How are you feeling?
Fine. I’ve been very lucky. They caught the cancer early. It was just a lot of work getting the muscles in order again. Mick’s physio [personal trainer] looks after me.
What exercises are you doing to get back in shape? I do stretching and sit-ups. They removed all the lymph nodes [points to throat]. When they do that, the muscles go. Then you sit around for eight weeks in treatment. You can’t lift your arm. It’s like being minorly paralyzed. It was a worry, because of what I do for a living. We’ve got a tour, and I didn’t know if I could get through a song. You can’t stop once you get going, if you’re a drummer. A guitar player can lay back in the middle. A drummer has to be there all the time. I didn’t know if I could make it. I was fifty percent fit when I arrived in Toronto. But it’s amazing how quickly your body heals.
You got throat cancer even though you gave up smoking decades ago. Are you amazed that, after everything Keith has done to himself, he’s in such defiantly good health?
He’s got an amazing constitution, and he’s very strict on himself, in a funny way. He never overdid drugs. He always had a set amount that he did, and he would never do the whole lot at once. Most people who do that are dead. He could have fallen; he was in a position to do that. And he never did. He has a very strong will to live. He’s different to Ronnie. It’s hard for Ronnie. He has a nervous energy. If he’s talking to you or playing guitar, he’s fine. But he can’t do that all day long. When he puts the guitar down, that’s when he wants a cigarette or a drink.
Mick and Keith had started writing for the new album when you were diagnosed. Were you concerned about how your illness would disrupt the album and tour plans?
I didn’t think of the Rolling Stones at all. Mick rang a few times: “You have to get well. Don’t worry about us.” I was sorry not to be there when Mick and Keith were writing. In a way, it was fortuitous, because they were on their own. It was a lot of fun for them, to be together.
Can you imagine the Stones going on without you?
I think they would, if they wanted to. If I hadn’t been well enough to do this tour, someone else would have done it — if Mick and Keith wanted to do it. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, if people turn up to see them. There’s guys in our road crew who can do what I do. They see me play every night. It’s like Buddy Rich — his roadie used to do all the rehearsals with the band. The greatest thing, I suppose, is the combination of the four of us. The Stones is that. Technical ability is another thing. It’s like the Who. They’ve had some fine drummers. They’ve got one now — Ringo Starr’s son Zak. He’s great. He’s not Keith Moon. That was a personality. Pete Townshend and Keith — they were fantastically mad, the pair of them, onstage. John Bonham was the same with Led Zeppelin — it was a sound, thunderous. And you couldn’t have Cream without Ginger Baker.
Do you wonder about the careers in art and jazz you could have had if you hadn’t joined the Stones? What was it about the Stones that was more fulfilling?
Initially, more people came to see me play than with any other band I’d been in. The Stones always had a following, whether it was four girls or four hundred. I was also impressed with the fanaticism of Keith and Brian [Jones] — their absolute dedication to Chicago blues, to Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry. They would sit up all night, playing the records over and over. Brian would write letters of protest to music magazines. Keith was just as fanatical, without writing letters. The word “pop” was not very big in our lives until we saw the Beatles. They weren’t something I wanted to be. We did shows with them. Onstage, they didn’t do bugger-all. None of them moved much. And they didn’t have a great sound. It wasn’t like Eric Clapton and Cream or Jimi Hendrix. But the Beatles were a phenomenon. The great thing was how people looked at them. That’s what got you, more than John Lennon going “la-la-la” or Paul McCartney shaking his head. The effect was amazing.
Do you still get a rush from that first roar of a Stones crowd when the curtain goes up?
It’s been a long time since curtains went up [grins]. I get very nervous. If you didn’t, you’d toss it off — you’d take it for granted. And I don’t take the Rolling Stones for granted, or anything they do. I wish I could relax and enjoy the show more, instead of thinking, “Where are we now?” Keith always gives the impression that he’s happy with whatever bar he’s playing in a song. He’s never worried about the next one. And those two hours are over in a flash. You think, “God, that was Chicago done,” and all I did was worry about where the ending of a song was.
How would you describe Mick and Keith’s relationship today? They sound closer — in the songs and performances on “A Bigger Bang” — than they have in years.
They’re like brothers: always opposite, always agreeing. But you better not get between them. Because they’ll agree with each other, and you’ll be left on your own [laughs].
Have there been times when they were so far apart you felt the need to mediate, to bring them together?
When they get too far apart, you think, “Enough is enough.” But most of the time they do it themselves. They’re getting on very well at the moment. I think it was the way this record was done — simply. Even when I came back, it was simple. For a while it was just the three of us.
Many Stones fans probably don’t know that you are active with Mick in graphic design for the Stones: staging, artwork, merchandise. What do you look for in a Stones image?
Something catchy and hopefully beautiful. But you don’t want it to be tacky. The tongue is a classic example. For myself, I would go straight for the beauty. But because of the huge position we are in, you have to have a catchy thing that takes over. Mick’s taste in music, for example, is not as airy-fairy as mine. He’s blues- and R&B-oriented. on the last tour, the record he raved about was the Beyoncé thing [“Crazy in Love”]. He had that going all the time; he used to dance to it. Visually, it’s the same. I will veer to the right color, and Mick will put an edgy stamp to it. If I go too pink or chartreuse, he’ll bring it back to bright red — which I find hideous [laughs]. I’m not a great lover of the title for this tour and record. But what it conjures up is fantastic, and that’s what sold me.
I’ve always loved the comic strip you drew on the back of “Between the Buttons.” In it, there is a two-faced guy who on one side complains that the Stones aren’t what they used to be, then on the other says, “Hi, Mick! Love your latest.” The hypocrisy and fawning, it seems, goes all the way back to 1967.
You forget that, funnily enough. Well, Keith might not [smiles]. I remember being turfed out of hotels, because you had long hair. Unbelievable, isn’t it? I once went on holiday with my wife to Corfu. We checked into the best hotel and went to go upstairs when the manager said, “You can’t go up there” — because of my hair. We stayed in a little farmhouse, which was much nicer. But in this day and age, in this hotel, people come through the front door in tracksuits and sign for their rooms. And I couldn’t go up the stairs because my hair was an inch too long.