– The second ILLUSION album doesn’t fall so far behind the first one to me, because it uses the same formula: it starts with “Madonna Blue” in the way the first one begins with “Isadora.”
Well, in a way maybe the songs weren’t so strong on the second BOX OF FROGS album but the production was much better, wasn’t it?
– I don’t know. The song “Harder” had this particularly ’80s sound, but then there’s a “Two Steps Ahead” that you re-modeled for your solo album.
I always thought it was a great song because I always liked it; it was always a very interesting little tune and it was worth doing again, because I liked the idea of the two guitars, the harmony guitars going.
– On the BOX OF FROGS album, you used Graham Gouldman, and THE YARDBIRDS were one of the first bands to fully discover his talents as a composer. Did you feel kind of obliged to invite him to play with you at some point?
No, we just sort of thought that that would be fun. That was a nice idea, “Let’s get Graham to play along on ‘Heart Full Of Soul’ (which he penned – DME) to make it special.” And it was good to work with him. We’d never actually worked with him before: we just had the song from the publisher but didn’t actually work with him in person. So it was just an excuse to work with him and for him to play along. And he enjoyed it too I think.
– Talking of “Two Steps Ahead”… I’m a bit confused: there are the “Outside Woman Blues” album and “Two Steps Ahead” – is it the same album or is it different in some way?
It’s just the same album, because what happened there was, we had the studio recordings and we did a deal with two different companies, one in England and one in America. It’s the same album and the American album is different, it’s a different cover and it’s called “Outside Woman Blues”: it’s all the same tracks but [the running order is] just changed around.
– But how do you feel, did it improve on the original “Two Steps Ahead”?
Well, it was different, it was different. I thought the original was very good. And I don’t know if it was an improvement but it had more of a blues band sort of feel to it than the original.
– So you tried to get closer to the original YARDBIRDS sound?
I think so, yeah, but it was more of a cozy sound rather than a big production.
– And you had John Idan and Ray Majors on there. A way to reconnect again with what you did before.
Yeah, because of Ray [who played with BOX OF FROGS]. All of these people were people you knew, people who came in and out, and they were nice to work with.
– And then the “Out Of The Dark” album. To me it sounds somehow cathartic. Was there some phase in your life that you wanted to come out of or something like this?
Yes, I suppose it was very much about going through an experience, which I did. I’d gone through an experience [already], so we’re right back in the old days in the ’60s when I went through a very dark time, a depression, really. I came out of this depression into a different way of thinking and I needed a lot of healing and all the healing really helped me to live on a different level almost, to what I was before. It was like being reborn in some weird way.
– Was it why you decided to be called “James” McCarty on that album or was it to not be confused with American guitarist Jim McCarty?
(Laughs.) No, not really. “James” is another side of me as opposed to the “Jim”: it was like me in a different light. And I just thought it would be nicer to call it “James.”
– If your fans knew you as “Jim” they might have gotten very confused and…
Well, I think it’s so but no, I wouldn’t do that now. I’d carry on with “Jim” but using the “James” for that album was perfectly fine because it was something a bit alternative to me.
– More serious?
– And how often do you get confused with that American guitarist?
It doesn’t happen that much but I do get messages saying, “I really like THE ROCKETS” or “CACTUS was my favorite band!” That doesn’t happen that often but sometimes.
– I’m almost sure it’s not you but there is some drummer called Jim McCarty who played with Buck Owens and on Disney’s albums, so…
Yes, I know about him as well. (Laughs.) But it’s not me. I don’t know what he sounds like, I’ve never heard it myself, but it’s quite funny having all these Jim McCarty’s!
– While we’re talking about the names, what about this album, that bears a name RENAISSANCE ILLUSION? A very strange name!
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think it was fair enough, because it was the people that were in ILLUSION but at the same time we’d been in RENAISSANCE as well, so I don’t think we could have said we were RENAISSANCE because that would have been another band; and I don’t think we wanted to call it ILLUSION either. RENAISSANCE ILLUSION seemed right at the time anyway.
– But why couldn’t you be just ILLUSION?
We could have been just ILLUSION, so why did we call it so I don’t know. Perhaps, it was the record company that suggested it.
– Releasing this album by RENAISSANCE ILLUSION, did you want some closure to turn this page of your life forever? To me, the reprise of “Through The Fire” sounds like “goodbye”: there’s a sound effect that makes it sound like this!
No, I don’t think so. I think it was a bit like “Out Of The Dark” because it was still very much me, it was very much my songs again. And I thought, “Well, it will be nice to work my songs with John and Louie and Jane,” but they were in a way like backing musicians in my project. (Laughs.)
– Did they like it?
Oh, they were fine, yes, they were happy.
– And then there was Dzal Martin from BOX OF FROGS on this album.
I knew Dzal and it was his sort of style. He’d worked with me on a few things. I forgot even that he’d played on that [record]… Yes, he did play on that, yeah!
– Was that the first time that you played with Ron Korb?
Yes, it was! That was the first time.
– Where did you find him? He’s a very interesting musician.
When Louie and I were doing the STAIRWAY thing for New World Music, in England, we did another album with [keyboard player] Clifford White, and New World didn’t take it. So somebody told us about Oasis, which was Ron Korb’s label in Canada. And so he released it, it was called “Raindreaming.” Then I got friendly with Ron, and he came to England and I met up with him and he was playing a few shows and we started chatting together. We’d known each other for ages, but this other project, “Sitting On The Top Of Time,” was when he came to France [where I live]. Ron was going to MIDEM and he came by, and I just had an idea that he could play on. He played me his DVD that he’d done in Canada and it was very well done, he had very good musicians, so we talked and I said, “Well, I’d like to do an album, particularly with that pianist” – he had a pianist called Donald Quan – and we suggested we work on an album together. I just did it when I could, between American tours with THE YARDBIRDS, and worked with Donald and George Koller on bass and other people, and it just built from there. We recorded in Toronto.
– Talking about North America, what about McCARTY-HITE PROJECT? How did that come about? It’s a nice set of classics played with abandon, like you plugged in and let rip!
(Laughs.) Well, I was always very fond of [CANNED HEAT’s] Bob Hite’s brother, Richard, and we always got on. He rang me up and he said, “Are you interested in doing this little project down in Memphis? I know someone who wants to record and I know musicians. Do you want to come down for the weekend? Stay with me and we’ll record an album.” So I said, “Why not?” And so it all happened, and the musicians were all fun and that was good, and we wrote a couple of songs. (Laughs.)
– You just got up from France and flew to Memphis to have fun? Or were you in America already?
I was in America already, I think I was up in Chicago or someplace like that. I was just spending some time over there. So I just drove down to Memphis one day and recorded and I really enjoyed it.
– The way you describe it somehow connects with the original meaning of the word “yardbird”: a seasonal worker.
(Laughs.) But it was like that, yeah! People do ask me for things like that sometimes. They say, “Oh, if you’re coming to New Jersey, do you want to come and play on an album?” And it’s quite nice to do that sort of thing, because you remain independent and everything’s fresh.
– There also was this American project with THE PRETTY THINGS, “The Chicago Blues Tapes.”
That was similar. Richard [Hite] was on that, too, that’s where I met him. And the guy that was the producer, George [Paulus]. He came and saw me and invited me to come and play drums. They did it in a Chicago recording studio. I got people like Studebaker John and it was great! I like doing those collaboration type of things.
– It’s very interesting: English musicians, Phil May and Dick Taylor, the original Rolling Stone, and the original Yardbird playing in, of all places, Chicago, the Blues Mecca!
But it was always exciting, I always liked it in Chicago. It was great, it was an interesting collaboration, and you really didn’t have to write any songs – there wasn’t any hard work involved, it was just playing.
– Something like “Sweet Home Chicago”?
Well, almost! And they were just coming out with these great covers.
– Three discs of demos with Top Topham: did you record those at the time when you tried to revive THE YARDBIRDS?
No, that was the time when I did the band with John Idan and Ray Majors. We had that little band and we used to play in “The Station Tavern” in London. It was like Top’s idea first of all and it was Top that discovered John Idan. Top was working in the guitar store in Soho and John appeared one day and wanted to sell him some guitars or something, and he said, “Oh, I’m a singer,” and Top just thought, “He looks the part, he looks good, so let’s get him in.” Topham was thinking of reforming a blues band with me, in the ’90s, and that’s when we started this residency in Shepherd’s Bush. And it was all based on early covers, the type of thing THE YARDBIRDS would do in the early days.
– So those recordings are just studio sketches for the rehearsals?
No, no, we did a studio session with some covers. I think there’s an album around, a double album: live on one disc and studio recording on the other, things like “Double Trouble.”
– At which point all of this became THE YARDBIRDS again.
In the mid-’90s. About 1995-1996.
– Just because you decided it was the right time to reclaim your legacy?
Eh, yeah. These things always work very strangely. We had this band with Ray and John, and we were playing “The Station Tavern” every week, and it was a good band, so Chris Dreja and Paul Samwell-Smith, even Jeff Beck used to come down to see us play. And then there was an agent in Lancashire, a guy called Peter Barton, who contacted me and he said, “Oh, I’m the agent for THE ANIMALS with Hilton Valentine and John Steel. Do you, Jim and Chris, want to form THE YARDBIRDS again, and I’ll be the agent?” So we talked about it and thought we’d give it a try, because I knew all these musicians. We got a harmonica player called Laurie Garman and started playing festivals and it went well.
– And then you did this great album called “Birdland” where you re-recorded “Mystery Of Being.” Why did you decide to cut it again?
I think it was always a good song, it was always a song you could do a different version of, you know, a happier version. You could do much more, like a rock version, and John Idan always liked it and so here we did it again.
– And all those guest guitarists… Did you invite them or did they want to play with you themselves?
It was a very organic sort of thing, it sort of came about: somebody wanted to play and then someone else found out… We were actually on Steve Vai’s record label [Favored Nations], he was just starting it, and so Steve knew Joe Satriani, and he knew lots of guitar players, and then it was like a thing that just grew and grew.
– Were there more guitarists who wanted to play but you shoved them away and said, “I want to keep integrity.”
Yes, there were other people suggested. I can’t remember who they were, but it just got to be so full, we had enough in the end. The thing is, we had mainly American guitar players, so it seemed good to get Brian May involved: he was another English player and we didn’t want it to be too heavily American. But all these guitar players, they were all fans of the band. We didn’t really know that at the time and we found out they all played the YARDBIRDS songs in their early incarnations.
– Did they play with you in the studio or did they just send in their parts?
They mainly did them on their own. I don’t think there were many that recorded with us. Steve Lukather came and dubbed over while we were there, but most of these players liked to work on their own.
– Is there a chance for another YARDBIRDS album?
Possibly. I don’t see it right at the moment, I don’t envisage it but it possibly could work. We were thinking at one point of going down to the Mississippi and doing an album down there, a blues album in the right place, near the Crossroads. (Laughs.)
– Robert Johnson stuff!
Well, I don’t know what it would be, it would be a combination of covers and things. There’s not a great motivation for that, but it’s a possibility.
– What did you feel when you learned that THE PUSSYCAT DOLLS used your song “When I Grow Up”?
(Laughs.) It was funny! It was…
– …great from a financial point of view?
Yeah! It was!
– But from a creative point of view… How was it?
Very odd, it was very odd. But it wasn’t a negative thing at all. And they were very honorable, because people use samples all the time, don’t they, without necessarily telling anybody about it.
– But there are obvious choices like “Shapes Of Things” and not so obvious, so they kind of knew your work.
I don’t know! I don’t know how it came about, because there was never any conversation [between us and them], it was only just contracts through the post. No-one ever said, “I know THE YARDBIRDS and I did this and that”. So I don’t know how they came up with that song to sample. But it’s usually one of the writer-producers who does that. But it’s a very odd thing. It was odd but it was quite nice.
– What can you tell me about this mysterious project of yours that I learned only from watching the Iridium gig on YouTube? This PILGRIM project?
Oh yes! (Laughs.) That was where we did “Dream Within A Dream.” And funny enough Dzal played on that one as well, the PILGRIM version. The PILGRIM version’s quite different [from the one on “Birdland”]. But it was just an idea from Carmen Wilcox, who used to be involved in New World Music that did STAIRWAY. First of all she did some poems that I got involved with writing music for, and then there was an idea to do some songs based around the Gothic poets, like Byron and Keats and all these people, and I quite enjoyed it! I quite like working on those sorts of projects. So there is this album called “Gothic Dream” by PILGRIM.
– When you do another version of one of your songs. Do you discover something new in your own work?
(Laughs.) Possibly! I can’t think of any instance [of this] but it’s quite interesting. Yeah, it’s very funny because I had an experience since I last spoke to you, I had a very strange thing happen. Somebody wrote to me on Facebook and asked me some questions, asked if my father was called James Clifford, and lived in Middlesex and he was brought up by my grandmother and was I that Jim McCarty? And I said, “Yes.” And it led to a story that actually my father wasn’t English and he was born in Canada, and he was brought up by his mother’s sister because his mother died a few days after he was born. And he was born in Toronto. I just discovered this: he was actually born a few houses down from the studio in Toronto where I made the last album. Just by chance. I never knew that before, and I’d always had this thing about going back to Toronto. It’s very strange, isn’t it! And all of a sudden I hear this, although I always heard this story about my father coming from Canada and that was never really talked about. I never realized that my grandmother was actually not my grandmother, she was my great-aunt.
– That last album, “Sitting At The Top Of Time.” Was it like a sage position that you took when you were recording it?
(Laughing.) No, no, I was just… I remember going to a workshop with some friends where everyone said how they felt. And I said, “Well, I felt really good, very much like I’m sitting on the top of time.”
– Before I listened to it and discovered it was not a blues album, I’d thought there was a connection with “Sitting On Top Of The World.”
…by Howlin’ Wolf. Yeah, yeah, I know, but it was also… I always thought THE YARDBIRDS were slightly before their time, we weren’t right on time – the whole time. We were setting new ideas that hadn’t been done before, and that wasn’t really deliberate, it was just accidental in a way. And now THE YARDBIRDS are still very popular fifty years later. But then I felt that time’s caught up with me. I feel like I’m sitting on the top of time now rather than being in front of it.
– Then there is this feeling of nostalgia…
Maybe. It sort of comes into it.
– So is it a concept album?
I think so. It was all about what was going on for me at that time and I’m still in that type of thought.
– Do you play on all the songs on this album? Because it looks like there are some pieces that you just wrote and gave the others to play.
No, I played on everything. The one song that’s slightly different is “Shangri-La,” where Donald Quan did his own thing on piano and put a lot of the effects, but I did play very simple drums on it.
– You mentioned the piano, and it leads us to the present day, to your connection with John Hawken. Have you been in touch all those years?
No, not so much. But he started appearing when THE YARDBIRDS played in New York – he lives near New York, in New Jersey. I was originally playing with Donald – we did some live stuff together – but Donald had a heart attack two years ago and his heart stopped, and he had some brain damage: it did affect his playing. So I just thought, maybe John would take his place. That seemed right, and it’s nice working with John again, it’s a nice experience.
– And from that emerged your recent tour?
I’ve got the opportunity to put the whole thing together: I can do some solo things and some ILLUSION, RENAISSANCE or whatever, because that shows more of my facets. I’d done a few shows before like in “Iridium” and I’ve enjoyed it: it’s been nice, because I get the opportunity to talk and I quite like chatting [with the audience].
– So what’s there ahead?
There’s always work to do, there’s always more songs. I’d like to do another album; I guess that might be in Toronto as well, but that won’t be this year. And then playing: there’s an American tour with THE YARDBIRDS coming soon, so there’s always things to be done. I’m not really ready to give it all up.
– Why should you?
Yeah, why, I can still do it! I’ve had a great time and been very lucky in my life, and I’ve had a good life because I’ve been involved in music and had great fun doing everything I’ve done.
Many thanks to Sally Jane Sharp-Paulsen for transcribing the interview.