The second half of our exclusive conversation with Ian Hunter, but now he’s joined by Mott the Hoople bandleader James Mastro.
Yesterday, Rock and Roll Globe posted a feature on the Mott the Hoople reunion tour, a short stretch that rolls through early April before moving on to the UK.
The band features two of the key players from that era, guitarist Luther Grosvenor (aka Ariel Bender) and keyboardist Morgan Fisher. Also: The Rant Band, the group which has backed Hunter for years: Guitarist-keyboardist-saxophonist (and former Bongos co-leader) James Mastro, guitarist Mark Bosch, keyboardist Dennis Dibrizzi, bassist Paul Page and drummer Steve Holley.
We talked with Hunter for yesterday’s feature. Here, we hear more from him, as well as Mastro.
You played the Ramblin’ Man festival in Kent, England last year, which is how this all began.
Hunter: We thought we’d do it and it worked out great between the Rant Band and Luther and Morgan – they are now friends. Ok, [we thought] we’ll do six or seven proper gigs in England to our own people and then [Live Nation promoter Ron] Delsener came in with an offer, which was fine by me. I just thought we were just doing New York, the Beacon. That was all that was originally offered. I just thought it’s over and done here. I really didn’t want to do much else, but it went into these eight gigs.
How do you get into the mindset, the headset of you in 1974?
Hunter: I don’t do that. It’s a whole different ballgame. Luther comes in and Luther’s still crazy, as he always was – he’s not aged a bit. Morgan does his sartorial stuff and we just fall into it. It’s the old getting on-the- bike-again syndrome. And the Rant Band, I mean they’ve been with me 17 years and they know this stuff backwards. Both Steve and Paul pay particular attention to how [Mott bassist] Pete Watts played and how [Mott drummer] Buff played. They’ve changed their styles, and it’s gone more within the Mott syndrome. Another guy in my band, Boschi, Ian’s nickname for Bosch – js he’ll do the low heavy chords a la Mick Ronson and Mick Ralphs, and Mastro he’s not only playing a bit of guitar, he’s playing a lot of sax and he does the mandolin parts on “I Wish I Was Your Mother.”
James, purely as a fan, when you were a kid growing up in New Jersey, what were your favorite Mott songs? And how about now, being in the band?
Mastro: “I Wish I Was Your Mother” can still make me cry, and “[All the Way from] Memphis” can still make me feel like I just discovered rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve always been a big fan of The Hoople album, so having had to immerse myself deeply in the entire catalog for this tour, cuts like “Pearl & Roy” and “Alice,” are such perfect songs – visual, visceral, and incredibly musical.
How has your interaction with Morgan and Luther been? And to they bringing the necessary chops to the party?
Mastro: Morgan and Luther have only gained chops over the years, so I feel like I’m in a masters class working with them. They’ve done everything they can to make us feel a part of “the band;” it is by no means an “us” and “them” situation. The two hours onstage have usually been preceded by a lot of laughing and hanging out together.
Ian, you said James plays some sax now.
Hunter: He’s a good sax player; this was a revelation to me.
Is he as good as [Roxy Music’s] Andy Mackay [who played on the original recorded version of “Memphis”]?
Hunter: Different. He’s more regular, more like Little Richard type riff player. But the spirit’s there, the balls are there.
James, you’re the Rant Band bandleader. Would that also apply to this Mott situation?
Mastro: Bandleader with the Rant Band came by default since I’m awake before everyone else. This means I get to cut the wood and put it on the fire before anyone else rouses. With Mott, the blueprint is so pronounced that no “bandleader” is really needed as everyone knows the job they’re supposed to do.
From purely a holy-shit-I’m-in-Mott-the-Hoople point of view: What kind of kick is this? That is, what the teenage Jim Mastro say if he knew some years later he’d be doing this?
Mastro: Well, Mott was THE band that made me want to play guitar as a kid. So, at this moment the teenage Mastro is asking for the older one’s autograph.
Ian, one of my favorite Mott songs and I think your most dramatic, is “Marionette,” from The Hoople. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do it in your solo sets. It’s a story about who wields the power in the music world, about the artist riding the rock ‘n’ roller coaster, all packed into about five minutes. Staccato piano interludes, wild guitar careening. It begins in gleeful defiance and ends in somber defeat: “I’m just a marionette.”
Hunter: “Marionette” is a good song, yeah. As you get bigger, which we were in the process of doing at that time, you come up against the other side of the business. Any corporation’s going to dive in and ruin anything and that’s what [the song] was about. It was getting to be a job. Mick Ralphs had left and I was on to write all the stuff. And the band didn’t like doing interviews, so I was doing them as well. And then the gigs and records and it was too much. I felt like a puppet and that was the beginning of the end for me. I never liked the premiership. To this day, I don’t know how people survive that. It takes a special kind of balls to put up with the business on the top end.
During these shows, are you doing anything from your solo career?
Hunter: No, it’s Mott.
You are noted for looking forward. You’ve continued to make new albums in an era where a) people don’t buy albums and b) many older rockers don’t feel the desire to make new music. But this is a temporary look-back, a bit of nostalgia, maybe.
People sometimes scoff at nostalgia. Your thoughts?
Hunter: I wouldn’t want to do it year-round, but now and again, especially in this situation because of Morgan and because of Luther. You wanna troll me out on that and say “Well, that’s convenient …” Well, it’s not. We finished up the second get-together at the O2 in London and Luther [who didn’t play in the band then] came in and [talking about 1974] said “It was great, man, I loved it, it was the best year of my life.” He could have been really upset [not playing that gig], but he was really nice about it. Those kind of things stick with you. Morgan, too. There were a few people who joined and left Mott, but those two to me have the same heart of the band as the original vibe did so it was important that they got their other 15 minutes.
James, I’m guessing for most of us Mott concert-goers this is nostalgia for something we’ve never seen live. What do you think nostalgia’s place is in the rock ‘n’ roll world?
Mastro: Ian is one of the least nostalgic people I know, and I tend to be the same way, [both of us thinking] “You’re only as good as your last song, guitar solo, or show.” That said, I must admit I went into this with a bit of trepidation, not wanting it to feel like an oldies act. Those worries were quickly dashed, as I think we all were carried away by how powerful, valid and vibrant it still felt. And I have to credit that to Ian, Luther, and Morgan. Their energy and honesty in approach to music is what keeps us going and makes it exciting. So, this tour is not about nostalgia – which to me means pining for something past – but more about drinking from the fountain of youth and getting that taste of what keeps you young even as the years roll on.
Ian, you’re in top playing shape, physically, mentally. You’ve never retired. How about Luther and Morgan?
Hunter: They look great. Luther hasn’t gained a pound and he’s still a total looney. We were in Sweden [last July] and I came down to the front desk and he’s telling the girl behind the desk, “I need a new mirror for my room.” She said, “What happened? You break the mirror?” and he said, “No, no no I’ve worn it out.” I overheard him. He didn’t know I was behind him. That’s how he is all day long. The vibe is sky high, you have a lot of fun with him. He’s a born entertainer. And he knows how to play. The only thing he was missing at the festivals was the intensity because you rehearse at home and you forget what it’s like when you get on stage so he had a lot of bleeding fingers to contend with, but now he gets it. And Morgan is playing better than ever; he’s playing beautifully.
James, in terms of Rant Band prep, how up to speed were you on the potential song choices for these gigs? That is, I know your well runs deep when you’re doing Ian/Rant Band shows, but was there much catch-up/rehearsal time needed to learn or relearn Mott stuff?
Mastro: I’d say we’d played a good 1/3 of these songs with Ian prior to Mott. So, though most of the newer additional Mott tunes were in our genetic makeup, there was still a good amount of working the repertoire up. But even the Mott songs we’d played with the Rant Band required looking at, because we wanted to honor the original versions more. We listened not only to the studio albums, but lots of various live tapes from that era, and distilled it into what it is now. And for me, personally, I had to listen to the Mott stuff totally differently since I decided to learn how to play saxophone for this tour!
One of the beautiful quiet songs on The Hoople is about your wife, “Trudie’s Song.” Is that a contender for the concerts?
Hunter: It’s possible, but I don’t know. When you’re doing slow songs you have to be careful because it can bet boring for the casual [fan]. If you’re gonna do a slow song, it’s better to have a more dramatic effect. “Trudie’s Song” is a quiet little song some people would like but a lot of people might get bored. I don’t mind doing ballads in my set, with the Rant Band, but it’s very difficult because there’s a lot of them and they slow the set down. If there’s a bit of drama involved, it’s not so bad. A little song like “Trudie’s Song,” it’s not easy to do em without them losing it.
Will there be pre-Dudes material?
Hunter: Yeah, there’s a couple I think, not much. That really is a prerogative of the earlier band.
“Walking with a Mountain” maybe?
Hunter: You’re gonna have a good evening with one thing and the other. That’s Luther’s specialty, “Walking with a Mountain.” That was written in about five minutes. We were in bar and Guy [Stevens, the producer] said “There’s too much slow stuff we’ve got to find a fast one” and five minutes later, “This’ll do, it’s fast.”
I was talking to Warren Zevon years ago about “Werewolves of London” and he told me it took about as long to write as it did to play and record.
Hunter: And god it’s lovely when that happens! I’ve sat for six years with a song. My solo song, “Ship,” six years! I had the verse, I had the bridge. When you have a good verse and a good bridge you really don’t want to mess it up with an average hook. I waited and waited and I was [talking to] a drummer one night in the bar, he just happened to say something and “That’s it! Fuck, that’s it!”
Do you scribble songs on notepads or sing into tape recorder?
Hunter: I’ve got notebooks all over the place and I still use a lot of cassettes. My memory stinks and it always did. I lost a lot of stuff. I blew it so many times. I remember there was a song called “All the Good Ones Are Taken” and we did two different versions of it on a record because we couldn’t remember the original groove. Now, if I’d have had a cassette when I wrote the song, I’d have remembered what the groove was. We found it many years later. But at the time, we doing a video of it and I knew it wasn’t right. Just ‘cause I didn’t have a cassette [recorder with me].
“Just Another Night” was another one. We were in there with the E Street Band and the keyboard player – he played it and [I sang] “Just another night on the other side … “just like Bruce. I was really worried that I’m gonna get slagged off for this because it was too Bruce. And Ronson pipes up and says “Why don’t you do it like you wrote it?” and I had no idea how I wrote it. “You might have told me that two days ago when we were putting the backing track down.” But he didn’t tell me then. We made a deal. He got half the writing. He had the [album] title as well – he got it off a toilet wall. And it was a title I wanted so we traded, You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic. [laughs] We’re off the point here ….
Back to Mott. You wrote Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star so long ago, drawn from five weeks on a US tour in 1972. A lot’s happened since then. Is there book in you?
Hunter: No, not really. It don’t pay well. Comparatively speaking. Well, it probably does now but back then no, it was just a waste of a lot of lyrics. But [a new edition] is out in March on Omnibus
Are there revisions or additions?
Hunter: When we went to Japan [in 2015] I did [a diary piece] for MOJO and that’s in it, and Johnny Depp does the introduction – that’s the main differences.
Johnny does have good taste. I remember the early Pogues days when he was a big fan. How did he come into your orbit?
Hunter: Johnny just turned up one night [at a gig] and we got on great. He got up with me [on stage] in LA and then we went down to 60 miles south of LA and he came there. I got up a couple of time at the Viper with the Hollywood Vampires. And John, he knows my stuff and the interesting thing it’s not just the well-known stuff, but stuff like Man Overboard, albums that are very small in comparison.
Johnny gets slagged off a lot as a guitarist.
Hunter: No, no, he’s good and he knows when to hang back. He doesn’t get in the way. I have a large band and he knows how to play. I also had a lot with [Def Leppard singer] Joe Elliott. The Rant Band never liked Joe getting up and then I found out he was genuine and now everybody loves it. They’re a bit proprietary, the Rant Band goes. Does John have to get up an make a name or himself? No. That’s ridiculous. He gets up ‘cause he loves it.