Today marks what would have been Joe Strummer’s 68th birthday, and though he left us eighteen years ago, his voice remains just as powerful in 2020. The Clash leader’s lyrics seem to have become more prescient in a summer of racial tensions, political leaders attempting to hijack democracy, and a pandemic crippling the world. Zander Schloss (Circle Jerks, The Weirdos) was a friend and bandmate of Joe Strummer, and recently released a beautiful acoustic rendition of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” (Piece of Pie Records). The eight minute track is finger-picked on an acoustic twelve-string guitar, and the arrangement allows Strummer’s lyrics to sound even more urgent. Schloss was a member of Joe Strummer’s first post-Clash band, the Latino Rockabilly War, and met Strummer while contributing to the soundtrack of legendary director Alex Cox’s classic film Sid and Nancy. Schloss and Strummer continued to collaborate with Cox, together starring in the 1987 film Straight To Hell and scoring the music for Walker. Schloss and Cox have remained friends for over forty years, and Alex Cox directed the new music video for Schloss’s cover of “Straight to Hell.” The video is a perfect visual representation of this chaotic year, with Schloss performing in a bandana and medical gloves while grim episodes of American history play behind him. Stewart Wiseman caught up with Zander Schloss and Alex Cox to discuss their latest collaboration and their memories of working with Joe Strummer.
Northern Transmissions: How did the two of you first meet?
Alex Cox: We met through Zander’s sister Abbe Wool, and I have a distinct recollection that the first time we met Zander was playing a guitar.
Zander Schloss: Most likely, I used to never really put it down.
Alex Cox: I think you only put it down to shake hands. That must be forty years ago now!
Zander Schloss: We were friends before Repo Man, because I used to go down to the UCLA film school quite a bit and saw you there. I ended up doing the music for Abbe Wool’s student film Rita Steele.
NT: Now the two of you have a new collaboration, with a video for Zander’s cover of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” In the video for “Straight to Hell,” Zander performs beautifully on 12-string acoustic guitar, while footage of some of the worst episodes in American history play on a screen behind him. I spotted footage of what looked like a plantation, Vietnamese children, and nuclear warfare. Alex, what was your thought process for the video’s concept?
Alex Cox: Zander told me he wanted to have a bunch of beautiful images of bucolic life, so I went online to a film archive where you can get all of this old American newsreel stuff. Basically they’re government produced public domain infomercials. I thought there would be lots of footage about farming, fields of waving grain, tractors, and stuff; but there was not a bit of it. It’s all, “duck and cover!” or “DIE!”. It’s insanely warmongering and demented, so I thought, well, okay, good that’s what it’s going to be.
NT: Zander, you’re wearing a bandana and plastic gloves throughout the video in a nod to the situation we’re currently in. We can add America’s pandemic response to that list of American tragedies.
Zander Schloss: I actually took the mask off to perform the second half of the song, but I opted in favour of keeping the mask and the rubber gloves footage in. It’s very difficult to play a finger-picking folk style while wearing gloves.
Alex Cox: And I tried to dissuade you! I said, “Zander take the mask off, take the gloves off,” but you were adamant that you wanted them on.
Zander Schloss: I wanted to make a statement about flattening the curve and going with what the science is telling us. The coronavirus has been politicized in America, and I don’t really fucking give a shit about people who are saying that the virus is a hoax and that they won’t give up their rights to not wear a mask. I want the curve to be flattened so that I can go out on the road and play with the Circle Jerks and for live venues to be safe again. The virus also disrupted the original plan for the video. I was going to take a road trip from L.A. up to Oregon and do the video at Alex’s cabin, and possibly play his butler.
NT: Was Elvis Costello not available to play the butler again, like his role in Straight to Hell?
Alex Cox: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? That can be for the next video. We’ll set a bigger budget for the next one.
Zander Schloss: The video still worked out great. We ended up doing it on a green screen, and Alex put the images in the background. My cinematographer friend Anthony Pedone did an amazing job shooting and editing it.
Alex, what was it like to direct remotely?
Alex Cox: It was alright! I sent them a bunch of notes about what the images might be, and it all worked out. I think we got what we were hoping for.
Zander Schloss: I think the green screen worked out. It’s a great marker in time as well, a real COVID video. We were in an unventilated apartment, which you can see on the sides of the screen, and all these beautiful wide-open spaces are shown at the beginning, but yet we’re all in lockdown. I think it’s a great statement on how people are doing things right now.
Alex Cox: You pulled it off! You said you were going to do a video even if we are in lockdown all trapped in our houses. You were set on still doing the video, and you accomplished that.
Zander Schloss: I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t take this great road trip and have that visit with Alex, but it really worked out for the best.
NT: Zander, of all Clash or Joe Strummer solo songs, what pulled you toward “Straight to Hell” for a cover?
Zander Schloss: When I was playing as Joe’s guitarist in the Latino Rockabilly War, we used to play a lot of Clash covers. We did everything from “What’s My Name?,” to “Brand New Cadillac,” to “Armagideon Time.” There were a couple of songs that stuck out in my mind as having a lot of room to stretch out musically, and Joe’s songs all have great images in them, they’re almost cinematic songs. I’m at a stage where I want to leave a lot of space in the music so that people can create their own imagery in their minds. “Straight to Hell” seemed not only fitting for the times because of the lack of leadership that we have and all the terrible things going on right now with the killing of George Floyd and the pandemic, but I’ve been noticing a trend of people gravitating toward Joe as a result of these events. He had a real grasp on social consciousness. As for the statement of “go straight to hell,” I don’t want to say it’s directed at one person in the White House specifically, but it might be.
A couple of years ago Jesse Malin put on an event called “Gates of the West” at the Roxy Theatre, and I had like 15-20 minutes to perform some songs that I did with Joe. So I came up with an acoustic re-envisioning of “Straight to Hell,” which I loved playing electric with Joe, and it sounded great. Some friends encouraged me to record it, and it became the first release on my label Piece of Pie Records. I wanted to tie Alex in because of my long-standing relationship and brotherhood with him, and also Joe’s longstanding relationship with Alex, so we formed a little trifecta of love there.
NT: I was reading in Chris Salewicz’s book Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer (Faber and Faber, 2006), that in those early Latino Rockabilly War shows you actually had to teach Joe some of the chords to Clash songs that he hadn’t played in a while. What was that experience like?
Zander Schloss: A lot of fun. By that time we had become friends from working on the soundtracks to Alex’s films and acting in them [Walker, Straight to Hell]. We had some musical contact from jamming, but the real beginning of our collaboration started on the Walker soundtrack. Joe was quite generous creatively and trusted me as an equal. He had an admiration for the fact that I constantly had a guitar in my hand, and I was a quick learner.
Alex Cox: Or if it wasn’t a guitar you had a charango.
Zander Schloss: A charango. Or a vihuela. Or a bajo sexto. I played all of these Latin instruments, and Joe respected me. So, if he had forgotten a song, he would just ask me what the chords were, and I would be able to re-teach him those songs. He had no shame about that.
NT: What was Joe like as an actor? I read that during Straight to Hell half the crew suspected him of temporary insanity for sleeping in a car and never getting out of costume.
Alex Cox: He was a method actor, we were all method-ing out. I was a method director; these guys were all method actors. We all slept up there in the dirt, except gradually people started pairing off and finding girlfriends or boyfriends. So eventually I was there alone!
Zander Schloss: I know for myself I was completely method and thought up this horrible backstory for my character, Karl the Wiener Man, of him being left alone by his father, who was a major meat magnate.
Alex Cox: You had been abandoned by Oscar Mayer at the county fair!
Zander Schloss: I took it seriously! As a method actor, I was really tortured because I had a hard time getting out of that role… Karl was a very sad and homeless hotdog vendor. One of the other actors, Graham Fletcher-Cook, said, “dude, you’ve got to get out of this character when you’re off set!” I had a wooden coin that my father had given me for my birthday, and Graham told me to look at it before I acted, and then to put the wooden nickel back in my pocket so that I could snap out of character. It was really great advice.
NT: There’s a hilarious Joe Strummer-Zander Schloss co-written song in the film called “Salsa y Ketchup.” How did you guys write that one?
Zander Schloss: Well, it’s funny that you should ask. I had first met Joe coming out of a studio when I was putting some guitar on the Sid and Nancy soundtrack, but Joe was in a hurry and sort of seemed in a bit of a bad mood. The next time I met Joe, I had just gotten off the plane and arrived at my hotel where Joe greeted me in the lobby, and basically was a whole different person. He was affable, enthusiastic, and cheery. He said to me, “I think that your character Karl the Wiener Man needs to have a wiener jingle to sell his wieners!” He sat me down before I could even go up to my room and unpack my bags, and we wrote the song in one sitting. If you listen to the lyrics, you can kind of tell which are the lines that Joe contributed and which ones I wrote. The first line is, “There ain’t nothin’ meaner than a wiener from Pasadena.” Now that’s a Joe line. Just saying those words, you can imagine it coming out in his voice. And then my line was, “At Karl’s Disco Wiener-tina Haven.” “You won’t find nothin’ leaner in your mean chili beaner,” is another great Joe Strummer line. He was a pretty funny guy.
NT: What was the process like working on the Walker soundtrack together with Joe?
Alex Cox: He actually stayed in Nicaragua after we finished shooting and wrote it all there. We were there editing the film, and he just stayed with us in Granada. I think after that he got together with Zander in San Francisco.
Zander Schloss: Well I had just gotten off the road when I received a message on my phone from Joe saying, “Zander! This is Joe Strummer. I want you to come up to Russian Hill Studios and bring your Spanish guitar!” I was just puzzled and thought, “what the fuck was that?” He only asked for my Spanish guitar, but I figured I’d also bring my guitarrón, my bajo sexto, my charango, my bandurria, my classical guitar, and my requinto guitar, and I ended up playing all these Latin instruments on the Walker soundtrack. Joe had written all this incredible music down in Nicaragua, and because of my love for playing Latin music and all things pluck-and-pick, Joe gave me a whole lot of creative freedom and was very supportive of me playing all these instruments. I was like a kid in a candy store getting to experiment with all these sounds that I treasured, especially on the second side of that album. It was a fantastic experience, and to this day I think it’s one of the pieces of work that I’m most proud of.
Alex Cox: That soundtrack is one of the very best I’ve ever heard.
Alex, for Repo Man and Sid and Nancy you had several different bands contributing songs to the films. Were you confident at first entrusting Joe Strummer with developing the full soundtrack for Walker?
Alex Cox: Well, he just decided that himself! At one point in Nicaragua we were going to drive out to Managua and meet this guy who was a very popular local composer and ask him to write a song. I had thoughts about other musicians I wanted to contribute songs as well, so I asked Joe his opinion, and he said, “well, you know Alex, I think you’ve done that a couple of times. I think it would be better if one person wrote all the music for Walker.” I said, “oh really? Who would that person be?” Of course, he had an idea of who that person would be, and he was right!
NT: I think that really gave him the confidence to start playing music again and forging his solo career, because he wasn’t too active musically after The Clash broke up.
Alex Cox: He had become a producer, and had produced an album for a band in Grenada, Spain. But he was looking for something else. He was looking to maybe be a film composer or an actor… he didn’t really know what. Then it was after Walker that he went out on the road with the Latino Rockabilly War.
NT: After Walker, Joe’s next solo album was Earthquake Weather. I read that while recording that album Bob Dylan stopped by the studio with a tape of a song that he thought Joe should try out, but that he never listened to it out of discomfort. Zander, did you ever listen to the song, and do you know if Dylan ever used it on a subsequent album?
Zander Schloss: That’s sort of what happened! Bob Dylan of course was a big fan of The Clash and was kind of spying on what was going on through his son Jesse, who was down at the studio taking pictures. At a certain point, Joe and I were sitting back in what he called his bunker, and he said to me, “Bob Dylan sent me a song that he thought we should cover,” and I said, “oh really? what did you do with it?” He said he chucked it in the desk drawer. I was like, “Joe, Bob Dylan sent you a song, don’t you think that we should maybe consider listening to it?” and he said, “yeah, I suppose so.” So, he brought out this cassette, and it actually wasn’t a Bob Dylan song, it was a Pete Seeger song about the Spanish Civil War, called “Viva la Quince Bragada.” We ended up doing a really great modern dance arrangement of it actually, which was originally just Pete Seeger singing and playing the banjo. It didn’t make it onto Earthquake Weather, but was released couple years ago as “15th Brigade” on the Joe Strummer 001 compilation album.
NT: The Circle Jerks were supposed to reunite this year for the first time since 2011 for the 40th anniversary of Group Sex. Where do plans currently sit for the tour? Did you guys start rehearsing prior to shut down?
Zander Schloss: Some shows are now being rebooked for 2021. I’ll be releasing my solo album, Song About Songs, around then as well so that I can play some solo acoustic shows around the Circle Jerks dates. We have a fantastic new drummer, and we’ve been rehearsing every week without Keith because he’s vulnerable to the virus with his diabetes. I’m pretty upset that we’re not on a world tour right now, but this has provided an opportunity for our new drummer to become a real band member, and for us to sound like a real band again, and that’s been happening.
NT: Today would have been Joe Strummer’s 68th birthday. Do any Joe Strummer birthday celebrations stick out to you?
Zander Schloss: Joe and I were both Leos, and I remember one birthday where I was dating a girl at the time who was a Libra. It turned out that the mother of Joe’s children, Gaby Salter, was also a Libra. And then I remember we started asking people around the room when their birthday was, and all the guys there were Leos, and they all had Libra wives or girlfriends. Isn’t that strange? It’s such a bummer that he’s gone. I really think the world can use him right now. All the music that he left behind and his great quotes are relevant to what’s happening now, and are very helpful in these times.
Interview by Stewart Wiseman
Zander Schloss – “Straight to Hell”