Paul McCartney Talks One on One Tour, Pre-Stage Rituals, Rap as Poetry

Songwriter also offers advice to young musicians and clears up Beatles myths

Paul McCartney talks about his current One on One tour, his pre-stage rituals and the feeling he gets from playing Beatles songs live now. Credit: Mary McCartney

The average Paul McCartney concert in 2017 features about 37 songs that cover six decades of music he wrote and performed with the Quarrymen, the Beatles, Wings and his solo work, and it all lasts nearly three hours. But these are not facts that impress the 75-year-old performer, who has the endurance of a man half his age. "I've been doing it for a long time, so my body's used to this," he says with a laugh.

McCartney is in an affable mood when he phones up Rolling Stone while taking a drive in England this past May. "Hello, this is Paul. ... Paul McCartney. You're expecting a call from me?" he says nonchalantly.

This week, the singer-songwriter launches a new North American leg of his One on One tour, which he kicked off last year. That tour name, One on One, he explains, says everything about what he hopes to accomplish on the tour. "The truth is that when I do the show, I feel like I'm kind of talking to someone like me in the audience," he says. "So I'm relating to the people. And when I'm playing, I'm imagining it's me listening to this band, this guy. People have said in reviews that even though we're playing in a great big arena, there's a very intimate quality about it with the screens we use and the way we use them. Even though you're at the back of the hall, we try and bring the intimacy to you. So, like I say, it's me, one-on-one, with every member of the audience."

It's a closeness that he says he doesn't take for granted, and over the course of a half-hour interview, he explains how that feeling keeps him on the road.

What should fans expect from the upcoming tour?
Hopefully a rollicking evening out. ... That's all I can try and do. We show up and we try and have a good time and give the people a good time. Because I know what it's like to be in the audience.

Will you be doing anything different on this leg of the One on One tour?
Basically, we're doing the One on One show, and we've just jigged it around a little bit. It's a refreshed version of it. And most of the places we're going to, we haven't actually played [on previous legs], so they haven't seen One on One.

You've always characterized yourself as a competitive person. Are you competitive with touring – putting on the best show, the best staging and whatnot?
I think everyone, when they do a job, tries to be the best they can. So yeah, I guess I'm competitive. Not in a crazy way: If someone does better than us, I don't go home and cry. But it's just a natural thing.

In the Beatles, we always tried to be the best band in Liverpool. Then we tried to be the best band in England. Then we tried to be the best in the world. It's just an instinct. But I think what you have to think of, really, is what if you didn't think like that? Then you're going to get sloppy. You're going to think, "Does it matter? I'll just do a bunch of shit tonight and no one will mind." So I just like to put it in and don't phone it in. I suppose that ends up making me competitive.

Is it hard to get into that headspace each night?
Not really. We do our preparations and we've done a soundcheck before we do the evening show. So we're nearly in the headspace. But once you get in front of the audience, you're there. You're in the zone. So that, even if you're finding it difficult, that makes it easy. There's nowhere else to go. You're there, and you better just ... You gotta do your best. So yeah, it's not too hard.

You've been playing almost 40 songs each night and your shows tend to last three hours. What's the secret to keeping your energy up?
I think it's the same answer. Once you get in front of an audience ... it's a charge. It charges your battery. It just turns you up to 11. So it's great.

It's different every night, and we play a bit different every night. And we're always just trying to get it right and have a good time. We talk about it afterwards: "We nearly got it right. There were just a couple of things that we'll get next time." And then people will be seeing the shows like, "I don't know what you're talking about." Nobody else spots mistakes we spot. And that keeps you trying and enthusiastic, and it keeps the energy flowing.

You've had your current solo band longer than you were in the Beatles and Wings. What is it about the group that has clicked for so long?
I know. It's crazy. We don't analyze it too much, but yeah. Suddenly, that time period came up. We just know how to play together, we enjoy playing together, and the audiences seem to like it. So there doesn't seem to be any reason to not do it. That's the thing.

What was it Willie Nelson said about retiring, "You should retire from what?" Ringo said, "It's what we do." This band is just really easy to get on with. They play great. We're all trying. And we just want to make it sound great. I think that keeps the band together. We don't have arguments – that helps. I mean, we have our moments when, "Oh, I wish I hadn't done that," or "Please don't do that tomorrow," or whatever. But mainly, it's good.

Other than soundcheck, what's your pre-stage ritual?
I think we all have a few. I have a routine when I'm getting ready. If I'm in Japan or Europe somewhere, I get called an hour before the show, and I will probably have had a good 20-to-30–minute session with a translator, trying to learn some local phrases so I can be a bit more one-on-one. But then an hour gets called, and I have things I do. I just do warm-up stuff. I do certain little things that's become a ritual. It was just stuff to do to try and prepare for a show, but it becomes a bit of a ritual. And then when I'm done, I go check out the band, go see the guys. And we have a little pre-show ritual we do there.

What do you do with them?
We run through a couple of things. We check our harmonies. We sing together. And then right before we go on the show, we have a huddle and just get vibed up for the show. And then that's it: We're done. We're on, and that's it.

Other than instruments, what do you need to take with you on the road?
I always bring a lot of stuff I don't need. I've always got a bag with me with stuff in it I'm never even gonna look at. But the minute I don't bring that bag, there'll be something – a demo I want to play someone or there'll be a script I want to look at or some letter I want to answer. So I just bring the whole caboodle. I bring a bag, and not a lot more. We sometimes have friends or wives or relatives with us, which is good. But other than friends, relatives and a bag, I can't think of anything else.

It's good to be a minimalist.
What more do you need than friends, relatives and a bag? [Laughs]

What do you do to relax when you're on the road?
If it's a show day, we'll get up, have some breakfast, go to the gym. If we've got time, we'll go out for a bike ride, so we see a little bit of the city and stuff. Then we come back, normally try and get a massage. The thing is, I'm very aware as I'm saying this that I should be saying, "Yo, man. I just sit around. I play cards, drink tequila. I smoke a couple of joints and just play my guitar, man. All afternoon." It's not like that these days. So yeah, I do that, then after a massage, I get something to eat and then get cleaned up and head off to the show.

It's fairly boring, really. As far as legends go, it's not legendary rock & roll behavior. But it suits me at this time of life. I like it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it, and it enables me to play for three hours. And the funny thing is, the energy you get off an audience, you actually get more energized rather than getting more tired. As you go on, you feel more energy, which surprises me.

And all the girls in the audience say, "He don't even have a sip of water!" Can you imagine the Beatles stopping like, "Excuse me, hang on folks," and go, glug, glug, glug? We just didn't do that, so I'm not raised in the "drink water" school. But before and after, I'll do that. But once I get on, I can stay on and do my thing.

If that works for you, that's great.
Well my sound guy is like, to me, "Drink more water, man. Drink more water." But there's not a minute. I haven't got time.

I imagine you work out more, too, than when you were in the Beatles.
Yeah. Probably the most important thing to do on the road is exercise and eat right. There are people who exercise 10 times the amount I do, but I just do enough. I just do what feels good, and it keeps me in some kind of shape.

When I was a kid, I used to hate P.E., physical exercise. I used think, "Oh, it's so boring." And in the Beatles, you wouldn't have caught us doing that. We were young; we didn't have to think about that. It just wasn't in the repertoire. But nowadays it is, and a lot of people who didn't ever go to the gym now go and enjoy it. And there is a good feeling when you feel like you can accomplish stuff without falling over.

It looks like you change the set lists frequently. What have you enjoyed playing live lately?
We're doing "Hard Day's Night," which we hadn't done before this tour. And that opening chord is still a thrill. So that's good to do. I like doing "Temporary Secretary," because that's a little bit of a challenge and it's got an electronic pulse. So that's cool. I like doing "Band on the Run," "Live and Let Die" and "1985" from Wings. I like doing the ballad I wrote for [my wife] Nancy, "My Valentine." I also like doing "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," that's nice to do.

With "Mr. Kite," the thing about it is, it's quite challenging cause the bass part goes somewhere that the vocal doesn't go. So it's like you've got to split your body in half and send one half to do the vocal and send the other half to do the bass part. That's good to do; it's quite hard to do.

I've read that John Lennon wrote those lyrics based on a poster. What did you think of them when you first read them?
Well, the great thing is, everyone says, "John Lennon wrote the lyrics." ... John and I wrote the lyrics. I went 'round to John's house – and I don't feel like I'm getting paranoid defending my corner, but the actual fact is we sat in his room and said, "OK, what are we gonna write?" He said, "You seen this poster?" So we pulled most of the words directly off the poster, and then we filled in. But we did it together.

That's actually why I do it live. Because, even though John was lead vocalist on it, I like the song and I feel that, having written it with him, and being in the room where it happened, it's a good one to do. But yeah we did, we took it right down off this old circus poster we had. So it had Pablo Fanque's Fair and Henry the Horse and the Hendersons, Mr. Kite, a "hogshead of real fire." All those phrases were directly lifted off the poster.

Since the fantastic Sgt. Pepper's box set just came out, will you be putting more from that album in the set?
Well, we do a few. We put the actual "Sgt. Pepper's" song in. I hate to say this, but there's only three surprises that we have in the show, so here I go giving them away.

What I would try to do is have people go, "Oh, I didn't know they do that one, man." So yeah, there are one or two. But as far as these days with the Internet world, you can't have a surprise after the first gig. There are a few.

What's the best live show you've seen by another artist recently?
This wasn't recent, but I saw Jay-Z and Kanye. I saw the last U2 show [Innocence + Experience]; I liked that. I saw James Taylor, I liked that. It's kind of emotional for me, because we go back a long way. We made his first album together, so that's like seeing an old friend. Yeah, I've seen a bunch of people on this and that. But when you go to something like the Grammys this year, it's quite a variety of people.

What was it about Jay-Z and Kanye that impressed you?
It's a funny thing. A lot of people look at rap and think, "Ah, yeah, well it's just a lot of swearing and cussing, and bravado." But seeing the show, it's a lot of poetry. I was impressed. I think seeing a whole show, you get a better idea of what it is they're on about. So I enjoyed the show.

It's urban poetry, you know? When you see the show, you get a little bit of time to sit back and look at the songs and what they're talking about and what they mean. Whereas the kids in the show, they all know already. They all know exactly what's going down, all the words and the lyrics. But for me, it's good to get clued in and think that rap is more than just what some people say it is. It's an education – I like it.

Lastly, what advice do you have for younger musicians who are just starting out?
Play a lot. Play bars and then play some more. Because the more you play, the more you grow. And there's really no substitute. And that goes for whatever it is you do: If you DJ, do that a lot. If you're a guitar player, do that a lot. If you're a band, do that a lot. It's how everyone learns. It's how you learn what you're good at, who you are, and you just get better. Hopefully.

From thoughts on Yoko to why no one could replace John Lennon, here are five things we learned from Sir Paul McCartney. Watch here.