Interview for Pitchfork • Monday, May 21, 2007

Sir Paul McCartney

Interview of Paul McCartney
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Jun 07, 2012 • From Pitchfork

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Sir Paul McCartney needs no introduction– but those of us who have known him since we first heard “Yesterday” in the cradle often need a reminder not to take him for granted. His new release Memory Almost Full comes out June 5 on Hear Music, aka the Starbucks label, but it’s the youngest-sounding record he’s released in years. And, like his previous album, 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, it’s a surprisingly revealing and nakedly melancholy turn for someone we’d think couldn’t reveal anything more of himself to us.

At age 64, McCartney has regrets and grudges. He has a press corps in Britain that chases after any salacious rumor it can find about his recent divorce from his second wife, Heather Mills. And thanks to a new deal with iTunes, he’s just now entering the digital music era. But he also has a sense of humor, and a veteran hippie’s outlook on how groovy the world still is.

Pitchfork: Hello, Sir Paul?

McCartney: Yeaaahhhh. Or just Paul to you. Hey man, how are you?

Pitchfork: Good, how are you?

McCartney: I’m very good, thanks. It’s a lovely day here in London, it’s nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon and it’s sunny. Clear blue sky.

Pitchfork: I’d like to ask you a few questions about your new album,Memory Almost Full. It seems a lot more upbeat than Chaos and Creation. Many of the new songs are referencing the past, or seem nostalgic.

McCartney: I wouldn’t use the word nostalgia, so much. Nostalgia implies something a bit soppy– it’s not a sort of very complimentary word. I would use the word memory more, because I think a lot of artists use memories. A lot of prose writers, a lot of poets, a lot of songwriters, refer back to something. Generally it’s all you’ve got, unless you’re brilliant and can write totally in the now. You know, you’re always looking at last year, or 10 years ago, or your school days, or your teenage years, your formative years. Because that’s exactly what they are, they’re your formative years.

And yeah, I did look at the album and think, “Whoa, it’s all very retrospective.” But then I thought, “Wait a minute, when I was twentysomething I was writing about Penny Lane, which was my teenage years.” So, it’s something you do. If you’re using your imagination, you tend to look into the past for ideas.

Pitchfork: Going through this process, did you have any insights or new thoughts on your formative years?

McCartney: Hmm. I think yeah– I’m trying to think of a specific example. One of the songs is called “That Was Me”, and that is really general snapshots from my life, just like flicking through a snapshot album. I’m not sure I discovered anything, but I remembered moments. “The Royal Iris” is a reference to Royal Iris, a ferry boat that used to sail on the River Mersey, and they used to have these things called riverboat shuffles, where people would buy tickets and there’d be a band, and booze, and food, and the ferry would go up and down the river and we’d play. So things like that. It’s just remembering that I did all of those things.

And then there is kind of a moment of discovery in the lyrics. “If fate decreed that this should make a life, who am I to disagree?” I think that is a little moment of self-discovery. “Geez! All these snapshots. This has all happened to me? Wow, I can’t believe it!” And that’s just a tiny fraction of snapshots. Surrounding each of those one-line snapshots there’s a million snapshots that happened before and after that event, you know.

So it goes, “At the scout camp”– sort of boy scout– and “the school play”– I once appeared in a school play. I must admit I had a very lowly part.

Pitchfork: What were you?

McCartney: I was an assessor, they’re called. In St. Joan by Bernard Shaw. And all the big parts were like, proper kids who could act. And there’s about 20 of us who just shuffled on mumbling and agreeing or disagreeing with the judge in the court scene. [Chuckles]

Pitchfork: Well, that’s what’s fun about school plays.

McCartney: Yeah, you know, everyone gets a part.

But like I say, just that one little event, you could probably spend a half hour on. But to me I just encapsulated it: “At the school play.” Because I know all the stuff that goes around it.

Pitchfork: You recorded half of this with your touring band, and half of it alone, but you don’t usually work by yourself. Is that becoming more of a habit?

McCartney: It’s something I’ve done throughout my career, to describe it loosely. When I left the Beatles, I made an album called “McCartney” that I played everything on. And it was kind of a cool experience. I felt like a professor in a laboratory, just crafting stuff and adding this, and putting this on and moving the microphone, and it was very homemade. Which is a good sort of bedroom experience. It was actually a living room, but– ha ha– it was that sort of experience….And then I did a couple of ther albums, I did “McCartney II”, which was again me playing everything. When I didChaos and Creation, Nigel Godrich, who was the producer, wanted me to play all of the stuff. So I did it again then.

And then I came to do this album, which started with the band before Chaos, and I was actually reviewing the stuff to see if it was worth finishing. For simplicity’s sake, I started– if I needed to change a snare drum or something, I would just run out into the studio and hit the snare. So then that meant that the second half of the album then went that way. I would either fix things that the band had done– not a lot, most of what they did was fine– or I’d write new tunes and rather than assemble the whole band, I just ran out and played it. It just is quicker that way, you know?

Pitchfork: Do you have a home studio?

McCartney: I don’t. My producer David [Kahne] is super tech, and I’m not. I’m really hopeless. I have a studio and in the control room I have a computer with a music program, so that’s the nearest I get to what you’re saying. I work on classical music, mainly, on the computer through a music program. So that’s a bit more bedroom. That is just me at a screen, and doing arrangements and stuff.

Pitchfork: You’ve mentioned that you expect people to read things into your lyrics, or pick an individual they think a song is addressed to. And you seemed a little annoyed about it.

McCartney: I’m not very annoyed about it, but I suppose it’s not annoying so much as irritating when somebody gets it wrong. But what I’ve had to do over the years is just sort of think, “You know what, that’s their interpretation, and it’s their life, so they can interpret it however they want. ” But I’ve seen some of the books, particularly about the Beatles, where they’ll say, “This was McCartney’s answer to Lennon’s barb”– and so on and so on. Like hell it was!

Pitchfork: Like Ian MacDonald’s book [Revolution in the Head].

McCartney: Yeah, exactly. You got it in one, exactly. And you know, unfortunately [MacDonald] is no longer with us. He died, and so I don’t want to put him down. But while he was around I must say, I would dip into that book and think, “See now, what’s he got to say about this song?” And he’d go, “This is McCartney’s answer to– ” and I’d go, “No, it wasn’t!” It was just, I just wrote a song.

There’s some songs off the new album that are getting a bit of that. I’ve seen one comment already, the song “Mr. Bellamy” has been described as being about my divorce. And it’s not. That was the furthest thing from my mind.

I suppose people are allowed to just read into it, but it’s a bit irritating when I know it’s not true. Probably just because they’re propagating the idea that it is. And unless I speak up, people may listen and believe the false idea.

Pitchfork: Is there a hidden message or anagram in the title of the album? [Ed.: Memory Almost Full can be rearranged to spell “for my soulmate LLM”– the initials of the late Linda Louise McCartney.]

McCartney: I must say, someone told me [there is], and I think it’s a complete mystery, because it’s so complete. There does appear to be an anagram in the title. And it’s a mystery. It was not intentional.

But you know, I like those things, when things happen like that. It’s kind of spooky. When I heard about that, I thought, “Should I just sort of say, ‘I didn’t know about it,'” or should I say, [ominous voice] “Some things are best left as a mystery,” and smile enigmatically? So that’s tending to be my reply.

Pitchfork: I was going to ask how your songwriting process has changed in the last couple of albums, but you’ve often said that you channel songs more than you craft them– and some of them, like “Yesterday,” just come to you in a dream.

McCartney: Mmm. I think that’s one of the great ways that songs are written. And there’s something magical, mysterious about it. Which I like. You know, in some ways we live in a world where things appear to be very logical, very rational, and mechanical aspects of our world are rather scientific and rather straightforward. But I read something recently, it was just talking about trees and what they do as machines. The fact that they pump up these thousands of gallons of water, without anything we would recognize as a machine. It’s just a nature machine, it’s just a green machine. And the trees then convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. And we go, “Yeah, it’s just a tree.” But Jesus Christ, you try and do that! If only we had some people who could do that, we wouldn’t have global warming, we wouldn’t have these problems. Hence we’re encouraged to plant more trees.

But to me, you can look at that and go, “Yeah, well, that’s what trees do.” Or you can look at it and go, “Holy cow, that’s what trees do!” And you can be totally amazed by it– because it is pretty amazing. You find that all through nature, is riddled through nature, amazing things that happen that because we’re kind of used to it, because we see it all the time, we take it a bit for granted.

But what I’m trying to say is, I’m now at a kind of point where I realize how magical some of that stuff is, and how blessed we are to be part of that thing, to be part of nature. That’s just pretty amazing stuff.

I saw an experiment many years ago on television where they had a little man-made robot arm, like those things on the fairgrounds, where the hand reaches in to a bunch of candies, picks them up, and then moves it over, and always manages to drop it before it gets to you. You know those things. And then it drops it, and then it reaches over again, picks up another one, and this was a machine that was on an assembly line that was doing this. And they said, “This is really clever, because we’ve managed to simulate the human hand, and it can pick it up and take it over there and drop it.” But one thing that struck me was, when all the candies had gone, the hand didn’t know. [Laughs] The hand kept going, picking up some air, and dropping it. And came back for some more air. Now we would know that. This dumb hand didn’t. And more than that, my fingers, the sensors on the ends of my fingers, the thousands of little sensors, would be able to differentiate between a leaf and a tabletop, or a shirt, or a t-shirt and a pullover. That’s how sophisticated we are. And we take it for granted! We go, “Yeah, well, it’s the end of my fingers!”

So you see what I’m saying. I have a sense of wonder. So that came off the back of the songwriting thing, and some of these things, how they happen– I have that sense of wonder about, “Wow, man, how could I dream a melody? And how could it then be recorded by over 3,000 people? It’s quite uncanny really.” But instead of it seeming super-spooky I just think, “It’s magical.” And I’m very grateful for it. It’s like, “Holy cow. If a tree can do that– and I can do that– it’s pretty groovy out there!” I think it’s good to remember that. We kind of just, you drive to work in your car, you get stuck in a traffic jam, you go, “Ohhhhh shit.” But in actual fact, it’s more groovy than that. It’s a good thing.

Pitchfork: I’ve got a less-natural question to ask. Your solo and Wings albums are coming to iTunes, and I was wondering if you’d thought about how people might experience them differently.

McCartney: I wonder too. I don’t know yet. What way would you imagine they would experience them differently? Fragmented, kind of thing, choosing the wrong playlist, you mean?

Pitchfork: That’s definitely part of it, shuffling through the albums– and people talk about the death of the album. I think you consume more music with this kind of access. It collapses time and it collapses history. You can discover a band in a weekend.

McCartney: Yeah, it’s an interesting time that way, really. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. As you say, this [Memory Almost Full] is my first digital release. It would’ve happened sooner but we had the dispute with Apple over the name. It just so happened that the Beatles thought of the name Apple [Corps Ltd.], and we just thought of it because “A” is for Apple. That’s what happened. We just thought it’ll be first in any listing. And then you know who beat us? ABBA. And the guys from Apple just called their outfit that, and of course now they’re phenomenally global. But at the same time, they had to talk to us about using the name.

The good thing is that’s totally solved now. And that’s all going to go away as a problem. So it means I’m now open to go digital, and ring Mr. Jobs, and say, “Hi.” And he’s a very cool guy, I must say.

Pitchfork: I wanted to ask about the song “Freedom”, which you wrote in the wake of 9/11. Lately dropped it from your setlist. Do you think it might come back?

McCartney: I’d very much like it to come back, because to me it’s a “We Shall Overcome”. That’s sort of how I wrote it. It’s like, “Hey, I’ve got freedom, I’m an immigrant coming to America, give me your huddled masses.” And that’s what it means to me, is, “Don’t mess with my rights, buddy. Because I’m now free. I used to live in an oppressive regime, I’m from Sierra Leone, but now I’m an American, and don’t try to take that away from me.”

And I thought it was a great sentiment, and immediately post-9/11, I thought it was the right sentiment. But it got hijacked. And it got a bit of a militaristic meaning attached itself to it, and you found Mr. Bush using that kind of idea rather a lot in [a way] I felt altered the meaning of the song.

But it was great on the tour immediately post-9/11. It was great to sing it for the American people. It was great for us, it was very healing, it was very, “Stand up and be counted.”

Pitchfork: Even at the time, some people thought it was uncharacteristically militant.

McCartney: That’s true. [But] it was not militant. It was written from the point of view of, as I say, someone coming from a repressive, like let’s say, European Jew coming to America. He just got away from Hitler. That kind of thing. Or that– in all its forms. That particularly happens in America. It happens here in the UK, but America I would reckon is global target of people escaping oppression.

Pitchfork: It’s almost like we lost the word “freedom” because of Bush.

McCartney: Well, I think that’s kind of what happened. I think it did– yeah. But I may tour America next year, I’d like to, and I am wondering whether I can sing it again. Because it certainly was very popular. But I don’t know, I don’t know.

It was very flag-waving. And in the wake of 9/11, that was sort of a good thing, because American spirit was in danger of being squashed. And I knew a lot of New Yorkers, for instance. And I knew a lot of people who would write to me and say, “I’m never going to go on an airplane again.” And for Americans to say that … but then I did a concert for New York, the 9/11 concert, that I was part of, and I got a message from some woman in Boston saying, “I’m coming to this concert, and you’ve really helped me. Because I’ve got to get on an airplane.” And there was this feeling of healing going on, you know. That somehow me and some other Brits were able to stand up and say, “Look, you know, this– you will overcome this.” And it was a feeling that we should try and help.”

And I was in New York the morning of it. I was at Kennedy, I was just about to take off, at Kennedy Airport. And then the airport closed, and I could see the Twin Towers out of the window of the airplane. And so I was then sort of stranded in America for a couple of weeks while the whole thing unfolded. So you know, I was very much in the area. And everyone was scared, man. There were rumors it was going to happen again. It was a very scary time. And a lot of people wouldn’t move, a lot of people were just too scared to do anything. So “Freedom” arose out of that. It was to try and help that, to try and unscare people, try and remind people, “Hey, this is my right, man. Don’t mess with me.”

Last updated on March 7, 2019


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