International Clash Day: Interview with Jon Wurster

International Clash Day, Interviews
02/07/2018
Owen Murphy
photo by Dave Lichterman
photo by Dave Lichterman

   

Superchunk, Bob Mould's band, The Mountain Goats, The New Pornographers -- when the music world needs a drummer, it's usually Jon Wurster who first comes to mind. His musical skills are on par with his music history knowledge (as he mentions below, he's read most music biographies out there), which is why KEXP was excited to speak with him about his first favorite band, The Clash.

Superchunk is releasing their first new album in four years, titled What a Time to Be Alive, on February 16th via Merge Records, and are playing Neumos on Tuesday, February 27th. 


INTERVIEW BY OWEN MURPHY
TRANSCRIPTION BY EMILY HARROP

KEXP: Why is the Clash one of your favorite all-time topics?

Jon Wurster: The Clash was kind of my first favorite band that was like, not a cartoon band. I'm a kid from the '70s. I was born in '66, so I was really into KISS into the mid-70s. Then I got into Aerosmith, the bands that your older brother will kind of push you towards or your older friends, but The Clash was a band that I found on my own. So they just became... an obsession for me when I was around 13, 14, 15 or so and they're still are one of my absolute favorite bands.

Do you remember...how we come across music and how we learn about artists is different now than it was when you and -- I'm 50 -- when you and I were younger. So you held an album in your hands and that was everything you had to learn about the band. Do you remember which album for The Clash was the first one, what captivated you about the album both visually and sonically?

The first song I heard by The Clash was "Train in Vain", that unlisted final song on London Calling and I must have heard it on the radio, it was probably one of the only Clash songs they would play one of the local rock stations. I grew up outside of Philadelphia. London Calling came out in the UK in December of '79 but it didn't come out in America until January of '80 so I feel like I heard it on the radio before it came out, so probably late '79. I would go to the mall every couple weeks with my Dad and there were two record stores in the mall. I wanted to get London Calling but that record had a parental advisory sticker on it when it came out. There's some profanity especially in this song called, "Death or Glory". So I couldn't buy it, I couldn't show up with this album that had a sticker on it. So about a month later, my parents and I and my brother went to see West Side Story up in New York City on Broadway. We are killing time before the show and there was a sheet music/record store that we went into and I found the copy of London Calling that didn't have the sticker on it, so I bought it. So for the rest of that day, I was obsessively going over every centimeter of that cover -- and there are all these wonderful penny-smith photos on the inner-sleeve -- so for the rest of the day, and the train ride back to Philly and then, the ride back to our house, I was just pouring over this package. And got home. Played it from the beginning and this song did not appear on it until the very end and I found it and I was like "oh my god, this is the song I was looking for" and then, I realized the entire album is incredible and to this day it's my favorite album.

Jon Wurster, age 14

 

I was just speaking to Moby yesterday about this exact same subject. In his opinion -- and I think I agree -- there is not one misstep on the record. It's almost... a perfect record. Agree? Disagree?

Yeah, there were always a few songs that I would skip every now and then, but would always come back to like "Lover's Rock". I was listening to it today and it's great. And "Wrong 'Em Boyo". But they're all really good, so I agree, there's not really a stinker on that record.

The band's been defunct for a long time, obviously. Joe Strummer passed away. Musically, from your perspective, what are the lessons The Clash left? I'm saying "musically" on purpose for other musicians to learn from.

One that always comes up for me if I'm ever annoyed with someone I'm playing with -- which does not happen a lot, I'm super lucky in that regard -- but there's a great quote of Joe Strummer's that's in that DVD they put out probably about ten years ago, maybe longer ago... kind-of an overview of the band and they all sit for it. They're all interviewed for it, and they're talking, he's talking about how Mick Jones was kind of a prima donna at times. There are these famous instances where he wouldn't agree to get on the tour bus until someone brought him a splif. So everything got held up because of him, and in retrospect, Joe says, "you know, sometimes genius is worth waiting for." I try to think about that a lot, if someone is bugging you or you feel like someone's dragging their heels a little bit and you think, well you know, it's worth waiting for ultimately, usually.

That's a beautiful notion, usually. And sometimes it's worth not waiting for.

Right, right!

Is there a Clash song that you think is so perfect that it would be impossible to cover?

Gosh, I feel like a lot of them have been covered. There's one that's really... incredible musically, performance-wise and emotionally. It's that song "Straight to Hell" on Combat Rock, and that's such a great song. I can't imagine anyone ever really coming close to doing justice to that song, and it's a pretty simple song in terms of the instrumentation. I think the story goes that Joe is playing a milk bottle wrapped in a towel against the bass drum, and there's all kind of percussive things happening. The full picture of that song and the full package is so powerful, the way it all comes together. I don't think anyone could really top their version of that.

That's the great thing about The Clash. You were also talking about whatever kind-of "life lessons" from them. I don't think they realized it until after the fact, but the four of them were such a perfect thing. When anyone left, it was never the same. I saw them on the Combat Rock tour and they were good, but it wasn't great. I was still a huge fan at that point. Terry Chimes, who was the drummer on that tour, is great, but it wasn't the same band and you can hear it. There was that live album, From Here to Eternity, and you can really tell who's playing the drums on which songs. Then, when Mick left and they got the five man line-up, it was nothing like it was. So, never eff with the original formula.

With Superchunk in the KEXP Music Lounge, Bumbershoot 2013 // photo by Morgen Schuler

 

Well, and obviously you're an extraordinarily talented drummer who has the amazing ability -- talent, as it were -- to step into different situations and bring this music to life. And I imagine you know what it's like to step into someone else's shoes. You've played a number of Hüsker Dü songs and filled in for Grant Hart, who was playing with both feet, and in his words (I interviewed him this last summer before he past away), and we talked about him here when you were here with The Mountain Goats. He was playing like an octopus, he was trying to do a Sun Ra thing, for God's sake! So you know what it's like to step into someone else's music, and that leads me to, and I always mispronounce his name, so if I'm saying the last name improperly, forgive me, but Topper Headen? Headon?

I've heard both!

I don't know, I think he's amazing. What made him great from your perspective?

I think what made Topper Headon great was the fact that he had a really -- from what I know about him -- he had a really rich background before he got in The Clash. He was really well-versed at a lot of different styles. He could play reggae, he could play soul, he was really good at playing ska, all that stuff, so I think that made him especially great. And his great quote was always, "I figured I'd play in the band for a year and make my name and then go on to something bigger." But, what was great about that was he was already awesome and they all grew better and better, pretty fast. I mean, they weren't around that long as a four-piece, but they all really grew, and they kind of, I feel like they kind of grew into him. You know what I mean? They got especially great at their instruments and the song writing and it matched where he was, so it all kind of blossomed at the same time. And I think he is, along with Pete Thomas from The Attractions, I think those were the two best drummers of that scene. And I think there's that great Sandy Pearlman story, he produced Give 'Em Enough Rope, and he just said that he never made a mistake. He was that good.

In regards to our current political climate, Henry Rollins had an amazing quote that I'd like to read to you and then get your reaction. He said, "This is not the time to be dismayed, this is punk rock time, this is what Joe Strummer trained you for." I guess as you're hearing that, what are you thoughts in reference to The Clash and Joe Strummer?

You know, it's interesting. I read everything I can, pretty much about everybody, so his story is kind of interesting in that he was a son of a diplomat. So he never really -- I'm not gonna say he came from money, but he was apparently never really hurting for it. But he really, you know, put his money where his mouth was politically, you know, he lived in a squat and he really fought for the downtrodden and the common man. And some people say that he was politically naive, I heard that several times over the years, but who knows. I think he was a good guy, I think he had his heart in the right place, for sure, and his politics.

Yeah, I think so as well. Did you ever have any interactions with the band?

Never! It's funny, I saw Joe Strummer play solo on the Earthquake Weather tour in 1989 and, oddly enough, it was at the Palladium in New York City where the cover photo of London Calling was taken, and to this day, it's one of the best, probably top 5 live shows I've ever seen. It was better than The Clash. And I'm not even sure why exactly. It was just really great and he played a weird set of songs. He did Clash songs, but they were only songs that The Clash covered. So it was no originals. It was like "Brand New Cadillac," "I Fought the Law," probably "Junco Partner," things like that. And his band was awesome! It was Jack Irons, who was in Pearl Jam at one point and Chili Peppers, and Zander Schloss, Circle Jerks, on guitar, and this guy named Lonnie Marshall who was on bass. And he was the only person I've ever seen play one of those Steinberger bass guitars that have no headstock on them and look great doing it!

Only a couple of dorky musicians could laugh at that! Everyone else is like, "What are you talking about?!" Okay, last question: what is the legacy of The Clash?

I think they will be remembered as probably the best band that was able to -- well, as I said earlier, I feel like The Clash was the complete package. They were musically outstanding, lyrically as good as it gets, they looked better than anybody. You had Paul Simonon who one of the most attractive humans to ever put on an instrument. And, you know, they were one of the few bands that was political lyrically, and actually had hit records.


KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day long, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.

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