As the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the musician Sean Lennon toils in a long shadow. But with his partner, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, and their band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Lennon, 38, moves under his own steam and has recorded a pair of acclaimed albums, including the trippy new Midnight Sun. We spoke to him in San Francisco.
The name of your band, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, makes me think of ancient DNA and the de-extinction of prehistoric animals. Where did the name come from?
I find it interesting that people are talking about resurrecting extinct species when we can’t even take care of the species that are on the planet now. It just seems so perverse, on the part of mankind, to do something just because we can. And as far as the name of the band, it came from a story that Charlotte wrote. We came up with it when we thought the band would only be a side project.
For a side project, you’ve got quite an involved sound. We got a hint of it on the first record, but where did the full-on psychedelia of Midnight Sun come from?
We had a long-term vision. The first record was an introduction to the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, with Charlotte and me singing duets on the guitar to highlight the lyrics and the bare bones of the songs. It was already planned that Midnight Sun would be more of a fully produced album.
Any particular inspirations or instigations for the sound of Midnight Sun?
Any sound of any music is like following a trail of enthusiasm and inspiration. It’s like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and you’re following the path of least resistance. Or, sometimes, the most resistance. There’s a clue or hunch in your stomach, and you just follow it.
Is there a concept to your song Last Call? It starts out like Pink Floyd’s Breathe and then moves on from there.
That was one of the first songs we ever wrote. In those days, Charlotte and I would push each other a lot. But for Last Call we actually sat down to write a pop song. We kept on saying that our songs had too many sections, so now let’s write a pop song. But then we somehow got caught in a cycle where we couldn’t stop adding sections, and it wound up being anything other than a pop song.
There are lyrics about yellow brick roads and red shoes that won’t get you home, which makes me think of The Wizard of Oz. Couple that with the Pink Floyd vibe, and I wondered if you were referencing the urban myth about watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon.
That’s so cool. You know what? No one’s ever said that, and I never thought of it either. But that’s a really cool way to describe that song. It makes a lot of sense.
I thought I detected a bit of Rufus Wainwright-style crooning to the song Golden Earring. He’s a friend of yours, yes?
One of my oldest. The first tour I ever did, in 1998 when my first solo album came out, was with him. We wound up being roommates in Los Angeles. He wrote a bunch of songs for his album Want One at the house we were sharing in Beverly Hills.
You might even out-Rufus Rufus with your singing on that track.
Aw, man, that’s so sweet. But that’s just trickery, because the truth is that we had to drop that song a couple of keys for me to even sing it. I couldn’t hit the note I needed to. I’m sure Rufus could, though.
How’s your mother these days?
My mother is great, thanks. She’s actually playing Glastonbury this summer.
She’s considered cool now, but for a very long time, she wasn’t, because people thought she broke up the Beatles. It must feel great, with that kind of attitude finally fading away.
It’s really great. And she really feels good about it. She suffered under the accusatory finger for far too long, and for no reason at all. Some people still stand by that story, but those people are sort of unconscious and don’t really pay attention.
You knew Michael Jackson. I’m wondering what you thought about his holographic performance at the Billboard awards.
I didn’t see it. I don’t have a lot of insight into the subject, to be honest. I guess I’m old school. I like to see real people play.
Michael Jackson is resurrected. The saber tooth tiger or woolly mammoth may come back. Where does it end?
People are Pygmalion, in that they’re always mesmerized by their own creations. I think people are going to do things because they can do them, and that’s not always because they should. But whatever people want they’re going to get.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger plays Toronto’s Hoxton June 3; and Montreal’s La Sala Rossa June 4.