The Paul McCartney interview

By David Watts Barton The Sacramento Bee November 13, 2005

You’d think that people would have had enough of Paul McCartney. But you look around you and you see it isn’t so.

With a sold-out show at Arco Arena on Wednesday, yet another album in the Billboard Top 40 and a seemingly endless stream of books being published about his first band, the Beatles, McCartney is the object of enduring interest, especially for baby boomers who grew up with the Fab Four.

It is really quite simple. Mention his name to any fan of the Beatles or McCartney’s solo work, and the word you hear most often is “love.”

Which makes sense. The Beatles based an entire repertoire exploring the many notions of love, starting with the teen romance of “Please Please Me” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but soon expanding it into new territory – the proto-Love Generation anthem “The Word,” the familial affections of “When I’m Sixty-Four” and the poignant final lines of the last album the band recorded, “Abbey Road.”

Those lines encapsulated The Beatles’ message: “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”

Speaking by phone from backstage before a recent gig in Seattle, McCartney said that despite all that has happened to him and his former bandmates – his songwriting partner John Lennon was murdered 25 years ago next month – love is what it all boils down to.

“It never was easy,” he says, “but love is still the answer, y’know?”

McCartney, speaking while munching on a stream of cookies provided by the backstage caterers – “I tried to move ’em, but they’re a bit good, so some days I don’t move ’em, I just chomp on ’em” – is casual as he speaks about his 40 years as one of the biggest rock stars in the world.

He leavens his comments with a wealth of modifiers – “y’know,” “sorta,” “a bit” and “pretty much” – that he seems to use to undercut the weight that everyone he speaks with is liable to put on him. As the one surviving Beatle who still performs regularly, McCartney must carry the weight of the band’s legacy.

It’s a weight he gladly shoulders, with a show that, since it debuted in Oakland in 2002, leans heavily on the Beatles’ catalog. But he also is well aware of the caricature of himself as a lightweight; what Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, recently described as his “June with spoon” songwriting. (Ono later apologized for her comments.)

That caricature overlooks such McCartney gems as “For No One” and “I’m Looking Through You,” but from the exuberant early Beatles songs through Wing’s “Silly Love Songs” to even “Flaming Pie,” the album he released after the death of his first wife, Linda, McCartney’s muse has almost always pushed him to focus on the sunny side.

While Lennon very publicly worked out his grief over his mother’s death when he was 17, McCartney, whose own mother died when he was 14, never wrote a “Julia” or “Mother.”

But on his new album, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” McCartney decided to address, just a bit, some feelings that he hasn’t so often pursued. Dark feelings.

“The negative side of things is normally something I just keep to myself, and work it out privately,” he admits. “It doesn’t often find its way into my songwriting. Though it does sometimes. ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ are pretty sad songs, really.”

So McCartney, working with producer Nigel Godrich, who’s made dark masterpieces with Beck and Radiohead, thought this might be the time to stretch. And though he frames it as a songwriting challenge – “What you have to do is look for other areas you haven’t explored, you’ve got to look for other gold mines” – the upshot is the same. This isn’t the McCartney of “Good Day Sunshine.”

“On a couple of songs I decided that it was a good idea to just look at something like rejection of friendship,” he says, referring to the brooding “Riding to Vanity Fair,” one of the album’s key tracks.

“Even though I’ve had that happen to me a lot in life, as most people have – when you’re just trying to be friendly and someone’s not in the mood for it, and it ruins your vibe kind of thing – normally, I’d just go ‘OK,’ and get on with it and not think to write about it. But it occurred to me that it’s a pretty rich source of material. It was interesting to explore another side of things.”

With Godrich pushing him to try new things, “Chaos and Creation” is McCartney’s first attempt in years to explore much beyond what he’s done before. Although his work with the Beatles established him as an innovator – the group was the primary force in turning rock music into a serious art form – McCartney has continued to stretch. He was an early dabbler in electronic music, with two techno albums released under the name the Fireman, and has recorded his own symphonic compositions.

But what he hasn’t had in some time is someone who would challenge him in the studio. Was working with Godrich a return to the creative friction he had with Lennon?

“It reminded me of working with the group, not just John,” he says. “I would be working with George on a guitar solo, you might clash, he’d want to play it like this, and I’d say, ‘I don’t think you should play it there.’ But it’s good clashing, it’s professional clashing. Sometimes tempers get a bit frayed, but in the Beatles it happened just enough. It happened when it needed to happen, and it was sort of similar on this album. If you’re lucky it stops just short of blows.”

One conflict surfaced early, when Godrich told McCartney that he wanted to record the album without McCartney’s crack touring band.

“He said, ‘Let’s just try working together’ (without the band),” McCartney says. “So he started asking me to play drums, or some keyboards, and he got excited about some of the results we were getting. He said, ‘This is what I was looking for.’ It was a slightly different feel, more simplistic.”

McCartney had agreed to let Godrich produce, so he went along with the idea, and explains it this way:

” ‘Less is more’ is a very difficult concept, and with bands it takes a long time to learn that,” he says. “If you’re jamming, it’s hard to know how to stay out of people’s ways; you tend to pick up a guitar and jam, but then you hear the result and it’s two guitars in each other’s way. So Nigel said, ‘Look, tell the guys I’d like to continue this way. You’re just going to have to blame me.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry, I will.’ ”

“Nigel had his own agenda,” says guitarist Rusty Anderson, who played on McCartney’s last album before “Chaos and Creation,” “Driving Rain.” “He had it in his mind that Paul and the band were very close, which we are, and he wanted to break it up because he felt that he couldn’t challenge Paul one-on-one if he were supported by the band. I think it was a dopey move, but I do understand.”

Although the album is hardly the rock ‘n’ roll that McCartney and his band deliver live – their recent appearance on the Live 8 concerts in July featured a shredding version of The Beatles’ proto-metal “Helter Skelter” – the album works because of the less-is-more approach and has received good reviews.

“Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” quickly went gold, but it just as quickly dropped out of the Top 40 on the Billboard album chart and isn’t close to matching the sales of Nickelback, Kanye West or other pop stars of the day.

Regardless of what he writes and releases now, McCartney will always be loved for what he recorded then, with them. Does it bother him that he is unlikely to storm the pop charts he ruled for 20 years with the Beatles and Wings, or is that even a goal?

“Well, it’s somewhere in the middle of all that,” he says, resignedly. “You know how it is, so you know it’s not like it was. You know that our record sales are nothing like what we were used to in those days, so you kinda know that’s going to happen and you steel yourself for it, y’know. You say, ‘I’ve got a good album. It’s worth putting out.’

“I suppose I could be disappointed if I didn’t know that was going to happen,” he says. “But I’d rather just put it out and think ‘Things ain’t what they used to be,’ and just get on with it and let people who love it enjoy it, than not put it out.

“I know a lot of people who have started thinking it’s not worth it, man, but I think it is,” he says. “It’s just perhaps not as worth it as it was, vibe-wise and sales-wise. But you just go ahead, knowing that, and it’s not too bad.”

Despite the charms of the album, it is live on stage, with a great band and an unequaled catalog of great songs, where McCartney shines these days.

“It’s a bit rockin’, huh?” he says of his tight, expert four-piece band. “They really are good. That’s the thing: We love playing, we have a lot of fun, that’s what it’s all about. It has to be about the fun. There’s no job without ups and downs, but with this band, it’s mostly ups. We enjoy playing, audiences are going bananas, and that’s great. The feedback keeps you going. It’s very gratifying.”

Much of that gratification comes from having embraced his legacy as a Beatle, which he spent a good portion of the ’70s and ’80s playing down, working to establish himself as a successful solo artist. But in recent years, and especially with this tour, he apparently recognizes that he’s never going to escape being a Beatle.

But with the endless stream of highly detailed Beatles books – Bob Spitz’s new “The Beatles” clocks in at 880 pages, and a supposedly definitive 432-page biography of McCartney by Christopher Sandford is due in February – one wonders how much McCartney himself pays attention.

“What are you going to do?” he asks rhetorically. “The Beatles were such a huge phenomenon that any publisher who’s going to put together a big Beatles book is going to have some success with it. So that’s going to be tempting as a publisher.

“I’ve looked into quite a few of them,” he says of the books. “The ones I dip into, I sometimes find inaccuracies. … They’re saying, ‘This is the most definitive, scholarly book on the Beatles,’ and I think, ‘Oh yeah, OK, I’d better dip into this one.’ And the book says, ‘This is McCartney’s answer to Lennon’s so-and-so statement in this song,’ and I go, ‘No it wasn’t! It had nothing to do with it!’

“But what am I going to do?” he asks again. “Go around policing all these books and telling everyone they’re wrong? You just sort of have to ‘let it be,’ as the man said.”

But he certainly doesn’t mind the adoration that follows him everywhere he goes, and greets him on every sold-out show.

“Well, it’s great, but it’s slightly weird,” he says. “You just have to find a way to deal with it. So I just generally like it, because there’s no better way to deal with it. I mean, isn’t it amazing that all those people think like that? Any other way would weird you out, you know?

“I’ve been doing it a long time,” he adds. “And I like the fact that people like what I do. It’s one of the rewards.”

And after all, perhaps those expressions of adoration are just him taking some of the love he’s made. And that what he and Lennon wrote all those years ago really is true? That “All You Need is Love”?

“I think it’s the truth,” he says. “I just think that those are the best moments, when you’re feeling love, and I think it’s something that most people would agree with.”