BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
November 13, 2014
Mott the Hoople remains one of the great British bands of the seventies glam-rock era. Bands ranging from Queen to the Clash to Oasis to Wilco have all nodded to Mott as a major influence, not just for the band’s indelible swagger and memorable riffs, but because it represents a singular sound in the wake of commercial expectations.
Even though “All the Young Dudes,” the band’s biggest hit, was written for the group by Mott fan David Bowie, the band ended up serving as a songwriting platform for singer Ian Hunter who would later launch a successful solo career. “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “Ships,” “All the Way From Memphis,” “I Wish I Was Your Mother” and other songs have endured though both his and many cover versions.
This last decade Hunter has been back at it, releasing a series of well-received new albums. His latest, “Live in the UK 2010” (Rant), is out now.
He plays the Park West Friday. What follows is an edited transcript of our recent conversation.
Your new live album features some of your classic songs performed with your band, but also with string players.
I was in a train station in London and I saw these four guys play these instruments, a string quartet, and they sounded amazing. So I thought maybe I’ll get arrangement from the orchestra and cut it down to a four-piece and take them on tour with us. So that’s what we did.
That’s a happy accident.
You know these buskers are incredible. You see these guys in the underground and rail way stations and think, “why are they there, they should be in concert.” They were very suspicious at first; they wanted half the money up front. But when they found out we were human, they were great.
With this album, and all the touring you’ve been doing these recent years, do you prefer getting in front of people than in the studio?
I do prefer it live. It’s boring in the studio. The last studio album I did was [2012’s] “When I’m President” and we were only in the studio three days for that. Gone are the days where you hang out for six weeks. The quicker the better. All you’re doing is killing the song. The more you do it the more you kill it.
Many singers with careers lasting decades would say they would prefer staying home than going out.
Yeah, but the whole idea of doing it a long time is getting better at it. The band I have now is pretty incredible. There’s no tension, there’s no “oh god, this has got to be better.” There’s no forcing the beat. I have a great rhythm section. You just stay on top of it and life becomes a lot easier.
This century has been a fertile one for you: Four studio albums and two live albums, plus a lot of touring. Yet the 90s were relatively quiet. What got you motivated again?
When I was with [guitarist and collaborator Mick] Ronson in the ‘80s, we both got thoroughly fed up with the fact it became so corporate. And somehow he didn’t lose it because he went to produce stuff, but I just went off the boil completely. Then when he died [of liver cancer in 1993], it was such a kick up the a— because I had been mates with Mick for 20 years and the kids had grown up together, the barbecues. It was a huge kick up in the a—. It made me buckle down I guess. You get lucky enough to make a living at what you like doing, at least you can respect it. I think that’s what Mick’s death brought home to me. So ever since then I’ve gone after it. And really, you feel so much better about yourself if you really work at what you do than if you let things slide. Kind of like when I was at factory. You work fast, the day went quick. If you sloughed off, the day went boring.
You were Ronson’s greatest collaborator next to David Bowie. Why?
Mick was Mick. Great guitar player, everybody knew that. He wasn’t so much a writer as a great arranger. The whole thing with “Jack and Diane” with [John] Mellencamp. It was amazing the change he made just by picking a cassette up from a trashcan and saying to John “what’s this” and John’s like “oh we can’t do that, it stinks.” And Mike saying, “you’re doing it the wrong way.” Then all the sudden: “bang.” That was Mick’s art—arranging. He was a concert trained violinist and pianist. He had perfect pitch. He had been working alongside David [Bowie] and David was this alien godlike creature and there was me. I felt a little like a bricklayer. We both came from a working class backgrounds and we had always got on. Even when he was with the Spiders.
His guitar playing was also distinctive.
We were on television once and the guy on television said, “How does it work between you and Ian?” Mick said, “I play with a guitar, he sings, and when he stops singing, I play a solo, and he sings again and then we stop.” [Laughs] That was Mick. Everybody thought he was daft but really, he cut it down to the most simplistic. His solos were songs within songs because naturally, to him, that’s the way it should be. That’s why they’re so much memorable. You don’t forget a Mick riff or a Mick solo.
I have always heard a lot of country and western influence in your songs and wonder why or how they got in there.
I always thought songs are like Saturn the planet. They’ve got rings around them. And everyone’s antenna is up and sometimes when you land a song, it seems like it came to you. I think that some songs get delivered to the wrong antennas. I’ve had country songs that are total country and they don’t seem to have too much to me and I think, “Whoa, I’ll take that.” Who knows? It’s magic. That’s why I love it so much.
What’s your writing process like these days?
You wake up and one morning with an attractive line, a line that you think poetically works for you. The trouble is — many songwriters will tell you this — you get some kind of musical passage and you don’t have a lyric for it and you have a lyric but you don’t have a musical passage for it. The ideal situation is the song “Once Bitten.” That all came at once. It’s almost like you ask your computer a question before you go to sleep and you wake up and sometimes you get an answer.
Once you got the idea, it’s more like a cat playing with mice. And very often I’ll write a complete lyric and the last line is the best line. There is horrible feeling that that’s got to be first line and now you’ve got to start again. That’s tragic, that really is. [Laughs]
You joined Mott the Hoople when you were older and were married. I always felt getting into music later in life is a good thing for many reasons and I wonder if you found that to be the case.
I had 40 jobs. That all went into the lyrics. If you left school and went into a band right away, like everyone in Mott did, you hadn’t any experiences to talk about other than boy/girl. Whereas I had been around the block a few times. I was 29 when I joined Mott, and I had worked since I was fifteen.
Did your home life inspire any of the music?
No. My dad came back from the war confronted by this idiot dancing to Elvis. It didn’t go over at all. My mom was just a typical Victorian granddad’s daughter. She read the Daily Express and looked at the Gambols. Very, very normal people. They wanted me to have a job where I didn’t get dirty. So the neighbors wouldn’t look at their son and think he failed miserably. But I wound up in the factory anyway. My first job was actually reporting in the local paper the births and death. But I couldn’t get a hang of the shorthand.
Whenever I hear musicians of your generation talk about the older generation, it’s always in context to World War II; they not only endured the destruction, but then had to work to reconstruct society from the rubble, so your generation would benefit.
They got up during the Depression, then a couple of wars and then Elvis. Not much fun. Of course when the dads coming back from war — the war of course had been most exiting thing to happen to anybody — to coming back to little villages where nothing was going on after the war was pretty boring. There were a lot of frustrated dads. Because there was austerity now.
So music for all their kids represented freedom from that.
As did the movies. You fell in love with America because of the movies. And then the music. I saw Sam Cooke, I saw Little Richard, I saw Buddy Holly at that time. And it was like “whoa.” I was jus a fan basically. That was as far as it was going to go.
Many of your best songs happen to be ballads. Are they easier to write?
For me ballads are easier because they’re slower. Fast songs and fast simple songs are extremely hard, about the hardest things to do. Ballads, there’s more room. You have a couple different areas you can’t get into with a fast song. And getting a fast simple song is the hardest thing in the world.
Can you talk about “I Wish I Was Your Mother?” That’s such a heartbreaking lyric.
Some people have well-adjusted upbringings and therefore they have no problems. Other people have maladjusted upbringings, therefore they have problems and they get blamed for their problems. Where very often it’s not actually their fault. That’s the basic premise.
Glam rock was not just about wearing funny clothes, but I saw it as primarily about swagger. How did you get that confidence in Mott?
I did it out of fear because they were going to kick me out of the band. [Laughs] I sat at the piano and played it rather badly on the side. I didn’t used to play guitar at the front. At first [Mott manager] Guy Stevens said, “we’ll keep him in until we get somebody better.” And I’m on edge for nine months. I remember one night it was a little youth club and the spotlight wasn’t on me when I was singing. And so I stopped the song and I said, “the spotlight should be on me, I’m singing the song!” And the place erupted. And I thought, “Oh they like the arrogance.” I didn’t know that before. Jerry Lee Lewis was the classic example of arrogance, which was great. So I guess I took a bit off Jerry Lee. I started doing a bit of front man stuff and it went down well. All of the sudden the band wanted me to stay and I became the front guy.