If the roots of today's Strokes of slacker genius lie in the post-punk haze of the late '70s, then Chrissie Hynde should be quite proud of herself: The Pretenders self-titled debut, an uncontested kiss-off classic, is nearing its 25th birthday and still sounds just as relevant as ever.
In the quarter-century since that release, the Pretenders have seen tragedies (including the well-publicized heroin deaths of two former members), lineup changes, failed marriages and periods of wide chart variation, but Hynde has remained a voice of toughened vulnerability for a generation -- a sweet warble of otherworldly blues coming from beneath her trademark bangs.
The band, which at one point only included Hynde as its sole original member, likewise has melded into a venerable unit, with original drummer Martin Chambers, along with lead guitarist Adam Seymour and bassist Andy Hobson coexisting in an unchanged lineup for eight years now. Launching a tour with their latest release, the striking, return-to-form "Loose Screw," Hynde sounds as knowing as ever from her London home, even if this interviewer sounds a little stuffy.
"You gave my cats your cold," she jokes, running off to check her felines' coughs.
The lightness of mood seems fitting, considering that "Loose Screw" marks the band's freedom from 25 years of Warner Bros.' shackles, a deal that ended with 1999's poorly performing "Viva El Amor." "I crash and I burn, maybe someday you'll learn," crooned Hynde on that album's "Human." Things seemed to be coming to an end.
"It's all such a big machine," says Hynde. "It got to the point that we didn't know anybody at our record label, and naturally Warner wanted people who sell records. The Pretenders don't sell records."
Fortunate interest from the smaller Artemis imprint ensured that the band wouldn't have to fall into obscurity. Founded, ironically enough, by former Warner Bros. CEO Danny Goldberg, Artemis is a more personalized home to other established acts, such as Steve Earle, Boston and Lisa Loeb.
"We demo-ed the record on our own, and got no response from Warner," says Hynde. "Artemis liked what they heard. So we were like, Ã?You like us? We like you.'"
What Artemis liked represents both a stylistic step forward and a step back for the Pretenders, who, by the time of "Amor," were feeling pressure to hold to the middle ground for the sake of rotation.
"It's not that we were making easy-listening music, but it was starting to lose its edge," she says. "This time, we found our groove. The big change has been that we're now using modern technologyÃ basically tape recorders -- which other bands have been using for years."
While the guitar howl of album opener "Lie to Me" seethes with early-years punk attitude, much of the record digs deeper into a dub-inspired reggae groove. Having spent many of her formative years as an Ohio ex-pat music journalist in London's punk squalor, the reggae tendency comes naturally. According to Hynde, that's all the punks really listened to back then.
On the album's first single, "Complex Person," a smoky, downbeat groove buoys lyrics of vintage self-awareness, coining perhaps the best song-aside she's ever come up with: "I'm a mixed up, fucked up, singer of a song."
"That's my name. Don't wear it out," laughs Hynde.
That she pokes fun at her image is a large part of her charm. No stranger to controversy (being outspoken on animal rights, feminist, and military issues), Hynde remains an unapologetic force of media intimidation.
"When I was growing up, which was the '60s, we were burning flags," she recalls. "These days you're supposed to be waving them. Fuck that."
Besides, the Pretenders seem content to exist in a more subversive capacity, these days, having already endured the trials of mass-market scrutiny.
"Of course, it makes you nervous when there's stuff out there about you," says Hynde. "Let's put it this way: If there's a group of people in a room and they're all talking about you, would you try to listen in, or would you get the fuck out of there? I would get the fuck out of there."