Iggy Pop: “I was out to kill bears right from the beginning…”

Cover Feature Iggy Pop: “I was out to kill bears right from the beginning…”

For 50 years, Iggy Pop has been the man your mother warned you about. And though, these days, he’s more into exercise than ecstasy, the 72-year-old is still defying expectation with every turn.

Catching a glimpse of Iggy Pop is like spotting a unicorn. A lithe old pensioner with the on-stage wiggle of a baby orangutan, skin the colour and consistency of tanned leather, and two perfectly-shiny sheets of blonde hair maintained with the well-groomed care of a beloved My Little Pony, he’s a magical creature that makes you look twice. His legend is just as mythical, too. There’s the infamous shot of the star, held aloft by a Cincinnati crowd in the early ‘70s, smearing peanut butter on himself. The numerous gigs where the then-Stooge would slice his chest open mid-show, bleeding and contorting around the stage covered in red. Whether the story DIY once heard of how the singer, high as a kite, got squashed by a fridge and just… stayed there for a bit is true, who can say, but the bizarre rumours are proof of his status as music’s original wild child just as much as the concrete reality. What we will say for sure is this: Iggy Pop is literally credited as the man who invented crowd-surfing.

Now aged 72 and residing happily with his third wife in Miami, Iggy lives a less self-destructive life these days. When he phones us from New York, it’s 9am; he’s already been up for two hours, rising at a regular 7am, as he does every morning. “I need routine now because I’m an older git,” he chuckles, unleashing the endearing, infectious laugh that’s become his interview trademark - one more worthy of a naughty schoolboy than a wizened old rocker. He has a double shot of ristretto, practices “at least 15 minutes” of Qi Gong - the Chinese exercise ritual that’s been keeping him in shape for the last decade - and, “if it’s a good day, I’ll just stare into space or jump into the ocean, put a bit of food in me and I’m good to go.” Ready for another 24 hours as punk’s last great icon.

It’s the kind of healthy, hearty routine that brings to mind some of music’s other, more softened elder statesmen: Mick Jagger and his love of yoga. The infamously tantric exercise habits of Sting. But, though his lifestyle might have become more wholesome, in all other areas Iggy is not, to paraphrase the Dylan Thomas poem that informs the penultimate track of his new album ‘Free’, going gentle into that good night. Still enthralling the festival circuit with a set more joyous and pure-spirited than most on any given bill, hosting a regular BBC Radio 6 Music show championing everyone from Amyl and the Sniffers to Stef Chura, and surprising people creatively with every move (on the cusp of 70 he posed naked for a life drawing class hosted by artist Jeremy Deller), he remains intrinsically infused with the wildcard spirit that’s been his calling card since day one. “There’s a great pleasure and passion that I’m privileged to experience in doing this sort of work,” he growls in that famously warm baritone. “But even back in 1974, it was still damn interesting to be me…”

Maybe it’s because we know there’s a happy ending for the singer. Despite the drug problems, Iggy didn’t die; he may have been a tearaway, but really, he’s a pretty fucking lovable guy. But, for one reason or another, the man christened James Osterberg Jr way back when in 1947 still feels like the last untainted bastion of a certain kind of punk emblem. Others since have not fared so favourably. “I think people are periodically ready for something like that. If somebody came out and did the sort of things I was doing…” he pauses. “Initially, I didn’t look too messed up. When you’re a young kid and you’re just starting to degenerate, you have a couple of years where you look really cute while you’re doing it, a la Pete Doherty. It takes a while for your skin to go bad, and for everybody to be down on you.

“Every so often, for example when The Libertines came out, Pete was a damn good artist and cute as a bug, so he had the initial great interest which was justified because there were so many [artists] just playing along with the system. I think it would have been something like that [for us] for a little while, and then some sort of major problems because we were vulnerable rustics.”

Iggy Pop: “I was out to kill bears right from the beginning…”

“If I don’t fucking like you, then fuck you!”

Back in 1974, Iggy Pop was not at his best. The Stooges, the band he’d formed as a 21 year old, had imploded in a whirlwind of heroin addiction and interpersonal bust ups. Though their first three albums - a 1969 self-titled debut, the following year’s ‘Fun House’ and seminal ‘73 offering ‘Raw Power’ - would go on to be hugely influential, at that point, as Iggy notes in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 documentary ‘Gimme Danger’, the greater public thought he was “trash”.

It’s hard, almost half a century on, to imagine the controversy and polarisation that the now-beloved figure initially provoked. “A lot of people wanted us to fail,” he says of that period. “But you know, look: there are people that like me, and people that don’t. People that liked The Stooges, and people that didn’t. And people that I like and people I don’t fucking like!” he exclaims. “And if I don’t fucking like you, then fuck you! So I’ll hear some dweeb in an art rock band say, ‘Durrrr, well nobody really liked The Stooges in Detroit’, and it’s like well, nobody wants to hang out with you, nerd!”

Now, in an age of social media backlash and cancel culture, a band with antics like The Stooges would surely be ripe fodder for the righteous comment sections were they to have emerged in this decade (you need only look at the fervour around the druggy, depraved beginnings of the Fat White Family for proof). It says a lot about Iggy and his cohorts, then, that he feels they had an even rougher ride. “I think… I was very cute, and good on stage, and the band was solid and the lyrics were what you might call cheeky. So I think there would have been an immediate flush of exposure and interest on what I would call a medium alt level,” he posits, at the question of how the ‘70s version of the band would fare now. “And then after that, if it was the true Stooges, there would be major problems, disintegration, death, drugs, all that… But the media of today would eat us more willingly than the media of yesteryear. They didn’t want to eat us at all.”

Despite the media apprehension and poor sales that plagued the band’s career (no Stooges album has ever broached the Top 40, on either side of the Atlantic), over the following decades there’s been a sizeable enough shift in the public consciousness to mean the band will be remembered in music’s history books as pioneers, and the true embodiment of wild-eyed, edge-of-your-seat visceral spirit. In 2010, following their 2007 reunion and by way of fully cementing the seachange, the group were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Maybe it’s because we know there’s a happy ending for the singer. Despite the drug problems, Iggy didn’t die; he may have been a tearaway, but really, he’s a pretty fucking lovable guy. But, for one reason or another, the man christened James Osterberg Jr way back when in 1947 still feels like the last untainted bastion of a certain kind of punk emblem. Others since have not fared so favourably. “I think people are periodically ready for something like that. If somebody came out and did the sort of things I was doing…” he pauses. “Initially, I didn’t look too messed up. When you’re a young kid and you’re just starting to degenerate, you have a couple of years where you look really cute while you’re doing it, a la Pete Doherty. It takes a while for your skin to go bad, and for everybody to be down on you.

“Every so often, for example when The Libertines came out, Pete was a damn good artist and cute as a bug, so he had the initial great interest which was justified because there were so many [artists] just playing along with the system. I think it would have been something like that [for us] for a little while, and then some sort of major problems because we were vulnerable rustics.”

“I wasn’t, like most musicians are, obsessed with getting more publishing [money] by writing more drivel.”

It’s some variation on this notion of, if not the “vulnerable rustic,” then the outlaw renegade that still informs the public image of Iggy Pop. Despite the fact that the singer spent a notable period in the mid-’70s experimenting with David Bowie in Berlin; despite the fact that, since then, he’s worked with everyone from Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to Bosnian film score writer Goran Bregovic to Danger Mouse; despite the fact that he’s acted on the big and small screen, voiced a character in an Alice in Wonderland adaptation and previously become the face of a now-infamous car insurance commercial for Swiftcover (“If somebody asked you to do a commercial and offered you a leg up in your life, you might do one yourself. It’s just one kind of work I do…”), say his name and the image you’ll get will inevitably be of a man, naked to the waist, spitting out punk classics. Even after a lifetime of surprises, Iggy still has the capacity to raise eyebrows every time he steps away from the caricature.

“It’s just the way in life. As you step onto the ‘capital S’ Stage of Life and who you are emanates from you, the more the part becomes [a] stock [image],” he shrugs. “I’ll do something and there’ll be a complex piece written about it in one format and then later this morning I’ll be on network TV where [the interview will] be done at a jazz club!” he mocks, adopting an eye-rolling tone, “because, you see, the rock guy is doing jazz now!”

As if to hammer the point home, a few hours before we speak to him a pre-recorded interview is aired on UK breakfast TV. On it, Iggy spends his segment fielding questions about how often he wears a T-shirt and whether he’d stage dive off a bed.

The jazz caveat, however, at least comes from a slightly more current touchstone in the form of ‘Free’’s collaborators - New York musician Noveller and trumpet player Leron Thomas. Much of the record was written by the two, with Iggy coming in to lend his vocals to the work they’d offer him. But even that, he states, isn’t such a curveball. “I’ve always fronted for other people when I write the lyrics anyway. The stuff I wrote for The Stooges, essentially half of it was taking in the incredible personalities of the other people in the band who couldn’t articulate things for themselves, and I would articulate that for them.

“‘Another year with nothing to do’ [from debut album track ‘1969’] - that wasn’t my attitude. I was out to kill bears right from the beginning…”

These days, however, he’s less about killing and more about nurturing. Across the conversation, the legend is at his most animated (and he’s not a passive man) when he’s talking about the music that currently excites him. Whether he’s extolling the virtues of a particularly rowdy Sleaford Mods gig he recently attended (“It was like the second coming of Elvis”) or switching us on to Canadian punks The Booji Boys, he’s obviously not just on the radio because he has a rumbling speaking voice better than 99.9% of the planet.

Iggy Pop: “I was out to kill bears right from the beginning…”

“It was always clear that this was what I was going to do. It wasn’t conditional.”

The same goes for his new project. Following 2016’s ‘Post Pop Depression’, a collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme that became the most successful record of the singer’s career, it would have made cynical business sense to follow with something in a similar, heavy-hitting vein. Instead, he went the other way.

“These are good people; they should have the opportunity to make music. If I see their credits, I get really happy,” he enthuses of his current writing partners. “I started trading licks with Leron, and he had some pieces that I thought had really interesting, good, funny, warm, soulful lyrics. The lyrics were already done and I wasn’t, like most musicians are, obsessed with getting more publishing [money] by writing more drivel, so if it’s done it’s done! It wasn’t important to me who wrote them.”

It might not be a sentiment that vomits on stage or rips itself open with broken glass, but it’s an anti-establishment, anti-capitalist way of thinking that remains pretty fucking punk nonetheless. As the need for that aforementioned commercial probably hammers home, Iggy has never made his millions. Indeed, he’s recently wrapped up another “weird” ad for a coffee company, he tells us, that casts him as a patient on the therapist’s couch. And yet his attitude remains steadfast: he’d rather suck it up and do the odd TV gig to pay the bills as long as he can keep every shred of integrity where it matters.

It’s fabled that the Ramones met because they were the only four kids at school who liked The Stooges, but in the decades since then, every punk band that can lay true claim to the title almost without exception owes a debt to Iggy. “That’s a nice thing, if somebody that’s a little different woke up one day and thought, well Iggy Pop is getting away with this so maybe I could do something?” he smiles. “That’s how it is I think. It’s not that I’m necessarily going to be an artistic mentor to their art, but it’s more the idea that maybe somebody can be a little more outside the game and still do something.”

As has often been noted in the past few years, following first the death of Lou Reed in 2013, and then David Bowie in 2016, of that holy trio of musical friends and pioneers, Iggy is the last man standing. The outpouring of love and tribute that greeted both occasions was huge; when David Bowie passed, it felt like the world stood still for a short time. Watching his peers, the other musicians who paved important routes, provoke so much public emotion must have had an impact, we suggest. It must make you think about your own legacy.

Iggy Pop: “I was out to kill bears right from the beginning…”

“I probably can’t retire. I think it sounds really good, but I probably can’t.”

For the first time in the conversation, his voice - the throaty rip that’s spent all these years wanting to search and destroy - sounds gentle, almost small. “That’s just creeping up on me now,” he replies softly. “Even three weeks ago, I would have said, ‘Ah, maybe I’d like three people I know privately to remember me in a nice way’ - because you do want that in your life. A life lived completely publicly is a nightmare, because then the only people you know privately are the people who are the tools of your public life and it gets really fucked up and you end up in a bathtub somewhere. But in my case, all of a sudden I’m noticing something where it seems like I did something OK. So that’s pretty good, I reckon…

“I would never have guessed what the trajectory would be, but I’ve been asked that sort of thing before and it always makes me think very simply of a day when I was 19 and I’d decided to drop out of university and I was gonna be a musician,” he continues. “My Dad, who was a wonderful man, was really upset for me, and we were in the trailer [where the family lived throughout his childhood] and he said, ‘Jim, if you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to knock me out of this door’. My Dad could beat the shit out of me so I thought God, this is gonna be bad, but I made the move to the door, and he stepped aside. But once I’d walked through that door that day, it was a lifetime thing - whether I ended up in a bar band [or here]. The length of the life didn’t matter, it was always clear that this was what I was going to do. It wasn’t conditional. So then once things are not conditional, then the rest of it… it doesn’t really matter, and that’s how I feel. I’m in it for the full haul.”

Would there ever be a time when Iggy Pop would retire? Live out his twilight years as simply James again? “I probably can’t,” he chuckles. “I think it sounds really good, but I probably can’t.”

And it makes sense. Just as how, since that day 53 years ago, the musician’s fate has almost been out of his hands, there’s an understanding that the tail end of his tenure could only ever be the same. He might not have been christened that way, but Iggy Pop was born not made. The man with the insatiable lust for life until the end.

‘Free’ is out now via Caroline International / Loma Vista.

As featured in the October 2019 issue of DIY, out now at stockists across the UK. Alternatively, read below, get a copy sent to your door, or subscribe for a full year.

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