King Crimson/Foreigner Founding Member Ian McDonald Gels With New Band Honey West (INTERVIEW)

When best of the year lists start popping up in December, they are mostly filled up with well-known established artists and on-the-rise youngsters starting to make a big noise for themselves. Older musicians still out there making music rarely see their names on the lists but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as noteworthy. Like back in May when an album came out called Bad Old World by the band Honey West. Featuring the co-founder of Foreigner, Ian McDonald, and a man known more for his Shakespeare than rock & roll, Ted Zurkowski, they have put together a record full of just good, fun, crisp-sounding, non-overproduced songs, and it’s very much worthy of a listen.

For McDonald, this project gave him a chance to really play music again in a band environment. Preferring to be on the producing end nowadays, his saxophone on the early Foreigner hits and with King Crimson are known to everyone who grew up listening to classic rock before it became classic rock. He co-wrote the Top 20 Foreigner song, “Long, Long Way From Home,” and the title track to Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King.

“We simply plugged in and immediately clicked,” Zurkowski stated upon the album’s release. “We had a two-guitar thing right from the get-go. That very rarely happens. We started right in writing songs.” “We literally lived across the street from one another in Manhattan,” McDonald explained about how the two met and started working on music together; although it wasn’t rock & roll that was the basis of their earliest collaborations. It was Shakespeare. Zurkowski and his wife operate the Frog & Peach Theatre Company and McDonald did a bit of music for some of their Shakespeare readings.

“Ted’s lyrics are very smart,” said McDonald, referring to the new album. “I like smart lyrics, I like smart music. The songs revolve around a more or less complete lyric. That’s slightly unusual for me, or for the way things are usually done. This has ended up being a really good partnership.”

Glide spoke with McDonald about the Honey West album, producing his son, knowing which saxophone works best on a song and opening for the Rolling Stones.

I understand that when you and Ted first started collaborating, it was actually for Shakespeare and not rock & roll.

Ted and his wife live right across the street from me and we’d bump into each other for a number of years and I discovered that they ran a Shakespeare company. Then I also found out Ted had a band called Honey West. So I did have some musical involvement in the Shakespeare company. We wrote a few songs with some of the productions and then I also did some live piano work with some of the sort of fundraiser readings and various other things. I also wrote some music to some of Shakespeare’s lyrics on a few of the productions. I’m not involved, really, on that level anymore but that’s basically how Ted and I met.

I went to see Ted play one day after I discovered he had a band and I thought they had really good energy and a lot of potential and I thought maybe I could help with a little bit and it would be something significant for me to get involved in, which I needed at the time. So I think it was mutually beneficial. Then a year or two later, we ended up in a studio recording the album, Bad Old World. I’m quite proud of it. I basically produced it and co-wrote a number of the songs, the majority of the songs. Some of the songs Ted had already completed in terms of composition.

I found the songs really crisp and not so technically overloaded like a lot of music today.

Most of the tracks, all of the tracks really, were recorded live in the studio as a band and some of the original live vocals remain on the record. So I think that highly contributes to the sort of freshness of the sound. It’s actually more or less a live recording, the basic tracks anyway. Then I sort of, with my production ideas, I embellished the tracks to make it more of a, you know, produced album. I wanted a nice clean-sounding record, in the best sense of the word. And it was very important to me to also have the vocals very clear and the lyrics very clear. The lyrics are printed on the booklet but my son actually transcribed the words for the booklet, just from listening to the record, and he didn’t have one cause to say, “What’s that word?” and he didn’t make one mistake so I’m quite proud of that aspect too, that the vocals are very clear without being too loud. It’s a fine balance. I wanted to make sure everything was balanced, including the vocals into the track but at the same time making sure they were audible, cause the lyrics are important and the songs were based around the lyrics and I wanted to make sure you could hear them.

Whose idea was it to go in the studio and make a record, cause it’s a whole different ballgame from when you were first starting out in music?

Yeah, I know (laughs). Ted had already recorded a couple of tracks before I joined. I like making albums, that’s what I love to do. I love to record and I just wanted to make sure that this Honey West record came across as an album. Things like sequencing was set right from the beginning. I knew what the running order would be once we started recording it. It wasn’t one of those situations where there are posted notes on the glass all the time, titles and what comes first. But yeah, it is different. I love recording, don’t get me wrong, but it takes a lot to make an album, in terms of dedication and making sure everything is the way you like it, to have an album that flows and is consistent even though there are a lot of different styles on the record. I wanted to have a consistency of sound. Whether we’ll do it this way again, I don’t know, because things have changed. It might be better in the future to work on just one or two tracks at a time. But I love albums and I wanted to make sure this was an album in every since of the word.

Do you remember the first song it was that you came to work on?

I really don’t remember but I think “Sailing,” Ted had already recorded that one. I know that “Terry & Julie” was quite an early one that we recorded as a group and that’s a fairly long and involved song. But we played it from beginning to end and I said, “That’s it. I’m not doing that again. We’ve got it.” (laughs) And we got it perfectly good from beginning to end. That was a good sign for me that we were going to get on well in the studio. We knew what the approach was going to be and of course I always like to add my production and embellishments and things like that.

The title track has a Duane Eddy-ish feel to it

Maybe that came before “Terry & Julie,” I don’t remember, but that was a live vocal which we kept, we retained, and that’s actually our latest single. But that was just a good rocker that we again just played from beginning to end with live vocal and kept the vocal and just added a few things. I put a bunch of guitars on there and my son played bass on that, my son Max, and it turned out pretty well.

What can you tell us about “Dementia” and those saxophones?

I love to do that kind of thing, you know, multiple baritone saxes. As soon as we recorded the track I thought this would be great to put the baritones on and I’m quite pleased with the way that turned out, cause I love that sound of multiple baritones. I was a big fan of an English group called Sounds Incorporated, which had a bunch of saxophones, including baritones. They used to tour with a lot of the groups that would go touring around England. They actually played on a couple of Beatles records, on “Good Morning, Good Morning,” on Sgt Pepper, and also “Savoy Truffle,” George Harrison’s song on The White Album. I love that sound of the deep saxes so it was kind of an inspiration for “Dementia.”

Is it instinct that tells you what to put on a song? Like do you want to put sax or do you want to play guitar? How do you know that is exactly what the song needs?

I don’t know. You could say instinct or something like that but I suppose it’s one of the things I’m best at doing, which is arranging and producing. I just say, this sax would be good on this track. It’s interesting that you point that out. I just like to embellish basic tracks and I suppose I have a knack for coming up with hopefully the right instrumentation. I mean, it might partly have to do with some of the musical education that I had. But it’s just something that I enjoy doing. I love producing records and I love doing the arrangements and adding instruments and hopefully not going over the top but keeping it appropriate.

Were you a musical child?

Yeah, I listened to music as a child. There was an old upright piano that I used to plunk a bit on I suppose (laughs). There was a Spanish-style guitar sort of lying around that my father had. We had a record player and thinking about it, I’m really glad. We had Les Paul and Mary Ford records and classical records and things like Scheherazade and things like that so I did grow up listening to music and then when rock & roll appeared, I got really interested and decided that’s what I want to do. People like Chuck Berry and Little Richard and others like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and even Ricky Nelson – he made some great records as well. I got interested from that point of view and then of course the Beatles came along and I was about sixteen years old and that was it (laughs).

How did you go from that to the kind of music you made with King Crimson?

You know, it’s all the same, really, to me. I don’t really make any distinction, like, Okay, I’m going to flip over to this style and see how I get on with that. It’s like what I was saying before, this song needs this instrumentation or this approach or this structure or form of production. So I just apply myself to whatever situation I’m in. It’s all the same to me in the best sense of that expression. It’s all music and it all sort of stems from, I suppose, rock & roll; but not only that, it stems from my interests in music.

With Crimson, the song “Epitaph,” for instance, I thought it needed bass clarinets in the middle section. It just came to mind that that’s what it needed so I put them on (laughs). So there they are. I took an interest in music programming early on. I mentioned the Les Paul and Mary Ford records, which I really loved and I somehow kind of, even at six or seven years old, I kind of understood what was going on on those records and the fact that there were multiple vocals by the same person and the guitars as well. I kind of understood at a fairly early age that, ah, this is like multi-tracking (laughs). I didn’t use that word but I understood there was something new there, that this was a new sound and whoever this Les Paul guy was he’d figured out a way to have multiple tracks of the same singer and whatnot.

Anyway, I just kind of understood what was going on and I guess that’s how my interest in production started. Much later on, I started on the Beatles records and how they were put together and the production on them. I’m kind of rambling on a little bit but I used to get the reverse question to that. When I was co-founder of Foreigner, I used to get the same question but it was like, how can you go from doing King Crimson music to doing these pop rock songs, and the answer is I don’t know. I just apply the things the same way, you know.

You got to play a date with Foreigner on their 40th anniversary tour. Was that like getting back on a bike and riding?

(laughs) A little bit. I did sort of a guest appearance at a place called Jones Beach here with Lou Gramm and Al Greenwood. We came on and joined in on one or two songs. But that was sort of a lead-in to this larger show which we did in October in a theatre near Saginaw, Michigan. The current touring Foreigner had a show but the original members, as many that are still with us, we did a set of our own. It was great. Obviously, there was some rehearsing needed but that would be the case under any circumstances. But it was great to get together and play with the guys again. The current Foreigner was very gracious with us and it was actually a really good experience. Nothing has been set but there’s talk of doing something else along the same lines.

What do you remember about when you opened with King Crimson for the Rolling Stones in 1969?

Yeah, that was in Hyde Park in London in July and it was basically a tribute concert to Brian Jones, who had recently passed away, and I forget how now, but we were actually one of the opening acts of the Stones. I remember it being a terrific occasion. Thousands of people in the audience, it was a lovely sunny day and we did a twenty-five minute set, or twenty minute set, something like that. It was great. I don’t think we’d played in the open air before but we did a good set I believe. At the time we had a residency, where we played once a week, at a club called the Marquee. After that Stones concert, it was packed. So many people came to see us and that sort of sent us on our way in a sense. I was a Stones fan at the time. I used to go and see them when they were virtually unknown. They used to play in the backroom of a place called the Station Hotel in a town called Richmond on the outskirts of London and I went to see them. Then they moved to the Crawdaddy Club and I used to go there and it was really exciting. Then they had their first single and they sort of moved on. The Yardbirds took over from them and they were fantastic too. I loved them, the original Yardbirds with Eric Clapton and the rest of the guys. They were really exciting.

It seemed kind of odd that King Crimson and the Stones would play a ticket together though.

Well, yeah, but it was sort of a festival situation. There were a couple of other bands; it wasn’t as if we were literally on tour or opening for the Stones. We just happened to be on the bill as it was.

You mentioned that your son Max is playing on the record. How did he get to be a part of this?

I forget the exact process but there are a couple of other bass players on the album, and we needed to put a different bass on, on three tracks to be specific, so I brought Max into the studio and he’s a really good player and he contributed really nicely to the tracks and now he is part of the live band, which is very nice.

Were you as tough on him as a producer in the studio as you would anybody else?

(laughs) No, I didn’t make any exceptions. I’m not really tough on anyone. I don’t believe in that aggressive approach to production. You see these things in movies, you know, where there is a band in the studio and the producer is like yelling at the band, that doesn’t happen and that doesn’t work. It’s more a subtle thing. You just try and do your best to bring the best out of your players. Max and I had a couple of moments because we were a bit hard on ourselves when we’re recording ourselves. I get a bit frustrated with myself but then as soon as I get this down I’m fine (laughs).

It must have been a little difficult for Max being in the studio with me producing him, in terms of getting his parts down and everything. But it all worked out and he played really well. You know, I wasn’t hard on him but it was a question of, we got it, four or five takes or something, and Max wanted to do it better and better. I said, “It’s okay Max, we’ve got it. I’ve got what I need.” So that was difficult for him because he wanted to just give his best in his own opinion and I thought he’d given it, in terms of what the track needed. It was a learning experience for him and it was interesting for me working with my son but it was really great. I’m really proud of what he did and it’s great having him in the band.

Who would you say was close to being a musical genius?

That’s a tough one. There are people that I’d love to have played with, like John Lennon, but which I never had the opportunity to do. But his songs, his lyrics, surely I don’t have to explain that (laughs).

So what are your plans for the new year coming up?

We have a Honey West show coming up on the 25th of January here at a place called the Cutting Room. But we just want to promote this album. I’m very proud of it and I’m pleased with how it turned out and I recommend it. I think it’s some of my personal best work as an arranger/producer.



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