Blondie has never stopped evolving. The storied band's catalog is less a collection of songs than it is a vibrant, musical reflection of New York City, where the band got its start nearly fifty years ago: the modern city, with its culture clashes and punkish intrigue, exported for a global audience by the people who knew it best. Hip-hop, Latin pop, punk rock, and new wave are but a few of the latter-day genres singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, and their bandmates tapped into with grace and finesse.
What does evolution look like for Blondie these days? In 2017, it resembles a beehive, both in name and spirit. Pollinator, the group's eleventh studio album, is Blondie's most extensive group effort to date. With producer John Congleton, the band enlisted peers and supporters of all stripes to write material for the record. The resulting eleven-song track list pops with all-star credits: Johnny Marr, Sia, the Strokes' Nick Valensi, Blood Orange's Dev Hynes, and John Roberts (best known for playing Linda Belcher in the Fox cartoon Bob's Burgers) all make appearances. We caught up with Stein over the phone to discuss Pollinator, poptimism, politics, and more.
INDY: Unlike your past albums, Pollinator was sourced from the contributions by other artists, including Sia, Johnny Marr, and Charli XCX. How does it fit into Blondie's broader body of work over the past forty years and beyond?
Chris Stein John [Congleton, producer] was instrumental in pushing it in a certain direction. I think he has a good objective view of what we sound like, and that whole "pollinator" idea of cross-referencing people who we admire who've also referenced us.
And what of the album's bee motif? Debbie Harry has been rocking a bee-shaped headpiece on several of the tour stops thus far.
The bee stuff came out from the name very spontaneously. Initially, we thought, Oh, let's have, like, a metal album—it sounds cool; the art is cool. And then, beyond that, there's what's going on with the bees for quite a while, so it just seemed like a no-brainer to put it all together.
Which aspect of the creative process is your favorite: writing, recording, or performing?
I like the recording process because I'm a control freak. You do have a lot of control, and I like adjusting what goes on; I think it speaks to my OCD, or something like that—you can tweak songs. I like doing programming. I like doing the computer aspect of making new music, but John is very old school and just wanted to do really basic stuff. He actually gave me a really good tip, which was, "If you give me a demo, I just want to be alone so I can see what the song is. I don't care how it actually sounds."
In a recent interview with LA Weekly, you referred to music as being fifty percent craft. As a rock musician with a deep appreciation of pop—a genre that's defined, primarily, in terms of formulaic precision—how do you find that balance between the tried-but-true and the never-been-tried?
That's tough. I don't know if I'm too close to [music] to be objective about it. With this record, we were filtering stuff through a bunch of people while everybody was all there, so it was all, "ask John." My comments about "fifty percent crap" refers to all the people complaining about there not being any good pop music out there, which I see all the time—but there is a lot of good stuff.
There's a common notion among music fans that whenever sociopolitical affairs take a turn for the chaotic or even conservative, the music gets better. Having lived through the eras of Reagan, both Bushes, and now, Trump, do you agree with that statement?
I think that all of the little trends in music are more effective today, the disposable aspects. Kids [are more interested by] always being on their phones than they are by sociopolitical views at this point, you know? [Laughs] It's different. Spotify's kind of amazing; anything you can think of, you go on and, bam, there it is. And then, attention spans are way down for young people.
Not to mention, there's that whole idea of taste, once a nebulous concept, being reduced to an algorithm or SoundCloud tag.
I'm still waiting for them to do this program where you can feed any number one song from the last twenty years into the computer and see what it comes up with. It's very doable. I don't know why it hasn't been done at this point!
You've been making music with Blondie for over forty years now. What motivates you today?
Jeez, I don't know! I go back and forth. I get very grounded in day-to-day reality, and at the same time, I'm looking at things at the cosmic level, and how crazy everything is that we do here on the road compared to the rest of the universe. All of that stuff is just weird. And it's nice having kids now, they motivate me.