10 Questions: Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan

He’s been tickling the ivories for decades, both as a member of The Faces and The Small Faces as well as playing with everyone from Jackson Browne to Bonnie Raitt to Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan.

With his Bump Band, he’s touring the West Coast to support his latest album, Never Say Never. He took some time last week to answer some questions.

Q: Your resume is impressive, are there any musicians you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?

A: That’s a really good question, I’m trying to think. Mavis Staples, I’d like to work with Bob Dylan again. I’m stumped! I’d just like to carry on doing what I’ve been doing.

Q: You’ve been performing for many years, do you ever feel like you go on “autopilot?” How do you keep it fresh?

A: No. Sometimes at sessions, people will say “this is right up your street, this is just like ‘Stay With Me,'” and I’m thinking, “But I’ve done that.” I’m not planning to go back, recreating what I did 30 odd years ago. A lot of times, young bands will want Small Faces style organ. Which I can do, but it’s not very challenging. I like to challenge myself.

Q: How did you decide to become a musician? Did you ever consider another career path?

A: Actually, I started out, well the thing is I was a dropout in school, by the age of 12 I was dropping out, playing hooky. It was because I read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and had read the expression “playing hooky” and I though, “Yeah, that’s for me. I can do that. I played hooky for a while until eventually I had to go back to school. They sent inspectors ’round and my mother had to write a note.

I talked to a friend of mine, he was in art school who I had known from an earlier school. I looked at his portfolio and said, “You sit around all day painting and drawing? I can do that!” because I had a talent for art. So I talked to my art teacher and he knew I was a dropout, you know, a bit of a hopeless case but he said, “I can recommend you for that, I’ll set up a test.” You had to pass a little test at the art school and I passed and got in and ended up doing that for three years.

I didn’t get a diploma because as soon as I got there, I fell in with a bunch of like-minded musicians. I played a little bit of guitar and so I joined their band, I turned the band into a blues band and that was the end of my art school days. I got thrown out and I fought to get back in. I did all this summer work, got very good reviews for the summer work, collected my grant and left to become a full-time musician.

The music had got ahold of me. I had heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed and there was nothing else I wanted to do.

And now of course, I paint all the time. It’s a very sort of sideways way to get into it.

I gave up music some 25 years ago, I got bored with it. And then I realized it wasn’t the music I was bored with, it was the people I was playing with, the drugs I was taking. So once I quit the band I was in, it was actually my band, an earlier version of the Bump Band. I quit the band, quit the drugs and immediately started writing songs.

Within a couple of days I got a call from Bob Dylan asking if I’d come over and play one day and they told me he wanted me to be in the band and we toured Europe immediately after. And that got me back into music, thank you Bob! It’s kind of helter skelter – I have no idea where I’m going because now I really understand that I’m doing exactly what I love to do. And whether there’s money in it or not is not the point. I really, really enjoy it.

Q: Never Say Never is the latest album, recorded with the Bump Band – what are the highlights on it for you?

A: “Innocent Man” is one of my favorite songs on it and “Where Angels Hide.”

I actually wrote “Where Angels Hide” for a dear friend of mine whose wife had died and I never really could finish the song, I couldn’t play if for him and so I just kept the song and played it occasionally and write another section here or there and then next time I got back to it I’d say, “that’s no good” and write another section for it.

Well, the day after my wife died, I found myself at the piano playing that song. And this time I was playing it for me and it gave me comfort. I threw the section out and the song had always been finished. It never needed the other part and I played that over and over and over. It’s a special song because I know it can help people, it helped me.

Q: How do you come up with ideas and new songs?

A: The thing is, I’m always kind of writing. There’s always something going on, I keep my ears and eyes open. You hear a phrase and think, “I’ve got to jot that down.”

I’ve got notebooks all over the place. You never know where a song might come from but of course you hope for the ones that just come out of the blue and are finished like “Where Angles Hide” and “When the Crying is Over.”

You just have to constantly be working, you can’t wait for inspiration, it’s got to be what you’re doing all the time. I’ve got songs from 1965, ’66, that have never been finished, I never give up on a song, they’re like children. They do bad things, they won’t clean their room, you don’t give up on them. And my songs sometimes don’t clean up their rooms.

Q: You’ve been in Austin for about 15 years now, how has it changed your style?

A: I don’t think it changed my style. It’s very nurturing, Austin. We moved into this house and there’s a three-car garage and as you know, nobody uses a garage for cars. So that was my studio and when we were having the big door taken out and putting a wall in and everything, my wife said to me “Where are you going to put the windows?” “You can’t have windows in a studio, silly!” She said, “Mac, we’re in the countryside, there’s nobody within a 100 miles.” “Oh yeah,” and there’s trees everywhere. So we put windows in.

“Warm Rain,” which is the first song I wrote in Austin, came out of that experience. Warm rain doesn’t exist in England, where I grew up. There’s no such thing, it’s all cold. I experienced that by looking out the window, I saw all that beautiful rain coming down. I walked out, it was warm.

I don’t think Austin’s changed my style so much as I knew what I was going to do when I got here, I was going to get working and free of the restrictions of LA and free of the lack of interest. Austin is paradise.

Q: Can you listen to the songs you’ve played on when they come on the radio or do you switch the station?

A: Sometimes I listen to the radio and I hear something and think “Oh, who’s playing that? It’s not very nice,” and it turns out to be me.

And occasionally, as happened to me a few months ago, a local station, KUT was having a pledge drive and a song came on and I said, “That’s how you play piano! That’s exactly… oh man, I wish I could do that!” And it turned out it was me on James McMurtry’s album.

It’s nice to be knocked out by your own playing.

Q: You’re playing a weekly show at the Lucky Lounge this month before heading out West to promote the album – do you prefer one over the other?

A: I like playing in bars, for a very good reason: in theaters, sometimes it’s more difficult. You’re putting on a show and people sit down and they’re very comfortable, they’ve just had a nice meal and a drink, and they’re saying, in their heart-of-hearts, “Entertain me, because I’m sitting here and you’re up there.”

Whereas in a bar they can talk, they can go and get a drink during the song. And you know, I can insult the crowd, well I do anyway, it’s part of my fun.

But the Lucky Lounge has proved to be very good for the band because we play there every week when we’re home. And it’s not like it’s a rehearsal, we do rehearse other times but I might hand the guys a set list of songs they haven’t played in awhile and it’ll be interesting to see how we remember them and how well we play them. So it constantly keeps us on our toes.

And you get requests, most of which I ignore because they’re songs I don’t do but occasionally there’s something I can just throw in, it’s always nice to do that.

Q: What do you always take with you on tour?

A: I take everything with me! We just did a tour on the East coast and I took a pair of boots and all kinds of woolies and scarves and hats and such – most of it I didn’t wear.

I always take my computer, because my songs are in there and a printer for set lists.

Q: What have you been listening to recently?

A: I got the Hank Williams box set, the unreleased recordings which is amazing, just un-believe-able. They’re all radio broadcasts and he was committed to do them when he worked at the Grand Ole Opry and they did early morning radio shows. And he had his full band there and he’s talking and he said, “Well here’s a song that no one’s ever heard before, except my record company and me. I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.” And the band goes into it and it’s unbelievable.

And the Bob Dylan latest bootleg is amazing, the Mississippi is fantastic. I was listening to Modern Times for about a year, nonstop. I really love that album. Basically, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.

Oh, and Amadou & Miriam, I love their stuff.

Download Never Say Never on iTunes
Visit Mac’s website and Myspace for more info and tour dates.
Photo by Theresa DiMenno
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