Interview: Keith Richards

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Keith Richards, 'Crosseyed Heart'
Keith Richards, 'Crosseyed Heart' (Republic Records)
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We've been playing "Trouble," the new single from Keith Richards, on The Current for the past couple of months. On Sept. 18, 2015, Keith's album, Crosseyed Heart comes out on Republic Records.

The Current's Jim McGuinn recently had a chance to talk to Keith Richards via a connection to Electric Lady Studios in New York City. Here's their conversation.

Part I

JIM McGUINN: Congrats on the release of Crosseyed Heart, your third album, your first in 23 years as a solo artist.

KEITH RICHARDS: I know — what took me so long?

Yeah, what happened there?

Well, I've got this other band…! (laughs)

When the Stones suddenly hit one of their hiatus, hibernation periods, I realized I hadn't been in the studio for four or five years and I'm going, "This is ridiculous, this is what I do." So Steve Jordan and I got together and said, "Well, let's kick around a few ideas, a few riffs and see what happens."

It sort of grew organically over a period of a couple of years. We'd cut a few tracks one week, and then maybe for three months, I'd be on the road then Steve [would have other obligations] and then we'd get back in.

What I enjoyed about making the record was there was no deadline, you know? You could just keep on doing what you wanted without anybody sort of breathing down your neck. I think that made it an interesting feel on the album.

There's a lot of great feels. The title cut, for instance, you open with acoustic blues. The playing is almost reminiscent of "You've Got the Silver" or some other old blues track. It sounds like an impromptu song you came up with on the spot. How did that come about, and why did you pick that to name and kick off the album?

I love the title "Crosseyed Heart," and I still can't explain quite what it means. I wanted to make a record that gave thanks and praises to everybody that influenced me. So in a way, "Crosseyed Heart" was to Robert Johnson. And later on, I realized without realizing it that I was tipping my hat in a lot of directions: to Gregory Isaacs for "Love is Overdue," and to Otis Redding, and to a whole lot of people. I was paying my dues!

I love the feel and the fact that you could have probably gone in and perfected that take, but you kind of leave it in there — the mix of the beauty and the warts — on the first track.

I kind of say, "That's all I've got," and then we slam into some rock 'n' roll. It's an intro.

So this album, like your previous solo albums, you've mostly worked with Waddy Wachtel and Steve Jordan. What is it that makes those guys such a comfortable fit for you?

Great friends, known each other for years. I've always wanted to play with Waddy Wachtel; he's one of the most simpatico players around that I could work with. I have Ronnie Wood who's also simpatico. And sometimes you can't really put your finger on why, but you know that if you play something to somebody that he's automatically going to pick up on what you're doing and expand on it. It's great fun. It's always a learning experience. I love pushing around musical ideas with musicians — that's actually what it's all about for me.

How is it then different when you're working with those guys? It seems like there's a lot less pressure for this record than there is, I imagine, when you're working with the Stones.

True. Stones' records are always made with a deadline. On this one, the great absence of a deadline I think gave it a freer, more open feel than "Oh, we're going to cut an album and it's due" whenever. We said, "We're just going to cut until we think we have an album." And then I've got to find a time slot to put it in to not clash with the Stones. Finally, we found our moment right here and now. So there it is.

You mentioned Gregory Isaacs, and I know you've always been a huge fan and supporter of reggae and dub and have kept a house in Jamaica. That reggae groove on "Love Overdue"; what is it about that rhythm that connects with you?

I don't know, but if you wanted one simple word, I'd say, "Africa." That connects with me the same way as rhythm and blues from America. The beat is just turned around, that's all. I've found that the common denominator is basically Africa, I think, and that beautiful sense of rhythm that came out of Africa which is in all of us — black, white or indifferent, it's there, we're all Africans in the bones. It resonates with me.

And also I've always lived in places which are basically surrounded by black musicians. That's where I feel comfortable. And there's a touch, a rhythmic feel, where I feel — you want to call it syncopation, it's the roll in the rock, whatever; they used to call it "swing"! It's a bounce and a ceding to the rhythm that is slightly more entertaining or natural than a lot of white music.

I'd say there's a space in all of your playing that's similar to the best reggae. It's similar to what a lot of the old blues guys say — like B.B. King used to say, "It's not what you play but what you don't."

Absolutely. That is a pretty old saw now, but it is, like all clichés, absolutely true. It's not what you play, it's when you play it and what you leave out.

PART II

JIM McGUINN: I love the guitars in "Suspicious." Is that a Jerry Jones sitar/guitar instrument in the mix there?

KEITH RICHARDS: Yes, it's some bizarre instrument that I can't even pronounce the word of. One of the guys, Larry Campbell or maybe Paul [Miller, aka DJ] Spooky basically brought in a gamba and it just seemed to fit. But it is definitely some undefined Eastern instrument! (laugh)

Yeah, I was wondering how that would wind up on your album in 2015.

In that case, you can say, "Why are there the marimbas on 'Under My Thumb'?" Because Brian Jones found a marimba set lying around in the studio.

Sometimes you're not planning anything; you suddenly look around the room and find something and think, "Let's try it." It's all a matter of improvisation, really.

A happy accident.

Yes, the happy accidents. The bad ones, you don't see.

I saw the Stones on the ZIP Code tour. You and Ronnie looked like you were having more fun than ever. How is it different going out on X-Pensive Winos dates than when you're going out with the Stones?

It's a lot different, man. I realized how different when I did the first Winos [tour] and I appreciated much more the job that Mick has, to be the frontman. But when you've got to be the frontman and play at the same time, it's a task, it's a challenge, but I'm ready to take it on again.

It seems you're able to be more without a net and take more risks when you're playing a club versus playing the stadiums where you must feel obligated to play "Brown Sugar" or "Satisfaction." In the past, you've pulled out old Stones' tracks like "Connection" when you played live. Is that the sort of thing you're hoping to do this time if you get on the road?

Yes. With the Stones, just because it's such a large operation, the set list can kind of get stuck. I would always go for more freedom with the set list, but at the same time, I and the band have to organize ourselves for what the lead singer, for what Mick wants to do. You never want to send a man out there doing something that he's not sure of or doesn't feel safe with or something.

I guess a little conservatism runs into the Stones' set lists, which I wouldn't mind freeing up, but at the same time, there's enough songs in there I think for everybody to get their jollies off! (laughs)

I want to ask you about one of the songs, "Blues in the Morning," that Bobby Keys is on. What's it like for you now when you hear Bobby, your longtime friend and collaborator, when you hear him playing?

It's bittersweet. I had no idea at the time that that was going to be Bobby's last recordings. But there's no doubt, I can hear Bobby saying to me, "It couldn't have happened at a better time and a better place."

So whenever I think about Bobby Keys, as sad as it is and how much I do miss the man, I still have a smile on my face when I think about him. He wouldn't want it any other way.

We had a few great visits with Ian McLagan over the last few years. I imagine that was really tough to lose Bobby and then Mac.

That was the double whammy. Bobby going and then a week or so later, Mac.

Mac, I thought, was indestructible. I mean, he's not a very large target! I'm still reeling in a bit of shock from Mac going. I loved the man dearly; a great part of English rhythm and blues and a hell of a player.

The older you get, the more people you're going to miss.

I love the reading of the Lead Belly song, 'Goodnight Irene' on the record. What prompted you to put that on the album?

I wanted to do one classic, American folk song that everybody knew. Maybe they don't know it in this version because I used the original Lead Belly lyrics, which as you'd find out, they're not used very often anywhere else.

Tom Waits had sent me this book on Lead Belly, and at the same time, my guitar man had dropped off a 12-string guitar to me. So I'm looking at the 12-string guitar and I'm looking at this book on Lead Belly and I said, "I guess the message is, I have to do 'Goodnight Irene'." So I can take a hint.

Last night I got to hear a stream of the record, and I was outside grilling for my family on a beautiful Minnesota night. I was wondering, 'What is Keith Richards doing tonight?' When you're not working, what's an evening like for you at your house these days?

Pretty much, if the weather's good, I'd be out there grilling with you!

It's been a beautiful summer here. I'm a family man, you know? I've got kids and grandkids and dogs and a wife and stuff. I'm just like any other guy on a nice evening. Happy grilling!

Tracks Played


"Trouble"
"Crosseyed Heart"
"Love Overdue"
"Suspicious"
"Blues in the morning"
"Goodnight Irene"
All songs off Keith Richards album, Crosseyed Heart, out now on Republic Records.

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