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Jim McCarty - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 4 / 12 / 2010

Jim McCarty - Interview


Jim McCarty, the drummer with the 60's group the Yardbirds, speaks to Lisa Torem about his influential band's history and his recent solo album ,‘Sitting on the Top of Time’

Jim McCarty’s voice conveys peacefulness and a sense of serenity. We’ve had a great conversation – the acclaimed drummer, guitarist and songwriter, sounding excited about his recent collaboration ‘Sitting on the Top of Time’, has just unpacked from an intimate European tour and has settled back home for the moment in Provence. This grounded musician was once part of the 60's most influential bands, the Yardbirds, which served as bedrock for guitarists Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Baby-faced Keith Relf was on vocals, with whom McCarty would later eventually go on to form the acoustic duo Together and then their next band Renaissance. The Yardbirds, youthful and incredibly ahead of their time, experimented with distortion techniques such as fuzz tones and became renowned for live performance that propelled instruments like the normally unsung bongo or the then exotic sitar into the arrangement. Their first major hit, ‘For You Love’, penned by Graham Gouldman, set swarms of screaming girls in their path. McCarty clearly has an affection for the blues-based band that cultivated rave ups, prophetic lyrics and ingenious riffs. In the 90s (the Yardbirds broke up in ’68), he and rhythm guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja reformed the band and have been enjoying success ever since. A new audience has discovered the magic of songs largely composed by Paul Samwell-Smith (bassist/producer), Relf and McCarty. Jim McCarty puts cultural history in perspective and discusses how those wild beginnings have not been cast aside despite his current philosophies. PB: How are things, Jim? JM: We’ve just finished a tour with John Mayall. That went very well, but it was very tiring, so I’m just getting over that really, but otherwise, it’s fine. PB: How did you end up living in France? JM: It happened a few years ago. We were living in London. We were thinking of moving out of London because it was so sort of manic. I wanted to get out of the city and go somewhere that was a bit more inspirational so we moved about six years ago and it worked out really well because it’s easy to get around to play. I can get a plane from Marseilles or get a train so I’m getting to England or Germany or America, or wherever we’re going to play and it worked out very well and it’s a very nice inspirational place; nice culture and nice weather; lots of blue skies. PB: You were originally influenced by the Chicago blues. Why were you attracted to music that was popular so far away? JM: Good question, really. Quite strange, isn’t it? We sort of heard that music coming out of Chicago and it was, at the time, it was quite rare, quite raw, and quite new in Britain. I don’t think it hadn’t been heard in America by white people or white kids. It was coming from a black audience, a black circuit and also it had been buried for a while. A lot of the stuff we had been hearing in the 60s was from the 50s. To me it was a very exciting music. It had all the elements of rock and roll, which I like, you know, all the American rock and roll stuff. But it had something extra to it. It had a sort of real emotion and excitement and that’s what got me into it. I can speak for the other guys in the band as well there. So we were very excited and we started off playing all those songs we’d heard on those records and we used to go and see the Stones. They were playing – we were in the same area as the Stones; southwest London. They used to play in Richmond. We all lived quite near there in Surrey, and, of course, we got our break by forming the band and following the Stones into the Crawdaddy Club when they left. PB: The Yardbirds seemed to be a “one-room school house” for many guitarists. What was it like to be a formative member and survive all those dramatic changes? JM: (Laughs) Very funny. Lots of ups and downs. Lots of having to suffer many moods with these guys, a lot of things happening all the time; unexpected (laughs again). PB: Each time a guitarist left, did the Yardbirds have to completely regroup or did you swing right back into it? JM: Yeah, it changed in different directions. I mean, particularly when Jeff Beck came in because we were quite a blues band and making it a bit different. We started putting build ups that became known as the rave up where we all built up to a crescendo and then we brought it all down again. It was all based on trying to make the music even more exciting and I think when Jeff joined, that was even better for us because he didn’t just play a blues style; he could play lots of different styles and he had lots of different sounds that he like to play. It suited us because we wanted to make the music quite different and quite futuristic. PB: You had some wild arrangements on those early performances. For example, in ‘I’m a Man’ the maracas are used and bongos. I saw a Shindig segment… JM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, ‘I’m a Man’ – we took the original which was quite slow and it was written by Bo Diddley, but recorded by Muddy Waters, and we did it quite fast and then, of course, we went into a sort of double up speed at the end. This was the kind of thing we liked to do – suddenly change the rhythm and try to make a wild psychedelic sound. PB: ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ has this really unusual guitar riff. JM: It’s pure “Jeff.” He made it up over a very basic boogie background, almost like the “rock around the clock” type of boogie, a very simple bass and drums and he just came up with a riff at the time. How is this riff going to fit in? Once you heard it a few times, you thought how great it is. PB: And playing guitar with a violin bow? JM: That was the thing that Jimmy Page started to do. That was good as well, that was something different. We were always looking for something different, something original and that was the thing that was really lovely about the group that we were always trying for that all of the time. PB: ‘Still I’m Sad’ – a reviewer said it resembled a Gregorian chant. JM: That was an idea of Paul Samwell-Smith. who suggested we do this thing with lots of voices and monks, almost. These things just developed, everyone had ideas and we were in the studio and someone had an idea and we tried to do thing and something like that would work and that would be original as well. PB: That fact that your first album was recorded live – wasn’t that unusual? JM: There was a reason for that. It was probably because we would go into the studio and try to reproduce songs we played live on stage and they’d always sound so flat. In the studio, they’d always sound so tame and there’d be no excitement. The studios at the time weren’t really geared for us. We did our best recordings in the American studios which were far more advanced in rock and roll, at least in engineering, and then all the things we went to record just didn’t sound any good and we tried various, different songs. We tried a song from our repertoire, ‘Wish you Would’, oh, yeah, it didn’t sound too bad. It started to sound like a hit record and then we were looking for a hit record and so we decided to do a slight diversion which was ‘For Your Love’, not really take a blues song, just a song that we liked because it was different; it had a mood to it and bongos which we liked and a time signature break which we liked as well. So that was the reason that we did a live recording because that was the only way that got the excitement into the song, doing it live. PB: When you and Chris (Dreja) reformed the Yardbirds, what motivated you? Was it the songs or the nostalgia? JM: Well, it was always the repertoire which was always very strong, doing all those hits like ‘Smokestack Lightning’, some of the old blues things all in one go, all in one hour and a half. It was very powerful and we had a lot of interest and requests for the Yardbirds, which we didn’t really expect at that time. We were just having fun playing at the clubs. We didn’t think it would be going on and on for years and years and the interest has almost grown over the years, got bigger and bigger and we were inducted into the Hall of Fame in ’92 and it gave us the confidence and incentive to try and do the Yardbirds again and an agent from the north of England suggested reforming the band. He was already booking the Animals, someone called Peter Barton. He was already booking the Animals with Hilton Valentine and John Steel. Yeah, we thought we’d give it a go and we went from there. PB; You were inspired by John Cage. JM: Yeah. PB: Was the whole band you specifically? JM: Originally we’d listen to John Cage and some of the modern composers. It was difficult to bring that into the repertoire but (laughs) somehow maybe we touched it here or there. We listened to people like the Mothers as well who were dong some mad stuff by Zappa, lots of different things; we used to like the Modern Jazz Quartet and Dave Brubeck, all these people we were influenced by in our sound. PB: You took those sounds in a different direction. When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician? JM: I was a drummer in the Boys Brigade. I learned to play the snare drum, sort of first, marching stuff (laughs). I thought I was quite good at school and I started to listen to American rock and roll things; listened to the drumming, Buddy Holly and all that, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash and all that stuff. I used to like that kind of music and somebody in my neighborhood said there was a band that was rehearsing around the corner from me. I don’t know how old I was. I was probably about 15 or something. They said, "Do you want to come around?" It was the first time I’d seen a band set up in a room (Laughs) at somebody’s house, being so close and it was so exciting. I thought, this is great; I'd like to be able to play in a band like this, play the drums like that guy did (Laughs). I went from there. That was probably the first time. PB: Were you able to articulate a lot of modern ideas when you formed Renaissance? JM: Keith and I had a good thing going between us. We used to room together on tours and listen to a lot of different records while we toured. We had a lot of ideas and we got fed up with playing the same Yardbirds set all the time and decided we wanted to play something quite different. It happened to come together when we were looking for musicians that we found John Hawken who is actually a rock and roll pianist more like a Jerry Lee Lewis piano player and when we did some of our ideas he started to play classical (Laughs) and it sort of fitted in. It was something different as well. When we started, we rehearsed at my house and we started turning these songs into long movements and stuff. It was like being an early prog band, I guess. PB: Ron Korb, the flautist, visited you and you went off in yet another direction. I’m referring to the composing and production of ‘Sitting on the Top of Time.’ JM: He came down to France because he was going to Meedam, which isn’t far from here where I live, and I’d known Ron for some time because he had a company in Toronto called Oasis, which was like a new-age company. I’d dabbled in some of that music with Louie Cennamo, who is the bass player in Renaissance, and then he came down and I said we should do a track together, because we’d done a lot of tracks before. It’s a long story. I didn’t have very good equipment so I went down to the shop to get a DAT machine and, of course, the DAT machine didn’t work, (laughs) typically for the French, and from then on we got talking and he said we should record an album together and he played some of his own stuff and particularly a DVD where he really uses good musicians. These musicians are great. I’m going to come to Toronto to do some recording with these guys and people like Donald Quan who is playing keyboards and George Coler, the bass player, really good musicians that I liked and we went from there. I got an up to date system which was set up by Jason Relf (Keith Relf’s son) who is a recording engineer, and actually teaches recording engineering at colleges. He came down and set me up with a state of the art digital system. I went from there and I started to write songs down here; then when I was touring in America, I’d take a couple of weeks off in Toronto at the same time and do some work there. PB: There’s such an interesting mix on the album; acoustic guitar work and at least three instrumentals spanning new age and classical. There are some beautiful melodies. JM Yeah. Thanks. They just seemed to fit in. I’d done some of that instrumental stuff before, a bit like that, but not quite the same. Donald was such a lovely piano player and they all played so well together. I actually enjoyed working together out there. It was such good fun. PB: The album took about two years to complete. Were you commuting back and forth? JM: I did a tour in 2006 or 2007. I did a tour of the States and played a couple of casinos in Canada with the Yardbirds and then I went and had a week’s session. Got the ball rolling and did about half a dozen songs and then we weren’t really finished. I went back and wrote some more songs, some more lyrics (laughs) and changed some keys, changed a few things and next time I went back I did some more. It sort of worked like that really. PB: Jim, how would you describe your current philosophy of life and how it relates to the music you’re creating? JM: I suppose it’s sort of a spiritual philosophy. I very much believe in the positive. I try to believe in a positive outlook in things. I’m not really involved in a revolutionary thing like we were in the 60s. We’re not trying to break things down anymore, more about creating a sort of new age in a positive way, and in that way, lots of things needs to change. Lots of things are going to change, as well, I think, but not in a bad way. I’ve been through various spiritual philosophies in my life. You know I’ve been through spiritual healing and musical healing and channeling and Buddhism as well. I’ve been to some fantastic places in the Himalayas and it all sort of comes into the picture and to the music, really. PB: When you sing ‘Sitting on the Top of Time,’ is that symbolic of something deeper? JM: I suppose the symbolism of that particular song is about being very present, living in the moment, not relying on anything from the past or going too far into the future, just really enjoying that moment and living from that perspective and that sort of came from living on the inside out as well, really from the inside of your mind, to be affected by all the things going on outside and it’s a bit of a crazy world. It’s not always easy. PB: You wrote original music for ‘Birdland.’ What do you remember from that project? JM: That’s a fairly spiritual song, ‘The Mystery of Being’ which is looking very hard for some kind of meaning. That was a spiritual song that just about fitted into the Yardbirds repertoire, you know. ‘Mr. Saboteur’ and ‘Please Don’t Tell Me ‘Bout the News’ because the news can be really quite depressing. PB: Do you still see yourself as that young musician with all those wild ideas anymore? JM: Well, I suppose in some respects. You do change an awful lot. But, I suppose in some respects there’s a thing about being original and being different, being associated with change, shake things up, that’s something I’m quite proud of. I though that was a great song, had a lot of great lyrics about – it was an anti-Vietnam war feeling (‘Shapes of Things ‘). That was recorded in Chicago in Chess Studios. It was done in a sort of a blues studio. It’s not really a blues song, and it had a great cheer to it and a great lead guitar and solo. I thought it was very far-sighted, very futuristic in its day. PB: Did you meet the guys at Chess? JM: Not really, no, only the engineers. We met musicians while we were playing sometimes. We met Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and people like that, some of the great blues musicians and that was always great fun and, of course, Sonny Boy Williamson, who we played with. PB: Imagine that you could create a jam session that would include musicians who are no longer with us. Who would you invite? JM: (Laughs). That would be great. It depends really if you’re playing a great blues. He could play a great blues; Willie Dixon and I guess, Buddy Guy’s still going, isn’t he? PB: Oh, yes, he’s still going. JM: (Laughs). He’s great as ever, and Muddy Waters, that would be fantastic. And of course, Sonny Boy. He was a great guy. He was a great player, but quite, quite difficult. He’s very much his own man. (Laughs). It’s difficult to play with these people sometimes. They’re very much solo entities. PB: Can you define your songwriting process? JM: It’s an idea from deep within somewhere, probably a tune and usually the tune comes first and I have difficulty writing the words. Sometimes there’s a feeling that goes with the song. It’s almost like a channeling process, you know, you’re going to take part of yourself. The lyrics can be difficult or they can come very quickly with the tune. PB: Could you tell me one song that defines you from your cannon of work? JM: I would think ‘Living from the Inside Out’ from my last album. I had a tune and a feeling about living that way, straight away. It’s always a magical thing for me to have a tune and then put the chords there because you can do it in so many different ways. It feels great the way it falls in with the chords which I find very exciting, when the tune falls in with that chord sequence. It’s really quite a nice feeling to do and then I had to mess around and, first of all, I had the wrong key, I recorded it. Oh, no, that was one of the songs I had the right key. No, that’s okay on that one. PB: Jim, what is the most beautiful word in the English language? JM: (Laughs). You want me to say that from the top of my head? The most beautiful word? The first thing was heart and the second was love. They’re very similar. Aren’t they? PB: Thank you, Jim.

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Jim McCarty - Interview

Jim McCarty - Interview

Jim McCarty - Interview

Jim McCarty - Interview

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