Face To Face: A Q&A With Ian McLagan

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

At 66 years young, Ian McLagan is gearing up for another stint on the road. Here, the cheerful Brit discusses his current tour, his critically- acclaimed album Never Say Never, the art of arranging, the origins of The Bump Band, and the latest on that Faces reunion (it’s finally happening). But first, there’s the matter of a pesky insect to deal with.

Do you still live in Austin, Texas?

I do, yeah, I’m about 15 miles out.

Why did you settle there?

Actually, I was leaving LA to get the hell out of LA after the last earthquake of ’94, and the attraction of Austin was the live music scene, the climate and also, zero geological activity—that’s what the Chamber of Commerce said—and although we do get tornadoes occasionally, at least you get some warning or—excuse me one second…I’ve got a hornet I’ve got to kill. I don’t know how they get in the house, but they do. OK—sorry, I just murdered a hornet.

I did that the other day. It’s a strange feeling.

They seem to like me, too. I’ve been stung like by three at a time, but usually you have to harass them, but if you hit a tree where they have a nest, they will find you.

A lot of people complain that Austin is getting too commercialized musically. Do you find that to be the case?

I’ve been here 17 years. It’s changed and it’s changing. People come here for different things—some people come here looking for fame and fortune. I’m sorry, you came to the wrong place. This is where you come to play and settle down, maybe. There are some fancy restaurants here in town and big buildings, but that’s not the attraction to me.

What can people expect from you on your current tour?

They can expect an old friend walking in and standing at a piano and he’ll play a couple of Faces, Small Faces maybe, certainly will play two or three Ronnie Lane songs. But mainly I’ll play my own music—some new songs, some old. I might throw in a little oddity, I might play the piano just for fun, I’ll talk, I’ll answer questions—it’s basically like being in a bar with me except I won’t be drinking until later on.

Your last studio album got really rave reviews. Can you tell us a little bit about that record?

Yeah, well, Never Say Never came out in 2008. Of course, I actually had started recording it in 2005 and 2006, but when my wife died in August of 2006, I just stopped. Obviously, I didn’t know if there was going to be an album or what I was going to do, but when I did find myself singing and playing again, which was actually the day after she died, I was singing a song I had written for a friend. It was about five or six years old at that time and I’d written it for him because his wife had died, and I didn’t know her very well or him actually, but I felt so badly for him. I just came out with this song, “Where Angels Hide.”

So after Kim—my wife—died, I found myself singing that song for me, and that was part of the cure for my grief. Eventually when I did start writing, I wrote “Never Say Never,” the title track, and a few others, and I thought I was going to put “Where Angels Hide” on the record as well, and I had songs from before and songs from after and songs that were just sitting there and eventually I put an album together, and I left a few songs that will be on the next album.

Once I started recording, I realized I had an album. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think I’ll put an album out.” This was something I had been working on full tilt, and the nicest thing was, I had called Glyn Johns and he asked me to send him a track. I sent him a couple of things and he said, “Great! Send more!” and I said, “What?” and he said, “Let’s mix it,” and so he mixed and mastered it in London. God bless him—to have the great Glyn Johns mix your masterpiece was just perfect. He did a beautiful job.

I’ve actually been recording again — I was hoping to put together a six-song EP for this upcoming tour, but I was a day short and I just thought, “I’m not gonna rush it. There’s no point.” Especially since the nice reviews from Never Say Never, I just never was intending to put out something half-assed. And so when I come back in September, I’ll get back to that in a rush.

You mentioned they’re going to be love songs?

Yeah, they tend to be, you know. Never Say Never was all love songs, I think. One’s unrequited love, but they’re all love songs. As the great Ijahman once said, “It’s not who you love, but who loves you.” And it’s so true. You can tell a girl you love her, but if she don’t love you, it means nothin.’ But this next album will be pretty much love and lust.

Part of what defines your music is the great arrangements. Do you have any tips for people on how to approach arranging songs?

Well, it took me a while to realize as a keyboard player you’ve got to always keep out of the way of the guitarists. I’ve always been in guitar bands. The Faces, The Small Faces, The Bump Band… it’s actually a guitar band, bass and drums, and the guitar and me. [laughs]. And so I always felt I was kind of the last thing in, you know? So I’m aware of the guitar, even if I write the song on piano, I’m aware of where the guitar’s going to be.

I think it’s always important to find your space within the sound so that you don’t take over the guitarist’s area. It’s okay to fight with him a little bit I think that’s part of the Faces’ magic, the way Ronnie Wood and I kind of share that space. But invariably, it’s his space, and I know I’m kind of just being cheeky, getting in there and getting out again. Arrangement is everything—less is much more. If everyone’s playing as instrumentalists, you get nothing. You’ve got to play to the song. It’s more important than anything.

Have there been songs that you’ve recorded, whether it’s in The Faces or elsewhere, where you thought, “I know this song is gonna be a big hit?”

Ha ha, yeah. I have and I’ve been proved wrong a lot of times, With “Never Say Never,” I didn’t know how I was going to finish it, and I just had a feeling that there was something good about that, and I think a lot of times when you have that feeling it’s not about you, it’s about the song and you might have kind have heard it in a dream, or you hear a melody, and it’s more to do with what’s in the universe—I don’t know anything about how that works, but I’m constantly listening for songs, and I try not to get in the way of my own song.

Has the way you’ve approached songwriting evolved over the years?

Um, let me think. That one song that I never finished…well actually, there’s several from back in the middle ‘60s, and I never give up on a song, you know? Like a child. Because that little germ of an idea, they come back, and if it’s a good spark, it’ll always be good. It’s just you’ve got to finish it off, and that’s what’s not always easy.

I used to always write on guitar mainly, because I don’t know too much on guitar, so it doesn’t get in the way, and now I find I can write on piano just as easily. I just might go to a key that isn’t easy. It’s just familiar and I’m not playing the piano so much as playing the song, you know? And I’m not looking at my hands, I’m fumbling about trying to find the notes. Okay, like A flat, like, “Ohhh what the fuck?” Same on the guitar, like, “Oh, I’ve got to put a capo across another key.”

Here’s a question you probably get asked a lot; why is your band called The Bump Band?

Well, I was having trouble with a lyric on one of my songs called “So Lucky.” I was just struggling singing it and I maybe sang about a dozen passes, and I went home and lay in my bed, and I was thinking about it, and my wife woke up in the middle of the night to see me sitting up in bed singing the chorus of “So Lucky” at the top of my voice, and I have no memory of it. When she told me the next morning, I said, “That’s like a bump in the night.” There’s a Cornish prayer, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, may the good Lord preserve us.” They said that to ward off evil spirits, and I think I had the bump in the night that night.

Well the next day, the artist who was gonna work on the album cover came in, and I told her about that and she said, “Well, that might be a good album title—Bump in the Night,” and so I said, “Damn it, that’s what it is—we’re The Bump Band!” Then Bonnie Raitt came in the studio some days later to check the studio out, and we were recording, and she really liked us and asked us if we would cut a couple of tracks potentially for her album. So we cut the two songs, we then finished my album, and then we made her album and we became Bonnie Raitt and The Bump Band. I toured with her for four years after that. And then she had to take my band back [laughs].

What’s the latest new on the Faces reunion?

When I finish this tour, I’ll be touring Europe with The Faces, with Ronnie Wood, Kenney Jones, Glen Matlock [of the Sex Pistols], and Mick Hucknall. We’re doing a couple of festivals in Europe, a couple of festivals in England, the Fuji festival in Japan, and then I start a three week tour, a solo tour, around the U.K..

No luck with Rod Stewart, huh?

We asked Rod, of course. He wanted to do it at first, and then he changed his mind, and then we asked him again, and he said yeah, and then other commitments came in. The door is still open, so we’re hoping eventually he will go, “Oh, yeah, let’s have a little bash,” because that would be really great. But it’s not happening right now, so we’re just carrying on. The door is always open for him, but our window of opportunity might not be there when the Stones go rolling again. So we’ve gotta take what time we can with Ronnie, and just go with it because we waited long enough.

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