No matter what configuration you see Mick Jones in, it’s hard to forget that he was one quarter of The Clash. Whether it’s a sailor hat-wearing guitar arsenal along with Clash band mate Paul Simonon in Gorillaz, or the more subdued, yet intellectually provocative Carbon/Silicon with fellow punk icon Tony James, in the production chair trying to tame the Libertines into artistic submission, or in Big Audio Dynamite, his visionary electronic-cum pop band that pointed to way to the cut and paste generation with its smart, perfect samples and vocal and rhythmic hooks, it always comes back to The Clash.
That it always comes back to The Clash is both an albatross and a gift. But if the truth be told, Jones spent more time in B.A.D than he ever did in The Clash, and has the fans to prove it, witnessing the band’s reunion gigs at this year’s Coachella and the Outside Lands Festival, and on their current tour, snaking its way through the US.
We caught up with the punk icon, who at 56 is a much more civilized beast than when he was terrorizing fans in The Clash. He confesses it really devastated him that he was let go from The Clash, no matter what he said at the time, talks about his cure for the blues, what “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is really about, his "audition" for producer of the Libertines, and why exactly he walked out of an interview with me back in 1995 and never came back.
You wrote a song for Carbon/Silicon a few years back called "Really the Blues." What is your personal best cure for the blues?
I’m trying to live so I don’t have too much blues, but I guess the cure is to pick yourself back up again in some way. I don’t know. Hard drugs. Drinking to forget. Any of those things, I’ve tried ‘em all.
And you’ve given them all up?
Oh, yeah, God. All I’ve managed to do is give up walking the dog.
Why? Is the dog dead?
Ha ha. I try every day...you know, try to be a better person. That’s what one of my aims is.
When did the buzzer go off and you began realizing what was important in life and it was time to be a better person?
I think the thing is I am still trying to learn stuff and still be open to stuff, so I feel personally that I’m still developing, and that my best stuff I haven’t yet written. It’s going to be tomorrow or the next day. It’s around the corner. It's optimistically looking into the future, but trying to stay into being about this moment. Trying to do things better if you can or, I don't know—give something back. I want to give something back, I don’t want it all to be just about me anymore. I’ve had it with that stuff.
You're famously remembered for writing "Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” Do you think your job is to pose these kind of questions, or dispense some kind of wisdom in the things you write?
Well, I don’t know about that, to tell you the truth. But glad that you’re taking something positive from that, but I'm not sure that we have got the answers, I must admit. Judging by my day-to-day life, I’m not sure.
I think what you get after a certain age, is you know is nothing’s certain and anything can change.
That’s right, yeah. But in fact I think change is good. I think if you don’t have change, you stagnate. And so I’m always looking to change, to change for the better, hopefully. But I often fail.
Yes, but that’s relative and that’s a little too subjective. You have to ask somebody else. But I think the thing is, when you’re younger you’re so sure and then when you’re older you go, ah, no. It’s just all a crap shoot.
Well, obviously, because you’ve got more responsibilities and stuff and it becomes harder as you get older. But with age comes wisdom so it’s a good thing about it. I wouldn’t give that away for nothing. You know what they say, if I only knew that then. You never do know then. You hardly even know now. One thing is we always write our lives, you know what I mean, instead of trying to be like 20-year-old guys hyped up, we write about what's happening to us at this age. That was just one thing that we talked about even before we actually formed this group, because a lot of people forget that. You can lose it and then you get it back, or you can lose it forever by our age, you know?
Maybe worse is that you're afraid that you've lost your muse—your creativity—and stop trying.
Well, that’s something I’ve never thought too much about. I’m just happy just to do now. I’m just happy to do something and don’t really have any great expectations about what's going to happen to it. I'm just happy just to do it because it’s my lifeblood.
Joe Strummer once said that one of the most ridiculous things he did was to let you go in The Clash. But what would your life have been like if you hadn’t gone? It seems your life all spins on the fact that you did leave The Clash.
Yeah, that’s chucked out. I didn't just leave. It was a drag. Those things happen, you know, in groups and stuff, and it took me years to get over it, and the shock of being chucked out of your own band. Obviously it was traumatic, but nonetheless a lot of the time these things happen, and that’s why I’m come to terms with it now, it’s all right.
It’s really funny because I remember at the time thinking that you were so full of bravado and it didn’t bother you at all.
It did. At the time I thought it was the greatest mistake in rock and roll history, ever.
Wow. I mean so many people agree with you, you know?
Now I just think shit happens. I’ve really made my peace with it, I think. Joe and I weren’t not friends for very long. We became friends very soon afterwards again, and we made up and stuff. We just never got back together again. Because it just wasn’t meant to be, I don’t know.
I think you preserved something by not ever getting back together.
I don’t know if that’s really true.
Is reinvention overrated?
Yeah, definitely. Be yourself if you can. Mind yourself rather than somebody else.
What do you think your greatest strength is?
I don’t have any, I don’t think. You know, do a bit of music and try and have a laugh. And be a nice person. That’s it. But I don’t, constantly just trying to figure things out, you know what I mean? For myself and for everybody else.
Is there something that you’re considered to be an expert on?
Okay, tell me a television factoid.
Wow. I don’t know. Television era started in 1933 in Alexander Palace.
What was your favorite program growing up?
Growing up? I used to like Doctor Who a lot of, I must admit. But the very first Doctor Who was William Hartnell. That was my favorite. I think each generation has a different Doctor Who and that’s their favorite. When I watched it, it was the very first one. That was one of my favorite programs. But a lot of my favorite programs I liked, really liked, were American shows. I liked I Love Lucy, Dennis the Menace, My Three Sons.
You've managed to be at home in so many genres, in punk, in power pop, reggae, hard rock. What is your natural home?
What, you mean musically? I just like all types of music, I must admit, except I’m not that mad on death metal.
Can you tell me about the creative process? It’s been said you write like Mozart, you envision whole songs in your head.
Well, I do think that the songs are there, you’ve just got to try and get it, and bring it, pluck it out of the air almost. And then when you do one thing, then the next thing to do is in the one thing that you did, and that’s how you progress. That’s it for me. And now I’ll laugh and just like come into my head. You know, I’m sitting on the bus or something, and then sort of start humming. I think it’s the motion of the bus or the Tube or something that starts it. So it’s there probably on the transport system. So I think the actual original conceptive idea [for a song] is actually on the transport system, and after that you’ve just got to try and attune yourself to it and pick something out. It’s all there for everybody, they just have to buy a ticket.
And it doesn’t matter what kind, because it can be planes or trains or cars?
It can be anything, obviously. You know what I mean, walking around, and you hear bits of music out of shops and stuff.
Do you ever listen to your old stuff? I mean do you listen to The Clash or the early stuff you did in Big Audio Dynamite?
Sort of, for when they’re doing a kind of re-release, so sometimes. But I don’t really remember them, but then when I come to play them again I have to relearn them, thoroughly enough. But they do, it is like riding a bike. Once you start again you can pick it up quickly.
Well, it’s all in your subconscious. When you wrote "Should I Stay Or Should I Go," what were you referring to?
Nothing to do with getting kicked out of the band or anything like that, although people like really drew that into it! Didn’t bother to consult, because I didn’t think about nothing.
I always thought it was about a relationship.
It really wasn’t. There really wasn’t that kind of thing going on in my mind at the time.
What do you think the most important thing that The Clash ever did? Did you have a mission statement of what you wanted to accomplish or was it just organic?
It was just totally organic in terms of, we had like, we want to do some numbers and have a bit of a laugh. That was basically it, and then it turned out like it did. We can’t believe even now, but there you go.
Did you not have the consciousness that you were making history at the time?
No, not at all. We didn’t even think we’d get very far at all since we couldn’t play. We soon figured it out.
What do you think the most important thing you did with them, and what do you think the most important thing you do now is?
I think we inspired so many people. Maybe there was something in the music, in the songs that was an honesty that people recognized, and that could again relate to, and it has some resonance even now. We've got families and everything too, so we have to account for that being a part of our lives as well. So we can’t like just be running around all the time like idiots. Although we are big idiots, also. So we can’t win, really. But
we’re trying to be men, you know.
In The Clash you toured with Bo Diddley on the same bus, and one interview you’d said that he was like your dad. Did he give you guys any advice?
Well, he got us out of sort of a few scrapes. He had an honorary policeman’s badge from some town in Florida so when we were stopped by the cops he’d flash the badge and they’d give us a pass, usually,
So he didn’t tell you, "Do this, do that"?
Not like that. Rather we followed some of his examples. One interesting thing is he gave his guitar his bunk. The guitar slept in his bunk and he stayed up all night, riding in front of the bus, and drank.
When you worked with The Libertines, did you give them the benefit of your experience?
No, and it’s funny because I didn’t say anything hardly for the first few weeks. They thought, there’s a guy who must be so lazy. He isn’t doing anything. So I was trying to figure it out, I was looking, and in the end I decided I don’t care, I’m going to have to go in there, bar the studio door, and then get down with them. And that’s what we did. But a bit like going into the lion tamer’s cage, or charming lions.
What was the best thing you did for them?
Slept, I think. Someone said, you want to come down to check this band out, and I’d already heard about them, so I went. I went to their rehearsal, we were having a few drinks and it was really nice. They played a few things and I said, “That one’s good, can you play that one again?” And so they started playing it again and apparently they turned around and I was fast asleep on the sofa.
I guess you passed the audition for their producer.
I did. Yeah. I did, actually.
One thing that you’d change about yourself.
You know, loads of things, actually. Like so much. I used to be really much more of a selfish person than I am now. When I was younger, you know. I definitely worry more now. I think I’d want to be able to deal with things much better than I used to.
When you worry, what do you worry most about?
I’ve got kids. I worry about them, and what the world’s like, basically. And what they want us to do. Then they want us all to worry.
Do you have a motto?
Well, I used to have one but I don’t use it anymore. But it was, “It’s better to look good and play bad than play good and look bad.”
And you don’t believe that anymore?
Not entirely, you know? Not entirely, because I realize that people have other attributes. We shouldn’t judge on first sights.
What's your most endearing feature?
I wouldn’t be able to say that, I’m afraid.
What’s your most annoying habit?
I’ve got lots of those. Have you got half an hour?
You used to be famously late. Is that still true?
Well, listen, I’ve really tried to improve that and sometimes I’m still a little bit late. But my watch runs ten minutes fast at all times and all the clocks in the studio are also five or ten minutes fast, and so it gives you an extra ten minutes. Because I actually don’t mean to be rude when I’m late, so I do really feel bad about that, and so I’ll try to my best to do that. But sometimes it means staying up all night to be up, because otherwise I’m not going to have a chance to get up.
What historical figure do you admire?
Well, I like a lot of figures. Bonaparte and T.E. Lawrence.
That’s interesting, both military men. That somewhat explains why you called a Clash album Combat Rock. Or maybe the sailor hats you and Paul wore in Gorillaz. Or not. What is the greatest misconception about you?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what conceptions people have of me.
Well, I think that you’re much nicer now.
All right, well, a Louis XVI type figure. I really am trying to be a good person and do some good, you know, in the end.
I can attest to that because back in 1995 I was interviewing you and you left to get a cigarette during the interview and you never came back. And I’ve carried that wound for years. Maybe I was asking crap questions?
No, I’m sure you weren’t. It was probably just me. That’s just another example of what I was like in comparison to what I’m like now.