Hynde’s not one to pretend

Times Staff Writer

It’s a bright, sunny morning after a gig, and Chrissie Hynde is doing what any good rock star would: hanging out in her hotel room, casually flipping the pages of a magazine and eyeballing porn. Not the kind about sex -- the kind about luxury goods.

“I opened this thing while I was waiting,” Hynde, 57, says, referring to the high-fashion magazine on the square glass top of the breakfast table where she’s seated in West Hollywood, reading photo captions sarcastically.

“ ‘Why crave crocodile when you can clutch alligator?’ By Chanel, no less -- $39,450 so you can clutch alligator! What [moron] would even entertain such a thing? . . . Here’s a good one: ‘A capricious bag is a must-have’ -- of course, we all need one -- ‘so why not go bold with Derek Lam’s gorgeous navy croc version, Nedra crocodile handbag . . . $29,995.’


“That’s pornography,” she says, practically spitting out the word. “Sorry. Does no one have any shame anymore?”

Moral outrage surfaces often in any conversation with the firebrand front woman of the Pretenders. For three decades she’s been the quintessential female rocker, but she’s been a strict vegetarian and ardent animal-rights advocate even longer.

She’s angry about mistreatment of animals, the economy and the paving over of small-town America. That last subject inspired the title of the Pretenders’ first album in six years, “Break Up the Concrete,” which uses a throbbing Bo Diddley beat under Hynde’s message advocating the destruction of the substance that’s encasing ever more of the planet.

“We like to travel on trains,” she says. “That’s part of the whole drive: Reinstate public transportation, especially trains. Get out of the cars. Destroy all the streets and roads and bridges and dams. Just get rid of it.

“Obviously,” she adds, “that’s the best-case scenario. That’s not going to happen. But think small. . . . Do the things you can do. Stop paying the slaughter man. Stop paying the factory farmers. Stop supporting the corporations that are destroying everything. And everyone can do that. These are simple things. Make your life more simple.”

She and her bandmates also have simplified musically on the new album, which sounds intensely raw and stripped-down. She’s joined in the current configuration by guitarist James Walbourne and bassist Nick Wilkinson. In perhaps as big a surprise as the addition of steel guitarist Eric Heywood (ex-Son Volt), Pretenders founding drummer Martin Chambers stepped aside for the recording in favor of superstar session man Jim Keltner.

The 11 songs were recorded in Los Angeles over a relatively brief 12 days, with the band producing, and the songs seem to sprout organically from American roots music: elemental rock, R&B;, soul and a bit of country twang from Heywood.

“That’s really kind of what the record’s all about, I suppose: simplicity. Getting away from all the razzmatazz, the excess,” she says.

Part of the excess she’s avoiding is record promotion, though she did consent to appear Tuesday on the “Today” show. “I told my record company I don’t want to be on television, I don’t want to do press.” She pauses, looks at the reporter sitting across from her and shrugs apologetically. “Of course, because I like the album and I’m the guy that has to do it, I’ll do what I have to do.”

Hynde has been more than game to help out with the various facets of viral marketing that the company is using to get the word out, according to Jeff Ayeroff, the veteran record exec who partners with millionaire Steve Bing in the fledgling Shangri-La Music label that signed the Pretenders.

“When we drew up our wish list of artists we’d want to have on the label, they were in the top 5,” Ayeroff said. “We’re very proud of the record they’ve given us -- there’s no making excuses. It’s a real record that sounds great; the songs have great content.”

The rockers carry an in-your-face punch that’s counterbalanced by the sweetness and vulnerability of ballads. Spiritual exploration wrestles with earthly distractions in the barnstorming “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” mirroring Hynde’s quest to balance the ephemeral with the eternal.

“I don’t pay attention to politics,” says Hynde, an Akron, Ohio, native who primarily has lived in London since the 1970s when the Pretenders emerged out of the British punk uprising. “In the States it’s the national consciousness and obsession. But the minute you leave here, you start thinking about other things. I don’t try to be too aware of it. I find it disturbing. I tread my own path and do what I can.”

That included opening a vegan restaurant called Vegiterranean in Akron recently.

“I’m spending more time there because my parents are getting old,” she said. “There’s not a vegetarian restaurant in Akron. . . . I knew that was going to do me in.

“Everybody said, Don’t do it . . . you’ll lose everything. They always go under.” In fact, it’s been surprisingly successful, she says. “You could knock me over with a feather.”

Despite the laundry list of things about the world she’d like to change, Hynde isn’t being sarcastic when she describes herself as “the eternal optimist.” She even finds a silver lining in the nation’s current economic meltdown.

“I feel like there’s a big “enough” sign hovering over us. . . . Maybe finally this out-of-control consumerism is going to stop.”

She cites as positive changes the resurgent interest in vinyl records, a burgeoning crop of independent radio stations -- on Tuesday, she stopped by her favorite in L.A., Indie 103.1 FM, to chat with old pal-turned-DJ Steve Jones -- and revitalized downtowns in a growing number of cities across the country.

“With all this calamity going on,” she said, “there’s some gentle sweetness coming out of it too. All the bad stuff is just temporary. That’s why it’s important to keep your attention on the eternal.”