Stereogum doesn’t do traditional interviews, but when offered face time with Paul McCartney we ignored the staff handbook and sent Brandon into Manhattan armed with a page of questions and instructions not to embarrass us…
It’s not often you get to share a couch with rock royalty. I reminded myself that when I was scheduling my day, so I showed up a few minutes early to NY Noise on June 14th, not wanting some subway logjam to make me lose my spot. Upon arrival I learned Sir Paul, who I was earlier told I could call “Paul,” was running behind schedule, that I should maybe grab lunch.
When I returned to the studio 45 minutes later, I didn’t want Paul to notice my coffee wasn’t from Starbucks, so I decided to finish it outside. [Isn't that cute? -Ed] Within seconds he came ambling down the street. The stories you hear (or read about in the New Yorker) are true: Everyone recognizes him; folks stop awestruck in their tracks. The best interaction: Some woman with a dog shouts, “I love your music” and Paul replies, more or less, “I love your dog.” When he got closer, he asked his companion to snap a photo (or press play on the Paul Cam recorder) in front of the studio. I was framed in the shot, so I took two steps to the right, deciding to let him slip past and introduce myself later.
Unable to finish the somehow endless cup of Joe, I went inside and spent some time in “the waiting room” listening to folks talk about how the album was doing on radio. There were two radio DJ’s scheduled to interview Paul; I was surprised at how shocked I felt to realize radio still existed. After about 20 minutes I was called into the office.
McCartney was sitting on a couch downstairs in a smaller, darker studio room. He stood up when I entered, and we shook hands. He’s obviously given thousands of interviews, knows the drill, and as I expected, he was jovial and polite. The one thing I didn’t expect, though, was for our discussion to begin with him asking the questions. He was curious about my tattoos and wanted to know the stories behind them. I gave brief explanations, trying not to cut into our time. Listening back to the tape, I basically rushed him (“Um, Pynchon… and that’s from this other book.”). Sorry, Paul.
All said the interview went well. We didn’t have that much time and I decided to focus on technology instead of asking for Beatles anecdotes or riffs on the new album (which, while not a full return to form, definitely has some good material). No, I don’t write for Wired, but I was genuinely curious to know his thoughts on leaks, rips, and downloads. We ran out of time before I could query about the origins of the computer-era pun of Memory Almost Full.
During our talk, he sipped from a large a.k.a. venti Starbucks cup. I continued to sip from my no-name cup and couldn’t help but wonder who was having the better coffee experience.
Note: After we said our goodbyes, I passed Whoopi Goldberg on the street. I should’ve told her McCartney was around the corner, but was too busy listening back to the recording, making sure I could hear Paul loud and clear.
STEREOGUM: Memory Almost Full’s available as a digital download. The Beatles, as well as you in your solo work and with Wings, are known for pioneering recording techniques, audio fidelity. Are you concerned about people listening to the new album on crappy computer speakers?
PAUL MCCARTNEY: I figure people make that choice themselves. Anyone who’s concerned about that would probably get the vinyl. We used to listen to stuff on the beach on a mono radio [makes mono music sound] and it still sounded cool. There was no fidelity, never mind low. It was just a record; it was just the vibe of the record. So I’m used to that. So no, I’m not really concerned; I think it’s the peoples’ choice. If you’re a hi-fi nut, you’ll get great equipment. There’s a version you can get that’s very hi-fi: Mr. David Kahne, in the studio here, provides great, top-grade sound. Like I say, if you want to listen to it on crap speakers that’s your choice. [Laughs] But I would advise you not to ’cause there’s so much better stuff in there if you actually hear it.
STEREOGUM: The Beatles discography’s available on iTunes soon. What’re your thoughts on that?
PM: I think it’s good. We’ve been through a lot of media. We started off on vinyl — all our music was only vinyl, because nothing else was available. Then it was the tape cassette: It was kind of “Wow, that’s cool,” and so we listened to stuff on tape cassette, mainly because it was portable. The feature of that was that if we did a mix in the early days of the Beatles, we would just put one of these little Phillips tape-cassette machines on the board and get a rough idea of the song we’d just done. Going back in the van we’d play it. We didn’t put it through speakers, we weren’t that sophisticated — that came later, we did get little jacks and were able to do that. But at that time it was just great to take the mix home to Liverpool. Then you got CDs. They were sort of the new thing, and it was good to hear stuff on that. Now you have downloading, Internet. So, to me it doesn’t really matter. To me it’s the songs.
You can always go back to the original; you can always go back to the media that was intended. Some vinyl nuts will have a record player and the original vinyl records for the Beatles, and you’re hearing it as we made it. A lot of engineer friends of mine will say that’s the best way to listen to it. I was interested to hear the theory of vinyl vs. CDs. One of my engineers said we record something and the frequencies will go [makes high-pitched frequency sound] and beyond that we can’t hear, but they are on the vinyl. Similarly, the other way [makes low-pitch sound]… those frequencies that are in the bass. You can’t hear them, but they’re there in the vinyl. You can measure them on VU meters, but our ears can’t pick them up. So he said, that’s why vinyl’s better. That’s why people think of it as warmer and fuller, because it actually is. Whereas a CD, if you go [makes high-pitched sound again] the CD doesn’t need any information above that, so it goes to whatever it is — 5,000 KH — and cuts off. Similarly in the bass. That’s why engineers, some of my engineers anyway, don’t think this is good. I think it’s gotten better, for one reason or another, but I’m not a great audio guy I kind of will listen on anything — to me the spirit of the song is more important. I like listening on great equipment, but I figure it’s up to people.
STEREOGUM: Do you personally download music?
PM: I don’t. Well, yeah, I do a little bit for iPod. I had a little period when I was on tour that I used my iPod quite a bit. On the plane, coming home after a gig where you’ve suddenly got a couple of hours, where you’re just sitting around doing nothing — that was the ideal time. I downloaded some stuff for that, just some albums I liked for late-night listening, instead of reading a book on the plane. But day-to-day I don’t really do that. I’m more sort of a radioman or CD.
STEREOGUM: Recently a DJ in Chicago got a hold of the new White Stripes album prior to its release and played the entire thing on the air. Jack White, one half of the band, called the DJ up and, basically, let her have it. What are your thoughts on leaks and people ripping music to the web, etc?
PM: That’s a pity. It is a pity just because these guys do it for a living. Artists, that’s how they make the money. I don’t think anyone would enjoy going into the paymaster at the end of the week and saying, “Can I have my wages,” and he says, “No, sorry, some other guy just came in and had them. He just copied them and you’re not getting paid this week.’ Which is sorta what it’s like. There was some young girl quite a few years ago now, when it first started happening with Napster, and it was quite a contentious idea, she said — a young Italian girl — she said, “I pick up all my music free off the Internet.” I said, “That’s very nice for you, but the artist who made it isn’t getting paid.” I said, “How do you feel, you go into your TV station the end of the week and don’t get paid…” Let’s say the artist has a family, a new baby or something … you need some dough, you know. So I think that’s a pity. I like now the fact that people are getting more pay.
So it is unfortunate, but it’s a modern phenomenon you can’t really escape. People can just pick it up. I was just talking on the way down here in the car about music biz and why it’s down and we just figure because you can get so much of it free. You don’t actually have to go and buy a CD anymore. The only people I feel sorry for are the new artists who might be relying on that as a good way to earn a living. So it’s a pity if they don’t get paid. But other than that, obviously it’s nice for the people. [Laughs] You don’t have to pay. You get a free ride. That’s a nice thing. [Laughs] Everyone loves a freebie.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of the music business: You’ve likened contemporary record labels to dinosaurs…
PM: David Kahne, whose studio we’re in, said that. He said, it’s like the dinosaur sitting around discussing the asteroid. And when you talk to these guys at the labels, they’re very conscious of that. Well, a lot of them are so conscious of it because they’re getting little letters that say, ’you’re laid off … baby,’ and that’s gonna make you super conscious of it. I think a lot of them don’t know how to deal with the modern phenomenon of downloading and the Internet, and what we’re talking about, you know, free access. Suddenly the rug’s pulled from underneath them where they had a nice little number going: You’d actually just put out a record, charge for it, and get paid. Now it’s completely different, a new ball game. So, yeah, I think there is a dinosaur aspect of it and the world’s changing so fast it’s hard to keep up with it.
STEREOGUM: Is this why you decided to leave Capitol?
PM: My main reason was sitting with David, the producer, and just saying, “I really want to get excited about putting the next album out, I’m fed up with getting bored when release comes.” It’s like the end of your school year, those exams, and you know, it’s not a great feeling. I don’t have to take exams, in a way … [Laughs] When I was in high school it was a reality — I had to go and take them — but when you’ve sorta got where I’ve got or when the band’s met … the exam is your album, and this idea of releasing it and it getting very boring and talking to a lot of corporate people about it and you find yourself yawning a lot, it just really, I just thought I don’t want to do that. So we just tried to re-look at the whole thing. That meant a label change. The Starbucks people were just so passionate, they said, “Wow man, love your album” and the feedback we were getting from them, from Steve Jobs at iTunes, and from the whole new team we put that together to bring this into being, new art people and stuff, was just such a buzz that I said, “Yeah, this is what I want. I just want it to be exciting.” It was exciting making it and now we’ve made it exciting to release it … for us. That’s really all I care about. It’s kind of selfish, but why not?
STEREOGUM: Memory Almost Full debuted at #3 on Billboard. It’s your highest charting solo album in ten years. Do you think this has anything to do with the label switch?
PM: I don’t know, I don’t know. It could be … We certainly thought about this campaign. I said, “There’s no point working all year to make an album and then just going to some guy you don’t know, well, you put it out then. It’s like, who is this guy? If he gets it wrong…” So we just said, “No no no, let’s just get a bunch of people and ask ’what do you think, what do you think, what do you think?’ ’I like that idea.’ ’This is cool…’” It’s just more exciting than sitting around and twiddling your thumbs thinking, “I hope they’re doing the right thing with my record.”
STEREOGUM: Okay, one backward glancing question: The 40th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s just passed. Did you intentionally insert any references to past Beatles material in Memory Almost Full? “Nod Your Head,” for instance, has a particular sound…
PM: I guess that could be a “Why Don’t We Do It in The Road?” type vibe. I’m not really conscious of that. I just make music that appeals to me at the time. And because I’m me, there’s naturally going to be echoes of Pepper, White Album, Revolver, whenever … There’s going to be echoes from throughout my writing career. I’m not really conscious of it, but I like it. It takes people to point it out to me. Some people say, ’That’s really Wings, that tempo.’ Is it? Cool. I like that. I must say I hadn’t thought of “Nod Your Head” as Beatles-esque, but I’m happy to think it is…
STEREOGUM: Listen to it again. [Laughs]
PM: [Laughs] Yeah, we like the Beatles. The Beatles are good. Good band.