The erratic and convoluted machinations of Axl Rose in the wake of Guns N’ Roses’ 1993 album, ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’ meant that it took 15 years for its follow-up, ‘Chinese Democracy’ to finally see the light of day. It wasn’t worth the wait. Kevin Shields, meanwhile, spent the best part of 21 years crafting and perfecting ‘mbv’, the long-awaited continuation of the My Bloody Valentine legacy after ‘Loveless’, which finally dropped in 2013. Oh, and The Eagles? They were 28 years between ‘The Long Run’ in 1979 and ‘Long Road Out Of Eden’ in 2007 – it took a quarter of a century for them to get their shit together and squeeze all their egos into the studio one final time.
Thankfully for Bill Wyman, the 33-year-gap between his last solo record and his new album, ‘Back To Basics’, has been relatively trauma-free. Well, in terms of the music, anyway…
Since officially leaving The Rolling Stones in 1993, Bill has largely hung up his bass in favour of many varied pursuits outside of music (as he shall explain), with the exception of performing and touring with his blues collective, The Rhythm Kings. A flash of inspiration from recently unearthed demos, however, impelled him to revive his solo offerings.
‘Back To Basics’ suits the 78-year-old well. Inspired by the stark simplicity of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and JJ Cale, his fourth album presents 12 stripped-back songs that fuse blues, rock and roll, and R&B; a combination of newly-written songs, those that evolved from the rediscovered demos, and a handful mined and reworked from Bill’s own back catalogue. Each pushes his deep, gruff voice to the fore, his distinctly English tone injecting an idiosyncratic theme to proceedings.
Clash sat with Bill in his West London Stones-themed restaurant, Sticky Fingers, to discuss his return to recording, his model ex-girlfriends, and his OCD tendencies.
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In the 33 years since your last album (1982’s ‘Bill Wyman’), you’ve focused your time on your various other talents and interests. What part does music play in your life now?
Well, it’s not the complete thing as it was in the Stones - but even then, I did do other things when I was in the Stones. I did do photography, and I did movie scores, and I worked on other people’s albums and things like that, but since I left I’ve just gone into a mass of stuff. I’ve written seven books on a variety of subjects - not only music. I’ve done archaeology and found Roman sites and Iron Age coins and things, and opened special events for the big museums in England. I’ve done photo exhibitions around the world. I’ve raised a new family of three teenage daughters. I’ve got the restaurant [Sticky Fingers] going - 26th anniversary last week, which is amazing. And so it goes on.
And then I‘ve got The Rhythm Kings, which I’ve had for 17 years, and done about eight albums with them, so I’ve been pretty busy. So I didn’t really have time to do another solo album, and it was one of the last things I thought about, but last year, songs started appearing and then I thought, ‘Oh, what the hell. I’ll do it.’ And then I thought, ‘Am I too old to get into this again?’ (Laughs) But then I thought, well, the Stones are still doing it; blues artists played ’til they dropped - so do classical musicians, poets, writers, sculptors and everybody, so what the hell.
Tell me about the demos that sparked off this album. Where did you find them? Had you forgotten about them?
No. I’m always going through stuff on my iTunes - new stuff, roots stuff, early jazz and blues - and in between it, of course, is lots of my stuff and Stones stuff and everybody else, and as I was playing through, suddenly up comes one of my old demo songs. There was a few, and I thought, ‘I should do something with a few of those, because some of them are quite nice.’ I’d kind of forgotten that they were from the ’70s and ’80s. But I found two or three really nice songs there, so I had a go at them, and then I took three songs from previous albums, which I thought had gone by the board without anybody noticing and I really liked the songs, so I re-did them in a different way, and then I wrote about eight new ones, and put it all together.
Did it all start flowing easily?
Oh yeah, once you get going, yeah, it just flows. The problem in the old days, when I used to do solo albums and movie scores and things, was I always had great difficulty with lyrics. I could always write songs, melodies and arrangements and all that, but I always had problems writing the lyrics. When I started working with The Rhythm Kings - I was writing songs for The Rhythm Kings and I’ve probably written about 30 or more songs over the years - lyrics became easier and easier, and when I did this album, they just flowed, and so it was not difficult at all. Everybody that hears this album comes out with one word, which explains it all. From Bob Geldof to Mick Hucknall to everybody else that I’ve every played it to, they say, ‘The lyrics are a bit quirky, aren’t they?’ (Laughs) So I do “quirky” lyrics, apparently!
There’s a stripped-back sound to the album, so it’s putting the vocals and the lyrics to the fore. You must have known that there was going to be a focus on them in that clean production?
Well, I used to sink my vocals into the tracks, because I was always shy about my voice and the way I was singing, and try to let the music tell the story. But on this one, I thought what the hell. After listening to and being influenced on this by people like JJ Cale, Tom Waits, John Prine, Leonard Cohen and people like that, I thought, ‘Well, I gotta get them lyrics right out there and let the songs tell the story.’ So that’s what I did: I pulled my voice out. But I did start to sing in different ways. I sing lower - like the people I’ve just mentioned - instead of singing higher, like trying to be pop stuff, and I liked it much better.
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It’s easier to get famous now for five minutes, not for life, like it was in the past.
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In the song ‘Stuff (Can’t Get Enough)’ you sing, “Money will be the death of me”. I’ve just re-read your autobiography, Stone Alone, and it’s evident that since the early days of the Stones, you have always been wary of watching where your money goes…
Well, someone had to. The others just didn’t give a shit, and we ended up losing everything all the time.
When were you actually able to start enjoying the fruits of your labour?
When we went to France in ’71. We became non-resident, and left England and a Labour government that had tax at 83-93%, which was a joke. If you earned £100 you got £7. It was just, ‘Get out of here!’ And everybody with any talent left England - all the scientists, writers, and actors like Michael Caine… Everybody left - we left - because you can’t live on 93% tax. And so we went to France, and from that day on we paid a sensible amount of tax in France, but we were able to improve our situation and start to enjoy a better life - especially there with the weather, the food, the wine, the climate, the ambience.
You’re quite harsh to the young subject of the song ‘Seventeen’…
It’s a bit cruel, actually. It’s about failed models, really. I used to have lots of model girlfriends in the ’70s and early-’80s - in Paris, particularly; they were all over the bloody place! I just saw how hard they tried to be someone, and then they’d get the opportunity to do something and they’d fail, basically, because they weren’t cut out to be a movie star. They were a model. They were a successful model…and then they want to go on and improve their lives in a different way, and they usually fail. It is about a particular American model, but I won’t mention her name.
I heard in the song you being critical of someone that was trying to be someone they’re not for the sake of fame: “It’s just an image / She made a break with reality”.
Well, you have a lot of that in the present day with young people, don’t you?
That’s what I wanted to ask: do you think it’s easier to get famous now than it was when you first started out?
It’s easier to get famous now for five minutes, not for life, like it was in the past. I mean, anybody can be famous for five minutes now - travel in a stretch limousine for a couple of weeks and then be unheard of six months later. It’s very easy and it happens all the time, which is a bit of a shame, but that’s the way life is at the moment. In the other days, you had to do your apprenticeship.
You had to really learn what to do: how to arrange a show, how to behave and say the right things at interviews, wear the right clothes that you chose yourself…and just do it the hard way, and learn your trade and learn how to play by listening to other people for years and years, and just get better and better, and do it because you just want to do it for the love of it - not to become rich and famous.That was the last thing you thought about in those days, because you couldn’t become rich and famous in the ’60s playing blues, which we did, because it was a music that no-one was listening to, no-one bought, and it just slowly grew and we were very lucky in that way. But we did play great, and we were a great band, so that’s what made us successful.
But now I tend to find kids want to go into the business to become rich and famous, and that’s their ultimate desire, and it’s the wrong way around, because you’ve got to learn how to do it. You can’t want to be a footballer and go on a football pitch if you don’t know how to tackle, pass the ball, score a goal or save one - you can’t become a sportsman if you don’t go through the learning and all that, and the same applies to music, really.
I know you consider yourself quite an organised, methodical, person…
Well, I am a bit OCD. You’ve seen me straightening this [napkin] up. I’ve been doing that while we’ve been talking. I just do it. I have to do things like that. I’m uncomfortable seeing that [cutlery squint] like that. They have to be [straight]. It does worry me. (Laughs)
This may explain your collector tendencies. You’re well known for your large collection of personal artifacts and memorabilia from throughout the years, and your love for collecting in general. You mention in your autobiography some old records you recalled buying. Do you still have your original record collection?
Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ve got about 7000 albums, and about 400 singles and EPs. I’ve got a few 78s - not many, because they all got smashed. But yeah, I’ve collected all my life, and I’ve got the most incredible collections of stuff now. Every time I have someone with a project and they come and see my collection they’re just gob smacked, because they never imagined it could be that much. I’ve got all the records, I’ve got scrapbooks, Stones scrapbooks - hundreds of them - autograph books with photos, drawings, poems and all kind of stuff in them. I’ve got stamp collections, tonnes of home movies, coin collections, I’ve got collections of all my archaeological finds - 6000 items. It just goes on and on and on.
So it‘s all in a very big garage somewhere?
I’m not telling you where it is! (Laughs)
Finally, I really wanted to ask you a quick question about Brian Jones, as you were perhaps the closest friend he had in the band – you’d often share hotel rooms…and girls! Were you disappointed by the fact that only you and Charlie attended his funeral on behalf of the Stones?
Well, of course. It was out of order. The only ones to come were me and Charlie. There were a lot of peripheral people around the Stones that never turned up. No, it was disgusting. It really was disgusting. It was awful. It showed guilt. It showed the guilt by them of the way they treated him. Do you know that in Dartford Railway Station where [Mick and Keith] met, they’ve just put up a plaque now saying they created The Rolling Stones, which is totally out of order. I’ve had a few friends write to them and complain, saying: ‘It’s totally out of order. Brian Jones created The Rolling Stones, not Mick and Keith. They were invited into his band at later times,’ and they completely ignore it, because they want the accolade for Dartford.
But it’s so wrong, and I hate stuff like that, where people try to rewrite history for themselves. It’s so wrong. I was thinking of getting a couple of heavies and going down there and just ripping it off, and getting back on the train back to London. I’ve really been thinking about the possibility of doing it, because it’s so wrong.
There are not enough people who stand up for Brian.
No, but Mick and Keith should stand up and say, ‘No, this is wrong. We didn’t create The Rolling Stones, Brian Jones did. Brian Jones chose the name The Rolling Stones, Brian Jones decided what music we would play, and Brian Jones enlisted every member into his band in 1962 and ’63.’ That’s what they should say, but they ain’t going to, are they? (Laughs)
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Bill Wyman's new album 'Back To Basics' is set to be released on June 22nd.