Ian Hunter talks Mott The Hoople and staying on the periphery
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The artist: As a member of Mott The Hoople, Ian Hunter was one of the poster boys for ’70s rock and glam, thanks to songs like “All The Young Dudes” and “Roll Away The Stone,” but when the band began to crumble, Hunter quickly established himself as a solo artist via his self-titled debut album and its hit single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” Thirty-seven years later, Hunter continues to record and release new material on a regular basis. His 13th studio effort, When I’m President, is available now.
Ian Hunter & The Rant Band, “When I’m President” (from 2012’s When I’m President)
Ian Hunter: That’s me in a bar sounding off, just like millions of others. I mean, the last line says it all. (“When I’m president / Pigs are gonna fly / Look at ’em!”) It’s just a bit of fun. Basically, I’m right down the middle when it comes to politics: I have Republican leanings, but they’re kind of taken away by the Republicans. [Laughs.] Republicanism, I think, is admirable, but, boy, you pick some people. They’re like second-hand car dealers.
The A.V. Club: It’s been a couple of years since your last album, 2009’s Man Overboard. What did it take to get you back into the studio?
IH: A tour with the band. My band. The Rant Band. It came together really, really tight. It seemed like people were playing with me rather than for me. So we thought we’d go in and have a go. It was quick, and it was sweet. Power and passion, that’s what we were looking for. The Rant Band has been around since the Rant album in 2001. There’s been about nine of them, and there’s five of them on stage at any given time. It’s kind of like the cream of New York guys. The drummer [Steve Holly] has been with me all the way. The rest of them… [James] Mastro’s been with me all the time as well. I think I’ve had three bass players. But it’s been set on this lineup for three or four years, and it’s sounding really good, so why not go for it?
AVC: How long did it take to knock this album out, then?
IH: Doing the album with the band took four days. Then Andy York—who’s my co-producer—and me, we went back in and we did some harmonies and a bit of editing, a bit of color. Most of it was live, though. Either first or second take on all songs. I can’t remember a third take, in fact. They’re a good band. They do their homework. We only rehearse for one day before we go out. Most bands rehearse for weeks; we rehearse for one day and that’s it.
AVC: That helps keep the performances pretty loose, presumably.
IH: Yeah. And it’s cheap. [Laughs.]
The Scenery, “To Make A Man Cry” (1966 single)
IH: Oh, God. [Laughs.] Geez. That was Miller Anderson, I remember, a good old mate of mine who’s still going and doing well. He’s a guitar player and singer. That’s when I first went to London that I met Miller Anderson, and we used to go ’round to all the auditions together. But we didn’t really want to join a band. We wanted people to join us. I can’t actually remember the song itself, but we must’ve gone in there and done it in three hours or whatever it was. There was no money around then, you know.
AVC: Was that your first time in a studio?
IH: I’ve no idea. But you’re definitely in the right neighborhood. [Laughs.]
Mott The Hoople, “Backsliding Fearlessly” (from 1969’s Mott The Hoople)
IH: Guy Stevens comes to mind immediately. Guy gave us all these amazing titles, like Brain Capers and “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” all this kind of stuff. Guy was big on names. He gave Mott The Hoople their name. And he also gave Procol Harum their name. That was off his cat’s pedigree. [Laughs.] He just had a thing about names. When he said “Mott The Hoople,” I nearly died. I was like, “That’s nothing like anything else!”
AVC: “Backsliding Fearlessly” appears to have been one of your first solo compositions.
IH: I don’t know. Did I write that?
IH: Okay. [Laughs.] That sounds like a band one. It might say that I wrote it, but if I did, I think I probably wrote it with somebody else. I think the first one I wrote with Mott was a song called “Half Moon Bay.”
AVC: So how did Mott first come together as a band?
IH: It was at a place called Regent Sound, in Denmark Street in London. They were auditioning and wanted a singer/pianist, and I used to go in there and do demos. So after they finished with all their auditions, the guy who ran the place, a guy called Bill Farley, rang me up and said, “Look, they’re looking for a singer and a piano player, which you’re not.” [Laughs.] “But they’ve tried everybody and they don’t like them.” So I went down there—I was a bass player at that point, but I played a bit of piano, so I did “Laugh At Me,” by Sonny Bono. They all kind of perked up at that a bit. But then I went and ruined it by playing a bass thing that I’d figured out, which horrified them. In the end, they had me in with, like, a “he’ll do for now” kind of thing. The band didn’t really like me at all. By the time Guy didn’t like me, though, the band did. So it was nine months of backwards and forwards. But I was desperate, because I knew this was the only chance I’d ever get.
AVC: You mentioned that you’d been doing demos prior to that. Were you working with Mickie Most at that point?
IH: Well, I knew Mickie Most. He was in an office above Peter Grant in Oxford Street. They were on about doing a Yardbirds reunion, and there were three or four bands on the go that were going to travel the Midwest because no one in the Midwest had seen The Yardbirds. [Laughs.] So we would be The Yardbirds, and Mickie liked the band, but then Peter put the kibosh on it when he came back and decided that he didn’t want to do it at all. So we were on wages with Mickie for a couple of months, and then it all just collapsed.
AVC: And then Mott The Hoople formed after that?
IH: Thereabouts. I was going to Germany and stuff like that, Hamburg and the Star Club, with a guy named Freddie “Fingers” Lee, playing bass with Billy Fury. It was all in that period. I’d lived in the sticks up to that point, but I hadn’t lived in London. Really, you have to live in London before you get a shot.
Mott The Hoople, “Walkin’ With A Mountain” (from 1970’s Mad Shadows)
IH: That was written in about five minutes. [Laughs.] It was! Because there were no fast songs on Mad Shadows. It was a very dismal affair. And we stood in Olympic Bar, and Guy said, “We need a rocker.” So I immediately launched into this two-chord thing which I thought was pretty obvious, and Guy was like, “Yeah, yeah, this is great!” So that was that. And [Mick] Jagger was next door with the Stones, and he popped in and started jumping about.
AVC: The oft-reported but unconfirmed story is that Jagger contributed backing vocals to the song.
IH: I can’t remember. But I know he came in, because I remember him dancing in the control room. Which was great for us, because he was huge and we were a little tiny band. It spurred us on to greater depths.
Mott The Hoople, “Original Mixed-Up Kid” (from 1971’s Wildlife)
IH: That whole thing was bittersweet, because my first wife didn’t want anything to do with all this rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, so that was going down the crapper. And there was a couple of children involved, so it wasn’t much fun at all, you know? I think “Original Mixed-Up Kid” was probably written right around that same time, right in the middle of that whole mess. Terrible thing.
Wildlife had been Mick Ralphs saying, “Look, this is stupid, we can’t go on with this madness of Mad Shadows and stuff like this.” So, really, Wildlife was more Mick’s idea of what we should be. And then when that didn’t work, we launched back into what Guy Stevens thought we should be, which was basically a bunch of maniacs.
Mott The Hoople, “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” (from 1971’s Brain Capers)
IH: As I said, that was a Guy title. I wrote the words to the song, but the title was all his. It’s an okay song. It sounds like a band track to me, though, rather than one of mine. It doesn’t sound like me; it sounds like we all pitched in. We used to all come in with riffs. It was pretty democratic that way. Mott was pretty good musically. It was pretty unselfish. It was like, “Yeah, that’s great, put that in instead of mine,” which was really nice.
Mott The Hoople, “All The Young Dudes” (from 1972’s All The Young Dudes)
IH: A song from David Bowie, of course.
AVC: Is it true that he actually offered the band “Suffragette City” first?
IH: Yeah. Well, we’d had three stiff singles, so radio was close to us, and we knew that the only shot we had would be with something special. And we didn’t think “Suffragette City” was special. We thought it was okay, but… then he gave us “Dudes.” And I thought, “What are you giving that away for?” But he’d run it into the ground. He’d done a version of it and… the story went at the time that he just gave it to us and we did it, but, really, there was a version that he did in a key, which was lower, with a lot of alto on it. I just think he’d got it all wrong, and with us it got a breath of fresh air. He loved Verden Allen’s organ playing. He spent a lot of time with Alley.
AVC: At one point, Bowie kind of huffily announced that the song wasn’t supposed to be a glam anthem, but it certainly ended up as one.
IH: We don’t know what it was. We just sat there and listened to it and knew it was a hit. And I also thought… I mean, I have a peculiar kind of voice, and I thought, “Yeah, I can do that. That’s no problem.” It’s still not a problem to this day. It’s a great song.
AVC: Has it ever been annoying that Mott’s biggest hit was one that wasn’t written by the band?
IH: Well, at the time, of course, the press went, “Well, yeah, but it’s somebody else’s, they can’t do it on their own,” that kind of thing. So after “Dudes,” there was nine months of Mick [Ralphs] and I desperately trying to write a hit, so we’d become us rather than David’s also-rans or something. So that was panic station. But finally I managed to come up with a couple, which pissed Mick off. But if he’d come up with a couple, it would’ve pissed me off. [Laughs.] Do you know what I mean? Something was going to give. So in a way, the very thing we wanted killed the original band.
Mott The Hoople, “All The Way From Memphis” (from 1973’s Mott)
IH: That song was a pain in the ass, actually, because I wrote the thing on piano, and all the white notes on my piano had gone, so you had to go on to the black notes. And I didn’t know anything about the black notes. That’s when it’s best, because nothing’s relevant. I wrote “Roll Away The Stone” on the black notes as well. I didn’t know what I was doing. The minute you know what you’re doing, you’ve had it. I wrote the song on piano, but I couldn’t find the words, and it went on for weeks. The album was done. I had a cassette player by the bed, everywhere I went, trying to get this stupid lyric together. In the end, we played a gig in Memphis—I think it was Christmas Eve, or somewhere around Christmas, anyway—and I kind of manufactured a lyric out of that.
AVC: It may not be as iconic as “All The Young Dudes,” but it’s certainly still a definitive Mott track.
IH: It was a good track, yeah. But, I mean, we did “Honaloochie Boogie” before that, which nobody knows what the hell that’s about. [Laughs.] And I don’t think Mick was particularly impressed. Meanwhile, he was writing stuff like “Can’t Get Enough,” and we couldn’t do them because I was not a blues singer. So he was very frustrated. And Paul Rodgers and his band Peace were coming out and supporting us, so he must’ve just sat down and started talking to Paul, because the next thing you knew, Mick was off with Bad Company.
Mott The Hoople, “Roll Away The Stone” (from 1974’s The Hoople)
IH: After I wrote that, I remember going into our publisher and saying, “I’ve got the formula! I’ve got the formula!” And I think that was the last time I ever had it. So don’t ever do that. [Laughs.]
AVC: From the title, it sounds like a possible Easter anthem, but what were the lyrical origins of the song?
IH: I don’t know. It just sounds like a pop song to me. It was whatever fit the vocal, I suppose. [Laughs.] Hey, it was a long time ago! A lot of these things might’ve had meaning at the time, but that was 40 years ago. All I can say for certain is that there’s always an element of truth in what I do, but sometimes a little poetic license comes in handy.
“Once Bitten, Twice Shy” (from 1975’s Ian Hunter)
IH: I had the verse and the bridge when I was with Mott. I didn’t get the hook ’til I was on my own, sometime later. I was sitting with a drummer in a speakeasy one night, I told him I’d just written this song “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and I was short of the hook, and he sort of tapped it out while we were both sitting there drunk. A bell went off in the back of my mind, and I went, “Whoa! That’s what it is!” And I rushed home. [Laughs.] That would’ve been right around the time when Mick [Ronson] was pretty powerful in the mix, and the freedom was great. We were away at last, divorced from Mott and all that, and Mick said, “Go in now, you’re all emotional.” And he was right. It’s a good record.
AVC: In regards to the “divorce,” what was the ultimate impetus for breaking away and going solo?
IH: Well, you’ll get different stories from different members of the band, but for me, when Ronson joined, it was difficult. I mean, he had a different manager, he had a different label… his manager was pretty venal. The band just didn’t take to him. And I couldn’t understand that. I mean, to me, it was music and he was great, but somehow they just weren’t getting on. I think what happened right from the outset was that he had said, “Let’s rehearse.” I mean, he came in with a will. He came in going, “I’m gonna show the world: It’s not just Bowie. It’s whatever I do,” and he came in big and said, “I want to rehearse now.” And he’s living in an apartment behind the Albert Hall, which was a real nice place. I said, “Well, where did you want to rehearse?” He said, “Well, here. Now.” So I said, “Okay,” and I rang a couple of people, and they were too busy. That’s not a good thing to lay on a guy who’s just at the beginning with the band. So that would be my version of what happened. Talk to somebody else, and you’ll probably get a different one.
AVC: Given the Bowie connection, one would think that he’d mesh pretty easily with Mott.
IH: And he did, but it was difficult because Tony DeFries [Ronson’s manager] had to meddle, especially when he wasn’t in full control. Managers are control freaks, you know, and he couldn’t get over it. He’d say something like, “Don’t bother going to that gig tonight—no tickets are sold,” so Mick would be all depressed. Then we’d ring the box office, and it would be sold out. It was like that. It was on a daily basis. It was stupid, and it was small-time.
“You Nearly Did Me In” (from 1976’s All American Alien Boy)
AVC: How on earth did you manage to secure Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor from Queen to sing backing vocals for “You Nearly Did Me In”?
IH: Well, they were on a plane coming in from England, and my wife was on the same plane. They said, “What’s Ian doing?” She said, “Oh, he’s down at Electric Lady recording.” “Oh, we’ll do down.” So they got off the plane and came down. I was in the middle of doing something else. I didn’t even know they were there. And I got out to go to the toilet, and there they all are. “Can we do anything?” “Uh, yeah, you can, actually.”[Laughs.] They were great guys, Queen. Always were, always will be. I was very sad when Fred went, because he really was larger than life.
AVC: All American Alien Boy was a decided change in your sound compared to your debut.
IH: Well, it was a disaster, really. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my audience was composed of 17- and 18-year-old boys. When confronted with that album… well, it’s like Joe Elliott [of Def Leppard] has always said: “How could you expect us to get into that? We were too young!” And he’s right. I mean, I never could quite understand at the time why I came screaming to a halt, but that’s probably what happened. They were like, “Hang on, this ain’t a rocker!” [Laughs.] I liked Alien Boy, though. Mick Ronson, that was his favorite album I ever did, and he wasn’t even on it.
“Wild ‘N’ Free”/“Justice Of The Peace” (from 1977’s Overnight Angels)
AVC: You’ve said you’re not a big fan of the way Overnight Angels turned out.
IH: I’m not. But that was me own fault; it wasn’t anybody else’s. It’s manufactured. That’s why I don’t like it. I was writing songs like a songsmith would. There are some fun bits, but the songs are all in the wrong key. I made the radical mistake of singing the songs at home, where you can sing as high as you want, and then going in the studio, where you’re singing on stuff and the top end goes, so I’m just screaming away on there.
“England Rocks” (from 1977’s Overnight Angels)
“Cleveland Rocks” (from 1979’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic)
IH: I don’t know why “England Rocks” is tacked onto Overnight Angels rather than Schizophrenic. Initially it was “Cleveland Rocks.” When we first came over [to the U.S.], Cleveland was the only place that really liked Mott The Hoople. Or even turned up for Mott The Hoople. We would sell out Cleveland when we weren’t doing much anywhere else. So when we saw all those jokes on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin about Cleveland, we were like, “Well, we think it’s hipper than L.A. or New York!” And that’s how “Cleveland Rocks” got written. Then later on, I was at a loose end in London and short of a single, so we decided to try “England Rocks.” And it didn’t work out for whatever reason. I think Dick Asher moved from CBS to Columbia, that’s what happened. I was gonna get a boost behind it, but then all of a sudden, nothing. Because of a label problem. There’s always been a bit of a conflict about the songs, but I’m telling you the truth: “Cleveland” came first. And I’ve got a couple of keys to the city as proof. [Laughs.]
“Ships”/“Bastard” (from 1979’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic)
IH: “Ships” wouldn’t have come about if it hadn’t been for Steve Popovich, who’s a pretty famous guy within the business. He was head of A&R for Columbia, and he became my manager. He’s big for Meat Loaf. He had a firm called Cleveland International with two other guys, and all of a sudden he wanted to manage me. When I did Schizophrenic, it wasn’t really working out. I started it in Wessex in London, and he rang up and said, “Look, if you’re not happy with this, The E Street Band will do it with you.” Because he knew Miami [Steven Van Zandt]. So the next thing I know, I’m in The Power Station with the E-Streeters. One night, Steve came by with another guy, Sam Lederman, and I’m sitting there, we’re looking for a song because we’re a song short, and I start with, “We walk to the sea, just my father and me…” And he says, “You’ve got to do that!” And I said, “Well, it’s not finished.” But he said, “Well, finish it! You’ve got to do it!” And it turned into “Ships.”
AVC: How did John Cale end up on the record? Was he just in the neighborhood?
IH: Nah, we asked him in to do a song called “Bastard.” He’s got that eerie, ominous thing that he can do so well, so we wanted him in. That was quite a star-studded little album. And it was cheap. [Laughs.] I hate to use the word again, but it was! It was the first album on Chrysalis. I’d been out of a deal, nobody was queuing up, but I’d just produced Generation X for Chrysalis and they offered me a small deal, so I took it.
Generation X, “King Rocker” (from 1979’s Valley Of The Dolls)
Ellen Foley, “We Belong To The Night” (from 1979’s Night Out)
Iron City Houserockers, “Pumping Iron” (from 1980’s Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive!)
AVC: In addition to producing Generation X, you also worked with Ellen Foley, who’d been on Schizophrenic, as well as the Iron City Houserockers, with Joe Grushecky.
IH: That’s right, yeah. They were all kind of Steve Popovich affiliates. I think he had Foley for a record deal. She was huge in certain countries.
AVC: When you worked with Generation X, did you have a feel as to whether punk rockers tended to be Mott The Hoople fans?
IH: Well, not at first, because it’s like everything else: “Well, because of the media, we think we’re supposed to hate you.” But then finally they said, “Oh, it turns out we’re not supposed to hate you after all, and that we actually like you very much.” [Laughs.] I wouldn’t call Billy Idol punk anyway. They were just a band that looked good because of Bill. They all looked good. The bass player [Tony James] was a poseur. I liked the guitar player [Bob Andrews], though. He was great. So I did an album with them, and they did all right. They had a couple of hits off it, a big one and a little one. And Foley had a big couple of hits in Holland or the Netherlands, somewhere like that. She wound up about selling 600,000. So we did okay. But I don’t particularly like production work. Mick liked it much better than I did. It’s, like, if they go through the roof, they get the credit, and if it bottoms out, you get the blame. [Laughs.]
“I Need Your Love” (from 1981’s Short Back ‘N’ Sides)
IH: [Drummer] Topper Headon was great on that album. Apparently he was under the influence, but I didn’t know that. He came in, he did his job, he made comments and changed things. I thought he was great. A brilliant guy. Told me some great stories, too. Yeah, we got Mick [Jones] in because of the song “Theatre Of The Absurd,” which is halfway through side two. We didn’t know anything about reggae, and Mick had been a Brixton boy, which is half reggae, half rock. That’s basically what The Clash were. So we got him in, and he sort of stayed. When we were doing that record, me and Mick [Ronson] were bored, idle, lazy. We needed somebody in there.
AVC: That was another unique blend of musicians, with Todd Rundgren and Roger Powell in the mix as well.
IH: Yeah. Well, Todd and I did a little tour together, a couple of weeks. And I knew him from Woodstock, because Mick lived in Woodstock. I liked Todd. Mr. Busy. Lovely bloke, but I wouldn’t want to be produced by him, because he’s got his way of doing it, and it sounds like Todd. [Laughs.] Great bloke, though, and great to work with.
“All Of The Good Ones Are Taken” (from 1983’s All Of The Good Ones Are Taken)
IH: [Immediately starts laughing.] That song… this is a classic cock-up. I don’t know where or when I wrote it, right, but I didn’t have a cassette player or anything with me when I did it, and everybody was going raving mad, going, “This is great! This is great!” And we remembered the song, but we didn’t remember the way we did it. We didn’t remember the groove. And we never got it back until I was in Oslo, when I did this thing with the orchestra in 2001 or 2002. Which was a fat lot of good at the time, as it was a lot later. But that’s why there’s two versions of the song on that record: because we could never figure out what the original groove was. [Laughs.] Which tells you, if you’re a writer, make sure you can put it down, because it’s not only the song but the mood as well.
AVC: The songs on the album are a diverse mix of musical genres, which nicely matched the variety of sounds that were on MTV at the time.
IH: Well, when MTV was in the first year of its awards, they nominated the video for that song. So I’m sitting third row from the front at the awards thing. I’m living in the country; I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I’m thinking it’s going to be a lecture room somewhere. I get down there, you walk in and there’s about 500 photographers, and then the first two acts to perform are Rod Stewart and Madonna. I was shitting meself. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” [Laughs.] I go in the toilet, and the director goes, “We’re gonna win, we’re gonna win!” And I’m thinking, “Oh, fuck, I’m gonna have to talk or something!” I was freaking out. Totally. I also realize that I’m sitting third row from the front on the alleyway. Right in front of me’s Quincy Jones and Diana Ross. And there’s a camera in my face and a camera down by my knees, coming up. I’m thinking, “Oh, God!” And then Phil Collins has just done a speech that was brilliant, one where you go in and write a speech and get it all right, and I’ve got no clue what I’m going to do. And then all of a sudden… ZZ Top’s won it. It was the biggest relief of my life. [Laughs.] I was dying! I mean, I’d never hardly heard of MTV. It just seemed to be some stupid little thing. I never imagined it was a Rod Stewart and Madonna level thing. I was just sitting there wondering what the hell was going on.
The Hunter/Ronson Band, “American Music” (from 1990’s YUI Orta)
IH: Oh, yeah, that was Mick and me again.
AVC: There was a long gap between All Of The Good Ones Are Taken and YUI Orta. What were you doing in the interim?
IH: Well, what happened was that slowly my career was disappearing. Totally. So in the end, I was going to Sweden, Canada, places like that, just gigging to make a few bucks, and generally not writing. And if I did write, it was pretty poor. Not good at all. And then we did… [Hesitates.] It’s not a bad record. There’s some good stuff on it. I was living in New York, and we used to have to write in the afternoon because they’d bang on the walls after 6 p.m. By this time, I knew I was off the rail completely and I’d have to do something. So that album… I’m not completely keen on it, but there’s a couple of good things on it.
AVC: What brought you and Mick Ronson back together? Or had you always been in contact?
IH: We were always together. Our wives were together, our kids grew up together, and it’s still the same now, apart from the fact that obviously Mick’s not there. It was every week. Barbecues. We always got on great. It was just that it was taking me so long to write, and he was getting offers. I mean, he went off with Bob Dylan, he went off with Van Morrison, he did tons of productions all over the place. Even when he was dying, he was doing Morrissey. So it very seldom happened that we coincided. And then I got a bunch of songs and he said, “Oh, all right. I’m ready.” And then we’d do it. And he played great on it. It’s just that… some of the songs are not that great. We did it with Bernard Edwards, because I’d wanted a Power Station kind of sound. And we got in there, and the first thing Bernard said was, “Well, we can’t do that, because the garage where we recorded it is a mixing room now.” That’s how they were getting Tony Thompson’s sound: They recorded it in the garage, and the garage was gone! We found that out the first day. I’m like, “Oh, great, that’s the only reason I got him!” [Laughs.]
That wasn’t a good period, though, of course, because Mick called me up and said, “I’m on the way out.” [Sighs.] And that was two years of hell.
“Now Is the Time”/“Michael Picasso” (from 1996’s The Artful Dodger)
IH: After Mick [died], I went to Norway and did a couple of albums. One was called Dirty Laundry, the other was called The Artful Dodger, and they’re two albums that nobody’s ever heard of, because they were released on small Scandinavian labels, but I was getting back. There’s some good stuff on those two albums. There’s a song called “Now Is the Time,” and I remember talking to the Queenies about that one when we did the Freddie benefit. I was very excited about that song. And Mick knew about that song. I thought, “I’m getting back to where I want to be.” So those two albums helped a lot, helped me get over Mick and get back on track.
AVC: It must’ve been cathartic to write “Michael Picasso,” in particular, given that it’s rather specifically about Mick.
IH: It was, in a way. But in another way, I felt bad writing it.
AVC: How so?
IH: Because it’s kind of like capitalizing on someone else’s mortality, isn’t it? I felt guilty writing it. But the thing was, I didn’t go looking for it. It came looking for me.
“Dead Man Walkin’” (from 2001’s Rant)
IH: I love that song. Mick Ralphs said, “I ain’t doing that. It’s too many chords.” [Laughs.] The weird thing is, there’s only about four or five chords in it. When he learned it—I took him out with me on one of my tours, 2007 I think it was—he was like, “I always thought there was millions of chords in it, but there’s only four. You just keep going ’round to keep ’em different.” I just love the piano line in it. Everything else came after. The phrase “dead man walking” has been used before, so that kind of pissed me off. But that’s just the way it was. Nothing you can do it about that but take it or leave it.
“Words (Big Mouth)” (from 2007’s Shrunken Heads)
IH: That’s a true story, “Words.” I like that song. It’s not the most startling ball-buster in the world, but it’s a nice song, and it’s truthful. That’s a good album, that one. Once you get on little labels, you’ve got virtually no chance anymore, but Shrunken Heads was a good album. God, by this time, how many albums have I done already? [Laughs.] It’s hard to talk about the newer ones, because they can practically talk about themselves. But I’ve got to say that with Shrunken Heads and Man Overboard, they’re more or less the same team, same studio, same co-production, and more or less the same band, so therefore we were getting the hang of everything. And I think that’s what’s all came together on [When I’m President].
AVC: There’s one particular difference with Shrunken Heads, though: It features a guest appearance by Jeff Tweedy on a couple of songs.
IH: Yeah, [guitarist James] Mastro said to me, “Would you like Jeff Tweedy to sing on the new album?” And I said, “Yeah,” because he’s got a great voice, Jeff. I love his voice. And James knew him, so James said, “Ian would like you to sing on his record,” and he said, “Yeah, fine.” [Laughs.] He’s come out with me on gigs before, like when we go to Chicago. He likes a song called “Henry The H-Bomb,” and he turned up in Chicago at a gig one night and said, “Let’s do this.” I said, “Well, there’s no lyric to it.” And he said, “Oh, yes, there is.” I said, “There isn’t! I wrote the song.” “No, no, no, there’s a lyric.” I said, “Well, what’s the lyric?” He shows me this lyric, and… it’s a great lyric, but I know I didn’t write it. I mean, I can tell when I’ve written a lyric. And I think what he’d done was… there’s a version of the song somewhere where I sing a bunch of junk, and I think he wrote down what he thought I’d sang. Anyway, we ended up doing “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” because I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know these words at all.” [Laughs.]
Ian Hunter & The Rant Band, “I Don’t Know What You Want” (from 2012’s When I’m President)
AVC: To close on a very “circle of life” kind of note, your son Jesse sings on a song from the new record, “I Don’t Know What You Want.”
IH: Yeah, he’s a great singer. He walks in, does it in one take, and that’s it, no mess. He’s really, really good. A great guitar player, a great bass player. My daughter’s really good as well, but I didn’t have a song for her, unfortunately. [Laughs.] Jess sounds like a younger version of me, really. He’s got a nice bit of grit in his voice, which I never had when I was younger, but he’s got it from the outset.
AVC: So what are your expectations for an Ian Hunter album in 2012?
IH: None. [Laughs.] I do it purely because I love doing it. It’s what I’m for. That’s why I was doing all through those years, even if we’re talking about YUI Orta or Overnight Angels and stuff like that. As long as I’m doing what I like and what I respect, I’m fine. I like to be on the periphery. I would not like to be in the middle of the music business. I know what it’s like. It’s all right for a fortnight. After that, it’s a nightmare. I prefer the way we do it. We’ve got a lot of gigs on this tour, supporting this album, we’ve got people who believe in it, and we’ll have a great time. And that’s all I want.