A riot of my own

25 years after London Calling, Mick Jones is back with a new band. In a rare interview, he talks to Chris Salewicz about life after The Clash - and why his moment may just have come again.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Do I seem very distracted?" Mick Jones asks me quizzically, bottle of Becks in hand, as he looks up from the mixing desk in Metropolis, an expensive recording studio in west London. Not at all, I tell him. Though I can understand why he asks the question. The guitarist and Clash founder is, as he frames it, currently working on his "past, present and future", and is under a certain amount of pressure. This not even taking account the new baby - his third girl - and recent house move: "I'm living out of boxes. I can't even find my passport, so I can't escape what I'm doing."

Do I seem very distracted?" Mick Jones asks me quizzically, bottle of Becks in hand, as he looks up from the mixing desk in Metropolis, an expensive recording studio in west London. Not at all, I tell him. Though I can understand why he asks the question. The guitarist and Clash founder is, as he frames it, currently working on his "past, present and future", and is under a certain amount of pressure. This not even taking account the new baby - his third girl - and recent house move: "I'm living out of boxes. I can't even find my passport, so I can't escape what I'm doing."

The previous day was occupied with the past. Jones spent it being filmed for a DVD to accompany this autumn's bumper re-release of The Clash's definitive album, London Calling. Somewhat confusingly voted "album of the decade" by Rolling Stone magazine in 1990, it was actually released in Britain in December 1979, and so is approaching its 25th anniversary.

But today, Jones is in the studio to produce The Libertines's long-awaited second album. "That's the present," he says. Almost two years ago, shortly before the sudden death of The Clash's former singer Joe Strummer, Jones produced the band's first record. The Libertines are currently regarded as one of the hottest (or should that be coolest?) acts in the country, and their success has served to reinforce Jones's position as an enduring force in British pop culture.

Pete Doherty, The Libertines' singer, is absent from the studio, undergoing treatment in The Priory for his well-documented drug addictions. His vocals have already been recorded. The other three band members flit in and out of the studio. When an Indian takeaway arrives, this is explained as being due to the fact that the studio's chef is too hungover to work, a result of having been out drinking until 6am with the band's guitarist Carl Barat. This seems utterly in keeping with The Libertines' reputation for hedonistic behaviour, though Barat himself appears remarkably chirpy.

It was Jeanette Lee, a former member of John Lydon's PiL (Public Image Limited) and the co-managing director of Rough Trade (The Libertines' record label), who introduced Jones to the idea of producing the young band back in 2002. "I went along to a rehearsal in King's Cross," he says. "Pete arrived in the studio on a scooter with bags of beer from the off licence. I thought: 'This is interesting.' I loved the way they looked, and I found they were lovely guys."

Those familiar with Jones's work can hear his influence on the Libertines' first album, Up The Bracket - the balance of sound, the assiduous overlaying of guitar parts, the exactness of positioning in the mix of backing vocals. It was, after all, Jones who arranged the music of The Clash, entitling him to nearly as much praise for the production of London Calling as the accredited Guy Stevens.

There's a wry smile about much of what Jones says and does. He's fun to be with and extremely polite and considerate to all around him. He remains a perfectionist, as aware of the need for attention to detail as was his songwriting and stage partner Strummer.

He says: "I didn't have the compassion that Joe had; I didn't learn about that until later. I didn't have that background. I was the working-class kid who wanted it all. But we all have different talents: we all come together in a team. I could be that central thrust to push the thing along."

Quoting from "Lost In the Supermarket", a London Calling track on which he sang, he says: "I thought Joe wrote that for me. I didn't have 'a hedge back home in the suburbs'. But the 'people who live on the ceiling' I knew all about. And the line about long-distance calls making me lonely could be about me and my mum."

Jones's parents split up when he was eight. His mother moved to the United States and he went to live with his grandmother, Stella, in the 18th-storey tower-block flat on London's Harrow Road that has since become a part of Clash mythology. On Silver Jubilee Day in 1977, an iconic date in the punk calendar celebrated by The Sex Pistols with a boat trip along the Thames, I went to see it for the first time. Outside a row of shops I asked an elderly lady for directions. She turned out to be Stella. Similar, apparently random occurrences often happened around The Clash, something of which Jones was always aware: "You know you're on the right path when things like that are happening," he says.

The "future" for Jones is his new group, Carbon/Silicon, which he has formed with an old friend from the Seventies, Tony James. The pair played together in the legendary (and unrecorded) punk group London SS before eventually going their separate ways - Jones to The Clash, and James to Generation X.

"Mick is like Mozart," James tells me later with undisguised admiration. "He doesn't simply hear the melodies and structure of a new song in his head. He hears every note of every instrument and knows exactly where it goes. He conceives songs in their most perfectly finished form."

Jones and James had already teamed up when Strummer died in December 2002 of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. "When Joe went, I thought that was it," Jones now admits. "I thought everything was finished. I didn't realise it was just the start." With an almost ironic symbolism, Jones had joined Strummer on stage a month before he died, at a benefit concert for striking fire fighters. This was the first time the two had played together in 19 years, Jones having left the band in 1983 before The Clash folded two years later. Strummer's death was such a shock it took him six months before he could come back to the Carbon/Silicon project. So why the name? f

"Human life is carbon-based," explains Tony James sententiously. "Computer life is silicon-based. The future of human life is carbon/silicon, that is, human life allegedly will have computer implants. But it also expresses Mick being carbon, the soul, and me being silicon, the computer." He adds: "It's also incredibly hard to come up with a new name."

Whatever the thinking behind the name, Carbon/Silicon is the first group in which Jones has played since his post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite finally ran out of steam in 1996. He has not been inactive in the interim, however. Always in touch with the zeitgeist and perhaps influenced by his art-school background (he studied at Hammersmith School of Art before pursuing a career in music), he spent several of the subsequent years teaching himself film editing on his home computer, attempting to blend the simultaneous creation of music and film. He could be seen at clubs with a digital video camera, and would intercut his own footage with material from Egyptian or Indian television, beamed down from an enormous satellite dish on the roof of his house. ("I'll return to that another time," he says.) A knowledgeable film buff, he has always loved the medium - and made movie-dialogue samples from the works of Nicolas Roeg, Clint Eastwood and Powell and Pressburger a trademark of Big Audio Dynamite's work.

The first Carbon/Silicon gig was performed in May at a bar in Camden opposite Rehearsal Rehearsals, home base of The Clash almost 30 years before. The low-key event was filmed by Peter Whitehead, the chronicler of Sixties London, who - among other works - made the celebrated documentary Tonite, Let's All Make Love In London and the video for "We Love You" by the Rolling Stones.

The performance was a revelation, Jones even cracking a loquacious joke or two between numbers as though he had momentarily become the Noel Coward of punk. Oh, and the music was cracking, too: they played nine extended songs that were instantly accessible, their immediate memorability enhanced by the game of spot-the-sample - the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and Aswad all being discernable.

The songs were also distinguished by their positive intent, part of the group's philosophy. The jaunty "Be Good To Yourself" is an obvious example, while "President Warfield" - a passionate expression of contempt for the man "messing with my life/On Pennsylvania Avenue" - is corrosively pointed in its satire. The set finished with a cover of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful", which Jones first heard when Cream included a version on their Fresh Cream album. ("It was the first song I learned to play.") Around the same time, he remembers going to see the Rolling Stones perform their now legendary open-air concert in Hyde Park in 1969. "I spent the entire day squeezing down towards the front. When I saw a photo of the audience, I could see myself in about the tenth row."

There was a lot of excitement about Jones that evening in May; it was as though a part of him had lain dormant and unrealised for years, not least the consummate stage-performer whose energy is as uplifting and life-affirming as Strummer's ever was.

"I've been missing out on a part of myself," he told me in the tiny dressing room after the Camden show. "I've known since I was ten that this was what I would do with my life. It wasn't so much ambition as what I knew I had to do. I may not seem to have done anything for a while, but I've been doing stuff behind the scenes, like producing The Libertines' records." The future of Carbon/Silicon, meanwhile, seems to be constantly evolving. That evening he also revealed that they would give the music away for free and sell footage of the band recording it over the internet. By the next week he seemed to have come to terms with the need to make an album and officially release it. Or not, as the case may be.

Whatever he does decide to do, it appears that, approaching his fifties, Jones has reflected on his past and decided simply to pursue what he feels to be his purpose in life. "I've survived two near-death experiences," he told me on the night of the gig in Camden. "In 1988 when I was in a coma in hospital with chickenpox in my lungs, Gaby, Joe's then wife, made him come to see me, and going to hospital was the last thing he wanted to do. Then in 1992, I was with some friends on a freeway in LA and we were hit from behind by a drunk driver. Our car went sliding along on its roof. I was clutching a cushion and sort of floating on the cushion on the road, and at a certain point I remember thinking: 'I'm not going to die, I'm going to survive this.' So I'd better get on with it, I suppose."

Back in the west-London recording studio, I watch as Jones spends 45 minutes listening to a pair of tiny lead guitar bursts on one of the new Libertines' songs and deciding whether or not to increase their volume "a tad". Finally he comes to the conclusion that if he does, it will unbalance the rest of the tune.

What advice, I ask him, has he given to The Libertines from his own experience with The Clash? He reflects for a moment. "I didn't always realise that we were having a high point and that we should savour it," he nods thoughtfully to himself. "I've told them to do this. It's moving very fast for them and you don't necessarily have time to see what's going on. I've told them to experience and enjoy the cities and countries they go to. And not to be so exhausted that they can't see how amazing their life is." E

Carbon/Silicon are appearing at the Return to New York Weekend Bash on Saturday 3 July at SeOne club, Weston Street, London SE1. Tickets from www.ticketweb.co.uk or tel 08700 600 100. Chris Salewicz is writing the forthcoming authorised biography of Joe Strummer, to be published by HarperCollins