It’s been well over three decades since former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman last released a solo record, but on June 22nd, the hiatus ends with Back to Basics. After discovering a collection of long-abandoned demo tapes, Wyman re-entered the studio aiming to strip his music down to its most elemental form. With Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young as influences, he attempted to examine the full breadth of his life and career
“At first I thought, ‘Maybe I’m too old,'” the 78-year-old Wyman tells Rolling Stone. “But then I thought, ‘Every creative artist goes until they drop.’ Whether they’re sculptors, writers, poets or musicians, they just carry on as long as they can. So then I thought, ‘What the hell.'”
Back to Basics is your first solo record since 1982, though you’ve still been recording and touring with your band the Rhythm Kings. What made you decide to work on new music under your name only?
I had a little bit of time for a change between all my other projects like photography, archaeology and everything else, and I came across a whole bunch of songs that I never finished from the Seventies and Eighties when I did all my solo records. There were quite a few nice ones there so I thought, “Maybe I should do another one.”
How far back do these newly rediscovered songs date?
I think the earliest ones date back to ’73, from when I was putting together song ideas for my first solo album, Monkey Grip. There were a few from there that I used, three of them actually, and then there are three that I’ve done from previous solo albums that went by the board that nobody really noticed. They were songs that I really, really liked and so I’ve done new versions of those.
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Did you try and recapture the original mood and feeling of those earlier recordings or use them as a jumping off point for new directions?
The latter. I wanted it to be inspired a bit like After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, to capture the simplicity of those couple of albums he did around that time. I was also inspired by J.J. Cale, who I had done stuff with in the Rhythm Kings, and Tom Waits and the way he sings. Leonard Cohen too. He did that song a few years ago, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which I thought was wonderful.
What were the basics were you trying to get back to?
Simplicity. And of course bass-ics [laughs]. I didn’t use the double-s because that was too corny and too obvious, so I just left it.
How did you come up with all of the newer material? What is your writing process like these days?
I just came up with them in my house on a little acoustic guitar. I’m not a guitar player so I usually just mess about on the bottom strings for little guitar licks and riffs. More like a bass, you know – little bass lines and riff things.
Your old band is about to tour behind a reissued version of Sticky Fingers. Do you get involved with those archival projects or do you remained divorced from it all?
Of course I do! The nice thing is that whenever they’re putting together re-releases, I’m always involved because I’m on the stuff and because we’re still great friends and all that. We still socialize. They always bring me in because I got all the history and I kept diaries and I know all the dates and I had lots of scans and memorabilia that they don’t have anymore, so I become part of their releases in a nice way.
One of the box sets is also including an official version of a heavily-bootlegged gig you played at Leeds in 1971. Do you have any memories of that particular show or tour?
They all merge after a while, you know? Leeds would be just as good as ones we did at Main Road, which was another football stadium, or the big castle in Ireland where we did stuff and so on and so on. I say that on a song on this album, which is called “November.” I say, “Now I know just where I’m at/Is it a Monday, is it a Tuesday or is it November?” That sounds really stupid, but when you used to go on tour for like five months, there were times when you had no idea what month it was, what day it was, what town you were in or, sometimes, what country you were in.
I’ll give you an example, when I achieved a very great sports thing – I used to play cricket – I got three people out in three balls. It’s really, really rare to do that, so I became the man of the match and all the stuff like that. I’m really buzzing about it, I’m excited and I come home and I go to bed and at three o’clock in the morning my phone rings. I pick it up, say, “Who is it?” and I hear, “It’s me, Charlie [Watts].” I say, “Charlie, it’s three o’clock in the morning, what are you doing calling?” And he says, “Well, I just heard about your feat at cricket, and it’s amazing!” I say, “Where are you?” He goes, “I dunno, one minute.” Then you heard footsteps going, bump-bump-bump in the distance, then he comes back and says, “I’m in somewhere called Buenos Aires or something.” I said, “You’re in Argentina, Charlie!” He had no idea where he was at all.
Together you and Charlie made up one of the most formidable rhythm sections in rock history. What do you think was the key to your joint chemistry?
We’re not interested in the adulation and all that stuff. We just did it, you know? We were the most reliable, we were always on time, we were always straight, we were never stoned or drunk like other members could have been at times. We were just always together and reliable and that created the foundation for everything we did and I’m very proud of it. Charlie is still one of my greatest mates, and I love him to death.
Do you find any catharsis in the process of looking back on some of the stuff you did with the Stones?
Not at all, no. My 31 years in the band was wonderful. I loved every minute of it. I’m proud of everything we did and all that, but there came a time when after those three great big tours in ’89 and ’90 – when we played 120 gigs to 7-and-a-quarter-million people in America, Japan and Europe and averaged out at like 60,000 a show – where I thought, “That’s enough for me, there’s nowhere else to go.” I was happy to move on because there were so many other things that I wanted to do in my life that I had planned to years and years and years before, never expecting as anyone did that the band would last that long.
If the guys ever did come calling again for a one-off gig, what would you say?
[Laughs] No! You can’t go back and relive something and have it be the same. I have no thoughts about it ever. I’m still great mates with them. We still send each other Christmas and birthday presents as we always did, and sometimes I do gigs with Charlie and his band or with Ronnie Wood if he’s doing a special. That’s all it is.