At 38, Sean Lennon is already deep into a long and idiosyncratic career in pop music, following his creative whims as singer, sideman, bandleader and producer. His current band, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, was supposed to be a side project with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, until inspiration took over.
"We have a very strong shared aesthetic," says Lennon of the musical partnership. "It has to do with spooky notes, wordplay, and a lot of records that we like."
The duo's new album, "Midnight Sun," builds on the charms of their previous acoustic releases to create a heavier (and electric) psychedelic folk-rock sound. Beginning with the brooding "Too Deep," it's music with roots in both swirling, late-'60s pop and modern indie rock.
"We basically just want to rock out," says Muhl, 26, of the band, which performs Saturday at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.
At the moment, the duo are on a breezy patio overlooking downtown Austin, dressed in stylish layers: Lennon bearded in a light brown suit and a matching wide-brim hat, and Muhl in fringed suede over a T-shirt for the '80s hair-metal band Slaughter. Their voices often overlap as they talk, with bursts of shared laughter.
"We want to return to an era when we think music was better basically but still infuse it with something modern," Muhl says of their mission. "We don't want to be purely a retro re-creationist band — there's a lot of those right now. It's your responsibility as an artist to add something original on top of it."
Lennon and Muhl first met on the fields of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2006 and bonded over their interests in art and literature. She was a fashion model who grew up in Texas, and he was the son of late Beatle John Lennon, raised in Manhattan amid a crowd of artists and countercultural icons swirling around his mother, artist-musician Yoko Ono.
"I was lucky to get to hang out with a bunch of weird, cool people," Lennon recalls. "I don't think I had any sense of it at the time — because it was just my mother's friends, you know?"
Lennon and Muhl also shared the same childhood memory from Disney's animated "Fantasia" and a vivid scene set to a famous piece of music by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. "We both had our first sexual awakening watching 'The Night on Bald Mountain' with all the naked demon-esses dancing in the palm of Satan's hand," says Lennon. "We both liked that a lot."
One day well into their relationship, she mentioned that she was a songwriter and showed him one of her songs. He still remembers the lyric: "The cold sun rises above a world where machines know how to love." He recites it now and says, "That is such a beautiful line."
They began performing as an acoustic duo and wrote their first song together, "The World Was Made For Men." It was the beginning of another project from Lennon, who released his first solo album, "Into the Sun," in 1998 on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label.
The pivotal moment for Lennon's musical explorations came at age 17, when Ono recruited her son and his band IMA for her 1995 album, "Rising." Lennon was the album's musical director and urged his mother back toward her early experimental work, helping guide "Rising" through forceful strains of underground rock and funk as she wailed messages of war and peace, death and survival.
"I go back to that album, and I'm pretty proud of it," Lennon says of "Rising," still one of Ono's strongest releases. "I just love the wildness of it."
Over the years, Lennon passed through Los Angeles many times, including one memorable night at the Viper Room in the mid-'90s when two of his counterculture mentors collided. Allen Ginsberg was performing on the small stage, and Timothy Leary was in the audience.
"Allen did the 'don't smoke the government's dope' chant, which is like an anti-smoking thing," Lennon recalls. "Timothy was heckling hard. And Allen said, 'OK, Tim,' and he was so nice about it, because he was all Zen-ed out. Timothy was not Zen at all, and was screaming at him … and lighting up at the Viper Room. It was pretty legendary."
While Lennon's career has mostly avoided the crushing glare that comes with being the son of a musical icon, reminders of his father's cultural impact on the rest of the world happen daily. At least twice on the mostly empty patio in Austin, he is approached by strangers asking about his father.
"Are you Mr. Lennon's son?" one man asks politely. Lennon is friendly and relaxed each time. The family legacy comes with its privileges, but it can also distract from the work he does now with Muhl.
"We both suffer from this invisible problem where she's a model so a lot of people don't see that she can actually play, and I'm John Lennon's son so a lot of people assume that I can't do things for that reason," he says. "People don't actually see us for who we are. It's kind of funny, because we're both competing like 'But I do stuff.' 'No, I do stuff.' 'No, I do stuff really!' We're overcoming that."
As if to emphasize their abilities, the five-piece Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger don't use pre-recorded tracks onstage, an increasingly common crutch for touring bands. While that complicates their attempts to re-create the songs live, it keeps the band's sound that much more raw.
Muhl laughs. "You know how some organic fruit is more moldy than non-organic fruit? That's our thing! We're organic!" she says cheerfully. "We're better for you, but we're a little moldy."
Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
When: Saturday, 9 p.m.
Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.