After more than 50 years together, The Rolling Stones are still one of the biggest bands on the planet. Time Out talk to legendary guitarist Keith Richards ahead of their appearance in Shanghai this month
A few minutes before our interview with Keith Richards, the phone rings and a woman’s voice tells us that we can expect his call shortly. But when the phone goes again, rather than hearing Richards’ distinctive drawl, we pick up to a burst of female laughter. ‘Sorry,’ the voice eventually recovers. ‘I’m being entertained here.’ Richards’ rasping, Muttley-like chuckle subsequently comes over the line. It’s clear that at the age of 70, and having just become a grandfather for the fifth time, the Rolling Stones guitarist is still as dastardly charming as ever.
A name that’s universally synonymous with rock star excess, it almost seems like an anomaly – albeit a happy one – that Richards is still with us. Yet here he is, as playful as ever, as he warms up for a mammoth tour that will bring him and fellow septuagenarians Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, plus the relatively youthful 66-year-old Ronnie Wood and 65-year-old former Stone Mick Taylor, to the Mercedes-Benz Arena with AEG Live Asia this month. After a typically British exchange of pleasantries and discussion about the weather back in his native UK (‘it’s all underwater at the moment!’ he chuckles), Richards begins by discussing the band’s 14 On Fire preparations in Paris.
How are the rehearsals going so far?
Oh man, we’re really, really on top form. I mean we’re kind of waltzing it. Rehearsing’s always great fun because you can say ‘stop here’ and ‘check this out’ and it’s an interesting process. At the moment everybody’s on top form and I’m amazed. I’m always – I don’t know why by now – but I’m always amazed at The Stones when I get back to playing with them that, err, well, how damn good they are!
Is playing together something you slip back into very quickly?
Yes it is. I mean there’s always a point when you arrive at rehearsals on the first day, you’re always wondering is it all gonna click together? But the minute you’re in the room and Charlie Watts starts to hit the drums, it all seems to be so… I mean it’s like breathing, man, it’s so natural. All we do in rehearsals is really try and improve on what we’ve done before and work out a few possible songs that we can throw in to just change up the set list here and there. Otherwise, it’s a doddle.
How often do you play outside of rehearsals and shows these days?
Every day, man. I’ve got to keep my chops together. Also every day I get an idea. Sometimes it might be just for five minutes, but usually every day I play a little bit and if not, I go to the piano.
Do you feel you’re still growing musically?
I think you really have to. Even though you might be fooling yourself, but I think you have to feel that you’re still learning every single day or just, y’know, that things are still moving forward.
When you’ve got a discography that goes back 50 years, how do you go about composing your set lists?
Basically, what I do is I listen to what Mick has to say because it’s very important that the singer feels confident about what he’s going to start with, and then after that it’s a matter of pacing. It’s really a matter of trying to balance a set list so it works throughout two hours, so you have just the right amount of energy and the right amount of melodies and songs and then the final part which is obviously going to be, y’know, all systems go and both barrels blasting.
Do you still relish going out on the road?
Yeah man, I love it. I mean after 50-odd years of it, it’s almost like home. Sometimes you feel that you’re more at home doing this than you do at home.
Is there ever any reluctance from the rest of the band when it comes to touring?
Very little, no. We only do this when there’s an obvious desire or need. Mick’ll call me and say, ‘Isn’t it about time we did something?’ and I’ll say, ‘I’ve been waiting for this call, how does Charlie feel?’ and usually it’s almost sort of a group desire to do it. It’s not difficult for us to put it together. We did have five years off the road in the early part of this century and there was… for a while, I was wondering if I was going to get the call again. But really, I actually do wait for Mick Jagger to say ‘I feel like rocking’ and then it’s, ‘Okay mate, I’m right behind ya’ and that’s the way we do it, y’know?
Do you see a point in the future where you won’t get those calls again?
It’s always possible I suppose, I mean we are kicking along now. I think we’re all pensioners – officially – although I don’t feel like it and I don’t think anybody else does. I think it’s in the blood, y’know? You love your job and there’s nothing like standing in front of a load of people and going, ‘Come on, yeah, yeah, yeah’. It’s one of the best jobs in the world, man… and I’m well paid too!
How did it feel finally getting to perform at Glastonbury Festival in the UK for the first time last year?
Oh man, that was so cool. That was always one of those gigs that we were almost about to do for years and years and it never happened, but last year it finally did and it was also some of the best weather that Glastonbury ever had. It was brilliant. I mean, we picked the right time. I was blown away by the size of it, y’know, and I’ve played a lot of big gigs, but Glastonbury is pretty much mind blowing when you look at all the audience going over the hill and they’re still there, it’s amazing. It was great fun, I loved it. That and Hyde Park was fantastic. It’s your home town, y’know, so you’re playing to your locals. It’s a great welcome you get, it’s just really fantastic.
There can’t be many places left for you to play now…
Apart from Macau. And Abu Dhabi – they’re both new gigs. But sometimes it’s very interesting to go back to places like, well, Shanghai for instance. I mean, what is it? Eight years? It was our only time there and I’m really interested to see the difference and to catch up with it again.
Did you get to see much of the city when you were here last?
A little bit, not a lot. I’m hoping to do a little bit more this time. I remember playing ‘Wild Horses’ with Cui Jian. That’s basically what I remember as a highlight of it. Otherwise it was a great gig – a lot of expats of course!
Is that something you have to accept when you play in cities like this or do you wish there was a larger local component?
Well, that’s something I’d like to stress – I do hope that this time we see more of the locals around, but it’s not for me to say, really, is it? Bless their hearts, it’s an incredibly diverse country and it’s rocking, y’know, so I hope we get a few who come and rock with us!
When you’re on these long tours does it all tend to blur into one a little bit?
Well, every country is different and you do come away with distinct memories of different places, y’know? I can’t say that everything isn’t a blur, but that’s probably more my fault! I’m always incredibly interested in travelling and if you want a job, you can’t do better than the Royal Navy – you see the world, mate, and I’ve certainly seen it a few times. And what’s interesting is the returning to places, seeing what’s changed and what’s going on. I’m looking forward to this one especially.
So do you have favourite places to visit?
I tell you what, I couldn’t pick a baby on that one. As long as the audience is there and rocking, that’s where I love ’em. It’s part of my job and I’ve never ever got tired of doing this stuff. And to come back and do it again, it’s a blessing, man.