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Mick Jones was the lead guitarist and arranger for the Clash, a band that released seven-plus hours of music between 1977 and 1982. That block of sound was a jolting explosion of rock form, the lyrics a window into what people around the world now call "the street." The idea set in motion by the Clash was that streets and music could and should shape each other. (No wonder HBO's left-wing urbanist drama The Wire quotes the band's "Stay Free.")
Since the death of Clash singer Joe Strummer four years ago, Jones has appeared to recede. He sounds a little like a ghost amused to still be around. "When you get to the museum level, you're usually dead, aren't you?" he quipped to Billboard.com recently, on the opening of a Clash exhibit at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (it runs through April 15, 2007). Jones has nearly died twice—falling unconscious for weeks in 1988, and riding the ceiling of a car in a 1992 accident. But his profile began disappearing into the Clash's long before, his identity on guitar so liquid—from the backward solo on "London Calling" to the skyscraping bomber lead of "Straight to Hell"—that you remember songs rather than heroics. His post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite, a narcotic pastiche of beatbox reggae and samples, has been ill-served by best-of collections, maybe because some of the band's worst songs were hits ("The Globe") and some of its best were not. Several new lineups and an unreleased album later, Jones posted a final B.A.D. song, "The Sound of the Joe," on the group's website in memory of Strummer, and let the site disappear shortly thereafter.
These days, Jones lives in West London with his partner and two young daughters. Last month he released his second free online album in 2006, Western Front, by Carbon/Silicon, a rock band with guitarist and laptop musician Tony James (Generation X, Sigue Sigue Sputnik), with whom Jones once played in the punk group London SS. Now "The Gangs of England" tells an mp3-burning, DVD-making fan base, "You are my photo session/You are my interview/You are my A&R man who hasn't got a clue."
"We're looking at different ways of presenting music in the future," says Jones, speaking over the phone during a recent interview promoting, ironically, the latest Epic/Legacy repackaging of Clash product—a largely redundant box set of the band's complete singles due to be released on November 14. Jones would be the first to admit that royalties allow him the unorthodox strategy of not charging money for Carbon/Silicon's music, enabling fans to assemble unique albums out of tracks and graphics pulled off the group's website, www.carbonsiliconinc.com. (The singer's reed of a voice is as affecting as ever on the plaintive "Why Do Men Fight" and "Really the Blues," so start there.)
Yet the band, which has played more than 50 gigs, remains invisible in the media, local color next to Kate Moss's drug intake during the recording of the Babyshambles album, which Jones produced. "I thought it was going to be the last record I ever made," he says, laughing. "I don't completely think that anymore."
The rest of our brief Q&A follows. In the spirit of Carbon/Silicon, log onto a computer and visit complicatedfun.com for more.
City Pages: What is rock 'n' roll to you?
Mick Jones: It kind of officially started in about '55, but I would say it means a lot more than just a type of music.
CP: Is it a feeling?
Jones: More than a feeling. [Laughs]
CP: I'm so sorry I made you say those words. Are you more rock 'n' roll these days?
Jones: I doubt it. I've got to be honest. But I'm better at what I do now, in terms of my music and stuff. I'm still learning.
CP: After Joe died, you said you thought you were done. What did you mean?
Jones: When anybody dies, they take what they know with them, although Joe left us a lot.
CP: What were some of the things he took with him?
Jones: He always knew what to do in a problem, in a situation. It might not be the right thing to do, but something happened. That was always a help, just on a personal level. We became close and strong friends again after [the Clash] split up, which I think is quite different from most groups. I always felt it was a family.
CP: What was it like hearing "Magnificent Dance" on New York dance radio in 1980?
Jones: They played samples over that song. It had, like, Clint Eastwood and Daffy Duck. "Do you feel lucky, punk?" The impression that I got was they didn't know we were a punk group until it was too late.
CP: Did James Brown ever hear the Big Audio Dynamite song "James Brown?"
Jones: I don't know. But one thing we did, by this time in B.A.D. we started to get permissions for samples, and that thing we had in that song [the sample of "America" from West Side Story], that represents 50 percent of the writing credits. Can you believe that? That was stupid. Now I couldn't even be bothered with all that stuff.