The pandemic was a miserable time for most people, including musicians. Tours were cancelled and artists found themselves at home with bound-up creative energy. But for some songwriters, the solitude created an unexpected opportunity to create.
Ian Hunter, the solo performer and Mott the Hoople frontman, wrote 21 songs during the pandemic — enough to fill two albums. He will release Defiance Part 1 on April 21 on the Sun Records label, once again demonstrating his passionate, vital energy and well-crafted, evocative lyrics. A followup, Defiance Part 2, is still in the works.
Writing in his basement in Connecticut in early 2020, Hunter collaborated with his longtime friend Andy York, who has worked as a producer and multi-instrumentalist for John Mellencamp and others. At the suggestion of Hunter’s manager Mike Kobayashi and the photographer Ross Halfin, they sent demos to musical colleagues with home studios and were pleased with the enthusiastic responses they received, and the striking contributions these musicians made to the tracks.
“That’s how it started out,” Hunter said. “It was just a fluke.”
His demos were enriched by a diverse range of artists including Ringo Starr, the late Jeff Beck and the late Taylor Hawkins, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Johnny Depp, Todd Rundgren, Slash, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and Waddy Wachtel (who has played guitar for Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks and others).
Hunter has created an album that sounds bright and reveals his many sides, with catchy, anthemic songs about political turmoil and performing as well as intimate, gorgeous love songs, and more.
Hunter said that when they were receiving additions to the demos, “it was an exciting time. There were all these amazing people. It encouraged me to write more.”
With his swaggering, seductive stage presence, Hunter — a rock icon with his signature dark shades and wild curly hair — has commanded the attention of thousands in stadiums and arenas. Yet he seemed down-to-earth and modest throughout our interview. He struck me as someone who could talk deeply for hours over a beer in a nearby pub. And I learned that his shades are there to protect his eyes, not as an affectation.
The title track of Defiance triggered my memory of his vibrant show at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 2019. I had grown weary of reading about his age and past accomplishments. His onstage strut spoke to me of defying people’s expectations and judgments of how we should carry ourselves as older adults.
This sold-out show was the final night of an eight-city tour that celebrated the 45th anniversary of Mott the Hoople’s 1974 U.S. tour, and featured music from the band’s 1974 albums, The Hoople and Live. Two musicians who were also part of the ’74 tour, guitarist Ariel Bender and pianist Morgan Fisher, joined Hunter and members of Hunter’s Rant Band in Mott’s new lineup.
In “Defiance,” Hunter sings that he is “defending a dream.” I wondered if the song has to do with challenging and surpassing expectations of older artists.
“It means a lot of things,” Hunter said. “Joy in the writing of the songs. It’s like one of those things — you get downstairs one day, you’re sitting there and (you think), ‘Wait a minute, this whole thing sounds like defiance.’ And I like the word.
“What you’re saying is right. It’s really been a question of defiance right from the beginning. Because when you first get in it, you’re not very good and everybody is taking the piss. And then at my age, people say you shouldn’t be doing that. Why not? I’ll quit when I’m ready. Not when you tell me. I think that when a plumber is 18, he’s not a very good plumber. When a plumber is 65, he’s a great plumber.”
The title track features Robert Trujillo of Metallica on bass, Slash and Hunter on guitars, York and the Rant Band’s Dennis DiBrizzi on vocals, and Dane Clark on drums. Trujillo used a bass formerly owned by the late Jaco Pastorius, the same instrument played by Pastorius on Hunter’s second solo album, 1975’s All American Alien Boy.
In “This Is What I’m Here For,” he sings, “All I wanted was a song I could sing/A little music in a band that can swing … when I was 30 I was over the hill/50 years later I can still kill ’em all/I ain’t thru … when I’m thru, I’ll notify you.”
He said it was intentional that he opened the album with “Defiance” and closed with “This Is What I’m Here For.”
“Yeah, yeah. This is what I’m here for,” he said, emphatically. “I was 18 and I didn’t know what I was here for. I was going to the billiard hall. I wasn’t good in school. Some people get a rough idea about what they’re going to be. I had no idea. I was working in factories. And then I heard Jerry Lee Lewis and it was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do.’ And I spent the rest of my life trying to do it.
“That’s the kind of music I loved: Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee (Lewis), all that kind of stuff. And I still do. And I’m not gonna change just because a couple of people say, ‘Well, that time is gone.’ I’m sorry, I’ll do what I do.”
Sun Records, founded in 1952 in Tennessee, released landmark records by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others.
It’s a thrill to be on Sun Records “because of Jerry Lee Lewis,” Hunter said. “When I had to go down to Nashville, I was sitting in with the drummer that was on that session, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.’ I said at the time I felt like I was 15 years old. He said he toured with him for a while, but he couldn’t take it because Jerry Lee was crazy.”
Hunter feels that all the artists on Defiance Part 1 worked to support his songs, rather than using them to showcase their abilities.
“Andy (York), my partner, and I are both fans of people who play for the song, rather than just play for themselves.” he said. “You see it sometimes. You can tell onstage whether this guy is playing for the song or showing you how fast he can go up and down the fretboard. Andy is very knowledgeable about these kinds of people. I know a bit about it. We sent demos to people who we knew would work for the song.”
I mentioned the beautiful opening to “Bed of Roses” (listen below) by guitarist Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers).
“Yeah, that’s a typical example of someone who plays for the song,” Hunter said. “Everything he does makes the song sound better, and the drumming on that is perfect.”
With Starr as the drummer on that song, perfection was certainly the probable outcome.
“It was really simple with Ringo,” Hunter said. “He’s either gonna do it, or he isn’t. When he does it, it’s absolutely right. He does a little roll, which I found interesting because he hates rolling.”
Hunter shares a bit of nostalgia in “Bed of Roses,” describing a riveting concert where “the band played all night long … song after song after song after song” at a fictional club based, in part, on the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany. The club in the song is “a fallout shelter from the storm” and the track celebrates the visceral power of rock n’ roll. Its beat commands that you move.
“It’s about three or four clubs, the Star-Club being the main one,” he said. “There’s lines in there like, ‘we slept on blankets.’ Well, at the Star-Club, you slept at the Paradise Hotel, but in other clubs you’d sleep in the boiler room, you’d sleep on the floor in some places. So it’s an amalgamation, but it’s mainly about the Star-Club.”
I love the line, “People rave at 54, but that was just a disco store” because it’s so on point. That was a place to be avoided back in the day.
“You’re the first one that said that and I’m glad,” he said. “I went twice. And it was like an accountants’ holiday.”
Hunter played in Ringo’s All-Starr Band in 2001. “That was great fun,” he said, adding “he’s just so full of fun. I was always a bit scared because I’ve always led bands. And there I was in the backing situation. So I was a sort of bit scared. But he was great. He just brought you in and was funny as hell.”
Hunter plays piano on a moving, gorgeous gem titled “Guernica,” joined by Campbell on guitar, Elliott on vocals, Clark on drums, York on bass and guitar and Andy Burton on harmonium.
The song references Pablo Picasso’s powerful 1937 painting about the horrors of war, made after the bombing of Guernica, a town in northern Spain that was devastated by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the direction of the Spanish nationalists led by Gen. Francisco Franco. The painting depicts the suffering of women, a dead baby, a gored horse and other horrible images.
Hunter sings, from Picasso’s perspective:
Little angels directing my hand
They won’t let me chose from the colors I use
They want violet and black like Cézanne
The rage inside is hard to hide
A rabid orchestra when I painted Guernica
These are dangerous times for a dreamer
I’m a stranger in a strange land
If you think for yourself, you’re a traitor
It’s like walkin on quicksand.
“I was in Madrid,” Hunter said, “and the hotel happened to be near where (the painting) was at the time. I think they move it around.
“I stood in front of it and imagined what Picasso was like when he was doing it because he was surrounded by Nazis (in Paris). It was a dangerous thing to do, to be painting ‘Guernica’ when you’re surrounded by Nazis. Not Germans necessarily, but Nazis. I put myself in his position. And later on, I found out there was a house I used to live in on the South Coast and that’s where they brought the orphans after the second World War. They’d be old now, but some of them are probably still in England.”
The events at Guernica uncovered the worst aspect of human behavior, as Hunter notes.
“Guernica was bad because they not only bombed the place, but they chased people who were leaving,” he said. “That’s what really sickened me. I remember stuff like that.
“And the world, the way it is now, is a little bit precarious. They should put missiles on TV, not CNN and Fox showing people what war is like, because it’s not funny. … It’s dangerous with the Chinese stuff and Russian stuff and Trump’s stuff.”
Hunter has shared his keen observations about politics and injustice over the years in some of his songs, including “Gun Control,” “Rape,” “Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse),” “Morons,” “Letter to Brittania from the Union Jack” and “Pearl ‘n’ Roy (England).”
His new album adds to the list with “I Hate Hate” (listen below), featuring him on piano, Clark on drums, Burton on organ and Tweedy on guitar. He asks in the song, “Wouldn’t it be great if we ran out of hate?” and “will we ever overcome?”
“I like it because it’s direct,” he said. “When you’re a songwriter, you try to keep things as simple as possible. That’s the fun. Three chords is great. Twenty chords is not. And ‘I Hate Hate’ does that. It’s got a simple lyric and a simple riff. Jeff did a great job on the guitar. There’s two versions. There’s a piano version and there’s Jeff’s version on the guitar. I thought he was gonna sing it with me, but he played guitar instead.”
What triggered him to compose the song?
“We live in a society in conflict,” he said. “Every left and every right, it’s so stupid. What are you going to do?”
Sometimes he wakes up at 4 a.m. to capture a song.
He explained, “If you got to, yeah. The thing is that I had a song once called ‘All the Good Ones Are Taken,’ and I thought I’ll remember this. And I did remember it, but I didn’t remember the groove and I never got the groove right on the record. And so from that day on I realized, you gotta get out of bed, you gotta go downstairs and you gotta get the drum machine and keyboard or whatever and you have to get the right groove for it, and you have to get it down. I still use cassettes because it’s quick. You’re only gonna get it down for 30 seconds and then you can go back to bed.
“They come in dreams sometimes. And it’s a pain in the ass, but you’ve got to go downstairs.”
The deaths of Beck and Hawkins were shocking.
“Johnny Depp was making a record at the time at Jeff’s place,” he said, “and Johnny, who I’ve known for a while, said we fancy doing a couple (of songs), so they do one on the first album and one on the second album. And the one on the second album was the last thing that Jeff did.
“Taylor wanted to do everything. Both albums. This is when COVID was on. He was doing Iggy (Pop) and he was doing Ozzy (Osbourne). And then he wanted to do all of this and was discussing all the tracks and he absorbed everything.
“Then you’ve got ‘Angel,’ and he comes back with Duff McKagan (of Guns N’ Roses) — I didn’t know he was gonna be on it. He got him to do it. He put all the harmonies on it himself. Waddy Wachtel played all the main stuff. But at the very end, a really pretty line comes down and that’s Taylor on guitar. You couldn’t wish for a nicer man. It was a huge shock, obviously, with both of them. But (more) with Taylor being 50, he was so young.”
“Angel” is a dreamy, romantic love letter to Hunter’s wife Trudi, in which he finds it “hard to sleep besides an angel, blinded by the light.” The guitars have just the right hypnotic touch and embrace Hunter’s sincere, distinctive voice. His love songs remind me of those written by Bob Dylan, and move me in the same contemplative way. “Trudi’s Song,” from a prior album, is one of my favorites, with a Dylanesque sound and stirring lines including, “And the love goes sailin’ on, across the stormy sea … and the sea runs calmer now, I kiss the love that sleeps.”
Hunter said he has been with Trudi for more than 50 years. “She definitely has played a big part of this. I’m still in one piece, for a start.”
He said that “she gets one (song) on every album,” adding “there’s one on the next one (Defiance Part 2) called ‘What Would I Do Without You.’ Lucinda Williams is playing her part. Trudi can’t sing, so Lucinda will be Trudi on the next one.”
He has previously written about his daughter in “Great Expectations (You Never Know What to Expect),” and his dad, a police sergeant and veteran of two world wars, in the ballad “Ships,” which was covered by Barry Manilow.
His father got a song on Defiance Part 1 with “No Hard Feelings.”
“We never got along, but he bailed me out at a pivotal point and that’s what that’s all about,” Hunter said. “Jeff (Beck) plays beautifully on that track. And John (Johnny Depp) was a musician before he was an actor. The guy’s very good. He creates aura. That’s him on slide on that track — and that’s him on rhythm. He hangs back. He’s not one of those guys that goes up front. And then Jeff does the big bits.”
It’s a tribute to Hunter that so many artists contributed to Defiance Parts 1 and 2.
Alejandro Escovedo also has shown respect by celebrating his music on tour with the Rant Band. Hunter suffers from tinnitus, preventing him from joining Escovedo’s show and making the likelihood of his performing live again uncertain.
“I gave (Escovedo) my blessing,” he said. “I’ve seen Alejandro work. I get bored when I watch other people, but I didn’t. I saw him at City Winery (in New York) and he was great. I watched the whole show. His heart’s in it. With the tinnitus and everything, I couldn’t go (play) so (Rant band multi-instrumentalist James ) Mastro was getting it all together. They just came back from Europe.”
Hunter is uncertain about a release date for Defiance Part 2. “I really don’t know because Andy York does the heavy lifting and he’s out (on tour) with John Mellencamp,” he said. “So, probably in July we’ll do something. It’s about 60 to 70 percent done.
“Cheap Trick is on it. There’s a lot of people from the first one that are on the second on as well. And then there’s a couple (of performers) that are still pending.
The Rant Band — Mastro, DiBrizzi on keyboards, Paul Page on bass, Steve Holley on drums and Mark Bosch on guitar — contributes to Defiance Parts 1 and 2. As always, this talented ensemble complements Hunter seamlessly.
Hunter has an interactive question-and-answer column on his website, ianhunter.com, titled “The Horse’s Mouth,” in which I read that he might produce a show where he tells his life stories and plays acoustic guitar, similar to Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show.
Hunter confirmed that he is developing this idea.
“Yeah, that may well be the way that I go because I have tinnitus,” he said. “At the same time COVID hit, tinnitus hit.
“So what we are thinking is exactly what you just said. I can play acoustically, but not like we’ve been doing it for the past 20 years. It’s just too much.”
I wished him well and expressed my hopes that his show will come together soon. “It probably will,” he said. “It’s just taking a while to work it out because there’s a lot of stuff involved. I want to finish Defiance 2 by the end of this year and then take a look at that. That will be the next thing.”
Will this be a one-man show, I asked? “It will be more than just me — it’s been worked on,” he said.
How does it feel after all the ups and down in the music industry, to receive such affection from so many artists?
“It’s great,” he said. “I never thought I was much good. I really didn’t. When I started, I was a bass player and I couldn’t sing. I learned to sing when Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono came out. And they weren’t really singers. So I sort of howled away like Bob for a couple of years. And then everybody said, ‘You can’t do that,’ so I stopped doing that. And slowly I developed into the way I do it, which is basically phrase singing the same way Bob does it, only in a different way, and Jagger is great at phrase singing, too. I did these vocals and a couple of guys said, ‘Don’t change the vocals, whatever you do, because guitar players are going with your phrasing.’ ”
Hunter collaborated extensively with the late Mick Ronson, the guitarist, songwriter and producer who worked with David Bowie, Bob Dylan and others.
I asked Hunter if working with York is very different from working with Ronson.
“It’s very similar because Andy is very finnicky,” he said. “He takes care of all that stuff and Ronson was the same. Mick was a great arranger, Andy’s a good arranger. He knows what he likes, he knows what he doesn’t like. Andy’s a strict taskmaster. If he thinks it’s OK, then it’s usually OK.
“Mick was a great guitar player and it was a privilege to have Beck on this because Mick’s favorite guitar player was Beck. Everything Mick touched, it was kind of like Mike Campbell — it got better. Plus, he was daft as a brush and extremely clever in other areas. People ask about Mick — I have no answers. There’s a lot of contrasting characters in Mick.”
Suzi Ronson, Mick’s wife and hairstylist for David Bowie and others, still styles Hunter’s hair. “She’s in England half the time so I look like a sheep,” he joked.
Hunter feels grateful that rock ‘n’ roll gave him a voice to express himself, and a way to live in this world.
“I had 34 jobs that I think I can remember,” he said. He corrects himself: “I think I had 44 jobs.” These include journalist, apprentice engineer and various factory jobs.
He added, “To be able to get onstage like I had seen Jerry Lee do it, I’d seen Sam Cooke do it, I’d seen Little Richard do it … to get onstage and to be in a band that I loved being in was tremendous. But you have to hang in. There’s a lot of disappointments along the way, especially if you’re not that brilliantly talented, which I wasn’t.”
But you are now.
“I’m getting better,” he said. “A few more years and I think I’ll get it!”
Well, I think he got it.
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