Interview for Billboard • Saturday, September 3, 2005

Paul McCartney - Chaos And Creation In The Backyard

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
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Interview by:
Paul Sexton
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Timeline More from year 2005

Album This interview has been made to promote the Chaos and Creation in the Backyard Official album.

Songs mentioned in this interview

Helter Skelter

Officially appears on The Beatles (Mono)

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Doing the garden? Digging the weeds? Who could ask for more? But don’t expect Paul McCartney to slow down like that when he’s 64. Just one year shy of the milestone he once immortalized in song, McCartney is gearing up for the release of his 20th album of his post-Beatles career and a major U.S. tour. The album, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” arrives September 13 from Capitol Records in the United States and from EMI worldwide. McCartney’s US Tour, as he calls it, opens September 16 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami. But this Liverpudlian knight of the realm does not confine himself to the typical album-tour-album-tour cycle. Last summer, McCartney took the stage at Britain’s renowned Glastonbury Festival and played a set in tribute to his deceased former bandmates, John Lennon and George Harrison. In February, he played the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla. And when called to join the global consciousness-raising of Live 8 in July, McCartney was there front and center. In another creative sphere, on October 4 McCartney will publish “High in the Clouds,” his collaboration with author Philip Ardagh and animator Geoff Dunbar for Penguin Young Readers Group. But for McCartney’s longtime fans, the focus first is always on his music. On “Chaos,” working with producer Nigel Godrich, McCartney has created his most rounded and assured piece of work in many years, from the strident opener “Fine Line” to the closing “Anyway.” The latter track characterizes the album with a mature sense of space and pensiveness. For the project, the artist resumed the role of multi-instrumentalist that distinguished “McCartney,” his first post-Beatles project — released precisely 35 years ago — and the “McCartney II” set exactly a decade later. Adding zest to McCartney’s challenge, this is his first studio set in four years, after the 2001 release of “Driving Rain,” which was a modest performer in the marketplace by McCartney’s exacting standards. In conversation with Billboard on the eve of the release of “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” McCartney emphasizes that the only challenges he now needs are the ones he sets himself. Prior to this interview, Billboard heard an advance copy of the new album that was credited with a pseudonym for security.

Q: I’m very fond of this new “Pete Mitchell” album.

A: [Laughs] Oh, thanks. Yeah, he’s not bad, is he?

Q: You have to do that these days, don’t you?

A: Yeah, they’ve got a big anti-piracy thing in place, watermarked copies and so on. But it’s OK. It’s a good thing, really.

Q: Have you been getting a lot of good reaction to the album?

A: I must say we have. We had a lot of fun making it. Nigel Godrich, the producer, and I had a lot of fun making it. We were determined to make something that we wanted to listen to at the end of it all.

Q: And for it to take its course in its own time, without being too rushed?

A: Exactly. We did it over two years, but probably recorded for about four months of those two years. I got a lot of holidays in between, but also I had a European tour that ate into it. But that’s quite a nice process, because you could reconsider each little bout once you’d done it. and that informed the next lot, instead of just dashing through it.

Q: I sense that people are surprised that this is your 20th solo album.

A: I’m kind of surprised, because I don’t count how many I’ve done; I just do the next one, and love it. There’re always people who say, “Did you know it’s 40 years since the Beatles?,” and I go, “Get away.” Or “You’ve done 3,000 gigs.” I say, “Never.” Of course the more we go on, the more it mounts up. But it really doesn’t matter to me whether it’s the 30th or the 3,000th. But at the same time it’s kind of impressive.

Q: Had you met Godrich before?

A: No, I’d just started to hear about him. I’d liked certain records, and he turned out to be the common link between them. I’d like Radiohead’s records he was involved in, and I’d been sent an early copy of the Travis record, because I knew the Travis guys. We’d met along the road somewhere and got on very well. Then I heard on the radio a track by Beck that I liked. The link between all these was Nigel, so when George [Martin] suggested him, I must admit he was on my good board. He was in the top 10 of people I would have considered. I’d also read something about him in an article. It’s like, you get a Volvo, and you see nothing on the road but Volvos. I knew I was going to work with this guy by then, so you read everything you can. I saw an article which said he’d said himself. “No doubt one of these days an established artist will come along.” This is before I’d talked to him. I thought, “That sounds like me!” So I thought, ‘Right, I’ll give him a ring on the strength of all that.’ I did, we met up in my office, as a sort of business meeting, cup of tea, quite casual, to talk about what we would want to do if we were to get together.

Q: How that meeting go?

A: Our ideas were surprisingly similar. I said, “I’m going to make a great record.” I thought instead of saying, “I would like to make a good record,” I’m going to put some pressure on myself and motivate myself. And he said, “If I do it with you, it’s got to be you.” I suggested a couple of possible things I was listening to that we might draw off. And he said, “No, we’ve got enough to draw off. That’s what people want: an album that sounds like you.” So we decided to do two weeks at Rak Studios to see if we could work together or if we hated each other. Sure enough, we got on very well. First week, I came in with my live band, thinking that might be the way we’d go. But he started to intimate toward the end of the week that he wanted, as he put it, to take me out of my safety zone, to do something different.

Q: In what way?

A: He said, “I like the way you play drums.” I said, “I’ve got one of the world’s greatest drummers in Abe [Laboriel].” He said, “Yeah, but it might be a bit safe. You know these guys, they know you. I’d like to try something out.” I love playing drums. I love knocking about on a lot of instruments. I may not be the world’s greatest drummer, but I’ve got a feel that he liked. I remember Elvis Costello talking to me about the feel I had on drums. So that turned out to be the feel, and I had to say to the guys in the band, “Look, we’ll be playing this live, but I hope you understand.” They were really cool about it, and we set off on the road.

Q: You mention Costello, who you collaborated with on (the 1989 album) “Flowers in the Dirt,” and this feels like it could be your best record since that one. Is there a link, in terms of bringing somebody new in who was prepared to tell you good things and bad things?

A: I think that’s probably true, yeah. Someone you respect who has their own respect in the community and who is forthright enough to say, “No, we can do better than that.” The funny thing is, I always like that, but what happens is when you reach a certain position, people will naturally, in a way, assume that whatever you say goes. But in a lot of the areas I work, like tours and in the office, if you were able to look in on a meeting of mine, it’d be, “OK, who’s got a good idea? What do we do now?” I really like teamwork.

Q: When you meet new people, not just in work but socially, you must have to take the lead. You must be aware that an awful lot of people are completely daunted by meeting you at all.

A: It’s true, yeah. It’d be like when I met Phil Everly. He was such a figure from my youth that I went all daft and said, “Err, I used to be you … John was Don …,” and all the most stupid things, and he got thoroughly embarrassed. But I am very aware of that, even to people at the newspaper shop. I do a sort of Liverpool thing, which is [jokingly], “Look here, I don’t want any trouble off you,” or whatever. I’ll be in their face, and they’ll go, “Oh, he’s just ordinary,” and we soon get at ease. It comes in handy in situations like that. People always expect you to be riding around in stretch limousines all the time, but I will sometimes take public transport if it’s convenient, and it does surprise people, you see the heads turn. I was in New York and I needed to get uptown, so I took one of the uptown buses. A few people noticed, and this black lady said, “Hey, you Paul McCartney?,” and started getting quite loud. I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want any trouble off you, babe,” and she laughed. I said, “If you’re going to talk to me, come over here, sit by me.” So she did, and I heard her entire history, how she was going to visit her sister and all this stuff.

Q: One of the things that struck me about the album is that it’s not really a rock’n’roll record. There’s a lot of reflective stuff on it.

A: That’s right. It’s only with people saying things like that, that I’ve thought, “It’s true, there’s only two rockers on it.” I would bring something to Nigel, thinking, “This would be OK,” and he’d say. “I don’t really like it.” I’d say, “Fair enough, then we won’t work on it,” and I’d pull the next one out of the bag, and he’d say, “I love that one, let’s do that.” It did mean we didn’t have a conscious policy about it being a rock album or this or that. It’d be a “whatever it was” album. So you’ve got a few rockers, a few others reasonably uptempo, and it has meant a lot of the tracks we liked were quite introspective. But it’s nice to find that out now. when it’s too late!

Q: One of the darker songs is “Riding to Vanity Fair.”

A: That wasn’t going to be on the album, and it now is one that people are tending to notice. It’s a very good example of collaboration between Nigel and I. I brought it originally as quite an uptempo thing. I was thinking of doing it as a bit of a rocker. Nigel gave me a blank look when I played it. I thought, “I’m getting to know that look . . .” In fact, it was one of our sticky moments. He happened to say he didn’t like it just as I was doing a bass overdub on something. And I was all fired up and had all the energy and the vibes. And he said, “You know that song you played the other day? I really didn’t like it.” I go, “Oh, thanks.” I tried to keep the energy up, but of course it had gone. I said, “Hey, Nige. you know what, man? It’s timing. You’re a great producer, but I’m very spoiled. I’ve had the ultimate diplomat in George Martin, who would have said at the right time: ‘Paul, perhaps we might reconsider how we deal with this song,'” or something, and he coaxes you. The good thing was I came right up against Nigel’s style and he came right up against mine, and we met somewhere in the middle, and I think we both learned something from it. I didn’t get that bass that day, but I came in the next day thinking, “Right, sod you, I’m gonna get it.” I got it in one take, and he said. “I love you Paul,” and I said, “I love you Nigel.” But if someone was going to take an uncompromising view, that had to happen. What happened with the song, then, was we halved the tempo and took it down, quite slow and moody, then ultimately ended up rewriting the melody completely and a lot of the words. So there was not a lot left of the original song, but it was a very interesting process I think we both liked, and it was like working with a band member.

Q: That song, about being let down by a close friend, sounds like it’s based on real experience.

A: It’s about all the people who’ve ever been like that. My stuff isn’t often autobiographical, whereas some other composers, it really is; it’s their life in song, whereas mine [come from] things that have happened to me in song, but not necessarily in sequence. It might be as it is in this case: all the times I’ve offered friendship and it’s been turned down, and the hurt that it’s caused. It’s really like a therapy session. You get it in a song, and you work it out.

Q: Another tour coming up in the States suggests that you’re having a good time now.

A: The end of my last American tour, promoters were saying, “We could still take more, do longer.” Because I don’t really go out for much longer than three months, I find I get bored and it really becomes a slog. Three months at the rate we tour, which is pretty much one gig, then a day off, is pretty leisurely compared to how we used to work.

Q: Are you planning on any more “new old” songs onstage?

A: Yeah, I found a few, I must say, which will be surprises. That’s one of the great pleasures now, because I used to resist Beatles songs. It was as if I was just trading on the past. But I realized audiences loved them. They didn’t mind you doing that — in fact just the opposite. But I found that on the last American tour, things like “Hello Goodbye,” that I’d never sung live before, was very entertaining for me and the audience. So that became a big plus. I’ve got a few songs I did in Europe that I’ve never done on American soil, and I’m thinking of a couple of others I’ve not done before, so it means they’re very fresh.

Q: It was interesting to see you doing “Helter Skelter” at the Live 8 concert.

A: Yeah, that surprised a few people. It was cool to do. It was a good scream-up.

Q: I imagine after the elation of the Live 8 day, what happened in London the following week [with the terrorist bombings of July 7] must have been a terrible dampener, wasn’t it?

A: Yeah, of course it was, because you were really just watching the G8 [Summit], and there’s always someone who spoils it. Even at the G8 there were those skirmishes from professional hooligans, which were beginning to spoil it. Then suddenly the bombings really put a dampener on the whole thing. But I suppose you have to just be philosophical and think they won’t defeat us. I choose to remember the greatness of the [Live 8] day and that we all came together for the right reasons, to help some brothers and sisters.

Q: At this point, when you’re doing promotion, I imagine that’s one of the bits of the job you like the least.

A: I don’t hate it. Peter Ustinov said doing interviews is like seeing your psychiatrist. You find out what you’re thinking. Probably the bit I like the least [about releasing a new album] is letting go of your baby. Like your baby’s going to school, and it’s going to come in for some bullying. That I don’t like too much. But it’s part of the game. ••••

Sir Paul And Sir George: Friendship Transcends Years

Although George Martin was not directly involved in the recording of Paul McCartney’s new album, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” the longtime Beatles producer suggested that McCartney work with producer Nigel Godrich, who shaped the record’s sound. After so many years, it is clear that Martin’s ideas still mean a lot to McCartney. “Yes, he’s one of my top men,” McCartney says. “I have a lot of love and respect for him. He’s a great man. One of the things I always find interesting about him is that even though he may not be producing stuff, he still knows what’s what. He can tell you all the latest equipment. He knows much more than I ever did, but that’s not hard,” he quips. In fact, while the two (who both have received knighthoods) no longer work together, McCartney feels as if Martin, 79, is keeping a watchful eye over the younger musician. “That is right, actually,” McCartney says. “We’re very good friends, and he takes a great interest in what I do. Whenever we invite him to do some things, he and his wife Judy are nearly always there, and I’m always surprised he makes it. He’s doing this Cirque du Soleil project with his son Giles, so we’re still closely involved.” Cirque du Soleil, whose founder Guy Laliberte was close friends with the late George Harrison, is working with George and Giles Martin and the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps, on a theatrical production celebrating the legacy of the Beatles. It is expected to debut next year at the Mirage in Las Vegas. But didn’t Martin announce plans to retire a decade ago? “I know,” McCartney says. “He’s never going to retire. When people say we work so hard, I say, ‘As musicians, we don’t work, we play music’ We’re very lucky to do it. I can think of a lot worse things.”

Last updated on January 20, 2021


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