Ian McLagan on Green Day: "If I had a gun, they'd all be dead"

Ian McLagan has a great new CD, and amazing tales of the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Rod Stewart, Otis Redding and more

Published June 7, 2014 10:00PM (EDT)

Ian McLagan    (T. DiMenno)
Ian McLagan (T. DiMenno)

In a sly, stealthy way, the English band the Faces, active from 1969 to about 1975, have become one of the most influential bands in rock and roll history. Like the Velvet Underground, they are the band that launched a thousand other bands. They seemed to have everything going for them: a great singer in Rod Stewart (who had not yet become the “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” version of Rod Stewart); a sturdy and graceful lead guitarist in Ron Wood, who wrote almost half the songs but managed to serve the project in a self-effacing way; the bass player Ronnie Lane, whose songs and presence gave the band a lot more than the macho swagger they are well known for; a world-class drummer in Kenny Jones; and then Ian McLagan, an organ and piano player with the kind of confidence and bravado necessary to match wits with Ronnie Wood’s lead guitar.

McLagan, like Jones and Lane, had just come from Small Faces, which, despite the similar name, had a completely different feel (more pop, more psychedelic, more art rock), and the Faces represented a new apogee for him, as with the rest of the band. In the very few years that the Faces were together, they mastered a certain unvarnished charm that was more about feel than studied perfection, more about soul than technique, and more about the band than its constituent parts. They were the band of guys you might meet down on the corner, not the band isolated from its audience, and until Stewart became preoccupied with his solo career, they made the most of their shaggy, imperfect glory.

When the Faces broke up, McLagan became, in large part, a session player of note. He has toured with everyone in the '70s, including, most notably, the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan, and he played on hundreds of recording sessions. But McLagan has also been leading a solo project of 20 years’ duration now, known as the Bump Band, with increasingly interesting results. McLagan’s songs stick close to the soul, R&B, and rock and roll origins of much great British Invasion music. As a singer, he has a ragged bluesy quality that recalls many of his fellows, a little bit of Keith Richards, a little bit of Rod Stewart, a little bit of Ronnie Lane, but with a dash of Sam Cooke and the Stax artists. And his songs, which feature the keys, are like a primer on rock and roll of the '70s. They are unpretentious, unassuming, but also confident, virtuosic, and surpassingly moving. McLagan, that is, makes music for adults, about the lives of adults. Lately, that has meant a great number of songs, particularly on his last album, "Never Say Never" (2009), about the loss of his wife of 33 years, Kim, who died (in 2006) in a car accident in Austin, Texas.

McLagan, as has often been noted, is also an incredibly funny and charming raconteur of his life and times. The unexposed may want to check out his autobiography, "All the Rage" (2009), which gets at the shambolic quality of British rock and roll in the '70s like few other books.

An interview with McLagan (and this one was conducted at a Greek restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen on a rainy day in May, and lightly edited) is an opportunity to try to goad him into telling stories again, though it should be noted that this is also the occasion of McLagan and the Bump Band’s fine new album "United States" (Yep Roc), which is more affirmational and uptempo than "Never Say Never," less afflicted with loss and more about love in a general way. As both singer and storyteller, McLagan is a lively, sweet, imperturbable example of a generation that is not going gently into the good night, and one of the few British rock and roll exemplars who plays very regularly in this country. As such, he’s a resource for everyone who loves this music, the honest and sometimes haggard beauty of the Faces, and also a role model for continuing to play and write songs onto the precipice of one’s eighth decade. See his website for the tour dates.

I want to talk first about the title, "United States." Is it possible you are not talking about the place?

It's not anything about United States. It just seemed to be a great title. It's also an anagram of nudist estate. I do crosswords, you know. The thing is, it's about relationships, really, and I just thought “Ah, that's funny; I bet no one's used that.”

So the United States in the sense of coming together in a relationship.

Literally and figuratively, yeah. Any of my albums could be called "United States," because I tend to write about relationships. That's just how it is.

What about if one were to think that it was called United States in part because of your love for American music?

I never thought of that. My love for American music and American movies is from an early age. I was 10 or 11 when I heard Fats Domino and Little Richard and Buddy Holly. And the movies, my dad used to take my brother and I to the movies every Friday. It was incredible, we got to see just about every movie that came out for a period of years. I saw the last two Marx Brothers movies when they came out. That's how old I am. They weren't the best movies.

It was always my dream, getting to America? Honestly, I couldn't figure America as being real. Because it was on discs or in the movies. I was shocked when I first went to Detroit. I thought everybody was rich. Everybody had green lawns, no fences because everyone has a hedge, you know. Of course the movies are always shot in California. Detroit was a shock.

When were you first there?

That was 1970. Same time as my first trip to New York. We all bought cameras, Ronnie Wood and I did. We bought single reflex cameras. I photographed all the bums, and all the fire stations. Actually that corner [gestures out window to Ninth Avenue], there's a pub there. I took a lot of shots, just standing on the corner, shooting. All of the fashion, the way people are dressed, it was so 1970s, so different.

What happened to those photographs?

My wife used to collect all the photographs and the negs. There's a closet full of them and I just kept putting photographs in. I have loads of them, like a hall of shame going into my bar. It's full of photographs. Kim would get those big things you put the photographs in. Then when I wrote the book [his memoir, "All The Rage," 2009] I took some out, and she tells me “You gotta put them back!”

So the band on the new album, "United States" -- the same Bump Band as in recent years?

Different drummer. Conrad Choucroun. He sings; all my guys sing now. I'm not saying I don't need Patty Griffin on my records; she sang on the last couple but not on this one because my guys are doing the singing. It's all of us, on the whole record, except for the violinist, who I just use on one track, she multi-tracked. It's nice that it's just the band. When we go on stage we can recreate the songs really good, especially the harmony parts. It's a real sweetener for me to sing over that stuff. We've got like nine or ten instruments now, with the voices. There's four of us, I play piano and organ. So that's five. And four voices.

What organ are you carrying around on tour these days?

B3. Same one I used with Faces. Same one on “Maggie May.” You don't want to settle, do you? Once you've got the right one. And it's my beast, you know. She has a name, too: Betsy. I've had it since 1969. It's pretty much a Ferrari compared with what comes out of the factories. It's loud as fuck. I defy any guitarist to compete. Finally, I'm the king. It's my band! I'll be renting when we play the Iridium [June 16]; I'm renting a B3.

“Scrappy” [Jud Newcomb] is playing guitar for you?

With Scrappy for 20 years now. In fact, 21 as of next week. I do solo gigs or duo gigs with my bass player. If Scrappy's not about I don't do gigs. Teaching a guitarist all of these songs, it’s hard work, and then you want to throw another song in and he hasn't rehearsed it. I just did a gig last night with one of my two relief drummers. I can deal with that, because drumming is a question of counting in and knowing where to break.

The record has a real soul feel to it, with the clarity of great recordings from the '70s, not like you fixed it all in ProTools.

Right. Although it's digitally recorded. But it's recorded well. I have this big sofa, I've had since the early '70s, late '60s. It's a big, orange, uncomfortable sofa. I decided I'm not taking it out of the room, because then it becomes a studio. It's my home too. And the guys are recording there three or four days a year, four or five days a year. It's my home. Darwin [Smith, engineer] came over the day before we recorded; we were setting up. He said “What are we going to do about the sofa?” I said, “Nothing.” He said it would be better sound to get the drums in the middle of the room. I said no. A) It's my home, and I don't want to change it like that. B) The drums will be near the piano. I already have to cover the piano up. I hate to do that. When I recorded "Troublemaker" in L.A., Jim Keltner was on drums, and when we got to the studio, he said, “I don't want to be in a booth, I want to be this far away from you.” I said, “Okay.” So he was this side of me [making motions], the piano lives here, and they covered it over of course, and he's right there so I could make eye contact.

What about these new songs? The last album is sad, "Never Say Never," it's a beautiful, soulful record -- but it's also sad.

It wasn't really intended to be. I get that. When I saw our performance, my performance on Letterman, I thought “Oh, fuck, it does sound sad.” I wasn't thinking sad, really. Maybe I was, I was just thinking of my wife. I don't think this album — although a couple people have mentioned “Love Letter” — is in the same vein. But I don't think it's necessary to know all of that. I never told the guys that song was about Kim. We never discuss any of that shit.

They’re just songs.

It's songs, exactly. It's a question of us going through all the songs. They'll say “What do you want to do?” “Let's do this one, that one. Cut that.” Then we'll go on to the next one. There's never a question of what they're about and [pause] and “Love Letter” came up early.  It was a difficult one to record, I mean there's a twelve-string on it. There's guitar, there's piano, there's a lot of organ. I didn't know quite how to record it. I hadn't figured out the arrangement. I really rearranged things. The twelve-string was an overdub, I'm really glad of that. The guys are all involved in that business. But once they’re done I work for months then, doing vocals, organs, maybe pianos.

How would you describe your process as a lyricist? Are lyrics the last thing that happens in the song?

Sometimes lyrics first. Every possible combination. Like “He's Not for You,” the last song, I had some of the lyrics first.

I love that song, by the way.

Thank you.

I feel like the narrator's talking about himself. True or untrue?

I could picture the scene. It's some sort of a function, like a wedding or some sort of celebration. It's a big deal. There's a terrace, everybody's dressed up. There's a big terrace outside and I'm talking to this girl . . .young girl, yes, it's me, I've never acted, it's not like it's fiction, but I'm trying to give the young girl advice and the guy I'm advising about really is me. Because that was the original thing, that someone else was telling her about me. “He's too old for you.”

With that song, and elsewhere on the album too, the lyrics are complex. They are sort of deviously simple on the surface, but then they turn out to have a lot more kind of, subliminal layering.

“He's not for you,” the guy's talking to this girl, and she's been dancing with this guy, which is me, in a way. Then I'm the guy saying to her, “He's too old for you.” Originally it was kind of a country song; I don't know what it is now. The band at the wedding are playing, “Runaround Sue.” Originally, I had that title, and it just scanned right. Then I thought “Runaround Sue,” what the fuck? I'm trying to suggest that it was kind of a seedy dance, it's guys trying to pull at this girl and this wiser guy's saying “No, come on. When you wake up the sun will shine. It's another day, you know. He's got a girl, he's married...” I figured the band was not very good. Why would they play “Runaround Sue?” It's a great song, but it's not something you'd hear, unless . . .

It's oldies night or something.

Yeah, exactly. So I tried all kinds of titles. I would throw “Maybe Baby,” every kind of title in there, and nothing fit. Even something that scanned right didn't make any sense. So I thought, “fuck it,” I've got it already. Sometimes that happens.

Do you always write at the keyboard?

That one was on guitar. Then, as I developed the song, I figured, “I better be playing piano.” Sometimes I write the songs and I don't get to play the piano until the day we record, which is odd. Because then I'm just playing pads, pumpin' away, trying to figure it out.

Wouldn't that change the feel a lot? If you wrote it on guitar?

I don't play guitar well enough; it's just chords. "Never Say Never" was written on guitar. I used a capo.

So you're just playing like first-position chords?

Nothing complicated. That's why I write on guitar more often. If I'm on the piano, I get clever, I start playing the piano. And you really don't want that.

How about “Mean Old World?” on "United States"? It's got that amazing walk-up left-hand part where the piano and guitar are both playing...

Scrappy plays so simpatico, doesn't he?

Was that written on guitar first? It sounds like, it's got like a gospel-y feel on the arrangement.

That's the piano, yeah.

Can you talk about that song, how you came to that one?

I'd been let down. I've been let down three or four times since my wife died. I'm 69, just turned 69. It's hell to date at that age. It's horrifying. I haven't dated in 33 years. We were together 33 years. To suddenly find yourself out there, you make the stupidest mistakes. I'm ignorant. I was asking advice from the girls I was dating. Now, you know, I'm trying to give up, then something might happen. Everyone says “You're looking, stop looking.” How the fuck do you do that? I'm always looking. You don't stop thinking about women just because your wife dies. It's terrible, but you know. I just want the hugs, the kisses. A kiss! To me a kiss is so [whispers] precious. It means . . . a woman gives herself to you. A guy'll kiss anybody. A guy'll kiss a dog. When a woman kisses you it actually means something. Some people will only kiss on the lips, but . . . On a date, if you get a kiss on the lips [whistles]. Anyway, it's been nothing but misery [laughs].

The way you're talking about it is really honest, and that honesty is on the album too. There's a way, for example, that the Rolling Stones still have to write songs about chasing girls and all that kind of stuff, but it's not telling the truth anymore. It’s out of phase with where they are in life.

Mick, God bless him. He's going through grief. I didn't know he had this longtime girlfriend. It never occurred to me until recent years it must be weird for some people to look at me and think, “He's talking about girls as if he's 25 or something.”

No, but this song is about an adult going through this process, and that's perhaps what's making it more emotionally rich.

Okay. Thanks.

And it kind of has an Armstrong vibe to me, like the way you're singing it.

Little Walter and Louis Armstrong are two of the finest fucking singers in the world. Not to mention, they're great instrumental players. And it took me a while to realize that. I was playing New York with Billy Bragg. We played in a park down by the World Trade Center. Battery Park. He had some friend's wedding to go to the next day, it was Saturday I think. So I stayed the night in this hotel, a very nice hotel, they had a limousine for me to take me to the airport.  It was Sunday, I think it was in the early spring. Crisp and sunny and beautiful. I'm in this huge limousine, a stretch. The driver said “Radio's up there,” and I hear nothing but Louis Armstrong. I'd never heard “Kiss to Build a Dream On” until that day. I fucking love that song. I got all fuckin' goosebumps. I saw Rod Stewart some years ago, and he'd already had three of those American Songbook albums out. I asked did you ever do “Kiss to Build a Dream On.” I think he said no. I went “Thank God,” 'cause I really wanted to do it. Then he did it on his next one!

Can we talk about singing a little bit? For me, that's one of the blessings of this record, but you weren't really noted as a singer, early in your career.

The very first record I was ever on, I sang on the B-side. It's a long story, but we changed singers. I don't really remember too much about it [pause], somebody gave me the single. “Backdoor Man” was the A-side. The B-side, I can't even think of the title but it's fuckin' horrible. My singing, I mean [laughs].

Is that Muleskinners?

Muleskinners, yeah. I was trying to sing like a blues man. A lot of people when they start to sing the blues, being white, you try to sing old, you put on a voice. So I sang like that. Ronnie Lane and Stevie Marriot [in The Small Faces] encouraged me to sing. I wanted to write songs for them, but they had that kind of closed down. When I played something for Ronnie, he said “Oh we should record it.” I only cut two songs during the Small Faces years where I sang.

The thing is I wanted to have a band. The only way to have a band is if you sing, really. I sang and sang, I had this band since 1978 in L.A. And one night we were in Austin. I had a residency at the Saxon Pub and my wife worked during the day; she had a salon, a skin care salon. She had to get up early. I said “Are you coming to the gig tonight,” She said no, and I said “You haven't been coming to any of the gigs recently.” She said “You're not having any fun.” I said, “What? Yes I am!” [laughs] Denial. She says “I could see you're struggling up there.” She was dead right. I hadn't realized it. I was trying to play the organ and piano, lead the band, and remember the lyrics. I'm terrible remembering lyrics. Before a tour, I have to remind myself, I have to go through the songs. I still fuck up on lyrics.

Anyway, she was right. She suggested I have singing lessons, just to know how to warm your voice. Stretch it. I have more range now than I ever did. I don't think there's any reason for that not to keep going on, if you treat your voice right. Rod gave me good advice once: Always warm up before sound check, as well as the gig. You get the sound check, you think “I'm only gonna sing half a song,” and that's when you fuck it. It's just a muscle. You wouldn't run without doing a warm-up.

What about the phrasing, because your phrasing is intuitive and beautiful, I think.

Well it's phrasing with my lyrics, so it's not complicated for me. I've loved singers. I love Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott, Little Walter, Mick Jagger. I've been behind all these singers. Bob Dylan, the man of a million voices. Thank you, I really love to sing. After the lessons, I learned my parts, I learned the lyrics. She knew I was doing better. My guitarist, Scrappy. I'd phone him up sometimes, over the 20 years, I'd say “What are you doing, Scrappy?” He'd say, “I'm practicing.” I'd say, “No, you're rehearsing. You practiced when you were young. Now you know your instrument.” Actually, he does practice, he plays guitar all the time. I don't do that on piano, I've never done it. Sometimes it shows in my playing. I just don't know what to play other than the songs. I don't know any scales. I had piano lessons when I was a kid; I hated them. My mom wanted me to have piano lessons. I only did them for two or three weeks.

So what accounts for the soul vibe on this album?

It may be because there's more organ. On "Never Say Never," I don't think there was any organ. Or just a couple of places. I played pianos. I didn't think it needed it. When people say, “Oh you're in a band, what kind of music?” I go “Well, old school rock 'n' roll. Rock and soul, soulful rock 'n' roll.” Booker T. is my organ idol. Him and Billy Preston. Booker first of all with “Green Onions.” Once I heard him I knew what I was doing with the rest of my life. I have such a debt to pay him.

So you saw Stax/Volt Revue shows in the mid-'60s. Were Sam and Dave really better than Otis Redding?

The thing is there were two of them. There were these two risers came out from the stage. Otis closed the show and he was fucking fabulous, you can't take anything away from him. But there were two of them, and he was just one. That was the difference. They went out on the risers, and all the women, you know. They played it. Otis was more about singing. He was fantastic.

There's one recording, I think it's Paris, a recording of “Try a Little Tenderness” live.

That's how he closed the show. It's an old song. 1933. It was actually written by Campbell and Connelly, who formed their own publishing company. I knew that name, Campbell Company songs. 

Did you meet Booker T., Mac?

A few times. He’s such a gentleman, and a gentle man. “Oh really, pleased to meet you.” To me, I'm struck dumb, I don't know what to do. I'd hate to be stuck somewhere where he'd say “You wanna play something for me.” I'd run off. We toured around England and Belgium and Japan with Faces a couple years ago. The organ they brought to the studio sucked, basically. I said, “You have to get something better than this; it's distorted.” They brought another one. “No it's not good enough.” So they used another company. I used this company before, with this guy named Tiny, he's a huge guy. He said “You're gonna like this one. Booker's been using it.” “Get the fuck out!” “He used it last week. He said 'You're going off, I'm in Belgium, he takes it again for awhile, then you go to Japan, I use a rental there, you'll come back and have it back.'" So I wrote a letter to him and stuck it on the keys. Then when we played the last gig after Japan, Tiny came in, he said “You're gonna like this.” The envelope is on the keys, and it was his set list, he'd written on the back. It's in my safe, my file safe. I'm like a giggly girl around him.

Did you meet Billy Preston ever?

I played with Billy. We actually had a night in the studio, jamming. He was very kind to me. He's younger than me, but very sweet. He was on the piano and he said, “Come on.” Later on he said, “Let's switch.” So we switched back and forth. John Lord was there, and he came over, and Billy said, “No, no! It's me and Mac.”

He's the only guy to have played on a Beatles session and a Stones session.

And Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Little Richard. Unbelievable. He's the fifth everything [laughs].

So what's next?

I'm dying to get to the next album. We've had a two-year wait. We cut the tracks for "United States" in April 2012, just waiting for Yep Roc to get on board. I have songs I've been working on. I have these songs, some of them are finished, some of them are half-finished. Once this album is out, it's over. I can move on.

Do you write every day?

No, but I'm thinking about it. I write ideas, sometimes in my phone, come back to it a month later, “What the fuck is that?” Seems like someone else wrote it, you're hearing it fresh, or reading it. I often forget the melodies. Now I record if I'm in the car. John Mellencamp in an interview was asked that question, Do you write every day, and he said “Yeah, I keep the doors and windows open.” I thought, “That's a good fuckin' way to think about it.” And I wasn't keeping them open, so now I do.

How about the keyboards? Mostly you play when you're writing a song. Do you just sit down and play?

For a while I had a keyboard in my sitting room, but it's just in the way. I keep a guitar and an amp in there all the time. I'll get an idea on guitar quite often, and then I'll go to the piano. Once I get some words I move to the piano, figure out what the key is. It's the constant.

I would be a bad interviewer if I didn't ask about the Faces reunion tour. Going to happen, maybe? Are you excited about it?

No. I'm excited about this album. I'll be excited about that around about Christmas. There are gigs I’m gonna do in a week or two. Faces is going to happen, though. It’s the first time Rod's real positive about it, and his manager is too. I want to do it.

And how was that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show?

[Pause] How do I say this? I'm not a fan of Green Day. Never thought much about them until that night. I'm not a fan of Guns N’ Roses. I don't really get it. It's too young for me. It feels like kids making a lot of noise. I had a migraine that day, it was a bad one. I got it about two hours before the show. I'd ordered a meal, it was an hour late, it got to me just before I was supposed to leave. I was angry and I had a migraine. I get there, I'm 15 feet from the front of the stage, right in the middle, second table. Green Day come on. If I had a gun, they'd all be dead. And I'd be happy about it. Horrifyingly loud and bad, two things you shouldn't be. Especially if you're at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was as much 'cause of the migraine as anything. I wanted to kill Guns N’ Roses as well. Apart from that, it was nice to be inducted, it was a big honor. Means a lot to me. I still think we should have two awards though, for Small Faces and Faces.

They seem to fuck up one thing every year at least. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Well, KISS is in.

By Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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