The legendary singer-songwriter chatted with TIME about Plain Spoken, The Bachelor and why rock has been dead for a long time
John Mellencamp will release his 22nd full-length album, Plain Spoken, on September 23. After a four-year hiatus, Mellancamp has marked his return with an elegant and soul-searching album that finds him questioning life, authority and his beliefs. Now, TIME is pleased to premiere the video for the album’s lead single “Troubled Man,” an acoustic-guitar driven charmer.
In an interview, the singer-songwriter opened up about Plain Spoken, Gene Simmons, Farm Aid and The Bachelor:
TIME: Your new album seems very mature in that it tackles a lot of issues. Like there’s ‘Troubled Man,’ which just on its title alone indicates darkness. Have you been working through a lot?
John Mellencamp: It’s not really darkness. My guess is that you were a literature major somewhere. If you read Steinbeck, you read Tennessee Williams, you read Faulkner, you read any of those type of people — even Shakespeare — it’s all about human comedy. The catastrophe of life. That’s what I write about.
On ‘Sometimes There’s God,’ it seems like you’re struggling with religion, too.
No, no, no.
No? What is the song about?
Well, sometimes there’s God. In other words, if you look at the first verse, the first line, sometimes there’s God in someone else’s eyes, meaning that you can find yourself and find peace of mind, which is what religion is supposed to provide, in many different places. And sometimes, that song says, you just can’t. Sometimes in a human’s life you just can’t find peace of mind. Can’t do it. I’m sure that you’ve experienced that yourself. It’s like, where do I put myself? How did I get here? What am I doing? Those moments. Sometimes it feels like there’s no God. I mean, if you just had a baby and it was autistic, you might say, if you believed in God, ‘Why?’ Just sometimes there’s God, and sometimes there’s not. I’m not struggling with if there’s God or not. I have my beliefs. I’m 62 years old, I’ve thought about it, and I’ve come to conclusions. They may not be right, but it’s how I feel.
On “Lawless Times,” it sounds like you’re tackling a different sort of issue. Can you tell me about that song?
“Lawless Times” is a nod and a wink to how our society has changed. That song originally was, I think, 300 verses long. I had to edit it down. There are a lot of lighthearted pokes at the Catholic Church, because of all the child molestation.
It also talks about people tapping cell phones and digital music theft.
Don’t get me started on digital music, because I said a lot of years ago and caught a lot of crap about it that the Internet is the most dangerous invention since the atomic bomb. And people went, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and I got all this pushback, but the fact of the matter is, it’s true. I mean, we have no privacy for starters, and not to mention, we could as a country wage all kinds of warfare against some other country over the Internet, and shut down their electrical grid and vice versa. Shut down the banking systems. There’s a lot of trouble that could be caused with that f—ing Internet that most people use to send naked pictures of themselves, or maybe a certain higher-education person might do research on. But basically it’s for people to f— off on.
Are you sort of a Luddite?
I don’t really use the Internet. I’m one of the people that might research online. Makes it quicker than going to the library, sorry to say. But I don’t shop online.
Do you have a cell phone?
Yeah. I only knew two guys who didn’t have a cell phone: me and Bob Dylan. Bob still doesn’t have one, and I had to get one when I got divorced because my wife had one, but I got divorced about four years ago, so I had to get a cell phone because I have kids. If I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t have a cell phone.
You’d just wait for people to call you on your landline?
I don’t want anybody calling me anyway. So you don’t have to worry about calling me. Don’t bother!
Being an artist as well as a musician, you must really value your alone time, though.
Yes, I do take great delight in my own company.
Can you create when there are other people around, or do you need complete isolation?
I need pretty much complete isolation just to exist. Just to be alive, to live. I prefer not to be around a lot of people. I don’t know that that has much to do with being an artist, but that’s just the way I prefer to live and that’s why I live where I live. I live on 86 acres in the middle of nowhere, and I get to a town if I need supplies.
You’re about to head out on a massive tour. Are tours hellish for you?
They can be, like any other job. Part of playing live is that I think that an artist who’s interested in what they’re going to create next, and having to go out and play songs that you wrote 25 years ago can get to be tedious a job, but the audience generally softens the flow of that type of work.
You’ve been doing this for almost 40 years now. Are you surprised by the longevity of your career?
Oh, I think that everybody is. I mean nobody really in 1974 or 75 nobody really anticipated this being a lifelong career thing. What music is today is so far from what it was when I started. I mean, it couldn’t be any further away. Music was a youth-driven thing, for rebellious youth to express themselves, and the whole hippie thing was happening, and we were going to change the world. It’s all about that. And of course now it’s all tore up, but I can’t help what they made it. I can’t help it. Because other people make it bad, that doesn’t mean that I can change the world. I can’t. I’m just a guy with a guitar.
But you’ve also never shied away from taking political stances in your music or onstage. Do you feel like up-and-coming rock stars and pop stars these days are apolitical?
Well, I don’t know about them. I can’t speak for them. I don’t know what they think. I think Taylor Swift is cute. Other than that, I don’t know anything about her.
Is it disappointing that this younger generation isn’t willing to take a stand about stuff?
There are a lot of reasons for that, and I don’t blame them at all. When I was a kid, there was something called the Vietnam War and the draft. It motivated a lot of young people to get involved in politics. I’m sure that if there was a draft today and young people were faced with the idea of going to Syria or Afghanistan, they would have a louder voice. They would think, ‘Oh, s–t. What am I getting drafted for? To go do what?’ So when the draft was eliminated, which we were all happy about at the time, it took young people out of the mix, which was really good for the old people who run the world, because the young people were f—ing them up. Politicians today don’t have to worry about it, because young people won’t even talk about it, because they don’t give a s–t. They don’t care, because they’re not involved. I’ll tell you what: you want young people to talk about politics, reinstate the draft.
Speaking of political issues, you founded Farm Aid. Do you think the plight of the farmer is kind of overlooked in this day and age?
It’s so complicated. It’s not a generic, sweeping statement. If you just look at what the government have passed as food for children — your children, my children, in school — it’s not really to do with their health, is it? It’s really to do with the dairy farmers. It has to do with the people who grow crops, Big Corn. A lot of decisions being made about money and not the well-being of people. So Farm Aid is about so many things. The very first year we did it, it was just about trying to keep the small farmer on the land, and it’s a never-ending problem. They pass all these farm bills, but they’re not really to help the small farmer — they’re all to help corporate farming. I mean, we all know we shouldn’t drink dairy, right? What do they serve in school to drink? Dairy. Think that’s an accident? Or they serve soft drinks. You think that’s an accident? No! There’s f–ing tons of money being made here, and it’s not for the well being of the children.
This is going to sound silly, but hear me out: The Bachelor, the TV show, just cast a farmer as its star.
I don’t know about The Bachelor. I’ve never watched it.
Do you think drawing attention to the fact that people still run family farms in America is a good reminder?
I don’t think it could hurt. But anytime you take a subject like that and you make it fodder for a television show, how serious are people going to take it? We have serious issues in this problem and to make it light entertainment, it just hits me sideways.
This is your first album under a lifetime contract with Republic Records. What made you want to sign a lifetime contract?
Well, about 10 to 12 years ago, I’d had a record contract for 30-something years, and I really didn’t like it. I don’t work for anybody. I don’t like working for anybody — I’ve never been employed by anybody — and the idea of having to release records on a time schedule, which I had done for 20-something years. So I got out of my record deal, and I didn’t want a record deal. I thought I would just be a free agent, and every time I wanted to make a record I’d just go someplace assigned to make one record. But after 10 to 12 years, it became very tedious, so we decided that I like the guy who runs Republic and we made a deal that I don’t have to release records on any time schedule. I just do what I want. It’s a special deal.
Your musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is also hitting the road again. How many times have you seen it?
I’ve seen it enough to know it still needs work — it’s been 15 years — but Steve [Stephen King] and I are closing in on it.
It’s still a work in progress?
Everything is, honey. Art is never done: it’s only abandoned.
How do you know when an album is done?
You abandon it. Yes, always abandon. It’s never done.
Is that the same with your paintings?
Sure. I have paintings that I’m still painting on that are 20 years old. I’ll have a painting, because I never throw anything away, never. I have jeans older than you. I have boots older than you.
As a musician and an artist, when inspiration strikes you, is it geared towards being represented visually versus musically?
I’m sure you’ve heard this many times, and I know it sounds phony people who don’t do it, but when you’re a songwriter or you’re a painter, it’s not even so much inspiration as what I call channeling. And sometimes when I write songs, the ideas come so fast that my hand doesn’t move quick enough to keep up with it. My mind is open to this idea. I don’t go, ‘You know I’m going to write a really nice song for Melissa.’ I don’t do that. The song is just sent to me, and I write them down. If they’re about ‘Sometimes It’s God,’ if they’re about the ‘Isolation of Mister,’ I write them down. Painting’s the same way. It’s always surprising to me. I never know what the f–k I’m talking about. I don’t know what the songs are about. I don’t know how the painting’s going to end up. I don’t know when I’m going to quit on the painting.
Now, some people get to channel good stuff, some people not so good, and some people who are songwriters don’t even know this, and they write these songs that I don’t know what the f–k they’re talking about. I don’t know why they would even write them, but they do. And they play them on the radio! [laughs]
Gene Simmons recently said, ‘Rock is dead.’ Do you buy that?
Oh, yeah. It’s been dead for years. It’s dead. It’s over. Rock has been dead since probably the early ‘90s. It’s over. What an insightful guy Gene Simmons is to realize that, in 2014, rock is dead. Gene, it’s been dead for f—ing 25 years!
Why do you think it’s dead?
I don’t think it’s dead; I know it’s dead.
Well, how do you know it’s dead?
The reason rock is dead is because the foundation is no longer there. It’s about money, it’s about needing another country singer on the ticket. The foundation of rock music was rebellion against the establishment. How in the f—ing hell can a 62-year-old man be writing songs…That’s why my records sound like they do. They’re age-appropriate. I don’t even consider myself a rock singer. I consider myself a songwriter. You don’t ever see me use the word rock and roll related to myself. Other people may. Rocker John Mellencamp. It’s like, what the f–k are you talking about? Rocker John Mellencamp. Back in 1982, maybe. But not now. I mean, guys my age get on stage and try to act like they’re rocking. It’s funny.
Gene Simmons is out there.
Yeah, and he looks like a dope.
And there’s people like Keith Richards.
Baby, those guys are out there trying to recapture something that they once had. I’m sure that if you ask Keith Richards, he’ll tell you: ‘I’m doing the best I can. This is the best I can do. Am I the Keith Richards on stage that I was in 1972? No. But am I as good a guitar player? Yes.’ So you can’t just make a big generalization and say they’re out rocking. No, they’re not. Keith Richards is nothing on stage like he was in 1969.
Are you still having fun?
Yeah. Not the kind of fun that one would think. Not the kind of fun that I once had, when I was a young guy in a black-leather jacket. But fun is relative and fun for me today is being able to create something and go, ‘I like that. That’s good. That’s good.’ Fun for me is being able to go, ‘Wow, my son is in Golden Gloves. Great.’ My one son goes to RISD. I have a daughter who just had a baby. That’s fun. That kind of stuff is fun. Fun is relevant. Do I go out and get drunk after the show? No. I haven’t been drunk since 1971.