I talked to Keith about it. I talked to everyone in the band about it. I didn't want to do a record same as the last record, Voodoo Lounge — I don't want to do that record again. And if everyone wants to do that, I think it's a mistake. And I'm not interested."
Mick Jagger says these words with what seems like a casual air — a bemused smile on his face, a no-big-deal lilt in his voice. The Rolling Stones have made a new studio album, Bridges to Babylon — to be released by Virgin Records in late September — and the singer has been talking about the record with, for the most part, relaxed pleasure and evident pride. But he doesn't cheat on the candor, either.
Enjoying an unusually bright and breezy English summer day on the back patio of his Victorian town house in a southwestern suburb of London, Jagger pours coffee and speaks plainly, at times sharply, about his initial reluctance to make another Stones record; his decision to bring in Young Turk producers Danny Saber (Black Grape, Michael Hutchence) and the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck, Hanson); and his pre-production deliberations with drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Ron Wood and, especially, guitarist Keith Richards regarding what a Stones album could, indeed should, sound like at this perilously advanced juncture — halfway through the band's fourth decade.
"A lot of me, in one way, didn't want to do this," Jagger notes dryly, glancing down at the cassette in front of him, a work-in-progress tape of 12 Bridges tracks, most of them still in the editing and remixing stages. "I'd rather do something that is not so restricting."
"There's a great danger," he contends, "when you've done all these albums, and been around as a band for so long, that you think you know how to make a record. Someone writes a song, and there is something in the song you recognize: 'Oh, I know what that is. That's like "No Expectations." I know how to do that. I'll get my slide guitar.' I don't want to do the first thing that comes to mind.
"The other thing was, if I write a song, or Keith writes a song, or we write one together, if I see it one way, I want to try it. I don't want to be some committee where everyone has 10 cents' worth of it. That's the bad part of being in a band. But if you have an idea of what a song should sound like, I want to be able to try it that way.
"So that's what I said; everyone seemed to agree with that," Jagger says with a satisfied smile.
"And Keith's there, thinking, 'Now Mick can't tell me my way is all wrong,'" he adds, cackling.
Actually, this is what Richards was thinking: "Anything's better than being boring," he declares with a raspy laugh by phone from Rhode Island during a vacation break between album post-production and preparations for the Stones' fall North American tour, which opens Sept. 23 at Soldier Field, in Chicago. "A lot of it is experimentation," Richards says of Bridges, "at least for the Stones. And I look upon that as a good thing — anything but sitting around, saying, 'OK, let's be the Stones.'"
Bridges to Babylon was recorded with uncharacteristic speed — for the Stones, anyway — in April and May, in Los Angeles. There were often two different kinds of sessions running simultaneously at Ocean Way Recording. While Jagger might be at one console with the Dust Brothers, dicing Watts' drum loops, Richards would be down the hall, cutting tracks with Watts, Wood and producer Don Was. Assorted guests — including drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboard players Benmont Tench and Billy Preston, and bassist Meshell Ndegocello — would be called in as needed. "I was working with Don and [engineer] Rob Fraboni most of the time," says Richards, "and leaping into the other sessions when Mick would say, 'OK, I need a guitar.' "
And then there were the long hours of live, real-time recording, much of which made it onto Bridges — the entire band in lock step, Jagger and Richards barely 10 feet apart, looking at each other as they sang. "Ninety-five percent of what I saw," claims Was, "was the band set up live and playing."
The methodology was all over the place, but Bridges to Babylon's distinguishing, unifying feature is its meaty, measured gait; most of the songs move at a country-soul-serenade pace or at a cocky, midtempo-R&B speed. The urgent, slow-burn grind of "Anybody Seen My Baby" and the battered-love crawl of "Always Suffering" and "Already Over Me" hark back to the edgy melancholy of underrated '70s Stones ballads like "Sway" and "Memory Motel." "Might As Well Get Juiced," produced by the Dust Brothers, is what Jagger calls, with typical cheek, "fake blues for the '90s": Little Walter snortin' harp licks over a machine-generated hip-hop rhythm. "Gunface," which sounds even more harsh and mechanical, and was produced by Saber, is essentially a blues march powered by the double drumming of Watts and Keltner. Even "Low Down," a more conventional rocker (albeit with a neat, Arabic-flavored vocal twist in the chorus), cooks at a low, steady heat.
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