Hard Rock Live
The new studio album, due for release 1st September 2023 via Parlophone
Relentless feels like the signifier of a full circle moment - you’ve just signed with Warner Brothers again, where the Pretenders story began with your self-titled debut in 1979. Fast forward to 2023 and you're looking ahead to the release of Pretenders' 12th studio album. What does that feel like?  
Actually, we were originally on a small independent label called Real Records, under the umbrella of the now defunct Anchor Records, signed by our first manager, Dave Hill. It was on the back of the heyday of punk when young managers were getting deals for bands. Then after our first single we were picked up by Sire via Seymour Stein which was part of Warners. There’s been more than 12 albums, like Stockholm which was called a solo album… I can’t remember why now but I guess because it was made in Sweden and the guys there never toured with me.

As is pretty well established now, The Pretenders has had a shifting line-up. What does it feel like?
It feels like I’ve taken my time. With deaths and births and general life stuff to attend to, the line-up has changed but I always try to work within the framework of a band. I pride myself on always having guitar heroes in the band, James Honeyman-Scott started that tradition and that is, for me, the key.

What is the origin of Relentless, and how did you settle on that as an album title?
I must’ve read or heard the word ‘relentless’ somewhere and wanted to get the exact meaning of it, which I often do with a word, so I’ll look it up. I enjoy seeing the various meanings and origins of a word. And I liked the definition: “showing no abatement of intensity”. So when it came to an album title, it seemed fitting. You know… to keep doing it. I think anyone in a band is constantly questioning if they should keep going. It starts as a youthful pursuit and eventually it makes you wonder “why am I doing this?” But it’s the life of the artist. You never retire. You become relentless. 

Your memoir Reckless was published in 2015, since then you have released Alone in 2016, 2019’s Valve Bone Woe, the Pretenders' last album Hate For Sale came out in 2020, Standing in the Doorway in 2021, and you're returning with this theme, Relentless, in 2023. The Pretenders have never chased trends or followed fashions to stay relevant. Would you go as far to say that sense of instinct and impulsiveness serves as a sort of mantra for your artistic journey?
Well, as Lemmy was my style icon, the idea of change or reinvention really doesn’t come into it. I just do what I can and hope someone is going to like it. Whether it’s trendy or fashionable or not is never the premise. One thing that never goes out of favour is a guitar hero.  And I make sure I always have one.

So how did you know where to start with this album?
James and I found we were on a roll over the phone - forced on us by the lockdown. We had developed this method of working remotely and it seemed like we just kept on doing it for this album. We recorded the entire Standing In the Doorway album over the phone [the critically acclaimed Bob Dylan covers album recorded entirely via iMessage during the 2020 UK lockdown]. We’d start with a simple backing track and I'd sing the vocals into my phone and send them to him and he assembled it all remotely. And then Tchad Blake mixed it and made it sound like a proper studio album. And after that, James and I were pretty well versed in remote recording. Not ideal - but possible to get ideas down and songs written.
Where did you record the music? What was a typical day like making the Relentless album - did you keep office hours or run on vibe?
Mainly, we recorded at Battery Studio in West London. I’m not sure what office hours actually are, but we did stick to a structure. I’ve never been one to stay up late at the studio and work into the night. The moment I have audio fatigue I leave the studio because I know it’s over and it starts being counter-productive. And I’m an early riser by nature, so I’d like to get cracking by noon. There’s nothing better.

You worked with David Wrench - how did that come about? What did he bring to the table?
James and I met David and liked him, but there is no way of knowing what a producer is going to do until you go in and do a few songs with them. David is a good listener and isn’t heavy-handed and doesn’t try to force his ideas, he’s good at letting the band express themselves and really at this stage that’s all anyone has to do with us. Plus, he’s fun and easy to hang out with. His favourite band is the Velvet Underground, so that kind of sums him up really. He loves to go out on a limb. A crazy idea excites him.

You've pretty consistently mixed it up with producer choices over the last few Pretenders albums - do you like fresh energy in the studio?
Well, I don’t think anyone likes stale energy in the studio. The thing with using different producers is if you use the same person all the time you can start forgetting to remember what you’re actually good at yourself. It can become formulaic. I probably get my way most of the time because I have very strong views of how things should be once I’m in the studio, but I would never claim co-production. The producer is the producer. I’m just a rockstar.

The performances feel completely relaxed and organic, but also very direct. The album feels like a very clearly defined snapshot of where the Pretenders are at in 2023. Would you agree with that?
It actually went through quite a surprisingly lengthy process. It started out more in the Valve Bone Woe vein [Hynde’s acclaimed 2019 jazz-leaning covers LP] - very slow and subdued; I think there was even talk about having vibraphone on it at one point. You know, like a Tim Buckley album. Happy Sad informed me at the age of 17 and still does. But once we went in as a band and started to rehearse it, I suppose, inevitably, the more we played it the more it rocked up. I think we were born to rock and there’s really no getting around it.

The players on this album make for a great extended band. Carwyn Ellis, Jonny Greenwood, members of His Lordship. What do each of these players bring to Relentless?
I refer to it as “The Pretenders Collective”.

James worked with Carwyn before I knew him, and we’ve had him on the road playing keyboards and guitar. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, and a really accomplished and talented musician. If he’s not working with us he’s making his own albums. He never stops. 

Kris Sonne, is a drummer I’ve worked with for quite a few projects and touring. He was in the Valve Bone Woe Ensemble and the Will Travel Band (which I guess was another name for Pretenders after the Stockholm album). He is incredibly versatile and as solid as they come. And he’s inventive and a blast to work with live. 

Chris Hill, who played double bass mainly on the album - also did some Valve Bone Woe shows with us. We got him in when it looked like it was going to be that very slowed down, low-temperature album before it went rock-crazy.

Dave Page, who plays bass, is also in the live line-up now. James and Kris have worked with him a lot over the years. He’s rock-steady and fun. It has to be fun or it’s no fun.  

Jonny Greenwood. I met him a couple of times and we’re obviously big fans of him because he’s done some incredible music over the years. I saw him at the Phantom Thread première where the film was running on screen with a live orchestra playing. And we spoke afterward and he expressed an interest in doing something one day.  I was thrilled and very surprised. He also came down to see a Valve Bone Woe show we were doing in the basement of a Pizza Express. So when the idea of getting strings on ‘I Think About You Daily’, he was first choice. Legend!

You worked closely with James, your second Hynde/Walbourne songwriting collaboration album to date. How would you describe the songwriting process for this album? 
James has been on a real melodic journey, and I’ve been going along for the ride. Melody is the thing I miss the most in a lot of modern music.

I can write a lyric quickly, then send it to him and he'll send it back with a musical idea. This is something that we’ve only honed down to an art in the last few years. He always comes up with something I wouldn’t have thought of myself and I love surprises. Then we knock it about a bit and, voila! 

What are your favourite songs on the record?
I love ‘The Copa’ because it’s got such a cool vibe - kind of a surfer sort of thing. I don’t think we’ve done much stuff like that before. Maybe ‘Blue Eyed Sky’ on the Alone album had that surfer vibe, but not normally in our wheelhouse. 

Apart from Break Up The Concrete, this is the first Pretenders album to not feature a photograph of yourself or the band on the front cover. The character in the album artwork looks like he's ready for battle, or maybe seen a few already. Gloves on, eye patch. On a closer look, he's just a child. What can you say about him?
I never even thought about the fact that we aren’t featured on the cover. Thanks for reminding me!

I was in Dublin at some point and saw that graffiti down an alley and took a picture of it, the kid with the boxing gloves. The artist Solus had written his name at the bottom so my manager got in touch with him and asked if he would give us permission to use it. He wanted a nominal fee as long as we gave him free t-shirts. So if you ever see Solus wearing a Pretenders t-shirt, you’ll know why.

On album opener ‘Losing My Sense Of Taste’, you're singing about not caring about rock and roll, “all my favourites seem tired and old”, “feeling nostalgic and sad”. It's almost a manifesto for how not to be?
That song was more a take on the whole lockdown experience. Actually, it is called ‘Losing My Sense Of Taste’ - which, as a matter, of fact, I never lost during the Covid period. But it did kick off the idea for the song… losing my sense of taste, my sense of smell……and sometimes the whole culture just seems tired.
Not now of course because there’s a new Pretenders album out.

Tell me a little about my favourite song on the album, ‘A Love’?
I suppose that’s the most traditionally Pretenders-sounding song in the vein of ‘Kid’ or ‘Talk of the Town’ or any of the mid tempo ones over the years. I often see love/relationships almost in the same vein as drug addiction. Although, having said that, I know I am jaded, and cynical… ‘The Buzz’ on Hate for Sale visited the same theme.   

On ‘Promise Of Love’ you're singing about hope, “when will I see you again?”. On ‘Let The Sun Come In’, there’s an eternal spirit, “a soul that can’t be perished”. Would you describe Relentless as an optimistic record?
Oh, I am the eternal optimist always. My philosophy is pretty well summed up by a Mose Allison lyric: “I don’t worry about nothing, because I know nothing is gonna be alright”.

‘In The End I Just Let Go’ is an epic. There’s a big theme of escape in that song - how would you describe it?
When I was listening back to that song, it occurred to me that it sounded like someone giving up on life and ending it all.  Well, that’s one interpretation. I think it was supposed to be more about moving forward and not letting the past drag you down. 

‘I Think About You Daily’ is a beautiful way to close the album. Can you tell us who you were remembering when you wrote that song?
Yes, I could tell you, but I’m not going to. I’m not going to tell anyone.