How Robbie McIntosh Became a Go-To Guitarist for Paul McCartney, John Mayer, and Others
In the summer of 1989, Paul McCartney hit the road for the first time as a solo artist. The Wings tours of the Seventies had featured only a smattering of Beatles songs, but this time around he was going to play nearly 20 a night. Pulling this off would require a guitarist who was capable of re-creating some very famous parts originally played by George Harrison and John Lennon. McCartney had his choice of big-name players for the job, but he went with Robbie McIntosh.
“That tour was the high point of my life,” McIntosh tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his home in Weymouth, England. “It doesn’t get much better than that. It really doesn’t.”
McCartney used McIntosh in the studio when he cut Flowers in the Dirt and Off the Ground, and he brought the guitarist back on the road for his 1993 New World Tour. But McIntosh’s work with McCartney represents just a tiny percent of his musical resume. He joined the Pretenders as lead guitarist in 1983, shortly after the death of founding member James Honeyman-Scott, and played on classics like “Middle of the Road” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” before stepping aside in 1987 to spend more time with his family.
In recent years, he’s toured the world with John Mayer, Norah Jones, Tom Jones, and Sinead O’Connor, and worked in the studio with Celine Dion, Tori Amos, Talk Talk, Tears for Fears, Josh Groban, Mark Knopfler, and way too many others to list.
As a kid growing up in South London, McIntosh grew up listening to his father’s jazz records, by artists including Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, and Coleman Hawkins. He was only five years old when Beatlemania broke out across England, but his older sister was a member of the fan club and in the audience when they played at London’s Wimbledon Palais on Dec. 14, 1963. She met the Beatles afterward during a meet-and-greet. “When I played with London with McCartney the first time, my sister came,” says McIntosh. “I took her backstage and introduced her to Paul. He went, ‘I remember you!’ Of course, he didn’t.”
McIntosh started playing guitar when he was about eight. He remembers painstakingly teaching himself songs by Jethro Tull, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His skills grew considerably when he took classical guitar lessons at 13. “I was quite into science,” he says. “I thought about being a doctor. My biology teacher said to my mom and dad at parents’ evening that they should lock my guitar away in a cupboard, since I probably could have done better had I not been playing it all the time.”
But the guitar stayed out of the cupboard, dreams of medicine faded into the background, and McIntosh’s obsession with music grew. “When I was 16, I wanted to be Pete Townshend,” he says. “I had the poster from Live at Leeds on my bedroom wall. My first concert was Gong, which were this weird, trippy Genesis-like band. I also saw Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Fairport Convention, John Cale, and Dr. Feelgood.”
He joined up with a few school buddies as a teenager and formed the cover band 70% Proof, though his career didn’t really take off until he joined the Foster Brothers in 1977. The band was signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records and were given the chance to open for the Little River Band in London, but they were dropped after a few unsuccessful singles.
McIntosh was without a band and very uncertain about his future until he found himself working alongside Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. It was the start of a journey that eventually brought him to the Pretenders, Talk Talk, McCartney, and Mayer.
How did you meet Chris Thompson?
I was recommended to Chris by one of the guys that worked at Rocket Records in the publishing department, Lem Lubin. He famously played the guitar solo on “Concrete and Clay” by Unit 4 + 2. It was a hit over here in 1965. He recommended me to Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Chris was still the lead singer at that time. He sang “Blinded by the Light,” which was a big hit, and “Davy’s on the Road Again.”
Chris was forming a band. I was recommended to him. I went and did an audition and joined the band. They were all quite older than me. I was only 21 at the time. Before I knew it, we were in L.A. recording with [producer] Richard Perry.
That was a big step up for you.
It really was. What happened is that Richard Perry was notoriously fussy as a record producer. He got rid of the drummer in the band and the keyboard player in the band, and brought in Nicky Hopkins on piano and Rick Marotta on drums.
Rick played on loads of my favorite records by Randy Newman. He played with Linda Ronstadt for a long time. He’s on Steely Dan albums. I remember talking to him about The Royal Scam. And playing with him was the biggest learning curve ever in my career. I’d just come from playing in pub bands in the U.K. And Rick Marotta, Jim Keltner, all these guys played very much in the pocket, a very lazy backbeat.
The first track we did together was just an eye-opener for me. I was lucky. I had to start one of the songs. Within two bars of me doing the intro, I was ahead of Rick’s count. He was so kind. He just said, “Just listen to the hi-hat. Then just lock into the backbeat.”
That was it. It was like a penny dropping. The biggest penny of my life dropped at that moment. Then having to create acoustic guitar overdubs, I’d just listen to the backbeat. They don’t speed up when they go through drum fills, those guys. A lot of drummers do. We weren’t working to a click in those days. This is early 1979. You’d just follow the drums. It was such a revelation. I learned so much in a few short weeks just working with that guy.
Chris is very under-appreciated. He’s the voice of all these famous songs, and most people don’t know his name.
You’re absolutely right.
What’s so funny to me is that Bruce Springsteen never had a Number One hit in America where he’s singing his own song. But Chris had a Number One hit singing a Springsteen song in America.
That’s right … and I got to play on some of Manfred’s records through Chris. The album with Richard Perry was early 1979. I played on the Manfred stuff a little after that. I played with the band onstage once in Germany. I wasn’t on tour with them. I was just out visiting Chris, and he got me onstage to do a couple of numbers.
How did you meet original Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott?
The Foster Brothers, going back a couple of years, Graham Foster, the head of the band, his ex-girlfriend moved to Hereford and started going out with James. He came up to London and stayed with Graham and hung out with us. One of the times he came up was when he did the audition [for the Pretenders] with Chrissie [Hynde].
He got that gig. The year that he died, he got back in touch with me since he wanted to augment the band. He wanted another guitar player so he could play a bit of piano. He just wanted to flesh the sound out a little bit for live. He found that he was a bit restricted with just Chrissie’s strum. She just thrashes away on the Telecaster.
Jimmy was into the Beach Boys and the Beatles, the Who, and the Kinks. He was very musical. Chrissie, of course, was more into garage rock. She was into Mitch Ryder, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and punk stuff like the Ramones and the New York Dolls. Jimmy was much more musical. That was the great thing about the Pretenders, him and her meeting.
What do you think of those first couple records by the Pretenders?
They were fantastic. I bought them both. What happened was I met up with Jimmy a couple of times. He came to see me at a gig. I met him at the studio when they were mixing the second Pretenders record, Pretenders II. We were friends and liked the same kind of stuff. He was showing me his guitars. He phoned me up a couple of times and said, “Look, it would be great the next time if we go on tour, you could come along and play with us.”
Anyway, he phoned me in September. It was the day before he died, which is really, really weird. He was going to a gig. Ronnie Lane had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. They were having a benefit for him at a place called the Venue. Jimmy called me up at home and said, “Do you fancy coming out?”
I didn’t have any money. My wife was pregnant with our first child. I said, “I’ll pass, actually.” He went to the gig. After the gig, he went to somebody’s house, slept on their sofa, and didn’t wake up. It was weird.
What happened after that?
I was obviously upset he passed away, but I didn’t ring the office up or anything. I thought that avenue had kind of disappeared, as it were. I thought, “What a shame.”
They went back into the studio with Billy Bremner and did “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone,” but Chrissie didn’t really want Billy in the band. I know Billy. Lovely guy. I think maybe he was a bit rockabilly and a bit straight for the band. Somehow, they found out through a couple of guys in the crew that Jimmy had been speaking to me. They phoned me up, and I went in and did an audition with a bunch of other people. Martin [Chambers] was playing drums at the audition, but Chrissie didn’t play with us. She sat in a chair. We were on a stage. She just sat down and watched us.
Then Chrissie rang me up a couple of days later and said, “Would you be interested in joining the band?” Of course, I said yes.
Tell me about making Learning to Crawl.
We knew each other pretty well before we got in the studio since we had been rehearsing for a few weeks. One of the first things we did was “2000 Miles.” She played us a bit of the song on guitar. Then I fiddled around and started adding my own bits.
Chrissie said later she should probably have credited you as a co-writer.
Did she say that? That’s nice. It’s the same with “Middle of the Road.” She just went, [plays main riff on guitar]. I fiddled about for a bit and wrote, [plays opening segment of the song]. I’m sure that’s what happened with Jimmy. She’d play the basic song, and the bass player would come up with the bass line, and we’d all fiddle about until we arrived at something. That’s how it happened.
Did you feel like a full member of the band or a hired hand?
I did feel like a full member. Chrissie always wanted it to feel like a band.
Tell me about preparing to go on the road with the Pretenders. You started in Dallas in 1983.
We went out and played at the Bronco Bowl. We were picking up some of the crew, British guys, and they’d been working with Adam Ant. He played at the Bronco Bowl the night before us. We saw his show, and then met our tour manager. The next night, we played the gig at the Bronco Bowl, which has a bowling alley on one side, and a gig on the other. You could hear the pins going down between songs. [Producer] Chris Thomas came out with us and played keyboards, which was really cool.
Was this your first time playing to big crowds?
No. The first big crowds I played to were with Chris Thompson. We supported the Doobie Brothers on the American tour. They had a Number One album with Minute by Minute. They were big crowds. We were the support. People weren’t really watching us. They were just coming in and taking their seats. This was the first time I played to a big crowd that came to see just us.
Right around this time, original Pretenders bassist Pete Farndon died. There was so much tragedy in this little window of time.
They’d already fired him when that happened. Jimmy fired him because he just couldn’t play. He was a heroin addict. I only met Pete once. I met him when I saw Jimmy in the studio when they were mixing the second record. It was very brief. He didn’t know me from Adam.
What’s your best memory of playing the US Festival?
Oh Christ! [Laughs.] Having a long conversation with Steve Wozniak. I didn’t know what he was talking about, to be honest. It might have been Steve Jobs. I know I talked to one of them. I remember standing backstage watching Joe Walsh since he went on after us. My wife was there with my eldest daughter, who is 40 now. She was a baby. I remember Dave Hill, the Pretenders manager, telling me to move about as much as I could onstage. He wanted it to look exciting. I just ran around like a fuckin’ lunatic. It’s really embarrassing now when I watch it.
I’ve read that it was really hot that day.
Really hot. It was in San Bernardino. That’s the desert.
What was it like to walk onstage and see about 80,000 people?
I can’t remember it that well, to be quite honest. I just remember running about a lot, and I was wearing a suit or something.
Did you see David Bowie or U2?
U2 were on below us. They were lower on the bill, if you can believe it. We saw a bit of David Bowie. Of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn’t playing with him. I met Steve a year or so after that when we toured America. He supported us. That was terrifying for me. He was a lovely guy though.
You did 130 shows in 1984. What was it like to be on the road for that long?
I enjoyed it. It was good. I would rather have been home, I guess. I didn’t realize we did that many shows. Wow. You forget these things.
Tell me about playing Live Aid.
That was hot, too. I wore a knotted handkerchief on my head. I kept pouring water on it to keep my head cool. And it was so loud on the stage. The monitors were deafening. We played everything so fast. We only had 20 minutes. I think Martin’s idea was to play as many songs as we could in 20 minutes by playing them at twice the speed of the record. It was a pretty good day. I hung out and met the various bands. I met the Beach Boys. I got introduced to Carl [Wilson] since he was quite good friends with James Honeyman-Scott. I met Bruce Johnston too.
Did you see Led Zeppelin play?
Some of it. We were up and down. I was hanging out with Charlie Burchilll, who is one of the guitar players in Simple Minds. Me and him and our piano player Rupert [Black] were drinking beer and wandering around. We had a chat with Jeff Bridges at one point. I don’t remember seeing the whole of the Zeppelin set. I remember watching Power Station.
Is it stressful to be onstage and realize roughly a billion people are watching you play?
I guess so. I’d be much more aware of that now. I was still only 27 back then. You’re not that scared when you’re 27. You just get on with it. I’m much more aware now. When I played with McCartney in Rio to all those people, it just felt like another gig. I didn’t know it was going to break all those records.
Tell me about making Get Close. It was clearly a tumultuous time for the group.
Yeah. The band at that point just boiled down to me and Chrissie. That was really Jimmy Iovine and Chrissie’s doing. I don’t think he got off on Martin’s drumming too much. I think Jimmy wanted the time to be a bit steadier. Chrissie wasn’t into it anymore. So the band really just came down to me and Chrissie. When we did “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” she played me that song, and I came up with that funny guitar part. We demoed it. Then we were flown over to New York.
That song was done for the film Gung Ho with Michael Keaton. It’s a comedy about a car company that gets taken over. The film company paid for us to fly to New York on Concorde. We took Paul Wickens, who is Paul McCartney’s keyboard player now, and a bass player, and me and Chrissie got quite friendly with drummer Steve Jordan, who is now with the Rolling Stones. We flew over and Steve played drums on “Don’t Get Me Wrong.”
That was the second track to be recorded for Get Close. We’d already done the [Jimi] Hendrix song on Get Close with Martin on drums and Steve Lillywhite producing. We went over to Stockholm and did that at ABBA’s studio. We did “Room Full of Mirrors” and “When I Change My Life” with Steve Lillywhite.
That’s when Jimmy Irvine and Bob Clearmountain joined the project.
Yeah. And things started to change. Chrissie wanted to bring in another drummer. We got various different drummers for Get Close. It was a bit weird for me. Martin had become a good friend, and [bassist] Malcolm [Foster] was a really good friend, and then suddenly they were fired. It was weird since I think Chrissie said, “Maybe we’ll get them back.”
It was a bit weird for me. I felt like I was the devil’s advocate to a certain extent, but I just got on with the job. Simon Phillips came in and played drums. Mel Gaynor came in. He’s the Simple Minds drummer, and we knew him because Chrissie had gotten together with Jim Kerr then. Steve played on “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” And then Blair [Cunningham] came in. Someone had recommended Blair to me. Then he became the drummer for the next few years.
Did you see Chrissie as a friend at this point or more like a boss?
We were pretty good friends. Her and my wife got along very well since they were pregnant at the same time. Her first child she had with Ray Davies was born pretty much at the same time … My daughter was born on the 21st of December; I think Chrissie’s first child, Natalie, was born in early January. She got along very well with my wife. She’s still a friend now. I don’t play in the Pretenders anymore, but I did a charity gig with her a few months ago.
Why did you leave the group in 1987?
I just had enough touring. I wanted to be at home. I just felt like my marriage was getting neglected.
Was Chrissie stunned when you told her you were leaving? You’d been the backbone of the band for the previous few years.
She was fine. She’s an incredibly tough person. She went, “Oh, OK.” I think she was disappointed, but [laughs] … I wasn’t making a hell of a lot of money, either. I wasn’t getting any writing royalties. That’s not why I left.
Did it frustrate you that you played a big role in the creation of some big hit songs and didn’t get writing credits?
I didn’t co-write them. I just came up with the guitar parts for them. You could say the same for what George did on Beatles songs. They were written by John and/or Paul. He came up with some great things. At the time, that’s all I thought. “I’ve just come up with the guitar parts. I didn’t write the lyrics. I didn’t write the melody. I just came up with a catchy kind of hook.” I don’t feel hard done by it at all, to tell you the truth.
To go back in time a bit here, tell me about working with Roger Daltrey on Under a Raging Moon in 1985.
That was great fun. It was just me and a bass player and a drummer. The bass player was John Siegler, who worked with Todd Rundgren for a time, and Hall and Oates. He was fantastic. The drummer was the drummer from Big Country, Mark Brzezicki.
I’d grown up being a complete Who nut. Roger was amazing. He was there all the time, and he sang guide vocals on a couple of tracks. He always sounded just like Roger Daltrey all the time. There’s no trickery with his voice.
You have a co-writing credit on “Move Better in the Night.”
I co-wrote that with Chris Thompson and his then-girlfriend [Stevie Vann]. Around that time, I got to know [producer] Tim Friese-Greene, which is how I started working with Talk Talk.
Zak Starkey plays on the Roger Daltrey record. He was just a kid. But he’s now been the Who’s drummer for way longer than Keith Moon, crazily enough.
That’s right. On the song “Under a Raging Moon,” we had to leave a 64-bar gap. I’m not making this up. We had to sit there in silence for 64 bars. I think it was a click track, obviously. That’s where they slotted in all the different drummers. It was eight different drummers with eight bars each. It was quite fun.
Roger toured that record, but I guess you were busy with the Pretenders.
Yeah. I didn’t do it. I lost touch with Roger. I’ve bumped into him at a couple of charity things recently. He remembered me once. The next time, he didn’t remember who I was. That was a bit embarrassing, really. [Laughs.]
I know you did a lot of work with Talk Talk. Are you on “It’s My Life?”
Yeah. Just playing acoustic guitar. There’s no electric guitar on that album at all. I’m just strumming along with the drums. I played a lot more on the next record, The Colour of Spring, but I didn’t play on the single. David Rhodes plays on that one. It’s that song “Life’s What You Make It.”
I probably would have played on it had I been around because I think I was off with the Pretenders. What happened is the record company heard The Colour of Spring and said to Mark [Hollis], “There’s not a single on it.” Mark was forced to go back into the studio and make “Life’s What You Make It,” which he hated.
Did you ever tour with them?
I did a little thing in Europe with them, which lasted about three gigs. I did a gig in Athens with them, which was crazy. They got into a big fight in the hotel. They were pretty crazy, Mark and Lee [Harris] and Paul [Webb]. Those are the three guys in Talk Talk. They thought it was funny to start trouble. They weren’t horrible to me. I got on great with them. But they could wind people up, especially press people and other bands.
How did you first come into Paul McCartney’s orbit?
There was a couple of routes. I had met Paul and Linda in the studio when I was in the Pretenders, but only really to say hello and have a cup of tea. [Average White Band guitarist-bassist] Hamish Stuart was a friend of mine. He was already in Paul’s band. He probably went, “I know Robbie. He’s a nice guy,” or something like that. He kind of recommended me, along with Chrissie.
I went in and played a few tracks at Paul’s home studio, and later at Olympic Studios. He worked with three or four producers on Flowers in the Dirt. Some of it was just him. Some of it was with Mitchell Froom. Some of it was with Chris Hughes and Ross Cullum. I didn’t play on any of the Trevor Horn stuff.
I remember being at Olympic Studios. Paul and his manager were there. They said, “Do you want to join the band for live?” I remember saying, “I don’t want to go away for ages and ages. I’m not sure.” They said, “Well, we won’t go away for more than three weeks at a time.” I said, “All, right then.” That was it.
As a childhood Beatles fan, what was it like to play with Paul in the studio?
It was terrifying at first, but then it was absolutely amazing. He was so nice. I talked about learning “Blackbird” when I was about 12 or 13. Everybody learned that. I showed him how I played it, but there was one bit that was slightly off. He didn’t go, “That’s wrong.” He went, “Oh, I don’t do it like that.” [Demonstrates the difference on guitar.]
When we did the Unplugged stuff, he got me to play it with him. He gets up and does it. I’m there as well, but they don’t have a camera on me. He looks up at me to count in. I got to play it with him.
Prior to this, he had never done a Paul McCartney solo tour. He’d just done the Wings tours of the Seventies. This was a big deal. He’d never done close to this many Beatles songs in a concert.
Yeah. He’d never played some of those songs live, like the Sgt. Pepper thing.
And “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Things We Said Today,” and a ton of others.
Yeah. The Abbey Road medley and “Magical Mystery Tour” too. Obviously the Wings stuff we played, he did. He was great since he let us suggest things. I don’t think it was his idea to do the Abbey Road thing. I think it was Wix, who is still his keyboard player. I still see him a lot. He’s one of my closest mates. We were all in Chris Thompson and the Islands together. I know on the second tour in 1993, it was my idea to do “Fixing a Hole” since I’d always loved that track.
Some of these songs you’re doing, he’d last done them in the studio or on the stage with George Harrison on guitar. And now you’re the one playing those parts. What did it feel like as a Beatles fan to take on that role?
It was fantastic. On “All My Loving,” for instance, I’m not going to change the solo and start playing my own thing. On “Fixing a Hole,” me and Hamish played the solo together since it’s doubled on the record. That’s why it’s so strong. It’s actually two guitars. He doubled it with George.
When we did that, me and Hamish played the solo, note for note, together. It was fantastic. On the Abbey Road medley, we could play whatever we liked when we did the guitar tradeoff thing at the end. And then on “Let It Be,” there’s two different solos. The single solo and album solo are totally different. On that one, I did my own thing. It was a bit shit actually, thinking about. It was a bit rock. I have that little moment at the end of “Things We Said Today” to transition into “Eleanor Rigby.”
He gave us a lot of freedom. He was a great bandleader, Paul. He was never, “Don’t play that. I want you playing here.” He never moaned about what we played. He might say, “Can you make that bit a bit more this or that? Maybe you should start that a bit later.” With me at least, he was never fussy about what I played. He might have been a bit fussier with Hamish playing bass since Paul is such a great bass player. He’s a really hard act to follow. I wouldn’t have liked to be in Hamish’s shoes.
Between Paul and James Jamerson, there are no better bass players for pop music. If you want to be a bass player, just listen to those two guys. They have it all. They have everything.
How is Paul the human being different than Paul the icon?
He’s great. And if you consider who he is, that the world has revolved around him since he was 19 or 20, he’s amazing. He fantastic. He’s just really great to work for. I saw him on the last tour. I hadn’t seen him for years. I saw him the night before he played Glastonbury, when he did a pop-up gig. It wasn’t far from where I live. Me and [drummer] Chris Whitten went into his dressing room with just him and his wife and makeup lady. We had a chat for five minutes. It was great. He’s looking a lot older, but he’s 80 years old.
I love the Unplugged record. He did that before any other veteran artist.
Yeah. The great thing about Paul is that he said, “If we’re doing it unplugged, we’re doing it completely unplugged.” None of those acoustic guitars were plugged in. They just have microphones on them. That means we couldn’t wander around the stage. We had to stay on mic. The piano and drums both have mics on them. Nothing is plugged in. There’s no electronic instruments at all. The microphones we’re using are the only electronics.
I really love the version of “And I Love Her.”
That one was wonderful. Another one we did there that was my suggestion was “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” I’ve got the 12-string right here that I used on that song at that gig.
Was making Off the Ground a positive experience? I’m sure it was very different than Flowers in the Dirt.
Yeah. The only producers on that were Paul and a guy called Julian Mendelsohn. He was more of an engineer than a producer, to be fair, but he had produced some hits. We did that all at Paul’s studio.
I think as an album, it lacks a little something. It’s a bit same-y as an album. The thing about Flowers in the Dirt and having all those producers on it, and the time it took to make, there’s a lot of different colors. It’s a very interesting album.
I think with Off the Ground … I like the title track. I got to play some slide guitar, which I love doing. There’s a couple of songs he wrote with Elvis [Costello] on there, which are great. But it’s not a great album. It’s good fun though. We had a lot of fun.
How was the 1993 tour different than the 1989 tour?
There were some different songs. There was a different stage setup. It was a great tour. Really fun.
Tell me about getting to know Linda.
She was one of the nicest people that I’ve ever known. The thing about Linda is that she was the same to everybody. I didn’t matter if you were cleaning the rooms at the hotel or if you were a big-shot actress or actor or something. She was the same to everybody. She had no airs at all. She was always the same to everybody.
We had a nice stay with me and my wife and my kids hanging out with Paul and Linda at their house. It was a beautiful day. Stella and Mary were there. James was still quite young. They had these plastic plates you could paint on and put them in the oven. We still have them.
Linda was the nicest. She was lovely. When we were doing Off the Ground, we’d go round a couple of times a week to their house and she’d cook, which was nice. We’d sit and watch the telly on the weekend. It was really cool.
It’s such a tragedy she died so young.
It is. The last time I played with Paul … After I did the Off the Ground tour, Paul kind of laid us all off. Then they did the Beatles Anthology. I played with him at the benefit for Montserrat at the Royal Albert Hall [in 1997]. I was in the house band, anyway. Linda was still alive. She died about six months after that. She was sick at the time. I told Paul to give her my best.
That Monserrat show was amazing, especially the Abbey Road medley Paul played with the orchestra.
Yeah. It was a great moment. And then everybody came onstage, and they didn’t know what song to do. We were all onstage together. It was Sting on bass, Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Paul, Carl Perkins, and the rest of the house band. Somebody said, “Why won’t we do ‘Kansas City’?” Someone said, “How does it start?” Complete silence. And so I went, “Oh, I know.” And I played the beginning. I got a pat on the back for that since nobody else could remember how it started. [Laughs.]
When Paul went back on the road in 2002, did you hope he was going to call you up?
I guess so. It didn’t happen. He got a whole American band. He even got an American keyboard player. But not long before they were supposed to go out on tour, he jumped ship. He called Wix and got Wix back in. He’s really the only person that could have done that with all the sounds he gets. He’s such a great guy as well.
You were a part of Norah Jones’ band for a few years. How did that come about?
After Paul, I didn’t really tour. I went to Canada and started working with a French Canadian singer named Diane Tell. I went to Canada and played with her for a bit. We’d go to France and do gigs. I didn’t do much touring for a while. My boys were small. I stayed home and did session work.
In 2002, I did a gig in Germany with a guy named Gordon Haskell. We were on the same bill as Norah Jones. We just got on. I got on well with the band. We had drinks afterwards in the hotel, and we all went to the airport together the next morning. Gordon was a fantastic songwriter by the way. He passed away a few years ago from lung cancer.
Anyway, I got a call from [guitarist] Adam Levy. Kevin Breit played on the albums, but he didn’t want to tour. They needed somebody to go out on tour. They’d seen me play with Gordon. They said, “Do you fancy doing it?” I went over to New York and they went to Conan O’Brien, and I went with them. I didn’t play. They did it as a four-piece. I was just in the dressing room. Then Norah went, “Robbie, will you join our band?” I said, “Yeah, all right.”
How did that go?
I did a whole year of touring with Norah. It was fantastic. It was probably the most enjoyable tour I’ve ever done. There was so much laughter. We only had hotels on days off, so we were on a bus all together. We went around Europe for three months, and then we did four months in America. We went to South America for three weeks. We did the Far East for three months.
The kids were a bit older by this point. And it was such a laugh. They were all quite younger than me. When I joined Norah’s band, I was 46. They were all in their late twenties or early thirties. I’m still in touch with Adam. He’s a great guy. It was so much fun.
They didn’t keep me on retainer. When the tour finished, I went and played on a track on the next album. It’s called “Rosie’s Lullaby.” They paid me for that.
How did you move over to John Mayer’s band?
I got a call from [bassist] Pino Palladino since Steve Jordan had recommended me to John Mayer. That’s because I’m a bit of an all-rounder. I can play parts while he’s soloing for ages and ages, like he does. He’s the most generous guy, John. He’s kind of up his own tree a little bit artistically, if you like. But you don’t want for anything when you tour with John. He’s so good. Everyone on the crew is fantastic. He’s just a really good guy. If he thought he’d upset somebody in the crew or the band, he’d just be mortified. He’s just great.
This was kind of his peak in some ways. He was selling millions of records and doing enormous concerts.
It was great fun. Those were good tours. I was the only British guy in the band for a while. Then a British keyboard player came in, Tim [Bradshaw]. But I loved [guitarist] David Ryan Harris. [Drummer] J.J. [Johnson] was lovely. John is lovely. They are really, really cool.
There’s a video on YouTube of you and John playing an acoustic set in the Bahamas, just the two of you.
[Laughs.] That was really bizarre. We were supposed to fly to Nassau. We were in Grand Bahama on a cruise. It was called the Mayercraft Carrier. That’s really what it was called. That’s not a joke. We went to this little airport and got on this tiny, little plane to fly to Nassau. I got on with the sound guy. The guitar tech got on. I think the accountant was there too, and the tour manager. We all got on.
Then John got on. I could hear him mumbling behind me. “I don’t like this. I don’t feel comfortable.” Then he just got off the plane. And so we had to hang around in some restaurant for about three hours while they got a bigger plane to come to the airport. We flew in this turboprop to Nassau and got there about 45 minutes before we were supposed to play.
Half those songs we played, we never played as a duo. We never played them on acoustic guitars. Things like “No Such Thing,” I’d never done just as a duo. We’d done “Daughters” and “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” but more than half those songs, we’d never played. We were like, “You do that on that one. I’ll do this on that one.” Then we just went out and played for an hour. It was skin-of-the-teeth, but it was really good fun.
Now it lives forever on YouTube.
I’m surprised John hasn’t taken it down, actually.
How did John impress you strictly as a guitar player?
John is amazing. He’s like the quarterback of guitar players. He looks like a quarterback. He ought to be one. He has the right build. He’s not very sporty, that’s the thing. [Laughs.] He’s got big hands. He’s strong. He’s so musical, and so confident. He’s full of himself in a nice way. He’s just an amazing guitar player. I can do things he can’t do. I remember when we did “Say.” He did the guitar on that on two guitars. I had to work it out on one, and he was very impressed, I have to say. But I haven’t got the improvisational skills that he’s got.
Why did you stop touring with him?
That was 2010. He changed the band completely.
You came out in 2017 to play “Daughters” at the O2 Arena in London.
It’s been that long? These last few years because of Covid have just been a time warp. It’s really weird. The fact that I was so sick during it makes it even weirder for me. I was diagnosed in August 2020. I had a thing called non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a lymphatic cancer. I had to have chemotherapy for four months. Then they spotted on a scan that I had some scar tissue in my lungs. I’m not short of breath, but they thought they’d check it out.
I went in and did a test the other day where I had to breathe into a pipe thing, like a snorkel. I don’t know what the results are, but I don’t think it’ll be too bad. Some of the things I had with chemo can cause lung problems. Touch wood, I’m all right. I can always do with losing a bit of weight. Besides that, I’m all right.
That’s great to hear. I’ll be pulling for you … What kept you busy after you left John Mayer’s band?
I was with Tom Jones for a while. And before that, I was with Sinead O’Connor.
You toured with Tom Jones?
Yeah. On and off He doesn’t really do tours. He does two or three gigs, and then you go home for a week, and then go do three or four. He doesn’t like being away for ages and ages. And the tour with Sinead was a bit on/off since she kept having meltdowns.
She’s been very public about her mental-health difficulties.
Yeah. She had a couple of meltdowns when we were out. We were supposed to go to Mexico for a week. I turned up at the airport, which is quite a long trip from where I live. She went into the bathroom, came out, and said, “I don’t want to go.” And so we just all went home. We got paid. I had to get up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport, though.
Another European tour stopped about three shows before it was supposed to end. That happened a couple of times. I think it’s the only gig I’ve ever been fired from.
We’d just done a couple of gigs with just me, her, and a piano player. I thought they were great. But her manager phoned me up and said, “I don’t think it’s working.” We’d just done a TV show. She freaked out. It wasn’t a good time. And I don’t think I was really fired. I think that they just wanted to start again.
What else have you been up to?
The only regular thing I do now is that I’ve done a lot of work with Mark Knopfler. My son actually worked for Mark for about seven or eight years. He’s a recording engineer. I got close to Mark. And when he does promo for new albums now, he doesn’t get his American guys over since it’s too expensive for just a couple of TV and radio shows. And so I’m the reserve guy for Mark. Richard Bennett normally does it. He’s a great player.
Through Mark, I got friendly with John Illsley, who is the bass player for Dire Straits. I do gigs with John. We do little tours around Germany, Holland, and the U.K. We do some Dire Straits stuff, but it doesn’t feel like a Dire Straits tribute band since John was actually in Dire Straits. We do the big songs.
You’ve posted a bunch of solo records on Bandcamp recently. That must be satisfying.
Yeah. I love writing. Being just a guitar player has never been enough for me. I’d rather write stuff than just play on it. It’s a bit of a jungle in the guitar world. There’s so many great guitar players around. I hate the fact that it appears to be a bit of a competition. I’ve sort of opted out of it a bit, and just write my own stuff. Then I don’t have to play like Larry Carlton or Stevie Ray Vaughan. I can just do my own thing.
I started off a bit Ry Cooder-y and a bit Little Feat-y. But then I love Ron Sexsmith. I wish I could write songs like Ron. He’s an absolute genius. And McCartney and Lennon, Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan. These are the people I really admire. And Chrissie too.
Doing it on your own just gives you endless freedom.
The songs become a vehicle for the guitar playing rather than being smart on the guitar and just sticking lyrics over the top of them that don’t mean anything. I try not to write songs like, “I love my baby/My baby loves me.” I try to write something that’s interesting or makes some kind of comment. The last album I did, I did it for the cancer charity at the hospital where I was treated. The money just goes to them. That’s called Fortuneswell.
There’s also a project that I’ve been involved with by the group Held By Trees. I played on the album Solace, and have been doing a bit of live work with them. It’s instrumental and has elements of Talk Talk and Pink Floyd as quite a lot of the playing is improvised.
Do you miss the big stages? If John Mayer or someone wanted you back, and it was back to the private jets and arenas, would that interest you?
I’m not sure. I’m not a great fan of flying. If there’s a lot of flying involved, I might think twice about that. I had a deep vein thrombosis when I had my chemo, which wasn’t very nice. Doing long-haul flights is a bit worrying. I’ve done some flying, but nothing really long haul since I was ill. That said, I’d think about it.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
I want to record some more albums, and maybe tour a bit more with my own band. That would be great. I have a little local trio thing I’m doing next week. And my band is playing a wedding a week after that. That’s a four-piece. But I’d just like to keep writing, really. And stay alive. [Laughs.] That would be good.
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