“Some people have called me the diva whisperer.” Blondie collaborator Rob Roth talks weirdos, icons and punk sensibility
“There’s nothing contrived or canned, it’s just Debbie and Chris.”
While these may seem like ordinary names, they take on extraordinary status when you realise that Debbie is Debbie Harry and Chris is Chris Stein, the latter being the long-term creative partner of the former and co-founder of Blondie. Harry barely needs any introduction, suffice to say that along with her band, she was the biggest pop sensation of the late 70s. Today Blondie’s hits are as familiar as those by The Beatles, including Rip her to Shreds, Hanging on the Telephone, and Heart of Glass. The band initially dismissed as too kitschy went on to sell more than 40 million records worldwide.
Following the publication of Harry’s memoir Face It, a mini tour is underway where Harry and Stein talk candidly about their careers. Holding each evening together is artist Rob Roth, a close friend of the pair since the early 1990s. As such, Roth is the ideal host to tease some juicy anecdotes from the duo.
So far, the reaction to the evenings has been encouraging. “The audience is really enjoying it and have said it feels like being on the tour bus with the three of us,” says Roth. “It’s off-the-cuff and impromptu which is kind of punk in itself, and that’s just how I want it to be. You just try to keep it fresh and make sure each evening has something unique. I don’t want to talk about the same thing in the same way every night. Having toured with the band, I’ve seen that some songs go down better one night and others the next and I wanted that same feel with these Q&A shows.”
Given he initially trained as a painter, it’s no surprise that Roth has woven video clips and archive footage of the band into each event.
“It was an obvious factor because Blondie is such a visual band and one of the first to embrace pop videos. It’s never just been about the music. Debbie’s been photographed by almost everybody, Chris is a brilliant photographer and they’re also both really into fashion.”
Managing an evening with two strong characters and an unpredictable audience is a challenge, but one of the aspects Roth enjoys the most. “What’s great fun is that every night is different, you never know which way it’s going to go. I can pursue something we touched upon the previous evening or prompt them to tell a great story I already know happened on tour. Either of them might bring up something I’ve never heard before which is great for me.
“They have such a great sense of humour plus Chris is very political so there’s so many avenues the evening can go down. It’s also very much dictated by what the audience asks and what anecdote or memory that triggers in Debbie and Chris.”
Roth offers one major piece of advice to anyone going along with a query in mind. “Debbie prefers people to get straight to the question. She hates it when someone in the audience opens by over-praising her. It makes her feel uncomfortable, though that’s another thing that makes her so cool. But also, if an audience member begins with a fawning biography, it isn’t interesting for the rest of the room. People who need that in a public forum are sort of narcissists. It wastes a lot of time and you really aim to keep the evening moving along.”
One aspect that is invariably covered is the love that the UK had for Blondie way before the band became popular back home in the States.
“Early on, Australia also really took to Blondie in a big way, but we obviously talk about what it was like for the band the first time they came over to the UK,” Roth explains. “It’s so often the case that the UK gets behind an American act first. There’s a reverse sort of inspirational thing in the States too, especially in New York, when British bands first visit America. It’s that over the pond mythology thing.”
Roth and Harry have been involved in several projects together over the years. But when did their paths first cross? Was it an instant meeting of two kindred spirits?
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he says “It was in our wild, mid-90s night life stage. There was a Tuesday night called Jackie 60 that we both used to attend and perform at from time to time. One night, I just went up to her and asked if she wanted to work on one of my projects and there was an immediate connection. We recognised a lot of similarities in one another and I’ve known her and Chris now for 25 years. We’re cut from the same cloth. We don’t partake in the night life as much as we used to, but we’re not dead yet, so we still have blips.”
As well as Blondie, Roth has worked with a number of other musical icons including Rihanna and Lady GaGa. When it comes to collaborations, it’s clear he’s attracted to working with strong, creative women.
“Some people have called me the diva whisperer,” he laughs. “I’m particularly drawn to cool, female artists who have a great sensibility. There’s a naturalness to Debbie and there’s no pretence. We both have a sense of adventure and have often said that if we’d been living in the 14th century we’d definitely have been explorers of some sort.”
As well as moderating An Evening with, Roth was also creative director for Harry’s 2019 autobiography, Face It. From the outset, he had a clear vision of what the book should and, more importantly, shouldn’t be.
“I told Debbie I wouldn’t allow her to have a generic memoir because she’s so not like that in any way, shape or form. She’s such an unconventional celebrity. Her book needed a visual language about it, so there’s a lot of drawings that are symbolic and tell different stories, almost like hieroglyphics. I wanted it to be intrinsically punk where you take it off the shelf, draw in it, then put it back. It’s like a book within a book which is perfect because she has so many layers – singer, actress, writer, performer. I’m always merging ideas in my work and I wanted Face It to be a fusion of an art book and a memoir.”
Roth’s distinctive mixed media works combine theatre, film, audio and performance and have been showcased at New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art, Museum of Arts & Design and the Whitney Museum of American Art. I’ve often wondered if artists who cross over different genres do so because of a low attention span but Roth is quick to dispel this theory.
“I don’t know if it’s that. I think it’s more a curiosity about cross-pollination. If I do something in one genre, I get interested in how it might work if I drop it into another style. How does video work in theatre? How does theatre work in a rock show? I think art has always been that way.”
As a self-confessed “diva whisperer”, are there any other artists who Roth would like to collaborate with? “Oh yeah, I would absolutely love to work with Lana Del Rey. I think what she does, what she has to say, and her references are particularly interesting. She’s out there which is a trait I’m always drawn to.”
Over the years, a number of female artists have been described as ‘out there’ such as Florence + the Machine, Björk, Tori Amos and, most recently, Billie Eilish. But, to some, these artists can appear manufactured rather than authentically off-kilter. Roth isn’t convinced that artists consciously fake eccentricity.
“I met Billie at an award show recently and she had a really good vibe about her. I think if you have that vibe it’s regardless of what you’re wearing or the colours in your hair. It’s difficult for newer artists, though, because they will always be following in the footsteps of the originals who went before.”
He adds: “Kate Bush was the first. When someone comes up with something as new as she did, that has never really been heard before, the business will initially say ‘oh that’ll never work’. When it does succeed, however, the business wants more of it, so it’s inevitable that it can feel diluted by the people that come after. The inspiration from originals like Kate will always influence the army of new artists who follow. I don’t think Billie Eilish is trying to be different, she’s more authentically weird and I’ve always loved a weirdo.”
* An Evening with Debbie Harry & Chris Stein in Conversation is at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on April 26, 2020.
Face It is published by Harper Collins and is available now.
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