|IAN HUNTER FOR PRESIDENT! (FULL INTERVIEW)
Note: An edited version of this appears in Vintage Guitar magazine, January 2013
With almost five decades in the music business, Ian Hunter has seen his share of fads, trends and Johnny Come Latelys. Although the unknowing may associate his former band Mott the Hoople with Glam Rock, true fans know that pure, unbridled rock and roll was the heart of their existence. It is this same spirit that buoys Ian’s 20th studio effort, “When I’m President,” arguably his best release since 1979’s “You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic.” Recorded with his powerhouse backing group “The Rant Band,” consisting of former Wings drummer Steve Holley, bassist Paul Page, guitarists Mark Bosch and James Mastro, and Andy Burton on keyboards, Hunter, who turned 73 in June 2012, plays with the energy and conviction of a man one third his age.
In a recent interview for Vintage Guitar magazine, VG's Tom Guerra recently sat down with Ian to talk about his new music, The Rant Band, and his choice of instruments while he shared his unique insights as one of rock and roll’s most articulate songwriters.
VG: Congrats on “When I’m President!” You’ve always been best known for your lyrics and this album is no exception, but it also sounds like you put a lot of emphasis on dynamics. Songs such as “Fatally Flawed” just explodes in parts. Did you write the tunes with The Rant Band in mind?
IH: Yes, we went out last Fall and did about 20 dates, and somehow it was different. It was more like a band and less like me with a backing band and it inspired these songs. “Fatally Flawed” is all about dynamics… I think there are only 2 chords in the song, and it’s like an old blues thing where you go from naught in the verses to “10” in the hook, which always records well. That song just came naturally, I picked up a guitar in open G (tuning) one day, and went off…
VG: Mark Bosch and James Mastro are very talented, versatile guitarists and you also obviously play….how did you split up the guitar duties?
IH: Mastro is kind of like the color guy, and if you listen to the solo in “Saint,” it’s him. Bosch tends to take the leads on the more dramatic numbers, such as his solo in “Black Tears.” I played acoustic guitar and piano on the record, and most of the songs were recorded live with the band in one or two takes over a four day period. They were great!
VG: What was your favorite “go to” guitar for writing or recording “When I’m President?”
IH: I write on acoustics mostly, a Gibson J45 and a Rainsong which I use for the open G songs. I also write on keyboards as well. But it doesn’t really matter what I write on, as I don’t get songs from sounds, I just sort of wake up with them.
VG: Do you still play any of your vintage guitars that you’ve gathered over the years?
IH: I have an early ‘60’s Strat, and the tragedy is, the more valuable a guitar becomes, the less you want to take it out. I also have 2 or 3 vintage Les Paul Juniors as well, which I really like because they’re just simple guitars.
VG: The drums sound huge on this record. Were there any gear secrets or discoveries that you made while recording?
IH: (Drummer) Steve Holley has been around for a long time, with Wings, Joe Cocker and many others. He’s a perfectionist with tuning the drums, as we found out at many a sound check (laughs). And Pete Moshay (engineer at A-Pawling Studios where the record was tracked) is also great with drums, so the combination of the two worked incredibly well.
VG: Your voice sounds incredibly strong on the record, as good as ever. How do you maintain it?
IH: I really don’t know. I guess over the years I sometimes wrote songs that would really not be in my range, but now I just write them as I imagine them in my head, and whatever key that is, that’s where its gonna stay, because that’s what suits the vocal. But I don’t try to flog it too hard, because I’m gettin’ old now (laughs), and there’s only so much singing you can do before it starts giving out.
VG: You came up with some very interesting arrangements on this record, such as the sonic treatment of “Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse).” Was this something that you consciously tried to do more on this record than say previous records?
IH: “Crazy Horse” was an easy song to do, because it’s scenic, more like a painting than an actual song. To me, it’s a little piece of art, but that’s just me (laughs). In a song like this, you try to channel him when you’re recording, with both instinct and a slight amount of illogicality. You want it to be scenic, and the lyrics have to be for real, otherwise it’s not going to come off.
VG: So was Crazy Horse a hero of yours?
IH: Crazy Horse was a noble savage really, incredible instincts in trying to lead his 900 people but scared stiff his own shadow and petrified of white people. I read a lot of stuff on him, and I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. To me he was the greatest underdog ever…
VG: The title track “When I’m President” reminds me of something off of “Schizophrenic” with its staccato phased guitar doing the 8th notes. What inspired this?
IH: It was going to be called “When I’m Superman” but with the election coming up...(laughs). It’s about a guy in a bar expounding about what he’s gonna do if elected, and in the final analysis it comes down to “when pigs fly” (also the last words to the song). It’s just never gonna happen…
VG: Meaning the President is never gonna do anything positive, or the guy in the bar is never gonna be President?
IH: Well, both of those things are true (laughs)!
VG: There’s a thread in rock and roll that probably started with the early blues guys, was introduced to the masses by Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, popularized by The Stones and continues to this day in much of your music, evident in “Comfortable (Flyin’ Scotsman),” “Wild Bunch,” and many more. What elements of rock and roll most appeal to you?
IH: When I was growing up, all the singers were great…Little Richard was really the best of all time, and people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry all had such great natural ability. But because I couldn’t sing all that well, it took Bob Dylan to come along before I had a shot. And to this day, those early rock and rollers are the only thing that gets me off of my ass. I guess that’s true for a lot of musicians, what you heard when you were 14, 15, 16 is the stuff that stays with you.
VG: “What For” is one of the hardest rocking tunes you’ve recorded since Mott’s “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” and takes aim at a segment of our society…
IH: “What For” IS about today’s youth …I find them to believe they are incredibly entitled…they’ve got all this stuff and they are miserable as sin. They egg on their parents, who try talking to them and all they get back is “What for?” And we’re paying for it. It’s not actually my kids I’m talking about and I can’t say whose kids it is but with some of these precocious little entitled twits, it’s about time that somebody gets back at ‘em!
VG: While we’re on the subject of age, do you feel as a singer that with age comes authority and authenticity? Put another way, is it easier to sing a track like “Life” after so much experience?
IH: In the final analysis, there’s a lot of things that you can’t do anything about so why worry about it? You can stand and talk about politics…plenty of mates of mine have had plenty of rows in my house and their houses about politics, and it evolves to nothing. “Life” is saying “why are you worrying about this, you can’t control it, just worry about what you can control.” I had the melody, and started writing the lyrics, and it was a bit on the corny side, but I said “f*ck it, this is what it’s gonna be.”
VG: Will you be touring to support “When I’m President?”
IH: Yeah, we start in Portland, Oregon, then over to Italy, Scandinavia, the UK and then back to the east coast of the United States, all together about 40 dates.
VG: What’s your take on the state of the music business…is there still a music business?
IH: Not in the traditional sense. I’m involved with people now that are dragging me into the 21st century… things change so quickly…one of my kids is in IT and he can’t keep up with it and he’s 30. The record label that I’m working with are technology savvy which helps alot, because that’s how music is distributed today and I can’t be bothered with it. In some ways, it has evened up the playing field though, so strange things can happen. Before it was all totally controlled by the major labels. And I’m not sorry to see the end of labels as we knew them though - I knew guys who had Top 5 singles, Top 10 albums and they still owed the record companies money. It’s great to be free of a major label, and to be honest, I prefer to be on the periphery.
VG: How do you think the Mott The Hoople reunion back in 2009 inspired your subsequent writing and performing?
IH: I don’t think it did. The tour with The Rant Band last year really inspired these new songs. The Mott thing was the Mott thing, and there was never gonna be an album coming out of that, so I didn’t think that way. It was simply “can we do it?” and we could and did, though the business end was just as crappy as it ever was, though we had a great time really. We rehearsed great, the gigs were great, and I don’t have a problem with playing with them…just a problem with dealing with them. Me and (Mick) Ralphs, we’re fine, it’s just the rest of it…
VG: How’s Buffin doing? (Note: In 2009, Mott’s drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease).
IH: Not good…not good. It’s sad because in his later years, Buffin became a very eloquent and wise person and was very interesting to talk with. And then this happened, and it was just like a kick in the teeth. It seems like he’s happy within himself, but he just doesn’t recognize anybody and he’s sort of moved on.
VG: You’ve worked with everyone from David Bowie to Jaco Pastorius to The Clash…is there anyone else out there you’d like to collaborate with?
IH: I’ve always liked to do odd things with other people and find it interesting…but nobody really knows where I live (laughs). I’m a bit busy at the moment but I’m always up for something like that…
VG: What do you consider the high points of your career?
IH: Well, there plenty of low ones, but I can’t seem to remember the high ones!
VG: Thank you very much Ian, it’s been a pleasure and best wishes with “When I’m President.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: After 4 albums in 13 years with Mambo Sons, Tom now concentrates on session guitar work and writing for VG. For more info, visit www.TomGuerra.com