Keith Richards: by Robert Doeschuk (Musician November,1997)

After all these years, is it getting harder to find fresh ideas?

It's easier. I don't force them now. I used to, but I realized a long time ago that you don't write songs, you receive them. I'll start off by sitting down and playing any thing. I'll attempt a bit of Mozart at the piano, or I'll play a bit of Otis Redding o some Buddy Holly stuff. Within twenty minutes or half an hour, there's something else coming, and I'm following that, playing around with it. Some days it don' come, so I'll just carry on with the Otis Redding songbook [laughs]. It's a matter of recognition: [ducks imaginary hand grenade] "Incoming!" All you've got to do is formulate it a little and transmit it. People are too serious about writing. The writer's block theory is crap: That's only because you think you write your own songs in the first place. You think you're God and you create this masterpiece. No, you just receive and transmit. That way, you don't get into this idea of "What am I gonna write?" A lot of it is accidents: You hit a chord and you can think either 'that's wrong" or "that's interesting."

Beyond how you and Charlie mesh is the question of how you and Ron Wood manage to stay out of each other's way.

It's what's called the ancient art of weaving. I mean, sometimes it's [mimes vicious struggle, complete with strangleholds and menacing snarls], but it's really a sympathetic relationship. People should get rid of these ideas of lead guitar and rhythm guitar; these are kindergarten terms. You're a guitar player. You may favor playing chords on the rhythm end; that might be your bag. But never think of it in terms of splitting it like, "You're this, I'm that." A good band tries to fox people, so without anybody knowing it the rhythm end will take over the lead end and the other guy will automatically drop what he's doing and pick up the other part. You're not stuck with, "I play chords, he plays fiddly bits." That's the fun of it.

But how do you and Ron work out parts so they complement each other?

Usually we start with everybody playing what they want to play. After two or three takes, it's like, "We've got the moves down, but we don't need that move there. We're all playing too bloody much. I'll lay out here. What about if we play that part on an acoustic?" The amazing thing is that an acoustic instrument can add so much air to a track and suddenly connect with the cymbals. Where everything else is electric, there's a concise dryness about a track when you put one acoustic instrument on; it just spreads the sound. A couple of notes from a real piano or an acoustic guitar will open up a track, just like a flower. So once everybody learns the framework of the song, then you get to the point of saying, 'Alright, we know it. It's sounding pretty good. Now what about . . . dynamics?" [Explosive laughter.] Then you strip it back down and bring in what you can. Sometimes you leave it for a few days, you take it back to the hotel room and listen to it on cassette, and you figure out what's missing or what's too much, or you bear where an instrument can go: "We need some tremolo guitar here, or maybe a little sax." That what it takes. You're not thinking about anything, everybody is sitting around listening…but they're also listening what's going on while they're listening. That's why, when people say, 'That's an accident," I say, "That's not an accident, that's innovation." There's two ways of looking at it: "I made a mistake," or "No, you just went somewhere else."

… Mick sits over the synthesizer with headphones on, which I consider a prison. This is like, "Are you wearing those things because you don't want to be interfered with? Or are you just jerking off?" See, the synthesizer worries me. Nobody should have ever let 'em out. It should be in the back room for guys to write arrangements and songs on ... and never make a record with. They sound so plastic and inarticulate and superficial - no dynamics, no air, no breath. It's an imitation of an instrument.

There is some synth on this album.[Bridges To Babylon]

Well, I'm not against using it as a taste here and there, but to construct things around a synthesizer is the antithesis of what the Stones are all about.

Considering all the history your band has made, can you avoid competing with stuff you've done in the past?

I'm not competing with anything; I'm enhancing or adding to it. Sometimes I'll hear "Ruby Tuesday" or something on the radio, and it still hangs cool for me. You realize as you go along that you've got to be careful what you listen to, because what goes into a musician's ear will come out of his fingers, and if you listen to a lot of crap just to hear what other people are buying, you might wind up with a piece of crap. I listen to what I want to listen to. I don't listen to music from a business point of view. I know there are loads of good young musicians out there, and I figure they're at the same state we were in when we started, which was 'how the hell do you break in here?" Nobody gets a fair shake. The market has such a stranglehold. Everybody's like [grabs issue of Billboard and starts flipping through pages], "That chart, that chart, that chart, that chart." It used to be that you'd share the shit out, and if you liked it, you got it. Now you've got to angle it, all to please these people. It's sickening to try and put music into a pigeonhole. Probably every musician is trying to get out of a pigeonhole, but you find yourself in a business where people who know nothing try to put it into a bag: "That's AOR, that's something else." The only way you're gonna get this thing played is on this or that kind of radio station. But where would radio stations be without music? I don't understand. They rule the fuckin' roost; that's what sickens me. "You like that kind of music, therefore this is your station. "I ain't gonna listen to nothin' else? I'm only gonna listen to what they shovel down my throat? Everything's a pigeonhole, right? Even years, as if everything changes from New Year's Eve 1969 to 1970.

You don't have to worry about that.

Right, but I'm very aware of it, and it makes me uneasy about the state of business and how much music we're missing. I mean, I've had enough of bloody rap. [Begins sneering imitation of rap over knee-slapped beat.] I mean, "Mary had a little lamb, her fleece was white as fuckin' snow." What's the attraction of that? This is kindergarten shit. It's like karaoke. But I'm making records that people can listen to. Obviously, the attraction is there, until they all shoot each other - and they're doing a good job of it. If you want to hear good rap, you should listen to early Jamaican dub, which is some really interesting stuff. At least they didn't keep it to just one meter.

Of course, at the same time, the Stones have been criticized for exploiting contemporary influences, including disco and Carlos Santana, a bit too gratuitously.

Some of that is probably a good criticism. A lot of it is an accident because that's what's happening at the time and you just soak things up. Although "Miss You" was a damn good disco record, it was calculated to be one. "Under Cover of the Night," "Emotional Rescue," these are all Mick's calculations about the market. And they're not the best records we've made. See, Mick listens to too much bad shit. He listens to what's happening. He really is one of the best instinctive singers and players I've ever worked with, but when he calculates, I have a problem.

There are things on the new album, of course, that reminded me of other artists, which is different from coming across as a commercial imitation.

That's another thing. There are lots of motifs in there. 'Out of Control' has that bass riff from "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."

That seemed like a sly joke.

Yeah, but hey, if anybody can do that, it's us [laughs]. Mick played the harmonica solo on that one. He's getting better, man. He was playing harp with B.B. King, and he got the nod from B.B.

You've learned a lot about how bands work over these past 35-odd years. What can you pass along to tomorrow's players about how to bring their bands to their fullest potential?

Argue as much as possible. You're in a commando group, a killer league. You don't want to be aggressive or try to rule the roost, but say what you think. The important thing is not just the playing, it's knowing the guy you're playing with. If you're just joining in and you don't know the band, try to. And don't be polite. If you are, you'll just get a consensus music that's pretty bland. If you tread on somebody's toes you can always say 'sorry,' but maybe you'll spark something. If it means temporarily annoying somebody to know what it is you've gotta hear and it ain't right yet, say so. Music is about getting excited.

It's a mix of maturity and candor.

And knowing when to sit back and learn. If you're playing with cats who are in another league above you, and you're happy that the guys have just allowed you to play with them, don't try and flash; just sit back and learn. If you're a virtuoso [mimics a guitarist playing fast licks], it's like, "That's amazing - now what else can you do? Can you play with the other guys?' But if it's a bunch of guys who've known each other for a while and you want to thrash things out, then just kick the shit out of it. Music is a people thing ... unless you're doing jingles.

What about taping rehearsals?

That's very helpful, mostly in finding out where you went wrong. If you've got a four- or five-piece band and everybody takes a cassette back from the day's work, you're gonna go either "I did really great there' or "I shouldn't have done that." When you come back together again, don't tell the other cat what he did wrong, because if he doesn't know it, he'll never get it and he'll only resent you. Just learn what you did wrong or what you could have done better, and something productive will come out of it.