Even at 66, no one quite wears a multi-coloured spotted silk scarf like Paul McCartney. While the former Beatles’ reputation – his unparalleled role in the biggest band in history, his huge solo success and his private life, for example – normally precede him, today, as he unveils himself from behind a restaurant curtain in South London, it’s the yellow, green and red dots which bracket his face.
McCartney has reason to surround himself with such vibrancy. For a year that began so bitterly in the Hugh Court, 2008 has blossomed into one of his most fruitful to date. Not only has he played cluster of groundbreaking concerts (most recently in Tel Aviv, where he defied warnings from Islamic militants to perform to hundreds of thousands of adoring fans) and collected Brit Award and MTV honours, the singer has also found time to resurrect his once secret collaboration with the producer Martin Glover, better known as Youth.
Unlike their previous efforts – 1993’s inconspicuous ‘Strawberries Oceans Ships Forrest’ and the critically acclaimed ‘Rushes’ in 1998 - the pair’s latest collaboration, ‘Electric Arguments’, is a diverse mixture of eclectic experimentation and traditional song writing techniques. Indeed, as McCartney talks about the record at a press conference in London, one wonders whether, were it not for Youth, this could be considered his latest solo effort, such is the familiarity of tracks like ‘Sing The Changes’ and ‘Sun Is Shining’.
Also unlike ‘Electric Arguments’ predecessors, the album arrives this time on the independent music label, One Little Indian, as apposed to McCartney’s former home, EMI. It’s a move that continues down the path the singer first stepped foot on last year when he released his last solo album ‘Memory Almost Full’ via Starbucks’ Hear Music Label. I ask him what him what motivated him to remain independent. “I think the majors at the moment, I’m not dissing them, but I don’t think they really know what’s going on,” he replies. “I get that feeling that with the download culture they’re floundering a bit because they’ve had it their own way for so long. When I was putting out ‘Memory Almost Full’, my last album, I really got to dread this idea of going into that room with all these guys.” McCartney employs the voice of one of “these guys”. “‘We love your album Paul, it’s really great.’ Huh, who are you? Do I respect your opinion or whatever? So that’s one factor – and the download thing, the second.
“And I think it was right at that time because suddenly, right after that, EMI got sold, so I would have been in a little bit of a sale situation. And the other thing, they’ve got some many people on their books that like it or not, you’re just one of them, and it’s not that great a situation – you like to feel as though you’re among friends, so that was why I ended up going independent then." McCartney smiles when he says this time with the Fireman "it's even more indie". "I just like it because there’s a certain freedom and also they seem to be more interested in the record, so you get a little bit more of a one on one thing. And again for me it’s just something different; it’s not the same old boring grind.”
And that’s McCartney – always striving for something different. Over the course of the hour I spend in his company, his desire to further develop his career, whether under pseudonyms or his own name, is compelling. Oh, and of course, so is that scarf.
You can read select questions and answers from McCartney’s press conference in London below:
‘Electric Arguments’ is the first Fireman album to feature your vocals – why did you decide to start singing?
“Having made two albums [without vocals] we decided it was time to change. Youth suggested to me, ‘How about we do vocal?’ I said: ‘Well I haven’t got any songs, I’ve no idea.’ So he said, ‘Well, you want to try a bit?’ because it’s The Fireman and anything goes. I said: ‘Yes sure.’ We just fired a couple of words.” At this point McCartney begins to sing a refrain around the words ‘silent lovers’. “We just kept singing these things at the track and mostly a song came out of it. So that’s how The Fireman found his voice.”
The Fireman is another example of your love for experimentation. Do you have a philosophy in terms of creating ideas?
“I never have felt like what I’m doing is that important. Other people have but I don’t view it like that. I feel like I’m having fun. I’ve got to enjoy myself in the studio and I still do - and on stage. I still feel privileged to be able to get into the studio with a nice guitar and an amp – I still think that’s really cool. When we were doing some recent rehearsals I was just looking at the amp and thinking ‘wow’. So I think that enthusiasm is what drives me; it’s what I run on. I just actually like what it is I’m doing, so it never feels like a risk to me – until afterwards. It’s only when we get to this stage when people are actually looking at what we’ve done that I think ‘Yeah, this was a bit risky.’
"When we (The Beatles) did something like ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ that was kind of a risk but we didn’t think it was. The papers did. I remember one famous newspaper saying the Beatles have dried up, they haven’t done anything for six months, they’re finished and we’re waiting with ‘Sgt. Pepper's…’ going [sniggers]. So it’s something I like doing; pushing the boundaries, keeping it fresh.”
How does Youth differ to solo producer Nigel Godrich?
“Youth is very easy to work with – [he has] a very easygoing kind of attitude to life. Nigel is harder to work with – but they’re both very good. Its just Nigel doesn’t have such an easygoing attitude to life – he’s more precise. But yeah, I like working with someone; I like giving up control. I don’t feel like I need to have full control. I like a bit, but I like to just throw it open, it’s more fun than just sitting in a room all day. Yeah I like collaborating but you do have to admire the person you work with to be able to do that.”
Why did you choose to write and compose a track each day?
“There’s only really one answer to this and that’s because we wanted to. We had the freedom to make this album anyway we wanted and it could have been very carefully considered, very precise but that wouldn’t be The Fireman. That’s the whole point about The Fireman - it’s very free. And also it’s an approach I’m interested in. The Whole idea behind ‘Sgt. Pepper's...’ was to create a band, and we could pretend that we were that band and not the Beatles, so we made that record with that in mind. When John would walk up to the microphone some part of his brain would be conscious that he was doing a John Lennon vocal. And sometimes that was a little bit of a pressure so we created this idea with ‘Sgt. Pepper's...’ that you’re not John Lennon, you’re Dirk. So he’d go up to microphone and he’d sing how he wanted to sing and not how he thought people expected him to sing. It’s an old trick. We were doing it in 67 for ‘Sgt. Pepper's...’ and there were people doing it before us. But it’s very free – it’s a very joyful way to record. Sometimes it can be pretty scary but that’s OK. And it’s very quick. But I enjoy the process because it’s exhilarating.”
You gave away a download of ‘Lifelong Passion’. How do you feel about the download culture and would you mind if someone downloaded your album for free?
“It’s weird for me because I’m not from that. I’m from the times when you went into a record shop and you bought a 45, so that’s kind of how I understand it. People say that about CDs, tapes etc... We’ve gone through vinyl, tape cassettes, CDs and downloads, and to me it’s sort of all the same, except now it’s this weird thing where people don’t pay for it (laughs). It is a bit of a surprise but I don’t mind actually, it’s interesting. It all kind of works out, the Radiohead thing of paying what you think it works. I think it’s a funny idea really; it’s quite funny.
“I must say, I didn’t actually download Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’. I was thinking of downloading it and giving them my 1p and telling all my friends I paid ten quid for it – I think a lot of people did that too. It’s part of life now.”
You mentioned recently that you would like to sing a song for Michelle Obama (President-elect Barack Obama’s wife) if he won – would you still like to do that?
“I was so pleased that Obama won. I was sort of fingers crossed because I was expecting dirty tricks until the last moment, like what went on in Florida [between George W Bush and Al Gore in 2000]. I was so pleased he won that what occurred to me was that, if I ever got asked, I could sing [The Beatle’s] ‘Michelle’ to his wife – but I haven’t written a special new one for him, the old one will have to do.”
What would you like to see Michael Jackson do next following his recent out-of-court settlement with the second son of the King of Bahrain?
(Mimicking Jackson’s high voice) “You know, make another album (laughs). I don’t know, make another album, that’d be great. The guy’s awfully good.”
How do you feel about your fans and if like Ringo [Starr] you’re about to ban them from sending stuff in to sign with peace and love?
“(Jokingly) Yeah, I’m not signing anything – you can stick it up your jumper (laughs). Ringo’s always been like that, God bless him. We love Ringo because he just says what he thinks. If he doesn’t want to sign anything anymore then he doesn’t have to. I don’t mind that, I think it’s really good; it’s his life after all. And yeah, he gets in trouble occasionally, but as anyone who has known Ringo as long as I have knows that’s what he’s like. I think it’s a good quality; it’s called honesty actually."
Are the Beatles ever going to appear on iTunes?
“It’s constantly being talked of. What happens is, when something is as big as the Beatles, it’s heavy negotiations, you don’t just pop into a room. iTunes wants this, EMI wants this, Mr Hands wants this; so there’s heavy negotiations going on. We’re all for it but there are a couple of sticking points I understand. The last word I got back from it was that it’s stalled at the moment. They [EMI] want something that we’re not prepared to give them. It sounds like the music business to me.”
The Fireman’s new album has been compared to the sounds of The Killers, Arcade Fire and Jack White – are you happy to be listed alongside those artists?
“Yeah, I don’t mind being compared with them as long as they’re good artists like those. I hear a bit of U2 in ‘Sing The Changes’ but it’s not intentional. You can’t help that you’re often going to sound like someone else. We didn’t sit down and think ‘Right, we’ve got to do Jack White on this track.’
You spoke recently about the Beatles lost song ‘Carnival of Light’. Do you plan to release the track – and is it electronic?
“No, it’s not electronic. It’s a little bit avant-garde, or as George [Harrison, the Beatles’ guitarist] used to say, ‘avant-garde-a-clue.’ It’s fifteen minutes long. It’s a song, it’s not really electronic – there’s little bit of echo and stuff. I tried to get it released in some form or another on the Beatles anthology, I thought it might be a good ingredient [to] show that side of us. But we didn’t all agree on it, a couple of guys said they didn’t like it so it got vetoed. With the Beatles we’ve all got to agree on it, if one doesn’t like it won’t get done. Good policy.”
How do you feel competing with the return of Guns N’ Roses in the chart and have you heard ‘Chinese Democracy’?
“I haven’t actually. I didn’t know it was out this week, I never look at who we’re in competition with – I don’t really feel in competition anymore. Particularly with The Fireman, it’s not like you’re releasing as Coldplay or Guns N’ Roses for that matter, but I wish him (Axl Rose) good luck because, geez, it’s been a long time coming. To say the least.”
Do you have any views on programmes like The X Factor which possibly don’t encourage creativity?
“Yeah, I have lots of views on that. I think there’s too much of it really. You can’t turn on the telly without somebody being judged by four people, whether they’re on ice or on a stage or in the jungle. There’s always these people going, ‘I don’t think you’re very good’, and the contestant going ‘Oh give us a break.’ "You can't turn on the telly without somebody being judged by four people, whether they are on ice or on the stage or in the jungle. I just think it's a bit weird myself. So I'm not very keen on it. But I watch it like everybody. It’s compulsive viewing, but so again is a traffic accident – you know what I mean. You may be right that it doesn't encourage creativity. I don't think you are going to get a Bob Dylan emerging from one of those shows, but then not everyone goes on those shows. I think it's just a phase we're going through."
‘Electric Arguments’ is out now on One Little Indian.