Interview with Ian McDonald in Big Bang Magazine
Date Submitted: 2-Feb-2000
Submitted By: Aymeric Leroy (calyx at club-internet dot fr)
Ian McDonald interview by Aymeric Leroy, August 25th, 1999 for Big Bang Magazine
Aymeric Leroy: Let's start with an obvious question. What did you do between leaving Foreigner and the Japanese concerts with Steve Hackett in 1996?
Ian McDonald: Well. I've been living and wolking in New York, really, that`s what I've been doing. I haven't been doing that much that has sort of a high profile environment, but I've been working here, writing and doing sessions and various other things. And just basicallv living in New York, and raising my son and that sort of things. But I have put one or two small bands together and done a couple ot things, and one of them was trying to organize my solo album which I finally got a deal for.
AL: Over what period of time were the songs on the album written?
IM: Well, some of the material goes back to the late Eighties, although most of it was unfinished, I finished it up in recent years, in terms of lyrics and certain melodies and things like that that were not finished. Some ot the basic tracks were done a few years ago, and some are recent. So, probably over a ten year period, but as I say, a lot of the matenal was sort of freshened up over the last couple of years.
AL: There are lots of special guests on the album, but there are also musicians that seem to form a sort of group around you...
IM: Oh yes, I'm glad you noticed that. Steve Holley did most of the drums and Kenny Harrison did most of the bass, and these are two of my favourite players. They both live here in New York. Steve is probably best-known as being one of the drummers from Wings at one point. He played on 'Back To The Egg', I believe... He's a wonderful drummer and a very good friend, and I alwavs work with him whenever I can. Kenny has worked with a number of people including Joan Jett and a mumber of other people - Billy Squier and so forth. Again, one of my favourite bass players to work with. And when I tour with this album, if and when I tour, they will definitely be with me.
AL: You'd previously worked with most of the guest artists on the album, but not to my knowledge with either Peter Frampton or Gary Brooker. How did you meet them?
IM: Well. they're friends of mine... I've known Peter on and off. I met him actually quite a while ago, and we've never actually worked together in a professional capacity, although we did play together once or twice. And I met up again with him recently, a couple of years ago, at a concert here, and I asked him if he would like to play on my album, and he said he'd love to. I had a song that I thought was perfect for him, and he really liked it, so that worked out very well. But he's someone I've known for a while. Gary Brooker I'd worked with, I actually did a charity concert here in New York with him a Bosnian Relief concert I believe, the one that Annie Haslam organized. So I have worked with him before, and he also happens to be a very good friend of Peter Sinfield's, so it was through Peter that I've made the contacts regarding singing on this album. But again he's someone I've worked with before.
AL: When you toured with Steve Hackett, did it feel like a sort of comeback?
IM: Well, I was very happy to do this tour. That was great. I' ve always enioyed performing live, and this was a great opportunity to work with Steve Hackett and John Wetton, we'd never actually... even though we're very old friends, I've known them both for a long time, but we'd never actually worked professionally together, so this was a great opportunity. And that was a lot of fun. The only thing is, I wish the tour had been a little longer! We only did four shows... The band was just getting to be really good, then we had to pack up and go home, as it were. But that felt really good, I'd wanted to work with Steve and John for a long time, so that was great.
AL: Was it the first opportunity you had since Foreigner to play on stage?
IM: No, no, I've played on stage... I've worked here and I've done some shows here in the States. There's an annual event called the Great Amencan Guitar Show on Long Island here, and two or three times I've done a show there, including this year. I did some songs from the 'Drivers Eyes' album as well as 'In The Court of the Crimson King' and 'Long Long Way From Home', things like that, from Foreigner... No, I have played, I just haven't really done any touring under my own name, or anything like that. But I have done the odd show...
AL: You only sing a few songs on the album. Do you lack confidence in your own singing?
IM: Well... I did a fair amount of studying over the last year or so, to improve my voice, actually to work on it technically. So now I'm much more confident in my own singing. I hadn't actually intended to sing as much as I did on the album. My main reason for asking the guest vocalists to sing on the album was so that I could remain objective and approach the album from the point of view of a producer and writer. I didn't really want to sing. I thought I might do one but I ended up doing two or three anyway... It's hard to produce oneself when you're singing, so that's really the reason I wanted guest vocalists on the album, because that's the approach I'm taking. 'It's not my turn to sing', you know, as it were, but I felt, as it was my album then I should at least sing one or two. That's really the approach I was taking - the music is the thing, it's not about me as much as about the music and the album, and that being interesting.
AL: So do you see this album as mainly a showcase for yourself as a songwriter?
IM: Well, quite a bit of everything - a producer... and of course I do a lot of playing on the album, I play a number of different instruments on the album as well as singing, but the focus for me is on the album itself. So that's the approach I took, as I said. But I mean, I do a lot of playing, it's not like I don't want to diminish that, I play flute, saxophone, guitars, keyboards and all kinds of things. So I'm there in abudance, really!
AL: When it comes to plaving live, will you be the only singer?
IM: Well that's the only thing I have to work out. No, I'm sure I will ask other singers to join me. Of course it probably won't be possible to have everyone that's on the album to tour, that might be too much to ask, but I would love to... It might change with each venue, each part of the tour, or something like that... That's the only thing I have to work out, who will sing, who's available and who wants to do it, this kind of thing. I'd love for John Wetton to do some vocals, for instance, cause he gave a wonderful vocal on a very important song on the album, so I'd love to do that live with him at some point.
AL: This album is probably not as progressive as people knowing you from King Crimson would expect...
IM: Well, it depends on how you define progressive...
AL: There's no twenty-minute suite!
IM: Well, okay (laughs)... But it is a 44-minute piece of music, if you look at it that way, because I treated the album as a whole. And I wanted to make sure that it could be listened to from beginning to end with a flow and a dynamic to it, and contrasts and different moods and tempos... So in that regard it is conceived as a whole. Now, whereas it's progressive or not I don't know. To me, progressive music, the reason that came about was introducing different influences into basic rock music, the rock format of guitar-bass-drums, bringing in different influences, which is what King Crimson was, really. It had a lot of depth of experience and musical influence, that's what we put into King Crimson, that's what's underneath, incorporated into what's basically a rock'n'roll band. And to me that's what this album is, it's the same kind of thing. There are a lot of different intluences in my writing, and you wouldn't have progressive rock without pop and rock, either. You can't have one without the other. I've been influenced as much by straight ahead rock music, whether that be Chuck Berry or... whoever, the Beatles, the Stones, that was as much of an influence on me as classical music or jazz or anything else, that I might incorporate into my writing. So this is really no different. Take for instance 'I Talk To The Wind', that's a very simple folky song. It just happens to be done in a context that one might call progressive, or at a time when so-called progressive music was blossoming. So, as you can tell, I have a lot of opinions about what so-called progressive music is... Really this album, because it is introducing different styles, I think it continues to be progressive in that sense. The word progressive tends to have a limiting effect, it seems to me, these days, on what music should be. By definition, it should be open, open to different influences, which is what I still am.
AL: What struck me on first hearing the first King Crimson album was your Coltrane-influenced sax playing on 'Schizoid Man', and I remember you also played with the free jazz ensemble Centipede... Is that a part of you that has gone away?
IM: Well you know, it depends. It's still there, I mean, there's plenty of saxophone on my new album. In fact there's more than I really intended - I'm plaving on at least three tracks. But I always... Even around the time of King Crimson... I mean, I started on guitar, that's my first instrument. Then I picked up piano, and then later clarinet, flute and saxophone. So I don't see myself mainly as a saxophone player. That's just one of the instruments I play. I was always a so-called multi-instrumentalist, that's always what I've done.
AL: I read somewhere that you actually learned all these instuments in the army, where you spent five years...
IM: Yes, that's right. I spent my teenage years, unfortunately, in the army, as a bandsman, yes. A junior bandsman, and then a bandsman. So I learned to read music. I learned harmony orchestration things like that. I was taught clarinet, and from there I taught myself flute and saxophone. During that time I did have experience in lots of different musical styles, whether it be doing show tunes or classical wind quintets, little jazz groups, dance band things... as well as of course the marches and all that sort of things. I guess the good thing about that was that I was exposed to a number of different musical styles there, which I guess was a purpose to that as well.
AL: After you left King Cnmson you did an album with Michael Giles, then you turned to production. Why didn't you carry on doing albums with Michael and decided to become a producer instead?
IM: Well, I've always produced. It was just an extension of what I'd always done. In anything that I've been involved in, I've always produced. 'In The Court...', I had a large hand in the production of that album, it was a self-produced album and I had a lot to do with that. Then McDonald & Giles I produced... I just enjoy... I love making records. And I was asked by these people to produce them, and so I did it... Again, it's not that much of a departure or anything. I ended up playing a little bit on each of those albums, as I tend to do. McDonald & Giles was only intended as a kind of a one-off thing anyway. That was never going to be a band. And soon after that I moved to New York, and things changed... Actually I spent about a year and a half in Los Angeles around that time. So McDonald & Giles was not really intended to make another album, although one of these days we may get around to doing a second one.
AL: Were there no opportunities for you until Foreigner to express your creativity in terms of songwriting?
IM: I suppose you could put it that way... There is always an opportunity... I definitely moved to New York because I felt there was more oppotunity here at that time. I felt things were a little slow for me in England, and for some reason I just felt a pull... New York was pulling me over, and I just felt the need to move and to come here. And sure enough, no sooner had I arrived that we formed Foreigner, and that took off, so there was definitely a reason for that. And that was a great experience.
AL: What are your best memories of Foreigner? Playing to huge audiences?
IM: Yeah, well, that's part of it, obviously. The band was very, very big for a while. We played arenas, huge auditoriums... That was great. And making the albums too was a lot of fun. I love to make albums, and the first two were really good, I thought. But yeah. doing the shows, and all that sort of thing, was really one of the best things. Enormous audiences....And we did a round-the-world tour at one point as well, which was great. I had lots of good times with that group.
AL: Under what circumstances did you leave Foreigner?
IM: Well, it was... Mick and Lou decided they wanted to be the focus of the band. Mick wanted to make it more apparent that it was his group, so he decided to make a smaller group. That was his decision. I wouldn't have left - I loved the group, it was not my decision.
AL: Was Foreigner a creative context for you to express yourself, or was there a lot of compromise?
IM: There were certain creative compromises. There was not as much give-and-take musically as, say, something like King Crimson. It wasn't that type of band. That was geared to playing songs, that was really what it was all about. But I had a lot to do with the making of those records and the arrangements and the creating of those songs, more than is probably apparent. I did a lot that went uncredited, which I was happy to do though. When you're in a group you must contribute as much as you can. I was happy to do that. But as I said, it maybe didn't appear that I was doing as much as I in fact was. I had a lot to do with that group... as well as... Mick Jones, obviously, and everyone else - I'm not trying to take all the credit, but I'm just saying that I was there, I was involved, and I loved it.
AL: You were involved in the promotion of archive recordings by King Crimson and there's a remaster of the first album coming out this autumn...
IM: Yes, the first album was remastered, but I didn't actually have anything to do with that, I haven't actually been able to... physically be involved in any of the reissues or anything like that. But the original band did get together to promote the 'Epitaph' box which came out a couple of years ago. We all got together for that. But yes, it's the 30th anniversary of 'In The Court'...
AL: Was it a strange experience?
IM: Oh, that was great! I mean, it was actually a really good day for me, because that was actually the first time that the original group, all five of us including Peter, had been in the same room at the same time since the band broke up in San Francisco. So that was really great for me, it was really good to talk to everyone and to be together, after so long. Of course it's not the same as actually playing together. I don't know if that will ever happen, but it was the next best thing... And it was great to meet the fans and all that sort of thing. It was great, I had a really good time.
AL: Do you see King Cnmson as a sort of family, with ex-members collaborating together, etc.?
IM: Well, I suppose there's a sort of family, or a sort of brotherhood or something, I don't know. But I know that the original King Crimson - there is definitely a bond there, even now. And then of course there's the sort of extended family, as you mentioned, with John and... I suppose so, there's a sort of a loose connection there. But... I've been friends with John for many years, I just consider him a friend. It's not necessarily related to King Crimson. And the same with Steve Hackett...
AL: You mentioned the possibility of another collaboration with Michael Giles, of which we have a little taster on the album...
IM: A little taster, yes... I don't know. It's possible. Yes, there is one track on 'Drivers Eyes' that is just McDonald & Giles, just Mike and I, doing everything, which was intentional. I wanted to have one track that was sort of McDonald & Giles only. Michael is currently recording his own album, and I have played on that for him, and I'll probably be doing some more sometime soon, so I will be appearing on that. And we get together whenever I'm in London, and there is talk of doing another McDonald & Giles album, although it's not firm yet because we're still both involved in our solo albums at the moment. But it's possible. I'd really like it actually!
AL: What are your plans for live gigs? Is anything firmly planned yet?
IM: Nothing firm. I would love to tour! I'm still working on getting an American release for the album, and when that's firm - I'm talking to record companies here, that's really what I need to do. Before I can actually tour I need to make sure that the album is out on the three major markets, then I can think about doing some kind of extended tour. So I'm not sure... Obviously it's not going to be this year now, but hopefully early next year. I'd like to do some shows and of course I'd love to play in France, that goes without saying. I really look forward to that.
AL: Are you working on any other musical projects, or collaborations, at the moment?
IM: Well, I've just produced an album for an harpist by the name of Park Stickney, who appears on my album on the track 'Hawaii'. He is a wonderful jazz harpist, and I've just produced an album for him. So I would like to continue working with different people, producing. And of cource I'm thinking about my next album. I have material that I'm working on - I just have to think of what shape it will take, and what form and what type of an album it's going to be. So I'm sort of mentally working on that, while at the same time producing other people. I'm looking for other interesting players to produce...