Ian McLagan: From Hero To Sixty
Interview, introduction and photos by Daniel Coston
originally published in the Big Takeover Magazine, summer 2006 issue
Legendary musician, and an all-around great bloke. For forty years, Ian “Mac” McLagan has played keyboards on more great records that you or your momma ever dreamed of, and is still going strong at the age of sixty. Joining the Small Faces in 1965, Mac and guitarist/vocalist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenney Jones produced some of the greatest songs of the 1960s, and helped to influence the 1970s punk scene, ‘80s mod revival, and the current garage rock movement.
After Marriott’s departure in 1969, the remaining bandmembers hooked up with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood [now of the Rolling Stones] to form the Faces, a band whose 2004 boxset “Five Guys Walk Into A Bar” brought new appreciation for their fun, bluesy sound. After the Faces’ run ended in 1975, Mac has played with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Billy Bragg, and currently resides in Austin, Texas with his own Bump Band.
Why interview Mac? Because I could, and it gave me an excuse to talk to him for an hour. ‘Nuff said. Let’s begin......
BT: You just had your 60th birthday party. Tell me about it.
McLagan: It was unbelievable. We’d already planned to have a party, but my wife and my son surprised me with a tractor. My son, and my wife’s brother flew in from England unannounced. And Lynne, the person that handles my website [www.ianmclagan.com, and www.macspages.com], surprised me with a birthday scrapbook that a lot of people contributed to. She gave it to me, and I cried like a little girl. It was a great party.
BT: Last night, I saw a Japanese band [Elekibass] that was very inspired by the English scene of the mid 1960s, and their guitarist was dressed exactly like Steve Marriott circa 1967, right down to the suspenders and scarf.
McLagan: (laughing) It’s amazing how much people care now about the Small Faces. Just the other day, someone emailed me and asked, “When you all were living in the same house in 1968, which one tended to wake up and shower first?”
BT: Now there’s a question I hadn’t planned on asking you.
McLagan: Thank you! I should’ve written him back and said, “We’re English. We never shower.” (laughs)
I [recently] went back to England to play with Billy Bragg for a benefit. And after the show, Kenney Jones came around and we had a few drinks after a show. So we were getting ready to leave, and we saw a bunch of people waiting for us, and I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be trouble.” It was a bunch of 15 year-old kids. They’d heard that we were around, and they wanted to meet us.
It’s the younger fans that amaze me. One time, I was at a festival walking around backstage, and these teenage girls came up and said, “You were in the Small Faces, weren’t you?” And I said, “Yes, how’d you know?” They said, “Oh, we’ve got the videos. You guys sounded great. Bands today, they get onstage and just fake it, and don’t sound good.” I couldn’t believe it. They got it. They understood what what we doing.
BT: Do you keep in touch with Kenney on a regular basis?
McLagan: I just talked to him yesterday, actually. That instinct, that timing is still there with me and Kenney. It’s very easy to play with him.
BT: Have you ever heard that timing with many other musicians?
McLagan: The guys in the Bump Band have that. [Guitarist] Scrappy Jud Newcomb, [bassist] Mark Andes, who was also in Spirit, Firefall, Jo Jo Gunne, and [drummer] Don Harvey. It’s an absolute pleasure to play with them.
The thing I like to say is that you’re in the Bump Band for life. Even [producer/musician] Gurf Morlix still sits in with us from time to time. You can never get too far away for us. (Laughs)
BT: There’s a photo on your website, circa 1964, of you in a car with [blues legend] Howlin’ Wolf. What’s the story behind the photo?
McLagan: Howlin’ and Hubert Sumlin [Wolf’s longtime guitarist] came over to Europe. Back then, a lot of American blues artists came over to play Europe. Sonny Boy Williamson II had come over the year before, and the Yardbirds backed him up. And when Howlin’ came over, Eric Clapton had just left the Yardbirds, so they were hung up at the time, and my band at the time belonged to the same booking agency as the Yardbirds, so we ended up playing three gigs with Howlin’ and Hubert.
Howlin’ actually gave me a hundred bucks when we were in the London Airport, and sent me to buy him some bourbon and Jack Daniel’s. Unfortunately, the airport didn’t have any alcohol. They didn’t have any airport bars, like they do now. There was no way I could get it. So I had to give him his hundred dollars back.
I got to see Hubert again last year, and told me, “Man, Howlin’ loved you! He wanted to take you back to Chicago.”
I actually was doing my usual Thursday gig down here last night, and there’s this guy who has been telling me, “One night, I’m gonna bring James Cotton down here.” James was the harmonica player on the first record I ever bought, Muddy Waters Live At Newport (1960). So I always said, “Yeah, sure.” So last night, he shows up before the break, and says, “Hey, I’ve got James with me tonight.” I couldn’t believe it. We went and found a harmonica for him, since he didn’t have one on him, and he got up and played a couple of numbers. I loved it.
Muddy At Newport was a big record for me. And that was the first record that Steve Marriott ever bought, and those songs were some of the first things that we ever played together. And in fact, when the Faces got together later, Rod [Stewart] and Woody [Ron Wood] also knew that album really well, and that helped to bring us together. I talked to James after the show about doing some recording at my studio. I’ve love for that to happen.
BT: Are you working on a new Bump Band record?
McLagan: Yes. We have no label to worry about, which is just the way I like it. We can do whatever we damn well please. (laughs)
I’m also currently working on a Ronnie Lane two CD best-of. A collection of his solo recordings, and an extended version of Rough Mix (1976), that record he did with Pete Townshend.
BT: I really like Rough Mix.
McLagan: I hadn’t heard it when it came out. I’d had a row with Ronnie at the time. It’s a good record.
For me, Ronnie was the real leader of the Faces. I didn’t really realize that until I was working on the [Faces] boxset. He was the most prolific writer, and when he left, the band ended. He lived here in Austin for a long time, and no one has any bad words to say about him. He was also one of the funniest people that I ever met in my life. An absolutely sweetheart, and brilliant guy.
BT: I saw that [the Small Faces’] Playmates and 78 In The Shade [1976 and 1978, respectively] got re-issued on CD. What are your feelings about that?
McLagan: I don’t know where they got the tapes to master them from. I’ve got the masters here, actually. The CDs have horrible sound, and the volume drops dramatically on one song.
BT: What was it like to do those records? That time in the band’s history is not often looked at.
McLagan: It was fun, but different than how we’d worked before. I would get together with Steve [Marriott], and show what him I’d been working on, and he’d say, yeah, that’s great. And then I’d meet up with Ronnie, and do the same. Steve and Ronnie had previously written together, and they still had a beef going on.
And then, on the second day of recording, Ronnie got very grumpy and walked out. But to be fair, Ronnie told me that he found out later that this was the beginning of his MS [multiple sclerosis]. Ronnie really was not much of a drinker. He never drank that much, even after shows. But all of a sudden, if Ronnie drank, he would get very grmupy, and his legs would start to give way. And that turned out to be the MS.
BT: What would you like people to know about Steve Marriott?
McLagan: He was a great guy, very funny. A lot of people don’t know that he was the first choice to join the Rolling Stones, after Brian Jones left. But he couldn’t agree with Mick about having a voice in the band.
BT: Did the Faces boxset help to set the record straight about how good the band really was?
McLagan: I think it did. Hearing all of those BBC recordings, many of which I’d never heard before, and all the live tracks was just great. I think our reputation did proceed us, after a while, and somehow it got ‘round that we were a sloppy band. We always had a good time, but we cared a lot about how we sounded. And I think that the live recordings show that.
[Paul Westerberg] sent a letter, which we printed in the boxset, saying “I saw the Faces a hundred times, and not once were they ever sloppy.” He testified for me! (laughs)
And another thing was that [the Faces] were a band. A real five-piece band. We all had a part in it. Someone sent me a link to a website for a movie recently, and they said, “They’re using ‘Stay With Me’ in the movie. And I go to the website, and they had it listed as a Rod Stewart track! Those f--kers. That wasn’t a Rod Stewart track, bless his soul.
BT: So what keeps you going after all these years?
McLagan: Lack of funds, really. But the fact is that I love music, and this is something I love to do. Once, I was having a bad day, and my wife [Kim] says, “When you get down to it, what do you really like to do? And I said, “Play the blues very loud.”
I still love playing live. I think I’ve always preferred playing live over playing in the studio. We’ve got our own Bump Band gig every Thursday night here in Austin at the Lucky Lounge, and when I come home afterwards, and Kim asks, “How was it?” Rarely do I ever not say, “It was absolutely fantastic.” I really love it.
I’m an enjoyer of life, Daniel. I love music, and I’m a very lucky guy for having the right woman in my life. She keeps me sane, or relatively insane, which is what we all need.