Ian Hunter

When former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter’s excellent new album Shrunken Heads landed on the Gibson Backstage Pass desk, we picked up the phone and called Bill Whitten and let him know how great it is. Whitten, the driving force behind Grand Mal—hands-down one of the best bands in New York City, by a New York mile—was the obvious choice to talk to Hunter.

A diehard and lifelong fan, Whitten drew on Mott’s swinging stomp and Hunter’s bittersweet melodicism to create must-have albums like Grand Mal’s Bad Timing (2003) and last year’s Love Is the Best Con in Town. Hard at work on a new album in New York, Whitten took time out to talk to Hunter about songwriting, Mott’s heyday, and the lasting guitar influence of his close collaborators Mick Ralphs and the sadly-missed Mick Ronson. We didn’t have to ask him twice.

On first listen, Whitten loved Shrunken Heads. “How can this man continue to deliver the goods after so many years?” he asked. “If he had quit music in 1973 after dropping Mott, his legend and legacy would have been secure. But he went on to release one classic album after the next, from Ian Hunter [1975] to Rant [2001] and now Shrunken Heads.”

Ian Hunter

When asked about Hunter’s influence, Whitten doesn’t mince words. Like only truly great rock ’n’ roll can, Hunter didn’t just influence Whitten’s music—he influenced Whitten’s life.

“I was introduced to the music of Ian Hunter as a teenager, after reading a review of his 1979 album You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic,” Whitten remembers. “I went out and bought the record. It was like the aural equivalent of a gateway drug. After that I sought out music by Mott the Hoople, the New York Dolls—who he name-checks in the song ‘Standing in My Light’—and subsequently all the great glam bands. It was the beginning of the end for me. I became an unrepentant rock and roller.”

Bill Whitten: Ian, I just want to tell you that it’s a real thrill for me to be talking to you. You’re one of my all-time heroes. So many of your songs from your solo career and from Mott the Hoople are permanently embedded in my brain.

Ian Hunter: Well it makes this easier then when someone knows what it is that I do.

Your new album Shrunken Heads offers a deceptively gloomy assessment of modern life. I say deceptive because the album sounds and feels good natured, warm, and lively.

The vibrancy of the record comes I think from the speed with which we recorded it. The band that I have, they all play with different people so there was a limited window of time for us to record. We did the basics of 16 songs in five days, and that retained the enthusiasm. The overall thing was done very quickly.

Is Shrunken Heads the American cousin to 2001’s Rant?

Shrunken Heads deals with American life, but it’s filled with English imagery and topic. It’s as much of an English album as Rant except for a couple songs about America, “Soul of America” and “When the World was Round.”

Was that song “When the World was Round” a response to Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat?

Nah, it’s about when a bully grows up. I like that idea. There are ideas in the lyrics to explore if you want to; political and otherwise. There’s plenty there if you want, but if you don’t want it, fine—it’s just a song.

I’m really impressed with Shrunken Heads, and as you say, the lyrics are there if you want them. That’s what’s most important to me as a listener—the lyrics. And there are a lot of them on this album—it’s jam packed with words. You have a lot to say.  I’ve also read in other interviews that it sometimes takes you up to five years to make an album.

Well, there are usually a couple of years of relaxing after the last album, and then a couple of years of writing phony stuff that I’m not happy with, and then gradually I get to the point where I actually like the stuff I’m writing.

Is your relationship with words at all like what you say on the song “Big Mouth”—“words can eat a man alive, words, nasty little lizards, grammatical bacteria.” Is this a writer’s ambivalent view of the tools of his trade?

[Laughs] No, what that song is, I’ve been hauled over the carpet more than once by the wife after getting completely plastered at someone’s house and then facing off in the car ride on the way home or something like that. They say that a drunk’s language is truth, but it’s not—it’s you just venting your spleen, grammatical bacteria as it were. And that’s all “Big Mouth” is, an apology really. [Laughs]

Ian Hunter

Let’s talk guitars. Two of your associates, Mick Ralphs and Mick Ronson, are two of the most readily identifiable Les Paul players in the rock pantheon.

Well, I think Mick Ralphs was more of Les Paul Junior player, or he was when he played in Mott anyway. Now he is primarily a Les Paul man. He has about eight of them I think.

I think I read somewhere that in the ’70s, when you were on the road in the U.S., you and the guys in Mott would hit the pawn shops and pick up Les Paul Juniors for very cheap.

Yeah, we used to get Melody Makers, which back then were about 80 bucks.

Good Lord.

And the Juniors were about 125 dollars. Now the same guitars would be worth about eight grand.

When you were in Mott you were often pictured playing a Les Paul Junior or an SG. Do you still play ’em?

I’ve got two Juniors, both from the mid ’50s, but it’s getting to the point where you don’t want to take ‘em anywhere. They’re too valuable. But I play through a Gibson Gold Top, which is my favorite amp—and not just ’cause I’m talking to Gibson. [Laughs]

When I went out with Ringo (and the All Starr Band), they offered me every amp known to mankind and I A-B’ed them. I liked the Gold Top the best. So I’ve got the 4x12 and the little 2x10.

Those amps have a lot of balls.

And they are very clear. It’s a pure kind of thing.

What was it about Mick Ronson that made him such a singular guitar player? Nobody’s come close to achieving the kind of gigantic, unique tone that he had.

He started off on violin, and then was classically trained on piano. He was a very good, very proper piano player, and he somehow translated that knowledge to the guitar. And I think nobody ever really got the sound that he did. He was like Leslie West who—no matter what kind of crap guitar or amp he had—he would plug it in, and it would sound like him straight away. And Mick’s sound was always from the amp, never the monitors. He couldn’t stand the sound of a guitar coming out of a monitor. I think that’s why he never made it as singer. Tony Defries [head of the Mainman Management company] wanted him to be the leader of his own band, but Mick couldn’t stand to be away from his amp. He didn’t like to stand up front on the middle microphone and hear his guitar coming through the monitors.

A one of a kind.

Yes, it’s still upsetting for me to listen to his music to this day, I must admit. [Ronson died of liver cancer in 1993.]

Mick Ralphs?

Ralphs is a great guitar player too. He still gets that big block sound that he always had, and he’s a very economical guitar player in many ways.

Did I read on your website that Mick Ralphs will be playing on some European dates in support of Shrunken Heads?

I don’t really know. He’s played on a couple of past tours, but he’s got all kinds of things to sort out. I just left it as, “You turn up when you turn up, and we’ll see what happens.” That works out the best.

Ian Hunter

That must make the fans happy, that you two still share a stage occasionally.

Well, we’re not the same anymore. When I work with a guitar player there are fixed parts, and of course there are ad-libbed parts and improvisations, but still there are fixed parts. But Mick is past that point. He just likes to jam and play off a simple chord progression, and that’s fine of course, it’s just that I don’t do that. He tries to get me to go loose, but I don’t do that ’cause I don’t have a Paul Rogers type of voice.

Thank God!

[Laughs] That’s the reason we don’t play more together. We look at music differently. As friends, it’s the same as it’s always been. I’ve always liked Mick a lot. A great guy.

You’ve said that you consider rock ’n’ roll as a vocation to be no different than from being a plumber. Why do you think you have such an unsentimental or atypical view of the rock profession?

I don’t like preciousness, which is somewhat common in downtown New York, isn’t it, Bill?

I think if you’re lucky enough to get something—to get a gift for nothing—some kind of genetic gift that causes you to make music, almost a free pass really. I worked in factories for 10 years. I know what it’s like, so don’t be precious about it. You’re lucky. I wouldn’t say that’s unsentimental really.

Well maybe there’s a better word. Uncommonly astute maybe.

I don’t think that we are at all special, just lucky. And some are luckier than others! [Laughs] Much luckier.

You’re also fairly unsentimental about your past. You’ve resisted reforming Mott the Hoople, and you’ve said that your favorite album is always the next one, and that you’re just worried about the next song.

Well, actually it hasn’t always been a conscious thing. We all have always been busy, and our schedules have just never coincided.

It seems like every band that ever existed is reforming.

I don’t personally think it would be a good idea.

It would be nice to keep the legend and the myth intact.

Oh yeah, plus a lot of Mott was inspired by desperation. Our stock in trade was “Full Tilt.” I don’t think it could be like that now.

There’s a lot to be said for desperation as the driving force in rock music.

When you know you’ve got bugger all, and if you don’t get a hit or a gig you’ll be back in the factory. Stan Tippins, Mott’s tour manager, used to say, “We’ll be in Wiggans on Monday.” Wiggans was a factory in Hereford. We used to all go white when he said it. [Laughs] You don’t want to go backwards, especially to one of those places.

Is he still your tour manager?

In Europe, yeah. He’s still the same—full of life, full of fun. He makes touring fun.

He’s probably one of the few famous tour managers in rock history.

He’s quite unique. I’ve never known anyone like him.

Did Guy Stevens [Mott’s original tour manager] introduce you to him?

No, he was the original singer in Mott who I replaced. He was the only one in the band who I got on with initially. As soon as we could afford it we hired him back as tour manager. He was with us the whole time, all the way through it.

As far as glam rock goes, I love your quote, “I felt like a bricklayer’s laborer in gilt.
I felt particularly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I was just an ordinary working class bloke.” It must have been strange after having built up a substantial body of work to suddenly be at the forefront of glam.

I did feel like a bricklayer, but we did enjoy dressing up a bit. Tony Defries gave us all 200 pounds each and told us to go out and buy some clothes. It must be said that Pete Overend Watts [Mott’s bassist] and Dale Buffin Griffin [Mott’s drummer] were the ones who really, really enjoyed it. Pete would put on one outfit and three weeks later Arthur Kane of the New York Dolls and Gary Glitter would be wearing identical outfits. Arthur Kane idolized Pete and would come backstage after a gig to tell Pete “I love you” [Imitates Arthur’s thick New Yawk accent.] Looking back now it seems like a strange period of time, but back then it just seemed normal. I must admit it was a strange sensation to step out of those gigantic platform boots after doing a gig. It was very odd.

I first discovered the New York Dolls when I heard you name check them on your song “Standing in My Light.”[from the 1979 album You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic]

Oh yeah, the Dolls played with us quite a few times in New York and elsewhere.

What about the Stooges?

Them too. I remember a show in Washington, I think. The owner of the club pulled the plug on the Stooges after a couple of songs. They were not wanted.

My favorite album pre-glam, pre-All the Young Dudes is Wildlife, from 1971.
You quote one of my favorite songs from that album (“The Original Mixed-Up Kid”) on your new song “I Am What I Hated When I Was Young.”

The album before it [Mad Shadows] we didn’t like at all. So Mick Ralphs said, “Let’s get sensible.” Wildlife is a much more sensible album. A lot of it is quite good.

Ian Hunter

It’s one of my favorites. It has lots of ballads and some offbeat covers.

I think that’s what gave us some longevity and distinguished us from some of the other meat and potatoes rock bands that were just hammering out the full-tilt rock songs. We were capable of playing slower, more thoughtful, well-written songs. The other bands might throw in the occasional ballad, but they didn’t mean anything.

You guys would often record great covers.

That was Guy Stevens. He would come in and he would go completely bi-polar over a song, and you would have to record it. There was no reasoning with him.

Did he do that with the song “Your Own Backyard”? (which was written by Dion) That’s such a brilliant version you did on Brain Capers.

Of course.

I recently picked up a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis’s album Live at the Star Club from 1964, and when I heard it I thought, “This sounds like Mott the Hoople!”

Jerry Lee was my big influence. I just missed him at the Star Club. I was there in ’65 playing bass with Freddy Fingers Lee. Jerry Lee was my thing. It’s what I brought to Mott the Hoople. Mick Ralphs brought his love of West Coast pop. He loved Steven Stills, and I loved Little Richard.

A clash of sensibilities.

And we weren’t that great of players either.

Speaking of not being great players, I’ve always wondered after hearing some of your Mott-era lyrics—songs like “Violence,” “Crash Street Kids,” “Henry and the H-Bombs”—did you look out into the sea of Mott the Hoople fans and see the punk rock revolution coming?

Oh yeah. There was this night in ’75 or ’76 that somebody took me down to a session at the CBS Studios, and it was the Clash doing their first album, and they asked me, “What do you think, what do you think?” And I said, “It sounds like Brixton Rock doesn’t it?” ‘Cause in Brixton a lot of kids couldn’t afford to buy records, so the black kids and the white kids would stand outside on Saturday, and they would put speakers outside the shops, and the white kids would listen to the black music, and the black kids would listen to the white music, and that’s how it started coming together. Reggae and ska and all that stuff started getting mixed up with rock. Yeah, you could see it coming.

Mick Jones of the Clash, of course, was one of Mott’s Lieutenants.

He followed you all over the U.K.

It used to be that there were a lot of them, and they would get in trouble, and Mick was one of the guys who made sure the other kids wouldn’t steal cars or bikes in order to get to gigs, since a lot of the kids going to the gigs had no money.

What’s your favorite point in the genesis of a song—when you’ve finished writing the last line, bringing it in to play with the band for the first time? Recording it? Playing it live?

It’s the point where—it doesn’t happen that often—but it’s the point where you realize you’ve got something odd. It puts a smile on your face because you haven’t heard it before. a case in point would be in “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” (off Ian Hunter) where it goes—the song is in C and it modulates down to E-flat, and then back to C—it’s that point where you think, “I haven’t heard that before. I haven’t done that before…yeah!”

Are there any songs on Shrunken Heads where you had that kind of songwriting breakthrough?

Well, it’s a different kind of record than “Once Bitten,” but I really like “Bigmouth” and “When the World Was Round.”

That song “How’s Your House” about Hurricane Katrina has a nice off-kilter feel to it. Was that any kind of a breakthrough?

That song came to me. I didn’t go looking for it. I played it with the band, and the song could have gone one way or another. It’s just two chords, but the band liked romping away with it. The song just would not go away. It just stayed. I’m a big believer if a song doesn’t want to go away then it’s gonna stay.

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