Both as a solo artist and as the lead singer and main songwriter for Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter has devoted his life to making solid, honest rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes in fashion (the glam era, the punk explosion) and sometimes out (the ‘80s), Hunter and his music have brought him face to face with some of rock’s biggest names and most seismic moments. He’s had great albums produced by David Bowie and bad ones produced by Mick Jones of the Clash and Nile Rodgers. He’s created enduring classics like Mott’s version of Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes” and his own “Cleveland Rocks” and he’s had his songs turned into hits by such illustrious artists as, uh, Barry Manilow (“Ships”) and Great White (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy”). His latest project, Strings Attached (2004 Universal International) sees him performing some of his best songs backed by a full string ensemble. It’s a mighty long way from working-class proto-punk to working with Norwegian string players, with a lot of good and bad in-between, but one thing you can count on from Ian Hunter is a straightforward and unsentimental look at the reality of rock ‘n’ roll. After all, he’s a man who, in his own words is “cursed with a tinge of honesty.”
PopMatters: I’d just like to start by saying that it’s neat for me to be talking to you because a couple years ago, when I was working a shitty job I used to listen to Brain Capers on the drive in and it would give me the motivation to show up.
Ian Hunter: I would’ve thought that would’ve motivated you to stay away.
PM: Well, I needed the paycheck.
IH: Ah, right.
PM: That’s enough of that introductory babble. I have to admit I was a little surprised when I heard that Ian Hunter was releasing an “Ian Hunter with Strings Album”.
IH: Uh huh.
PM: Could you talk a little bit about what was the idea behind doing this album?
IH: It appealed to me because these people in Norway—I forget the name of the label—they gave me a list of 48 of my own songs and said, “Why don’t you pick 17 out of these and do a couple of covers and a couple of new ones or something like that and we’ll provide the orchestra and all the rest of it.”
PM: It wasn’t even your idea to begin with?
PM: That’s kinda fun.
IH: It’s kind of left field, very appealing. I like the change.
PM: Some of the songs probably seemed like more obvious choices to put strings on than others, so how did you cull from that list of 48 which ones you wanted to do?
IH: I’m more organically inclined these days so I didn’t want to do any of the Hoople 50 million chords epic-type things, I wanted to do stuff that was more simple. The amount of rehearsal you can do with an orchestra is limited. So basically, I picked the easiest ones (laughs).
PM: That would do it!
PM: Obviously at this point in your career you’ve done a lot of different things and I can’t imagine there’s a ton of stuff that you’re itching to do that you haven’t done, so is the opportunity to do things like Strings Attached what keeps you going?
IH: It’s very appealing. It keeps the other end of it bright as well. I mean I’m doing a lot of different variations of late and it keeps it interesting.
PM: Was there a point when you looked around and saw a bunch of guys with violins and cellos and thought, “who ever thought I’d be doing this?”
IH: Yeah. I mean, I never thought I’d be in a band in the first place. Not only that, the stuff that went on, the guy that mixed it was Miles Davis’s mixer. I was working hard because I wanted to get a compliment out of him. Very quiet little chap.
PM: So you’ve been doing this for 30 years and you’re still trying to get compliments out of the engineers?
IH: Well there’s gotta be a target. Because kids are kids. They’re gonna hear an encore no matter what.
PM: The rock ‘n’ roll guy putting a string section on his stuff is sort of in-line with the contradictory theme in your music. You say rock ‘n’ roll is a loser’s game yet you’ve been doing it for thirty years, and you can write nasty, harder songs, then you’ll do something like “Ships” or some of the ones off of Rant.
IH: I’m moody. (laughs)
PM: Is that all there is to it?
IH: Actually what you’re saying and what I was thinking are two different things. A lot of bands, when they use strings, they use ‘em as a chord machine, might as well be a keyboard. We didn’t do that. I think that’s where it differs from something like ELP. That’s what usually happens, they go by weight—a monster chord thing going on behind. This guy [the Norwegian who approached him] didn’t want to do that, he wanted to take the thing apart. He thought I was in a long line of European composers. That’s why they offered it to me in the first place. The guy before me was an 87-year-old violinist.
IH: Yeah. They have a thing in Norway where, they would never do it in America, they would never do it in the UK, they have their big hits with people they don’t particularly like, but then they put 20% aside for things that they do like. Which I think is a very noble way of doing things. I came under that benefit.
They thought I was in the line ... they could understand a thread going through my work… I’m telling you this—they should be telling you this. It’s disgusting me telling you this, but that was the reason why they did it. It cost a lot of money to do.
PM: Were you happy to play along with that?
IH: They took me out and said, “We’ll do this and we’ll do that,” and of course Norwegians mean it—they’re not like Americans or the UK people, they don’t lie to you. I’m adding this up and it’s a lot of money and I just stopped ‘em at one point and said, “Yeah this is all very well, but who’s paying for it?” And the guy said, “I am.”
PM: That must’ve been a nice change.
IH: It was a great feeling. Those things always happen to somebody else in my life. For once it happened to me. And when we did it, it was great to do. Fabulous. They put me up in the Nobel Suite.
PM: It seems that one of the things that you come back to a lot is trying to sort out the myths of rock ‘n’ roll from the reality of what it is to be in a band and be a rock ‘n’ roll musician.
IH: I seem to do that, but I don’t know why. I don’t think it really matters. I think a lot of people like their bullshit. For some reason there’s a tinge of honesty with me. I’m cursed with a tinge of honesty.
PM: Probably a little more than a tinge, right?
IH: It’s just weird, adulation—that whole thing. Like ringing up Rush Limbaugh and saying it’s such an honour. Just people who got lucky, that’s all. I got a free pass from music.
PM: But a lot of other acts or bands don’t come across as being people who got a free pass from music; they create a distance or make themselves seem larger than life.
IH: Half the time I think that’s a good idea. Some people like that—they like a distance.
PM: Why do you think that’s a good idea?
IH: They want that. It’s a real letdown when they find out you’re just a normal person. They don’t want you to be normal, they want you to be abnormal. Of course, you are abnormal. But you’re not gonna live your life abnormal. You act normal with normal people. Some people get real fed up. I remember Mick Jones out of the Clash (Producer of Hunter’s 1981 album Short Back and Sides), he couldn’t believe it—he thought I was God. And it put me in a really weird position, because everything out of my mouth had to be weird and of course it wasn’t, so he became very disenchanted.
He went through a period where he was positively scornful.
PM: To you?
IH: Yeah—because I’d let him down so bad. He thought I was this kind of person I wasn’t. It’s fine now. This is when he was young and impressionable. But you get where people would prefer it that way. I remember Tony DeFries (ex-manager of Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, and T.Rex) used to say, “Never open your mouth on stage - you’ll give it away.” And he was right if you’re going for that kind of thing.
PM: Was playing the superhero something you never felt compelled to do or, because of who you are, it wasn’t something you could have done ?
IH: I worked for nine years before I got into bands. I was just a normal guy who just happened to start writing songs at a point. To me, to go all tarty and silly ... I don’t know, I just thought it was bullshit. But I can understand that people do like their fantasies ... Or whatever you want to call them.
PM: It’s interesting that at the same time you say the fantasy aspect of it is bullshit, you, I don’t think, have been unwilling to embrace the showmanship aspect of rock ‘n’ roll.
IH: When I was young, one of my idols was Screaming Lord Sutch, who couldn’t sing a note, but his timing, his stagecraft, was wonderful. I went through a phase there, I loved it. I loved all the showbiz.
PM: But now that’s something that doesn’t factor into what you do?
IH: What happened with me was that music crept up on me. I mean I got into music through desperation.
PM: What do you mean by that?
IH: I mean I knew what it was working in a factory, I knew where that was going. No offence to people who work in factories. I didn’t want that. And there was football. We were kinda like the Hispanics of England—there was football or music. Or you were gonna be cleaning windows for the rest of your life. In fact, one of my mates is cleaning windows.
PM: Both your music and Mott the Hoople seemed to fit a spot in between the fantasy aspect and the—
IH: Well the press were going on about the glam aspect of it, and yeah we did that kinda like the Who did with the Mod thing—that was what we had to do at the time to get through the mob. But really, we were one of the best-selling acts in Britain at the time, we were selling out everywhere we went, our followers were working class, and mainly guys. That wasn’t a Glam audience.
PM: But you seemed to fall into that. Maybe it was the David Bowie association.
IH: We got all dressed-up and off we went. But that wasn’t the way the band was built. The band was built on the loyalty of legions of fans.
PM: I think that’s something, too, that’s unique about your music. In songs like “You Are One of Us” and “Saturday Gigs”, you acknowledge that the band is kind of a reflection of the audience.
IH: I really don’t see the difference between me and anybody else. I think it’s, uh, engineered somehow. Marketing, engineered, I don’t know what it is. I mean, people separate you and you’re all the same. It’s just that some people are good at some things and other people are good at other things.
PM: I don’t know about that. I’m not sure how manufactured it is.
IH: Especially in America, they don’t have royalty or something, so they want a film star. They want Rod Stewart, they want their bloody heroes. And why not? That’s fair enough. I guess I just didn’t include myself in that mob.
PM: If you had sold gazillions of records do you think anything would be different?
IH: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think I’d be an acquired taste.
PM: I saw a line from you somewhere that said something like, “Without lying, cheating, or stealing, you’re not living.” And the fact that Mott the Hoople’s career and your career you never really took off on a huge level—do you think that adversity has fuelled your music in some sense?
IH: I think I work better when I’m desperate than when it’s easy. I mean, Mott had a couple ... we didn’t completely like it. To be honest with you, I remember doing 20,000 seaters. I remember Aerosmith opening. The Philadelphia Spectrum places like that.
PM: So you had a taste of it.
IH: It didn’t feel the same, it felt like totally removed. It felt like limo, hotel, gig. The gig had nothing to do with people because they were miles away. You had your monitors and they had the front sound.
PM: The connection was gone at that point.
IH: Yeah, that’s why I’ve always liked clubs. They’re annoying places, clubs. Nasty, smelly places with disgusting dressing rooms. When you’re actually on stage there’s a blood thing that you just don’t get at the bigger gigs. To me that’s what rock and roll’s all about. That’s how it was at the beginning.
PM: So now, when you see people who are your contemporaries like Rod Stewart or David Bowie or the Rolling Stones, do you think the fact that they’ve been playing so long in theatres where people are faceless specks miles away has changed what they do?
IH: I think the Stones are great. They still do clubs. Because that’s where the reality of it lies. It doesn’t lie in 20,000-seaters. It works from the point of view of an event where the kids go and have a great time and all that, but it doesn’t have the sweat factor. I think that’s why the Stones will often do clubs. Prince does clubs. Not that he’s a rocker, but he’s great at what he does.
PM: The music you made came out of the music you listened to—Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock was still a fresh, new thing, and nowadays bands starting out are listening to copies of copies of copies—what effect do you think that has on the music? Can it be fresh like it was for you?
IH: I don’t think people really go and see rock ‘n’ roll anymore. They sit at home and watch American Idol, you know? That’s music to them.
PM: But people who go to an Ian Hunter show—do you think they’re the people who sit at home and watch American Idol?
IH: No, they’re not. I know that because they tell me.
PM: So maybe it’s (the rock audience) is just a smaller audience now?
IH: It’s a smaller audience, but wherever I go it’s mobbed and it’s passionate and it’s all these things that you don’t really get. The tragedy of it is like you say: the people grow up in a different atmosphere and so they then put their tag on a word like rock ‘n’ roll, which is used very loosely, and they think that’s what rock ‘n’ roll was. That kind of thing they’re listening to is pretty ineffectual when compared to people like Hendrix. Little Richard—they never saw that wildness. And I saw that. I’m old enough. If they saw that, then rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in.
PM: And what mess is it in?
IH: It’s corporate. It was the ‘80s when corporations started taking over and that’s when it started dying. Corporations found out that hip-hop was a lot cheaper.
PM: Why do you think it’s cheaper? What do you mean?
IH: Well, it doesn’t cost so much to make a record. A few machines, you know. I’m not pissing rap or hip-hop, cuz I’ve heard some great stuff come out of there. But it’s cheaper. Some guy in a boardroom says, “I can go out and get 12 of these for one of those.” And labels are renowned for greed. That’s why radio went. Because radio was so greedy, record companies were so greedy, they wouldn’t support radio anymore. So radio turned to corporate.
PM: It sounds, from your perspective, pretty grim. I think there are still pockets here and there of people who get into it for the right reasons.
IH: It’s not grim at all. It’s not grim at all. It is what it is. I deal with it. It’s fine. Apart from anything else that I’ve had over 70 covers. I don’t have to work, but I want to work and I like to go to slutty little places and go nuts.
PM: How do you judge your success now?
IH: You can’t judge success. It’s like Brad Pitt says, “Do you wanna make a good movie or do you wanna make a movie that sells?” You can’t judge. All I can do is do my best. Which I wasn’t doing in the ‘80s when the corporate thing first hit. But I have been doing it over the last eight years, nine years. That’s success to me. If I do a dippy record than I feel really bad. And I’ve done two or three, so I know what it feels like.
PM: So it’s the work then—not anything else?
IH: It’s the work. Initially it wasn’t. I got in it for other reasons other than music. Music just sort of caught up with me along the way. I was like, “Wait a minute, this is fucking great. This makes me feel so much better than playing a video game.” It’s like scoring a girl. It’s brilliant.
PM: Trust me, I know that feeling.
IH: It’s an amazing feeling. It goes deeper than any other feeling I know of. When I write something like “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, that’s my home run. Regardless of whether it sells or doesn’t sell.
PM: Maybe it’s impossible to get that original attitude back?
IH: Yeah, because it was that time. It was a time not ten years after the Second World War and soldiers had just come back from the war and they were dealing with idiots. Kids were growing up who didn’t know anything about the war and didn’t want to know anything about the war and all of a sudden were watching Elvis and Little Richard and all this music from hell. That time will never happen again.
PM: Maybe you could look at something like hip-hop as being the way rock ‘n’ roll was?
IH: Hip-hop was guys who had no money, and that was the cheapest way of doing it. Same beginning as rock ‘n’ roll. Guys had no money. The only difference was we nicked amps, we nicked guitars. We didn’t buy ‘em. With hip-hop, they were on the street banging things and they were like, “Shit, this is good.” It’s like doo-wop with a groove. The beginning of the punk thing was ... you could see what was going on. There was lots of record stores in Brixton in London and nobody could afford records, so the stores would put speakers outside the store, and all these black kids and all these white kids and the next the you know—“The Clash”.
PM: It’s weird that the people who need the music the most are the people who the music is found by. The same way you found Jerry Lee Lewis. The right people find the right music for them.
IH: Yeah, it’s a psychological make-up—how they are, what they relate to. It’s a bit of stretch to relate to me—from a different period or different decade, but there are still people out there who are moody. It’s quite incredible what happens. You see young girls. We were never a girl’s band. We were a boy’s band. I see more girls now than I ever did. It’s like stupid. Maybe I’m past the age of a threat.
PM: Maybe you need to come to Toronto so I can go to one of your shows where all these girls are at.
IH: I’m not saying there’s “all these girls”; I’m just saying there used to be none.
PM: As long as there’s one.
PM: It’s funny that the corporate crap is what puts out stuff like the Mott the Hoople reissue [2004’s Mott the Hoople Live reissue] and people who didn’t hear it or people that didn’t get to see you live…
IH: No, no. You’re talking about the “legends” side and those people don’t really come under the full wrath of the corporate banking community. They’ve got their nice little outposts where they can just repackage, reissue, hunt around for stuff. They’re not actually paying for a record. It’s not costing them much to do that. It’s very profitable and most labels are living off their catalogue. They don’t have good A and R people. The whole business is geared on catalogue.
PM: Not too promising for a band coming up.
IH: It’s always been a problem. There’s always an excuse why people don’t want to sign you: you’re too young, you’re too old, you’re too fat, you’re too thin, you’re too female. I’ve had all my life. I just ignore it.
PM: Would it be better for more bands to try and work outside the corporate system and do things on their own?
IH: It’s impossible?
PM: Is it?
IH: You’re gonna come up against distribution, you’re going to come up against radio. I’ve put stuff out on small labels as well as big ones and they can’t get the stuff, they can’t get it in the marketplace because the bigger ones shut the doors. If people don’t hear it, how are they gonna buy it? It’s always something. I do think in the old days I kinda liked it better when it was more entrepreneurial.
PM: In what sense?
IH: There was more of a sense of individualism from the actual labels themselves. Now it’s just miserable corporate banking types.
PM: Do you think Guy Stevens [legendary studio madman and the producer of some of Mott’s early albums as well as the Clash’s London Calling] could get a job in the music industry today?
IH: No. Guy had a job. He came for a year and Mo Ostin (head of Warner Brothers records from the early ‘70s to the mid-‘90s) hired him and then fired him. He [Stevens] said he couldn’t find anything. He said he saved the guy a fortune and the guy fired him.
PM: What effect did Guy Stevens have on the first couple albums?
IH: He was a huge pain in the ass. The more trouble he caused, the more chaotic the music would become. And that’s exactly what he wanted.
PM: Is it what you wanted?
IH: Well, I think he hit us at a time when we didn’t know what we wanted. We were still trying to find out what we were. We didn’t know what we were doing. Nothing seemed to work. And it was scary because we were filling all these places and you can only fill them for so long.
PM: You must have wondered why you could sell out venues but not sell records.
IH: We did.
PM: Did you have any idea why that was?
IH: I think our approach to recording was ... I think we just thought we could go in, put the songs down and that would be it. And there’s more to it than that. After Guy, when we got with Bowie and Ronson, they’d learned how to use the studio and we learned a lot from them. There’s more to it then just going in and going mad.
PM: Is that only in terms of learning how to do it so you can sell more records? Or is it about making better music?
IH: The thing is, you gotta sell records. Because no matter how well you’re writing, if you’re not selling any records the labels are just gonna kick you out and that’s it. They don’t care how good your music is.
PM: That’s always in the back of your mind?
IH: We were desperate for hits. Then when we got on it, there were five or six of them.
PM: But you really couldn’t have made Brain Capers with David Bowie.
IH: Brain Capers—a lot of people love that record and there’s a lot of people don’t love it at all.
PM: I think the punks listened to that one.
IH: Yeah. We went in there, there wasn’t much money. We didn’t like the studio so we were angry, and Guy was making us even angrier, and I guess that shows on the record. Not much fun to go through, making an album like that.
PM: But it’s funny how an album like that, that a lot of people have picked up on, is not necessarily the album you would have chosen to do if you had more time.
IH: The cheaper the album, usually the better it is.
PM: What’s next for Ian Hunter?
IH: I’ve always got a ton of stuff. But it’s the old quality control. It’s the songs mainly. I don’t wanna go out. The band more or less tells me to go out. I hate the bullshit that surrounds touring. There’s no plan. There’s no career move. There never was. It’s a life, it’s not a career, it’s a life.
When Mick [Ronson, Hunter’s frequent musical collaborator] died, I had a small catharsis—“This is what you’re supposed to do, and you’re not really doing it.” You can sit there and moan about record companies and all that rubbish, but it’s not going to change anything. The point is you’re letting yourself down because you’re not writing what you could write. So I really dug in and it worked. I’ve been very happy over the last few years.