Ian McLagan on Love, Loss, and Vintage Keyboards

An interview from the October 2014 KEYBOARD Archives.

“Making my own albums is everything to me,” legendary British keyboardist and songwriter Ian McLagan says from behind a Steinway concert grand. “Like the title of the first song on my new album, United States, says, it’s really ‘All I Wanna Do.’”

At 69 years young, McLagan is as captivated today by a sticky lyric and well-oiled Hammond organ as he was back in the 1960s and ’70s when he came to fame playing, singing, and writing with bands like Small Faces (later simply Faces) and the Rolling Stones. But unlike legions of other well-known keyboard sidemen, McLagan has also had a successful solo career since almost his very early days onstage.

United States finds the veteran rocker backed by his longtime Austin, Texas-based “Bump Band” of “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb on guitar, Jon Notarthomas on bass and Conrad Choucroun on drums. In ten blues-drenched originals, McLagan waxes poetic while coaxing killer keyboard grooves. Who knew heartache could sound so good?

On the day of his new album’s release, McLagan joined Keyboard at New York’s Steinway Hall to talk about his nearly half-century searching for the perfect song.

You’ve had a long and distinguished career as both a sideman and solo artist. Was fronting your own band always a goal?

Well here’s what happened. I was writing songs back in the Small Faces days, and I was trying to get Ronnie [Lane] and Steve [Marriott] interested. I wanted to break into the Marriott/Lane songwriting partnership, but I just couldn’t do it at that time. One day, I played Ronnie an idea for a song that came out of an expression he taught me. It turns out, when he was a small boy, his father used to take him up to bed and say, “Let’s go up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire,” meaning, “Let’s go up the stairs to bed.” I thought it was a great expression, so I wrote a song about it and presented it to Ronnie, thinking the Small Faces would cover it. But he turned to me and said, “Why don’t you sing it?” So I replied, “Okay.” Which was great! We recorded the song, and Steve was very encouraging too, so I came up with another tune as well. I actually sang two tunes on the Small Faces albums. A little later on, I actually did break into their songwriting partnership. We all took a cruise vacation up the Thames, and I ended up having the biggest boat out of anyone. So when we would stop for lunch, everyone would come on my boat and we’d all play guitars. So at that point, they couldn’t deny me because I was writing with them! Years later, after the Faces, I got back with Steve, Ronnie and Kenny [Jones], and we decided we’d make an album. I started writing with Steve, because he and Ronnie had fallen out with each other. When we went into the studio to record, Ronnie quit. He didn’t want to work with Steve anymore. But for two albums, Steve and I were writing most of the material for the band. That gave me a lot of confidence.

Had you ever sung before Small Faces?

Well, only on the B side of [McLagan’s first band] the Muleskinners’ only release, but it wasn’t very good. I was trying to sing like a bluesman. I was pretty hopeless!

Later when the Faces formed, we had Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane, and Ronnie Wood, and all of them were singing. Rod would write so fast that a song would get recorded in a single day. One time, though, I was sitting at the piano, playing a sort ofMemphis-ish piano riff, and Rod started singing the lyrics, “Oh Cindy, ain’t you noticed . . .” That became the song “Cindy Incidentally” from the Faces album Ooh La La. Rod, Ronnie Wood, and myself wrote that song from my original idea. But I never sang because there were already three singers in the band.

It’s interesting, though, because both you and Rod [Stewart] have very similar singing voices.

People often say that, but I don’t try to sing like him at all. I have the voice of a 25-year smoker. I stopped smoking 31 years ago. But I think Rod I just listened to the same musicians when we were coming up. Rod’s more into Sam Cooke though, and I’m more into Otis Redding.

What happened after Small Faces and Faces?

I got asked to do a Rolling Stones tour in 1978, playing organ, Wurlitzer and the occasional piano part, because Ian Stewart was playing piano in the band at that time. I ended up collecting a lot of money from that tour and I started having trouble with the taxman in England. My new manager, who was also Ronnie Wood’s, said I had to move to Los Angeles for business purposes. I said, “Fine, I want to get out of London anyway!” My lawyer told me that I could get a green card if I married my then girlfriend Kim, who had previously been married to [Who drummer] Keith Moon. I proposed to her, and we were together 33 years. She was the love of my life. After I got to Los Angeles, my manager got me a deal with Mercury Records. I wrote everything on that first solo album and the next one. I wanted to write. I wasn’t thinking of genres or styles; I had the bug and nothing was going to get in my way.

Does making your own albums fulfill something in you that playing or touring with other artists doesn’t?

Totally. If I could get away from doing sessions for other people, I would. Unless it’s for an artist like Lucinda Williams, whose album I just played on earlier this year. She’s unbelievable and that was a lot of fun. But the sessions and royalties give me money that allows me to make the records and tours with my band.

Did you write songs specifically for the album, or was it a collection of tunes you assembled over the years?

I’m constantly writing. I was driving past a Mexican restaurant last week and I said to my friend in the car, “I know that restaurant―I wrote a song in there!” But I’m always writing. In fact, I just did 13 interviews in an hour for Premiere Radio. It’s really odd―you’ll be talking to a DJ in Pittsburgh for 10 minutes, and then you’re talking to someone in Terre Haute, Indiana, or Seattle, Washington. So I did 13 of these one after another, and something I said stood out to me and I thought, “I’ve got to write that down!” I ended up getting five or six lines for a song out of it, while I was talking live on the radio! Plus, I now have the facility with the iPhone Voice Memos app to put a vocal, guitar, or piano idea down, and I can put lyrics in the Notes app. But the second song on the album, “Pure Gold,” I’ve had for about 23 years.

That one’s got a great reggae-ish feel to it. Have you listened to a lot of reggae?

To me it’s really more African. I wrote it on guitar, and I actually played one of the guitar parts on the album. I tried to record it with different bands over the years, but nobody ever “got it,” until my current band with Conrad, Scrappy, and John. That said, I did listen to a lot of reggae. When I did the Stones tour in 1978, they were going to get Peter Tosh’s keyboard player Bernard “Touter” Harvey because the whole band loves reggae, especially Keith Richards. But in the end, they realized it would have been harder to teach Bernard rock ’n’ roll, than it was to teach me a little reggae feel―but then we didn’t play any reggae at all.

You’ve said that the new album is about relationships. Can you elaborate on that?

The cover of the album is a photo of a motel I took from my car on an iPhone, and there’s an arrow in the picture that is almost trying to lead you inside. My last album was all about grief and loss. [That album, Never Say Never, was released in 2008 and followed the death of McLagan’s wife, Kim, in a car accident.] This album is still about loss, but it’s really about relationships―from failed ones to ongoing, hopeful ones. That’s why it’s called United States.

The first song on the album,“All I Wanna Do,” has lots of gritty Wurlitzer on it. Is that a real Wurly or an emulation?

It’s the Nord Stage on this track. I have an old, wooden flat-top [100 series] Wurlitzer like Ray Charles used, but it’s the home version. I’ve only seen three of these in my entire life, so I just had to buy it. But there’s a broken E key on it, and we had no time to fix it before we cut that song. So we used the Nord. But I love the Wurlitzer. One of the highlights of my career was playing it on tour with the Rolling Stones, and on the track “Miss You” that I recorded with them on their album Some Girls.

That song also has a ton of churchy organ. How did you first get introduced to the Hammond B-3?

Booker T. Jones. I heard “Green Onions” and I just had to find out what that sound was and how to make it. Booker T.’s my total god when it comes to the organ. He’s a beautiful player and a lovely man, too.

Did you go out and buy a Hammond organ after you heard Booker T. play it?

I saw an ad in the back pages of Melody Maker magazine that said, “Hammond Organ In Your Own Home, Two Weeks Free Approval, No Charge.” I thought, “This has to be a con.” So I phoned up and asked, “Is this true?” And the man at the other end said, “Yes sir, and we can deliver it tomorrow.” I said, “Okay!” I hadn’t even told my parents. I was still living at home with them at the time and they were still at work. So they delivered it and said, “The one thing is, you can’t move it.” That was fine―I couldn’t lift it anyway!

Do you remember what model Hammond organ it was?

It was an L-102. They brought it in and explained the particulars to my dad, who then explained it to my mum. And two weeks later, he signed the papers for it. Then I put “Green Onions” on the record player and figured it out.

Are you touring with a real B-3 or a modern clone these days?

It’s a real Hammond B-3. It’s the organ that’s on the song “All I Wanna Do” and it’s really a beast.I would never take a real Wurlitzer on the road; it’s just too much work, and they’re heavy. I was using the Nord Stage for other keyboard sounds besides organ, but now I’m using the Yamaha CP4 because the Nord action is a little light for me for piano.

You see, to favor a thick Hammond sound on record . . .

Well, when I’m playing it with the band, it’s got to be that way. But I actually love the sweet sounds that you can get out of an organ. The organ on first song from United States “All I Wanna Do” comes from “Betsy,” my old road dog of a B-3. The organ sound on “Pure Gold,” though, comes from a 1946 Hammond BCV organ. It’s a thing of beauty. The Leslie for that organ only has two speeds: stop and fast.

On that topic, do you have any favorite Hammond drawbar settings?

I like a lot of the softer sounds―oftentimes just the first and third drawbars out, with some of the top ones whispering a bit as well. Plus, my Leslie has both a hand switch and a foot switch. So I can get different sounds going.

The song “Don’t Say Nothing” has a bit of a Leon Russell feel with regards to the piano part.

That’s a great compliment. It wasn’t intentional. I think that song was inspired by a late-night jam I had with Billy Preston years ago in Los Angeles. He was playing piano and I was playing organ. He yelled out to me, “Switch over!” I said to him, “I’ve always had the idea to write a song with an ascending figure based on A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.” And so we wrote one. “Don’t Say Nothing” is just the opposite, descending chromatically with every other note accented.

The sentiment in the song is great advice for life.

Isn’t it? I love it; it just came to me. It basically means, “If you ain’t got nothing good to say, shut the f*** up!”

That song has an almost classical feel to it. Did you study piano formally at all?

I had two or three lessons. My mum wanted me to do it. I just didn’t like it. I still don’t know how to play the scales!

“I’m Your Baby Now” has a barking, bluesy right-hand piano line with octaves in the bass. Who were some piano players that influenced you when you were coming up?

Otis Spann, who played with Muddy Waters, and Johnnie Johnson, who played with Chuck Berry. Those two were absolutely the main guys for me. If anyonewants to start playing blues piano, they could listen to those two and not miss anything! I saw Otis play with Muddy in London around 1963 or ’64. Forty-odd years later I was on that same stage, and I positioned my piano right where his was. Then I gave myself a little wink. [Laughs.]

“I’m Your Baby Now” also has a vibey, John Lennon-esque, slapback echo on your vocal. How did you get that sound?

That’s actually the combination of the original live vocal together with another vocal I recorded after it. I didn’t want to change it, so it’s a double vocal, where I’m not exactly singing the same phrases. Glyn Johns wasn’t so sure about it, but I said, “No, it’s got to be that!”

That song has a mantra, like you’re willing somebody to fall in love with you by repeating the chorus over and over again.

That’s exactly what I was doing in that song. I actually wrote it on guitar, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the timing right. So I recorded it to a click and realized I was playing it three different ways. I was playing in 15 on the guitar, in 13 on the piano, and in 16 on the drums. So I thought, “Well, it feels natural to me on piano in 13. So that’ll be the song!”

On “Love Letter,” your Hammond would be recognizably you even without the vocal . . .

That song uses the Hammond BCV again. I just love how sweet that organ sounds. It’s fun―I had worked on the intro, the solo, and the outro for a couple of days. I kept going back to it, and I was working so hard to get the song right, I actually bruised the bones of my hands in two places and wasn’t even aware of it. Only then did I realize that the sides of the BCV’s keys are sharper than those on a piano. I also have a B-2 that’s in my storage facility. If I won the lottery or had a hit record, I know what I’d spend my money on: pianos, organs, mics, and reel-to-reel 24-track tape machines!

Your new album was mixed by the legendary British producer and engineer Glyn Johns, who also just produced Benmont Tench’s solo album. What can you say about Glyn’s work?

He’s direct; he never second-guesses himself, and he’s absolutely confident. And he knows sound. He has great ears. When he mixed my last album, it took three days for him to mix the entire album. I treasured that time with him in London. But it was loud as f***! I haven’t heard volume like that in years!

You’ve called your song “Shalalala” a thank-you to the audience. How did that one come about?

A friend of mine who teaches at Austin Community College―I now live in Austin, Texas―invited me to perform in front of his students there. The night before the concert, I thought to myself about how it was going to go, and the words, “It’s a big thrill to be here today” just came out. So the next day, I told them, “I wrote a song for you!” All I had at that point was a verse, but they liked it. So I went home and worked on it, and the next year when I returned to play another show, I played them the finished song. So it’s true. I am thankful to still be doing this.

What advice do you have for the next generation of keyboardists?

Listen to the greats. Listen to Otis Spann, Booker T., Billy Preston, and Johnnie Johnson. Listen to Memphis Slim, and how Louis Armstrong and Little Walter sing. And as a keyboardist in a band, always be aware of what the other musicians are playing and don’t get in the way of it. Benmont Tench, Tom Petty keyboard player, is the classic example of that. There are times you don’t know exactly what he’s playing, but you know it’s good because if you take it away, the energy dies. I’m also not big on solos; I do take them, but I’m happy when they’re over! You’ve got to earn them.

McLagan’s Keyboard Collection

While Ian McLagan’s childhood Hammond L-102 now resides at ex-Small Faces/Faces and Who drummer Kenny Jones’ house in England, McLagan has assembled an impressive array of keyboards in his Austin, Texas studio, where he records to Pro Tools.

“My main ‘road dog’ organ is painted purple and I call her Betsy,” McLagan says. “She’s a 1966 Hammond B-3 that has been with me since 1969. I also have a sweet-sounding 1946 Hammond BCV organ with a Leslie speaker, as well as a Hammond B-2 that’s in storage while I try to find a Leslie for it.”

McLagan also uses a Hohner Pianet/Clavinet Duo, an 1897 Bechstein grand piano, a 100 Series “flat top” Wurlitzer, a Nord Stage, and a Yamaha CP4 digital stage piano. One keyboard you won’t find in his collection, though, is a Fender Rhodes.

“I don’t like the Rhodes,” McLagan says. “I’ve never used them. I played a good one in the studio recently and it was actually the first time that I was going to record with one. And then someone said, “Well, maybe use the Wurlitzer instead.” And I thought, “Thank God for that!”