“I love studios, even when they’re empty,” says Keith Richards, speaking through a haze of smoke as he sits on a recording-studio couch in downtown New York. He’s quiet for a while; there’s nothing but a faint electronic noise. “There’s that little hum. Silence is your canvas. You look out there and you think, ‘Ah, the possibilities! Given a good song and a good drummer.'”
Richards is well aware of the weight a room takes on when he’s in it — this is, after all, the same environment where he stayed up for five nights recording “Before They Make Me Run,” or built the hypnotic intro of “Gimme Shelter” out of layers of guitars. On a warm September afternoon, Richards is full of intensity, bouncing his leg, his dark eyes fixating heavily during every question as he works his way through a pack of Marlboro Reds. He’s drinking a “Nuclear Waste” — two ounces of vodka, orange soda and lots of ice — which his assistant makes throughout the course of the night using small airplane Absolut bottles stored in a cardboard box.
Richards is wearing Nike tennis shoes and a snakeskin jacket over a T-shirt that says, “Do Not X-Ray.” The studio lights hit the top his head like a spotlight. He’s eager to laugh, and full of menace. At one point, I mention the anecdote about him throwing a knife at a music exec who suggested he change a song during the Steel Wheels sessions in 1989. “I’ve got pretty good aim,” Richards says. “It just missed him.”
I spoke with Richards here at Germano Studios, and at his favorite restaurant in Connecticut for Rolling Stone‘s latest cover story surrounding his fantastic new album, Crosseyed Heart. In these excerpts taken from our interviews, Richards discusses his recording process, the Stones’ earliest days in America and the band’s future, his Sixties peers and much more. “I’ll tell you what,” Richards says of being interviewed. “It’s better than being interrogated by the police!”
Speaking of police, in 1967, you, Mick and some others were arrested at your home in England. You were put on trial for allowing pot to be smoked on your property. You told the judge to his face, “We are not old men, and we are not worried about petty morals.”
Ah, man. That one just popped out of my mouth! I had been looking at some judge who obviously was looking at some degenerate, and I also happened to know that he comes from a famous family that makes fish paste. It’s my first time in court. This is sort of surreal theater to me. They brought up this thing about Marianne Faithfull dressed only in a rug, which would’ve covered a tribe, let alone her [laughs]. I mean it was like “she was only wearing a fur rug.” And she may as well have been wearing a fur coat or a whole tent! So when [they] brought that up, it just popped out. “I’m not interested in your petty morals ….”I knew I wasn’t doing myself a favor by saying that. But at the same time, sometimes at those points, you’re like, “OK, well, am I going to suck [it up] and say, ‘I’m sorry, your honor, and blah blah blah?'” I wasn’t sorry, so I’m going to just say what I think: “I’m not interested in your petty morals.”
And people loved you for it. Was that the beginning of you thinking, “I can play by my own rules a bit”?
In a way, I think, yeah. It was from that moment that I felt that it was not just me, and not just the Stones, against the establishment — it was our generation. I decided to make a statement there. I also realized that by saying that, I have something bigger than a jury behind me. You can swing your jury one way or another, but there’s a bigger jury out there, and they’ll make it very difficult for you to do anything to me, especially when it’s all a setup.
It got me a year on paper in jail, but they can’t make that stick. I didn’t go out there to break the law. The least of my interests was breaking laws. I want to be onstage, doing what I do. But you suddenly realize they were interfering with your life for no other reason — it was about petty morals. It was nothing to do with the law or anything else. “OK, it’s a fight. OK, we’re into the finish. You’ve got all the weight. All I’ve got is this little mouth.” Sometimes I wish it’d shut up [laughs]! But at the same time, you started to feel how paranoid and weak the establishment were feeling. To bother to pick on a guitar player, a rock & roll band, and try and make the Stones as if they’re the epitome of all evil and what was wrong with them and all that … well, you’re sort of stuck up there. You might as well brass it out, you know?
How has the country changed in your eyes since the Stones first came to the U.S. in 1964?
Well, it’s a pleasure to see no “No Colored Here” or “White Only” signs, which is what I saw when I first arrived. But obviously things that have been happening lately with Ferguson and Baltimore, and that’s just the two obvious ones … One could say James Blake being hit last week is another pointer that you don’t get rid of racism with the stroke of a pen. “OK, that doesn’t exist anymore!” It’s not that simple. And obviously, it’s going to be generations and generations before it actually becomes a fact rather than just a point of law. Folks is folks, and they’re weird — in America, especially, maybe because nobody is quite sure where they come from. Everybody with their names — “I’m Polish … Italian …” — which is the great thing about this country: Everybody comes from somewhere else. Except the poor Cherokees and the Apaches, which nobody bothers [with]. “Oh, give ’em a casino.”
But this country is made of immigrants and people getting together and trying to live together, which is what I’ve, in my mind, always thought what America was great at — this acceptance of other people. At the moment, it’s a little dodgy because some people want to build walls and stuff [laughs]. I thought the whole idea of this country was no walls. America is an incredible experiment, really. You know? In historical terms, this is a flash in the pan. A couple hundred years ain’t nothing. Especially next to my house in England that was built in 1450. Einstein got it right there — time is relative.
What has America given you?
The greatest gift America gave, to me, was its music. Because it was a hybrid, immigrant-loaded community where everybody’s stuff came together. To me, that’s the real beauty of what America is capable of. It gave people music. The whole world listens to American music and maybe that coincided because of recording. Recording is an amazing thing. It’s all built to capture a sound here and a sound there, but what it can capture is spontaneity, emotion, tears and laughter, and everything else and can all be translated via recording. And to me that’s why I loved America! The chewing gum I never even got, but the music I got. That’s what intrigued me.
Back in the Sixties, it’s amazing to read about how you worked, with layering guitars on “Gimme Shelter” alone, or overdriving an acoustic guitar to get the sound on “Street Fighting Man.” You must’ve known you were doing something very special.
I was doing what I thought was necessary. I didn’t think it was special. Because I’m in there to make a record. Sometimes I’ve got one guy with me. Sometimes it’s a couple. Sessions weren’t always like “Five o’clock everybody’s in the studio ready to go.” That’s not the way great records are made, especially not ours.
Look at that little glass screen there [points to control-room window]. It’s blank. If you want a canvas, silence — this is your canvas. So if I try to put music into visual terms: You make a little noise here, set up a beat here, and then you start to add a little bit and then, “Oh, no, take that away.” I look upon it as an audio painting, really, when I’m making records. “What’s needed here? Overload it with guitars, and then take all of them out and just use a bit of this one.” Your paintbrush is that damn desk, with little faders, and it’s never ceased to fascinate me. It used to be a lot easier with less technology. At the same time, what have you got? You’ve got a big paintbrush. Unfortunately, some people use it all just because it’s there, but in its right context, recording is an amazing thing. Because out of silence, you make something you want to listen to. I mean it’s your paint box. It’s my second home.
You’ve always managed to kind of screw with sounds and come up with something new, like removing the E string for a five-string guitar and popularizing open-G tuning. I tried to learn “Before They Make Me Run” once with a band, and figuring out where you skip beats and go into the chorus a bar early can be really hard to follow!
[Laughs] It is, yeah. The beat is something to be played with, moved around. The beat isn’t there as some solid, concrete “one, two, three, four.” It’s something to shift and fly and move. I’m very jazz-like — [I like] Philly Joe Jones. I love looseness.
What do you think of the music industry these days?
It used to be simple — you signed a deal with a record company and OK, there was one outlet and that was them. Now there’s a million other ways. I think things are in a state of experimentation, flux. I don’t say anything bad about it. It’s a bit confusing to me. At the same time, I think music is something that will always be there. The enormous machine called the music business is a whole different kettle of fish.
Do your grandkids play you new music?
You know, my daughters do more of that. What have I heard lately? Ed Sheeran. I thought, he’s very interesting. And St. Paul and the Broken Bones. He’s a cat that can do an Otis Redding. Onstage, he’s very interesting to watch. I catch a quick glimpse. Interesting guys, came back to the dressing room and had a chat.
I saw a picture on the Stones’ Instagram of you and Ed together hanging in your dressing room.
What’s interesting about him is he’s almost a one-man band, to start with, which is always very interesting. I don’t know, I feel a very genuine feel from the music and what he’s doing. And I love it when you meet people and you realize immediately that fame isn’t the only thing on their mind. I mean sadly, now, Amy Winehouse could have been that. She already was, but she’s sadly missed. To [think] what she could have done, what she would have done.
Will rock & roll go the way of jazz and become a niche genre? What do you think is the future of rock & roll?
Well, as a term, I’m not sure. Will the hip outlast the hop [laughs]? Or the rock outlast the roll? I really think a lot of these terms, and we live by them because it makes things easier, but to me, it’s just music. You really don’t hear the name rock & roll very much. It’s usually rock, you know? I suppose it’s for people to be able to put everything in its pigeonhole. I mean, you’re not going to call Mozart rock & roll are you? No, you’re going to call him classical, so you know what box to put him in. You’re going to put a rap artist in the rap box. But these are boundaries I think more for the audience than for the artists. I mean, Ray Charles will go from country to jazz to rhythm and blues.
And the Stones do that too — rock & roll, blues, country, disco, etc.
You’re not locked into one genre or anything. I’ve always thought these terms were invented by Billboard. Which they need to do! Because that’s the industry and they need it. That’s why you’ve got R&B and jump blues. If you showed me the difference between R&B and jump blues, it’d be a very fine line. Country, country-rock, this rock, that rock, folk-rock [laughs]. That’s the bag you’re put in by other people. To musicians, I think you can feel a bit constricted by, “Well, that’s the bag they’ve put me in and that’s the only bag I’ve got.” But at the same time, music is just music. Good music will out in its own way. Sometimes, it’s going to be a little more difficult than others. Um, twerking doesn’t really come into it for me, you know? It’s like, “Well done, girl!” There’s too many other bags, and I can’t even keep up with them anymore, variations in music.
Your quotes about the Beatles went viral recently. I’m curious what you think of the acts that came after the Stones. You and Mick kind of created the archetype for the guitarist–lead singer dynamic, which we later saw in Aerosmith, etc.
There’s always one Keith Richards and there’s always a … [trails off]. Yeah, yeah. I always just take it as a compliment. That’s the only smooth way I can take it. Well, I’m glad you like the hairdo and the clothes, boys! But very little of it has to deal with the actual music. That’s that image thing, which is a whole different bag, I suppose. Am I supposed to feel flattered? I wonder how much of it has to do with music and posing, and you can’t really get the line straight. I mean there are a million guitar players out there. I always think it comes down to, did you find the right guy to play with? You might just be a good, average guitar player, but you find the other guy to play with, and suddenly, it goes to the power of something. It’s playing together that is the important thing about bands, and so many bands are manufactured. I mean, even Zeppelin was manufactured by Peter Grant.
I was never a big Zeppelin guy.
Me neither. I love Jimmy Page, but as a band, no, with John Bonham thundering down the highway in an uncontrolled 18-wheeler. He had cornered the market there. Jimmy is a brilliant player. But I always felt there was something a little hollow about it, you know?
Robert Plant’s voice never really appealed to me.
No, I think he’s doing better stuff now — he did that that thing with what’s her name?
Alison Krauss, yeah.
I heard that and thought, “Finally, he’s getting his chops!” But no. Also I don’t want it coming out like [Richards pauses, then smiles and continues] … I mean, I always thought [Roger] Daltrey was all flash. And I love Pete Townshend, but I always thought the Who were a crazy band, anyway. You would say to [Keith] Moon, if you were in a session with him, “Just give me a swing,” and he [couldn’t] … He was an incredible drummer, but only with Pete Townshend.
He could play to Pete like nobody else in the world. But if somebody threw him into a session with somebody else, it was a disaster. There’s nothing wrong with that; sometimes you’ve got that one paintbrush, and you rock it. I just was never really interested in that many English rock & roll bands actually, at all. I mean, I usually like guys like Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and that was before I was even recording. But there was something [about] the Yeses and the Journeys and all them that just left me a bit cold.
Paul McCartney is one of the few people still on the road from the time you came to America. Do you look at what he’s doing live to see what he does with a show? Do you ever pay attention to it?
Yeah, I like Paul. I don’t know if I could do that all by myself. And as long as Paul enjoys what he’s doing. A lot of people enjoy it, and there it is. But I don’t see any push out of it. Maybe you shouldn’t expect it at our age [laughs].
I spoke with Pierre de Beauport, your guitar tech, and he explained to me that you stand in the spot onstage where the bass player would usually be — and that his favorite part of the Stones live is the push and pull between you and Charlie.
Yeah. This one old rasta, pure rasta, said to me, “To think is to stink” [laughs]. He was talking about drumming and rhythm and stuff: “To think is to stink.” It’s all just a matter of pure feel. I think probably with a lot of stuff we all do, we think too much.
You’ve said in the past that you know what Mick is really good at, and you two need to be together for you two to operate the way we all want to hear you.
Yeah. I think Mick’s an incredible performer. He needs that fire under him, and sometimes it may be he thinks the fire’s alight when he’s not with the Stones, and it isn’t. With me, I end up with the word “chemistry.” God knows what laboratory made it, but it’s a kind of natural thing that Charlie and I feel automatically. It could just be experience, but we kind of know where Mick’s going and what he’s going to do even if he doesn’t. We can kind of guide him and move him around. This is nothing that you can put your finger on and say, “This is how it’s done.” As we say in England, it’s done on the fly.
Around the release of the Crossfire Hurricane documentary a couple years ago, you said “Mick and I have had conversations over the last year of a kind we have not had for an extremely long time, and that has been incredibly important to me.” I was curious if you can elaborate a little.
Well, I’ll tell you, Mick and I have had many conversations, but the one that sticks out to me is … I think Mick Jagger is probably the best blues harp player that I’ve heard. I think he’s better than Junior Wells. I think he’s up there with Little Walter. He amazes me. So we have this conversation: “You phrase like that — why don’t you try to sing more like that?” And Mick would say, “It’s two totally different things!” And my reply is, “It’s just blowing air out of your mouth — I don’t get the difference.” When he’s singing, he tends to phrase pretty much the same way as the record goes. Whereas on harp, he’ll let it fly. I’ll always wonder if I’ll find that little key to open and let the voice fly like the harp does. That’s basically what we talk about and probably our bone of contention [laughs].
Do you think you’ll tour the States again soon?
It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Up to now, I’ve gotten as far as South America at the beginning of next year, and I know up to then. But after that, who knows? See how the boys feel.
In the new film Under the Influence, you’re playing “Memory Motel,” which is one of my favorites. Do you remember working on that song?
Yeah, I thought it was beautiful. Mick had nearly all of it planned out, but he had no bridge, no middle part. And it so happened that the other part that I do, I was writing this song that had no other part. And for some amazing reason, they both seamlessly fit into each other, which is what Mick and I do, with a bit of luck. But yeah, I remember that moment, realizing that we had one song and not two.
If you put on a Stones album, which one would it be?
Exile, probably, or Sticky Fingers. Sometimes Beggars Banquet. I do sometimes prefer Bridges to Babylon.
That’s interesting. What about A Bigger Bang?
There’s some good stuff on there, but I don’t know … There’s something about the way it holds together, for me. I don’t know if we got the tracks in the right order or something like that. Sometimes, it can make the difference on a record, the way it flows. But I enjoyed making it very much. And the other thing, I hope to get them into the studio again, because we haven’t been in there since [laughs].
Do you think you’ll be going in the studio soon?
I hope so, yes. It looks closer since I last saw you. I don’t know where, and I don’t know when yet, but yeah. I was in London last week, and all the boys, we had a little chat. We’re playing South America in February of next year. We were just talking and were like, “Well, we’ve got to get back in the studio. That’s agreed? Agreed. Right, OK boys. Where? When?” We scratch our heads. That I don’t know quite yet. I would say off the top of my head, I would say after the South America thing, but you never know. We might try and get in the studio before Christmas, maybe. I think that’s sort of doubtful, because Christmas, and you know, that build up. But hopefully it’s in the works.
When you were doing the Talk Is Cheap record, you said one of the challenges for the future is to figure out how to make the Stones grow up.
Well, I’m not sure I’d say “mission accomplished” yet. But I’m very comfortable playing with the Stones at this end of the spectrum, you know? It’s still a turn-on, and the energy is still there with them. This band surprises me on and on, you know? I don’t know how long they’ll bloody well last, but I’ll be there till the end.