The Bill Wyman Interview, Part Two

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Since you’ve been doing the Rhythm Kings for a long time now, I’m sure it’s well established. But when you started, when you first got together with other guys to play this, was it a case of a sort of shared background, where one of you could call a tune, and you’d all sort of know it enough to play it right off the bat?

Bill Wyman: No. I’d sat for a couple of years, and every time I heard a good song on my iTunes – or, rather on a CD or a record; I would slip it onto a C-90 cassette in those days before you had iTunes – and I had a whole mess of stuff. And it was a matter of thinking, “We’re going to go into the studio tomorrow, and I’ve got Albert Lee, and Gary Brooker on keyboards. So we could do ‘Breakin’ Up the House.’” Or I’d say, “We’ve got Georgie Fame on organ, so we can do a Fats Waller song.” And then because Albert and Terry both play guitar really well, we could do an early rockabilly song. And [on the first album] I thought, “We could do one Stones song – I don’t like leaning on ’em.” And that was the first song Beverley Skeete sang on.

I got [Beverley and Georgie Fame] in the studio, and put ’em in the booth with the lyrics. And I said go, ’cause we had the track done. They did it, and I said, perfect. But then Georgie said, “Can we do it again?” I asked why. Beverley said, “We’re just having such a good time, we want to do it again!” They did it a couple more times, and it did end up even better. So I did use one of the later of the three or four takes. That’s the kind of attitude of the band.

I must tell you: all of these songs that we record – all of ’em, without any differences – are all from takes one, two or three. That is it. I don’t go past that; if we don’t get something in three takes, I say, “Forget it, let’s move onto the next song.”

If you listen to a song by, I don’t know, Bo Carter in the thirties, it’s got a bit of charm about it. And that is why you like it. And I want to keep that charm. When we re-record it, we try to capture that charm. The only way you do that is cutting it in one or two takes. It’s fun, a bit loose. And you can tidy it up a bit later, with drop-ins. But you’ve got the same mood as the original. You’ve got a different horn section, backing vocals, different guitar parts maybe, but it still has the same essence as the original.

BK: It would be easy to polish the personality right out of it if you did it any other way.

BW: But that’s what a lot of bands do, isn’t it? You hear cover versions of things, and they just don’t make it. They’re too mechanical, too brash, I don’t know. It’s very rare – like with movies – that you make a good recording of an earlier song. I mean, Clapton does it with the blues beautifully. Ry Cooder does nice things. But generally, they never sound as good as the originals. There’s always something missing. And I try to rectify that with my band.

BK: Even though bass is your primary instrument, your style has never – even in the early days — been mostly about thumping out the root notes. As often as not, your playing showcases a subtle counter melody. Was that intentional? And does that approach translate to the sort of music the Rhythm Kings do, or does it call for you to draw on a different set of skills?

BW: Well, I always built my bass style on Duck Dunn from Booker T & the MGs. (He was a great mate of mine [and remains so] to this very day. When he comes over to England we have dinners and hang out. And I stayed at his house in the early days, in Nashville.)

That’s my style: just put it there simple. Don’t go out the way; go past unnoticed, if you like. Be right there with the drummer. That’s the way I play: don’t show off; you’re not the fucking lead guitarist, you’re a bass guitarist. Yeah, there’s too many of them bass guitarists that go [vocalizes fiddly, busy style], people like Stanley Clarke. I don’t like that kind of playing. It’s not for me. Bass playing? He should be a bloody lead guitarist!

So when I started to work with the Rhythm Kings, I realized that I had to change my style completely. Because I was going from a heavy rock band into jazz and blues and soul music. So I had to start to think…you know, all of these songs – or many of them – were [originally] played with a double bass. Or, with no bass at all. There’s an awful lot that haven’t even got bloody bass on ’em. And even stuff like Amos Milburn doesn’t even have bass on them. So I had to re-think the ways of playing bass.

Now, I’ve always had a very fat, warm sound; that’s my sound. And sometimes it gets lost in Stones recordings. But that’s the way I play. So it was a matter of learning how to adapt that to creating the feel of a double bass. But if you think about it, mostly when you play bass guitar – or when I play bass guitar with or without a pick – you usually play, generally, from the low strings up. You know: if you’re doing a riff [vocalizes a typical rock-style riff]. Double basses don’t play like that [vocalizes a descending riff]. They play from the upper strings down. ‘Cause that’s the easiest way when you’re using your fingers and going across the strings. You pull from the highest strings down to the lowest.

So I started to play that way a bit more. And I had to think, “Well, what kind of notes would they play? What little runs would they play on a song like this?” And I did learn some basics from some of the early songs; I listened to them before we did recordings. So I try to sound like a double bass on my Rhythm Kings records. It doesn’t always work. But Jeff Beck, when he heard the first two albums – and he asked if he could come in the studio with us once – he heard something on my first [Rhythm Kings] album and asked, “That song ‘Motorvatin’ Mama’ that you did, that you wrote, who did the double bass on that?” I said, “That’s me.” He said, “No, you don’t play double bass. Your hands are too small.” I told him, “It’s not double bass, it’s me on bass [guitar], playing like a double bass.”

You can fool a few people. You can’t get ‘slack’ on the thing, but you can fool a few people by getting the same feel. And that’s what I do with the Rhythm Kings. I do it live, as well.

BK: So the Rhythm Kings catalog: are the titles out of print? What’s the thinking behind the 5cd reissue/repackage?

BW: They’re not out of print, but they’ve never really been played in America. Maybe they were available on Amazon or something, and there were a couple of small record companies that released the first few. One label was called Velvel, and there was another label called Koch, which didn’t really do any promotion. So it’s become a kind of new market for us, as far as the records are concerned. And I met the guys who run Proper Records, and they were fantastic. They were so interested in what I was doing. We made great friends, and they asked me if I’d like to reissue those first five CDs in America, in a box set. And I said, “That’d be fantastic if we can get the American general public to actually listen to the Rhythm Kings. And maybe get some airplay, which I thought was doubtful.

BK: It’s hard to know. What’s “airplay” any more, anyway?

BW: It was always a problem, from the beginning. They only play what’s in the charts, really. Apart from a few nice channels. There is a mid-sixties rock’n’roll station in Los Angeles which is fantastic; it plays some early rock’n’roll and stuff. And there’s a few others, but there aren’t very many. Which is a bit disappointing. So [laughs] that’s why I’m doing interviews with you guys.

BK: Even the original songs you do – “Poor Boy Boogie” from Willie and the Poor Boys, “Jitterbug Boogie,” – fit seamlessly into the style, so much that if people didn’t know they were originals, they’d think they were just obscure songs from 1950 or something. Does the writing of those songs flow naturally, or is it something you had to work hard on?

BW: We did a song like “Hole in the Wall” [on Groovin‘, released in 2000] which people thought was an old song. And “Rollin’and Stumblin’” which was a bit like Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” What I did was try to write in the style of the 30s or whatever. And to do that, I had to listen to the records, to how people would phrase things. What kind of slang they used in the lyrics; how the horns were phrased; how the harmonicas might be phrased; how the backing vocalists were used, if there were any. And I tried to make it all merge to be similar to what was happening in those days. If I wrote a song that was in a 30s style, one with a bluesy feel, then it had to sound like an early blues of that time. By using those slang lyrics — like “keep on truckin’” – and all that kind of stuff. And that’s what I did.

And then we tried to play it the way we thought they would have played it in those days. And it kind of works! So you release an album of, say, fourteen tracks. And you put like six [original] songs in there, and they seem to fit nicely.

BK: There’s a seemingly endless well of material from the era that the Rhythm Kings draw upon. Do you expect that you’ll do more albums?

BW: Yeah, we’ve got another album we’re going to put together in the spring [2012]. We haven’t done one for a few years, because I found it totally impossible to recoup the money it cost to make it. Because getting advances [was difficult] because record companies couldn’t sell, that sort of put me off recording for awhile. But we’ve got about eight tracks that are pretty much finished, and about six we could make into some interesting tracks.

And the record company, Proper, have given us the recording studio for free. So that’ll be nice. If you get the studio for free, it does become viable. Otherwise, you’re paying a grand a day for the studio, and you’ve got mixing, and mastering…oh, god.

BK: With modern technology, a lot of people say they can get close to studio quality at home, and that’s fine if you’re going to layer things instrument by instrument. But if you want to set a whole band up and track live, you need a studio. It’s that simple.

BW: That’s what we do. We try to use all old equipment. We still use reel-to-reel tape, and we use old Neumann microphones and stuff like that. We still use old amps. We try to keep as “early” as possible with everything. Of course at the end you do have to go to digital to mix it and all, but at least you’ve got the warmth. You’ve got the human feel rather than the machine feel, which is perfect. Perfect. And that little bit of looseness makes it real, and makes it fun.

BK: In the Willie and the Poor Boys video, what sort of bass is it that you’re playing?

BW: That’s my homemade bass, the one I built. It’s fretless.

BK: Is that the same as the new “signature bass” that’s shown on your website?

BW: Yeah. We tried to make a clone of that original bass. It’s small, it’s short-scale, with a narrow neck. It uses flat-wound strings, and it’s very simple. It’s pretty, and it’s a perfect bass for me, with my small hands. I’ve already played a couple festivals with one. It was great. It’s very punchy, but it can be very fat as well. I just recorded with it a few days ago; I got a very lovely, warm, fat sound. It’s a perfect bass for kids to start on, because it’s not big like a Fender. Younger people can find it easier to play the instrument.

BK: How do the Rhythm Kings prepare for tours?

Let me tell you something. As I told you already, we have a thirty-eight city tour coming up. We’ve got three afternoon rehearsals before that. We’re going to learn eight new songs with the band, and we’ve got to learn seven new songs with Mary Wilson. And we’ll do that all in three afternoons. That’s the quality of this band.

When I was in the Stones, bless their hearts, we used to spend a month rehearsing for a tour, learning songs we’ve been playing for thirty-five years! And I could never understand that. I could never understand why it took so long. But that’s the way they worked, and bless ’em, that was all right. It worked.

But I can’t work like that. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the energy or the finance to do that. So I’ve got these great pros, and we do it in three afternoons. And it comes out brilliant. It’s high quality: that’s what I love about it. The records and the live performances. If you listen to a live album of ours called Live in Berlin – which is not on this set – the playing is immaculate. There’s not one mistake in the entire two-and-a-half hour show. And we never overdubbed or did anything [to “sweeten” the recording]. It’s just how it came off the board, you know?

BK: I know this is a tired old question, but do you think there’s any chance at all you might bring the Rhythm Kings to the USA for some live dates?

BW: We came once, in 2001. We did a small tour, from Canada all the way down to Memphis, doing gigs all the way down. We had some great shows, but we had a lot of quiet shows because people didn’t know us and it wasn’t promoted. The promoter wasn’t well known. We didn’t know that at the time; so it was a bit of a disappointment. It was a bit like the Stones’ first tour of America in 1964. It went by without really doing anything, and I kind of lost heart abut it. And of course since then, I’ve never gone back to America, because I’ve stopped flying.

So when you guys build a bridge or a tunnel, I’ll be there.

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