Paul McCartney

The Long and Winding Road

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By Gary Graff  

Believe it or not, Paul McCartney -- the "cute" Beatle and, lest we forget, a knight of the British empire -- has already passed the milestone when he could sing "When I'm 64," and do so accurately.

But, for now, McCartney is busy being here, there and everywhere. His latest album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which he recorded mostly by himself, is very much in the tradition of 1970's McCartney and 1980's McCartney II. He has published a children's book, High in the Clouds: An Urban Furry Tail, and has both opened and closed the world's most recent musical mega-concert, Live 8. And he's on tour again with his backing band, mixing new songs with memorable favorites from his solo, Beatle, and Wings careers.  

McCartney, who's an avid painter and advocate for environmental and animal rights causes, clearly likes to keep himself busy. Judging from his remarkable history, it seems unlikely that he'll be slowing down anytime soon.

Q: You've created such a formidable and imposing body of work over the years. Do you think about that when you're considering new material?

McCartney: Yeah, I think you do. It would be kind of silly to think that you wouldn't, really. It's there. You don't want to copy it. I think what happens more nowadays is I'm not trying to avoid styles that I used in the past. What I would normally do is, "Oh, no, I've done that. I've done that sort of string quartet thing, therefore I should never do it again." But it didn't bother me after "Yesterday" to kind of do a stringy thing on "Eleanor Ribgy."

Q: Was there a time when you consciously avoided trying to sound like the Beatles?

McCartney: I remember when the Beatles broke up, we all insisted on being called ex-Beatle. We said "I won't do an interview with you unless you write ex-Beatle." We were very touchy at the time. But enough water has gone under the bridge now for me. I think it was really the advent of Wings and me thinking "Oh, I mustn't sound anything like the Beatles anymore. I must establish a new direction." Once I realized that I'd done that and that stood as it's own little body of work, then I started more recently to think, "Well, yeah, why not revisit some of these styles and just see if there's anything interesting in them." So I've done that. As you say, you've got this body of work and you could get very intimidated by it and go "Oh my God, I've done all this. I can never write again." But I like the process so much that, perhaps foolishly, that doesn't occur to me. I just go, "Yeah, I'm gonna have a go," like I always did.

Q: How do you balance all of that material together for your concert repertoire?

McCartney: We try to make it something that interests us, and by doing so hopefully we get it to be something the people will like. You've just got to judge it between the rare stuff and the kind of stuff people still know. If you just do a big bunch of songs that nobody knows, that's all right for a club, especially if you explain to people "Hey, we're just gonna do deep stuff tonight." But I think when you've got these big arenas, I always feel like I've got to give them the kind of night out that I would want, so that includes hits.

Q: What is the impact of playing most of the instruments yourself, as you do on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard?

McCartney: It's a subtle thing, really. I think it just tends to sound different from a band playing it, just in essence there's a sort of different thing going on. Obviously, I know the bass player well, and the drummer knows the bass player -- you know what I mean? I either know what I'm going to do or what I have done. It was the producer's (Nigel Godrich) idea, really. I didn't intend to do it like that, but he kind of realized that it would have a slightly different feel, and I went along with it and it did turn out different.

Q: What impact do you feel was made by Live 8?

McCartney:  It made the issue more visible than it was up to that point, so it did do something. You can't cure things overnight, but in the same way that Hotel Rawanda placed a spotlight on the African situation, and The Constant Gardener, for instance, placed another spotlight on it, I think it helps bring people's attention to these things.

Q: It's more about chipping away at the problem than coming up with instant solutions...

McCartney: Yeah, well I think that's a more realistic attitude. Much as we would love to change it overnight, we're all sort of more mature and we realized it doesn't happen like that. Let's face it, man, you want to make your fortune, but it's not gonna happen overnight, unless you win the lottery. That means you've got to keep chipping away at these things, all of them that are important to you. But you can make a huge difference.

Q: You paint as well as make music. Is there a similarity between the two?

McCartney:  It's the same sort of magical process that I like, where you conjure up something out of nothing. You get a little idea that leads you through.  But, I think it's slightly different from music. It's slightly more like a world you can go through to, like a sort of door you can go through into another world, which is quite nice. You can go into a little bit of a trance while you're doing it, so it's a nice contrast to real life. I think a song is a little more present, not much, cause you're dealing with words and notes and chords and things like that. It's a little more specific. With the painting, there's maybe not quite so many considerations.

Q: How long do you think you'll go on actively making music?

McCartney: I don't know. As long as I enjoy it, I suppose, which seems to be now and the foreseeable future. It's crazy, really. It's very paradoxical. You would think the natural thing is I'd be completely bored. I was talking to someone the other day, and we were saying that with the Beatles, I used to perform for about half an hour a night, and if you cut those numbers in half, dividing them between me and John -- and then there's even another aspect with George and Ringo -- but if you cut them in half, it means I was doing a quarter-hour a night. And so now, to be doing more like two and a half hours, you would think it wouldn't work. But it does.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.