Last month, Blondie guitarist and songwriter Chris Stein released the almost self-titled Chris Stein / Negative, a handsome photobook featuring shots that begin in the mid-Seventies and end with a picture of Debbie Harry and Philip Glass taken at Lou Reed’s memorial service. “There was a lot of multitasking going on,” Stein says of his early days playing with and taking photos of his Blondie bandmates. “Everybody was doing all kinds of stuff. The guys in Television were all active poets and writers as well as being musicians. Things were kind of like that.” On the phone, just before the opening of a Chelsea Hotel gallery exhibit featuring a few of his shots, the singer discussed the punk era, photos of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Nile Rodgers and how Skrillex and Latin music inspire him today.
When did you start taking pictures and getting interested in photography?
I was always dabbling in photography. When I was a little kid I used to take pictures of toys and all that junk. You know, little toy cameras. And then I was in the School of Visual Arts pretty early on. I think my first year there was in like ’67. And also there was a friend of mine in my neighborhood who was a really great photographer, and he had apprenticed for Diane Arbus and was in the Warhol scene a little bit. He was a big inspiration.
Who were your favorite photographers at the time?
The usual suspects: Brassaï and Weegee and Arbus. People now who are my contemporaries are great photographers. David Godlis’ Kickstarter campaign, he asked for 30 grand and he made almost 100 grand. He’s probably up to 100 grand by now for a CBGBs photo book, and he’s one of the great downtown photographers. William Coupon is also a great photographer. He’s always producing amazing images.
One of the photos in the book, before the table of contents even, is Debbie in this messy apartment with a Communist Party logo. Whose apartment was that?
That was our loft on the Bowery. That was right across the street from where the New Museum is now, but back then it was very funky. And the Communist Party thing was just something we found in the street that was a nice graphic.
Were you guys communists?
Actually my parents had met in the party, but I wasn’t actively anything. I think we are probably still more anti-government than anything else. But it’s hard to say at this point, things being where they are.
When you look back at these photos in your book, what do you feel?
There’s a lot of memory involved. Personally, the photos are linked to a lot of memories. I’m often approached by people with some long story that I don’t remember at all. I just saw Tom Verlaine and then Richard Hell’s book – they both say I auditioned for the Neon Boys, which was the early incarnation of Television. I don’t really remember that at all – though I told Tom I did remember, just to be polite.
I recently saw an interview where you briefly mentioned class distinction between the downtown punk scene and the disco scene. Can you talk a little more about that?
Yeah, there was definitely a disconnect. The disco scene in Manhattan was a little more high-end with the clubs, but when you went out in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens it was much more funky and working class. A little bit like the movie, like Saturday Night Fever.
Were you going out there?
Once or twice, yeah. There was a disco in Brooklyn called Dynamite that was a big disco that was funky that I went to once or twice. But mostly we were all just involved in what we were doing.
It seems like you were involved with a lot more than just your scene, though. The book has a great photo of Basquiat at the “Rapture” video shoot.
Well he was a great character. He was just really pissed off that the director wouldn’t let him graffiti on the walls. He wanted a clean red wall behind it.
Did you spend much time with him?
A little bit, yeah. Towards the end, yeah. I think Andy’s death affected him really profoundly, among other things. He was always kind of a brooding guy, but he was what he was. He was a genius too.
And musically, were you familiar with his band Gray at all?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I have a copy of one of the records actually. He had this crazy sort of noise band. They were really experimental. I don’t know if I ever saw them live. I listened to the record. It was experimental noise. I think one of them was playing his guitar with a file or something like that. It was a little abstract.
There’s a cool photo of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards in there too. I was wondering when you linked up with them.
Pretty early on. We were the first ones on both sides that either had worked with outside of their home bands: Those guys were the first ones we worked with outside of Blondie, and I’m pretty we were the first ones they worked with outside of Chic. We were just really huge Chic fans, so we just approached them.
Did other bands or other musicians in your scene listen as widely as you guys did and have all these outside influences in the same way?
Yeah sure, probably. I mean certainly the Talking Heads had a pretty broad vision of what they were doing. I just think a lot of those guys, just their focus was a little narrower. The Ramones certainly had a very specific focus. Also with Blondie I think it had a lot to do with us getting into the studio. Our early live stuff wasn’t, you know, that together, but I think a lot of our forward motion came out of us getting into the recording studio for the first times.
Jumping up to the present, I love that you put Los Rakas on the new record.
Those guys are awesome. Actually Jeff [Saltzman] was the one that put them on, but I’m a big fan of the reggaeton and cumbia movements. There’s really a lot of amazing stuff. Bomba Estéreo are fucking great. There’s a lot of great stuff going on, it’s just that it doesn’t cross over because it’s all Spanish language.
How did you get into it?
I don’t know, probably just listening to the radio. I picked up a Colombia compilation record at some point and was really inspired by it. There’s a great radio station in New York called La Mega, I think, which is really cool.
Actually, one of my favorite post-Blondie records is “In Love With Love,” and I first heard that on a Latin freestyle compilation. Where you going for that sound at the time?
You know, I can’t remember. It was probably just a lot about the synthesizers and groove stuff. But yeah, I’m just really deep into modern Latin music these days, the last four or five years. I really like the modern electronic Latin scene, so that’s funny. Maybe it was just always in there.
What else are you listening to these days?
Everything. We just came off the tour and the guys in the bands are just founts of musical stuff. I’m always very perplexed when I hear people saying they don’t hear any good music now and it was all back in the Seventies or Eighties or whenever. I find that kind of crazy. I really like Sia now. I think she’s kind of amazing. I’ve always been a huge Beirut fan. I like Die Antwoord a lot. I like a lot of the EDM guys – I’m a big Skrillex fan.