SoundSpike Daily: John Mellencamp Talks Career, New Album and Robert Johnson

SoundSpike Daily By Phil Gallo Calmly and carefully, even apologizing for being frank, John Mellencamp decried the Internet, the state of music today and problems with education -- while also providing details about his new album -- during an interview session Tuesday (8/18) at the Grammy Museum.

He also reiterated his call for Willie Nelson to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The purpose of Mellencamp's talk and five-song performance was to spread the word about "No Better Than This," his second album with T Bone Burnett behind the controls and one that goes to great lengths to recapture the essence of recordings made around the time of rock 'n' roll's birth. They recorded in mono on a single microphone at the First African Church in Savannah, GA, a key depot on the Underground Railroad; Sun Studios in Memphis, TN, where Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded; and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX.

"T Bone and I did research on how it was set up," Mellencamp said, referring to Robert Johnson's 1936 recording sessions at the Gunter Hotel that produced "Come on In My Kitchen," "Terraplane Blues" and "Dust My Broom." "I found a blueprint and knew which corner he sang into, and we wanted to set it up exactly the same way."

That meant removing the heavy drapes, and taking up the hotel management on their idea of using a parquet dance floor to cover the carpeting that would not have been there in the '30s. The sound engineers, who needed to be in an adjacent area and not in the room itself, didn't get it right the first time and had to redo the set-up.

Once they followed the Johnson blueprint, Mellencamp said, "there wasn't much to it. As T Bone said, that's one great-sounding corner."

Sun Studios, Mellencamp noted, "was perfectly laid out for a three-piece band, but they have all this modern digital equipment, so we had to rent a trailer and park it out back [with a vintage tape recorder]. They had tours all day so we had to record at night, going in at 7 p.m. and coming out at 4 or 5 in the morning.

"The purpose was to go into places and take it back to where it began. What we were able to do was capture the moment. That's a problem with music today -- there is no moment. Everybody was in the moment.... Sometimes we got it in the first take, sometimes the third or fourth or not at all. It was fun to be a musician."

The one place they were not able to record was the Brunswick Building in the Deep Ellum section of Dallas, TX, where Johnson recorded 11 songs. They were given excuses such as the lack of air conditioning, but Mellencamp said they stopped trying because "basically, the owner didn't want us in the building."

Still feisty even if he is less cantankerous, Mellencamp deflected much of the praise sent his way from interviewer Bob Santelli, the museum's executive director, who described himself as a lifelong fan. After referring to his albums "Scarecrow" and "Lonesome Jubilee" as "happy accidents," Mellencamp did swell up with pride in talking about his touring band from 1985 to the early 1990s.

"I had a vague notion, and I'm playing with [musicians] from Indiana, that if we played for hours and hours and hours [we'd be good]," he said. "By the time 'Scarecrow' came out everything jelled -- we were the best band in America. We were untouchable."

At that point, Mellencamp got a former agent of his seated in the audience to concur.

Mellencamp performed "Save Some Time to Dream" -- the song that got the project started -- and "Thinking About You" from the new album, plus "Don't Need This Body" from his previous album, an a cappella version of "Cherry Bomb" and "Small Town." Prior to that, he had thoughts on a few other subjects. (Tangents have been removed from the quotes for the sake of coherency):

On recording: "Making records for me was a drag sometimes. I quit a couple of times quietly. After 'Big Daddy' (1989) I said I'm not going to promote the record and I spent two years painting, had a heart attack and just took care of babies."

His first deal: "When I got a record deal I had only written four songs, so my first half dozen records are terrible. I was a barroom singer and had to learn how to write a song. Some people come out of the womb knowing how to write a song. ... (Eventually) I felt I was Woody Guthrie in one hand and Smokey Robinson (with melodies) in the other, and if I could just find a way to get them together."

On John Cougar, then and now: "I'm 22 and in New York with no money and no way to get home. A guys says, 'I made up the name David Bowie.' I went along with it and it took my entire career to rid of the thing. I was behind the eight ball as Johnny Cougar. ... You had guys coming up like Tom Petty, Willy DeVille, Steve Forbert. [To critics] I was the low-hanging fruit. ... I'm 58, soon to be 59, and am no longer the guy who wrote 'Hurt So Good.'"

Online omen: "The Internet is the most dangerous thing since the atomic bomb. It has destroyed the music business and it's about the destroy the movie business. What if some smart people unhooked electricity on the Eastern seaboard and messed with bank accounts during the blackout?"

Longevity: "From 1920 to 1940 big band music was just as popular as rock 'n' roll, but 50 years later can anyone name five big bands? It's Duke Ellington and then ... After a few generations, as important as we think rock 'n' roll is, it goes away. [Eventually] people will say the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the rest of us become footnotes. I have [given up] on the idea of longevity."