One would think that the Guinness World Record’s most successful singer and songwriter of all time would, at 66, be content to rest on his laurels (and a giant cash pile of residuals). Instead, the former Beatle is still actively involved in music-making, having recently released the trippy, sprawling Electric Arguments, with his friend and collaborator Martin Glover, a.k.a. Youth, under the pseudonym The Fireman. On a recent whirlwind visit to New York, McCartney sat down to chat with EW about that album, plus the status of the Beatles on iTunes, his old friend Allen Ginsberg, and much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did you meet Youth, your partner in the Fireman?
PAUL McCARTNEY: Well, he was recommended to mix one of my tracks, and he and I became friends, and started messing about in the studio together. The first album in 1993 [Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest] was a hobby, like working in the woods, which I like to do; cutting trails with an ax – like a fireman! And my dad was also a fireman, hence the name. So yes, it was very underground, that first album. We made it, and had a lot of fun. So much that we made the second one. But last year when we got to together, it became different. The fireman found his voice, so to speak, and there were real songs. Before, it was one chord, like [in monotone voice] duh duh duh duh duh, so we thought, let’s try another chord, break away a tiny bit, like duh duh duh duh duh… DUH di di di di di di. This got us interested, giving up the rule of one chord [laughs]. Plus, it’s very liberating, using a different identity – like Sgt. Pepper, we kept the name but it was a freedom, you know?
Beyoncé just did that too, an alter ego…
Sasha Fierce, yes! I was just thinking of that. But yes, it allows you to go to new places, because it’s not you, it’s a character. Very quickly, we found about a dozen songs. It was such great inspiration, having this other identity. I just like to keep it fresh, you know? Not the same old stuff. My motto is always “never do the same thing twice.” It was the same with the Beatles.
But once you add vocals, do these become Paul McCartney songs or something different?
They are Paul McCartney, but saying they’re just that would be betraying Youth and what we do together as The Fireman. Still, without my name out there, people might give it just a cursory glance, you know? So we decided, let’s put our names on it, actively promote it so people understand. And I wanted to create some Fireman brand loyalty, because it’s part of a series, three albums. And The Fireman is always something done in the studio, a sort of improv, if you will.
Like a two-man theater group?
Oh, I like that, yes! We start the day by talking, have a cup of tea, get fired up about something. Sometimes it’s talking about the ’60s, because people always want to talk about that with me, people are fascinated, and Youth is one of those guys – you know, Andy Warhol showing a movie at my house at a party and what have you. So I told him about my friend Jimmy Scott, an African guy. He used to say “ob la di, ob la da,” and of course I put that in a song. But he had another one – you know in the ‘’60s, people were always saying things like “far out,” and “too much”…You would ask him how he was and he would say, “Nothin’ too much, just outta sight.” So that’s the first track on the album. But Youth and I could talk about anything, like sea shanties – there was this album with Bryan Ferry and Johnny Depp, a bit Pirates of the Caribbean, you know. So we recorded “Traveling Light,” which has that sort of flavor.
Did you consider putting your face on the album cover?
Wehad that option, yes, but thought it was not in the spirit of things.Good not to be too coy, you know, though I could have dressed up, yeah?Fireman’s helmet, an axe, a hose.. [laughs] Very Village People.
Reshoot it for a deluxe edition! But the album title, Electric Arguments, it comes from an Allen Ginsberg poem, right?
It does, yes. I just saw it in a book of poems, I like to sort of randomly open up and go to a page, very ’60s.
Like the I Ching?
Exactly! But I didn’t know if you would get that reference [laughs].Throw it and see where it comes out. There’s some value in therandomness. I actually became great friends with Ginsberg back in thatera. He became a sort of poetry professor to me, which, of course, isalso what he actually did. He looked at a poem and made it economical.In the end, I didn’t quite like that. I wrote this one poem about myfriend, Ivan,who died prematurely. He was wonderful, introduced me to John actually,and we had the same birthday. So it began “June the 18, in Liverpool /Two babies born,” and Allen wanted to make it very quick and brief andstark, very beatnik. He hated “the“ ‘s, any definite article. And I said, “Allen, you’re making me sound like a Beatnik, an American, and I’mnot.” But it was a good lesson.
So you’ve written a poetry book, a children’s book,you played most of the instruments on this album.. you even painted thealbum cover. Such a Renaissance man! Can you bake, too?
Well, Idid make a vegetarian lasagna recently, one Linda used to make. I foundit in a book in the kitchen and I thought, can I really do this? But Idid and it was quite delicious [laughs].
Youth has produced everyone from the Verve to U2. Does he expose you to new stuff? What’s your primary way to get new music?
It’s mainly radio, actually. I’ll hear a song, very often in the car,and buy the CD. I’m still a CD guy. My kids? Sometimes they’ll suggeststuff, but not like when they were teenagers.
Can you tell me anything about this new Rock Band Beatles thing?
Well, I see people playing it and they look…completely funny. But Ilike the idea that it introduces kids to music. It’s a great thing tobe immersed in. And you know, various ideas are always being brought tous [as the Beatles] where we look at it and decide, is it a good thing?And the guys from Rock Band, they said, “We’d like to do just a specialBeatles edition, we’d like to do different periods – you know, you getearly days, Liverpool, then psychedelic, and on from there.” It’s verycool.
Does this bode well for getting the Beatles on iTunes, finally?
It’s a bit of a sticky issue. We want it to happen. The record companywas taken over by new people quite recently, so there is a gridlock ofsorts. I’d like to make it happen. Though I am not part of thenegotiations, thank goodness [laughs].