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Ronnie Wood: Artist, Painter, Author, Rolling Stone (The Interview)
Ronnie Wood is a certifiable rock legend. Keith Richards’ guitar foil in the Rolling Stones since the 1970s, Wood had already made his name as a member of not only the Faces, but the Jeff Beck Group, and had been a mainstay of the London music scene since his days in much-loved but near-forgotten band The Birds, before joining Mick Jagger and company.
But the now-sober Wood has added several interesting jobs to his long resume since joining the Stones. He’s been a go-to session guitarist, a DJ and TV interviewer, world-renowned painter and author.
In recent weeks, Wood’s social media accounts have been must-visit spots on the internet for messages of hope and positivity among the otherwise tumultuous COVID-19 era. He’s also used the space to show off some of his original art pieces:
With all of that going on, the Rolling Stones also surprise-released a new track titled “Living in a Ghost Town” during the pandemic. So he’s keeping busy, whether with the band or on his own.
Among the most recent additions to Wood’s ever-growing portfolio is The Rolling Stones Setlists, a gorgeous, deluxe book from Genesis Publications that was unveiled in late 2018, a fine addition to Wood’s many Genesis titles.
“During rehearsals, I draw up set lists on big canvases, putting down the songs and the keys they’re in,” Wood explains. “We hang these set lists on the rehearsal room walls so we know where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
Over the last two decades, the songs that the Rolling Stones have played in rehearsals, live shows and studio sessions have been recorded by Wood in a series of hand-painted set lists. The result is a unique collection of canvases that document sell-out tours across the globe, such as the band’s landmark 50 & Counting tour, historic concerts such as 2016’s free concert in Havana, as well as closed-door sessions for their 2016 album, Blue & Lonesome.
Wood has chosen 108 painted setlists, part of a new manuscript spanning 198 pages, offering a glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most famous rock bands in the world. Through Wood’s artwork and his personal reflections, Wood brings the story of the set lists to life, as he discusses the band’s creative process, the ingredients that go into making up a show’s set list, learning up to 80 songs per tour, and adding insight to the band’s collaborations with everyone from Lady Gaga and Florence Welch to Eric Clapton and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.
Rock Cellar: You know, I’ve been in your house?
Ronnie Wood: Oh, you’ve been to the Wick?
Rock Cellar: Yeah, yeah. Long after you’d been gone. [Laughter.]
Ronnie Wood: Oh, great, wow. Yeah, but my stamp is still there in the studio downstairs.
Rock Cellar: It’s an amazing space. It’s a beautiful space.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, that’s where I recorded I’ve Got My Own Album to Do. Pete [Townshend, who owns it now] took me ’round. He’s still got the glass doors with “Mind Your Head.” We used to walk into that between the control room and the studio. I did all of the paneling on the walls, the cork and the wood. Good old Pete has always had a penchant for studios. He’s kept that one. It’s bigger than I remember it, too.
Rock Cellar: Your last Genesis book was amazing. It was your diary from your Birds days, in the 60s. When you first got your hands on it, you couldn’t have had a book in mind. What were your first impressions holding it and looking back at it 50 years later essentially?
Ronnie Wood: Well, my manager said, “I’ve got something of yours that’s really precious.” I was like, “What are you talking about,” you know? She showed me the diary and she thought that it was fantastic and should be published. I had obviously no idea of doing that. After I read it and some of the memories came flooding back, I thought actually that’s not a bad idea! Just leave it as is, dig out some drawings, and do a few more to spice it up a bit.
Rock Cellar: What was amazing is how it put you right back into that time and place. You were rubbing right up against the big boys of the day almost from the time you picked up the guitar.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, that’s what it was. We were rubbing shoulders with all the big boys. They kind of took us under their wing and gave us encouragement. We’d turn up and watch, and they could see us developing and experimenting, I suppose. I would keep this little personal (at the time) record of whether people were a bunch of cretins or went screaming mad. We’d get different receptions all over the country. At the time, our manager used to work us nearly every night of the week.
We’d be all bundled in the gig wagon along with all our equipment. We’d be in Canterbury one night and we’d be in Scotland the next night, just traveling, bundling in, and trying to sleep in crappy hotels. It was all about the gig at the end of the day, and how much we were getting. I used to compare it to the Stones, when they were starting to make it. They had 250 pounds at the weekend, and we were getting 75 quid. I was like, “Yeah, we’re getting there! We’re getting there!” It was hilarious.
Especially trying to get through the BBC audition … anything louder than a string quartet …
Rock Cellar: The Stones had Andrew Loog Oldham and The Who had Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. You guys had Leo de Clerck. It wasn’t really the same kind of management, was it?
Ronnie Wood: True. The Who also had “I Can’t Explain” or whatever it was at the time. They had a hit. The BBC couldn’t really turn them down. But yeah, if you didn’t have a chalk mark in the charts, and the Birds didn’t — we’d been scratching around in the top 100 or top 50 — that wasn’t enough for the BBC. But that was all part and parcel of it in those days. You had to keep striving and plugging in there, and hopefully one day your break might come, you know?
Rock Cellar: It’s interesting to me how you were very torn whether to choose art or music. You probably would have been happy either way, wouldn’t you?
Ronnie Wood: Yeah. Like I am these days. I’m lucky enough to be able to paint for pleasure and for profit. It’s a spiritual asset for me as well, and a release, to do one thing as a partner and another thing as an individual.
Rock Cellar: So do the Stones still consider you the new boy? Last time I talked to you, which was only three or four years ago, you said they were still calling you the new boy.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, well they’ve given that up now finally. There’s a new camaraderie now. “Oh well, I suppose he really is one of us after all.”
Rock Cellar: You’ve well earned it, I think, too. What do you think you carry from those days with the Birds, and even the Jeff Beck Group on bass? What do you carry with you now? What were the lessons you learned then? When we last spoke I came away thinking you had carried those lessons with you to this day.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, that’s true. I learned an aspect during the Beck days of how to look anew at the six strings of the guitar, from the four strings of the bass. I took the bass to another level in my opinion. I used to hang out with people like Larry Graham …
Rock Cellar: And John Entwistle.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah. All the funk guys, too. I used to take a lot of cues from the drummers, like Aynsley Dunbar, Mickey Waller. I learned a lot about the approach to the bass guitar from drummers. The time I had away from the guitar while I was playing the bass was handy, because I came in knowing the kind of slide aspect and with a new vigor and enthusiasm when I went back on it with the Faces.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned Larry Graham, but you were also trying to one-up John Entwistle, too, who’s a monster player. Yet there was no hint of irony when we last spoke and you said that you were trying to do him one better. You really wanted to take it even further than he had, as kind of a lead instrument.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah. Players like Stanley Clarke told me that I was a heavy influence on the way they played, unknowing to me. A lot of bass players I meet nowadays love those Truth/Beck-ola days.
Rock Cellar: When you got back to the guitar with the Faces and the Stones, do you remember thinking back to what you’d done in the Birds, and what you’d learned in all those gigs you did? Was it kind of in the back of your brain — what you did want to do, what you didn’t want to do — how you were going to approach weaving with Keith? Were the Birds still in your brain as a guitar player?
Ronnie Wood: Um, not really. That was an early learning curve. But I did bounce off (The Birds’) Tony Monroe. I used to kind of weave with him a bit. But then I had more ambitious ideas, I think. I didn’t get too bogged down with that way of thinking. I used it as a stepping stone, as I still do today.
I’m still improving and still have ambition, which is a major driving force that still keeps me going. Every Stones gig is different and better and changing. It’s been the same throughout my career no matter what I’ve been playing. Even if I’m playing drums. You better get that beat right!
Rock Cellar: It’s interesting to me how you’ve slotted into many different situations over the ears pretty seamlessly. You have to have learned something … Playing with Tony, when I listen to those recordings, they’re pretty straightforward. It’s interesting that you’d say you tried to do some weaving with him, because that’s not something that I’d say I remember from The Birds’ recordings. Maybe it was different live?
Ronnie Wood: No, you’re right. Also the naivety of those days, you know? There was not much insight because it was my first band. We were just out of the garage, basically learning chords and little inflections, little lead licks and stuff. I think watching the Yardbirds live at the Crawdaddy kind of opened it up for me. Then with the Beck group,
Jeff was heavily influenced by the Chicago blues and Vanilla Fudge, bands like that coming out of the woodwork. We would do a blend of all the influences. A little bit of Beach Boys, a little bit of the blues. We put all these things into a melting pot, you know?
Rock Cellar: That sounds almost like you’re thinking more in terms of different chords and voicings and tones to approach the guitar with. That had to be key when you started playing with Keith. You can’t be playing the same thing as him. Was that more from the Beck days, because Jeff was always searching for something new and different?
Ronnie Wood: Yeah!
Rock Cellar: You mentioned the Yardbirds. Of all the bands you saw — you obviously mentioned the Beatles and the Stones — the big dogs. It was interesting to me that you mention the Animals and a couple of other bands as not that impressive to you, that you didn’t think they would last.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, right! [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: But the Yardbirds were really important to you, weren’t they?
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, I think basically through Eric, because he’s always been really important to me. Over the years, we still remain friends. We look back with tenderness on the precious memories we have from those early days. He knew I was looking after him, and he always used to help me come along.
I even had my kid Jessie, when he was young, he’d give him little guitar pointers when he was with The Ronnie Wood Band. It’s great to sit reflecting with my kids as well and on what they took from me. People like Jeff Beck would take huge risks. He’d say “Can you do this?” I’d say “No, I can’t do it Jeff, but I’ll give it a damn good try.”
Through all of those experiments we would come out with something new.
Rock Cellar: Well, that was the thing. Playing with people who were older and certainly better, plus the thing of not knowing what you’re doing wrong or what was the right way to do it actually helped you find your own way, it seems. Did you find that playing with Jeff, following on from The Birds, was a different mindset? You had to find a different rhythm and style, so I’m guessing it was almost better to not have had played bass before?
Ronnie Wood: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right, it was. It was a definite advantage. It was also like “Okay, now we’re stepping up a few gears. Let’s get into sixth gear now, and it’s got ten gears,” you know? We were gradually clocking up and learning more, experimenting more, and getting more experience under your belt. Pretty soon, people were coming up to me and saying “How’d you do that?” I’d say “Well, it’s a poor attempt at what I was trying to do when I was with Beck or playing with Eric, or experimenting with Mick Taylor,” whatever it was. Little tips you pick up over the years all build up into your own style, like you were saying.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk a little bit about weaving … I’ve seen you guys a couple of times recently, and just relative to the early ’90s tours or late ’80s tours, it’s come a really long way with you and Keith. You obviously listen a lot. I see you watching him and listening to him really intently through the whole show.
What are some obvious tips for young guitar players who want to approach that style of playing that might not be obvious to them?
Ronnie Wood: Yeah, well there’s no need to play all the time, you could tell them. What you leave out is very important too. Then when you do interject and interplay with each other, it makes more dynamic sense. Also, less cluttering. It just defines the whole song, whatever it may be, if you aren’t treading on each others’ toes too much.
Rock Cellar: You told me last time we spoke that you learn something new during every tour and every Stones tour. What have you learned more recently?
Ronnie Wood: A new clarity of approach, coming with my sobriety, I think. That’s an amazing plus for me, because I can play anything without a drink or dope.
It’s a wonderful feeling to still feel excited about a show, but I don’t have to reach for false stimulants to get me through, you know? That’s a big plus.
It’s hard to explain until one does it. But there comes an even further depth of understanding of songs. It changes all the time. Just to keep up with it and keep grips with it and experiment. You still experiment. Amazing new things are coming out, but it’s out of a very focused place.
Rock Cellar: When you first got sober, were you worried that it was going to affect your on-stage playing, or even in the studio, for that matter?
Ronnie Wood: Oh, yeah. There’s that white-knuckle stage that can be quite frightening to get through.
Rock Cellar: Yeah. How long did it take you to get over the kind of goosebumps of the early sobriety on stage?
Ronnie Wood: I suppose about a year.
Rock Cellar: Wow.
Ronnie Wood: Yeah. But you have to stick with it. You have to have faith and stick in there. It does get better.
Rock Cellar: Last time we talked a lot about you struggling with songwriting, trying to fit the words with the music. You’ve written some great tunes in your own right. What got you over the hurdle beyond The Birds and the Jeff Beck group days, before you joined the Stones, with the Faces? You certainly were able to get there. What got you into a more songwriting frame of mind, or do you still struggle with it?
Ronnie Wood: Well, I still struggle a bit, yeah. It wouldn’t be a challenge otherwise. But I think with experience, the more wisdom you accrue over the years, you get a feel and more of a confidence to go through with an idea and see it as it is going to come out. You get more of an idea about how a song will last in the future, because when you first have a song, it’s going to go through a lot of changes before it falls into its proper structure that’s going to last for years. You get more of an insight into that.
Rock Cellar: Looking back, what would you tell that 17, 18-year-old kid, kicking off with The Birds? What would Ronnie Wood tell that kid if he could?
Ronnie Wood: I’d tell him not to give up and to keep experimenting and trying. Have faith that you too can do your dream. You can make it come true.