I’m Your Man: Five Questions With Sylvain Sylvain
Photo: Svenja Block
When I was seventeen years old, I had two records that I listened to pretty much every day…”Out Of Step” by Minor Threat, and “New York Dolls” by New York Dolls. Though both are almost completely different, both helped shape who I am and both put a guitar in my hand. Where Minor Threat signified my teen angst and my inability to play difficult measures, New York Dolls was always how I wished I could play. Back then I had a white Peavey Predator and a solid state Peavey combo amp, and while I could play with Minor Threat, it was almost a year before I could play with The Dolls. Though I could identify with how Minor Threat looked, I always looked up to artists like New York Dolls, T Rex, and David Bowie for their unabashed nature and their “It’s only rock n’ roll” mentalities. Recently, I was lucky enough to have a chat with founding member of New York Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain. The guitarist who not only chose the band’s name but who helped design the iconic band’s overall look was really candid, and made talking to one of my heroes, a true delight.
FPH: You’ve had quite the storied life from being born in Egypt, to living in France, and New York; yet I see you as an American. How do you see yourself?
SYLVAIN SYLVAIN: I definitely see myself as an American, but you know, that old hippie in me just wants everyone to be what they are and be happy. If we could live in a world without borders and do what we want as long as no one got hurt, that’d be cool with me. Growing up, my family was exiled from Egypt for being Jewish, I wasn’t good in school. But music, I was good at that and there wasn’t ever any judgement like there was in school. We were kicked out of private school for being “faggots” they’d say. Music opened doors for me, and it let me see the world, and I think people would be more open minded if they got out and saw a different world than their own.
FPH: You were a member of the massively influential band, New York Dolls, yet it was over so quick. Did you ever think the band would have such lasting power and longevity almost forty years after breaking up?
SYLVAIN SYLVAIN: I didn’t think about any of what was happening back then, for the future. Everyone came to see The Dolls, like having Truman Capote sitting next to me after a show kind of atmosphere. But, our stuff wasn’t just about the music, each one of us brought something different to the table. For me, I came from a world of designer things, so that was my contribution. But we were just guys trying to figure out how to play the blues essentially down in mom’s basement. Our managers gave some of us extra money and deemed some of us more special than the others, which lead to our demise in the end. But, I knew at the time it was important, but I didn’t dwell on it either.
FPH: You were in the Dolls for the duration, you’ve done solo records as well as projects with all sorts of people; the most recently with cheetah Chrome in The Batusis. Is there a project that you favor and are The Batusis still together?
SYLVAIN SYLVAIN: I basically fly by the seat of my pants and I do things in bunches. Like right now I’ve gotten into making clothes again, for a time I was into silkscreening; and music is the same way for me. We all “need that gig” right? But, for the last four or five years I’ve been doing solo shows that also consist of my “300 years” in the business as I call it, cause’ it feels much longer. I tell stories like how I came up with the name for The Dolls because I worked across the street from a place called The New York Doll Factory. Or I tell about how The Dolls went to see Bo Diddley, because we covered one of his tunes, “Pills.” And, we were in the audience yelling, “PILLS! PILLS!,” and he had us kicked out because I think he thought we were drug kids. I use those stories to segway into the songs. The Batusis are still going, but we’re on hold while Cheetah gets some stuff figured out.
FPH: The double release from 2010, “New York’s A Go Go” is a really strong album for those who don’t know your sound; though it’s just two of your releases put together. Recently you dropped the single “Leaving New York” in 2012, which was vastly different. What made you decide to release something so different from the sound you’re known for?
SYLVAIN SYLVAIN: To me, it all sounds the same; that song is representative of the album I hope to release soon. It’s just an evolution of different times with different feelings. When I record, I just do what I do, maybe put piano on something, or maybe something different; but I don’t think about it. What I record is there in that moment and I can’t record it the same way later, if you know what I mean? Actually that song features the members of The Batusis on it, and it was produced by ex-Wilco drummer Ken Coomer. Ken is the reason I moved to Tennessee from Atlanta.
FPH: I recently saw some video of you at the 100 Club in London, and I was shocked by your energy, is it that way every night and what should fans in Houston expect from you?
SYLVAIN SYLVAIN: I keep the energy the same, exactly the same every night. It’s the only way I know how to do it. I’m dedicated to the audience, and I think they want a release from their everyday lives or a release from maybe some stress they’ve had in their week. When they’re on board and they’re in, I go in the full way too. The songs also get me going, just those three chord progressions still have that sex appeal for me, and they keep me charged the whole show. Back in the day, all there was going on was stadium rock shows. We’d go see Led Zeppelin and we’d be so far away that their amps would look like shoe boxes. We saw The Who in the park once for a dollar, and they were so energetic and sexy. Then all of those acts starting making operas or something, and it lost of its appeal while killing the finesse. The energy of the idea behind, “Let’s Put On A Show!” is still what gets me going, and that energy is what people can expect when they come out. You know, I just play rock n’ roll, and that term comes from the jazz era in black clubs, and it initially meant to have sex. So that’s what I try to have in my music, and if people don’t have that in their stuff, then to me it ain’t rock n’ roll.
I don’t think truer words were ever spoken about rock music. You can experience the man, the myth, and the guy who’s still trying to play the blues at Fitzgerald’s on Saturday August 15th. The solo icon will be performing alongside some of Houston’s better rock acts who embody the spirit of rock n’ roll as Sylvain sees it. The Killer Hearts, Modfag, and Dead Roses are all set to appear on the all ages bill with doors at 8:00 and tickets between $10.00 and $13.00.