Paul McCartney Interview: On Kanye West, Insecurity And Competing With The Stones

Paul McCartney announced a new tour today, fresh from a set of collaborations with Kanye West that took the music world by surprise. The first the world heard of Macca’s love for Kanye came in an October 2013 NME cover feature, speaking to Matt Wilkinson about having finally “got” hip-hop at a Watch The Throne show. Check out the feature in full below…

On the eve of the release of Sir Paul McCartney’s forty-ninth studio album – that’s 12 with The Beatles, 23 as Wings or solo, five classical records, three soundtracks, three as The Fireman and three odds and sods – much has been made of the record’s perceived intentions. ‘New’ was recorded with four different, young producers, all of whom made their name post-2000: Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles Martin, son of George, who have all talked about playing Macca the likes of Frank Ocean, Tame Impala and How To Dress Well in the studio. The week before I meet McCartney, I spoke to each of them by phone, asking them what it is he’s striving for half a century after The Beatles released their debut album. They all said the same thing: “I don’t think Paul wants to grow up.”

“Yeah! I think that’s true really. I could [be a granddad],” he says, putting on a quivering, elderly voice. “Granddad… granddad… You know what I mean though? Mentally I don’t think of myself as being the age that I am. It’s kind of shocking, isn’t it?”

It isn’t really, because nothing’s changed: in his 1994 tome Revolution In The Head, the late Ian McDonald wrote, concerning Paul’s role in The Beatles, “For McCartney, the group was a make-believe world in which he could be forever young.” “Music gives you a freedom of spirit,” he says today. “And that’s what I don’t wanna lose. I don’t mind growing up, ‘cos you’ll probably become a little smarter if you’re lucky.”

Paul turns up for today’s interview with the aura of a man who’s just clocked off from work for the day. A car pulls up and parks outside the cramped cottage kitchen where I’m waiting. Door slams, gravel scrapes, and there’s that familiar whistle, the unmistakable Macca chirp, breezing past the window before he lets himself in. This is Paul’s splendidly named Hog Hill Mill studio, deep in the Sussex countryside: tacked onto the kitchen is not only a fully-operational windmill, but a sprawling recording suite stuffed full of equipment he’s amassed over the past half-century.

But within minutes of saying hello, it’s clear that Paul’s more interested in what’s going on in the kitchen rather than the studio. So what culinary worldliness does half a decade of selling out tours across the globe give you? That the best hummus comes from Panzers deli in north London, apparently. “I’ve tried the Lebanese stuff – it’s okay,” he says. “I’ve tried it in Greece. But it’s not the same, man. I have hummus and Marmite together on these seeded bagels from Panzers. D’you want one?”

By now you should have heard ‘New’’s title track and lead single, produced by Mark Ronson after he caught Paul’s ear while DJing at his wedding to third wife Nancy Shevell in 2011. The pair first met when Ronson was a boy – his stepfather is Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones – with Paul once rescuing him after he got into difficulty swimming. “I don’t actually remember it but my mum swears it’s true,” Ronson says, laughing down the phone. Nevertheless, when the two entered the studio for the first time in January 2013, Ronson says he was overcome with worry. “It was so nerve-wracking. On day one, hour two of working with the greatest living songwriter in the history of rock’n’roll, he’s like, ‘Here’s a song, what do you wanna do with it?’ I was just thinking, ‘I’d better not fuck this up…’”

What’s more revealing is Paul’s own level of ambition and, surprisingly, his insecurity. He reckons The Rolling Stones are his competition and that they’re back on the road because they want a bite of what he’s doing live. He thinks his gigs are better than Beyoncé’s. Meanwhile, he frets about his grandchildren spotting him in their history textbooks, uses his new songs to address misconceptions about his role in The Beatles, and says he’s too daunted to take his daughter, fashion designer Stella, up on the idea she’s had for a collaboration between him and Thom Yorke – just in case Thom doesn’t want to work with him.

For now, though, the general consensus on ‘New’ is that McCartney passed the test. The Ronson-produced title-track is a punchy mix of keyboards, brass and glam guitars, it feels fresher than anything Paul’s released in years. The jaunty ‘Alligator’ is equally as beguiling – he sounds genuinely pissed off in the verses, a rare glimpse past that shiny veneer and into the soul of a man who’s dealt with his fair share of turmoil over the years. “I want someone who can bail me/When I get up to my tricks,” he snarls, believably, while secret track ‘Scared’ shows an eerily vulnerable side to him, reminiscent of Johnny Cash in his later years.

‘Everybody Out There’ is the album’s real highlight. Built to appeal to anybody who’s ever fallen for Paul’s peak-period Wings output (‘Jet’, ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Live And Let Die’), it starts with a guitar riff straight out of 1965’s back pocket and features the McCartney family – who’d stopped by Hog Hill Mill that day – on 70s terrace-chant backing vocals. “The only way I could stop them all running about everywhere was to put them in the studio,” says Martin, who produced it. “It’s born to be played live,” Paul asserts proudly.

Speaking of which, the last gig he went to and really enjoyed? Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch The Throne show at the O2 last year – aka the moment when, Paul says with a straight face, he finally got rap. “I was expecting it to be, ‘Oh it’s great, it’s hip hop, it’s loud…’, but I hadn’t until then got the urban poetry aspect,” he remarks, rather sweetly. “Like, Bob Dylan is a poet. And so is Jay Z, and Kanye…” But what he’s after from new music, he says, is the same thing that’s driven him all his life – “mood” music that does away with formula but still appeals to the masses.

“People used to say to The Beatles in America, ‘Who writes the words and who writes the music?’ And we’d say, ‘…Both of us!’ ‘So what’s your formula?’ We’d go, ‘Well if we had one, we’d bottle it but then probably break the bottle and lose the formula.’ You know, you don’t want a formula. I don’t ever wanna find out what I’m doing.”

This is what still drives him today. It’s why he’s calling up Ronson, Epworth et al, why he’s going to rap shows and why he’s releasing albums like ‘New’: that constant freedom of spirit. Throughout our hour-long chat, which is punctuated by Paul’s thoughts on legacy (Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2009 Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy comes in for a kicking), the current crop of music greats, forgetting his own songs, death, and – obviously – The Beatles, the most successful songwriter in the history or modern popular culture seems quite unlike any other 71-year-old I’ve ever met before.

NME: It’s unique, for someone your age, to be going to a Jay Z/Kanye gig
Paul McCartney: Yes, but I’m in music, you know? And also, if I’m gonna do a tour I like to go and see what other people are doing. I didn’t wanna bring my tour out and be amazingly old fashioned. So people if are going, ‘Oh man, Beyonce…she was killer!’ I like to go there and go, ‘Yeah, we can do better than this’.

All your 60s contemporaries are on top form too, of course – Bowie, Stones, Neil Young…
Well, some of them are dead! But no, it’s true, I know what you mean.

Is it a competition?
Yeah – they wanna be part of what I’m doing. ‘Cos I’ve been touring quite consistently. But it’s what we do, it’s the thing we’re best at. And we’ve had a lot of practise and we’ve got a lot of music to draw from. So, it’s really natural that if The Stones are getting on – which they are – they come out.

Did you see them recently?
Yeah. They’re a great band, I’ve always followed The Stones, always been to their concerts and stuff. I saw them at the Barclays Centre in New York after they’d just done the O2. They were good. They were playing well, Keith and Ronnie playing very well.

And Bowie? He’d been away for so long…
[Interrupts] Mmm. National event.

How can you top his return without disappearing for 10 years?
That’s the only way to do it. Or die. And neither of them are very good options. I think, as you know, I’m very happy. I get enough coverage. I get a lot. So I don’t really worry about that. What you can do is you can play south America a lot, somewhere a little bit out of sight, and then you come back to Britain and they’re like, ‘Oh, he hasn’t been here for a while…’.

There’s a lyric on New track ‘Early Days’ that has a dig at people who stereotype you as the soft Beatle: “Now everybody seems to have their own opinion/Who did this and who did that/But as for me I don’t see how they can remember/When they weren’t where it was at.” Is that a bugbear of yours?
Yeah. It kind of is. It’s only a minor thing, it’s nothing I obsess about. But it does happen. I mean, The Beatles story is actually in history classes – my grandkids say, ‘You were in a book today Granddad!’ And you go, ‘What?! Oh no! Shame of it!’ So you kind of like the idea of them getting it right. For me, when people analyse it all I think, well, on the basis of what? They weren’t there, they don’t know, they didn’t sit in the room with me and John and see who did what. They’ve heard the stories and stuff but the truth is much more subtle. If me and John were sitting down it wouldn’t be [adopts an aggressive caricature of Lennon’s voice], ‘Come on Paul, write a bit of melody… yer fucker’. The film would be like that. [Adopts high-pitched McCartney voice] ‘Oh, ok John, how about this: ‘La la la’…”.

It obviously irks you enough to want to set the record straight?
Yeah, I thought it was worth commenting on. I remember being involved with the people who were making The Buddy Holly Story. I was a big fan of his, and The Crickets were talking to me and they said, ‘We’re not even in it!’ You’re like, ‘What?!’ That’s what gets you going. And Sam [Taylor-Wood] came up and she showed me her script, and I said, ‘Well that never happened!’ In Nowhere Boy, two things pissed me off. John was taller than me – which was not true! We were exactly the same height. But to be portrayed as the little guy? Not wonderful. OK, so he [Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who played McCartney in the film] was a good actor, [but] they should have put platforms on him. Whatever!

And then, John knocks me down in the movie. That never happened. I mean, don’t you think I’d remember? Things never got like that, but it’s now going into some kind of history. People are watching. ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’ [written by McCartney and George Harrison in theirs and Lennon’s pre-Beatles incarnation The Quarrymen], in the film that song is made as John’s yearning for his mother and there’s deep psychological significance from that. It wasn’t that – it was just a song we sat down and wrote. It would be just as much about my yearning for my mother – we both lost our mothers – but in the movie [adopts dramatic voice], ‘It’s John, going through this turmoil, and he’s writing…’. And I said to her, ‘That’s not true’. We had to decide, ‘Look, it’s a movie, it’s a film, it’s not a documentary, it’s not a biography. It’s a film of something’. John naturally becomes more of a legend because he was killed tragically. And he was great as well. You couldn’t become a legend without being great, but in films like that he does suddenly take a lead role that he never took in reality. It was much more even. So that’s what that’s about, that one line is just about that. It’s my little, sort of… seeing as I’m talking about the past, let’s cover that in the end verse and stick it to whoever thinks they know more than me. ‘Cos they weren’t there!

You’re asked about John and George’s deaths on a daily basis; it’s a subject that’s equally morbid and sad. Does it get you down?
It’s not a bad thing. In a way it’s a good thing, because it keeps them present. John is as much of a presence for me now for me as he was when he was alive and we weren’t living in each other’s pockets. So that’s a good thing. The terrible thing, obviously, is when you talk about his killing in New York. That’s shocking and that’s saddening. But you don’t normally concentrate on that. You get over that in one sentence, and you go on to say, ‘Let me tell you man, what a nutter! He was crazy…’. You start finding it kind of joyous. And in that respect, it’s quite nice to be reminded of him.

What would you say to him if he walked in today?
Let’s write a song, man! [Claps hands] Get your geet out! Come on!

And what would The Beatles sound like if they were aged 20 in 2013?
Oh, that’s interesting. I suppose you just have to look back at what we were doing. We were equating it to what was coming in off the American charts – Buddy Holly, rock’n’roll, Elvis and all that, The Everly Brothers. We were mashing Buddy Holly’s voice and guitar playing with The Everly Brothers – we loved the harmonies. Me and John thought we were Don and Phil.

They’ve got the best harmonies going…
They really have! They were fantastic! To answer your question, I think we’d be looking at what was coming out of the charts, not so much the Katy Perry stuff ‘cos we wouldn’t be able to identify with her – she’s a girl and pretty, which we’re not really interested in… musically, anyway. So we’d be looking at things like Kings Of Leon, Dylan, Neil Young. I think we’d be doing stuff like that.

So still band-based, rather than electronic?
I think it would be. It would still be guys playing music. I don’t think we’d be sampling too much. I think we’d side with people who play.

Do you find it hard to write songs?
[Semi-offended] Yeah!

Honestly?
Yeah, a bit. Only because I’ve done so much. You’ve gotta do something different after having done 5000 things. How can you be different? I follow clues.

You’ve written so many songs. Listening to something rare but great like ‘Goodbye’, which you gave to Mary Hopkin in 1969, I wonder if you ever forget some of your less-obvious material even exists?
Yeah, there are [some songs]. There’s a huge period in the 70s – I couldn’t tell you what was on the albums then.

Seriously?
Yeah! Because it was a bit befuzzled, it was after the end of The Beatles and I was a bit like, ‘Oh god, where are we gonna go now?’ Trying to get Wings together. There are some tracks there… I’ve seen tracklistings and I’ve wondered, ‘I wonder what that one’s like?!’

You’re kidding…
No! And then someone will mention it, ‘What’s that song man, [sings] ‘Cheeeeeck…cheeeeck‘.’ ‘Oh, you mean ‘Check My Machine?’ [from ‘McCartney II’]. ‘I love that one, man!’ So it comes back to you.

Do you treat songwriting as a job, like Nick Cave and Jack White do – wake up, sit down at a desk at 10am and get to work for six hours?
Yeah, and it’s a nice thing. If you enjoy it it’s a great thing. Get out the way of everyone, get into a little private moment, and you can work out your thoughts. It’s often a therapy, I think.

Is it a solitary process at the start?
Yeah, but that’s nice. You know, the rest of my day isn’t [solitary]. I’m doing this [interviews], or I’m taking my girl to school, or I did some filming before we came here. So I’m with loads of people. It’s actually quite nice to go into a cupboard, or often bathrooms or toilets, which have got good acoustics. So I go in there with a guitar. That’s kind of nice. And you just escape into your own little world of thoughts.

I’d say people like Thom Yorke and Damon Albarn are the modern day-McCartney equivalents, tinkering away in the studio every day. Do you ever think about working with them?
Working with Thom or Damon? Yeah, I do actually. Yeah. My daughter Stella is very keen. She’s got a project, she keeps saying to me [puts on nagging voice], ‘Ring Thom and just go into the studio and just see what you come out with…’

You have to do it!
[Sighs] Yeah. You know, I’m a bit… I dunno what it is. I just haven’t got…I’m a bit, sort of, paranoid to just ring him up. ‘Hey Thom, it’s Paul here. What do you fancy… what are you doing?! Do you fancy writing something?’ Just in case he says, ‘Er, actually I’m busy’.

That seems unlikely…
There were big rumours a couple of years ago about me and Bob Dylan writing together, and I’ve still got that at the back of my mind. I would like to do it. But I’m spoiled for collaborators, cos I had John. And I’ve gotta be very unrealistic to think I’ll find a better collaborator than him.

Chuck Berry’s still performing regularly, aged 86, and Paul’s previously said they could bring him on in a wheelchair and he’d still sing ‘Yesterday’. But today he’s less sure about that. “We’re gonna make a little forward roll with this album and tour,” he says. “And when I come out of that forward roll I’ll have a look and see what the scenery is. And if there’s a cliff there I might do a backflip. But I’ll decide when I come to it. If you ask me the long range forecast, I see myself doing what I do forever. But, like a footballer, there has to come a physical point where you might not be able to do it.”

At present, he’s playing longer sets than he’s ever done, but he admits he knows there could come a time soon when that might have to change. “I’m expecting myself to get knackered, but I’m not. So I’m not knocking it. I’m not even gonna think about it. I see people who are younger than me who sit in front of the telly all day watching Jeremy Kyle. It’s like, yeah, alright – I’m not really sure that’s the life I want! I think I can think of something better than that! For me, because I like it I just figure I’ll continue. If – and touch wood it doesn’t happen – I suddenly got ill with something really debilitating, then you’d have to think again. But like I say, I feel very full of energy.” He pauses, before emphasising that last point. “I am really enjoying it still. I feel good.”

With that, our hour’s over. Paul heads downstairs to the studio where his assistant starts up the computer as we say our goodbyes. What’s he working on for the rest of the afternoon? “Just messing around on Cubase, man – I love it!” comes the excitable reply, Paul clasping his hands together and shooting me a wink. “I’m lucky,” he adds, “I’ve not got a job in a hog factory.”