Sean Lennon likes instruction manuals. He didn’t always; it was something he had to learn. When the 31-year-old Manhattanite was a kid his understanding of machines was intuitive. “I was the guy that would figure it out without the manual,” Lennon says after lunch at his record label’s Fifth Avenue offices. But then a few years ago, Yuka Honda, his ex-girlfriend and former bandmate in the downtown art-funk combo Cibo Matto, turned him on to the idea of reading about how a given device works. “So I did for this sampler that I bought, and it changed my life. I realized, my god, I’ve been an idiot. One should read the manual.”
That’s how one goes from making a record like Into the Sun, Lennon’s sweetly ramshackle 1998 debut, to Friendly Fire, his new eight-years-later follow-up. (Well, that, and discovering one’s girlfriend is carrying on behind the scenes with one’s best friend.) Friendly Fire is to Into the Sun what Beck’s Mutations was to Odelay: Where his debut exuded the joy in pastiche endemic to its era, flitting excitedly from folk-pop to hip-hop to heavy metal to bossa nova, Lennon’s new album hews more closely to a single style. Each of the CD’s 10 tunes, which Lennon produced himself, offers the same warmly hypnotic blend of strummed acoustic guitars, brushed drums, gauzy keyboards, and tart strings; it’s a juicy space-folk vibe not unlike that on Mutations, and Lennon really digs into it.
“My modus operandi used to be Sean overdubbing in a playground of instruments,” explains the singer, who says that he wanted Into the Sun to sound like a “really great demo that I made in a week.” “But I didn’t want to do that for Friendly Fire; what I wanted to do was make a record that was more composed and more meticulously refined.” For Lennon, that meant using his knowledge of how the studio worked in order to execute ideas, rather than using the studio as a petri dish to conceive those ideas. It also meant assembling a band to create “something that could only be the result of a group of people who each had enough talent to play live together without having the integrity of the track compromised. Because, you know, if you’re not great, it’s hard to play live to tape.”
This, of course, is where it helps to be the son of a Beatle. Friendly Fire features contributions from high-profile studio musicians such as Jon Brion, Matt Chamberlain, and Jim Keltner, as well as appearances by Honda, Sebastian Steinberg of Soul Coughing, and actress Bijou Phillips. About Phillips: She’s the girlfriend who did the carrying-on with Lennon’s best friend that inspired the album. Last November the best friend, Max LeRoy, died in a motorcycle accident in Los Angeles. Lennon never got the chance to reconcile with LeRoy, so Friendly Fire works as something of a cosmic farewell, an overdue settling of affairs. Lennon says he had the concept mapped out in his mind before he even started work on the record. “I knew I wanted to do 10 songs, and I wanted them all to deal with a theme of betrayal and a love triangle, and I wanted them to be intertwined and to be called Friendly Fire.”
He also knew that an album wouldn’t provide all the room he needed to speak his mind. Friendly Fire comes packaged with a DVD the singer made with director Michele Civetta, an old high school pal of Lennon’s who’s currently at work on a movie with Val Kilmer that Lennon’s had a hand in writing. The DVD dramatizes all 10 of the album’s songs, placing Lennon in the center of a series of heavily stylized vignettes; there’s one where he plays a 1980s rollerskating nerd, and another in which he fences a cheating poker player in a Spanish mission. Civetta compares the movie to Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam’s trippy 1981 flick, and calls it “an homage to the past.” Each segment features Lennon vying for the heart of a woman whose love lies elsewhere. (This is another place where it helps to be John Lennon’s son, since in Friendly Fire those women are played by Lindsay Lohan, Jordana Brewster, Asia Argento, and Devon Aoki.)
“A music video is essentially a commercial for a song or for an artist,” Lennon says. “And my music isn’t commercial. I know it’s not gonna be a hit on MTV or on the radio. So I felt like that would be a waste of my video budget. I thought, Why not just make something that was more like an extension of the record, an elaboration on what the music is about?”
Unlike the scrappy DVD that accompanies the new album by his spiritual cousin Beck, Friendly Fire doesn’t have the look of an afterthought; it’s full of rich colors and eye-popping details that suggest Lennon and Civetta took the multimedia possibilities seriously. “We really did it on a shoestring budget, but I wanted it to look like a real film,” Lennon explains. “A lot of people make videos for exorbitant amounts of money, and all the money’s spent on limos and trailers—all this stuff that’s not on camera. So our policy was to only spend money on things that you see: the costumes, the film stock, the director of photography, the locations.”
A celebrity since the day he was born, Lennon didn’t need the limos and trailers this time. He just wanted to make something that felt whole. “When I was younger I was interested in the freeness of unfinishedness,” he says. “Now, as a writer, I’m more interested in tying up the loose ends of my compositions. As an older person I’m more intrigued by the idea of trying to complete ideas in a more complete way.” He laughs. “For lack of a better word.”