The Rolling Stones

Back with a bang

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By Gary Graff  

They're all old enough to qualify for their AARP cards, but the Rolling Stones are still, well, rolling -- and with the same energetic spirit of Warped Tour musicians a third their age. Forty-three years since forming in London, the group remains iconic and active, unleashing A Bigger Bang, their first set of new material since Bridges to Babylon in 1997, and a massive world tour that, as usual, is packing stadiums and arenas alike. Listen to the album and you'll hear the slashing guitars and cheeky, snotty attitude that's long defined the Stones' sound, making it arguably their best outing since -- take your pick -- Tattoo You, Some Girls, or the venerable Exile on Main Street.

Credit that to a vintage-style gestation, in which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards gathered in the south of France and wrote together, then brought in drummer Charlie Watts (who was successfully battling throat cancer) and guitarist Ron Wood, fresh out of another stint in rehab. It's not only a good album but a swipe at all those comics and critics who think time is no longer on the Rolling Stones' side. Nah, says the band: for them, it's still a gas, gas, gas.

Q: There's a song on A Bigger Bang called "Oh No, Not You Again." Did you think some people might say that about the Stones?

Mick Jagger: (laughs) Well, I don't know if they do or not. There's always a good gap, I think, between us coming around again. There's enough of a gap.

Q: How did you approach A Bigger Bang?

Keith Richards: When Mick and I decided to get together in June of 2004, I went over to Mick's house and we were sitting around, "Got any songs?" As usual we've got a lot of ideas and we start sort of kicking them around.

Jagger: I started off on my own, to be honest, and I'm sure Keith did some things on his own. I wrote a whole bunch of stuff. I don't want to just sit there in front of Keith and start playing guitars and go "Ooh..." It's always good to have a lot of stuff first, and then after you get into this process and you start working them up and say, "Ah, they could go faster" and that, then you start writing new things. That's how it really worked. It didn't start with a look at each other across the sofa saying, "What should we do now?" It doesn't really work like that.

Q: The last time the two of you convened in a house in the south of France you came up with Exile on Main Street.

Richards: I pointed that out to Mick, and that was at my house. I said, "Well, Mick, this time it's your turn! (laughs) Turn down the beds pal, here I come!"

Q: Did it feel similar at all, at least in terms of the spirit in which you approached the album?

Jagger: Not really -- whenever that was, I don't remember. (laughs) You write songs in many, many ways. There's not one way of writing. Keith will play me and song and I'll say, "Yeah, but that needs another bit," and you develop it and write more things.

Richards: I think there was the extra pressure of Mick and I being left alone by ourselves to put the basics together, which we hadn't done for many years. Certainly to me, and I think Mick, too, the closer we work, the better it gets. We'd gotten so used to, after Exile, having to write songs 3,000 miles apart that we sort of figured that was the modus operandi from now on. But this one proved us wrong. We don't know everything, man! (laughs)

Jagger: Like I said, there's no one way of doing things. It goes over a long period of time, a few months, and it's all very different and one day's different from another day. Some songs you write completely on your own, some you help the other person out, some songs he helps you out. On this one it was just the three of us a lot of times, Charlie and Keith and myself, making the rhythm tracks. Keith and I would sit down and just play. I would play guitar and he would play guitar, or one of us would play bass, so it was just the three of us a lot.

Q: Does it make a difference working in a house rather than a studio?

Jagger: Yeah, it does. I think it's because you just feel you could go there any time of the day and night. It's very small, too, and everything's very intimate and you don't have a very big staff and you just have one engineer and one guy doing the guitars and assisting. It's just a very small team. We thought that if we're gonna do this, we might as well make it an intimate atmosphere. We don't need a big studio and all of that.

Richards: The album started to talk to us once Charlie got back, saying "Forget the icing and marzipan and the little candles on top. I don't need any of that. Just leave me alone." We realized we'd built up a set of songs that had character by themselves.

Q: A lot of those are very classic-sounding Stones rockers, too.

Richards: Those songs have always been there. They pass through your career. Albums are weird. Some are really nice, but they're a collection of good tracks, and now and again you come across one that has its own character. You can't plan it. It's just something that happens. I've no doubt the Stones themselves talk about it... "Well, how do we do that again?" You can't plan it.

Q: After all these years and successes, can you take for granted that the interest will be there when the Stones come out with something new?

Richards: Not really. I'm always constantly surprised, you know? You never know until you put some tickets on sale and, wow, if there's that many people that want to see you, even if your leg had fallen off you'd feel obliged to turn up. You say, "Boom! You want us to do it? Come on, boys -- get up off the couch and let's do it." But you don't want to let them down, and you don't want to let yourself down, either.

Q: So in the big picture of the Stones -- how much longer?

Richards: It seems to me that's a very interesting question, and we're the only answer. And when we finally croak, you'll find out how long we can do this.

Jagger: I don't know. I can only go for the medium picture, which is a year on this tour.

Richards: The feeling within the band itself is that, "Hey, we're just getting a handle on this." Everything changes every time you go out. There's new technology. There's new ways of dealing with things. Nothing's ever the same. People might think, "Oh, the Stones are going out on another big tour, and they're so used to it and that's all there is..." But when you're actually involved in it, it's never uninteresting. I can understand that from outside people think that "Oh, they've done this for ages and ages." But there's always a new adventure. There's new things to learn. And, anyway, I like to travel. (laughs)

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.