The sideman for the Pretenders, Paul McCartney, and countless others flies solo with a new album, and an interview with WholeNote's Chris Hansen.
If you're ever lucky enough to meet Robbie McIntosh, "rock star" probably won't be the first thing that comes to mind. Like his hero Chet Atkins
, his gentle, soft-spoken nature seems at odds with the ferocious six-string resume that he carries with him in his guitar case. He seems more comfortable talking about the music that he loves than the musicians who have relied upon his talents. He's more comfortable talking about his favorite Beatles
songs than his tenure with a Beatle. He's simply a brilliant guitar player who would rather tell you everything about his record collection than anything about his multi-platinum recording career. In short, there is no pretense about this former Pretender. He is simply the real deal.
Robbie was kind enough to take some time from promoting his new solo acoustic album, Unsung
(Compass Records, 2000), to speak with Wholenote's Chris Hansen about his extraordinary career as one of the world's most desired sidemen and his new-found status as a frontman in his own right.
Chris: Tell me about your new album Unsung. How did an all-acoustic album come about?
I actually recorded it about 3 years ago. At least 3 years ago, really. I recorded it and it just sat on my shelf for ages and ages. Then a good friend of mine, an author called Douglas Adams
(Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) heard some of the recordings and said, "hey, we should really put this out." He plays guitar and is a really huge acoustic guitar fan. So eventually we got it out on Douglas' web site. It took so long to do, but we finally mastered it and put it up. Then Compass records heard it, who I signed with for my Emotional Bends
(1999) record, and they loved it and wanted to get it into the stores and give it a bit more exposure. So that's what we're doing.
CH: I was lucky enough to see you play with Paul McCartney and I really enjoyed your solo acoustic portion of the show. But an entire acoustic record is a big change for you, isn't it?
Right. On the second McCartney tour I used to come out and do an edited version of a song called "Thanks Chet". It's a bit of a tribute to Chet Atkins. Well, the full version of that [song] is on this album. It's really the definitive version if you like. That live version, on the Paul is Live album was slightly edited and it doesn't really have the greatest sound cause I played it on an electro-acoustic. But this one's on my Martin, so it has a really warm sound to it. So it's great cause it's another side of my playing. The whole album's got a real late night vibe to it. It was all written quite late at night, you know, when the kids had gone to bed. Just sitting downstairs with my guitar.
CH: There's one acoustic piece on your Emotional Bends record. Tell me about that track. It stands out as quite different from the electric blues feel of the other tracks.
It's a tune I wrote and dedicated to Marcelle Dadi. I don't know if you are aware of him. He was a really great guitar player. He was a French guy who played a bit like Chet Atkins, actually. Unfortunately he died on that TWA flight that exploded after leaving New York. He was a very, very well respected guitar player in the acoustic field so I dedicated it to him because it's sort of in that style that he was so good at.
CH: When did you start playing guitar?
I started when I was about ten years old. I had two sisters and they pestered my mom and dad for a guitar 'cause they wanted to play Bob Dylan
songs... They wanted to be part of that whole beat thing, you know? So I started playing it as well. I learned a few chords and things.
CH: Two older sisters?
Yeah. Quite a bit older than me actually. I would sort of sneak into their room and play when they weren't around (Laugh). Anyway, my sisters kind of gave up but I carried on. Not surprisingly I was into The Rolling Stones, The Beatles
and all of the pop records that were around at the time.
Then, I guess I got into the blues, which is really my first love. It all started when I heard a Lightnin' Hopkins
record. Of course I got into Clapton as well, but that really wasn't 'till a bit later on. But for me it all started from a Lightnin' Hopkins record that belonged to my sister.
CH: American blues and R&B were extremely influential in the U.K. weren't they?
Oh yeah. Especially the more rootsy stuff like Freddie King
and Albert King
... And someone like Ry Cooder was much bigger in Europe than he was here in America. I guess he still is really…and as I said, Lightnin' Hopkins was a really big influence on me. Then later on I got into Hendrix
and Cream. Unfortunately I was a little too young to get in to see any of them play live. I didn't see Hendrix play. I didn't see Cream play, or the Stones.
And then when I was at shool someone who really pricked my ears up was Larry Carlton
. He was playing with Steely Dan
. Obviously he's all over the Royal Scam album. I also really loved him with Joni Mitchell
. For me that was about his finest work. And I also loved him with the Crusaders. I learned all of his parts from the Crusaders. Really precise, really funky sort of blusey playing. He was a favorite of mine.
CH: You play quite a bit of slide guitar. Who influenced that side of your playing?
Robbie: Duane Allman
and Lowell George were a HUGE influence. If I had to pick one band, like a desert island band, who would come to my desert island and entertain me every night it would be Little Feat. Lowell's playing and the music…[Robbie's hand on his heart] Duane and Lowell were enormous influences on my slide guitar playing. And of course someone like David Lindley as well. I was also really big on Ry Cooder when I was about twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. I guess it must have been the Bop Til You Drop album. That was a really big album for him. Then I went back into everything he did.
CH: Are you still playing electric slide on your Epiphone Cornet?
Yeah. It's fantastic for slide. It's got P-90 pickups, which are like an almost perfect hybrid. They've got the thickness of a humbucker and the sharpness of a single coil. It's a great guitar. It's like a cheap Les Paul Junior. It's a 1961 it is that one. That one only cost me 250 quid.
CH: You came into The Pretenders at a pretty heavy time (following the death of original guitarist James "Honeyman" Scott.) It must have been difficult to find your place.
Yeah. I took over from Jimmy.
CH: Is it true that you were going to join up with the band even before Jimmy died?
Well, (pause) that's what he'd said before he died. He phoned me up and said, "I was thinking…" You know, 'cause he had lots of sway. He was very much Chrissie's right hand man. He wanted to bring someone else into the band to play the guitar. This way we could both play guitar, and he could also play a bit of keyboards as well. I think he wanted to take the band somewhere else. Unfortunately he died… What I didn't do was phone up and say, "Hey, Jimmy spoke to me blah, blah…"
Eventually I did get a call from their manager who knew that [Jimmy] had spoken to me. But I did go and audition with a bunch of other guys. I'm glad I did that, you know, cause I definitely wouldn't have wanted to have waltzed in from nowhere.
CH: Jimmy was a more influential player than he gets credit for. Do you think it's because he died so young? What was it about him?
Definitely. He had an amazing ear for pop music. The solo on "Kid" is a bit of a classic I think. He was really great. He was very concise. Lovely little parts. Jimmy was fantastic, he really was.
CH: On Emotional Bends your playing is extremely concise. There aren't any extended jams or over-the-top guitar parts. It's very song oriented.
Robbie's Solo Albums
Emotional Bends (1999)
I really wanted to concentrate on the songs. It would have been much easier for me to do much more of a straight, 12 bar blues album, but there's so many people doing that. I mean no disrespect to the people that do that, and do it very well. Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughn
if he was still alive. He was just a monster, monster player…a genius really. But there are just too many people who do it. So I wanted to write a bunch of songs and build the band around the songs. I deliberately put that combination of musicians and instruments together as well. The pedal steel and harmonica are great together. I like the Pedal steel mainly because it can cover a lot of bases, you know? Harmonically it can sort of take the place of keyboards. Not having keyboards I think gives the band quite an edge. I decided to keep keyboards off of this album.
CH: I think that it is a very American sounding record.
Yeah I think it is. Very much so…I've always been a fan of that [American] sound.
CH: Except for a few back-ups on various tours, I've never heard you sing. Have you always sung?
Yeah. I've always sung. Wherever I've lived I've always had a little band. It's important to get out there and play.
CH: You've worked with two of the most important singer/songwriters in the world. Did you ever find your role as sideman to Paul McCartney or Chrissie Hynde confining?
Yeah, I've worked with two of the greatest songwriters around. I've been very lucky. I mustn't forget that… Confining? No I never found it confining in any way. I mean, working with Paul… He writes such great songs and there's such a great variation of music, so you never get in a rut. He's just amazing, you know?
Working with Chrissie was a great challenge to have. It was more of a compromise working with Chrissie cause she's sort of into garage stuff and I'm more into a smoother, sort of blues thing I guess. That was sometimes a little bit of a fight. I mean not literally. (laughing) I mean we never used to argue or anything. She'd sometimes want me to [change] myself around a bit. Like, whereas I would like something to sound like…um… Clapton she'd want it to sound more like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. So she'd like it sort of garagey.
CH: She likes the rough edges?
Oh definitely. Her favorite bands were Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and ? and the Mysterians. That sort of stuff. So that was quite interesting. We always seemed to hit gold dust when we were working on the poppy stuff though cause we would hear the same things. Something like "Don't Get Me Wrong" still sounds really great. You know it's a really great pop record.
CH: I've read that you have some favorite recording amplifiers. Tell me about the amps in your studio.
Oh yes. In my studio I've got these 20-watt Marshall heads that were only made for mail order in England. They were really for kids when they start out. You know, your mom would get you one from a catalogue. Well a friend of mine had one, which he sold to me along with a 1x12 Marshall cabinet. It's really a beautiful little thing.
And then in 1978 or so we tracked another one down. It was exactly the same amp but it has four little 10-inch speakers. Then I had Pete Cornish (amplifier and pedal board specialist for Pink Floyd) add some stand-by switches and a mid range boost. I use those because they really sound like the old 45-watt Marshall amps, but quieter. I really love the tone. I also have a 4x10 Fender bassman that I love. Really classic sound.
CH: What about your live rig?
Live I've been using a matchless DC-30,which I think is quite fantastic. It never breaks down. I bought mine in 1994 and I had it serviced for the first time about six months ago. It's gone through all kinds of abuse. It's gone in the back of my car with no flight case or anything, just a cover on it. It's an absolutely incredible amp. It's a terrible thing that they've gone out of business.
On the first McCartney tour I used one of those Boogie rigs which was great but it didn't have enough strength to the sound for me. Not enough character. Then on the second tour with Paul I used two Marshall 100 watt heads in stereo. That had a really good sound. I always used Marshalls with The Pretenders as well.
CH: Did you woodshed all the time all the time or did you learn by playing out?
I was a severe wood shedder. For about 2 or 3 years all I did was practice. I taught myself by listening to records, you know? Then I started taking classical lessons. My classical teacher was tearing his hair out because my thumb was always creeping over the top of the neck and he'd be pushing it back down.
CH: Did learning classical help your sight-reading ability?
Well, my sight-reading has always been sort of bad. Still is. But I passed all of my exams and did very well in my performances so guess it worked out well. I stopped taking lessons when I was about 18. I didn't go to music college or anything.
It was a very good discipline really. Quite beautiful. Looking back now I think that it really helped my fingerpicking.
The way I see it all music goes into the machine. And you, the player, are the machine. That machine combines all of that music, regardless of what it is, and it comes out the conveyer belt at the other end. But it takes a few years to figure out where all of the influences are coming from. I certainly don't regret having had classical lessons. In fact, I think it was fantastic because it helped make me who I am.
CH: What advice would you give to a player who is just starting out?
Listen. Listen to everything. Never be a musical snob 'cause you'll regret it later on. Even something that you don't think is hip will probably be hip at some point so you might as well learn it. I was never a musical snob. I listened to everything that was out there. It's like that machine that I spoke of before. Absorbing and processing all of the influences around you is the key to becoming your own player. It's how you become different from anyone else. It's all about listening.
For example, my favorite band is NRBQ. What I love about them is that they're like the most eclectic band in the world. They can play anything. I love that about them. They listened…. I counted my NRBQ records not long ago and I've got twenty or so… Unbelievable band.
CH: How do you feel when you are described as a "guitarist's guitarist"?
It's great. I'm flattered. I'm quite happy with that. I mean I probably understand more about the guitar than I am a good player. I mean technically there are a lot of people I can think of who can run rings around me, but, you know, I don't mind that. I guess I should have practiced more, but I think you can develop a complex about that and then you should just give up. I think you've got to bring something more personal to it. You should just carry on doing what you're doing and play your style. If you do that you'll be alright.
CH: Where do you see yourself heading musically in the future?
I'd like to write more songs. The instrumentals on the acoustic Unsung album are sort of easy for me. It's much more difficult to write great songs. I mean I'd like to be a songwriter like Bob Dylan, Chrissie Hynde, John Lennon or Paul McCartney. You know, a natural. But it's hard work. For me it's hard work.
CH: What music did you bring with you from England?
I've got a new Paul Brady album. He's a great songwriter. I've got the new Neil Young
album with Jim Keltner on it. I believe it's called Silver and Gold. Unfortunately I haven't been able to listen much to it yet. I've also got a few demos that I'm working on for the next album.
CH: What do you think about the role of downloadable music? Obviously the recent Napster controversy has put the issue into the spotlight.
I know that the whole issue really pisses people off. Personally I wouldn't be happy with just having an album downloaded onto an MP3. I'd want to go out and buy that record that the artist put out. I've always been like that. I want the whole thing. I want the artwork. You get the entire idea of what you are listening to. Of what the people are like. What they look like. The whole thing
Do I have a problem with it? Not really. I mean it's a can of worms as far as record companies are concerned and some artists as well. I mean what can you do? You can make a whole bunch of laws but what good are laws if you can't enforce them. How can you enforce these things?
CH: You've had quite an amazing career so far, but is there a moment that stands out as the most unbelievable for you?
That's got to be the McCartney gig in Rio I think. I should say that Live Aid was pretty incredible as well. I played that with The Pretenders, but we only played for like twenty minutes or so and it was LOUD. It was great fun, but Rio with Paul was amazing. The thing was we had some time to sort of stare out at a crowd of 200,000 people. And that was in the round. It wasn't like a festival where the crowd is just straight out in front of you. Doing that kind of thing the crowd sort of fades out into the distance. But in Rio they were right there. Plus we were playing for people who don't get to see much music and who don't have much money so they really wanted to enjoy every minute of it. It was actually quite emotional. There's something to be said for mass hysteria. I think we outdrew Sinatra by 9000. He drew 175,000 and we drew 184,000. But really it was about 200,000 because there were so many black market tickets and so many people slipping under the gates. That's definitely quite a memory.
I also got the chance to play with Carl Perkins at The Royal Albert Hall as part of George Martin's concert for Montserrat. Unfortunately Carl died just six weeks after that show. God bless him. He was a wonderful man. What can I say? He was such a gentleman.
• Visit Robbie on the web at www.compassrecords.com