How Iggy Pop Recaptured Berlin Glory Days
Singer talks Bowie-inspired collaboration with Josh Homme that led to new final LP
It comes halfway through Iggy Pop‘s show at SXSW in Austin — during “Funtime,” his invitation to ecstasy on the 1977 album The Idiot. Stripped to the waist, showing off a chestnut-tan chest, the singer leaps headfirst from the stage of the Moody Theater, flipping onto his back in a crucifixion pose as he lands on a sea of hands. It is three gigs into his new tour — promoting what he claims is his last album, the dark, compelling Post Pop Depression — and Pop, who turns 69 on April 21st, has taken his first stage dive.
“I needed to connect, and I’ll do whatever it takes,” he declares in a slow-rolling baritone in his dressing room after a searing two-hour set featuring that record and more than a dozen songs from The Idiot and late 1977’s Lust for Life, the fabled LPs Pop made in Berlin with his late friend David Bowie. The previous evening, Pop and his latest combo, led by Post Pop producer and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme, taped an episode here of the TV show Austin City Limits. There was no stage dive. “Everybody was happy — it was like a sock hop,” Pop cracks with a chuckle.
But tonight, “I thought, ‘Let’s get it out of the penthouse,'” he says, referring to the SXSW crowd’s initial reserve. “I know it was hard for them,” he suggests, flashing a gently mocking grin. “They were at a conference. They had a meeting all day.” They were also getting “a full dose — whether they wanted it or not.”
Pop is at a new peak in his half-century ride through garage-rock extremes, legendary self-destruction in the Seventies and Eighties, hard-won sobriety and serial collaboration with admirers like Bowie, Green Day and now Homme. “I work better with other people,” Pop admits. “You’re out of your comfort zone. You say, ‘OK, you threw down. I’ll throw down.'”
Pop had finished a decade of reunion shows with the Stooges when he first exchanged text messages with Homme about writing songs together. “I did a full job with that,” Pop says of the Stooges, who effectively ended when drummer Scott Asheton died in 2014. “I would never play ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ again, at a proper gig, without Ron” — Scott’s older brother, guitarist Ron Asheton, who died in 2009. “Those are his riffs, his sensibility.” There are no Stooges songs in Pop’s current set list.
Instead, he has turned his focus to the creative bond with Bowie that produced The Idiot and Lust for Life. Pop recorded Post Pop Depression with Homme, Dead Weather and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita, and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders, cutting the LP in just four weeks in January and March 2015.
At one point, Pop sent Homme what he calls “a detailed blow-by-blow” on the making of those Berlin albums, including the tales behind songs like “Dum Dum Boys,” which was just Pop’s chord change and a piano line until Bowie suggested the title, in homage to the then-defunct Stooges, and told Pop to write a story to go with it.
“That gave Josh a hint,” Pop says brightly. One new song, “Sunday,” was “very me, something leftist-intellectual about the isolation of the new economy” until Homme chimed in. “Josh said, ‘We’re writing about Iggy Pop, the working man’s musician. When he gets to Sunday, he’s black, blue and tired.’ He’d say something I could gnaw on,” Pop says of Homme. “Then I had to figure out how to make it fit me.”
They did the same thing with the live show, which features the band on the album plus bassist Matt Sweeney and Queens of the Stone Age keyboard player Troy Van Leeuwen. At the Moody, Pop made an explosive entrance — a whirlwind of barefoot karate kicks and Tarzan-style chest punches — to the high gallop of “Lust for Life.” Then he connected the bleak tensions of “American Valhalla” and “Paraguay,” on Post Pop Depression, to Berlin-era classics such as “Sister Midnight,” “The Passenger” and “China Girl,” written by Pop with Bowie and covered by the latter on a Top 10 single.
“They were all songs we wanted to play,” says Fertita. “Iggy asked Josh for a list of songs that he wanted to play. Then Iggy came back with his own list.” The result, which includes rarely performed gems like the sensually lethal “Baby,” from The Idiot, “fell together naturally.”
Bowie is very much on Pop’s mind as he performs the Berlin material. When Bowie died on January 10th, Pop was preparing for tour rehearsals at home in Miami. He claims that the best thing in the Idiot version of “China Girl” is “when I shut up. There is a beautiful guitar line that David wrote. I knew it was good when we did it, but I was not able to appreciate it emotionally the way I do now. Every time I hear it, I feel all these things that have to do with coming and going. Because we all come, and we all go.”
The singer confirms that during the Post Pop Depression sessions he told Homme, “Dude, I reckon this will be it.” The tour runs through mid-May, and Pop has promised Homme “a rebate in the fall.” There have been some concessions to age and general wear and tear. “I’m a guy who doesn’t see well but thinks he sees well,” cracks Pop, who suffers from astigmatism and uses reading glasses off stage. “I need a strong prescription. If I put ’em on too close to a gig, I’m like …” He mimes stumbling around like a blind man. In Austin, Pop actually sang one number, The Idiot‘s “Nightclubbing,” while sitting on a stool, like a shirtless Sinatra. “I do less and less,” Pop says of his signature tribal dancing. “The main thing I’m concerned with is the vocal. The songs are good. Sing the damn song.”
When pressed about the future, Pop jokes about doing a children’s album, making pottery and playing “festivals in wine regions.” Then he gets serious: “It might be a good idea to just see if I can survive Josh, because he’s a big guy with a lot of energy. I’m pushing it to keep up with these fellas. I thought at first, ‘I’m going to every soundcheck!’ Otherwise I’ll be called the douche of the group, right? But then” — Pop affects a moaning voice — “I’m like, ‘I can’t make soundcheck.'” He smiles gratefully. “They’re really nice about it.”