Ian McLagan is one of rock’s most revered performers. He was a member of the Small Faces, as well as the Faces, and has played with a who’s who of rock and roll, including Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and many, many others. His unique keyboard stylings can be heard on hundreds of recordings, including such classics as Stewart’s “Maggie May” and the Stones’ “Miss You.” He currently resides in Austin, TX, where he performs weekly with his band, the Bump Band. His latest album, Never Say Never, is available on 00:02:59 Records.
You’ve been living in Austin since 1994. What brought you there in the first place?
It was actually an earthquake. The earthquake in L.A. on January 17 felt brutal, and I’d been promising my wife that I’d consider leaving L.A., but was getting so much work there. After the earthquake I just said, ‘let’s get out.’ We did a little research. It didn’t take long. There’s really only one music city in America. I mean, Seattle’s cool and everything, but it’s got English weather, and New York is fine, but it gets a brutal winter. It was just checks and balances. It’s obviously Austin, and we moved here a few months later, in May of that year, almost 15 years ago.
At some point you put together the Bump Band. When was that?
I’ve had a Bump Band since ’79. Obviously the L.A. versions were different. I toured Japan with Ronnie Lane in 1990, and we rehearsed here in Austin, at what was then the ARC (Austin Rehearsal Complex), and that was run by Don Harvey and Wayne Nagel. Don Harvey was the drummer on that tour, so he was the first person I called when I was going to move here. He found me (guitarist) “Scrappy” Jud Newcombe, and from there the three of us have been together 15 years.
And when did (former Spirit, Jo Jo Gunne) Mark Andes join?
(Laughing) It’s funny you should mention that. He joined in June, five years ago, and left two or three weeks ago.
I’m sorry to hear that.
I saw him … actually there was a party at the ARC. It was the 10-year anniversary since it closed party, and Mark came from Houston for that. So it was nice to see him. So, I mean, we’re still pals and everything. I think he’s just focusing on different stuff. He probably doesn’t want to tour anymore.
Are you maintaining your Thursday night residency at (Austin’s) Lucky Lounge?
Oh yeah. We’re not playing tonight because Ronnie Johnson, my new bass player, tours with James McMurtry. Actually he was in the Tremors, Ronnie Lane’s band when he lived here. So it’s worked out full circle. I have a Ronnie on bass again. Ronnie’s worked out really, really great. He’ll be touring the west coast with us. We’ll be doing the David Letterman show on June 16.
While we’re on the subject of Ronnie Lane, having seen you a couple times recently, at BB King’s in New York, and more recently in Austin, you seem to have made it at least part of your life’s work to keep Ronnie Lane’s life and music alive. You do a few of his songs, you talk about him in your live shows. Tell me what that means to you.
He remains a dear friend. It seems to be that he’s not as well known as he should be, and his music’s not as well known as it should be. Actually I made the album Spiritual Boy (a tribute to Ronnie Lane) very quickly. I was halfway through what became (my latest album) Never Say Never and I realized very suddenly that his 60th birthday was going to be April 1, 2006, and here it was February. I remember thinking, well, I want to do an album of his stuff, and maybe this would be the opportunity. In fact, cancel everything else. We did it very quickly, which proved to be a good thing. Something magical happened because of it, I think. You couldn’t dwell on stuff. You cut the tracks. You put the vocals down, solos, listened to it and added what was necessary, but really it was quite a basic album. You know the box set (The Faces – Five Guys Walk Into A Bar, which Ian produced) was dedicated to him, and it’s really as much about him as anybody, in fact more about him really. It’s time to wake up to Ronnie Lane. I always do a few of his songs. Fact is, they’re great songs. It keeps him alive. That’s how I feel.
Was the Ronnie Lane / Steve Marriott (Small Faces) writing partnership really a partnership, or was in more like a Lennon / McCartney thing where they wrote separately and shared the credit?
Yeah, it was pretty much it. It’s always someone else’s spark. “Itchycoo Park” was Ronnie’s, “Tin Soldier” was Steve’s. “All Or Nothing” was Steve, “I Feel Much Better” was Ronnie. Always the spark came from one or the other, and then the other would finish it, or add a bridge, not always, to my mind, successfully. I didn’t appreciate Steve’s part of “Itchycoo Park” frankly, which is why I cut it on Spiritual Boy. I’ve never liked singing that song. I mean, it was very successful. I’m happy for them both, and for the band, but it was a pain to have to sing. It dated very quickly. When I went back to the song, I realized that Ronnie was writing about education, and England. He wasn’t writing about just getting high. He was high, and it was all too beautiful. He meant that, but he meant it really from the bottom of his heart. Quite a different song.
I hadn’t intended to do that song, in fact, when I toured Japan with him, I said unconditionally, we don’t do “Itchycoo Park.” He wasn’t at all happy with that, and told me so, but I wouldn’t go back on it. I just couldn’t bear to be singing that song in Japan after all those years, in that way. It’s my way of apologizing that I did cut it, and I cut it with reverence, to how I think maybe he would have recorded it had Steve not got in the way of it. I don’t think it would have been a bigger hit. I think it probably wouldn’t have been a hit. My point is that, it’s an apology, and an acceptance that it’s a really great song. It’s beautiful. When he sings about “over bridge of sighs, to rest my eyes, in shades of green,” that’s Oxford. Bridge of Sighs. “Under dreaming spires” is Cambridge. What he’s saying is that he hasn’t had an education. He hasn’t lived in these grand places and seen these beautiful sights. He’s from a metal patch in the East of London, but he still finds happiness.
You said the song was dated. Was that because of Steve’s part, or was it the phasing on the drums?
No, no, actually that was the very first time the phasing was used. I didn’t realize that. At the time I thought the Beatles had used it, but they hadn’t. No, it’s not so much that. It’s just the very kind of bouncy, throwaway line, “it’s all too beautiful.” I don’t feel it like that. So I cut it as quite a different song. Slower. I changed it a little bit. I didn’t change the lyrics, but when I got to the chorus, I sang it from the heart, without any irony, or cockiness.
You have played in bands with two or rock’s greatest vocalists, Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart. Compare those experiences for us.
Steve was absolutely astounding. When I joined the band he was 18. I’d seen them on television doing “Whatcha Gonna Do About It,” and he just amazed me with his voice. Once I got to actually play with him when I joined the band in November, 1965, his power and his soulfulness was amazing. He was just a little white kid from the East End, but you’d think he was from Chicago or from the deep south. And it was sincere. He had a great set of pipes.
It’s funny, I’ve got a CD in front of me: Land of 1,000 Dances, by Chris Kenner. He used to love Chris Kenner. He turned me on to some people too. He used to throw lines in from Chris Kenner, or James Brown, or Muddy Waters. We’d jam, not like Phish or the Grateful Dead, we’d just jam on a chord for awhile, and he’d rip out. That was live, and it was pretty astounding.
Rod is great singer. As soon as he joined, it all took shape. The Faces were a band as soon as he sat in. There was no going back after that. We had our singer.
How difficult was it when Rod started having solo success and eventually left the Faces?
It wasn’t a problem when he had his solo success because I was on those records. We were promoting them at the same time as we were promoting the Faces. We always promoted his stuff, and as his stuff got more popular we never stopped doing it. Why would we? It all balanced out. But yeah, when he left the band, that was it. It was a shock to me, and a shame. It was worse when Ronnie Lane left the band, frankly.
Of all the many, many recordings you’ve played on, it’s fair to say that “Maggie May” is perhaps the most ubiquitous. You hear it everywhere. When you were recording it, was there a sense that all these years later it was still going to be such a classic?
No, no. I thought it was cool, but when we cut it, it was just bass, organ, vocals, acoustic guitar, and drums. Woody (Ron Wood) put guitar on after. I couldn’t tell that. I thought it was good. They were exciting sessions, because they were very fast. That’s always a good thing, you know, nice and fresh. Mickey Waller didn’t have a kit of drums, so they’d been rented.The drums were in a heap on the floor. He’d just about put them together, and they put mics on them and we started cutting.
I love his playing on all of those albums.
Yeah, he was brilliant, God bless him.
There was a lot of talk last year about a possible Faces reunion. When I saw you in Austin recently, you indicated from the stage that it wasn’t going to happen. Is there anything new in that regard?
No, I wish there was. Rod doesn’t communicate. I was in L.A. recording with Ronnie Wood a couple of weeks ago. The plan was that maybe we’d do a couple of shows at the Hollywood Bowl, film them, and release them on DVD, but Rod has other plans. He’s got tour plans. I haven’t heard from him.
In fact, it would be nice if the Faces albums were released. People e-mail me all the time about that. I don’t know why they’ve been stopped. They’re just waiting, the four albums. All the mixed tracks, all the artwork, all the mastering is done. They’re just sitting there. It would be nice to get some royalties from that stuff. It would be nice to have that stuff out so that people could hear what the Faces did.
Who owns the rights to all that stuff?
Warners. I don’t know what’s holding it up. It’s not me, or Ronnie (Wood) or Kenney (Jones), I know that.
You’ve played a lot with Billy Bragg. A friend saw you play with him in England. He said that when Billy would start his political monologues between songs, it seemed a little incongruous to see you sitting up there listening to him. How did you feel at those times?
I agree with a lot of his politics, but it depends on the time in the tour. Early on in the tour, the stories were relatively short, and then as the tour went on, he’d ramble. When I was doing duo shows with him, it was worse. Sometimes he’d bring me on after a couple of songs and I’d sit there for 20 minutes while he rambled. Eventually I’d have to tell the lighting guy at each gig not to have a light on me between songs, because it’s really hard to hold an interested glare when you’ve heard all this shit twice a night for months. It’s difficult, but I l love Billy. He’s very smart, and he’s very funny, but you can’t listen to the same comedian night after night and not be a little jaded.
When you played with Bob Dylan, did he tell you what he wanted you to play, or were you given carte blanche?
He didn’t want any piano. He wanted organ only. There was only one song that he showed me what he wanted. That was the song about Reagan, “Jokerman.” He just wanted a pad of organ, but big. He didn’t want piano, but eventually Mick Taylor convinced him to get me a piano for rocking stuff like “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” and all that. He didn’t tell me what to do. It was very sparse. I don’t think it was him at his best. I like the band he’s got now. They’re really rocking. It wasn’t particularly happy times for me, frankly. But it was great thrill for me, playing those songs, and playing a lot of songs I never heard before.
Let’s talk about your most recent album, Never Say Never. How did it come together?
As I said, I was recording it before I put it to one side, and when I went back, well, my wife was killed (Ian’s wife of 28 years, Kim, was killed in a car accident in Austin in 2006), and then I didn’t want to listen to it for awhile, and when I did, I threw out a bunch of songs, wrote some new ones, and then I was motivated. “Never Say Never” came out of the blue, and I’d already recorded “Killing Me With Love” a couple of years before, which was for her. “Hot and Cool” I’d had for years. I’ve been playing it live for 15 or 20 years, but never recorded it. After awhile, I realized that the songs I was writing, the songs I was leaving in, and the songs I was re-recording were either about loss or obsession, so I just let the thing happen really. Then I threw another few songs out, and I realized that I only had nine. I found a tissue box that I’d had in the truck while I was driving, and I’d written a verse of a song on it, and I’d completely forgotten about it. That was “When the Crying is Over.” I looked at those lyrics and I cut the song and it was done. So that eventually came together quite quickly.
I e-mailed Glyn Johns to ask him if he’d mix it and master it. He said to send him a track. So I sent him “Little Black Number,” and he said “bloody great, send me another.” I sent him another two or three, and eventually sent him everything. He said, “yeah, where do you want to do it, London or Austin?” I was going over to England for a wedding in November, the year before last, and we did it after that. He did a fantastic job.
Yeah, it’s a great record. What’s next for you?
I’ve got a bunch of songs. We’re starting a west coast tour next week. Then we come back, and I’m taking a little break. I’ve got another wedding in Ireland. (Laughs) My fourth wedding in two or three years. I’m a professional guest. And then we start recording again in July.
Thanks so much for your time. I’m a big fan of your work.
Thanks, Ken. Look out for us on June 16 on the Letterman show.
It’s been wonderful speaking with you, and I look forward to seeing you again on the road somewhere.
Come up and say hello. All the best, Ken.
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