When he left The Beatles, Paul McCartney retreated to a country house with his wife, kids and personal recording equipment to produce McCartney I—an album of odes to “home, family and love.” No longer a Beatle, Paul was free to indulge his sweet tooth, which he did with saccharine classics like “My Love,” and “Silly Love Songs.”
By the mid ’80s, Paul’s sugar had turned to sap. A string of lackluster albums eroded his fan base to the point that his recent output—including the Beatlesque Flaming Pie and a fine collection of 1950s standards—has largely been ignored. Undeterred, McCartney has continued to explore, embarking on his ambitious Standing Stone concerto and releasing ambient techno mixes under his Fireman moniker.
Though they may not be as groundbreaking as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or have the same nostalgic appeal as Rubber Soul, McCartney insists these new records are all part of the same trip. “It’s like sort of stepping on a train,” he tells Paste. “I don’t worry about other trains I’ve been on, just this new train, and that’s exciting. You just have to realize that perhaps you can’t always have as great a journey as you had in the past.”
McCartney’s 20th post-Beatles release, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard feels like an extension of the Flaming Pie sessions. Although he plays most of the instruments himself, the record has a very tight, live feel—like Mac’s band has set up to jam in your living room. The music feels fresher than any recent McCartney release, especially the parts where this “one man band” loosens up for some unexpected freeform meandering—like on the coda of “How Kind of You” or the loose, instrumental rocker that closes the album.
When we caught up with Sir Paul, he was mixing a companion DVD to be included with the new Chaos and Creation release. “These days, the record company wants a DVD to go with the CD,” he says. “So we’ve got a little digital editing suite set up downstairs and are cutting away.”
PASTE: I’m hearing echoes of some of your earlier solo albums in a lot of bands now. Are you aware of some of the bands, like those in the Elephant Six Collective, who seem to have a bit of a Wings flair?
PAUL: Well… when we did Live 8 the other day, Bono was chatting with me in the trailer and he said [switching to a thick Irish accent] ‘you know, it’s the hippest thing this year, man. Wings. All your early stuff. That’s what the young bands are listening to.’
I am getting more and more feedback from people who I suspect were very young when those albums came out and remember them with the same sort of nostalgia I would remember an early Elvis record. It’s always kind of a cool thing to find a whole area that’s not picked over. We used to do that a lot when we would do covers. We’d look over every Bo Diddley b-side and find songs like “Crackin’ Up” and stuff.
And so I think it’s really gratifying to find that younger bands are looking back at those albums that weren’t supposed to be any good, but now have something. There is a style to them, which is sort of a hippie simplicity. I don’t know what you’d call it. But there is something that kind of resonates at this point in time, somehow.
Well, I think that vibe could be called lo-fi. There’s been a huge lo-fi movement, and it could be argued that your first post-Beatles album McCartney I—which was recorded and mixed at your house—was one of the first big lo-fi records of its day.
Yeah, I knew what I was doing there was exciting. It’s interesting now that people from this hi-tech perspective are looking back at something like that with some kind of respect. Now it’s even more exciting to say ‘you know… I plugged my mic straight into the back of the Studer 4-track machine to make that recording. And then I just put my mic somewhere near the drums and drummed. And if the hi hat was too loud I moved the mic away from the hi hat. And that’s how those things were made. Absolutely minimum fi.
One band you get compared to is XTC. “English Tea” from your new album, sounds almost like something Andy Partridge would’ve done. Do you listen to XTC, and are you influenced by their work?
Yeah, I listen to XTC and did a little bit of work with one of the guys once, but I wouldn’t see the connection. I don’t know anything of theirs that’s like “English Tea.” To me, it’s more like Noel Coward. Do you know Noel Coward?
He’s a very British film star, sort of a famous gay gentleman from the 1930s—a very old, black-and-white-film star. Anyway, he’s who I was thinking of when I sort of wrote the song.
In England if we say ‘do you want a cup of tea?’ there’s one kind of tea that everyone will give you, and we don’t know what it is. We don’t know if it’s dodgy, it’s just a cup of tea. But when you go abroad, they say ‘what kind of tea do you want? Do you want Earl Grey tea? English Breakfast tea? Darjeeling tea? Lemon tea? Honey tea? Chamomile tea?’ You go ‘gosh… stop! I just want a cup of tea!’
I was playing with this idea, which is kind of amusing for someone British, that there is such a thing as English tea, and it just made me think of English country gardens and people I know who are sort of upper class and who have a completely different vocabulary. Instead of saying ‘do you want a cup of tea?’ they’d say ‘would you care to take a cup of tea?’ It’s a parody of upper class speech. Instead of saying ‘usually the church bells chime,’ I’d use a phrase like ‘as a rule the church bells chime.’
And that’s got to be the only song that anyone has ever worked in the word ‘paraventure.’ Nobody knows what that word means. I do because I’ve read a lot of Charles Dickens. I still read a lot of Dickens, actually. His language is very old-fashioned. ‘Paraventure’ means ‘perhaps.’ But it’s a really fruity word that is not in usage any more. So I was sort of proud of myself for working that one in. There’s got to be a Guinness book record in that. The award for the man with the most unknown word. Ever.
I saw a recent interview on AOL where you cited the influence Bob Dylan and some of The Beatles’ contemporaries had on you in the early days… how they pushed you ahead to try new things. What artists fill that role for you today?
There are certain people I kind of listen to, and I think I’m going to kind of move in that direction. What happened on the new album is the producer, Nigel Godrich, persuaded me not to do it. I was talking to him about people like Nitin Sawhney, who is kind of a British Asian guy with Indian family heritage, but he’s bought up in Britain and influenced by hip-hop. So it’s a great fusion thing that I’m influenced by. I like that sort of dance-groove thing. I like Indian music and vocalizing, but I also like soul and stuff. He kind of mixes it all. I did send one of those CDs to Nigel saying ‘I think this stuff is really cool,’ not knowing at the time quite who Nigel was, or what kind of person he was. And he resisted it. But it’s a subliminal influence in my own mind. It doesn’t actually find its way onto the record really, except maybe one or two tracks, but they’re not actually on the album, except maybe as special b-sides.
In the end, Nigel had a fairly clear direction as to where he wanted to go. He wanted to keep it really simple, really straight, really direct and very me instead of ‘let’s get modern, let’s get gimmicky’ or ‘let’s do this because it’s the latest groove.’ He tended to resist all of that while he was producing and I went along with that, and I’m glad we did, in the end.
Well, I’m glad. In the ’80s it seemed like you maybe went too far tracking the hot trends, working with Michael Jackson and things like that, when what people really wanted to hear was you. They wanted less-slick production and more focus on songcraft.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly what Nigel said in the beginning before we even started working together and I said ‘you know what? That could be true.’
I told him I wanted to make a great record and I then said ‘scratch that. I’m going to make a great record,’ and Nigel said ‘that’s exactly what I want to make.’ I want to make an album that’s you—that’s what people want to hear.’ That became the focus. So much so that I was actually considering recording this with my live band, whom I love, but Nigel felt that might get a bit safe. So he said ‘no, I’d like to hear you play some drums on this, I’d like to hear you play a bit of little electric guitar here…’ jobs that would normally go to Abe and Rusty. So I said ‘OK, OK. Let’s try it.’ I talked to the band and said, ‘look, this is the way he wants to go guys,’ and they were very understanding. They said ‘whatever it takes to make the record, go make it. We’ll play it live with you.’ So that’s how it turned out. It was really back to basics.
This record takes almost the same approach you took with McCartney I and McCartney II. Why not just call it McCartney III?
This was a surprise direction for us. None of us intended to go that way, I don’t think even Nigel did. The first week we worked with the band, second week he said, “you try the drums, you try the tambourine.” Halfway through that week he said “this is the way I want to go.” And so it was, outside of a couple of other fine musicians like James Gadson on drums and Joey Waronker and Jason Falkner, it’s pretty much all me. Except for the strings and specialized instruments.
We wanted to take an organic approach. On McCartney I and McCartney II, I knew exactly that I was going to play all the instruments because I just didn’t ring anyone. This [new album] developed into that, so there was a slightly different approach. So it’s an extension of that idea. It is interesting because it’s always a different feel when I play drums and bass. I sort of know where the musicians are going because they’re me!
A lot of people say John Lennon’s death jolted you to make the album that came just after McCartney II … one that’s widely regarded as one of your best post-Beatles albums, Tug of War. Is that true? And if so… what jolted the brilliance of Flowers in the Dirt and Flaming Pie?
I think that must have had a lot to do with it. It put me in a different place, obviously. It’s one of those things. Like everyone else, you couldn’t not think about it, no matter how hard you tried. It was a fact, and no matter how much you wanted to change it, you couldn’t.
I’m never very conscious about what affects me. I’m not a great analyst of my stuff. It’s only when someone asks a question like this. You know, Peter Ustinov used to say he loved to do interviews, because it helped him know what he was thinking. It is a bit like going to a psychiatrist. ‘Did… John’s… death… have… an… effect… on… my… writing?’ I’m sure it did. But I wasn’t very conscious of it.
I did a song “Here Today,” and that was very consciously thinking about John. That was kind of a conversation with John. I think the emotional depth of “Tug of War,” the song itself, I’m sure it was related to John’s death. [But] I didn’t go, “Right, I’m going to sit down and write about this tragedy, and that’s how this album will feel.”
As for Flowers and Flaming Pie, who knows? I never know. I’d have to say in the case of those two … working with Elvis Costello—that had a lot to do with Flowers in the Dirt. That was a great time for me, and I’d have to credit him for that. It was sort of a reawakening. And Jeff Lynne on Flaming Pie—I was working very closely with Jeff on that. That’s very much part of it. If you’re working with someone good, that really helps. Being with them and working with them put me in a better mind.
Were you familiar with the work Nigel had done with Travis, Beck and Radiohead before he worked with you?
I had the Radiohead albums. I knew Travis a bit from a show I did with them and the guys sent me The Invisible Band, so I knew those albums. And I’d heard some of the Beck stuff on radio and inquired as to who had made that record. I found out the factor in common was Nigel—and he’s very common, believe me (laughs).
I think Radiohead is a great band, but the thing that struck me the most in the context of what I wanted to do with this record was the sound. I thought, ‘this really sounds good. The instruments sound great. They’re presented perfectly. There’s not any gimmickry.’ It sounds new, but when you examine it, it’s actually pretty straightforward. Nigel’s production style, I realized, was pretty straightforward.
Once I started talking to him I realized he’d come up as an engineer, so he was actually the guy who got the sounds on the deck, as well as being the production head, so that was pretty exciting to me, because I’m impressed if someone gets a great drum sound. It’s not easy. We used to have great engineers with The Beatles, but if we ever worked with engineers we weren’t familiar with, Ringo would set up a great sound on the drums and you’d go in the control room and it wouldn’t sound anywhere near as impressive and you’d think, “what happened down that wire, between the drum kit and the control room?” A great engineer will make them sound even better. And not everyone can do that, so when I first heard his drum sound that he got, I thought, “OK, OK, this cat’s good!”
Did you ever listen to John, George or Ringo’s solo records and think ‘I wonder what that would’ve sounded like had it been a Beatles album?’
Oh yeah. Of course. I think we all used to do that, from talking to them; it was kind of a natural thing. I would listen to the bass playing particularly and think, “I could have done that.” And I hate to say, but the bass player who played it probably thought that as well—a little bit intimidating. And guitarists who would work with me, you know, would have to be thinking of John and George.
On Flaming Pie, there’s a track called “Calico Skies” in which you pray that you’ll never be called to carry the weapons you despise, yet in “Freedom,” which you put on your next album Driving Rain, you say you will fight for freedom. Some people see a disconnect with that. Is there?
“Freedom” was written post-9/11. Immediately post-9/11. And I wasn’t talking of a military response. I meant it like it’s civil rights. I will fight for the right, I meant. I’ll argue, I’ll shout, I’ll complain, I’ll vote. I don’t mean I’ll punch you in the face … but unfortunately that kind of meaning did get a little hijacked. I think President Bush had a lot to do with that. He talks about freedom, but it’s not the same kind of freedom I’m talking about.
Actually, it’s so unfortunate because it’s like … I’m not sure I’m going to do that song on my new tour, but I’d love to because I know what it means. But there is this doubt now as to how it will be taken. Is this just supporting any future military effort in Britain or the U.S.? That, I think, clouds the original meaning. When you sing “we shall overcome,” you don’t mean “we will overpower.”
How do you feel about what’s happened since 9/11? I know you were very moved by the event, having been in New York City at the time of the attacks and organizing a charity concert afterward.
I’m not a great supporter of what’s happened. Like a lot of people I wanted someone to blame because it was such a horrendous happening, 9/11. What would have been perfect was someone to just find the perpetrators, bring them to justice and that’s that. Unfortunately, nobody’s been able to find the perpetrator, so I felt it was a little like standing in the middle of the playground and swinging out at whoever was nearest. ‘Right, he looks a bit like him. Let’s get him!’ And I think you have to be a little bit cynical that it was an oil country. Man, are we that hooked on fossil fuels? There’s a lot of subtext to this that I’m just not comfortable with.
Having said that, I have a young second cousin who’s serving out there. And so, you know, he’s not to blame. And so I support him because I love him. He’s a great kid doing a great job. And, God—he’s as brave as they come. But it’s a difficult call.
On the new album’s opening track, you claim there’s a ‘fine line between chaos and creation’—is that a comment on the current world situation?
No. It isn’t, really. Like most of my stuff, it’s kind of general. It’s directed to anyone who doesn’t know the difference between recklessness and courage. And there’s a lot of people who don’t, but it’s not any one particular person. I might start off seeing someone who’s being reckless and the thought will occur to me, ‘You think you’re courageous jumping off a cliff, but it’s actually quite reckless.’ So the thought will come into my mind and it just gives me a theme for a song. Then I just follow the whole idea so it’s really an idea rather than a person. If you don’t know the difference between chaos and creation or recklessness and courage, you’re in trouble. It’s really trying to suggest to people to be careful. Choose wisely.
The nice thing about songs is you can apply them to anything. If you play that song over a film of political leaders, that’s exactly what it will seem like. If you play that song over a bunch of people who enjoy extreme sports, that will also apply. If you apply it to people who strap on wings and jump off bridges it applies to that. I like that. I like the fact that I write stuff that you can extract your own meaning [from]. It means that a lot of people get something from it, but not necessarily the same meaning.
George Harrison passed away in 2002. I know it might be private, but how did his death affect you personally, and how did it affect your music?
It is private … but George’s passing saddened us all, especially those of us who knew him for a long time. In my case, I knew him longer than any of the other Beatles because he was just the little guy who used to get on my bus the stop after me. What I find happens is, I stop and think, ‘oh gosh … from that day when he first got on my bus to everything we went through, to his passing, it’s a complete cycle.’ And unfortunately, it’s a cycle that’s ended, in this world, anyway. And it’s very saddening.
His last moments were very George. Very sad, because obviously he was very ill, but true to form he still had his sense of humor. He was a funny guy, it was all still there. And, of course, he had huge spiritual beliefs, so I think that really helped him. It’s sad not to have him here, [to] not be able to ring him, to be able to call him up. It’s sad to know I’m not going to be able to walk into the same room as him, but at the same time, to looking back at our memories—my memories of him—it’s just so warm and emotional. The time we hitchhiked to Wales together, the times we’d sit in cafes playing the jukebox together, the time we played Shea Stadium together…
From Shea Stadium to Sgt. Pepper, you’ve accomplished much. Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to?
There’s lots. I can never think of it to lay it out. At the moment I’m just finishing up something I’ll record next year, which is a choral piece, and that’s quite a lengthy piece—like 45 minutes. There’s a lot of stuff like that. I’ve got an idea for a guitar concerto—another orchestral thing. But I don’t know when I’m ever going to find time for all of this.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I’d like people to think I was… sensational. And that I was a damn good bass player and that I was a damn good singer and a damn good writer, and I’d like them to wrap that all up in a little ball and swallow it.