Debbie Harry and Chris Stein interview

I’m in conversation with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, frontwoman and guitarist and founders of iconic US new wave band Blondie, and we’re talking about their impending visit to Scotland. She’s in Connecticut enjoying “a little bit of R&R”, he’s in New York, and I’m in Edinburgh, but we’re all hanging on the telephone.

Chris Stein | Debbie Harry photo credit: Guy Furrow

Five decade partnership

As you’d expect from former lovers and friends who’ve known each other for 47 years, in conversation they are relaxed and complementary: Harry sparky and fun, Stein thoughtful and droll, both with a dark sense of humour.

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Harry was in a 13-year relationship with Stein, with whom she created Blondie in 1974, reaching the height of their international fame in the late Seventies, selling 40 million albums. The band split in 1982, Stein was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease, from which Harry nursed him back to health, the money disappeared, but they’re still going, working on a new album due out at the end of this year, maybe next.

Debbie Harry and Chris Stein at the Elle Style Awards, London, 2017. Picture:Richard Young/Shutterstock

“We just try to keep going, you know,” says Harry.

In Conversation

In person, the singer is still peroxide blonde with coathanger cheekbones and gobby pout, while Stein’s curtain of black hair is grey, complemented by hip facial hair and shades. Over the phone, without the visuals, their voices speak of age and experience. If 74-year-old Harry’s is low and husky, 70-year-old Stein’s lies growling on the floor, deep as an expensive shag pile, as they tell me about Blondie’s Debbie Harry & Chris Stein – In Conversation.

Kicking off in Glasgow on 22 April, the tour heads to Manchester, London and Birmingham, then the US and Mexico and Germany.

Debbie Harry sings with Blondie, UK, 1978. Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hosted by friend and collaborator Rob Roth, who worked with them on 1999’s No Exit, their seventh studio album, after a gap of 17 years which topped the UK singles chart with Maria, In Conversation features memories from the band’s five-decade history, Stein and Harry’s partnership and solo work, film clips, fan art, readings from the frontwoman’s 2019 Face It memoir and audience Q&As.

“This is a little bit of a different world for us,” says Harry, “and the audiences are very cool, very responsive. The Q&A is fun.”

“Yeah,” says Stein, “We enjoy it. It’s a more direct experience with the audience than a gig.”

Given that Harry and Stein have been round the block more times than Mr Whippy, when it comes to questions they must get a lot of repetition.

Blondie perform a free concert in New York city, 2004. Picture: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

“We try to winnow that out,” says Stein, causing me to ditch half of my questions. “But some of the things the audience ask are very astute.”

“Yeah, you never know what they are going to come up with,” says Harry.

“In the States we had a guy who’d been babysat by Debbie. That was pretty great,” he says.

“He had the scars to prove it,” laughs Harry.

Unscripted, off on a tangent memories

Unscripted, In Conversation is what it says, and the pair admit they often go off on a tangent, “take a side trip down memory lane”. It’s a misleadingly cosy word to describe Harry’s journey from model to Playboy bunny to punk bands, rape, a run-in with a man who she believes was serial killer Ted Bundy, drugs, debt, international fame and adulation. It’s a lane that looped the globe when Blondie’s tide was high and populated by famous faces, from Miles Davis to David Bowie, to Patti Smith to Phil Spector.

“We’ve met so many people and visited so many places that it’s hard to remember everything off the top of your head,” says Harry. “When it was happening, it was all very fast paced, so it’s kind of delightful when you get that refreshed, ‘oh, right, I remember that’.

New York’s new wave

If Harry finds the In Conversation process a good aide memoire, Stein has always had the advantage of a visual memory, courtesy of the camera that seemed to be in his hand whenever his guitar wasn’t. With it he captured the heyday of Blondie and his New York hometown’s gritty new wave era, the bands and

personalities of the CBGB years when New York City was distinctly down at heel, resulting in his books.

“When Chris is putting his books together, I say ‘how do you remember all this?’ says Harry, “and he says ‘well, it’s a little different when you have a

photograph, to tickle your memory banks.’”

Together and apart, albums, films, photographs and books, from the Seventies to now

Blondie’s back catalogue is impressive, since 1976 totalling 11 studio albums, four live albums, 14 compilation albums, three remix albums and 38 singles, including UK number ones Atomic, Heart of Glass and Call Me. After a Blondie remix album Remixed, Remade, Remodeled came out in 1995, they reunited two years on, have released five albums and are working on the sixth and “done bits here and there”, including working on the HBO show The Deuce, which used Dreaming for the opening credits, and a version of Sidewalks of New York in the last episode.

Solo, Harry’s released five albums, performed with artists including Elvis Costello, played benefits, filmed movies, topped the charts with remixes and released her autobiography. Stein is also a producer and performer, notably with the soundtrack of the cult 1983 hip hop film, Wild Style, and writer of the soundtrack for Union City. A talented photographer he has released picture-heavy books, Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie (with Debbie Harry and Victor Bockris), Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk and Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene.

“Photobooks, with text, anecdotes and stuff,” says Stein. “I keep getting prompted to do an actual memoir, but it’s a lot of work.”

Especially with a new album in the making,

Blondie’s new album

The band are once again working with John Congleton, the award-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer and musician who produced their last record.

“We’re working on the songs and then we synthesise that, adjust it, rehearse, then go in the studio,” says Stein.

So, let’s try a bit of Q&A, In Conversation style.

What did they think of each other when they first met as members of The Stilettos in 1973?

“Yeah, that’s one of the questions that people often ask,” says Stein.

Sorry.

“No, people wanna know,” he says, while Harry gives her first impressions of him:

“Not very much.” She laughs. “But I felt very drawn to Chris and it was easy for us to get along. We shared a lot of similar ideas and points of view and it seemed an easy friendship.”

“I thought Debbie was amazing,” says Stein. “I see aspects of her now that are still the same,” he says.

In tune – humour, politics, forward facing

What they still share is the same sense of humour and the new wave sensibilities of anti-establishment politics, a thirst for anything new and a punky warts, plooks and all honesty about their own highs and lows.

“Nothing’s off limits,” says Stein. “All that stuff, it’s difficult, because so many lost so many people. We’re lucky because we made it.”

One way or another.

“And we’ve always been looking forward too, we’re curious and like to hear about new things. We’re not living in the past and that’s a real strong personality thing we share.”

Even in their 70s the pair are still future facing, performing with the rest of Blondie, always working on new material, even if Stein prefers to sit down on stage these days. “The last 20 shows I’ve done that. I’m getting older. I figure if BB King can do it, I can too.”

“We’re always scribbling down ideas,” says Harry, “and Chris is very active on his Twitter thing, and he and Barbara (Sicuranza, the actor, with whom he has two daughters aged 14 and 16) enjoy theatre and movies a lot.”

What was the last movie they saw?

The Irishman,” says Harry, and Stein? “Marriage Story. It was nicely done, and Adam Driver sings in it, so sincerely.”

“Yeah,” says Harry. “I thought, ‘God, I would hate that!’ but I love Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.”

What piece of music would sum up their relationship?

“I guess something from Chopin,” says Harry and gives a hearty laugh. “Anything that’s as confusing as possible.”

“I’d say something from Napalm Death,” shoots back Stein. “Or from Social Distortion.”

They both laugh.

“Yeah, we both like irony and the darker side of humour,” says Harry. “That’s something we have in common.”

As far as politics go, they also agree with each other that the Trump era is “insane” and Stein adds that he finds Boris Johnson “pretty funny” too.

“I hope the pendulum swings the other way a bit because things are getting out of hand here,” he says.“I thought everybody in the world had gotten past these right wing experimentations and all this crazy stuff, but apparently not. I mean, America’s racism is really deep, really entrenched in society. And sexism too.”

Stein doesn’t hold back on Twitter, taking aim at his targets with scathing humour and a grim gravitas. Do the pair think that people listen to them more now they’re older?

“Yeah, we have a little more credibility as elder statesmen,” he says.

Are there any other advantages in getting old?

“Take that back bitch!” says Harry. She’s joking and laughs while Stein says: “Having more experience is great. It’s a toss up.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Harry, unconvinced. “I guess you can take things more with a grain of salt and sometimes…”

At this point the line goes dead and when we’re reconnected, the connection to Connecticut is cut. No more Debbie. Call me. She doesn’t.

Solo Stein

So I’m now In Conversation with Chris Stein, solo, and he’s telling me about his long-standing love of hip hop, evident back in 1983’s Wild Style, the documentary about the nascent world of hip-hop, graffiti art and breakdancing in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s that he soundtracked.

“I really like the hip-hop dominance now and appreciate that this whole generation have literally found their voice, and it’s a time of very… SHUT UP!” he bellows, the mellifluous growl rising to a bark.

His two dogs and two cats have taken advantage of his being In Conversation to find their own voices and it sounds like it’s all kicking off chez Stein.

Reigning cats and dogs

“It’s the Havanese. He barks every time he hears a live call. The other’s a little shitzu,” he says. Voice returning to normal, he moves on to the cats: “One of them is Scottish,” he adds, pertinently, “Yeah, a Scottish Fold cat, with folded ears, you know. He’s slinky, long, squishy, you can see him a lot on Instagram.”

He’s named Loubiere for long, and Lou for Reed, “because we were neighbours for a while back there. Yeah, the cat visited”.

New York City views

Stein has always lived in New York, and were he to do a memoir, the city would be present on the pages, almost another member of the band.

“I’d write about the whole history of what the city was like in the old days, and just what the transition has been into the modern era. The landscape of the city is very different, the building never stops, it’s always going on. It’s strange how many things have changed dramatically, but many stayed the same.”

Despite the gritty backdrop, in the 1970s and 1980s America’s new wave movement was always more self-consciously better dressed and glamorous than the British punk scene, which gloried in its own gob, and Blondie and Stein knew how to throw together a look.

“Yeah, but I’m much less of a fashion person now. I have no idea,” says Stein. “Now I look more over my shoulder than in the mirror.”

When he’s looking over his shoulder at the past he reckons a lot of Blondie’s music still stands up.

Touched by the present

Call Me comes to mind, One Way or Another, that’s effective too, and a few hold up, sound modern. I don’t think Blondie sounds as dated as some other music from that time.

“We’ve always just tried to be positive, you know. And frequently people come up and say, you helped me get through some period in my life, so that’s always really gratifying that you can provide some positivity.”

With Harry absent, it turns out Stein in solo can more than hold his own. He’s curious about people, music, politics, and in coming to the UK, keen to find out about the contemporary scene.

So if he found himself stuck in a lift with a crowd of strangers in Scotland, what would his conversational ice-breaker be?

“Well, I’m really curious about the politics,” he says.

We like his style. Straight in. None of that blether about the weather.

Stein seeks answers – politics, Brexit and indyref

“Politics is like the new pop culture,” he says. “I don’t remember ever being as involved. I don’t even think I voted for a f***ing president here until Obama. I don’t think I was paying attention, or I was uninvolved like a lot of other people.

“But now I’m as curious as others, what’s going on. And because I move in these liberal circles, it can be kind of like a bubble, so I’d like to ask people about Brexit, and what will happen to the relationship with England. All that stuff. I like to hear what people think. I’m looking forward to coming to Scotland again. Debbie is too.”

Shame we lost her.

“Yeah, cut off, but she’s around somewhere,” he says.

Hanging on the telephone.

An Evening with Debbie Harry & Chris Stein – In Conversation, Wednesday 22 April, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; Friday 24, Birmingham Symphony Hall; Sunday 26, Manchester Bridgewater Hall; Tuesday 28, London Barbican Centre. Tickets www.blondie.net

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