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Stones Talk With Mick

The Rolling Stones' first studio album in eight years, "A Bigger Bang," is due Sept. 6 via Virgin. The band's iconic frontman, Mick Jagger, and guitarist, Keith Richards, talked to Billboard first abo

The Rolling Stones' first studio album in eight years, "A Bigger Bang," is due Sept. 6 via Virgin. The band's iconic frontman, Mick Jagger, and guitarist, Keith Richards, talked to Billboard first about the new project, life after drummer Charlie Watts' cancer scare and hitting the road again for an article that ran in the Aug. 6 issue of the magazine.

The separate phone conversations took place as the band was gathered in Toronto to rehearse for its latest world tour, which opens Aug. 21 in Boston.

Today's (Aug. 16) Q&A with Jagger and tomorrow's with Richards are exclusively available on Billboard.com.

Q&A MICK JAGGER

When you went into the studio, producer Don Was says he really stressed a team approach, almost from a Zen perspective, based on [Los Angeles Lakers coach] Phil Jackson's coaching techniques. How did that change how you made this album?

I told him, "forget it." I've never heard such a load of bollocks in all my life. (laughs)

So his trying to create this team approach had no effect?

None. I know what he means, you know, he just wants everyone to work together and I said, of course we're going to work together, but there's a lot of times when it was just me and Keith and Charlie and we all work together pretty good. And then a lot of times we put Ronnie on afterwards and Keith and I have played a lot of bass, and that was kind of fun. Charlie wasn't available because he was sick so Keith and I started off, it was just Keith and me. So I know what kind of basketball team that is, it's one-on-one.

I was playing drums and all that sort of stuff I never usually do, and that was fun. So it was very different. What it really was is you know Keith and I started doing a lot of stuff just on our own, and then we were just having a laugh with a lot of it. I'd already written quite a lot of material, and Keith had written some, so it wasn't like we start from nothing.

Is that your usual writing style?

Well, I always sit down on my own first because I hate to come in a room with nothing. That's not an approach that I favor. It's good to come with things and then they can be altered, changed, you know, stuff like that. And then also you're going to get new things, obviously. But if you come with nothing you're really pushing it.

So how did this differ from how you'd recorded previously?

What I'd say it was a better vibe than last time but you never know why that is.

The recording process sounds monastic: the band, engineer, producer, waiter, and a cook in your house in France.

We weren't only in my house in France, but wherever we were, yes it was. We were in places where there wasn't a lot of distraction. And there wasn't a lot of sort of hangers on and all that sort of thing.

Is that abnormal?

If you record in the studio in L.A., for instance, like we've done before in the past, you do get a lot of distractions and you do get a lot of hangers on. So there wasn't any distraction so we just got on and did what we did with this small group of people and we were very focused.

In virtually every song on "A Bigger Bang," there is a moment where you tap into the most basic emotions, so whether you're a garbage man or a millionaire, it's all the same emotion. How do you do that instead of bitching when the private plane is late?

Well I don't like bitching about the private plane. It can be annoying when the wrong one comes, but I'm not going to write a song about it. (laughs) As a writer, it doesn't matter if you've got money or not. You do have to observe life as it is. You observe other people's lives as well as your own.
There's a lot of humor also.

For example with the song, "Oh No, Not You Again."

Yeah, there's a lot of stuff like personal stuff, but it's leavened with a lot of humor and odd rhymes and things to keep it [from getting] too serious. And there's other stuff like "Streets of Love" which is perhaps more serious and it doesn't have any levity. It's kind of quite a dark piece.

Musically, this album is one of your more diverse.

My idea of that, which I discussed a lot with Don, was I like all kinds of different music, popular and otherwise, but I do think it's very important to do great rock tunes, to provide the essential core and, you know, a couple of great ballads, but not too many ballads because I don't like too much. I like the very good ones and then I don't want anything mediocre. And then outside of that, there's other strands of the musical themes that I like to touch on. You know dance music and country music, and just about anything, so as long as you've got that central core you can go outside it and no one is unhappy.

The music sounds so vibrant. Does that come from the fact that you played bass and drums? Did that keep it fresh?

I gotta tell you I don't get to play drums on the record apart from one or two little hits that were saved, sadly. Happily for the listeners, my drums never made it. Yeah, I mean I think so, it's also a very small group, there's no hiding place if there's only three of you in the room. You know if you have the groove or not.

Is Charlie well?

He's very well. I think you can tell from the tracks that he's playing very well with lots of verve and brio.

You keep talking about a different vibe, but was there something specific?

Well, we got to know the songs better, and we spent quite a lot of time on them. And we got to play them in all kinds of different ways, so it was a function of the fact that we did a lot of stuff and spent a lot of time and it was a lot of time just three of us.

Do you care about having a hit single?

It would be very nice. I like hit albums, hit singles, hit anythings is very good. The thing is you just want people to hear what you've done, I think most people do, whether they want to admit it or not. You don't want to be making music in the dark.

You guys are the top touring band of all time. Is it frustrating that you don't hear yourself on radio that much?

I wouldn’t really worry about that. We’ve being doing it for 40 years, do you know what I’m saying? You don’t worry too much about that but you want the stuff heard, you know? When you do these songs, and I think we’re pretty excited about this record, we think there’s really good things on it, and you want people to hear it. It’s a different kind of world now whether you hear it on a live show or on the TV or you hear it on the radio or you just download it or just buy the CD, or as they’re doing in England buying 45s. All these avenues, you want people to hear the songs and people to say, Oh yeah, that was a good song, glad that you got to hear it.

It's been eight years since your last studio album, and virtually everything in the music industry has changed since then. Do you think a major act like the Stones still needs a major record label?

I think that it's an important component, but it's not the only component anymore. There's a lot of deals that everyone makes outside of labels now to get your music disseminated. Of course, it's important, it's very, very important. I mean it's not the only game you have to play any more, but it's a very important part of it.

Every tour, you do something new. This time there's fan seating on stage, fans can pick tickets online, there's a webcam on your rehearsal...

I think its just fun to do this stuff, just to see what the options are. I think you always want to give really good value and do whatever you can as far as, I mean the choices are just bigger, mainly through a lot of technology, so it's good to be able to offer them.

It also shows a respect for your fans.

I mean, it's not a cheap ticket, so you want to give them the best you can.

This year's slate of openers includes Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5, John Mayer Trio. How involved are you in picking openers?

Well, we've had some great openers and I've had some people say to me, well, you know you should open with someone more, kind of your own age group, and I said, if we're not trying to sell tickets to our age group, we've already sold them, why can't we have fun? And I enjoy watching on the last tour we had a really good slew of people, and it was very fun. You get to meet new people and you see a lot of bands. I haven't seen all of these bands live either, so for me it's fun.

Michael Cohl, the tour promoter, and I make a big list of who is around, who wants to do it -— not everyone wants to do this -— and we pick who we think is going to be good on the stage. It's not just who's successful, it's you always have to be kind of entertaining too.

You guys took your time deciding how you wanted to roll out your music online. Are you happy with that?

Yeah, overall digital sales have really shot up, say in Europe they've really taken off. Most of that, like 70-80% of that or more is on iTunes. Steve Jobs and his company showed me iTunes while it was still in preparation, and I thought it was a really good idea cause the whole thing of it, yeah, it seems to be slowly building. The percentages are quite low compared to worldwide CD sales, it's really small if you think about it. But it's certainly increasing. When it gets up to like 10, 15 percent, I think everyone will be quite pleased with it.

Do you download music?

Yes, I don't really go to stores a lot, a lot of music that I like sometimes is not that available, I might have to go to specialist downloads which is a bit boring.

So you really actively download stuff?

Since the beginning of time.