Having once played together in a short-lived punk band called London SS, Mick Jones and Tony James have been friends for 30 years. After successful careers with the Clash (Jones) and Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik (James), the pair reconvened in 2002 to form a new project called Carbon/Silicon. The two gave away three albums' worth of material online before issuing the CD The Last Post last October. We recently caught up with James at his home in Glastonbury, England.
The Pitch: Tell me about playing with Mick back in 1976 with the London SS.
Tony James: We've been best friends for 33 years now. It's unbelievable. When we played back then, we were just two guys who were fans of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. But we didn't really know what we were doing in those days. So it's kind of a fitting thing that two 50-year-old guys are back in a band together again, and we get to make the music that we really love.
What was the initial spark that got you guys working together?
It was mainly that I'd written the lyrics to a song called "MP3" around the time of Napster, about six or seven years ago. I'd realized we were facing a revolution in music in that our ideas and concepts of what publishing and what copyright would mean in the future were about to change. And although we're two 50-year-old guys, we're not the same revolutionaries we were when we were eighteen, this seemed to be an incredibly exciting concept to embrace. So Mick just said, "I can write a tune for that." And then we wrote that song, and then we wrote another song together, and then another one. And we realized what a thrill we got just from writing music. There was no pressure. We weren't making an album. We weren't forming a band. There was no record label. There was no manager. Nothing. Just the pure pleasure of writing songs. And once we realized we could have a Web site and give those songs away without needing to be involved in the business model as such in any way, it suddenly meant we could sit in our studio, write songs that we love and give them away to people, and that was a major thing for us.
And then it sort of organically mutated into a full band?
That's right. We started off by playing gigs in our own studio ... and people could film it and put it on YouTube and people could see it. It's kind of tiny steps at a time. A friend suggested someone who might play drums, and Leo [Williams], the bass player, was already working with us in the studio. He was doing the artwork for the early stuff that we gave away. We thought, Well, lets get Leo on bass. Like when you form a band at school as a teenager, it just seems to happen. It wasn't like we phoned up Rent-A-Pro Musician or we put adverts in papers. Everybody just seemed to be there, and like those magical things when the time is right, it goes right.
You've talked about the name, Carbon/Silicon, referring to carbon being the soul and silicon being the chip in the computer.
Carbon/Silicon was a phrase I'd come across in a book about the future. It predicted a future kind of human that will be sort of a hybrid of carbon — the soul and the human element — and silicon, which would be the computer element. I kind of liked it because it summed up the differences and the things that linked Mick and I as people in that he was carbon — the soul of the band and that organic feeling — and I was very much the guy with the computers and the programming and the ideas. It sort of talked about what we were. The other thing was that everyone we told it to absolutely hated the name when we first started. So we thought, This is good because it's totally different than anything else.
What was the book that you took the name from?
It was a book by someone who's the head of some sort of futurism institute — a woman called Baroness Susan Greenfield, who's sort of a famous astrophysicist here in England. She'd written a book about the future. There was a phrase in the book that said, "We will come to know the idea of carbon/silicon hybrid that would be just as natural as we've come to know horse and car."
What are some of the books that are on the cover of The Last Post?
For the last 20 years, Mick — who has been my friend for all this time — had this fanatical thing of collecting rock-and-roll culture. So we've got this big studio space in this industrial wasteland in the west of London called Acton. Next door to the studio, he's got another huge space, and every day when we'd record, he would turn up an hour late with two carrier bags because he'd been to thrift stores to buy books, right? Anything you could say vaguely represents the culture of rock and roll ... he would come in with these books. And I used to think it was like a madness.
And then we had a guy who was putting them in order and he'd buy records and DVDs and all sorts of things. Suddenly, 10 years later, we realized we had this fantastic cultural library of everything to do with rock and roll, every book on rock and roll you could go lay your hands on. Every book about a television series or any great writers or great movies are all in that room. Mick had this idea when we were doing the album cover — there's this movie called 55 Days in Peking where they made a barricade out of books. So we went and got all the books out of the library, and we built a big barricade outside of the studio. It was like a barricade of culture. What was nice was that when you look at a close-up of the sleeve, you can pick out some of the ideas that might've influenced us.
How do you and Mick work together?
We work in all ways, but often we'll come in with a pitch for a song, like a movie pitch, like, "Here's the title and here's the idea of what the song should be about." And sometimes I'll come with a page saying what I think a song should be about, and then maybe some scribbled lyrics. And then we'll assemble it.... We usually write it in ten minutes. Always. We just do it then and there. So we'll come in at three in the afternoon with the title, a few scattered lyrics, and by 8 o'clock at night it can be finished and on the Internet. Mick always said, "The song is there. Once you identify what the song is about, the song is somehow out there in the ether. You just have to find it. It's already written."
Why did it take you guys so long to release an official CD?
When we first started, it was just that thrill of sitting in our studio, recording the record in the afternoon and giving it away.... It's only when we started playing out and touring, we figured we needed another record in the stores.
Although I believe the future will be in free digital music, at this particular time, I still believe people like to go out and buy a record in a store. People still like to shop. There's something magical about getting those 12 songs in the order that artist wanted it to be, with the gaps between the songs, presenting the product as a whole.... In the future, I don't know. People always ask, "What do you think is going to happen?" I go, "Probably a 10-year-old kid somewhere in China knows what the future holds." He's going to tell me what the future of rock and roll is.