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CHERIE CURRIE (THE RUNAWAYS): “When Madonna said she was the first to wear a corset on stage, I wanted to slap her”
As a 15-year-old in the mid-70’s, CHERIE CURRIE was plucked from the Sugar Shack nightclub in Hollywood and thrust into the spotlight as lead singer with the Runaways, who along with Joan Jett, Lita Ford , Sandy West and Jackie Fox and all overseen by the mysterious Kim Fowley, produced two studio albums and a live album before she quit the band. Cherie Currie is back with a new album, Blvds Of Splendor and Mick Burgess called her up to chat about the album, her career as a chainsaw sculptor and looking back on her years in The Runaways.
We’re living in very strange times at the moment. How has the Covid19 lockdown impacted on your life?
It hasn’t impacted on me so much as I’m a home bunny anyway. I do wood carving from my house and I’m also working on the audio version of Neon Angel: Memoir of a Runaway as I have a sound booth here in my house. Besides watching everybody else going a little bit crazy over it, I don’t know anybody that has had it. I may have had it myself in early February as I came back from Boston and was really sick, sicker than I’ve ever been in my life but other than that, I’ve been really lucky. Lockdown has been extraordinary. I never expected to see it and think it has been a little heavy handed. That’s just my gut feeling and I think the cost is too high. We’ll see how it all pans out but I think it’ll have a lasting effect on millions of people around the world.
Has that got in the way to some degree with the usual promotional activities that you do when your new album, Blvds Of Splendor came out a few weeks ago?
Of course, it has. You can’t go out on tour or go to radio stations. All the promotion is done from home now. We’re all learning and doing these videos which are a lot of fun like the one I’ve just done for “Roxy Roller” with Suzi Quatro and Nick Gilder. We always find a way, don’t we? I actually think it couldn’t have come out at a better time. I think I’ve had more of an audience as people are stuck at home.
Whose idea was it to do that video with Suzi Quatro?
It was mine. Blackheart Records asked if I was going to do a quarantine video but nobody stood up to do anything so I told my son, Jake Hays who’s living with me since a year ago in December, as he lost his house in a fire, I told him I was going to set up a camera and go through “Roxy Roller” and I took that video tape and sent it to Nick Gilder, Suzi, Joie Calio, Phil Leavitt and Nick Maybury. It just went from there and everybody added their parts to it. It was pretty easy. Then there was this great 17 year old kid called Isaac, who I’d just met and he edited the video and he did a fabulous job.
How did Isaac get involved?
I saw some of his videos he’d done with some original Runaways videos and some from Blvds Of Splendor on the internet and we tracked him down on Facebook. I didn’t realise how old he was until he’d finished the video and his mother didn’t even support him doing it. That made me so happy that he could show her how good he was.
The album originally came out as a limited-edition vinyl for Record Store Day last year. Why did you wait so long to give it a general release?
I didn’t wait. Blackheart Records had the record for the last 9 years and they didn’t feel it was time to release it. Kenny Laguna who is my manager and Joan Jett’s too, is always on tour and I guess they just shelved the record. They thought about putting it out in 2016 but I had an accident on a scaffold when I was carving. When they released it on vinyl for Record Store Day, it was a complete surprise. For them to release it digitally during this pandemic was also a complete surprise. I never thought this record would see the light of day. I couldn’t listen to it as it upset me but it’s out now and that’s all that matters. I actually toured on this record to force Blackhearts hand to release it. I performed songs from the record so it’ll be great to play those songs when people know them when I do get out on tour again.
Will the album get a wider physical release?
I don’t know if they’ll do that in this day and age. I suppose people can just download it and burn a copy for themselves. I have no clue what Blackhearts plans are for the record to be honest.
So, the album was actually recorded 10 years ago?
Yes, the album was done 10 years ago and has just been sitting on the shelf. I spent about three months recording with Matt Sorum and I got Joan Jett’s producer Thom Panunzio to come in and give it as much oomph as he could and he’s a great sound guy. So, he came in and remixed some of the songs and I’m so glad that he did as I think the record sounds fantastic. The remix was done right out of the gate after the recording was done.
Matt Sorum has produced the album. What role did he play in the creative process?
He did it all. The whole thing was fate. I was on tour and Matt happened to reach out to me and he wanted me to sing backgrounds on his now wife’s record but I missed that opportunity because I was out of town. I called him back and told him I’d been asked to open for Joan Jett at the Pacific Amphitheatre which is a huge venue here at Orange County and I didn’t have a band. I only had weeks. Matt said that he’d be my drummer and he’d put together a band. I couldn’t believe that Matt Sorum from Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver and The Cult would want to drum with me. He took the bull by the horns and whipped that show into shape. He’s such a perfectionist. I brought my son along and Jake was only 19 at that time and he learned how to perform on stage and how to be a professional musician. He learned that in three weeks from Matt. He had seen something that I hadn’t and when we got off stage after opening for Joan, he turned to me and said that we had to make a record. I thought, yeah, right but within a week we were in the studio cutting “Roxy Roller”. A few labels wanted to offer us a deal but Blackhearts said that they wanted to make the record so we went with them. The thing is that within a week, we were making a record. It was all down to Matt and his friends who came aboard to make this record great. Matt did it all. He did the arrangements, he brought in Holly Knight who has won Grammys for her songwriting and she wrote a couple with Jake. It turned out really fantastic.
Were these songs, except Queen of Noise obviously, written fresh for this album or are they ideas you’ve had for a while?
“You Wreck Me” was written during the process in about 20 minutes. We were just gathering material as we went along and writing together. It wasn’t like I had a bunch of songs I could use, it all happened very, very fast and put together 15 songs quite rapidly. We worked really hard on this record and it shows.
You have some great guests on the album including Duff and Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins. Were they in the studio with you when they recorded their parts?
Billy Corgan was in the studio and he wrote “Blvds of Splendor” specifically for us to do together. Billy was one of the most brilliant, down to earth, kindest human beings I have ever met. That is the truth. As far as “Mr. X”, that was written for the next Velvet Revolver record that didn’t end up getting made. Matt played me the demo and I just loved it. He asked Duff and Slash about me cutting the tune and they absolutely loved the idea. I wasn’t there when they recorded the track for it unfortunately, but Slash has said that one of his Top 10 collaborations was with me which is pretty cool. In this day and age, you can collaborate and not even be in the same room or even in the same continent. Just look at the “Roxy Roller” video. Suzy was in the UK; Nick Gilder was in Canada and I’m here in The States.
There’s a wonderful version of The Hollie’s “The Air That I Breathe” on the album. Why did you choose that song to cover?
That song has such a personal meaning to me. Matt asked me if there was a song I wanted to do from my past and that song always resonated with me. I couldn’t sing it as a young girl but I became a better singer as I got older although I’ll never be a great singer. It meant so much to me to be able to perform that song on the record.
Having Juliette Lewis, Brody Dalle from The Distillers and Lisa and Jessica from The Veronica’s sounds like a recipe for a lot of feisty attitude and a lot of fun. How was it working with them?
It was a dream for me. They are so talented. Brody just has that Joan Jett raspiness and she was pregnant at the time, this was 10 years ago remember, she was so sweet and we just hit it off. She actually had to ask me to leave the studio while she did her vocals as she couldn’t do them when I was there. I guess she was intimidated. Kristen Stewart did the same thing when cutting tracks for the Runaways movie. “Queens of Noise” was the perfect song for us to do and for Matt to pay such homage to Sandy West in the way he performed it was just great. Sandy is the only one to have laid drums to that song. It was written by Billy Bizeau from The Quick just for us. Sandy is the only one to have played drums on that song and for Matt to say what a great drummer she was and to play it the way she did, was awesome.
What about touring? Once Coronavirus retreats do you hope to play some live shows?
I really hope that I can get out and play some shows. People need to start taking responsibility for themselves and not let the government tell them what to do all of the time. We should be able to be out doing shows a lot sooner than that. I’m not afraid, I’m willing to take the risk with the virus and if I pass away, oh, well. The government have to allow us to take responsibility for ourselves. There’s risk in everything. When you get in a car you don’t know if you’ll get hit by a truck. Every day you take risks. We need to be able to make choices for ourselves.
You mentioned earlier about your chainsaw sculptures. How on earth did you first get involved in that?
I started doing that about 20 years ago. I gravitated towards that art and I’m thankful that I did as that’s the reason that I’m living in the house I’m in at the moment. I do many different things but being a chainsaw artist has been very good to me. It happened by a fluke. I was already carving wood at the time but I happened to pass a couple of guys chain saw carving by the side of the road and this voice in my head wouldn’t let me forget it. I went back and brought some of my artwork with me and walked into their gallery. Their work was so detailed and gorgeous. They said that I could do this. It shocked me because never in my life could I ever have envisaged myself with a chainsaw in my hands. I have no patience and a chainsaw is the fastest wood removal tool on the planet. I couldn’t sit there with a chisel and a mallet.
What sort of sculptures do you do?
What I love doing the most are mermaids and sea life like turtles, dolphins and fish. I love to do women’s flowing hair in wood. I’ve done just about everything you can think of from Disney characters to Santa Clause to people’s pets although I don’t really like doing those any more as it’s too much responsibility. I’m doing a cigar store Native American right now and that’s the first man I’ve ever had to do. It’s a real challenge.
Do you sell them or display them?
I had two galleries. When The Runaways movie was getting a lot of press people would show up with albums to sign and one time, I was carving and someone tapped me on the shoulder and I knew I had to shut that gallery down so I do my carving at home. All I do is special orders now. I don’t really have the time to carve what I want to carve these days. You can see my work at http://www.chainsawchick.com and there’s a picture of me standing next to an eight foot praying woman. It’s a very old site as I don’t have the patience to redo the site. If you click on the camera icon on the main page that takes you to an album of all of the stuff that I’ve done and shows you how I do the carvings step by step.
Going right back to the start. How did you end up in The Runaways?
I was 15 years old going to a club called The Sugar Shack which was an under 21 club and Kim Fowley and Joan Jett came in one evening to scout girls. They liked the way I looked and they asked if I could sing or play an instrument. I said I could sing a little bit and went and auditioned for the band and that’s how I got into The Runaways.
Who else was in the band at that point?
Joan, Lita and Sandy were there at that point but we didn’t have a bass player yet. They did have Micki Steele who was the original singer and she went on to be in The Bangles but Mercury Records thought she didn’t have the right look so I replaced her and as she was also the bass player we had to find a new bass player and we later found Jackie Fox.
What was the writing and recording process like for your first, self-titled album?
Kim Fowley just had us go in and lay down the tracks and then me and Joan would go in and sing it through three or so times and then he’d throw us out. He’d take what we had and sometimes he’d combine the vocals other times he didn’t but the majority of the time he did and that’s how the sound of The Runaways was created. It was really Kim Fowley realising less was more sometimes.
How did you feel when the album first came out?
There always seemed to be some controversy about the one photograph of me by Tom Gold that made the cover. That photograph of me alone that was taken at a show without the rest of the girls and it started a huge rift in the band right out of the gate and I don’t blame them for that. Kim felt that that shot was really going to sell the record. He was right in a lot of aspects but everything started fracturing early on. All of those decisions were out of our hands. You can’t tell a magazine what photos to use on their cover. The girls felt that it was totally unfair but it was absolutely out of our hands. It caused so much resentment and jealousy within the band and we were too young to handle it at that time. We didn’t have any mediators to sit us down and talk this stuff through. It would just simmer and boil over and it caused us so much grief.
You left after the Live In Japan album. Had you had enough of it all then?
There was no camaraderie and there was nothing but bitterness and I felt threatened by Lita, very threatened by her. She was a real, hands on, angry girl and she loathed it. When you can see nothing but more problems in the future and nobody standing up for you then I wasn’t going to go into the lion’s den as a lamb any more. It’s not something that I chose. I didn’t think that I was better them, I didn’t want to leave the band. I just feared going back out with them. Jackie had left after the tour of Japan. She’d cut her arms into ribbons right in front of me as she couldn’t take the stress and the strain of what was going on in the band. I saw an opportunity to leave and I took that opportunity. I was given an ultimatum by Lita to choose my family or the band but there wasn’t any band any more, there wasn’t any safe place in The Runaways. There was nothing but resentment and jealousy and we were too young to be able to cope so I ran for my life. Maybe if we’d had some time off and if a professional had come in and sat us down to talk things through then we could have made another record. I definitely think The Runaways could have had a hit record with the next one.
Looking back on those years how do you view it now?
I’m really grateful to have been a part of it. We were the right five, we were in Infamous Five. We were magical on stage together, we really, really were. I think what we were trying to do hadn’t really been done before. We were different. We had a harder edge than other bands such as Fanny, I’ve just made a record with Brie Darling from Fanny, and we were making a statement. The fact that it still resonates today and that they used “Cherry Bomb” in Guardians of The Galaxy and John and Art Linson making a great move, The Runaways, gave us a whole new generation, a couple of generations in fact, of new fans so I’m so grateful for that. They’ve used “Cherry Bomb” in The Simpsons too. It’s great. I thought The Runaways were all but forgotten 20 years ago. When Madonna said she was the first one to wear a corset, I wanted to slap her. She should have known better. There’s people who will try to change history but there’s a lot of people who know different. It’s great to get the recognition. We tried really hard, we were brave and did what we could but unfortunately, we couldn’t last.
Would you be up for playing with Joan and Lita again if the opportunity arose?
I’m the only member who’s played with all of them since then. I’ve played with Sandy, Joan and Lita. I always played with Sandy and also Jackie in the early ’90’s. It’s Joan and Lita, well it’s actually Joan, Kenny and Lita they can’t seem to see eye to eye. We talked Joan into doing something 20 years ago and then Lita walked. Then Lita came back and Joan said it was too late. I kind of washed my hands with it. When it’s out of your hands there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve worked with all of the girls. My dream has come true, I don’t need anything more. I love to perform The Runaways songs and I’m the only one doing that now as Sandy sadly passed away and Jackie has left the business and a lot of people want to hear those songs so I want to give people what they want so I’ll continue to play those songs even if it’s without the other girls.
Long term do you want to make more new music or do you want to focus more on your wood sculptures?
I have to finish this cigar store Native American first as the guy has been waiting a year and a half. I’m doing my audio book which is really devastating to be honest. When I re-wrote that book that I did as a young adult and added in all of the stories I couldn’t put in then, I never really imagined myself doing the audio version of it and reliving all this. It’s very raw with everything coming to the surface. I can’t wait to finish it so I can put it to bed for good. I want to tour on Blvds Of Splendor. I toured on that before it came out so it’ll be great to tour again now that it’s out. I have a four-album deal with Brie Darling of Fanny so there’s work to be done there but I do have to tour Blvds Of Splendor as soon as I can as it deserves it.
Interview By Mick Burgess
Photo Credits: Mick Burgess, Robert Sebree, Jake Hays and Palli Ballaz
Blvds Of Splendor is out now and available on all digital and streaming platforms.