If there is one Charlie Watts solo record you should own, it is the unimaginatively titled Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project, which came out on the now-dormant jazz label Higher Octave Records in 2000.
The techno-influenced album features nine tracks, each bearing the title of a famous drummer, such as Tony Williams or Max Roach or Kenny Clarke, Watts’ idol. It’s fun, not a boring jazz record.
The project kicked off in downtime during the Stones’ Bridges to Babylon sessions in Los Angeles in 1997. Keltner, the industry’s preeminent session drummer, was one of the many musicians on hand. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards make guest appearances. I spoke with Charlie on the phone in May 2000. He’s a notoriously bad interview, not because he’s dumb or ill-mannered. He’s just shy and doesn’t like the showbiz charade. He gives a lot of one-word answers. As a jazz aficionado, he always seemed a little embarrassed to be playing drums in a rock band. He’d rather spend his days with horses, as depicted in the photo from a horse fair in Poland in 2010. But jazz don’t pay the bills.
WHY DID YOU RECORD ON AN INDIE LABEL INSTEAD OF VIRGIN?
It is Virgin. Virgin bought them a year or so ago. I like going with little labels. Now look, they’re little labels that have all the might of a big label behind them, one hopes. But I prefer dealing with little labels because … it keeps me away from the main label, although I’m not offending them because they still own it. It’s not planned like that. I actually like indie and small labels. They’re much more adventurous. They can afford to be, y’know? And they’re meant to be. They’re just easier to deal with somehow. They’ve got their own little agenda going, which is nice. This label has some very good, interesting people on it …
IT’S NOT REALLY A JAZZ RECORD DESPITE THE SONG TITLES
They’re called after drummers because the first thing we did in a way was the Tony Williams thing, and Tony had died that week (February 1997), and it’s a very poignant thing. You couldn’t call it anything else except “Death of Tony” or something, so I just called it “Tony Williams.” The lyrics on “Tony Williams,” which is Keltner reading, are from a magazine article, the last one that Tony did. So it’s Tony Williams really. So I just continued that. “Elvin Suite” is Africa, and that was structured deliberately to be like that, as a tribute to Elvin Jones. “Airto” is the same, that’s Brazil. It’s got all the Brazilian things on it.
THE BEST THING FOR ME, AS A NON-JAZZ FAN, IS THAT THE RECORD IS FAST, FUN, NEVER GETS BORING AND LEAVES YOU WANTING MORE
So do the drummers that play that music. I could have called it Track 1, Track 2. I could have called it what Jim Keltner calls his little sections … and he’s got funny little signs to do with the electronic things he’s doing. Instead of doing that I called it “Kenny Clarke.” I thought, why not?
THAT’S MY FAVORITE TRACK. I LIKE THE ARABIC SOUND
So do I. It’s great. But that was structured after. It was Jim’s song, his little electronic theme or tune (and) me playing with it. When I got to Paris I wanted it to be an Arabic thing, so we had a guy come in with a violin, Philippe Chauveau got me all this together, and then we put Arab drums on and handclaps like they do. But it’s nice you like that one. He’s my favorite drummer of all, Kenny Clarke. When you mention that track, it’s just lovely that you mention his name, I think for me. That’s all it is. There’s a few on there that are actual heartfelt tributes to the people. “Shelly Manne” is called Shelly Manne because Jim uses a berimbau, and I saw Shelly uses a berimbau. That’s why I called it that.
A LOT OF THIS STUFF WOULDN’T BE OUT OF PLACE IN A MOVIE LIKE TRAINSPOTTING OR HIGH FIDELITY. HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT SCORING A MOVIE, OR AT LEAST OVERSEEING THE MUSIC?
I’ve never been asked. I’ve never thought of things like that. Yeah, if somebody asks you to do something you think about it. In a way, I think movie music’s really boring; but in another way, I suppose it could be quite interesting, if you could do it like this. Normally I would ask Manu (Emmanuel Sourdeix) who’s a piano player and Remy (Vignolo) to come in and play with me, Jim would sit down and play, we’d play together. But this was pieced together. It’s a whole ’nother way of recording, a very ‘now’ way of recording. I record personally ‘very yesterday.’
When I record with the Stones, which is what I’ve done for 30 years — nobody records like this anymore or very few people, if they do they do it for a gimmick, but we do it in all seriousness — we sit with a piano 10 foot away and the guitars go ’round it with me in the middle, with Keith and Ronnie either side of me. Nobody records like that anymore, but we do, and I’m used to human beings doing it. This is a totally … thing for me, I enjoyed it though. It would be wrong to say I didn’t enjoy it. I got put there through being with Keltner. I was very fortunate to meet Philippe Chauveau who helped me really produce the thing in the end.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY REACTION FROM ANY OF THE SONG TITLES THEMSELVES?
ARE YOU FRIENDS WITH ANY OF THEM?
That week, I saw Elvin and Roy Haynes. That’s why their names are on there.
THEY KNOW WHO YOU ARE?
Oh yeah. I speak to them. I’ve never met Airto. Everybody knows Elvin, and he’s a lovely man. And Roy Haynes is phenomenal, he’s 74 I think. He’s unbelievable. I saw Elvin Jones in 1960 with Coltrane, so I’m a big fan.
IF THERE WAS A TUNE CALLED “CHARLIE WATTS” HOW WOULD THAT SOUND?
Fuckin’ awful, I should think. I don’t know, actually. I’m not interested in that.
PARADOXICALLY THE STRAITLACED STONES DRUMMER IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS GROUNDBREAKING WORK. IT MUST FILL YOU WITH A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF GLEE TO BREAK THE MOLD?
Not at all. The glee comes if it works. No, it’s just interesting to be honest. I’ve got some very good young people here, and some not so young, but they’re doing dance mixes of the thing. And they’re going to be very interesting, well they are, I’ve heard ‘em. They’re really funny. They’re incredible. I’d never dream of doing them that way, but you’ve got to forget that. It’s just nice to have them do it.
SO KELTNER BEGAN THE PROJECT, AND YOU TOOK IT OVER?
Yes, but I didn’t take it over. I took it away to finish it. I had downtime, and I had to be working, so I went to a studio in Paris and finished this thing off. But I didn’t mean to finish, I just meant to ProTools, edit down into listenable areas, and we did it so quick that I decided to finish them as my ideas. And Jim heard them, and said, “Great, leave them like that, or…” It went backwards and forwards across the Atlantic a couple of times, Jim putting fiddly bits on and me getting back saying yes/no.
WHEN WAS ALL THIS?
It was before the little tour, before we went back to America (for the No Security tour, Jan.-April 1999), at the end of the European bit (June-Sept. 1998) before the indoor arena bit. That was November (1998), when I was in Paris. It’s been finished since December 1998, when I went back to work. I couldn’t work on it when we’d finished Bridges — the record — because we were working on the tour. And then I had time to finish it in Paris, then I went back to America and finished the tour off. So I couldn’t do anything between January and May.
SO HOW DOES THE RECORD HOLD UP AFTER ALL THIS TIME?
The thing with a record like this is they just marinate, y’know? A record takes a year to come out anyway. To get to this stage, it takes a year even if you’re in a hurry. I was working for 18 months of that time, playing. So it’ a long time, but it’s not that long a gap. A year for a record from studio to release is not a long time, it’s a normal time.
WAS THIS EASIER, FASTER AND CHEAPER TO MAKE THAN THE AVERAGE STONES RECORD?
God, are you kidding? Our records are notoriously expensive to make. Well, they are, we take so long to make records. It’s ridiculous. So yes, it cost nothing. It hardly cost anything.
YOU SHARE THE SONGWRITING CREDITS, BUT HAVE DIVIDED THE PUBLISHING…
Yes, he (Keltner) wrote five and I wrote four. He publishes his five and I publish my four. That was Jim’s idea. We wrote them all together, it was easier to put that down. Plus, Blondie (Chaplin, a Stones backing singer) wrote most of “Elvin.” I put it together, but he wrote most of it. Manu helped me with the top line of “Airto.”
AND MICK GETS A CREDIT ON “TONY WILLIAMS”
THAT “MEMORY MOTEL” VIBE?
Yeah, he loves doing those. We do that a lot. It’s good fun, that is.
WILL YOU PUBLISH THROUGH (STONES CORPORATE ENTITY) PROMOPUB?
I don’t know, fuckin’ ’ell. I’ve never published a song before.
YEAH, I NOTICED THAT. YOU’RE MOVING UP IN THE WORLD
That’s called “up” is it?
WELL THAT’S WHERE THE MONEY IS
Oh, well that’s going “up.” All right. There’s only money in songwriting and publishing if you sell a copy. If you don’t sell any copies, there’s nothing in it.
IF YOU CAN GET ONE OF THESE SONGS OVER THE CLOSING CREDITS IN A MOVIE IT WOULD COVER YOUR OVERHEAD FOR A FEW YEARS
It’s not why I play the drums or do things like this. It would be nice, but …
DID ANY OF THE JAM SESSIONS END UP ON BRIDGES TO BABYLON?
No… I can’t remember that record anyway. Well I don’t, I never play them.
TO WHAT EXTENT DOES THE WORK ON THIS ALBUM INCREASE YOUR HORIZONS AS A DRUMMER? DOES IT MAKE YOU WANT TO TRY NEW STUFF WITH THE STONES?
DID YOU USE YOUR STONES DRUM KIT?
It was the same thing. I just moved it next door.
THE ONE THAT’S A HUNDRED YEARS OLD, THAT YOU USED AT HYDE PARK (IN 1969)?
It’s actually 50 years old, 1958. Gretsch.
HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THE RESPONSIBILITY OF BEING THE MAN IN CHARGE ON A SOLO RECORD, VS PLAYING WITH THE STONES WHERE THE RESPONSIBILITY IS NOT AS GREAT?
I don’t know really. I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t sit up at night worrying about it. The nicest thing is when people say they like it. But it’s a difficult record for people to like.
YOU THINK SO?
Well I would have thought so. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s what people listen to. I’ve never listened to records like this, but then I don’t suppose most people listen to records I listen to, which are 1950 Art Blakey records. Do you know what I mean? Only 10 people listen to them, but there’s a hundred people listening to techno records, so I suppose it’s right within what they listen to. I don’t know actually.
I GUESS THE SONGS “ROY HAYNES,” “MAX ROACH” & “BILLY HIGGINS” COME CLOSEST TO EMPLOYING THE DRUMMING STYLE YOU USE WITH THE STONES?
I don’t know really. I suppose.
I IMAGINE YOU SPENT MONTHS COMING UP WITH THE NAME OF THE GROUP?
It was called that because I couldn’t think of a title. The title I originally had was called On the Shoulders of Giants, and Oasis’ new album was called that, so I had to rapidly think of a new one, and I couldn’t think of one so I just left it.
SO MICK AND KEITH DID THEIR SESSIONS DURING BRIDGES?
Oh, yeah, they’re jams. All these things are just one take. They’re not overdubs, no. They were done while we were doing this.
WHY WASN’T RONNIE ON THE RECORD?
He’s got a version of “Art Blakey,” which he’s on. But I didn’t want any guitars on it because it makes it sound like a Rolling Stones record, and I didn’t want that. There’s no point in bringing another Rolling Stones record out, is there?
WHAT’S MICK AND KEITH’S REACTION TO THE RECORD?
I don’t know.
WHAT’S THE MOST PERSONAL TRACK FOR YOU?
Umm, “Tony Williams” and “Elvin.”
TONY BECAUSE OF HIS DEATH, AND ELVIN WHY?
I think “Elvin” comes across as the best bit of music on the record.
DID IT TURN OUT THE WAY YOU WANTED?
Some of them were exactly like I wanted them to be. The others just became what they are through doing it.
ARE THERE ANY SONGS THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE RECORD?
There’s a lot of things.
DO THEY HAVE NAMES, OR WERE THEY JAMS?
They’re all jams. Some were set and some were just jams and some worked and some didn’t. And what you do with all records, is that you select the ones that do work, unless you haven’t got enough and you’re scraping the barrel to make up the minutes. Some of them were just nothing, and some were interesting.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE STRANGEST REACTIONS YOU’VE HAD?
My wife’s, I suppose — “What’s that?”
DO YOU HAVE ANY TOUR PLANS?
No, not really. If it goes well, I might. But I don’t know.
IT WOULD BE GREAT IF YOU COULD
It would be marvelous. I’ll see. If there’s a lot of interest in it, I might do some things.
WHAT’S YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE NOW? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
Nothing. I don’t want to do anything either.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE STONES? ANY PLANS TO GO INTO THE STUDIO?
SO YOU’RE ON HIATUS INDEFINITELY?
SOUNDS GREAT, WELL THANKS CHARLIE
OK, I’ll speak to you later. Bye-bye.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2000, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING