Categories: Life & Arts
Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers calls himself a nice guy in a business that isn’t usually kind to nice guys.
“Well, most nice guys that have been in this business are dead,” he said during a recent phone interview from the group’s rehearsal space in Crouch End, North London.
The only remaining original member of The Pretenders besides leader Chrissie Hynde, Chambers has endured through the deaths of founding members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, and a stint from 1985 to 1993 when Hynde kicked him out of the group. “I’ve swallowed a big deal for her; it’s part of my job,” he said.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
How much: $40, $35, $30
More Info: 465-3334, www.palacealbany.com
Throughout it all, Chambers said, his tenacity and common sense have enabled him to survive.
“Dreams are really important,” Chambers said. “Not to get off the point too much, but I remember some of my dreams being very poignant about being stuck in a really bad place. It’s allowed me to see I’m strong enough. I haven’t yet come across anything strong enough to overpower me, and that includes her [Hynde].”
But it’s not just Chambers who is feeling strong these days. With the release of their ninth album, “Break Up the Concrete,” in October, and the addition of new guitarist James Walbourne, The Pretenders are getting ready to kick off a U.S. tour with a performance at the Palace Theatre on Thursday night.
The band had been holed up in its rehearsal space for five days working through new and old material when Chambers spoke with the Gazette. According to him, the band feels as if it’s been given a “new lease on life.”
“Because there’s a new player, everything sounds very fresh, and it’s fresh for Chrissie,” Chambers said. “It makes a big difference for Chrissie, who has to sing them from the heart every time.”
Part of this freshness is due to “Break Up the Concrete,” the group’s first studio effort since 2002’s “Loose Screw.” The album finds Hynde integrating elements of country and rockabilly into the group’s classic post-punk sound, drawing influence from her hometown of Akron, Ohio. Although she still resides in London, where she originally formed The Pretenders in 1978, Hynde has been spending more time in Akron in recent years, opening up a vegan restaurant, The VegiTerranean, in 2007 and renting an apartment there.
The Pretenders actually recorded a different album in 2007 with former guitarist Adam Seymour, who had been with the group since 1993. Hynde scrapped this album, and Seymour, shortly thereafter. Chambers, as it turns out, also was left out when “Break Up the Concrete” was made.
“It [the album] sounded good to me,” Chambers said. “But I said to her, if you’re not sure about everything, and you want to go off and do something different that didn’t include me, that’s OK. So she went off and got Jim Keltner in.”
Session player Keltner ended up recording all of the drum parts on “Break Up the Concrete.” Indeed, “Concrete” is an album of firsts for the band, and Hynde in particular, as all of the musicians besides Hynde had never played on a Pretenders record before. In addition to Keltner and Walbourne, the record features bassist Nick Wilkinson and pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood.
Getting up to speed
The new sounds the band was tackling led Hynde to hire Keltner for the album, although Chambers will play the drum parts on tour.
“He’s just a great player,” Chambers said of Keltner. “[He’ll give you] all the feels you want, all the tricks and bits to make whatever he’s doing sound right for the song, which is the whole point. For me, he’s the best there is. When he turned up for the sessions, the first thing he said was, ‘Where’s Martin?’ Which is great.”
Learning the new parts, and approximating Keltner’s feel on the record, has been a challenge for Chambers.
“It’s been an interesting time for me to play drums,” Chambers said. “I’m not a session player, I’m a guy committed to a band. It’s been a challenge to try to get somewhere near the feel he has, but . . . it’s always going to be me doing it. I think Chrissie has been pretty pleased with the way we’ll be doing these live dates.”
The other challenge, not just for Chambers but the rest of the band, has been the older material. For this tour, the group is pulling out many songs that haven’t been performed for close to 10 years, including “Tattooed Love Boys” from the group’s self-titled 1980 debut, and “Bad Boys Get Spanked” from 1981’s “Pretenders II.”
“They’re demanding, physically demanding songs — and you can’t sit there quietly and do the minimal, because it’s a show,” Chambers said. “I want to make her sound good and make the band sound good and come across well. We’re turning people on to a good time, which is the best thing in the world.”
Pulling out older material has also afforded Chambers a chance to look back on the group’s past. It’s a history that’s been fraught with highs and lows since guitarist Honeyman-Scott and Hynde first teamed up in London’s post-punk scene.
The original lineup produced hits such as “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid,” but lasted only two albums before bassist Farndon and Honeyman-Scott died of overdoses within days of each other in 1982. The group rebounded in 1984 with “Learning to Crawl,” which featured “Back on the Chain Gang” and introduced a new band.
Various lineup changes would ensue over the years, but according to Chambers, the band has found its strongest group of musicians yet.
“It’s better in terms of, the longer things go, the more experience you have, and also because it’s no longer the original lineup,” Chambers said. “If this had been the original lineup, we probably would have stopped in the ’80s or ’90s and gotten back together again a few years ago, like everyone else has been doing.”
Many have accused The Pretenders of being a vehicle for Hynde ever since Farndon’s and Honeyman-Scott’s deaths. Even Chambers had his doubts when he was booted from the lineup in 1985.
“When [Hynde] sacked me at the end of the ’80s, I didn’t get it, I must admit,” Chambers said. “Everybody was doing what she said, and the record had a picture of her when it should have been a band picture. Though, she wrote good songs during that period, for sure.”
But for Chambers, The Pretenders will always be a true rock band, not a solo project.
“It is a band, that’s what the whole point was,” Chambers said. “It’s no good trying to tell me what to play; it doesn’t work and it’s a complete mess.”
“We were a true band, true in as much as we always went out on stage to do, really, what all bands aspire to, doing the best with what we’ve got. We’ve never been on stage and went through the motions. You’ve got to mean it.”