Question. Recently, Keith Richards said in an interview that the last time he took drugs was in 2006. When was your last time?
Answer. I don’t even remember. A long time ago...
Q. What about getting drunk?
A. Well, it’s a bit early to drink right now. Let’s wait until dinner [laughs].
Mick Jagger is youthful and playful on the other end of the phone. He is in London, where his company has booked a room for him to conduct a few interviews with European media. He starts the conversation with EL PAÍS by calling the journalist by his name and asking a question himself. “Where are you, Carlos?” The answer sparks a recollection: “Oh, Madrid. We had a fantastic show there last year, one of the best of the tour.” Because in addition to his indisputable and rich six-decade career as a singer, songwriter and performer, Jagger is a charming PR man.
The Rolling Stones frontman rolled up his sleeves to talk to the media, something he had not done with such intensity for a long time; 18 years to be precise, when the band released their last album with original songs, A Bigger Bang. In that distant 2005 he was 62 years old; today, he is 80 — even if the 45,000 spectators who attended their concert last year at the Spanish capital couldn’t wrap their heads around how a man of that age could be in such good shape. Jagger flaunted a physical condition that put those present to shame; most of them were younger, but few could boast such elasticity. He laughs when he hears the story. “I think it’s basically genetics [his father, a physical education teacher, died at the age of 93]. But you have to work at it, too, of course. I mean, if you want to be in shape, you have to keep your body stimulated. You have to work out, dance and practice a lot. There’s no other secret. If you want to play football well, you have to train and practice. It’s the same thing. You have to work hard before the tour starts, and also when there are no tours,” he explains. Jagger, who underwent heart surgery in 2019 (and was back in the gym two weeks later), has been devoting a lot of time lately to saying goodbye, with moving texts published on social media, to other members of his generation, such as Tina Turner, Jeff Beck, David Crosby, Christine McVie, Robbie Robertson and his bandmate Charlie Watts, of whom the Stones were able to recover some recordings to complete two songs for the new album.
Hackney Diamonds, which will be released on October 20 (two tracks, Angry and Sweet Sounds of Heaven, are already available), is more than a dozen decent songs. Starting at the end: it closes with the only cover, Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone Blues, the song from which the band got its name in 1962, when Jagger and Richards, both 19, used to excitedly exchange albums — Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Waters himself. The two leaders of the Rolling Stones recording this song together now that they are in their eighties is very symbolic. “The first thing I did when I was alone with Keith in the studio was hit him on the head with the guitar,” he says, to the surprise of the interviewer. “Nooo... I’m joking,” he quickly adds. “We wanted to do something different, something that didn’t sound like the rest of the album. We wanted something simple and rootsy. The producer, Andy Watt, told us to write a blues song. We said, ‘We can do that, but we can also do an old one.’ So we did Rolling Stone. It’s the blues that gave us our name, but we’d never played it before. It all came out naturally. Playing with Keith is wonderful. He started playing those chords that we know so well, and I started blowing the harmonica and singing. Just the two of us in the same room, playing close together. It was very intimate.”
The genesis of their new album says a lot about the ecosystem in which the band has been operating for many years. Although their long-time followers like to see the Stones driven by Keith Richards’ shameless authenticity, the truth is that a good part of the band’s musical and business framework has been supported by the tenacity and good sense of the vocalist since the 1970s, back when Richards (who turns 80 in December) used to find the company of heroin more stimulating than devoting his time to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. “We had a lot of material recorded, but we weren’t very excited with the results. Some of the songs were okay, but they weren’t great,” Jagger explains. Then the singer sat down with Richards and got serious. “We said, ‘We’re going to work harder and we’re going to set a deadline.’ And that’s when the magic started to happen. We recorded the whole thing in three or four weeks. We wanted to make the record fast and keep ourselves excited the whole time. And I think we achieved our goal.”
It was also the singer who brought some fresh blood to the project, in the form of producer Andrew Watt, a 32-year-old New Yorker who has worked with rapper Post Malone and young pop stars such as Dua Lipa or Miley Cyrus, in addition to modernizing the sound of veterans like Ozzy Osbourne or Iggy Pop. Watt’s contribution was so relevant for Hackney Diamonds that three of the songs appear credited to Jagger/Richards/Watt. “Andy is fantastic because he’s young and he plays guitar, bass, he sings... He knows the history of music. When he talks to me, Keith, or Ronnie [Wood, the other Stone, 76 years old], you can tell he knows all of our records. He knows all the chords to Tumbling Dice or any song. He’s not someone who approaches recording from an intellectual or electronic point of view,” explains Jagger.
There is another emblematic moment on the album: a collaboration with Paul McCartney. The ex-Beatle does not sing but he plays the bass — and how. The song is called Bite My Head Off, and it could be considered the most brutal song in the history of the band. “Yeah, it’s pretty punk,” Jagger laughs. “Andy, the producer, suggested that Paul play on that song. I said, ‘Are you sure? I’ve never heard him play bass like that.’ But Paul got into it and played it aggressive, fast and distorted. We recorded the song at full speed. We rehearsed it three times and it was done.”
In general terms, Hackney Diamonds is a work of high guitars and wild voices. To some, it may be surprising some that some guys that have been spitting out rock for 60 years still want to go wild like that. “We’re a rock band, so we’re all about energy and aggression. We also like to sound current. And then there are other styles we play, for balance. For example, Depending On You is a pop ballad, more or less. There’s a country-influenced song called Dreamy Skies. We’ve got the blues that we already talked about, and a gospel song called Sweet Sounds of Heaven with Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder.” He also talks about the album’s lyrics, almost all penned by him: “When I write, it’s part intimate feeling, part experience and part imagination. I use personal experiences, but I change them to fit what I want to say. Dreamy Skies is about my days during the Covid-19 lockdown. I’m always writing stories. I jot them down in a notebook, or an iPad if I’ve got it with me. But then you’ve got to imagine things to finish the song.”
Two weeks ago a video appeared on social media where Jagger was seen dancing reggaeton in a nightclub (a song by the Puerto Rican Farruko, Pepas), surrounded by young people and his girlfriend, the American choreographer and dancer Melanie Hamrick, with whom he has a six-year-old son. Jagger laughs out loud when we mention it. “I used to listen to reggaeton 12 years ago. And I liked it. I had a whole folder of reggaeton downloads on my laptop.” Then comes the dig, always with elegance: “It was fun, but it’s been a while since I heard a reggaeton song that I haven’t heard before.”
The agreed-upon length of the interview is 15 minutes. After 12 have gone by, the journalist receives a message from a person from the record company, telling him to wrap it up. We try a different approach:
Question. What concerns Mick Jagger outside of music? We are living in delicate times: the consequences of Brexit, the potential return of Donald Trump, the rise of far-right parties in parliaments...
Answer. Oh, that’s a very complicated question for this interview. We could do another one some other day and just focus on that one question. But right now I don’t feel like it’s a good time to give a right answer regarding the world’s problems. I’ve answered these kinds of complex questions before, and later I’ve felt stupid because my answers weren’t right. You have to think about it carefully, because if you don’t, you’ll look like an idiot. I’d love to share my thoughts with you, but in another interview.
Q. How are you doing at 80?
A. Well, you know, there’s not much I can do about it. To be honest, I’d rather be 30. But I’ve already been that age and I can’t go back. So, I do the best I can do for my age, and I enjoy myself. What else can I do? There is no other choice.
Time is up, and Jagger says goodbye. “See you soon in Madrid, Carlos.”
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