The Pretenders are returning to the spotlight this summer with a new album, ”Viva el Amor!,” and a 17-date stint on the Lilith Fair tour — but don’t you dare call it a comeback. Lead singer Chrissie Hynde, 47, says she never disappeared; she was just taking a little time off to clean up her act, get married, and listen to the birds singing. The rock iconoclast talked with EW Online about the joys of kicking drugs, kicking back, and kicking it with the ladies of Lilith.
Why did you decide to do the Lilith tour this year?
It’s like the circus coming to town. There’s a bunch of different bands, and there’s a geeky element because it’s all girls. I don’t even know who’s on the tour for our two and a half weeks, but for two and a half weeks, what can be so bad? The only thing I wouldn’t do for two and a half weeks would be labor.
Why did we have to wait five years for another studio album?
I don’t want people to think I’m crap. I’d rather wait until I think the stuff is pretty good. And I’m not an ambitious person. I don’t want to be more famous or anything. I just want to keep it kind of hovering in the middle somewhere. As long as I make enough money so that I can buy a jacket once in a while and do some gigs with the band, that’s fine.
The track ”Legalise Me” deals with drugs, and two and a half years ago you gave up marijuana. How has that changed your life?
I’ve regained some of my consciousness, that’s for sure. And I can leave the house now — stuff like that. It’s possibly changed the ritual of writing a little, but not much. Usually when I would sit there with my rolling tray and my guitar, I might eke out one or two lines every two weeks. It wasn’t like stuff was flowing out of the pen and onto the page. I was mainly there just looking at the wall, I think, and I was happy to do so. But after a while, you can’t keep doing the same thing all the time, because you just get bored with it. And it’s not a very productive habit, sitting around by yourself smoking dope. But it was fun while it lasted.
How do you feel when people refer to you as a rock-and-roll pioneer?
I didn’t pioneer anything. That would be like if I was a scientist and I came out this year and said, ”I discovered a vaccine against polio!” Everyone would be like, ”Uh, didn’t a guy named Dr. Salk do that 30 years ago?” ”Well, yeah, but he wasn’t a woman!” It doesn’t really mean much just because I’m a woman if I’m doing the same thing as anyone else, does it?
The song ”Biker” is about people who live on the fringes of society and follow their own code of honor. Do you feel like an outsider?
Absolutely. I don’t really share the common view on a lot of things. For example, I don’t even think we used to be monkeys. I think all the monkeys and apes are an extension of the human family, and that we should be looking after all of them as their caretakers and shepherds. I told my kids when they were little, ”We’re vegetarians, and you’re always going to be the odd one out. People might even make fun of you and call you tree lovers, but remember, THEY kill animals for pleasure.”
How is it different being a rock musician in your 40s versus your 20s?
I haven’t really changed a lot. I just think I’ve gotten older. The things you like when you get older, I now like — things like hearing birds singing. I still like pop-rock music, though that’s not the only music I like. In some ways I’m in an odd category, making pop-rock music in my late 40s, since I’ve never been a folksinger, really, and I’m not a disco queen or anything. I’ve never really changed or gone for this reinvention shtick. I think all the gimmicks of pop music are fun, but my thing was just to play in a little band. I’ve had no ambitions to anything else.
What do you think of the current music scene?
I think the advent of the video was the significant turning point that changed the face of music. And when I say the face, I do mean the face. Image over substance kind of took over. Obviously, image has always been important, but these days its all about stylists and f—ing personal trainers. I don’t know when this stomach fashion happened and all the face furniture and stuff. I don’t get it. It really makes me feel my age. I don’t mind any of it, but I just want to hear a four-piece rock band.
Are you relieved that you’re not starting out as a musician today?
Yeah, that’s a great relief to me. I think (now) if you’re 20 and in a band, you’re really thinking about how you’re going to look in the video. Mercifully, I was spared that. When I was writing songs the last thing I ever thought about was that anyone was ever going to see my face closer than 30 feet away. I never thought anyone was going to really get in there and be looking at my pores.
While working on this album, you sent a copy of it to the fans who run your website to get their feedback. Why?
Maybe it’s just guilt because I’m so hideously out of touch. I’m so uncomfortable with my celebrity. I’m a really miserable person to approach in an airport, for example. I don’t want anyone to look at me, and I really squirm in the public eye. So I feel like I’ve bad vibed so many innocent bystanders who’ve stared at me, I have this deep, ongoing remorse for all the people I’ve bummed out over the years in public places.