Carbon/Silicon: Burning down the house

Carbon/Silicon fans make their own videos and CDs by filming gigs and downloading songs. Chris Mugan meets Mick Jones and Tony James as they head out on tour
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The Independent Culture

You would think that, after 30 years in music, he would slow down, but Mick Jones is running through a west London studio on a quest to find a framed photograph on a wall. We are led past dark rooms where banks of equipment hum, through open-plan offices, a café, up and down stairs. "It's round here somewhere... No, it must be this way... Here it is!" he eventually cries.

You would think that, after 30 years in music, he would slow down, but Mick Jones is running through a west London studio on a quest to find a framed photograph on a wall. We are led past dark rooms where banks of equipment hum, through open-plan offices, a café, up and down stairs. "It's round here somewhere... No, it must be this way... Here it is!" he eventually cries.

It's a black-and-white photo of the building in its former guise - as a power station - and next to it stands Jones, founder member of The Clash. His intense, dark brown eyes are iconically familiar, although the sternly set jaw of his punk days has been replaced by a wide and toothy grin.

Mission accomplished, he strides back to the main hall for his photo shoot and to discuss his new project. Even without a deal or a record to promote, Carbon/ Silicon (CSi for short) have been making waves - and not just because Jones has hooked up with his best friend Tony James, the bassist in Billy Idol's Generation X and the hype merchant behind the infamous Eighties phenomenon Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

Jones and James have embraced the internet revolution. They invite fans to burn records, encourage the audience to film gigs and have even written a song, "The Gangs of England", with the refrain: "If you want the record, press record."

Given James's previous, you can be forgiven for suspecting some post-modern prank, but both are keen to point out that the music comes first. "The most important thing is, we're singing real songs that touch people," Jones says. "That has been our main thing, doing it in a grown-up way and not pretending to be young. We're wiser, and we know more shit."

While the wide-eyed Jones is prone to get sidetracked, James is more focused. "We started talking about it 10 years ago, about how to do a grown-up group. The premise was: wouldn't it be great if Jack Nicholson formed a group? He would still be rock'n'roll and he wouldn't have to get a wig or the Botox."

Neither of them, though, could stomach the formation of another fully fledged band. Both had enjoyed lucrative careers in the Eighties after the bands of their first success fell apart. Jones was with the experimental Big Audio Dynamite and their pioneering use of samples. James learnt how to program music on his laptop, while his mate took up film-editing. When they next came together, three years ago, both were excited about the opportunities offered by the internet. When James mentioned his idea for a song called "MPFree", Jones immediately pounced on it and suggested that they write and record it together - and then release it online.

For James, the peer-to-peer file-sharing networks that threatened the record industry reminded him of nothing more dangerous than school friends making tapes for each other. Jones was reminded of bootleg records - the illegal, though often tolerated, pressings of live sets or unreleased recordings. "I collect them," he says. "I try to get every [Clash] bootleg there is, because I want to be able to document every part of it. It's like artists' drawings - you want to see how something developed."

As the pair realised that they could work together, they used the internet to put up their own demos. Jones admits that the way the online element has taken over has been a surprise to them. "We said to people that they could come and DVD the show, but we didn't realise how it was going to take off. People really enjoy the exchange in different parts of the country. We had a vague idea and they helped to define it."

A prime example of this has been how CSi have been signing records - quite a feat for an outfit that has yet to release a note. "The fans are making their own records and their own artwork, based on the elements that we supply on our website," James says.

Such was the inspiration behind "Gangs", part of a session the band recorded for Andy Kershaw's Radio 3 show. The band invited a particularly tech-savvy fan to film the recording to make a video for the song that people could download. CSi even supplied artwork for people's CDs or DVDs. The only proviso is that people don't make money from their efforts, Jones warns. "It's for exchange only. One guy tried selling a CD online, but they ganged up on him and made him take it off."

It's all right for CSi to behave in this cavalier fashion as, frankly, neither of them ever has to work again. But what about newer, younger acts that need to make a living and secure their future? "The more we give stuff away, the more people ask when they can buy the record," James says. "Record companies shouldn't be worried about this. What will happen is that downloading will force them to raise their game. They have to become good parents again. In the Sixties, they were run by people who loved music..." "And there's no one of that calibre any more," Jones interjects. "They might as well be selling cornflakes."

James continues: "Groups will have to raise their game, too. They won't be able to put out a record with one hit single and a load of dud tracks."

You can hear echoes of their punk background in all this, but not in a retro "them were the days" kind of way. The ability to record a song and release it the same day has energised two artists who had just about thrown in the towel. Still, it is intriguing that such youthful fervour comes from a pair who first made music together 30 years ago. As James explains of their first meeting: "He was the only guy I knew who was reading Rockscene and all those American, Lester Bangs-type publications. We just had an immediate affinity."

Jones and James formed the mythic pre-punk outfit London SS in 1975. Without a singer, the band drifted along for a year until James finished university and they went their separate ways. Jones, meanwhile, bided his time until he could persuade Joe Strummer to leave his band, The 101ers, and hook up with him.

Both were productive during the Eighties, with Jones continuing to experiment with dub and dance music, while James sold ad space between tracks on Sputnik's début album. Again, in parallel, they spent the Nineties away from the industry. James moved his family to Somerset seven years ago, while Jones has just celebrated the first birthday of his third child.

"I'd forgotten what was great about rock'n'roll. I got so fed up with all the people who didn't know anything about music," Jones says. "But then I nearly died twice, with chicken pox and pneumonia, so I had this revelation. I'd spent 20 years in a subdued state, not writing, but I realised how selfish I'd been. It's not about you, how great you are or how great you used to be. It's about what you can give to other people." James reminds him: "You weren't even playing guitar when we started."

"MPFree" led to the duo writing a further 20 songs in a short period, helped by Jones's ability instantly to come up with tune and arrangements, as James explains. "We have a pitch, and talk about creating a song like it's a film. Normally I'll write a couple of pages of ideas, like a movie treatment, and then Mick picks out the elements."

"He writes like he talks," Jones chides. While the Clash star is endearingly modest, James is there to praise him, describing Jones as "a classical composer".

"For 'The Gangs of England', we were on our way back from a gig in Coventry, talking about how amazing it was that people were making the records already. Then we stopped the car at the side of the motorway and wrote the song on a napkin." Jones muses: "I used to write them on the bus. Now I write them in a car. I walk round with the tune in my head."

At first, they performed as a duo, relying on layers of samples and drum loops to give their work a modernist sheen, although the technique was also there to provide fresh inspiration, James says. "The first records were all built out of samples of rock'n'roll, the Stones cut with Slade, The Who cut with Suicide. It gave us a fresh palette to start our group, a different perspective.

"Having been in iconic rock groups, you need to find a new starting point. Over three years, we've come out from behind our wall of samples, and the real band is left behind it."

During this period, they recruited a rhythm section (Danny the Red and William Blake, no less), so they could write songs without samples. Again, chance was on their side, James explains. "I'd known them for 10 years; they were part of my first attempt to form an adult rock band, Fin de Siecle. The weekend we were looking for someone, they phoned up out of the blue for a chat."

Now, having played a variety of low-key gigs the length and breadth of the country, the band are set to embark on their first publicised tour. They're returning to the kind of tiny venues they last saw in the late Seventies, with none of the creature comforts they soon became used to.

Jones won an award after taking up production duties on The Libertines' second album, and he's been spending time in Wales and Henley-on-Thames in recent months to produce the début album from Babyshambles, Pete Doherty's new band. He says he finds these acts inspirational. "Both bands have a wonderful spirit that has helped us remember what's good about things. In their recordings, I've tried to capture the positive aspects. It's been about capturing the moment when the magic is happening.

"I wouldn't complain in any way. It was always a pleasure, and they were never horrible. A lot of stuff goes into making a record - their lives, and everything that happens to them. Production is not about people coming in separately and putting it on a computer."

With that, Jones stalks off to finish mixing the Babyshambles album. Pushing 50, he's an old-timer in rock terms, but the man who sang "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" has decided to stick around.

Carbon/Silicon's tour begins on Sunday at the Barfly, Glasgow (