“Would you like 7 to 10 minutes on the phone with Ringo Starr?”
Well yes, yes I would, thank you very much.
Interviewing a Beatle isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes along every day, so even a few minutes is appreciated. There may not be much time to go into detail in that brief of a window. But with a new record out — “Give More Love,” his 19th under his own name — and a tour of his All-Starr Band landing in Austin on Halloween, it was easy to get started.
“Pete? Yeah, hi, it’s Ringo.”
That’s a good way to get started, too. Here’s what followed.
American-Statesman: All through the ’80s and ’90s you put out just two or three records, but since the turn of the century you’ve recorded a lot more — pretty much an album every two or three years. What changed?
Ringo Starr: Everybody goes through changes. I mean, one of the changes was in 1988 I ended up in a rehab; that’s how well I was dealing with my life. And by 1989, I put the first All-Starrs together, and started to get back doing what I love to do, which is play music. And part of that is making records.
You wrote with a lot of different people on “Give More Love” — Peter Frampton, Dave Stewart, Richard Marx, Gary Nicholson, a few others. How do you decide who you’re going to write with on any given record?
I think if you look back over the last four or five records, even more than that of course, there’s a lot of collaboration. I like hanging out with writers and musicians. The last four albums I’ve done in my studio. I just took over the little guest house we have there, the bedroom has my drums and an amp. I just do it there, we have a good time, we have a cup of tea, we talk about it, we write about it, we play about it. It all seems pretty casual, but we’re all working, you know?
Last year, Dave Stewart and I were talking about collaborating on a country record. He loves Nashville, and I love Nashville of course. So we wrote “So Wrong for So Long” (a country song on “Give More Love”), and we thought we’d better get some tracks ready for all those great players in Nashville. We were going to do it last June, and then I was offered a tour. So I took the tour of course. You know, if I have the choice of anything, I’ll usually take the tour! So we had to put it off.
But I still had (“So Wrong for So Long”) when I made my record. So we did that track. So we started with something, it didn’t happen, and I went somewhere else. You don’t know how it’s all going to unfold; there’s no set map. But we had a lot of fun. I hadn’t written with Frampton; I had played with him, and he had played on a couple of my other records. He’d actually been in the All-Stars. But this was the first time we wrote, because we had time, and we thought, well, let’s do it!
Gary Nicholson is a native Texan who plays down in Austin a lot. How did you get to know him?
I was doing a record about four records ago, and we have a mutual friend, and I said, “Tell him if he has time, to come up and say hi.” And that’s what he did. He had a computer with him where he had, like myself, a lot of titles — a lot of things he’d heard. On another one of my albums, he’d heard two guys talking and one of them said, “Man, I had a peace dream last night.” So that’s all we need: Given the title, we wrote that song (“Peace Dream,” on Starr’s 2010 album “Y Not”). But Gary’s great to work with. He’s a great asset in my life.
You played a couple of shows in Austin in 2014, your first visit here in more than two decades. How was it?
I loved Austin the last time I was there, I’ve got to tell you that. The mood of the city was really cool; I really felt it. You know, there’s two things I do: I go to the organic shop, and I do the gig. That’s all I do. (Laughs) Any town, any city, any country, anywhere, that’s what I do. So I wandered around the organic shop. I couldn’t tell you where it was, because they’ve got me in a car.
But mainly I just felt like a really cool time was had by all there. I loved the vibe, and I think that’s got to do with music. It is a music city; a lot goes on there. And usually, if there’s a lot of music, there is a vibe that’s very peace-and-loving.
Benmont Tench has played on many of your records, including the new one. I’m not sure how close you are with him or with Tom Petty, but I wondered if you had any thoughts about Petty that you might want to share.
I was a good friend of Tom’s. We of course bumped into each other along the way, and then the (Traveling) Wilburys, my other friend was in that band, you know (the late Beatle George Harrison). Tom was on one of my records, and I played on his records, three tracks. We sort of knew each other, but we didn’t hang out a lot. I was knocked down a little when Tom went, because he is a good friend that I won’t be able to hang out with anymore.
And Benmont is great, you know. The last six records of mine I think he’s been on. Because he’s just so great. I’m not going to invite you over if you can’t play. But if you can play, you’re coming. That’s how I like it to be.
There’s two bonus tracks on “Give More Love” that are really interesting — essentially country-folk remakes of your hits “Photograph” and “Don’t Pass Me By,” recorded with the Kentucky band Vandaveer. How did you get to know them?
You know that on the seventh of July every year at noon (Starr’s birthday), I have the Peace & Love Moment? We’ve been doing it in L.A. for the last three. We started in Chicago, we’ve done New York, we did Hamburg, we’ve done quite a few around America. We have bands playing my songs to the crowd outside. Anyway, so I’m making a record, and they did my songs. I called Elizabeth (Freund, who handles public relations for both Starr and Vandaveer), and I said, “Get those guys to do these tracks in my key.” They did, and I sang on them.”
Those recordings definitely do suggest a country record could be really well-suited to you.
Well, we nearly went last year. You know, it’s always in the works. The first time I went to Nashville was in 1970. Pete Drake was a big producer in Nashville and a pedal steel player, and he came (to London) to play for George (on Harrison’s landmark 1970 solo debut “All Things Must Pass”). My car went to pick him up, and I had a lot of, in those days, country cassettes. He noticed that. And he said, “Oh, you should come to Nashville and make a record.” I said, “I’m not going to Nashville, man, it takes months (to make a record there).” And he said, well, (Bob Dylan’s) “Nashville Skyline” took two days. So I said, “Well, I can do that!”
And actually, my record (1970’s “Beaucoups of Blues,” Starr’s second post-Beatles album) took two days. We’d pick five songs in the morning, we’d record them at night. We’d pick five songs the next morning, we’d record them at night. The only one that I wrote was “Coochy Coochy”; I said to all those great Nashville musicians, “This song’s in E. ONLY E.” You know, it didn’t move. It was great.
One more question, Pete!
This is not really a question, but a personal story to pass along. I have a friend, an Austin bass player named George Reiff, who played in Joe Walsh’s band for awhile. He died of cancer earlier this year. There was a night at the Troubadour in Los Angeles a few years ago where you sat in for a song or two on drums with Joe, and George was in the band. It became one of those memorable moments of George’s life where he looked behind him onstage, and there he is, playing with Ringo. I’m sure you’ve given these kind of moments to a lot of musicians over the years, and I just wanted to say thank you for that, on behalf of George.
Well thanks, man. Oh, that’s really kind. Yeah, you know, some musicians look behind and say, “Oh god, it’s Ringo!” (laughs) Anyway, thanks for that.
Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band
Featuring: Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather, Gregg Rolie, Richard Page, Warren Ham, Gregg Bissonette.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31.
Where: ACL Live, 310 Willie Nelson Blvd.