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THE GHOST OF A SABER TOOTH TIGER
INTERVIEWED BY WAYNE COYNE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAKE CHESSUM
STYLING BY SEAN LENNON & CHARLOTTE KEMP MUHL
GROOMING BY BENOIT MOEYAERT AT ART DEPARTMENT
DIGITAL TECHNICIAN: KEVIN TRAGESER
PHOTOGRAPHED AT SUN STUDIOS, NEW YORK CITY
 

Girl meets boy. Girl dates boy. Girl and boy fuse their musical talents to create an experimental band that embraces wit, whimsy, and wonder. Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl would appear to be like any other music-making couple, only they’re not. He’s the son of John and Yoko, she’s a porcelain-perfect face of Maybelline whose seven-year-old playwriting skills inspired the name of their band, and they both pick up and play an orchestra of instruments with effortless ease. Listen to any of their releases including Acoustic Sessions, or their most recent EP La Carotte Bleue, and you’ll be struck by their mature, inspired collaborations. Their gentle melodies are largely offered in soft-sung harmonic unison decorated with delightfully intellectualized references, charming conceits, and buttery language. Their unique sound wanders cohesively from wind-up music boxes and feathery meadows to Parisian streets and Indian hookah lounges and all the multi-instrument variations that sit somewhere in between. To dig a little deeper, The Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne chatted with them about writing music with your partner, inherited celebrity status, and Charlotte getting naked in Vanity Fair. No, it’s safe to say this isn’t just any other music-making couple. This is The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger.

WAYNE COYNE—I have to ask, have you begun a new Saber Tooth Tiger recording?

SEAN LENNON—Yeah, but it’s kind of the same one that’s being continued. We dropped it for a minute to do our first album. We made that acoustic sessions record and put aside our epic electric album. We’re working on that again, hoping to get back into it.

WC—So when you guys work on this is it just the two of you?

SL—Pretty much. We have some friends who come and play with us sometimes. For the most part it’s all us but you met our keyboard player Pete and our drummer Hugh, and we’ve been playing with them a lot, so it’s recently become more like a real band and we do hope to record with them at some point.

CHARLOTTE KEMP MUHL—We kind of have a Pinocchio complex about becoming a real band. Like how Pinocchio wanted to be real boy, we want to be a real band.

WC—I think all that is kind of true after knowing you guys for a little bit. You’re a couple, right?

CKM—Don’t tell anyone! We’re also brother and sister, it’s really fucked up. It’s a very Jerry Springer situation.

WC—Guys are notorious for writing songs about their girlfriends for good or for bad and women are notorious for writing songs about their boyfriends, so how does that affect you being together?

CKM—We don’t do any love songs.

SL—We don’t do them in this band. I think it would be weird. I guess Fleetwood Mac did shit like that. I think we do write those kinds of songs but we keep them for other projects, because this is our project together, so we write the songs together.

CKM—It’s a weird amalgamation of the male and female brain.

WC—Do you actually sit there and write songs together? Or do you both work individually and then bring your ideas together? What’s your way of collaborating?

SL—For the most part, most of our songs have been written together but we’ve definitely done the other way too.

WC—To me the worst part about collaborating sometimes is that the other person has something that they think is the greatest thing ever and you don’t think it’s very great, so you either have to say it is great and end up doing it or tell them how you really feel. What do you guys do?

CKM—We don’t really have that with each other because we’re so disgustingly like-minded.

SL—It doesn’t really happen, to be honest, but it’s also because she comes up with a lot of good stuff. I think we’ve rejected ideas together but it’s more something that we do mutually.

CKM—I think because we operate as a super-organism, as one mind, we’re very frank and honest with each other and sometimes we can be a little harsh about shooting down ideas as they’re happening.

SL—[To Charlotte] By ‘we’ do you mean you? Just kidding!

WC—It’s difficult no matter who you’re working with.

SL—In my case, my skin got thicker from being in lots of different bands. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in one band for as long as you’ve been. Because I’ve hopped from project to project I think I’m very thick-skinned at this point. It took a long time to get callous.

CKM—Wayne, you collaborate a lot with your girlfriend and you’re very inspired by her and she’s in a lot of your artwork. I think it’s the way of the future for lovers to work together. It’s about time.

WC—We spoke about Fleetwood Mac. We know the story behind them. They were boyfriends and girlfriends and lovers and then as it progressed the fame and the cocaine and all that made them hate each other.

CKM—Sean, is the fame and cocaine going to come between us?

SL—Seriously, Fleetwood Mac is amazing to me because they didn’t just fall apart they were sort of inter-breeding and also writing songs about each other.

CKM—Interbreeding!

SL—They were cheating on each other with each other but they were also writing songs about each other. And they were also performing those songs which I find to be pretty mind-blowing.

WC—Your situation’s different because you’re famous anyway. Some of those people in Fleetwood Mac, when they were becoming their most famous, had gone from being nobody, really, to becoming one of the most famous bands in the world.

CKM—They didn’t acclimate well.

WC—What do you think happened to you, Sean? Why are you so well-adjusted while other people are such arrogant pricks? We won’t name anybody…

SL—It’s hard for me to say. I think on some level I don’t consider myself to be necessarily that famous. I’m sort of a fringe celebrity by default because of my parents, not necessarily because of anything I did. I grew up with a lot of crazy celebrities being around me and I think it desensitized me to that whole universe. It affects me less because I don’t really care. But I do get impressed sometimes. One time I saw Eminem in a nightclub and I got really nervous.

CKM—You’re such a dork.

SL—But for most celebrities if I meet them I don’t notice it. With Eminem I definitely got nervous. I don’t know why but that was the one person…

CKM—And you ran away from Prince that one time.

SL—That’s because you were embarrassing me. You were like: “Sean, go say hi!” If you weren’t there I would’ve been fine.

CKM—Prince was like, “What the heck’s going on?” Sean looked at him and sprinted in the opposite direction.

SL—I could see it in your eyes. You were trying to force me to talk to him.

CKM—I was waving and winking.

SL—You were embarrassing me.

CKM—You’re so easy to embarrass – I love it!

WC—I would say in the case of both of those, I would feel utterly awkward meeting them because I don’t have a lot in common with the way they do their thing.

SL—You’re the indie Prince, man. You’re like the psychedelic indie Prince.

WC—We tried to meet Prince backstage at the Grammys or one of these events, but his dressing room was so guarded. I’d just like to walk in and say, “Hey you’re Prince and I’m with The Flaming Lips!” But with him that can’t really happen.

SL—He did intimidate me a little bit. That guy is pretty intense. I’ve heard a lot of crazy stories about him.

CKM—I’ve heard you can only communicate with him through funky riffs.

WC—Charlotte, why do you think Sean is so thick-skinned and humble and normal?

CKM—I have to say most of my friends are literally starving artists and Sean is more down to earth than they are. He carries all his own gear. He’s less spoiled than a lot of my broke, New Yorker friends.

WC—That’s exactly the truth. There are people who will never be famous for anything, because they suck and they act like they’re too good to carry their own gear. Where the fuck does that come from?

SL—I think some people are sensitive in that way and some people are really not. We know a lot of people who are trying to make it and they’ve already cut straight to the grandiose – I’m a prince at the top of the tower thing.

CKM—I only eat blue M&M’s.

WC—That’s become such a part of the stance you have to take to be a real star or something. I try to tell everybody I can that it’s not true. I’ve met some really big stars who are amazingly nice, normal people.

SL—I also think there’s something about being that way that is connected with the type of personality that is required to succeed in this industry. I think it’s rarer to be grounded and have your feet on the earth. I think in a way those kinds of people are ruthless and they’re born to do it. Charlotte has actually been trying to make me a little more confident, a little more ruthless, because I’m a little bit of a pushover sometimes with people that work for me.

CKM—He’s part Japanese so he’s very polite.

WC—The first time we travelled to Japan, you see this patience and awareness of how everybody is affected by everybody else’s presence. And I walked away from it just being utterly transformed. We made that Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots record from meeting these Japanese people and seeing how kind and patient they are.

SL—Did you see all that stuff about how Japanese people reacted to the tsunami? There’s all this security footage of people shopping in stores and as soon as the lights go out they put everything back and exit in an orderly fashion.

CKM—As opposed to Hurricane Katrina where immediately people launched into gang rape and looting the stores.

WC—I am so American that I can see where this idea of, “I’m going to get mine because The Man has held me down for so long,” comes from.

SL—That’s kind of the foundation of American culture, too. I think we should all learn from the Japanese way, now especially. I think it is part of my behavior in a way. I don’t know where I got it from because I grew up in New York but I definitely have some Japanese bones in me.

WC—And Charlotte, you claim you have this redneck American background but you seem so different, so elegant. What happened to you?

CKM—I’m a redneck at heart but I’m turning into a big, bleeding-heart liberal these days.

SL—She’s still fairly feral. She refuses to wear shoes and she walks around dressed as a bear all the time. She’s taken survival courses and she can recognize edible plants and herbs. She’s the nature version of MacGyver.

CKM—I always wanted to run away and live in the wilderness.

WC—You also work as a model, what’s the deal with that?

CKM—I’ve never been that keen on modelling and I’ve only ever taken it half seriously. But I’ve been very fortunate that it’s been a great source of income for me so I can have other escapades. But I’m not passionate about it in any way. I’m very cynical of the fashion world at this point.

WC—Why did you get into modelling if it wasn’t something you were passionate about?

CKM—I’ve actually been modelling since I was 12 and living alone in New York since I was 14, so I guess the novelty has worn off. It was exciting at first because I went from mowing lawns and babysitting for money to getting paid the big bucks to sit there for a couple of hours in front of someone’s camera, so that was kind of an exciting transition.

WC—Why were you alone at 14?

CKM—My mom was really cool with me and she trusted me to go out into the world and was very supportive of it. I think she was also living vicariously through me because she was a frustrated housewife stuck in suburbia and I could go off to Milan and Paris and tell her about it. I certainly did get into a lot of trouble that she probably doesn’t even know about.

WC—We should talk about that now.

CKM—No way!

SL—She’s not going to read this. The only interview she read was the Vanity Fair piece. She’s not going to read The Lab – it’s too hip.

CKM—They were so angry when they saw me naked in Vanity Fair. My grandma was like, “Your immortal soul!”

SL—I felt so bad about that. She’s such a sweet lady. You should just be thankful it wasn’t me that was naked.

WC—So the modelling is more of a day job?

CKM—Yeah. I have a contract with Maybelline and I actually really enjoy working with them. They’re like a family now because I’ve been working with them for years. We get to go on location shoots in crazy countries and do crazy things in their commercials. I do my own stunts sometimes. Oh and one season they let me design a lipstick color. I called it Bruise – it was purple. But other than Maybelline I try to stay away from the fashion world these days.

WC—And how do you guys feel about releasing music?

SL—Releasing music? I think [The Flaming Lips’] three-dimensional art album objects are so cool. I think that’s where the future is. There’s no physical place for music anymore. And the idea of making it an even bigger object than it used to be, like a teddy bear or a sculpture or a bouquet of flowers is really cool. I think that’s the direction for music, at least for limited edition stuff.

WC—A lot of our audience can get our music for free anyway, and it isn’t as though you can really stop them, and we don’t want to stop them. We like the idea that if you can’t pay for music you still have an opportunity to hear it and enjoy it. But I think people love music so much they want it even if they don’t have money and they will find a way and that’s what we’ve seen. Technology’s almost been made exclusively so you can get free porn and music.

SL—Porn has been at the forefront of all technology. It’s amazing.

CKM—Porn is always a good note to end on.

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