Sean Lennon Talks About His Band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger in Exclusive Interview
It seems a long time coming for Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who perform together as the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, to produce an album like the new ‘Midnight Sun.’ Their second full-length is the record you might expect after they spent the past year on the road with the likes of the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala, a possible signifier of what’s to come as they embark on a string of North American tour dates leading up to a performance at Mountain Jam on June 8.
A lush slice of ’60s psychedelia unavoidably comparable in ‘Sgt. Peppers’-like pedigree (Lennon is the son of the late Beatle), ‘Sun’ strays from the quirky, dreamy pop of the group’s ‘La Carotte Bleue’ EP, and even further from its acoustic debut, expanding into hypnotizing, often times elegiac, bluster. And while Lennon is the veteran troubadour, Muhl is an equal collaborator here, her vocals nothing less than ethereal, even when floating above the thump-along vintage funk of the album’s title track and her literary background shining through the album’s eccentric-straying narratives.
Much of the songwriting on ‘Sun’ finds Lennon and Muhl unsure whether to tune in or drop out, conjuring their running obsession with the tug-of-war relationship we have with modern technology. And it’s for the better – cautionary tales like the swirling centerpiece and single ‘Animals’ make for their most compelling work yet. Though their finest moments often weigh technology’s good and evil, ‘Sun’ also sounds like the duo’s fullest work because it finds them experimenting with more electronics than ever before.
In our exclusive interview with Lennon, he talks about the growth of their layered dynamics, the inspiration behind tracks on ‘Midnight Sun’ and touring with their ever-evolving sound.
The reworking of songs from 2010’s ‘Acoustic Sessions’ that ended up being included on ‘La Carotte Bleue’ certainly added layers of electronics, and ‘Midnight Sun’ is more electronic still. Where did you draw from to get to that point?
I think originally we always wanted to be a fully realized rock ‘n’ roll band. We started off as an acoustic duo because when we first began dating, we used to just write songs on acoustic guitar. We were already planning on being an electric band, but our friends all told us that we should first release acoustic versions of our songs to introduce everyone to our songwriting style. It was almost like our friends advised us. And we were hesitant to do that because we already really wanted to rock out, but we decided we would put the acoustic versions out as a document, almost like a diary of what it was like to begin with. We always wanted to be electric, so it was more like we had to do the acoustic thing as a documentary of the beginning of our band — but we always wanted to be a rock band.
Hand in hand with how much electronics played into your sound on ‘Midnight Sun,’ you’ve also talked in past about being influenced by this very double-edged relationship with technology, saying, “On the one hand, I really resent it and despise it, and on the other hand I really rely on it, and my livelihood depends on it.” Would you say that within the concepts of your songwriting that played a role in this album?
I think I do have a love/hate relationship with technology. I think there’s a real paradox in modern societ; technology bringing us closer together but also making us feel more disconnected from each other — being connected while becoming disconnected. We’re all feeling very lonely even though we’re all connected via social networks and text messaging and Skyping – we all feel more alone than ever before. People don’t know their neighbors, and communities are less friendly with each other. When I was growing up, I used to play baseball with my neighbors in the park, and now I don’t really see kids doing that anymore – everyone is a lot more distrustful of each other. We write a lot about modern dystopian, existential crises I feel we’re all going through, and that is connected with that relationship. On one hand, it facilitates things and on the other it deconstructs them.
A song like your recent single, ‘Animals,’ definitely has that signature disparity between technology and media contrasting with the environment.
The whole idea of the animals escaping the zoo is this fantasy about nature being released from the cage of civilization. We all feel like there’s something wrong with urban life and covering up the forest with pavement. It feels wrong, like there’s something inherently unnatural about all of it. At the same time, I love living in the city and I love guitars and computers, but it feels like it’s unsustainable and it’s all about to explode at some point.
‘Midnight Sun’ really found you delving deeper into psychadelia, drawing comparisons to the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala. How was touring with them? Has it affected or informed your songwriting and collaboration?
I would definitely say we’re a group of friends, especially the Flaming Lips. I’ve known them since I was 18. The first time I played with them was with my first band, Cibo Matto. The Lips have influenced me in a way because their performance-art spectacle is really inspiring. It’s more that we have similar tastes and that’s why we end up touring together. We come from the same place in a way.
While the ‘Acoustic Sessions’ were made to give some back history into your origins, you’ve continued to layer upon layer and flesh out your sound. As it continues to grow fuller, and you tour with these bands with such a big sonic presence, how do you feel about playing larger festivals, such as Mountain Jam, in comparison to smaller, more intimate venues?
The thing about playing outdoors is it’s like a big vacation for everybody. Whereas being in a club indoors, it’s a lot more intimate and you can hear a lot better. When you plays outdoors, the sound escapes into the firmament. It’s not so much about an intimacy, it’s more about the experience of spending the day outside with your friends. I think an intimate club is a way to hear the detail and have a one-on-one experience.
You have very rich characters in everything you do, such as ‘Don’t Look Back Orpheus’ on the new album.
We own a calliopie, which is an old air-powered organ from the 1800s. And Calliopie is actually the name of Orpheus’ mother in Greek mythology. We thought it would be kind of interesting to do a song with the calliopie and sing about Orpheus. It was sort of just a challenge to see if we could get the entire story of Opheus to fit over a little song, which was really fun.
It seems like when collaborating with Charlotte, her background in creative fiction has a huge influence on your writing as a band.
I think we’ve been developing a more literary kind of songwriting. We’re both book nerds, we read a lot. Charlotte wrote a lot of poetry when she was younger, and I always wrote lyrics but never spent as much time on the lyrics as the music. When I started writing songs with her, she really pushed me to spend more time finishing the lyrics. I actually feel like I owe her for forcing me to pay more attention to that. We both spend a lot of time on the lyrics and really push each other to make sure they’re something we really feel good about.