by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
May 26, 2010
Syl Sylvain was born Ronald Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, on Valentine's Day of 1951. He's been a lot of things in his lifetime: Clothing designer, cab driver, stage hand. But history knows him as a founding member, songwriter, and guitarist with one of punk rock's architectural bands, sleaze-glam pioneers the New York Dolls. Having played mostly in the shadow of more flamboyant bandmate, lead guitarist Johnny Thunders (the Keith Richards of down-and-dirty scuzzrock), Syl's truly spread his wings since reforming the Dolls in 2004 with singer David Johansen for Morrissey's turn as the Meltdown festival's curator. On the eve of another European tour with the Dolls, Syl spoke by telephone with RocknRollDating about his new side-project with fellow punk refugee Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys, and of life as a once-and-future New York Doll.
Hey Syl – let’s start with your latest project the Batusis.
Did Cheetah tell you how we came up with the name, the Batusis? We were only supposed to record three songs in four days, but it was going so well that we recorded four songs. The fourth song was my idea, which was “Blues' Theme” from the Peter Fonda movie, The Wild Angels. So here we are in the studio in Nashville, of all places! And we're listening to all the songs, and we're listening to “Blues' Theme” and I start dancing, doing that Batman thing with the fingers to the eyes and all that stuff. Then the engineers start dancing, and the whole band is dancing! So Cheetah asks me, “What the hell are you doing? What is that dance you're doing?” I told him, “I don't know! It's the dance that Batman does!” So he's got his laptop on his lap and he starts Googling it, and he goes, “Man, it's called the Batusi!” And we'd been looking for a name, trying this one and that one, and nothing's really working out. So when he said it was called the Batusi, I said, “THERE IT IS! THAT'S THE FUCKING NAME!”
I swear, the whole record came like that. But the minute we had the name, it became like a package. It really took life. Ken Coomer, the drummer from Wilco who was our producer, said, “Man, the music now sounds like the name!”It all came together beautifully, it was such a groovy thing. And coming from making records with the New York Dolls – well, the last two records – where I had to compromise and some of the stuff wasn't really my bag....But I had to deal with David and what he wanted to do, too. I respect it, though. I thought the two albums we made were really good, but it was frustrating, because it wasn't what I really wanted to do. So, this was such a breath of fresh air, man! I could let my hair down, what few curls I have left, anyway! (laughter) It was so beautiful, and I think Cheetah felt the same way, being in that same vein, trying this and that and ending up frustrated. But this came together so cool. And when we performed at SXSW? Wow!
So what you're telling me is that you had a much more fun with this Batusis record, much more of a spontaneous experience?
Oh, yeah! Definitely! It was such a gas! I was so turned on. And Cheetah and me? We have no clash whatsoever. There was no compromising. When we came in there, I swear: We didn't have anything together! We had Joan Jett's rhythm section from the Blackhearts, Thommy Price and Enzo Pinnizotto. Being the stars that we are, me and Cheetah, we've got a lotta people wanting to play with us. For SXSW, we had Les Warner from The Cult and that guy Chuck Garric that plays with Billy Bob Thornton, and he also plays in Alice Cooper's band. He did a great job! But we couldn't use the Blackhearts guys for SXSW, because they're on the road with Joan. She's busy because of The Runaways movie. Chuck can't play with us right now, because he's off doing gigs with Alice. We just want to give everybody a chance, because we're riding the crest of our lives right now, and it's such a beautiful thing. We want to share it.
What I really like about this EP is that it really shows you guys' personalities. It's bookended by two instrumentals, which I think is very important because the art of the rock 'n' roll instrumental has kinda been lost over time.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Well, who the hell does instrumentals anymore?
Yeah, exactly. And that's such a shame. But more than anything, do you know why that happened? Because we're both guitar players. See, if we had Mick Jagger in the band, then of course every song would have to have singing. The way I make records, even when I made records like “14th Street Beat” (from Syl's self-titled debut LP from 1980), (then-label) RCA would have to have a meeting. Why? Because I didn't have a guitar solo and I had New York City subway sound effects on my song. They were going, “Waitaminit! This is nuts! This is not kosher!” (laughs) And who the fuck cares? You've gotta make records the way the record wants to be made. You're not going to be producing the singer or the guitar player. You've got to produce the record! You've got to produce the song! The song is calling out for shit.
I love recording. Recording has got to be one of my favorite things. It's such a different animal than performing live, and I love that even more. But it's such a groovy thing. It's a beautiful thing, man.
Before this project came along, you toured very briefly with a new band, a young band, doing solo stuff. You were telling me then you were planning a solo EP. Are you still planning to do something solo in addition to this?
Yes, I would love to. I'm hearing my calling. The Sleep Baby Doll album, that was more than 12 years ago when that came out. It was like '98 or something like that.
I write songs. I don't know who I'm writing them for, if it's for myself or whoever. It's so fucking hard to write a good song that I just write. When I hear something, I put it down and have whatever I've got available. I just try to write a tune, I don't consider where it's going to go or who's going to be playing it. That's all forgotten about. I just write, write, write.
Every song, I call it a thread in my curtain. And over the years I've accumulated a pretty damned big curtain! (chuckles) I have so many outlets. At the moment, I have a song for this band who opened for the New York Dolls on our last tour, they're called Black Joe Louis. They come up to me and ask, “Hey, man! Have you got a tune for us?” And I said, “Let me look around.” So I look around at my threads in my curtain, and this one song stood out. It had horns and stuff, in my mind anyways. So I said, “This is perfect for you guys.” And I sent it to them.
That's the way I do it for a lot of things: If it's not for me, it's for someone else. I'm trying to come up with something for Robert Gordon right now. He's going into the studio to record a song or two right now. It's the same way when I wrote “Dance Like A Monkey.” I was thinking, “What do people really want to hear David sing?” And of course, it bugs the shit out of him, but everyone still comes up to him and asks for Mick Jagger's autograph! (laughs) So I was thinking, “What do the kids really want to hear David sing? They want him to dance like a monkey, like Mick Jagger does!” (laughs) So I came up with that tune, and it had that line, (sings) “Dance like a monkey/Dance like a monkey, chile!” Although it's credited to David, I came up with that line.
To me, the people rule. What the hell do they want to hear? And that's the reason I want to make a new record, because I've got all these tunes. I can hear myself making a dynamite new record again. Maybe I make them once every decade or whatever, unfortunately. I should be able to do it once each year. But that's not in my cards at this moment. It never has been really, in my life. But yes, I would love to do a new record. In fact, I was thinking of calling it Threads In The Curtain.
I know that the New York Dolls have a tour coming up here. So it's obvious with all this activity, there will be no stopping the New York Dolls.
No, the Dolls are still happening, and we're about to play again. We do have a lot more time to ourselves lately. We've been together since the revival in 2004. Thank God to Morrissey for convincing David! Me and Arthur Kane had been wanting to do this three decades ago. It's not that (David) didn't want to do it, or he didn't have the time. But after the New York Dolls' breakup, I don't think he understood the importance of the band as much as the audience did. We never really made that much money, but it's become basically the gold standard. In some cases, we became the Ground Zero for modern music made after 1970. I don't think he quite appreciated it until he went on the stage at Meltdown.
Me? When the New York Dolls broke up, I was still a New York Doll. No matter what, even with my RCA albums or wherever my career took me, you'd still find traces of the New York Dolls in anything I did. Or in anything I do, including the Batusis.
Well, your track on the Batusis EP, “What You Lack In Brains,” I could hear that on a New York Dolls album.
Yeah. Well unfortunately, they won't have it! (laughs) There were a lot of things tried (on the New York Dolls' 2006 comeback album, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This). There were four or five songs that I could not find myself to be in the studio on those songs, to be honest with you. I know what a New York Dolls song should be and should sound like. But the people that I work with in the new New York Dolls, if we can call it that, don't appreciate that. They don't know: “As long as we hang the name on top of that, then it becomes a New York Dolls song.” I don't believe that. That song on there called “I Ain't Got Nothing” was the one track that I could not bring myself to play on. I just found a lot of those songs to be songs that you would find any day on a David Johansen solo album.
I'm not saying that the songs were bad. Structurally, musically, they weren't bad or anything like that. I just said, “We got signed because it's the New York Dolls, and these songs do not have that signature.” I got a few people mad, but I didn't give a shit. I couldn't do it. I gotta be true to myself, first off. And I gotta be true to the reason we got signed. You've gotta have vision. David had not been a New York Doll for so many years, until Meltdown. And he doesn't quite understand that. I don't mind if you write about this and he hears about this, because I've told him this over and over again: “This is not a New York Dolls song.” “Well, what's a New York Dolls song?” And that was exactly my point: If you've got to ask what a New York Dolls song is, then you just don't get it.
I appreciate you being this candid with me. But are you sure you want this going into print?
I don't care. I really don't. I think it'll do everybody good. They know that, the Dolls know that. But they won't tell the whole world. And I think the whole world needs to know that. The whole world might be ten people, but I don't give a shit.
It's not cheating the people, but it's fooling them. Especially for the ones that weren't there, like some of your readers, maybe? They weren't even born yet, they're brand new. When they pick up an album, and on the cover it says “New York Dolls?” Maybe they heard those old songs, and they hear the new stuff and maybe they're disappointed. Then the record company comes back to you and says, “Well, that one didn't make it, either. You didn't sell records. You've lost your edge.” Well, maybe that's the reason why, because you didn't deliver.
Again and again and again, the same thing happens when we go out and play live. It's kinda trickle down. Our sets became 70% new stuff, and 30% was the gold standard, as I like to call it. Maybe in the New York Dolls, we never got a hit record. But, man! “Personality Crisis!” “Trash!” “Frankenstein!” “Vietnamese Baby!” “Human Being!” “Subway Train!” “Stranded In The Jungle!” “Pills!” These became like gold standards over the years! When it comes to selling records, they may not have given me gold records, but we made gold. And every generation picked up on that, and they bought the record. It's still happening, it's still going on.
When you make a new record and you've got a new lineup? I'd like to think if Jerry Nolan, Arthur Kane and Johnny Thunders were still alive, they would be back in the band today. But it's not possible and I'm not a miracle worker and I can't bring them back. But this is not the kinda band...yes, you should have new things and you should be motivating and influential and really be true to art-for-art's-sake. But when the New York Dolls started, the reason we got together was that music was so boring! It wasn't rock 'n' roll, it became opera rock or whatever it was called. It was boring as shit! That's why we started the New York Dolls: “Hey, if it lasts two weeks, at least we'll have fun.” That was our attitude. We sang about what we sang about, and now (the music) seems contrived. It's like what the one you sleep with wants to hear, instead of what you really want to tell her, and ought to tell her. I think that takes away a lot, and we're more contrived today. Except me! I've gotta admit! (laughs)
Sure, it's ambitious and it's wild. But I wanna make changes and I wanna go and keep it the same. The reason I got into this business to begin with is still at the top of my list, it's still why I want to do it today. I find it boring out there and I know what people need and people want. You can smell show business when Sylvain fucking walks into the room. (laughs) And you saw that when you saw my own band in August. I want to introduce tomorrow's talent. I may be yesterday's star, but I wanna show you what I think you ought to be hearing and who you should hear it from and who's got the goods. It's gotta be sexy, it's gotta be raunchy, it's gotta be real, it's gotta be true-to-heart. It's gotta have the ingredients that when you hear the song, you wanna take off your clothes and run around, and your mother comes in and slaps your face! (laughs) If you don't have that, I don't think you have rock 'n' roll.