Interview: C.J. Ramone
The Ramones – like AC/DC, like Motorhead – are true and singular rock icons; a band whose music became its own genre; a band who influenced every other band who ever smoked an amp in their wake. And in the Ramones case it wasn’t just subsequent punk bands from The Sex Pistols to The Buzzcocks to The Misfits to Green Day to The Living End - it was also hard rock/metal bands. Metallica, Guns N Roses, Pearl Jam, even Kiss – they all love the Ramones, and were influenced by their energy, economy and simplicity. It’s no surprise that the Ramones’ iconic logo has become one of the most ubiquitous designs in street wear and fashion over the last decade. CJ RAMONE wasn’t an original member – sadly, none of the originally four are still alive - but replaced Dee Dee Ramone as the bass thumping heart and soul of the Ramones. 23-year-old CJ rose to the occasion, never letting Dee Dee’s 1-2-3-4 energy flag for a moment and bringing never-say-die enthusiasm to the band when it needed it most. CJ was with The Ramones (and post Ramones band The Ramainz featuring Dee Dee and Marky) for a decade and played on the band’s final three studio albums. CJ RAMONE released his first solo album in 2012. His solo albums keep the Ramones' flame alive and have been universally acclaimed for their power and quality. CJ is a fine singer and songwriter, and knowing the Ramones music from the inside, he is able to bring that sound and spirit to his own work. CJ RAMONE, fresh from headlining this year's annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash, takes the baseball bat to Australian venues this September. Our very own Rob Garry was able to have a chat with CJ which you can read below.
First, how are you brother? Back home now for a few days before you head back out?
Yeah, the great thing is I'm in New York real close to my hometown, so I got to catch up with friends and make the rounds. I had a session over at my favourite pub last night so…
So, life’s good?
Yeah, no complaints (laughs)
The latest album “Holy Spell”, I was surprised with how much I was hearing Country in addition to of course Punk Rock. Is that a side of you that has been surfacing more as you get older do you think?
Yeah, it’s funny, I had this discussion a couple of times. It seems the older I get, the deeper the influences are from my past. You know right as the Ramones were retiring, I had a band called Los Gusanos that was very kind of metal rock and roll crossover punk kinda stuff. Then I put out a record with a band called Bad Chopper that was like straight up punk, real fast. And then, slowly but surely, my music has gotten more melodic, more well written, but it's been such a natural progression. When we finished recording “The Holy Spell” and I sat back and listened to it I was like “Oh Lord! All those years of listening to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, all that stuff is really starting to come out!”. To tell you the truth, I really enjoy it. In fact, I have almost another entire record written. It’s very different than my last one but very much the same in the influence of country.
I think you manage to combine the two genres beautifully. You can hear each style yet not at the expense of the other…
Yeah, it’s been such a natural progression, without any intent when I sit down to write the songs. It really has made every record enjoyable. There were no expectations. I didn't sit down and try to write a Ramones style record or a country style record. When I sat down to write there was nothing except wanting to express the things I had to say and play it the way I felt it. It's been a really enjoyable process. I have to that say I'm about as happy with what I've done musically since 1989 as I possibly could be.
That’s truly the definition of an artist isn’t it? Doing what’s inside, and not limiting yourself to working within a rigid framework because you think that’s what you MUST do?
Yeah, but you would be surprised on how many people within the industry are completely tethered to the exact opposite of what you would think an artist would wanna do. The beauty of it is that I had the foundation of being in the Ramones. Part of the thing that made that identity so easy for me was that I grew up with the band. I grew up with the sound of that music and I've always felt very confident in what I was releasing, because I was so self-critical when it came to putting out music with the Ramone name attached to it. It's not like I could just dump anything out there, you know what I mean? I didn't wanna sound like, you know, “You're trying to sound like the Ramones!”. That's not what I want to do. What I wanted to do was write really good songs so that the fans would, you know, whether or not they cared for it (laughs),would have to say “OK, he's really doing something on it’s own. Something apart from the Ramones”. That's exactly the reaction I've got, and it really feels good.
I couldn't think of a better way to honour a fallen friend then with a song like “Rock On” (dedicated to the late Steve Soto of Adolescents fame). It’s the perfect companion to “Three Angels” (written about Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone). Was that a difficult song to write?
Yeah, I mean lyrics tell the story. The opening lyrics” Can’t write another sad sad song/ ‘Bout a friend gone home to the Lord”, that literally was in a discussion that I was having with my Producer/Engineer Paul Miner. That was the beginning of the discussion where I was like “I can't write another sad song about another dead friend. I can't do it”. I mean “3 Angels” is totally not a sad song. It’s very much about my relationships with the guys in the band and what made them, you know, really important to me and how much I loved them. That's what I wanted to do, to celebrate them, and not mourn them. I’m not the mourning type! (laughs). That’s what I did with Steve. My intention was to celebrate Steve’s life. He lived and died doing the thing that he loved most in the world. If you would have grabbed 16 year old Steve Soto and said “Listen, you can do this until your 54 years old and go home and lay down in the bed you grew up in and go to sleep and not wake up, or you can lose weight, get yourself healthy, have a family, get a job and live to 100”, Steve wouldn’t have changed a thing. He would have done exactly what he did, and that was play rock and roll and travel world. That’s what he loved.
Well that’s the dream isn’t it?
Yeah. That's the whole point of the song, is celebrating the fact that Steve lived his life the way he wanted to, on his terms. Of course, I have to make the statement that I'm gonna miss the guy. He was so much a part of my solo career. If it was not for Steve, my comeback, the solo career that I’ve had, almost would not have happened. He was so instrumental in everything I did.
And not only that, it’s a killer song too!
Yeah (laughs). On top of it, it rocks too. The favourites that I hear the most from the record are “Rock On” and “Hands of Mine”. Those are the 2 songs that most people mention.
I’d go with that. I do love “There Stands the Glass” too…
Yeah, that’s a great remake. I really like that one too.
I know you've had your masterplan to stop touring in 2020 for a few years now. Was there any one reason above anything else that led you to make the decision?
No. I really want to do it that way because music has dominated my life for 30 years. I mean, touring and recording has completely dominated my life for 30 years. There are still other things I wanna do. One of them is to work with other artists. I wanna try to work with other artists and write with other artists. I've been working on a book for several years so…
I was going to ask you about that!
Yeah, I’d like to get the book finished next year. I started learning how to tattoo. I've always wanted to get my Captain’s license and have a boat and be able to go fishing. There are some things that I haven't done, and I am still young enough that I can do it. That's why I said “30 years-I have to stop touring”. I'll still go out and play shows. If I get invited to go on a festival or something like that, you know, once awhile play a show here or there, or for something special, but as far as getting in a van and touring countries, this is definitely it for me. This is definitely it. I'll finish out the last couple of territories that I didn't make this year at some point next year. After that I'm really gonna be getting down to a much different lifestyle, one that involves me getting myself healthy and spending more time with my kids. I would love to learn to paint. I found that I'm actually good at writing. I'm good at expressing myself with written words.
Well that comes as no surprise to me…
(Laughs) Well I guess, yeah, I guess from your point of view I understand that. I think the reason why I'm just coming to terms with all of it now is because I have 4 albums that I’m hugely proud of. One of my favourite things about my writing has become my lyrics. I really really enjoy writing lyrics. The responses that I get, I had a guy contact me on Instagram about the song “Hands of Mine”. He was a combat Vet who lost a son a couple years ago. The guy has had it rough for a while. He said that he put that song on, and he was in tears. It actually helped him open up and release some stuff that he had been holding onto. When you get people saying stuff like that you, about something that you’ve written… I feel like I am saying things the way I want to say them because I'm reaching people. People are getting the message and it’s helping people open up and that's…well what more could you hope for? I mean, I would love to make millions of dollars doing it, but of course when you’re an artist you’re usually not appreciated for a little while. Or until you’re gone! (laughs). I’m happily getting to that place with each new project I’ve done. I’ve been really happy with everything.
When you are going through these places for the last time are you feeling sad, or are you thinking “Mission Accomplished”? I know that I’m sad!
Definitely “Mission Accomplished”. I’ve really worked hard, not just to have my own career, but to also carry the legacy of the Ramones. I’ve really tried to make that part of everything I’ve done. When I play live, I play my songs, but I play a whole bunch of Ramones songs too. And it’s not just because I love playing them or anything like that, it's also because it's kind of my job to do that. You know, by the time the Ramones retired, I was singing 6 songs in the set. Joey was diagnosed (with Lymphoma) in ’94, by ’96 he was dragging himself to every show, so it was my responsibility to step up. Me singing was not out of my job description when it came to me going back on the road and doing Ramones songs without the guys. Fans are used to seeing me sing. I really took that seriously. I’ve always had really good bands, really competent guys from other famous bands to come out with me. Guys that were experienced on the road, great players with their own fame and history. I’ve treated the legacy with as much respect as I possibly can, while still enjoying the heck out of myself.
The band is really firing all cylinders at the moment. Lenny (Lashey from Street Dogs on guitar) seems to have fit right into the line-up?
Yeah. You know, when I first asked him on, he’s like “I haven’t played anything in that style in a long time”. I said “Lenny, listen, you’re a legend. You have nothing to worry about. People are coming here because they wanna like you”. I just said, “Make sure you know the songs, and everything will fall into place”. He showed up ready to rock and it’s really been great having him along. And not only is he a great player and a great human being, we do nothing but laugh the entire time on tour. Literally, from the minute we get up. My other guitar player, Nate Sanders, won’t be with us when we come to Australia. We will have Dan Root, one of my original guitar players and from the Adolescents. Nate plays in another band called the Early November. He’s doing a big tour with them and he couldn’t commit to the tour. So, Dan will be coming out. Dan is one of the guitar players I started this whole thing with, since my first record “Reconquista”. It only makes sense that he would be at the end of it all too. I’m really happy he’s going to be along.
When you were talking about how much you guys laugh on the road, I was reminded of a quote from Lemmy when asked the secret to living on the road. It was along the lines of “Sense of humour, lose that, you’re fucked!”
That is the honest truth. And you know, one of the most important things on the road is the morale in the camp. It could be the difference between having a really really good tour and a really really bad tour. I am very conscious of that, and I work hard to try to keep everyone interacting and laughing, trying not to let anyone shrink up into their own world. You know, start thinking too much about home or too much about their girlfriend. I try to keep everybody aware that, and this is something I’ve learned over the years, I’d go on the road and I’d be missing my family. Then, when I’m home with my family, I’d be missing touring. I came to the point I was never enjoying where I was. Then I realised, when I’m on the road, I have to love and celebrate my road family every day. Stay in touch with my family back home, but my family on the road is who I’m responsible for. When I’m at home, I have to love and celebrate my family at home every day. I’m the cook in my house. I cook for my kids and get them up in the morning. I make sure that I’m fully living where I am when I’m there. And it made touring and home life so much more enjoyable once I came to that conclusion.
It's just on 23 years since the Ramones played their final gig. Does it feel like yesterday or a lifetime ago?
You know, it always feels like I’m just coming home from it because it was the greatest period in my life. I went from being in the Marine Corp to being in the Ramones during their most successful years. They never played more shows or made more money than in the 7 years I was in the band. They did more in those 7 years than in the 15 years before I was there. I’m not saying that’s because of me, but it was just so great to be there and be a part of it, and to help them have that success. Nothing else will ever compare to that. There will be other things that feel just as good but in a different way. I love it. Until I go to my grave that’s one thing I’ll always have with me, I’m CJ RAMONE! (laughs)
You will! Thanks for your time CJ. I can’t wait to see you guys when you get down here.
Alright Rob I’ll see you then.
Tickets are available via David Roy Williams: http://davidroywilliams.com/tours/cjramone/