The Rhythm Twins: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Lead a March Toward Babylon

Mick & Keith drop the tempo and freshen up the grooves on the Stones' new album

Keith Richards Mick Jagger Rolling Stones
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Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform on August 18th, 1997.
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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."

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"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.

Maybe age does matter," suggests Richards, 53, "in that you consider time in a different way. You start to use it more, rather than clambering all over it and using it as scaffolding."

"You have to break the mold," says Jagger, who turned 54 on July 26. "That's why I went for a few different noises. I just wanted to change the way the grooves worked. I love the way we do grooves normally. But we've done them so many times."

"I hope people don't say, 'Oh, Dust Brothers — trying to be trendy,' because that's not true; that's just a textural approach to performing the songs," argues Was, who played bass on a few tracks, as well as producing the bulk of Bridges and serving as executive producer with Jagger and Richards. "These guys are such personalities. You got to go a long way to water them down. Like when Keith sings harmony — even if there are five other people singing, you'll hear him on top there."

The Dust Brothers — who also produced "Saint of Me" and co-produced "Anybody Seen My Baby" with Was — don't take any excess credit for their contributions to Bridges. When the two Dusts, John King and Mike Simpson, went to New York to meet Jagger and talk about working together, the first thing that Jagger played was his home demo of "Might As Well Get Juiced." "I was really impressed," Simpson recalls. "I said, 'Wow, it sounds like we already worked on this.' "

And Saber says that "Gunface," for all its dense, gray locomotion, was cut live in the studio: "I could have easily sat in another room, fucked off with a computer and looped everything. I know there was a bit of tape swapping going on with the record. But I wanted to be there in the room, to play with them.

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"For me, it was a big thrill," he crows. "One side of you is being professional and getting your job done. And the other side of you is like, 'I'm fucking jamming with the Stones, dude.' You feel like Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Jagger claims he was writing new songs last year — at his chateau in France, in the West Indies, in Kenya — to no specific purpose when the prospect of renewed Stones activity came up: "Everyone said, 'We should do an album and tour.' And I said, 'Well, isn't it a bit soon to do an album and tour?' " After spending the '80s in a general state of suspension, the band had crammed in four albums (two live, two studio) and two world tours since 1989.

"But I thought," Jagger goes on, " 'Well, we might as well get on with it sooner rather than later.' You can just wait and wait and wait, and then it gets more difficult to do."

So, Jagger outlined his idea for using multiple producers to the other Stones and started interviewing prospective collaborators. "It's the same as interviewing a nanny," he cracks. "You check out what they've done before. You talk to them over a cup of coffee, see what kind of people they are. You get their references. You go in for a day and see what it's like. If you don't like it, throw it away and say, 'Thanks very much.' "

Among the people whom Jagger short-listed and spoke to were Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dr. Dre, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and Butch Vig. Jagger and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds got as far as recording a version of "Already Over Me," mostly done with rhythm loops and keyboard programs, then amicably agreed to bag it. "It was like a Babyface ballad put on top of 'Wild Horses,' " says Was. "It wasn't going to fly as the Rolling Stones."

"It was really my fault — I threw the wrong song at him," Jagger says of Babyface. "We went in and wrote the loops and the programs. We got Charlie to play on it. And in the end, I didn't like the way it was looped. I said, 'Kenny, leave it. I'm gonna do it another way.'" The Stones ended up cutting "Already Over Me" live in the studio.

On the other hand, Jagger and the Dust Brothers built almost the whole of "Saint of Me" from loops, computer edits and overdubs at the Brothers' no-frills home studio, in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. ("They had nothing in the house," Jagger says with a put-on, exhausted-parent sigh. "I'd say, 'Can I have a glass of juice?' They'd look at me. I had to get groceries, look after them like children.") And Jagger doesn't flinch at the word constructing when talking of the song.

"That's what records are," he points out a bit impatiently. "I mean, many Rolling Stones records have been constructed in a similar way [notably 1981's Tattoo You, a smoke-and-mirrors melange of old rhythm tracks and new overdubs]. There are many, many ways to make a Rolling Stones record."

Still, Jagger concedes, "You can only push it so far. We used to try and sound like Howlin' Wolf. But we never actually sounded like Howlin' Wolf, because it's always going to sound like the Rolling Stones. You can run 89 loops, and it still sounds like the Rolling Stones."

"I start to feel good about records," Richards says, "when I realize I can toss away the rule book. When I heard Mick's 'Juiced' demo, I knew there was a path to follow here. Then, by the time I got to the studio with 'Flip the Switch' and 'Low Down,' I started to hear how the band was playing: 'OK, from now on, I'm following this thing. I'm not trying to lead it anywhere. Just sit on its tail and hang on.' "

Jagger feels much the same way about the Stones' imminent world tour. The itinerary, so far, is a mere 10 months long — short compared with the year-plus standards of the '89-'90 Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle and '94-'95 Voodoo Lounge tours — and Jagger has been paying close attention to the sagging U.S. summer-tour season, particularly the soft ticket sales for U2's PopMart shows. "We're being quite conservative about the market," he says. "If it doesn't work out, we won't do so much."

Jagger actually saw the second date of U2's PopMart tour in San Diego and admits to being a bit underwhelmed. "I love Bono, and I like the band and the records," he insists. "But having said all that, I don't think they really performed as large as I thought they should. You have to transcend the production. OK, if you're Bono, you don't want to be like me, running up and down the fucking thing all the time. But it's one way to get people's attention, y'know? 'There he is! It's him in yellow!'

"Listen: It's theater; it's large; it's entertainment," Jagger goes on. "I think it's possible that U2 are not really a stadium act — in their hearts. They always seem to be apologizing. I never want to apologize for spending $10 million, say, on the Steel Wheels tour. It's not an apology that you're out there and it costs 50 bucks. The Rolling Stones never apologized. We were always out there with a good show for market price.

"And, really, I always try and get out there and make sure that we're keeping their attention, working the audience, whether you're in a club or a theater or a stadium. You can't just stroll through it. I wish you could, sometimes — when it's the second night in wherever, it's 41 degrees, and it's raining. But you really have to push it.

"The lemon has become the thing against which, in my world, all things are measured," Jagger notes with a wry laugh, referring to the giant spangled lemon in U2's show. "We have the same designer [Mark Fisher]. It's also a financial thing. There's me, turning to Mark, going, 'You realize that's a two-lemon gag.' "

Nevertheless, the Stones are going back into stadiums with a stage that Richards, with understated relish, describes as "pretty interesting. I'm sworn to secrecy. But I can promise you that it even astounded us — and we're pretty used to these mad ideas now."

This is a story from the September 4, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 768: September 4, 1997
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