Rolling Stones: Producer Don Was Talks about the Band’s Magical Chemistry
Rumors have swirled for months that the Rolling Stones were recording a new studio album—with much of the talk centered on speculation that the album would be an emphatic return to the Stones’ blues roots. Now, it appears certain that the talk will soon be a reality. Last week, in an interview published by the French magazine, Le Figaro, Stones producer Don Was offered tantalizing details.
“The album consists of covers of blues songs of Chicago,” said Was. “It was recorded live in the studio in just three days, with the musicians in a circle around the microphones. There was no retouching on the pieces. [That] means the battery of Charlie Watts through the microphone of Mick Jagger. The record sounds very crude, very authentic. It captures the essence of what they are.”
The producer went on to reveal that Eric Clapton sat in as a guest on a couple of sessions.
“He [Clapton] was recording his own album in the studio next door,” said Was. “He had only to cross the hall to join. Hearing them play in the studio, he had also gasped. He was still a teenager when he saw them in the clubs of Richmond in their infancy, as a fan. He borrowed one of Keith’s guitars and started playing two songs. It was exceptional enough to see.”
Word came just today (Oct. 4) that the Stones played a rousing “secret” show earlier this week at a small venue in Las Vegas. Moreover, the group’s official website offers an intriguing promise of something “Coming Oct. 6”—presumably, an announcement regarding the new album. The Stones’ magical chemistry remains a thing of wonder—especially the creative dynamic between Jagger and Richards—and few people have gotten a bird’s eye view of that chemistry quite like Don Was has. Not long ago, the producer spoke about how the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band achieves its distinctive sound.
What have you learned from watching the Stones work together?
There’s something in particular that struck me while we were making [the 2005 album] A Bigger Bang. We did most of the recording in France, and at the time I was following the NBA, on the Internet. I had also recently read Phil Jackson’s book, Secret Hoops. What started to dawn on me is how a five-piece rock and roll band is in many ways identical to a basketball team. That’s true of the Stones, especially, where you’ve got a center, and two forwards playing guitar, and guards on bass and drums. The Stones are like a superb basketball team. It’s a joy to watch [a great team] play, because of the interplay that goes on. It’s as if you reach a near-utopian condition, or a rare moment when men cooperate because they know it’s in their best interest as a group, and as individuals, to work together. Great teams are always passing the ball, and they’re extremely generous with one another. The same thing is true of the Stones, when they’re at their best.
So the idea that the chemistry between Jagger and Richards has to do with the tension between them is really a fallacy?
Well, there’s something else I discovered about the Stones. I’ve worked for them for many years now, and what I realized—especially on the last record, because they were really cooperating as a band—is that although people think of them as this sloppy, drunken rock and roll thing, it’s not sloppy. What happens is this: Keith Richards is a rhythm guitar player whose rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write their songs. The rhythm riff for “Start Me Up,” for instance, is also the melody of the song. And that’s true even in instances where Mick might have written the riff—on “Miss You,” for example.
Can you elaborate on how that’s different from the approach most rhythm guitarists take?
If the rhythm guitar player is also playing melody, that’s a pretty unique situation. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. In the Stones’ case, however, the rhythm guitar player is doing what the lead guitar player normally does, and he’s playing the melody that the singer is singing, simultaneously. However, there’s a little disparity in where they feel the phrasing. Mick is more or less a rhythmically straight up-and-down singer. He’s in the grid, whereas Keith has a more languid approach. That’s how Keith sings, as well. The place where they clash—where it gets a little messy, and they don’t land on the melody at the same time—is what the Rolling Stones’ sound is all about. It’s not messy. Basically it’s a duet—a duet of the melody, by Keith and Mick. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a Rolling Stones record.
Does the fact that many of the songs are written in open tunings have something to do with that as well?
Well, that’s given them distinctive-sounding riffs, but I think it’s really a function of having riffs that are highly musical, that make you want to sing them.
The Stones could have retired long ago. What keeps the Stones hungry to keep making music?
They’re just like every other musician, on every level. They love to play more than anything else in the world. They riff off each other. It’s like a jazz group, really. There’s not enough time to achieve that sort of thing twice, in your lifetime. That’s why they keep going on. I know for a fact that they’re not sitting there thinking, “Let’s go out on tour and make another two hundred million dollars.” They get approached by people who say, “We think you can sell tickets again. Are you willing to go out and play?” They’re actually timid about it. They’re like, “Are you sure people are going to come out? Are you sure they still want to hear this?”
Both Jagger and Richards exude great strength and charisma, as personalities. Have you noticed anything that separates artists like them from the rest of the pack?
You know, Chris Blackwell from Island Records has a theory that in the case of real stars, you should be able to draw caricatures of them—like the Al Hirschfeld New York Times caricatures. If you can’t do that, then you probably don’t have someone who’s a star. And there’s another quality about people like that—something Jagger has. It has to do with how far in front of the speakers the voice appears to go. Jagger’s voice jumps out about 20 feet in front of the speakers. You just bring the fader up, with his vocal, and you don’t have to do anything else to it. It’s some kind of gift. Mick and I have talked about this a lot. He’s aware of it, and he has no idea what it is. You can factor in something like frequency response to the voice, but it’s also some kind of crazy vocal charisma. It’s something no vocal teacher can teach.