Interview with IAN McDONALD

December 2017Ian McDonald

To be an original – and very prominent in creative terms – member of two highly influential and perennially popular bands, quite different in their style, it takes some bravado… Only that’s not the word one would associate with Ian McDonald who, as trailblazing as his work with KING CRIMSON and FOREIGNER was, is humble enough to seem to disappear from time to time before emerging again with something so alluring that it’s impossible not to relish. This time it’s "Bad Old World" by HONEY WEST, a New York group McDonald became an integral part of. Deceptively simpler than Ian’s previous endeavors, the album is a great piece of work – and it turned into a a starting point of our conversation.

– Ian, “Bad Old World” surprised me in many ways, one of this being it’s classic rock ‘n’ roll slant. Is it a sort of return to basics for you? Was that an original intention to keep it clever but simple?

(Hems.) Well, if that’s the way it comes across… I guess so. I guess the songs just lent themselves to that treatment. My writing partner [Ted Zurkowski] also plays guitar and writes lyrics and sings, so the songs were really based around that, and I’ve always wanted to do something a little different, so I don’t know if it’s back to basics because there’s quite a few different styles on the record. Basically, it is a rock band format – two guitars, bass, drums – which I balanced and improved in production, but we kept it as live as possible. Many of the lead vocals are actually live-in-a-studio, but yeah, it was my intention: just to make a really good record.

– HONEY WEST is a band that you joined – you didn’t found it, right?

Yeah, I did join the band that was already existing. Ted Zurkowski had a three-piece – I guess you could call it an “alternate country” band – which I joined, and then that sort of morphed, if that’s the right word, into what you hear on the record now, which is more of a straight-ahead rock group with various influences. It is something that I always do – I always try to do: to bring different influences into production, in particular.

– Is Ted okay with the band now being mostly associated with your name, not his?

No, no, no. We’re equal. We’re equal writing partners. Essentially, HONEY WEST is Ted and myself, in terms of writing and taking care of the name and everything, but we are real focused, four-piece band. My son Max is in the band – he plays bass – and I’m really happy about that; we have a drummer, Tom Curiano, who’s a permanent member now. But Ted is the originator of the band, so his name comes first, as far as I’m concerned.

– Wasn’t it the same way when you were an equal partner in CRIMSON and FOREIGNER?

I wouldn’t say that with FOREIGNER (short bitter laughter) but CRIMSON, actually, yeah: we were, we were equal. FOREIGNER wasn’t quite the same – there was a definite top-down leadership situation – but I’m very proud of that, too. We had a reunion of sorts back in October, when we played in Saginaw, in Michigan, and that was really nice, to get together with as many of the original members as possible.

Ian McDonald

– If we’re talking about going back to basics, could you tell me a bit about your first band, TINTAGEL?

That was a very fleeting thing. It wasn’t a really serious endeavor on my part. I just did one or two gigs with them; it was something that I did when got out of the military, when I got out of the army, so I wouldn’t put too much importance on that. The name came from the castle, but that never amounted to anything. My first band was before that; when I was about 17 or 18 years old and I was stationed in Gibraltar, I had a band called THE REBELS. We used to do the ROLLING STONES and BEATLES covers and things like that.

– How important was the army for you in terms of learning the discipline, and did it prepare you in any way for the life of a touring musician?

I don’t really know, but I was a bandsman, I was in a military band, so as much as I didn’t like being in the army, I did take advantage of getting some more of a musical education.

– You said TINTAGEL wasn’t so important, but it was in that band that you shared a bill with FAIRPORTS and got in touch with Judy Dyble who would introduce you to Robert Fripp, and that started the ball rolling. Was it like that?

Maybe that’s true; I don’t remember. Maybe that’s how I met Judy. I really liked the original FAIRPORT CONVENTION, I loved them. Judy and I got together, and we joined GILES GILES AND FRIPP, and that evolved into KING CRIMSON.

– Were you already a multi-instrumentalist then?

Yeah, yes. I played wind instruments – clarinet, flute and saxophone as well – as a military bandsman. I also played guitar then, and I already knew a little bit of piano. On the HONEY WEST album I play all these instruments, but guitar is my main instrument now. When we play live, all I do is essentially play lead guitar.

– But in terms of reeds, do you think of yourself as a flutist or a sax player?

Oh, I’m certainly not a sax player but I did study the flute in recent years. I went to a classical flute teacher, and for a while I was concentrating on that because I wanted to improve my playing and my two-tone. I always admired the tone of classical flute players, what you hear in an orchestra, because usually when you hear flute players they’re really saxophone players who double on flute. They don’t have the same kind of tone as classical players, and I wanted to get as close as I could to the beautiful classical, for want of a better word, orchestral sound. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that or not, but I learned quite a bit from Keith Underwood: he’s a great teacher here, in New York. For a while, flute was my main instrument, but as far as HONEY WEST is concerned, it’s guitar.

KING CRIMSON: Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Michael Giles, Greg Lake

Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald,
Michael Giles, Greg Lake

– Did you learn anything from Herbie Mann, when you played sax on his “London Underground”?

Oh God! (Laughs.) I didn’t think of myself as a flute player back then, so I don’t really know what I can say about it. I just did the session that I was asked to do, and I don’t think I’ve even heard the record. I happened to play flute at that time myself, but I didn’t even think about making comparisons between myself and Herbie Mann.

– Also among your sessions was “Get It On” for T.REX. How did that come about?

Yeah, I did that. I played baritone sax and a bit of alto as well. We weren’t on the same label, unless I’m mistaken, and I was just asked to play on it. That’s all I remember. I don’t know Marc Bolan’s reasons to invite me, but I must have heard the track and said, “Could I come and play a sax solo on it?” or something like that.

– Is there any session you played on that you remember the most?

I moved to New York just around that time, and after that I did a session for Ian Lloyd, the original singer with THE STORIES, who was doing a solo album [1976’s “Never Been A Man”]. That session was quite memorable because I met Mick Jones there, and he soon after that invited me to join him in forming a band which became FOREIGNER. So I suppose that was a significant session.

– You also had a solo album, "Drivers Eyes": was that a concept one? There was a certain flow to it, and it began with “Overture”…

I’ve always tried to do that, and that’s what happens on a HONEY WEST record – I tried to sequence it to have a flow to it. But “Overture” was titled like that because I couldn’t think of any other title for that instrumental tune, and there’s a number of instrumentals on the “Drivers Eyes” album. It’s a mixture of songs and instrumentals, and hopefully, I put it together in some kind of logical form. I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album – I don’t really know what that is – it’s just a solo record in a sense that I wrote and co-wrote everything. I had some wonderful guest vocalists on that record, as I didn’t want to do all the vocals myself.

– Your songs suit those vocalists very well. Did you write the pieces with a particular singer in mind? Or you wrote it and then tried to find a suitable voice?

Probably, more of the latter. I originally wanted Greg Lake to sing “Let There Be Light” but he wasn’t available, so I asked Peter Sinfield who was a friend of Gary Brooker’s to ask him if he would sing it, so Gary ended up singing it, and his voice is perfect for that song. Mostly, I wrote the songs and then wondered who would be a good singer for them. Maybe, for “Forever And Ever” I might have had John Wetton in mind, because we co-wrote that to a degree, and John was a friend of mine, so I thought it might be a good song for him. I had to ask a couple of people about “In Your Hands” to see if they were available, but I’m really glad I ended up with John Waite and am very glad that he agreed to sing it, and he turned out to be perfect for the song again. So things worked out.

– At the time of the album’s release you said you’d like to tour with it. But you didn’t, did you?

I don’t think I did want to do that. Because of all the guest singers and all that, I didn’t really see it as a possibility to tour with it; I don’t think that was my intention. I did go to Europe and do a number of interviews to try and promote the record. Incidentally, if we talking about the “Drivers Eyes” album, there was actually a bootleg in this country and I guess in Canada as well. Do you own a legitimate version of it: the Japanese one, on Teichiku Records, or the British one on Camino Records? The American one, on Renaissance, is inferior and it wasn’t authorized.

FOREIGNER: Lou Gramm, Dennis Elliott, Al Greenwood, Ian McDonald, Ed Gagliardi, Mick Jones

Lou Gramm, Dennis Elliott, Al Greenwood,
Ian McDonald, Ed Gagliardi, Mick Jones

– I have a Camino one. And Camino was Steve Hackett‘s label. So was your album’s release a result of your stint with a supergroup Steve gathered for a Japanese jaunt?

No, he didn’t produce it but he liked the album, played on it and offered to release it on his record label. It wasn’t something that was planned ahead; it happened after the fact, really, after I finished the record. Playing with Steve was interesting and fun, though, and I always liked to go to Japan. He’s a very good friend of mine – I’ve known him since even before GENESIS was formed. So it was very nice to work with Steve and do those shows… and with John Wetton, of course, who was also a very good friend of mine.

– You once mentioned that before those shows you hadn’t really worked with Wetton. Yet you did play on KING CRIMSON’s “Red”! Didn’t you meet John then?

Well, yeah, I did, of course. I did a session – I did an overdub of the saxophone – and didn’t actually play with John, so technically, we were on the same record, but we didn’t play live and I wasn’t on the tracks in the studio with him.

– You think of yourself as a player first, or as a composer or producer?

I love producing most of all, but I guess I’m all three, really. I don’t know what comes first, though… maybe a composer, which leads to playing, which leads to producing. I suppose, composing, playing, producing – in that order in terms of what I do. I love making records, and that’s where all those three lead me to.

– And after those three, performing live?

Oh yeah, right. It’s a necessary thing. I like performing also, you know, as long as I have complete trust in my fellow players. That’s why I used to really enjoy playing with the original KING CRIMSON: because we had a lot of trust in one another. But I’m also feeling that trust in HONEY WEST right now. Also FOREIGNER – that was good to play with them. That trust has been a case for the most part [of my career].

– Are there any particular recordings that you’re most proud of as a producer and as a performer?

I’m quite proud of the “Bad Old World” album by HONEY WEST in terms of producing, but I’ve been thinking about the first KING CRIMSON album as well. I was talking to some friends about it the other day, and I’m very proud of that also, especially of things like “Epitaph” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and the rest of that album all of which I co-produced. I was a main producer, really. And then there are the first three FOREIGNER albums which I co-produced, the first two of which I think are very good. I’m repeating myself but again, “Bad Old World” has some of my best work as a producer.

– Since you mentioned the first CRIMSON album, don’t you find it offensive that a lot of people associate it with Fripp, not you, even though you wrote most of the material?

No, no. I don’t know about “a lot of people”; my name is on the album, on every track. All the chords of “[In The Court Of] The Crimson King” and of “Epitaph” were totally mine, musically; and “I Talk To The Wind” also. So it’s kind of unfair to not think of me as a main writer, because I actually was one.

Ian McDonald

– Was it you who wrote the main riff of “Schizoid Man”?

Well, that was a combination of myself, Robert Fripp and Greg Lake. The opening riff, a combination of Greg and myself. To be specific, Greg wrote (sings) the first six notes of that riff; I wrote the next tree, the chromatic rise, And then, one of the section in the middle of it, in the tune, I wrote when I was about 18 years old – I wrote a big band piece, and I used a part of that for “21st Century Schizoid Man”: the fast 3/4 section (sings)

– Upon the release of the “McDonald And Giles” album you said that CRIMSON couldn’t provide the variety. Was it the main reason for your leaving the band – given you were the main writer?

No, no, no, no, no, that’s not necessarily true. There were lots of reasons that went into my leaving KING CRIMSON. It wasn’t a lack of variety – I don’t know where that came from; that doesn’t sound like my words at all – there were a number of other reasons why I left, not of them sensible. Michael Giles went on to make the “McDonald And Giles” album, and I specifically wanted to record “Birdman” and I didn’t know whether that would have been a suitable piece of material for KING CRIMSON or not, although I’m told we were actually thinking about recording that as KING CRIMSON. But lack of variety? No, that was not something I would say.

– Michael played on “Demimonde” on “Drivers Eyes”: so is there a chance of another McDonald and Giles album?

I don’t think so. I intentionally and deliberately made that particular track just Mike and myself, so that it was basically a reunion of McDonald and Giles; there’s no one else on it.

– How different were the methods of writing and dynamics in KING CRIMSON, FOREIGNER and HONEY WEST?

For myself, musically, it’s really all the same. Some people used to say to me, “How can you do FOREIGNER after you’ve been in KING CRIMSON?” But it doesn’t make any difference to me. I was in a small rock band before I did FOREIGNER – as I mentioned, when I was in the army, in Gibraltar – so I just apply myself to whatever the situation or the environment calls for, but there are different dynamics. KING CRIMSON was more democratic in the sense that all four playing members plus [lyricist] Peter Sinfield – all five of us – had equal say in things; in FOREIGNER, there was a little more of a hierarchy; HONEY WEST is basically myself and Ted Zurkowski to run things and do the writing…

– You always maintained you wrote more for FOREIGNER than you were credited for. Was the intro to “Starrider” one of the things you came up with?

That might have been mine, yeah. There’s number of tunes that I probably would have liked to get a writing credit for: “Double Vision,” perhaps, and also, later on, I wrote the opening motif for “Waiting For A Girl Like You” and didn’t get a writing credit. But good luck to everyone (a bitter snicker). But I must say that it was nice to be reunited with the original members recently.

HONEY WEST: Ted Zurkowski and Ian McDonald

Ted Zurkowski and Ian McDonald

– So there wasn’t any bad blood between you?

(Sighs.) I wouldn’t say “bad blood”… People are responsible for their own actions, movements and so forth, and I don’t like to waste energy on negativity. Yes, it’s true, I do feel as though I could have been given more credit, but you can’t force these things, and I’m just thankful that the name of FOREIGNER has been continued. Mick has been keeping it going for the last 40 years, so there’s no bad blood – we have a good relationship now.

– What was the most memorable show of your career, then: Hyde Park with CRIMSON, California Jam II with FOREIGNER or something else?

Well, Hyde Park was one of them, but I wouldn’t say California Jam necessarily because I think that was actually the last (laughs) show I did with FOREIGNER. But there were many shows that we did with FOREIGNER which I have good memories about. The most memorable, though? Probably, when we went to New Orleans, Louisiana, and I met my future wife and the future mother of my son.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *