Ian Hunter,
The TVD Interview

It’s not often that you get to talk to a bona fide rock legend—and one of your biggest heroes to boot. So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak by phone with Sir (I added that myself; why wait for the Queen to get around to it?) Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople and solo artist fame. I’ve been listening to Mott since I was 14, and getting the opportunity to speak one on one with him was something I never considered possible. It seemed to me as likely as getting the chance to talk to Robert Johnson, or Napoleon.

Anyway, Ian Hunter and band are coming to The Hamilton in Washington D.C. on Sunday, November 2, and Hunter was interested in hyping the show. Unfortunately he was talking to a deranged fanatic, and he had to remind me of that fact about three-quarters of the way through our hour-long interview. My sincerest apologies, Ian. But I learned a lot. 

I’ve heard rumors of a Mott reunion? True?

We’ve done two, and I think that’s enough. We’re all a bit older now and I think we’ve done enough.

Damn. Well, let’s start at the beginning. You were a Teddy Boy?

I came out of gangs. Teddy Boys—they were all about style. Edwardian clothes and violence. Drainpipe trousers, jackets that came down to your knees. There was a lot of fighting involved. I’d be playing pubs, so I wasn’t engaging in much violence. But they had my back. If somebody hit me, all I had to do was call some guys, and there’d be five Teddy Boys tapping the guilty party on his shoulder. They were poor people, a lot of them had grown up in boy’s homes, but they weren’t stupid. They were angry, but not stupid.

Do you have an all-time favorite rocker?

Little Richard. “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” I found your American artists’ names very confusing. I thought Jerry Lee Lewis was Jerry Lewis (of The Nutty Professor fame), and as for Elvis Presley, what kind of name was Elvis? What was up with that? I saw Little Richard in 1957. In those days artists couldn’t afford to bring their own bands to England, so Sounds Inc. [a British instrumental pop group] served as Little Richard’s backing band. And he had Sam Cooke singing back up. It’s funny about Sam Cooke—he always sounded very quiet on record, but he had a very loud voice on stage.

Mott is one of the greatest albums about rock ever written. You systematically deglamorize being a rock star, just as you do in your book [1974’s Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star]. Yet you don’t sound cynical.

What happened was Mott started playing gigs and the gigs got bigger and bigger and we found we were more a people’s band than a rock band. There was no royalty with Mott.

So you didn’t look at yourselves as rock stars?

We looked at ourselves as lucky. We weren’t working in a factory. With a name like Mott the Hoople, everybody thought we were weird. Like when we played San Francisco—everyone assumed we were on something.

Were you ever into psychedelic drugs?

No. My nature is control. If I do that, I’ll go the wrong way. I’d seen people go the wrong way. I didn’t want to go the wrong way.

Quite a few of your best early songs were about madness? Why?

Guy [Stevens, the band’s early manager and producer, who was truly a mad genius if ever there was one] was around, and we were together a lot. We were in each other’s pockets. He inspired us.

Speaking of Guy Stevens, do you have any anecdotes you’d like to relate?

I don’t think my anecdotes are for public consumption. The problem was he wanted to be in the limelight, but he couldn’t sing. He had great taste, and he used us for his performance. We wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without him. He was a big fan of madness and mayhem. He would talk for hours when you just wanted to play, and when you did play, he’d interrupt you. We destroyed a studio in his presence. It was Chris Blackwell’s studio, and Chris lived above it. I rang him up to tell him the studio was on fire. He said, “Was it really necessary?” I said, “Yeah.”

I’ve always wondered—Was that “I’ve wanted to do this for years?” at the end of “All the Young Dudes” spontaneous?

[Producer] David Bowie said there was nothing at the end of the track. That there was too much empty space. So we came up with the idea of a “heckler’s ten seconds” during which we could say anything we wanted. I basically repeated all the things I’d said at the Rainbow [Bar & Grill, on Sunset Strip] a couple of days before. I emptied a beer on a lad’s head at that gig. But yes, my patter is all taken from the Rainbow gig.

How in God’s name did you ever come up with the idea for “I Wish I Was Your Mother”? It’s easily one of the oddest yet moving love songs ever written.

I think it’s about a guy who falls for a girl who had a great upbringing. He’s left short by this because he didn’t. He’s sort of jealous of her childhood. He’s very possessive and jealous.

Do you ever look at photos of Mott in their glam clobber and wonder, “What were we thinking?”

There were so many bands in England it was a good idea to get out of the box by dressing up. We were walking around looking for pawnshops in Ft. Worth and you wouldn’t believe the looks we got. That’s what we did in every town we went to, visited pawnshops for guitars. I own a Maltese Cross guitar I found in San Francisco. The proprietor said, “You don’t want to buy it; you just want to look at it.” When I finally convinced him I was serious, he said, “I’ll sell it to you for 75 bucks.” So I bought it.

How many guitars do you own?

I have about 20 guitars.

“Laugh at Me” is incredible. I listen to Sonny Bono’s original and think what did Hunter see in that song that nobody else saw?

I thought he was great. He couldn’t sing. He was a phrase singer. One of those people who don’t sing in the standard way. Mick Jagger dances around the drums. You use what you got.

If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

I’ve always liked Leon Russell. And the late Levon Helm—I played with him a couple of times and he was a lovely guy. Levon always played to the song.

I’d like to ask a few post-Mott questions. For instance, why that wonderful “Hello” at the beginning of “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” off 1975’s Ian Hunter?

That was my first song as a solo artist. So you can call it my introduction to the audience as a solo performer.

How did you manage to get the likes of John Cale, members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Eric Bloom of Blue Oyster Cult to play on You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic?

It was all done very quietly. The budget wasn’t very big on that.

Regarding Springsteen, “Something to Believe In” has a Boss-like sound to it. Do you think you’ve been influenced by his work?

He’s a well-known artist and it’s a question you get. Like with Dylan.

“Michael Picasso”[about the passing of long-time guitarist and friend Mick Ronson in 1993] is simply lovely. When you sing the words at the end, “And we all sit in a room full of tears/On a windy day and I looked out/But none of these words seem right” I swear to God, I tear up. But what I want to know is what you mean when you sing, “Heal me”?

I’m the one who was left behind, wasn’t I? We were best friends. We saw more of each other when we didn’t play then when we did. It hit me really hard. He was gone; I was still here. He was always the one manning the grill at our family cookouts. He was a concert pianist and was great.

How did it feel to have Barry Manilow, of all people, record your song “Ships”?

He rang me up and wanted me to change the bridges. He said the audience wouldn’t get it. I rang him back a few days later and said I wouldn’t change it. In the end he just put it out anyway.

On “Standing in My Light,” what do you mean when you say, “Ain’t gonna trade with the pain of the New York Dolls”?

I can’t give you an answer to that. Now is now and then was then. I’m sure it was very deep and articulate.

“Listen to the Eight Track” is one great song. How does it feel to be perhaps the only person to ever write a song celebrating that most awful of all sound recording technology?

Jeff Tweedy asked me more or less the same question. It was just a jam.

It’s an honor. You’ve immortalized the shoddy, and that’s never easy. Totally off track here: Do you have any big literary influences?

I buy a lot of books and I’ve forgotten a lot of books. I’ll love a book, and six months later I’ve forgotten it. My memory isn’t good. I’ve read so many books, and forgotten them. [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road had a big influence on me. It was magic. I read it the first time and loved it. I didn’t like it so much after I read it the second time. I read a lot about the history of the American Civil War too.

That’s funny. I grew up near Gettysburg. You should visit it. It’s a very moving place. And a great place to get stoned.

[Silence.]

This is a little off track. What was your opinion about punk when it happened?

England swings from one end to another, and after glam, it was punk. My first impression is this is just Gene Vincent. Would you mind asking me about what I’m doing now? I’m trying to put bums [Britspeak for asses] in the seats in Washington.

Sorry. Sure. Have to put the bums in the seats.

That’s what it’s all about. Putting bums in the seats.

Bums. Seats. Right. Would you care to say something about your current band?

I’ve been with them for 14 years now. That’s twice as long as I was in Mott the Hoople. Our last record [2012’s stellar When I’m President] put us back on the Billboard charts.

Do you have any plans to go into the studio?

I’m two-thirds the way through my next album. When I finish touring, I’ll finish it. I can’t tour and write at the same time.

Do you play pretty much the same set every night?

I have two different sets—one for smaller rooms, one for larger rooms. We’re playing a lot of towns on this tour—Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis—we haven’t been to for 30, 40 years. And the audiences vary. We played a college town in Connecticut—it was kids, you know. The Bell House in Brooklyn—it was older people. Last weekend I couldn’t believe it. It was magnificent. They really went crazy.

Where’s your tour taking you from here?

We’re going from here to Scandinavia then back to the U.S. From New Hope, PA to Washington, then from there we head south, then west to Los Angeles. Then we’re off to Tokyo for three nights. The places we go regularly in Japan, they’re crazy, and it’s fun. It makes life a lot easier.

Good luck. I look forward to seeing you here in D.C. Fulfillment of a lifelong dream and all that.

Good.

Feel free to pour a beer on my head.

Ian Hunter & The Rant Band’s Live in the UK 2010 is available to order from Ian Hunter’s official site.

Ian Hunter Official | Facebook | Twitter | Tour

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  • Martijn

    Wishing Sir Ian & Band bums on all the seats! Highly enjoable interview.

  • Michael Little

    Thanks! I wish you could be at the show! When he sings “All the Young Dudes,” I’m going to cry like a little girl!

  • http://davemowsgrass.blogspot.com/ davemowsgrass

    I’ve lived in Northwest Arkansas near fifteen years now, and I’ve never set foot in George’s Majestic Lounge. But if Ian Hunter ever brings his bum there, I will bring mine!

  • Michael Little

    Sounds like a great place… for a full-scale, furniture-smashing bar brawl!

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