In the past five years, Ray Davies has released two adventurous solo records. "What fires me up is something new," says Davies, 66. But for his latest, See My Friends, he focuses on his past, revisiting the Kinks' catalog with collaborators such as Metallica, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Mumford & Sons and Big Star's late Alex Chilton — who kick-started the project in 2009 when he and Davies met in London to cover "Till the End of the Day." Davies checks in from London, where he's writing new songs, curating the 10-day multimedia Meltdown festival there in June and thinking about a U.S. tour that would make up for dates he canceled last year due to health problems. "The doctors wouldn't let me fly because I had blood clots in my lungs," he says. "It was scary. I don't want to dwell on it, but mortality flashed in front of me."
This article appears in the April 28, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now.
Were you surprised by what songs people chose to record?
Frank Black told me he had "This Is Where I Belong" written on his guitar case, and that song was just a B side. Lucinda picked a little-known Kinks album track I wouldn't have expected her to know [1970's "A Long Way From Home"]. It made me rediscover a lot of the songs.
You still work in Konk Studios, where the Kinks recorded. What's it like in there?
It's an anonymous little building in a working-class area of London. It used to be a biscuit factory. I know every corner of the place, where to get good sounds, and where not to stand because the floorboard has been creaky for 20 years. There's a lot of history in there. I was just listening to The Village Green Preservation Society — my band is going to play the whole album at the Meltdown festival — and I was impressed. I'm torn between selling the place and opening it up as a museum of the recording arts.
Who's at the top of your list to play the Meltdown festival?
If I had a magic wand, Otis Redding would be headlining.
In your liner notes, you say that you wrote "Better Things" in New York, "Celluloid Heroes" in L.A., "Lola" in Paris and "See My Friends" in Bombay and London.
It was the wandering-minstrel kind of lifestyle I led at the time. When I was in New Jersey working with Bruce, I was at the hotel and a few new songs came to me. I played one of them for Bruce — it's called "In the End, You've Got to Go Home." He said, "I really relate to that."
You also write that Bruce "knew my stuff. It was a very enjoyable afternoon." How'd he know your stuff?
Well, before you sing with somebody, it helps to know a little bit about them, and we spent hours talking. He was amazed that I'd written "You Really Got Me" on piano, not guitar. He said that was one of the first songs he played in a band.
You write that your father was the best sounding board for Kinks songs. Why?
He was my strongest critic. When he didn't like something, he wouldn't say anything — he'd just go to the pub for a drink, which was a bad sign. If he really liked something, he'd grab me and kiss me on the cheek, which was worse [laughs]. He loved "Sunny Afternoon" and "All Day and All of the Night" — maybe he was a secret heavy-metal fan.
What new band are you most excited about?
Well, I like Beady Eye — Liam Gallagher's new band. He knows how to make records that sound exciting. Mumford & Sons — very smart kids to work with, but the test for any band is how they play live. We did "This Time Tomorrow" together for a TV show in London, and they pulled it off. Folk music is the big thing now in the U.K. Now, you're not a wimp if you turn up with an acoustic guitar.
In the past year, your brother, Dave, has expressed interest in reuniting the Kinks. He has also called you an asshole.
Yeah, it depends on what side of bed he gets up on.
How important is playing again as the Kinks to you?
I was just listening last night to some tracks I did with Mick [Avory], our original drummer, and they were sounding good. And I'm seeing Dave next week. I hear that Dave is saying stuff in the press like, "I'll do it, but Ray doesn't want to do it." This is me saying, "Ray will do it if Dave does it."