BILL WYMAN: ROLLING STONE WHO DEFINITELY GATHERS NO MOSS

By Paul Freeman [ 1997 Interview]

Born in London in 1936, Bill Wyman became one of the worldís most famous bassists, during his stint as an original member of The Rolling Stones, from 1962 to 1993.

Wyman has hardly been resting on his laurels. Heís a composer, bandleader, film and record producer, restaurateur, photographer, author and inventor. An amateur archaeologist, he designed and marketed a metal detector, which he has used to find relics dating back to the Roman Empire.

When we spoke with him, he was excited about the album debut of the all-star Bill Wymanís Rhythm Kings.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Had you been longing to get back into another musical project?

BILL WYMAN:
No, I wasnít really. I found that, when I left The Stones, I didnít really want to be involved in music for a while. I did do a few charity concerts and I stood in for Ronnie Lane on a couple of Faces TV awards things that they had. But I didnít really want to do anymore music for a while. I focused on my private and family life. And I worked on a bunch of projects that had been outstanding for a while.

And then it comes creeping back. Always does. I mean, when youíve been in the business 30 years, it tends to chase you [Laughs]. So it did arrive. But it was different... Do you mind me rambling?

PCC:
[Laughs] No, Iím enjoy it.

WYMAN:
[Laughs] It was different, because I felt that, if I put out another album... Iíd done some stuff with a band called WIllie & The Poor Boys [1985]. Iíd had success and Iíd had failure. It went both ways. Iíd done some movie score work. I didnít really want to try to do sort of pseudo soft-rock anymore or tongue-in-cheek things Iíd been quite successful with. I just thought, I donít need all that anymore, so forget about image, forget about having a record a certain way and a certain kind of music. Forget about trying to have a chart smash or singles and things. And just go in there and cut anything I want, from any era, in any style. Iím sure there were people who thought I was completely mad. But thatís what I did.

PCC:
How did you go about putting together the core of the Rhythm Kings band?

WYMAN:
Well, I just got a very small, five-piece together. Graham Broad, who weíd used before on many things. Heís a really nice drummer. In fact, Charlie [Watts] thinks a great deal of him, as well. Heís used by a lot of people. He was over in the States last year, working with Procol Harum. I always use him. I find him very comfortable to play with. And heís a very neat, tasty drummer.

And then we had Georgie Fame [keyboards/vocals], when he was available. He works a lot with Van Morrison on the road. And myself, my musical friend Terry Taylor [guitar], whoís been on a lot of my solo albums and had also played with Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters with me in Montreux. Heís very versatile. And then we found this absolutely amazing piano player [ Mike Sanchez], out of nowhere [Chuckles]. He can play anything, from ragtime to stride to Fats Waller to blues, anything. Heís absolutely wonderful. So that made up the little setup. And then we went in about three days every month, just with a handful of songs. And came out with seven masters, one month. And next month another five. The next month did eight. And we just kept stockpiling, really, just seeing what was happening with different styles.

We did the odd country-flavored thing from the Ď40s, We did Billie Holiday songs. Fats Waller. We did Ď20s country blues. We did Ď70s stuff like Creedence. We did ĎTobacco Road,í which is on the album. And Ď50s early rock. Just anything. And it was absolutely wonderful. Everybody had a great time. There was kind of this underground vibe that was going around London with the musicians. And I was getting phone calls from people like Kiki Dee, Jeff Beck and people like that, saying, ĎIíve heard about this album... can I be on it? People say itís great.í [Laughs]. I started to get people inquiring.

Iíd gotten about 50-odd tracks, which was very surprising, but thatís what we had. I thought I needed a little bit of icing on the cake on some of them. You know, I didnít want them all the same as each other. I just called up friends, like Eric [Clapton] and Gary Brooker, Mick Taylor, some other people, just to come in and burnish them a bit, in their own way. But I chose particular tracks for them to work on. Albert Lee came in and worked on a lot of the uptempo, boogie and jitterbug stuff and jump music. Martin Taylor, the jazz guitarist, whoís only on one track on this first album, but heís on a lot on the second one, he came in and did a lot of kind of Django Reinhardt type playing. Heís absolutely wonderful, too.

And so I went on and just did it like that. I divided it into three groups in the end, like early Ď20s, Ď30s, ragtime stuff. Then the second group of Ď30s, Ď40s, which is bluesy, with jazz flavor, horns, and as I say, the Billie Holiday, Fats Waller kind of stuff. And then the Ď60s and Ď70s, which the first album was. Weíre getting great reviews. Itís a very pleasant surprise for me, because itís all bonus [Chuckles]. We just did it to have a nice time. And it wasnít expensive. Each song was like take one, two or three. There was no sort of chasing a track down forever. If it didnít work, we just didnít bother with it and we went on to the next one. It was a very enjoyable experience for everyone. I was getting phone calls from the horn players saying it was the best music theyíd played on for years, and all kinds of things like that. Chris Rea would come in and just sit there and say, ĎThis is like warming your hands by a fire on a cold winterís morning.í [Laughs] It was very nice, all complimentary. Iím glad itís selling and getting nice reviews, as well.

PCC:
Itís too rare these days to find records that arenít over-embellished, that have a sense of spontaneity and fun and natural interaction among the musicians.

WYMAN:
Well, I tried to produce it as quality-conscious as possible, obviously, with great musicianship, because we do have some wonderful players on it. That came through and Iím very proud of it. But a lot of the songs I wrote, either on my own or together with Terry Taylor doing the music -I did all the lyrics - they turned out wonderful, because we sort of wrote songs for a style. We wrote songs in a Ď40s flavor and wrote songs in a Ď20s flavor. And sort of early Ď50s jump music, Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, that kind of stuff, Amos Milburn. And they came out so good. And they came out easily, much easier than any of soft rock stuff Iíve tried to do before, which often took me forever to get lyrics together on. So I was very proud of these songs. People often say they think theyíre old songs. They donít realize that we wrote them for the occasion. And thatís also a nice compliment.

PCC:
Had you felt in the past that you didnít have enough opportunity for singing and songwriting?

WYMAN:
Well, there was always that, in The Stones, because The Stones were a closed shop as far as writing for the band. I mean, the opportunity was not given for anyone to do anything, as it was with similar bands of the era, like The Beatles, The Who, Zeppelin and so on. It was a closed shop. You didnít have a chance to get in there. And, if you did, it was by pure luck, or just an accident, you know. That was my experience. Ronnie Wood does a little bit, here and there these days, shares in a song. But, generally, you donít have a chance.

So you canít work on musical ideas you have. And every musician has creative ideas. Or most of them do. And most of them fulfill them in the band theyíre in. I was unable to. So I always had to step outside the band and try to do them as solo recordings or productions and the movie stuff, which I touched on slightly.

And it was always frustrating, because I could never focus on it 100 percent, and go through with the project . Theyíre always broken up in segments, a week here and then back to work with The Stones for two months. And then two weeks there. And then another couple of weeks with The Stones. And then three days somewhere else. And it was like that all the time, whatever kind of project that you had, whether it was photography, which I was interested in, or music or writing or anything. It was just so broken up that you couldnít really focus on it. That was the frustration that I had within the band.

But I did kind of get by that and did manage to do a lot of solo stuff. But if youíre not 100 percent on the ball and you do things in bits and pieces, by the time the project is ready to release, itís usually a long time since it started. And it tends to become a bit dated and not quite the right keyboard sounds or whatever. Thereís always something. And you have to try to upgrade it again, from the year or two years that youíve been working on it. And then it doesnít quite sound right and then you have to change something else. So itís very bitty. And itís very unsatisfying.

PCC:
Youíve done some live dates in Europe with The Rhythm Kings?

WYMAN:
Yeah, I just managed to get the band together for 10 days. This German record company, BMG, requested that we do a a few dates, just to make people aware of the band and the record. I scraped around and asked everybody if they could play for nothing, practically, and just do a few dates and one TV thing. And they were all delighted. Frampton and Albert Lee flew over from the States to England. We had a couple of days rehearsal, because theyíd all played on like one or two songs, but they didnít know the whole thing. We put tickets out for sale in Hamburg and they went in a couple of hours. We added midnight show. The same thing happened in Amsterdam. That one sold out in the afternoon, so we put on a second one. And then we did one in London. It was just bop, bop, bop. And then everybody left and went back to their own careers and projects. Itís that kind of a band. I have to grab them when I can. And itís coincidental, if everybodyís available at the same time. Weíve had fantastic receptions. I was astounded.

People just wanted to have a fun time. It was probably something to do with the music, but we had so much audience participation, singing along. We did some early rock Ďní roll songs, various bits and pieces. We intended to do an hour and 10 minutes. We ended up doing an hour and 45 every night. They wouldnít let us leave. Weíd come back for an encore, get ready to leave and then have to go back on again. And then weíd say, ĎThank you very much. Wonderful audience.í And then put the half-lights up. And the venueís music would come on. But they just wouldnít go away. Halfway to the bus, weíd have to get back to the dressing room with the promoter saying, ĎYouíve got to get back out there!í That happened in both Hamburg and Amsterdam. It was great.

PCC:
Is there any chance of a North American tour?

WYMAN:
Well, I donít fly anymore, unfortunately, not since 1990. But I was hoping to put some sort of special together or some live thing for America. We are expecting to tour for a second time in Europe and weíll do some filming, trying to put a special together. But, as I say, I just donít travel anymore. I kind of got fed up to the back teeth with it.

PCC:
Had you always had an aversion to flying?

WYMAN:
It never bothered me in the least. I had flown before I even joined The Stones. Iíd flown three times before I was in the band. It never concerned me at all. Then just one day, on a European tour, the ĎUrban Jungleí tour, after ĎSteel Wheels,í I was on a plane and I just thought, ĎI donít want to do this. I donít like it.í And I just never went up again. I finished up the tour traveling by road, which is very enjoyable. I took the drive through Germany right to Prague and experienced all kinds of interesting things and saw much more of the countryside. It was much more interesting than jumping on a plane and going to a hotel or backstage in a limo. And I really enjoyed it. The flying, I just canít do it. I donít know why. The only other way to get there is on one of them big boats, isnít it?

PCC:
So was that one of the reasons for leaving The Stones? The extensive travel?

WYMAN:
Partially. But the main reason was I really didnít want to carry on. I didnít see any reason. I thought, weíd reached the pinnacle, achieved everything weíd set out to do - thereís nothing else to aim for, in a creative way. I didnít see what else to do, but repeat what weíd already done... maybe a little bit better, if possible, as we always seemed to do, and pick up the money.

Iíd found more important things in my life at that time, other things that I had to do. Iíd been in the band 31 years. And that was enough, as far as I was concerned.

PCC:
Did you find a different sort of satisfaction, going back to play clubs, rather than the huge stadiums youíd been playing with The Stones?

WYMAN:
Yeah, itís great. They were playing Giants Stadium, when we were playing this little Fabrik in Hamburg for 1,200 people. [Chuckles]. And I knew it, because I keep those records, of course. And I talk with Charlie a lot, as well. And the band have been sending me packages from the tour, T-shirts and badges and programs and things. I always kept those things. And it was funny, they were doing this enormous stadium for two or three million dollars or whatever it was and we were doing the Fabrik for nothing [Laughs]. And we came off, probably with as big a smile as they did.

PCC:
Settling down now, does that come easily to you after all the wild rock Ďní roll years?

WYMAN:
I was never a party person. I never ran in the fast lane much. Probably in the beginning a bit with Brian [Jones]. But then I became like that, because I was the first one married, the first one with a child. In fact, my son Stephen was nine months old, when I joined the band [in 1962]. So I was kind of already a bit settled. When everybody would go partying in London after gigs or whatever, Iíd go home. Charlie was the same, because he had a baby shortly afterwards and got married in Ď64. So we were like the two responsible ones, if you like. We felt obligations, which, of course, we should. So we trod home and we had that to deal with. And the others partied more. We stayed much more well behaved [Laughs] and less looked at by the media, which was kind of nice for 20 years.

PCC:
But the oft quoted figure of your having slept with 1,000 women, when was that happening?

WYMAN:
Oh, it was probably through the Ď60s, into the early Ď70s. What that is, really, itís not seeing how many women you can go out with Itís going to a town, where you canít get out of the hotel. And youíre bored to death of the room. And thereís nothing on the TV. And youíre fed up with listening to music or whatever. Youíre just bored and you feel very lonely and you bump into someone in the early light hours in the little coffee shop downstairs and you get their company, just to pass the time. And then it becomes a habit. Itís a bit like that, really. No more, no less.

None of those things ever become meaningful in any way. Itís just in the moment, being a bit lonely in New Zealand or wherever you might be at the time. If you could go out and about and look around and see all the great places in these countries that youíre visiting, itíd be great, because you could occupy your time. We were always in a position where it was airports, car, hotel, car, backstage, gig, car, hotel. And itís like that all the time. Then car, airport. You never saw anything. You never could go anywhere. It was so restrictive.

In the Ď80s, I went to Japan, just as a tourist, before any of The Stones had ever been there. We were never allowed in Japan. I went to Australia for a month. I went to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs and spent a week in the desert and all those kinds of things, because people didnít expect to see me and it was so much nicer. Do you know what I mean? I went to Fiji. I was able to just look around and be inconspicuous. Of course, I got noticed and recognized. But people werenít expecting to see me in those places, so I had much more freedom and saw much more of the countryside and the beautiful sights that are around. And that was very nice.

PCC:
But now, in a different situation, monogamy is no problem?

WYMAN:
Well, five years ago, I decided to get my private life in order and I spoke to a girlfriend that Iíd first met in London in 1979 in Paris, when myself and my girlfriend Astrid [Lundstrom] had broken up over an 18-month period and I had this little affair with Suzanne [Accosta] in Paris and then we stayed friends, bumped into each other here and there, in different countries, different towns, like New York, Paris, London and so on.

We just stayed friends, kept in touch and all that. And I just sat down one day and thought, ĎWho could I live with on a serious level and have a family with and really settle down once and for all?í And I decided on her and rang her. She was a bit guarded, because she knew my reputation a bit and everything. But the promise was made and she gave up an acting career and two clothing design companies she had in Santa Monica and just moved over and we got married. That was almost five years ago. Weíve got two beautiful little girls, three and two, and thereís another one on the way. Weíve got Katherine, as in Katherine Hepburn, whoís my wifeís favorite actress, the second oneís Jessica. [And the third is named Matilda Mae]

So itís a great time in my life now, because Iím doing all of the things that I wanted to do. I can decide my own dates and times and what projects I want to work on this week, next week or the week after. I can be at home. I donít have to phone in from Toronto or whatever. Itís very nice. Iíve got eight projects going.

PCC:
Youíre also involved in the restaurant business?

WYMAN:
Yeah. Iíve got three very successful restaurants. Iíve got one in London, Sticky Fingers, which has been going for nine years, full all the time, very, very successful. Weíve got it all perfect and we decided to open in Manchester about 14 months ago. We have the big one in Manchester, which is doing very well now. Weíve got a third one in Cambridge.

PCC:
Are you considering opening a restaurant in North America?

WYMAN:
Well, Iíve so many offers. But I go to all of those things. I can just jump in a car or jump on a train and go to them. Itís two, three hours maximum. Iíve had so many offers to franchise in so many countries, but you start to do it abroad and make it some big-time international scene with restaurants, like Hard Rock, etc., Iíd be traveling all over the place again. Iíd never be home. In the Ď60s, I was married and had my son. And I was on the road all the time. And I missed all my sonís childhood. I wasnít part of it. Iíd come back after a four-month American tour or something and he was talking. The next time Iíd come back from Europe or Australasia or whatever, he was walking and doing this, that and the other and I kind of missed it all. And I really want to enjoy that now. So Iíve had a second shot at the apple and I really want to be here and enjoy it all. And I can be. Itís my decision.

PCC:
Do you miss any aspect of touring with The Stones?

WYMAN:
No, no. I had kind of a veiled invite put to me about six months before, because theyíre still good friends. I still see Charlie a lot. He visits me. I visit him. Our families mingle. I see Woody [Ron Wood] a lot. I bump into Mick sometimes. We go to the odd birthday party. We have lunch with Jerry [Hall] down in the south of France. I donít see Keith much, because he never comes over here and I never go over there. But thereís a very nice sort of thing going on now with us. They understand totally now the reason that I left, which they didnít understand at the time and disliked. And now theyíve accepted it and itís a very nice atmosphere.

I had dinner with one of the people close to the band and they said to me, ĎOh, by the way, Bill, if youíre not doing anything in the next two years, we might have a job for you.í It was put tongue-in-cheek like that, with a smile [Chuckles]. And that was it. But Iíve never had any regrets, not even for a minute, about my decision to leave. And I donít think I ever will. Weíre not Spinal Tap. Iím very content with it. And good luck to Ďem, if they can continue to do it successfully. But it doesnít interest me.

PCC:
Does it concern you that maybe theyíll go on too long?

WYMAN:
Well, I left, when I thought weíd gone on long enough. Thatís the reason I left. I didnít see a reason to carry on. They obviously did. Theyíve all got other activities outside The Stones, but they're very minor compared with mine. I mean, Mick is basically 90 percent Stones. He does a bit of acting and movie stuff. And Keith doesnít really do much outside the band. Woody does a bit of artwork, a few exhibitions and things. And thatís it, outside of the band. And Charlie, heís got his little jazz band that he takes around and plays Carnegie Hall and places like that, which he enjoys very much. And thatís about all he does outside the band.

As far as Iím concerned, Iíve got a great interest in astronomy. I go to observatories and talk to people. Archeology, I indulge in. Iím writing a book on it, an early English history. I do photography. Iíve got a limited edition book coming out, based on my friendship with Marc Chagall. Iím working on a second book on The Stones. Iíve got three restaurants. And the list goes on. Iíve just started a website. Iím very, very busy. And Iíve got eight different project going in different directions and itís very nice. The Stones has always been a smaller part of my life than it has for the other members, I think. It was a major part of their life.

PCC:
But while theyíre out there, do you find it ironic that people keep bringing up the age issue with rock musicians, whereas, in blues or jazz, thatís not a factor, or people assume that youíre going to get better with age?

WYMAN:
Well, they all think rock Ďní roll is jumping up and down and rolling on the floor with guitars sticking up. All that high energy stuff. And a lot of it is like that. But that doesnít mean older canít play it. Itís a very young music, so itís never had elder statesmen before, actually [Laughs]. All those other forms of music - classical, jazz, blues have all had elder statesmen before, because the musicís been going on a considerable time. But weíre the first... well, second generation of rock Ďní roll people, arenít we?

The first generation, a lot of them are dead now, but Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and people like that are still out there, even though theyíre in their late 60s, early 70s. John Lee Hookerís in his 70s. Thereís not many blues people left now. But thereís a lot of the Ď60s rock Ďní roll people out there, arenít there? And they're still doing gigs - The Bee Gees, Stones, The Who. And why not?

Why not check out Bill Wymanís latest projects by visiting billwyman.com?