worrying about the pressure of "are they gonna play this on the radio?" I don't have to worry about that anymore.

RS: So how long ago did you stop worrying about?

JM: Probably when I was in Columbia Records. It just dawned on me that not only are they not going to play these songs on the radio, the record company is not gonna work them to be on the radio, so what am I doing? They didn't with this record when they heard it, but the record company always asks you, you got a single? Don't even ask me that anymore.

RS: Can we have an update on the Stephen King project [the "play with music" The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County]?

JM: We have another workshop in New York coming up, and from there it goes into production in Atlanta, Georgia next spring. And then if it goes well in Atlanta, then we'll come to Broadway. If it don't go well in Atlanta, we're done.

RS: What can you tell me about working with Stephen?

JM: Oh, I love Steve. Steve is nothing like everybody thinks he is. Steve and I really have a lot in common. He lives in the middle of nowhere. I live in the middle of nowhere. He's not comfortable being around a lot of people. I'm not comfortable. We just have a — you know, we're kinda antisocial guys, and, of course, we're bigmouths.

RS: How did working in this new medium, the play, challenge you both?

JM: Steve is not used to a live performance. I am. So whenever the stage goes dark, he's pumped up, man. He's excited. Somebody came and watched the last reading that we had in New York and reviewed it. The review said this is a musical that men will enjoy. Unheard of, the guy said.

RS: But your new album will come out before that — are you at all concerned about first-week sales numbers?

JM: I don't really want to play that game anymore. If it was up to me, I'd sell the record for five dollars. I'd sell the record for five bucks, and I'd sell it in ways that SoundScan doesn't count. I don't care about SoundScan. Fuck those guys.

RS: Do you see a point in the future when you might just put albums out on the Internet or something?

JM: Well, I don't know how that would work. I don't want to hang on any crosses. I already hung on enough crosses with the Chevrolet ad. You know, that was everybody saying, you know, John, you know, this is a good thing to do, and, you know, I couldn't argue. Well, if people — you saw people react to the song tonight. They loved it. When you hear the whole song, it's not really a Chevy commercial, you know? It's a rock song.
Read the Rolling Stone article online.