“Legendary” is overused in the field of rock, but Ian Hunter has earned the moniker. He’s covered glam, soul, folk and earmarked a style of music that likely started punk (you only have to look at The Clash and The Sex Pistols for evidence of that claim.) Hunter has just issued an album he says is “as good as anything” he’s done in his career, and he’s working on a follow-up. Defiance Part I will be released on April 21st.
CS: I think I’ll start with the obvious question: What was it like working with Ringo Starr?
IH: I’ve worked with him before; he’s great! His attitude is, ‘If I like it, I’ll do it, and if I don’t like it, I won’t do it.’ Fortunately, he liked it. The song [“Bed of Roses”] is roughly based on The Star Club anyway, which is a place he played in the early sixties with The Beatles. I played there once. So, three or four days later, we got the drum track back….Perfect, you know.
CS: Is Mike Campbell on that track as well?
IH: Yeah. Another person who just makes everything better. He’s brilliant.
CS: My favorite guitarist is Jeff Beck. Is he also on the album?
IH: Yeah, he’s on the third track. Pretty amazing. He plays on both albums. I know Johnny Depp, and Johnny was working with him. He said, ‘Jeff will do a couple of songs if they suit him.’ And fortunately, they did. They were the last couple of songs he ever recorded.
CS: Well, what an honor.
IH: Yeah, but it was a hit in the gut as well. I’ve worked with some great guitar players, and for nearly all of them, their hero was Jeff.
CS: A guitarist I consider in my Top Ten is Mick Ronson. How did you meet him?
IH: I first met him through a guy called Miller Anderson, who I met in a club in London around 1969. But then he was with Bowie, and I met him again then. We both had similar backgrounds. We got on really well, so when Bowie broke the Spiders up, I asked Mick to join Mott. We needed a guy at the time. He joined Mott for about a fortnight, and nobody seemed to get on, so I left Mott, and Mick and I carried on – on and off – for another seventeen years.
CS: You worked together on that great song “American Music,” which is one of my favorites of yours.
IH: Oh, thanks [chuckles]. Unfortunately, with that record the minute it went out, the president of the record company got fired. So, me and one hundred and sixty-five other acts didn’t get any marketing.
CS: Was Defiance Part I written in conjunction with the pandemic, or was it before?
IH: No, no, it was because of the pandemic..’I’ve got nothing else to do.’ We came off the road…I did Mott 74’ at The Beacon in New York…Then, Covid struck, and nobody knew what to do. So, everybody was sitting around at home, and my band, The Rant Band, didn’t have any home studios, but then my manager said, ‘Some people do have home studios.’ People like Slash were up for doing a song. Billy Gibbons was up for a song. That’s how it started: I’m writing because I’m stuck with Covid, and they’re sitting at home in their studios, so I was sending them stems. Stems are like faders on a desk. So, it was all done that way.
CS: Nice. Did Robert Trujillo [Metallica] record from a home studio?
IH: Yeah, guys like Taylor Hawkins have got a Foo Fighters studio and his own studio. In the case of Robert, he played Jaco Pastorius’ bass. I played with Jaco, many, many years ago on an album called All American Alien Boy, and it’s the same fretless bass he used back then.
CS: I’d like to ask about a track from that album, which features three of the Queen members. How did that happen?
IH: I was in Electric Lady in Manhattan, and my wife was coming back on a plane. They were on the same plane and asked what was I up to. She told them, and they got off the plane and came straight down to the Electric Lady. I didn’t even know they were there – I came out of the toilet, and they’re sitting in the waiting room! And they were like, ‘Anything we can do?’ It was the three of them: Johnny [Deacon] wasn’t there. But the other three were there, and I had a song called “You Nearly Did Me In.” What happens is that the two of them [Brian May and Freddie Mercury] will get to a certain level, and Roger [Taylor]…Roger just goes forever! I mean, he just goes higher, and higher, and higher.
CS: You performed at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, and it’s one of the highlights of the night. It’s one thing to experience it as a viewer, but what was it like as a musician?
IH: It was big: there was a 4,000 crew backstage. It was like a city backstage. I remember we sat in the Queen’s box for the first half, and we rehearsed in some sort of film studio. I remember meeting a lot of people: sports people, golfers, football players were all turning up, just to watch the rehearsals. It was great, but it was big gig and it was a bit scary. But it was fine.
CS: Back to the album – are you looking forward to performing these songs live from the Defiance album?
IH: Well, there are two Defiance albums. There’s this one [Defiance Part I], and then there’s another one. We’re about 60-70% through the second one, so that’s the first priority. We’ll see down the road. I haven’t got that far [chuckles].
CS: Is there a different philosophy to performing a song live onstage to producing it in the studio? When I asked Denny Laine that question, he said there’s a definite change.
IH: Songs develop. Normally when you go in, the song’s pretty new, and very often when you’ve been on the road with a song, you think, ‘Gee, I wish I could go back in and do it again.’ You find odd little things that you initially didn’t find because the song is relatively new when you go in a studio.
CS: Some songwriters are a little allergic to this question, but are there any lyrics on the new album that are particular favorites of yours?
IH: On the new one? Yeah, I’m really fond of a song called “I Hate Hate.” As a songwriter, it’s really simple, but it kind of makes all the points without offending anybody [laughs]. I don’t know; it’s straight and direct. That’s my favorite lyric, I think.
CS: A lot of rock is straight and direct. I think that was one of Guy Stevens’ mantras. Talk to me about Guy – what was he like to work with?
IH: A total nutter! But great. He’d get into your face and say, ‘You’re better than The Stones and better than..’ He’d raise you above your normal height. He was crazy. He was supposed to be our manager…But we managed him! He was in prison when he found the name “Mott The Hoople.” He gave it to this kid in the prison, who later died. So, when he gave it to us, we thought it was a great name, but he was like: ‘I don’t want to call it that, because the kid died.’ He had a hard time persuading us to keep the name.
CS: I’ve spoken to Ellen Foley, and she talked very fondly about her work with you and Mick Ronson. What are your memories of the Night Out album?
IH: She was great. I mean, she has a terrific voice, and as a girl, she’s great fun. She’s slightly Broadway, so we were trying to knock that out of her. We wanted to get the voice without any Broadwayisms. She’d been with Meat Loaf, which is kind of showbizzy sort of thing. She got a good dose of it: We tried to sort her out, and then Mick Jones did her second album. I can’t say a bad word against her; amazing voice.
CS: She’s one of the eminent rock vocalists.
IH: Yeah, but she’ll still do “Irene Wilde”, which is one of my songs, and it’s like, ‘Just do it, and don’t do all this messing with your arms and Broadway. Don’t do that.’
CS: Would you consider working with her again?
IH: Well, she asked me to produce the last album she did, and I couldn’t because I had tinnitus. My ears aren’t good enough to produce anymore. When I make records, Andy York helps me out.
CS: Did you ever work with [Ireland’s] most distinguished rocker, Rory Gallagher?
IH: Yeah, yeah…Before Mott, I was in a band with Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee, who was a Jerry Lee Lewis type of guy, and we played in Ireland. Rory opened for us. Trash, was it?
CS: The band was called Taste.
IH: Taste! Their manager was the guy who brought Freddie over to play. We played kind of like showband places.
CS: That was Ireland, back then.
IH: But you could tell right from the beginning that he was, you know [special].
CS: Like many listeners, the 1973 Mott album is one of my desert island discs. Why do you think it holds up? Is it the tight production, or the ferocity of the riffs?
IH: We had an excellent engineer in Bill Price. Going in, we were looking for a producer, and we couldn’t find one. We were in Air Studio, in Air 2, and Roxy Music was in AIR 1. Well, Bryan [Ferry] and [Brian] Eno came down, and they said, ‘You don’t need a producer; just keep doing it.’ The combination of Mott with Bill Price seemed to be enough.
CS: The album boasts one of the most infectious power ballads of the 1970s: “All The Way To Memphis.” I mean, it’s just an incredible song.
IH: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, the first song I ever wrote on black notes.
CS: I’m not a pianist. Is there a difference between black notes and white ones?
IH: There is. You usually learn on the white notes: they seem to be simpler. Then you get into sharps and flats when you get into black notes. But because you’re in uncharted territory, things come up. Once you know an instrument, everything’s relevant, and it’s harder to find something. Whereas, when you’re learning an instrument, accidents happen. That’s how “Memphis” was.
I have to tell you a story about Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee Lewis only played on the white notes, and Fats Domino only played on the black notes. Well, they had to do a gig together. Fats played on the black notes because he came first….Well, Jerry had to pretend to play on the black notes.
CS: I’ve heard that Roger Taylor tells a similar story, that songs appeared when he started writing on piano.
IH: Yeah, on piano, you’ve got that left hand. I use it basically percussively, like a drumkit. Guitar’s hard; you’ve got to change chords all the time. Piano’s easier. I use the piano mainly. Most of the tracks on this album [Defiance Part I], I wrote on piano. Two of them I wrote on guitar.
CS: Did Johnny Depp play guitar on this album?
IH: Oh yeah! There’s a song called “No Hard Feelings,” and that’s the song Jeff Beck’s on as well. John’s a really great musician. People don’t think he is, but he was a musician before he was an actor. He’s good at aura, and on this track, he sort of backs up Jeff Beck. I mean, he’s got slide going on there, and a little bit of rhythm…but he’s also singing harmony with me.
CS: You’ve worked with some extraordinarily talented guitar players: Mick Ralphs and Mick Ronson are just two offhand. Did one bring distinctive elements to your music that the other wouldn’t have?
IH: Well, yeah [chuckles]. Mick Ralphs is responsible for the intro to “All The Young Dudes,” which is one of the best intros of all time. Mick Ralphs was a songwriter, and that was one of the reasons why we split. I couldn’t sing his songs, and Paul Rodgers could. [Whereas] Mick Ronson was less of a writer and more of an arranger. He was kind of like Andy York who I play with now. With Mick Ralphs, it was great, because at that time, we were both learning how to write songs. We could split it, so I only had to write three or four, but when he left to join Bad Company, I had to write ten or eleven songs, and that’s not easy when you’re constantly touring.
CS: Bad Company covered one of the Mott songs on their first albums, correct?
IH: I don’t know. We had a couple. We were doing “Ready For Love.” Mick [Ralphs] has a kind of Neil Young type voice – thin and high – and that wasn’t working. I couldn’t sing it, because it’s not my type of… It was soulful, black, simple. I just couldn’t sing that way, though I would have loved to have sung that way. I didn’t want him to leave, you know? But that’s what happened.
CS: But you have your own style of singing that so many younger musicians have aped.
IH: Well, I got it off Dylan. I wasn’t really a singer: I started out as a bass player. I thought, ‘I’d like to sing, but I’ve not that great a voice.’ But Bob was a phrase singer – Mick Jagger’s a phrase singer, but he has a quality with it. But Bob was doing something completely different. I followed that route. [But] then I got told off for copying Bob, so I had to stop copying Bob, but it helped at the time.
CS: I hear some Lennon in your voice – did he influence you?
IH: Not really, no, but the simplicity in what he wrote comes through in something like “I Hate Hate.” He was very simple and straightforward in what he said. There was a lot of intelligence in what he said, but he made it simple. He brought it down to basics. I’m kind of influenced by that: “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” is one of the simplest songs ever, [but] everybody wishes they wrote it. But Bob Dylan wrote it. It’s so simple, so easy. It’s there!
CS: Guns ‘ N’ Roses covered it. That brings me to Slash – what was he like to work with on your new album?
IH: He was great. What happened was, I was sitting downstairs, and my manager rang me. There’s a guy called Ross Halfin, a famous photographer, and through Ross, Slash had told us he was up for doing something. We sent him the track, we got it back: ‘Woah!’ That was the first one we got back, and Billy Gibbons was the second. Then we put “Defiance” with Dane Clark, who is Mellencamp’s drummer, and the combination is lethal. We had Robert from Metallica on bass too.
CS: Some of the Def Leppard guys play on the album too?
IH: Well, Joe [Elliot] is an old mate of mine from way back. He used to come to the Mott gigs, and we’d get him in because he had no money. He just said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ So, I just sent him. There are two albums, so I sent him seven tracks and told him what to do, and he did it. The one thing he wanted to do was… There’s a track called “Guernica”, and he asked if he could do a ‘Queenie’ on it. I said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’
CS: As in a Freddie Mercury vocal?
IH: As in, the whole band.
CS: You have worked with Ringo, but have you worked with the other three Beatles?
IH: No. I had a slash with George in a speakeasy one night. I was right next to him, and I turned around and George Harrison was stood next to me – I nearly fainted! But aside from that, no.[Ed note: a “slash” is slang for “pee.”] But I toured with Ringo.
CS: As part of The All Starr Band?
IH: Yeah: great fun! He’s an amazing drummer and an amazing guy.
CS: Are there other drummers that inspire your creative muse?
IH: Not really, no. I love The Foos… What can you say? Taylor, I was drawn to Taylor Hawkins, and he’s in the Foo Fighters. He was telling me about all these tracks that I did..He’s kind of like an encyclopedia, much like Joe Elliott. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge about everything that’s been done. He’s a tremendous fan of music, Taylor, and he was a very enthusiastic guy. All kinds of music, not just rock and roll. And, he was going to do everything. He was going to do both albums. Then, Covid started easing off, so he just did seven [contributions]…But he’s pretty amazing. Just ask any drummer!
CS: Would you consider working with Brian May again?
IH: I did! He’s on Part II. This is the first one, and Brian’s on the second one. Brian plays lead guitar and bass on a track.
CS: And Roger Taylor?
IH: I can’t find Roger… I rang him, and Roger rang me back. I rang him again, and…I’ve got to nag him! [But] I’ll find him.
CS: Going through your repertoire, are there any songs that stand out as particular favorites of yours?
IH: Well, the thing with my… They’re all like your babies, so you say one, and all the others get jealous, so I don’t really like picking them up. I liked all of them when I’ve been in the process of writing them and doing them. They’re all the same to me. All my babies.
CS: Talk to me about working with John Cale.
IH: It was lovely. You know, I’ve worked with a lot of people that were supposed to be total nutters, and they’re not. Or, I’ve met them…Keith from The Who…Zappa…I’ve met all these people; so nice!
CS: Will Cale be on the second Defiance?
IH: I don’t think so: I haven’t seen John in a long time. But we toured together, and we had a real good time. John either likes you, or he doesn’t. Fortunately, I was lucky [chuckles.] He’s the only guy I know that when we were recording in Manhattan, and we were in a studio … I think the engineer’s name was Black, because Black comes up in the name of the studio as well. We’re listening to the mix, and all of a sudden John hits the engineer at the back of the head. I’ve never seen somebody…You know, it’s like; ‘No! That’s not what I want!’ It’s like, ‘Do you know this bloke?’ I mean, ‘You can’t just hit people, John.’ We toured with him, and Earl Slick I remember was with me at the time. We get off stage the first night, and John goes up to him: ‘That was amazing.’ Earl was over the moon, because John Cale…The second night, we played again, and he kind of went up to him and said, ‘That was awful. Terrible.’ Earl Slick was like, ‘What have I done?’ John’s a character.
CS: So is Glen Matlock; have you worked with him?
IH: Yeah, I worked with Glen. A few times. He’s nonchalant and great at what he does. [He’s a] good guy. I did an album when I came out of the first or second retirement – I forget now – and I did it with a Norwegian producer called Björn Nessjö, and I met Glen then. He’s just an unassuming, great bass player.
CS: He told me that Ronnie Lane was one of his favorite bassists.
IH: Yeah, Ronnie Lane was great. That whole band was great. I remember we were in AIR 2, and The Faces were there, back when Rod Stewart was still with them. Rod was kind of fed up with it because The Faces were kind of shambolic. But they were great shambolic! Rod wanted it spot on, but they weren’t like that. They were loose, but that was the great thing about them. That was one of my favorite bands.
CS: To my ears, Mott and Faces were all about the live energy. Is that a fair comment?
IH: It’s about the spirit of the thing. It comes straight out of Memphis. It’s…you see some bands, and they’re extremely good at what they do, excellent musicians. But you don’t feel the spirit of them. I think that’s why people like bands like Mott and The Faces. We weren’t perfect by any means, but [raises voice] we meant it.
CS: Mott and Faces have been described as proto-punk.
IH: Yeah, pretty shambolic and not that great [laughs]. [But] we enjoyed ourselves, and we had a great time. We had people follow us all over. We had an army, an army of lieutenants. It was great fun, and if people couldn’t pay, we got them in the back door. If you wanted to get on stage, fine. The stage was full…[giggles]
CS: Can you confirm the myth that Mott let Mick Jones in, and he remembered that with The Clash?
IH: Oh yeah. Mick followed us everywhere. He had no money, so you’d let him in….They’d jump off a train before it got in a station [cackles.] They’d park out all night. Joe Strummer was another one. We let Joe in at Doncaster when he was fourteen years old. He had no money, so we let him in the back; him and his mates! That’s rock and roll.
CS: You encapsulated that anarchy with the elegiac “Saturday Gigs”. Was that meant as a farewell to Mott The Hoople?
IH: You know, it’s funny. We were all in there, and we were all singing it.[Pauses]…None of us knew for sure, but it felt…We’d done seven records and toured a lot in five years. I was knackered: I went into hospital. I think ‘Enough is enough’, yeah. It had played its course.
CS: And what a song to close on!
IH: Yeah, Ronson produced it. That was the only thing we did with Mick, and he made a great job of it…It got to be about number 32 or 33. We were fed up about that. People were saying that it sounded too much like “All The Young Dudes.” So, it never really went top 10, and we were all pretty fed up about that. [More than that] the band wasn’t really getting on with Mick Ronson, so that was the end of that.
CS: When do you think Defiance Part II will be out?
IH: I don’t know. Andy’s out with John Mellencamp until July, so I guess we’ll finish it sometime in the summer. I don’t know if we can get it out this year, or whether it will be next year. It’s hard to get vinyl. It’s getting a bit easier, but vinyl’s difficult. That’s why I waited about a year for this to come out, because of vinyl.
CS: You say you played a lot of piano on this album. Was it live or overdubbed?
IH: It wasn’t done like that. Andy York would come around for hours to my house with a computer, and a little keyboard, and a black box…I would put a piano down with a drum groove from a machine. We only had one set of headphones, so he would have to listen to me sing over the piano. He wouldn’t hear the piano, it was just me on my own singing. This was us doing demos in my basement, and demos in my basement turned into what you’ve got. We never went into a studio. All ‘do-it-yourself’.
CS: So, it was a holistic process?
IH: It was back to front and a fluke. The whole thing was a fluke, and that’s the great thing about it.
CS: I’ll ask two more questions. Firstly, will Part II be a narrative sequel to Part I?
IH: Yeah. It’ll be a little bit darker. Defiance I was deliberately on the up, and the optimistic side because of Covid. There’s enough going on, and you don’t need me telling you how bad things are. Part I is kind of like the Mott album, and Part II is a little more involved. It’s more politicized, a little.
CS: Finally, how does Defiance Part I stand up with your past work?
IH: It’s right up there. I don’t like comparing, but it’s as good as anything I’ve ever done. We sent the right tracks to the right people, and they made an amazing job of it.
Photo: Ian Hunter (Ross Halfin)
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…
Eoghan, I have read many of the interviews you have done, and this is one of your best!…You asked everything I always wondered of Ian Hunter….especially his confession of limits to his voice…..but boy, he did make the best use of what he had!. Well done!
I really appreciate that. Thank you
Great interview, nice too see Ian getting some respect in the press! Well done!
Hunter strikes as a genuinely nice dude. Gracious. Humble. Yeah?
Definitely gracious, but he knows he’s good. And why wouldn’t he? He only wrote all those great hits!
Brilliant interview, you brought out the real Ian. Love the Guy so natural, great story teller and character. This has to be a classic couple of Albums.
Johnny Depp, and no mention of Amber Heard…
What do they have to do with Hunter?
Great to hear Ian talk about things past and present. The questions were smart and useful to explore his so-very-interesting brain. Thank you!
wonderful interview. well done.
So much fun to read, you captured Ian’s humor, intelligence and modesty perfectly. Will share this with other Ian fans!
Thank you all!
Very nice work!
Good interview thanks-some original questions. Been a fan forever but think even those new to Hunter would get value from this. Great to see so much media interest in his work and hope it results in big sales. He deserves it. Cheers
Grazie a tutti!
Sir, that was epic!
Not a young dude, eh?