What was your first reaction when you heard about Charlie's cancer?
Keith Richards: Mick and I were at Mick's place in France – we were beginning to write – when we got the news. Mick and I looked into each other's eyes and realized, "It's down to this – just us." Then I said, "For the moment, you're on drums, and I'll double on bass."
I don't think that, between us, there was any doubt that Charlie would beat it. I wondered how long and debilitating it might be, which Charlie answered in spades when he came back. He looked exactly the same, like he hadn't done anything more than comb his hair and put a suit on.
This is Charlie Watts' finest album. If you listen to the drumming, it's as if he came back and said, "A minor flesh wound!" When he came in, we were still running down songs, rehearsing. You don't usually go into fifth gear in rehearsal. You lay back a little. But Charlie came in as if to prove "I'm back." He played every rehearsal like a show.
There was a chance he would not be back, which raises the question: Who is indispensable? When do you admit that you can no longer carry on as the Rolling Stones?
There is a certain equation that ends up as zero. The Stones will make their decision about that eventually. At the moment, they're rockin', so who cares? This is something we gotta do. OK, shit hits the fan. But the bus is still rolling. You can't get off this machine, except when the wheels fall off. And we'll all know when that happens.
How much did Charlie's illness bring you and Mick closer together, as songwriters and otherwise?
It pulled us together quicker than I would have expected. Because the man does like to keep his distances. On the basic level of putting songs together, it made us play together more, on guitars and piano. Mick, as a guitar player, has finally gotten there. Before, I'd always been wary of him when he played electric guitar – he let the rhythm run away. He's also a good drummer – not in a technical sense. But he's got a great beat, good feel.
With the blues "Back of My Hand," we just went, "Let's start with where we started." It's easy to pass off a blues. But what's the point of that? This was original but right at the roots. You could feel the ghosts coming back. You could feel Muddy Waters and Little Walter in the room. You felt you were among friends as you played it.
What does the Jagger-Richards credit truly mean? Are you still that tight, shoulder-to-shoulder, when you write together?
Once we left England and started to live in different places, we had to develop a new way of writing. Instead of being crammed in a room, you knocked out ideas on your own, then you put them together, see what you got. A lot of times, we'll get together, and one of us will play something: "Oh, that's nice, but where does it go from there?" "I don't know." I'll play what I've been doing, and one bit will fit exactly with a bit he has.
It's kind of weird. If you're working with Mick in a room, it's great fun. It's just getting to those moments when it is cool. We're like quarrelsome brothers. It's sibling rivalry, without having the same parents. Mick and I spent so many years living in the same room. And you have all the baggage that goes with life: women and babies. It's amazing that we're still working together and liking it, that we can still put up with each other.
On some traces on "A Bigger Bang," Ronnie doesn't play at all. Sometimes Mick, plays slide guitar. You play bass and keyboards. How do you know when a song sounds like the Stones? It's clearly not a strict matter of role and lineup.
It's a feeling. It's not something you can define. The lineup's changed considerably over the years. Some people will say, "It's always been about Jagger-Richards." I don't even know if it's about that. Without Watts, it wouldn't be the same.
At the same time it is never just about the lineup. Two or three guys don't make a band. They have to want to make a band and give up those selfish interests, all that bickering: "That's my solo." If somebody's ready to go for it, I'11 back him. It's gotta be like that. You can't be like, "It's my job to play that."
Mick swears "Sweet Neo Con" is not specifically about George Bush. But he admits in the song, "It's getting scary/Yes, I'm frightened out my wits." Are you scared?
I thought the song was about Condoleezza Rice [grins]. There is definitely a fight on. Am I scared any more than I was of being blown up by the IRA twenty years ago? I don't know. I was born in the middle of bombing.
But who's the enemy? Maybe we are. Somehow, the Western world has pissed off some of the Eastern world. At the same time, these people have their own agenda, and I wouldn't give them the time of day. It's not my fight, but I'm caught up in it. We all are.
We're all invited to play God these days, to phone in and say what we think. There is an overload of information. I don't want to know a lot of this. People go, "If it's available, why not have it?" But how much can you eat in a day? You get obesity of the brain. People should do less: Eat less, watch less TV. Get out, walk the dog.
Do you have an iPod?
Not personally. My family has them. I don't carry around any bits of equipment – except my knife. I'm aware of what's available. The things that have been going on since I was growing up, working in the business I do – I've been on the cutting edge of technology, without even realizing it. The minute something was off the military-secret list, it was in the studio. They wouldn't even change the name on the button: "Missiles fire."
But can we handle it all? As a species, we have to step up to the plate and say, "Enough." We keep trying to put the nuclear thing back in the bottle: "Wish we hadn't let that one out." [Smiles] Shit, it's too much for a guitar player to contemplate.
Is it true that you are playing Johnny Depp's father in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels?
I saw Johnny in L.A. a month ago, and they wheeled in this wardrobe of Disney pirate costumes. Johnny and I spent a great afternoon trying these things on. But that doesn't mean I'm doing it. At the moment, I turned them down — they're shooting while I'm touring. I'd love to do it if there was no hassle. But it would be a side trip. I know what my gig is. The idea of working for Disney gives me the shivers in the first place [laughs].
You have rehearsed a dozen songs from A Bigger Bang, which suggests you're very proud of the album. On tour the Stones usually do only a couple of tunes from a new record.
We're not saying we'll do them all. But this band is weird. We gotta know every song, whether we actually play it or not, just in case somebody wants to call one out.
You can look at the Stones on one level and say, "Well, here they go – same-old same-old." But atmospheres change, and there is a sense of that here. I don't know where it comes from, whether it's from in the band or the music. Maybe everybody's just happy to see us again.
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