Paul Rodgers

To: Official Paul Rodgers website

Interview by Paul Guy, February 1996 for FUZZ magazine, 3/97

Text © Paul Guy, 1997

In the late 60's one of my friends, who is a big fan of yours, said about you, "He's got a voice like a lead guitar". A lot of your phrasing and embellishments do sound very guitaristic, is there anything conscious about that?

I think there is very much a question and answer thing that occurs. I think I picked that up from the blues, because there is always this sort of like (sings) "Whoa, o-oh, yeah " (imitates a guitar) "Daa-, daa-a-, aah-a", there's all that question and answer thing going on, and that has bled over into my own songs as well. It's something me and Koss did very well, I mean without even thinking about it. That's one of the things that I really liked about Koss, we breathed in the songs together, it was very natural. Yeah, I think I do. If I stop and think about it, I probably do imitate a guitar thing. I sometimes lead and I sometimes follow, I'll throw things at Geoff, and sort of challenge him to like, "Go on then! Repeat that!" or something like that, and we have fun with it. It's like a musical conversation, when you think about it.

Who were your first major influences as a singer?

Otis Redding was my main number one guy. Still is. Probably the biggest thing I remember, I did the Atlantic Birthday Party, they said can you come over and sing something, and I said "Well I haven't got a band at the moment", and they said "Oh, we'll get you one, we've got one here", and I said "Who is it?", and they said, "Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and the guys", and I was like on the plane before they hung up the phone! It was great. I did Dock Of The Bay, it was a fantastic night. It was different, as well, it was outside of bands and stuff, it was very wonderful.

Did you ever have any formal vocal training, or did it just come naturally?

I think I was lucky. I found out I had a voice when we would always be at this band's rehearsals, they were like grown-up lads, and we were like really young, and we would hero-worship them. And one day their singer didn't turn up, and they let me get up and sing. It was a bit like walking into a hurricane, you know, approaching the mike, I was very nervous And I sang something like Long Tall Sally, I think it was, or a Little Richard song anyway, and they made me the singer, you know, and I never looked back from then on. But I suppose that if I've had any training. it's listening really, it's copying people like Otis Redding - trying to copy him, anyway, and Ray Charles, for instance, I took a lot of the kind of approach that I had from Otis, how he would sing with a certain sense of deep presence, he was there in the moment, he wasn't just singing the words. He was re-living the emotion. And what I used to like about him, and I still do, is the way that the songs always climaxed, and he always reached from the lyric and extended it into a whole ad-lib thing. That I find wonderful.

Very few white guys sound convincing when they sing the blues. Do you have any theories as to how come you manage it so well?

Well, if I do, it's only because I'm not trying to pretend that I'm a black guy in the cottonfields in Mississippi in the 30's and 40's. I don't try and do that, because I'm not, you know, I'm a lad from Middlesborough. But what I do is, I do feel the emotions, I do feel a certain rapport with what they got into. I think it must be something to do with, I don't know, the working-class thing. I could relate to the struggles that they had in lots of ways. And I guess I just try to sing it with feeling, you know.

So Free wasn't your first band, then?

No. It was the first band that was monumentally successful. I did kick around with other bands before then, yeah, very much. Just before Free I was with a band called Brown Sugar, it was a blues band, and that's how I met Koss.

How long was Free together before you first recorded?

Oh, that's a good question. Cause a day seemed like a year in those days, and now a year seems like a day, you know! Let's think - probably a matter of six or seven months. We did some tours around with Alexis Korner, and he lined us up with Island Records, and having convinced them that we were worth taking on - which wasn't easy, actually! - we went in the studio. We basically banged our set down, more or less.

"All Right Now" - that song is quite possibly THE all-time rock classic. Did it take long to write?

Probably not. I think it what it was was a combination of the direction in which we were going, so you could say it took three years to write. In the sense that the vibe of it, it was very much... it formulated the Free style, and it kind of epitomised everything we were up to at that point. Physically, it probably took five minutes. The chorus came first, because I wanted a song that everybody could sing, and then Andy worked out the verse riff, and I took it home to write the lyrics. I remember thinking - oh, I must write these lyrics... "There she stood, in the street"... Yeah, yeah - What was she doing? Oh - "Smiling from her head to her feet"... Yeah - And I don't think I crossed anything out, it was just like that.

There's no way you could have known what a classic it would become, but did you suspect that it was a hit as soon as you wrote it?

No, at the time it was just one of another batch of songs that we were working on, me and Andy were banging them out, we were writing a lot together - not all of which saw the light of day... it was one of many we were writing at the time, it just, you know, surfaced.

Of course you never need to sing the chorus, the audience does that for you, but do you ever get fed up with singing it?

I do leave the audience to sing the chorus, yeah... And they do a good job, bless 'em. Well, no, I don't really get tired of singing it, because I don't make it a main feature. It's kind of like almost a given, that at the end of the evening, when it's all raving and everything, it's so atmospheric, it almost plays itself. It's an audience song, that.

Speaking of "All Right Now", I was watching the Isle of Wight Festival on TV a few weeks ago. Koss looked a bit out of it on that one?

Oh, no, actually, Koss was in fine shape, he was great. He was probably just a little nervous. I think where Koss started to go downhill was after the first time the band split up. Cause he'd moved to Portobello Road at that time as well, and he had really a lot of bad influences, shall we say, on the doorstep, you know, like, knock, knock, knock - "Hey man, try some of this", and because he didn't have a focus in the band... One of the reasons we got back together again was to try and - well, rescue him, almost. I remember Frazer saying to me, let's get the band back together, cause Koss is in a bad way. I think none of us realised just how vulnerable he was. I think that the whole fame thing was harder for him, the pressure, he was struggling under it, I think, more than any of us realised. And when the band split up, something snapped, you know, and now with hindsight it's easy to say these things, and see them...

You have written a whole bunch of classic rock songs. Can you tell me how you go about writing? Do you start with a lyric idea, or a melody, or what?

I think I get my songwriting from blues, actually, cause that's where it grew out from. The first song I wrote, I was with Brown Sugar, they went into this riff - I still don't know to this day what it was, it was some riff from a blues album, and I didn't know the words to it, so I just sang something. It occurred to me, I thought, you could write a song like that, if you had your own riff, and you put your own lyrics on, it would be a song, wouldn't it? So I wrote Walking My Shadow, I came up with the riff, and quite suddenly, I was a songwriter! It was quite amazing. And it gave me confidence to go on. My songwriting as such comes out from that, I take a lot from the simplicity of the blues and the idea that its language is things you could just say, almost conversational. I always try to keep it simple. I don't really know what it comes from. It's never one thing or the other, sometimes it can be a title that'll trigger it off, or just a couple of chords, the way they hang together can start it, on guitar, piano, electric guitar, acoustic guitar - I don't know. It can vary, a lot.

Do you write mostly with the guitar, or with the piano?

It depends on what mode I get into. If I'm on the road, often it's difficult to get to a piano, and if you sit in the lobby, if there's a piano there, "Excuse me sir, you can't play the piano here". So I end up playing a lot of acoustic. I do realise that if you sit with an acoustic guitar, you will write acoustic-oriented numbers. It's the same with the electric guitar - if you want to write some rockers, it's best to plug in the old electric guitar, and let rip. Cause they don't always convert. But then again... they sometimes do. So you've got to keep a completely open mind. For instance, "Overloaded", on the album, was an acoustic number in my head, totally, until Eddie Kramer said, "Ooh, you got to make that a band song, try that with the band". And it took off and it just went, whoof, and ahh, yeah, you know.

Do you write mostly from personal experiences, or is it more abstract?

A lot of the songs are definitely about personal relationships and personal experiences and stuff that I've gone through that perhaps other people can relate to, because we all go through it.

Your lyrics aren't complicated, but somehow you never sound banal, even if you're singing simple things like, "I'm standing at the station".

Yeah - cause when I sing a line like that, I'm actually visualising standing at the station, and I'm taking you there with me, you know. I sort of live the songs.

Of all your own songs, do you have a personal favourite?

Somebody asked me the other day, they were writing a book and they were collecting stories behind classic love songs, and did I have any stories. And I remembered that Feel Like Making Love, for instance, I started to write that on the tail end of when Free was staying together. I was staying in San Francisco, and I went off and hitched with this group of hippies, and we hitched up to a place called Rionido, where we lived in the woods for a couple of weeks, and it was amazing, by the river in these little log cabins. I had a relationship there with a certain young lady, and that's where that song developed, started, you know. And then I finished it up and it became a Bad Company song, much, much later on.

Is there any song by someone else that you've thought "I wish I'd written that "?

Oh, yeah, man. All the time. I mean that Foreigner song, I Want To Know What Love Is, I wish I'd written that. And I wish I'd written The Midnight Hour, for God's sake! There's a song by Cheryl Crow called Every Day's A Winding Road, I love that, it's such a great lyric. And it occurred to me that, even if you're not on the road, every day is a winding road, because you've got to go through so many things to get through the day.

You are also a pretty good guitar player.

I'm very simple on the guitar. I use it mostly to write. I sometimes get rowed into playing on stage. I don't think of myself as a guitar player as such, though, cause people like Geoff Whitehorn on the guitar, it's like "All right, OK", you know. He does it all. So I'll leave it to the experts!

Have you always played the guitar?

I've always twiddled on the guitar, yes, for a long time back.

Did you ever want to be a "lead" player?

I went through a phase of it when I had a little band called Peace, in between Free and Bad Company. I suppose I played lead on that. It was like lead/rhythmy kind of guitar. But I think I've given up aspirations of being Jimi Hendrix a long time ago.

Wise decision... Have you ever found it a problem to sing and play at the same time?

It's a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time sometimes. That's probably why I don't play the guitar too much, so that I can concentrate on singing.

Do you have a favourite guitar?

Yeah, I do. My Strat. It's Dakota Red, which is apparently a rare colour. '64. It's fantastic, it's lovely. Rosewood fingerboard. There was a collector after one of those, he had like 60 Strats, in New York, he had all those Strats, and he didn't have a Dakota Red. Cause they tell me it wasn't a popular colour. I've got a two-tone sunburst Strat with a maple board, too, one of the early ones. I got that in the Bad Company days. Another guitar I've got is a Les Paul that used to belong to Koss, the '58 Sunburst he had. I bought it yonks ago, just out of sentimental reasons, somebody called me and said, I've got Paul Kossoff's guitar, are you interested? I said well, I'm not really a guitar player. I rang round a few shops, and they said "The bottom's gone out of the market, you don't want to buy that". I bought it anyway, against all professional advice. And it's a wonderful instrument. In fact, on the album, Geoff said, "If you think on, you could bring that down and I'll play it on a track" and he plays it on Chasing Shadows. It used to belong to Clapton, too, prior to Koss, so it's a bit of a historic guitar. Check it out on that track. It takes a few listens, but you can hear Clapton, and you can hear Koss, and you can hear Geoff. It's quite amazing.

What about acoustic guitars, what do you play?

Well, Guild have been very kind to me lately, and they've lent me a 6-string and a 12-string which really are beautiful. This is a birdseye maple body, the twelve-string, I played it on All I Want Is You, which is going to be the second single. I used it on the video, too. It looks well, and it plays great.

What sort of amp do you use?

I pulled out a Vox AC30 from my studio. I'm kinda happy with it, it's nice. I was using a Marshall 50-watt and a 4 x 12 before that. The funny thing is about the AC30, that was another thing I bought for sentimental reasons - when I first started out, we were in the guitar player's living room, and all of us plugged into this AC30, it was the bee's friggin' knees, you know. And to have one all to myself is just such luxury.

You've worked with a whole bunch of amazing guitar players, just about everybody. Do you have a personal favourite?

Well I'd have to say Koss. (Paul Kossof.) But they're all fabulous in their own way, that's for sure. I think the biggest thrill was on the blues album, playing with Buddy Guy. He was like the creme de la creme for me, cause we were doing a blues album, and of course we got a lot of guitar players, but when we got Buddy Guy, that clinched everything, cause he came in at the last minute.

What do you look for in a guitar player?

Well, obviously, they've got to be pretty good guitar players. But what do I look for? When I came across Geoff Whitehorn, for instance, the thing that impressed me about him was his ability to be able to play anything I could throw at him, be it blues, gospel, soul, a bit of rock'n'roll, and really play it with feeling. It didn't matter what kind of music it was, he had a great feeling for it. I think it does come down to that, very simply. He slips into the groove of what the song is all about very easily. And it's all recognisably himself, he's got his own sound.

Are there any guitar players that you haven't worked with that you would like to?

I've worked with Jeff Beck, we've played together, and I'd like to do more at some point. We did a couple of things, we did a single quite recently for Nodoff Robbins, the music therapy thing, which was nice. And we did a bit of film work together. But it would be nice to do a full album one of these days, if we both get the time.

That strikes me as being a "marriage made in heaven", your voice and his guitar playing .

It does work well. He is a past master at the guitar.

You must be very pleased with the new band.

Yes, I am. It's taken a while for the whole thing to come together, cause I was on the road with the blues album, and I had three excellent bands - the first was Jason and his lads, with Steve Lukather, and then I had Neal Schon, Todd Jensen and Dean Castronovo, that was a great lineup too, and at one point I was out with Reeves Gabrels, Tony Thompson and Tony Franklin, so I was out there with some hell of a bands.

Had any of you worked together before?

Yes - I remember that on one Bad Company tour when Maggie Bell was out with us, Geoff was playing guitar with her, and I did some demos and asked Geoff to come along - actually, I then realised just what a great guitar player he was, at that point. Jimmy, Jim Copley, I worked with when we did a BBC live show, he was on the drums for that, and Bryan Adams turned up and we did a couple of things. Little things, you know. It sort of came together organically, as we went, cause I realised the need for a band that was somewhat permanent, so that we could both tour and record, and have an ongoing thing.

You worked the band live for 18 months before recording "NOW", and it really shows. The whole album has a very coherent band sound. Did you try out all the songs on the album live before recording them?

No, not really. We've been doing blues, and some Free, and Bad Company material. But I did slide in about four of the songs, and when we came to rehearse, we rehearsed about 30 songs in a couple of weeks, those four songs really stood out, because they'd been played in, in front of an audience. So I booked a club, the Bottom Line, and just played two nights, the whole set, all the songs, just to sort of blood them, get them out there. And they improved, it was a good move.

How live was it in the studio? Did you actually sing at the same time?

Oh yeah, definitely. What I try to do, though, it to catch a performance, a thing that will spark it, so there's lots of eye contact, everyone can see each other when we're trying things. We've rehearsed everything, so we know what we're going to do as far as the arrangement is concerned, but we've played so many dates together, we can change things on the nod. So for instance, the end of Holding Back The Storm, that was completely ad lib. We hadn't planned that at all, it just happened. So I thought, yeah, we'll keep that. That's good.

Had you worked with Eddie Kramer before?

Yeah - he did, I think it was the Run With The Pack album with Bad Company, so I know him from way back, you know.

The album was recorded "live" and analogue I guess you're not fond of digital recording?

Well, yeah - and Eddie as well, he's very, you know, Neve desks, and you can't look at him without seeing valves light up. I try to get the best of both worlds, it's probably no use living in the past, and I don't try to do that.

Well, you're not going to start releasing vinyl, are you.

Ah, it's funny you should say that, but we are doing a limited edition of the album, on vinyl. Isn't that the best record company in the world?

I'll have to go and buy that, I've got an excellent record player that hardly gets used any more.

Text © Paul Guy, 1997

Interview by Paul Guy, February 1997 for FUZZ 3/97

To: Official Paul Rodgers website