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Out of the Shadow

Out of the Shadow

How Sean Lennon learned to carry that weight and create a life in music Sean Lennon lives in a red-brick house in Lower Manhattan that he has filled with his life in music. The living and dining rooms are a combined chaos of strange guitars, exotic percussion, old analog studio equipment and odd keyboards, such

How Sean Lennon learned to carry that weight and create a life in music

Sean Lennon lives in a red-brick house in Lower Manhattan that he has filled with his life in music. The living and dining rooms are a combined chaos of strange guitars, exotic percussion, old analog studio equipment and odd keyboards, such as a white Mellotron. Lennon, who plays most of those instruments, co-leads a band called the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl; they recorded much of their new album, the seductive and very psychedelic Midnight Sun, here. The couple also live on the floor above this disorder, and Lennon’s close friend Yuka Honda, of the group Cibo Matto, and her husband, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, occupy the top story. Downstairs, a kitchen serves as the office of Chimera Music, a label founded in 2008 by Lennon with Muhl and Honda to release their own music and that of colleagues and relations, such as Len- non’s mother, Yoko Ono. “That’s the way I work – with friends,” Lennon says in a bright, rapid voice, sipping coffee in the kitchen. A hallway nearby is lined with cartons filled with CDs and LPs, including Cibo Matto’s new album, Hotel Valentine, Chimera’s biggest-seller to date. “Even the best artists benefit from the proximity of others,” he adds. “That applies to Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. It also applies to Paul, George and my dad. We need to be around other people thinking in the same field. You do better work.”

That reference to “my dad,” the late John Lennon, is characteristic of Sean: warm, candid but intimately specific, alluding to a relationship more personal and treasured than any Beatles fan can imagine. During a tour of his music-gear playland, Sean – who was five when his father was killed, in 1980 – runs his fingers over an antique celeste keyboard, triggering a rapture of bell-like notes that sounds like something John might have played at a 1966 Revolver session. Gazing at a wall of guitars, Sean notes that when he was a kid, Ono did not let him play with John’s instruments. “I don’t blame her,” he says, grinning. “I was always breaking the ones I had.”

“He took a big risk becoming a musician,” says Ono. “I thought he should become an archaeologist or something, that he would find peace in that. But he jumped into music. He’s extremely strong, maybe stronger than John and me, because of the incredible pressure of being the son-of. He had to get out of that, to sustain himself. He could have died spiritually.” Ono, 81, breaks into a broad, maternal smile. “But he didn’t.”

Sean is now approaching middle age – he turns 39 on October 9th, also his father’s birthday – and has been a working musician for half his life. As a boy, after John’s death, he made cameo appearances on Ono’s LPs. At 20, Sean quit Columbia University, where he had a vague plan to pursue anthropology, after three semesters to tour as her guitarist. Since then, he has been a musical director for various editions of her Plastic Ono Band, working with new contributors such as Cline, Questlove of the Roots and drummer Greg Saunier of the indie-rock group Deerhoof.

At the same time, Sean has quietly built his own discography of eccentric range and determined craft, including two early solo LPs, his Ghost records with Muhl, film scores, session work, productions, and collaborations with Marianne Faithfull and the Flaming Lips. Cline describes Sean as a “dilettante” in a positive sense. “The word was not originally a pejorative,” Cline points out. “It means a well-rounded gentleman. That would be Sean: educated and very able, verging on visionary in many different areas.”

Muhl, 26, has a separate successful career as a model. She was also an aspiring songwriter when she met Lennon at the 2005 Coachella festival. “I didn’t know much about his lineage,” Muhl admits. Born at West Point, raised in Georgia, she comes from “a completely different world: Catholic, Republican, military. What I have observed about Sean’s way of rebelling, as all children do, is that he is more passive and cooperative. He loves serving the superorganism.”

It was Sean’s idea, once he heard Muhl’s songs and spectral-child voice, that they start a band together.

“It’s not like he doesn’t have the capability to do more,” Muhl says. Sean is “superintelligent but lacking in self-awareness.” She laughs fondly. “I guess the simpler term for that would be’‘dork’. ”

Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has known Sean since the mid-Nineties, when Sean was playing bass for Cibo Matto. (Sean and Honda were also a couple for a time.) “They came through Oklahoma City,” Coyne says, “and Yoko sent flowers to the gig. Sean picked them up: ‘You guys should take these. My mom is crazy. She sends these to me every day.’ Even then he seemed funny and normal.”

Coyne has seen the dynamic between Sean and Ono up close, in the studio and rehearsals. “There is some version of John and Yoko in Sean and Yoko,” Coyne suggests. “They don’t hide anything. They can be condescending and short with each other – and loving. And he is supportive of her most extreme qualities. He’s not pining away, thinking, ‘I wish I had made this thing on my own.’ It’s more like, ‘I love her, and I think I can help her.’ ”

“I’m in a perfect position to facilitate what she wants to do,” Sean says of his mother. “I know the work. She barely has to open her mouth, and I know the direction she wants to go.” Sean’s dedication to Ono’s work pays off in another way. “I’m able to share experiences and permanent memories that are not avail-able to every mother and child,” such as the all-star concert he curated in 2010 in which he reunited Ono with members of the 1969 Plastic Ono Band, including Eric Clapton. “If I didn’t have the music to make with her,” Sean says, “our relationship would only be ‘Should we go to dinner and see a film?’ ”

Sean was like “two sides of the coin” as a child, Ono says. He was “famous at summer camp for being a slob.” But in the studio with her during the Eighties, Sean was quietly curious and observant. Later, when they reignited the Plastic Ono Band, she was surprised by his knowledge of her most confrontation- al recordings, such as 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe. “John and I never exposed him to that – I don’t know how he got into it,” she says. “He’d say, ‘I miss that thing you did on that album. Can we do that?'”

Sean is, by his own admission, a “methodical” writer and player, almost to the point of mania: “It was the only choice I had. People say, ‘Why do you care so much about a flat-13th chord? Your dad didn’t need that. Why are you such a nerd?’ It’s because I have no right to play music, to be John Lennon’s son, and just wing it.”

Sean leaps through a blitz of topics in the course of two long interview sessions – investigative food blogs, Italian-language films, his father’s choice of microphones on Beatles recordings, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, one of Sean’s favourite novels. Sean is such a fan of one book he’s read recently – Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, by Deirdre Barrett – that he pulls a copy off a shelf and presents it as a gift.

He is brisk and frank about the price and blessings of his parents’ success. “I have been privileged,” he says, “to lead a life in which I can do things I am obsessive about.” But he also cites a post he saw on Facebook after he appeared in audience shots, wearing a long coat, scarf and fedora, during the CBS broadcast The Beatles: A Grammy Salute in February. “Somebody wrote, ‘You should stop dressing in this way that says, “I’m cool and interesting and better than you because my dad is John Lennon.”‘ That was a very complex way of reading my hat.”

Sean pauses and stumbles only once: when asked what John might have thought of his choice of career and progress so far. “Judging by the way he dug what my mom did,” Sean says finally, “I think he would have been empathetic. The difference is I may have hesitated to do it, just having his presence there.

“People don’t realise,” Sean goes on. “It’s because I don’t have my dad. That’s why I play. I’ve been trying to fill a hole.

It is the last night of this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, and the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger are the opening band at an upstairs bar, playing for a small but engaged crowd. Sean and Muhl have expanded their project, originally an acoustic duo, into a robust, electric quintet – “Like Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy,” as she puts it – and the set, mostly drawn from Midnight Sun, is a short but rich thunder of lysergic-rock textures and dream-pop lyricism.

After the set, to make room for the next act, the group packs up. That includes Sean, who goes up and down the back staircase, lugging guitars and amps. “He’s always been a hard worker,” Muhl says later back in New York. “People think he’s a lot richer than he is. He’s invested his money in that house. And the label – there hasn’t been rampant credit-card waving. It’s more sweat. That’s what he wanted.”

Coyne recalls Sean and Charlotte’s low-key arrival in New York last year when they opened for the Flaming Lips: “They had driven from Boston, and they were tired. They came in, laid on the floor and went to sleep for 20 minutes.” He adds, “You didn’t get the sense of any ‘Hey, I’m famous!’ I’ve never seen that.”

Sean is not the only Beatle child in the family business. His half brother, Julian, was an overnight pop star in the Eighties. Dhani Harrison, George’s son, is a guitarist. And McCartney’s musician son James played guitar on Sean’s 2012 film soundtrack Alter Egos.

“We’re friends and similar people,” Sean says. “People’s perceptions of the Beatles’ families are completely wrong. We don’t care what our parents fought about.”

Sean looks back at his 1998 debut, Into the Sun, with a smile and a shiver. The Nineties were “my Sixties,” he says. In 1996, Sean played with his mother at the first Tibetan Freedom Concert, on a bill with Sonic Youth, Beck and the Beastie Boys. The Beasties subsequently released Sean’s record on their Grand Royal label. Sean can also quote “the first snide review” of that album, “a real splash of cold water” from NME. “I had to accept that, for a certain area of the population, I am simply a trigger for this memory of my dad.”

He came out intact. “Everybody I grew up with went into AA – I never did. I’m one of those people who likes to drink and have fun.” He doesn’t smoke cigarettes or weed anymore; the latter “started making me dumb.” As for harder drugs: “I partied a lot in my life. But I never had to go too far with that shit.” Sean is still working on repairing the domestic warmth and security shattered by his father’s death. Muhl says Sean has shown “signs of baby fever.” She laughs. “He had an amazing family life while it lasted. Then it was ripped away.” She believes Chimera is Sean’s way of “trying to create that feeling of family again.”

Ono agrees: “He misses having a family. I know that. After John’s passing, I was not his family so much, more like someone he saw was always there. I had my hands full.” She recalls her impression when Sean said he was forming a label – in an era when it’s unclear if anyone still wants to buy records: “I thought that was very Lennon.” “We’re a small company,” Sean says. “We sell everything out of my basement. I had the privilege to start it because I have a trust fund, like Kyoko [Ono’s daughter by an earlier marriage] and Julian.” But Chimera “will shut down if I don’t balance the books.”

Sean and Muhl use their own incomes – his from film scores and commercials, including a Honda ad; hers from photo shoots and a Maybelline contract – to fund releases like a recent triple LP of improvisations by Ono, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. “What else am I going to do? Be a lawyer or a stockbroker?” It is the first time Sean’s voice rises in frustration. “I’m from a family of artists. And I have faith that my body of work will speak for itself. “Eventually it will all make sense,” he says. “I just have blind faith about that.”


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