Rock & roll is supposed to be unpredictable, but the Stones operate like clockwork: a world tour every three or four years, usually with a new album; rehearsals in Toronto.
Mick Jagger: The whole act of touring is ritualistic: You're here one day, there the next. It's super-predictable. I can tell you exactly where I'm going to be in Frankfurt – the hotel I'm staying in and the room – next July.
Is that the life you envisioned for yourself forty years ago?
In the old days, the best thing you could get was a residency at a club. Your life was formulaic. We'd play Tuesday nights at the Ealing Club, Friday nights at the Marquee, Saturday night somewhere, Sunday afternoons at Ken Colyer's and Sunday evenings in Richmond. You didn't worry about where your next gigs were coming from. And they were all within a five-mile radius.
You get the question whenever you announce a tour: "Is this the last time?"
The first time I answered that was in 1966. It's on film.
Are you ever tempted to say yes?
I always feel like that at the end of a tour. They never ask you at the end [laughs]. To be honest, I didn't think the Stones should do another big tour. I was thinking of just twenty shows: "There are all these festivals in the summer. Let's do ten gigs in America, then come to Europe."
I'm quite happy to do less. Because I get bored after twenty shows. It's interesting and challenging to get the thing going. But after you've done it, it becomes routine. Every night you have to make it fresh for yourself, so that when you go out there it's fresh for the audience.
Did you feel that way in, say, 1978?
Yeah. And creatively, it's rather dull. You have all these great ideas – "I'm going to write twenty songs." You don't write anything. Keith will tell you he writes all these songs on the road. Bollocks. The most you write is a few bits, because you're so focused on this one thing — getting the show right.
How far along were you in planning this album-tour cycle when Charlie told you he had cancer?
We had OK'd the tour. He was straight up about it: "The doctor says I have a ninety percent chance of being completely cured." I would have been in such a state. If Charlie had said, "I can't do this tour, I've faced mortality," we would have had to change our minds. No one pressured him. But the treatments couldn't have been easy. I kept worrying: Is he eating? I'm like a nanny [smiles].
Have you ever had a serious health scare?
No. I'm sure I will one day. It's going to happen: You're going to get ill. You're going to die. What can you do? Keep as healthy as you can. The physicality of touring is problematic, but it's always been the same, since I was twenty. It's December in bloody Edmonton, Canada, you get a cold, you have to miss a show. That's the worst that will happen. And you're doing it in the lap of luxury. Everyone's looking after you. Let's not exaggerate how difficult this is.
A Bigger Bang is the Stones' first studio album in eight years. What makes you sit up and say, "It's time to record"?
If we go out on tour, we gotta do a record. It shows you are an actual functioning rock band. I don't want to be one of those bands that just does hits. People say, "I much prefer to hear 'Brown Sugar' than some new song." Well, I don't give a shit what you prefer. If everyone else in the band had said, "We can't be bothered, no one listens to our new records," fair enough. We can do more repackages [rolls his eyes]. But everyone was up for it.
And we did it in a different way: less people around, concentrate on what you're doing. No fucking about and jamming for days. You know how it is with rock bands in studios. Once they get in there, they never want to leave. It's not a record anymore; it's a way of life.
When you and Keith sit together to write, what happens?
It's never the same from one song to another. I'm very different from Keith. I like everything organized. I love it when things go wonky and funny, but I want to move forward. I don't want to sit around waiting for shit to happen. "This is how it goes, these are the words. Should it be fast or slower? Do you like it or not?"
This time, I got into this thing where Keith would have an idea and I would put a drum program to it. Then I'd play drums over that, create a groove. By the time Charlie got there, I'd say, "This is the beat." I wanted to impress him [laughs].
We were in such a confined space — some of it was in France, some of it in the Caribbean — without loads of hangers-on. There was nowhere to hide. "Is it good?" "Is it not good? Then bung it out the window." There were no three-hour blues jams. There wasn't time.
On this album, and in almost all of your lyrics, you write about sex in two basic ways: In the rockers, it's conflict and the chase. In the ballads, it's losing and leaving. You never write about satisfaction.
It's easier to write about conflict. Try writing "I'm at peace with the world" in a rock tune. See where that gets you. But if you went into some country singer's songbook, you'd find a lot more heartache than in the Rolling Stones.
How much of the conflict and heartache is autobiography?
It's a mixture of your diary and creative imagination. That's what being a writer is about. Totally autobiographical songs are cringe-y. Teenage girls love that shit. When Britney broke up with Justin and he did that tune ["Cry Me a River"], my daughter was explaining to me, "You see the scene in the video? That actually happened, Dad."
If I wrote about what my life is really about, directly and on the money, people would cringe. "Oh No, Not You Again" is based on a real incident. But I made it funnier than it was.
So was there really an "Angie"?
I don't know. That was one of Keith's songs [laughs]. I just filled in the gaps.
"Sweet Neo Con" is direct in its politics and accusations. Who are you singing to?
I don't want to overexplain it. But it is very direct. During the presidential election, I was asked by the New York Daily News which side I was on. I said it's not polite to take sides in foreigners' elections. But we're not in an election now.
So whose side are you on now?
I'm not on anyone's side. There is no side that has an absolute answer. That's the trouble with politics. You might say, "The Republican take on the Middle East is incorrect." The Democratic policy wasn't that brilliant, either.
The most explicit thing in "Sweet Neo Con" is your own fear: "There's bombers in my bedroom/And it's giving me the shits." You sound pretty scared.
It is a scary time. Since I wrote the song, London's gotten even scarier. "Rain Fall Down" is a song about London. It has a line, "Feel like we're living in a battleground/Everyone's jazzed." That was in my head already. There were so many armed police in the streets. Walking around, seeing machine guns, is not how you imagine London to be.
If we keep going down this track, we're not going to get back. The same feeling is in "Back of My Hand": that well go too far, get away from our original values, and this overreaching imperialism will take us to a place where we eventually collapse.
Music technology has changed so much just in the three years since Forty Licks. How has that affected the way you oversee the business of the Stones?
The first important thing has nothing to do with technology. You have to create new songs. If you don't, you are definitely set into a time zone. We recorded this album digitally, without any tape, which is pretty normal now. The rest of it is just distribution: ring tones, different kinds of digital delivery. We used to tour to support a record. In 1972, I would have said, "We're promoting Exile on Main Street." Now you're touring, you have a new album, there's merchandising and television shows. We have partnerships with the NFL and Ameriquest to get our music on television. It's old-fashioned, but you reach more people than you do with downloading.
Keith is so negative in public about your solo albums. Don't you ever feel like telling him to knock it off?
I do [laughs].
But after collaborating with people like Rob Thomas and Lenny Kravitz, do you find that you do your best work the Stones?
Not necessarily. You can do a song with the Rolling Stones that turns out not to be very good at all. There are songs you write that you wouldn't ask them to play. And there are songs where you know the Stones will play them far better than anyone else. It's all one creative process. Some things you like less than others. And you never know what that's going to be.
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