Rocking In the Studio With Ringo

Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr may be the most famous drummer in the world, but that didn't prevent him from having the "worst attack of nerves ever" when he went into the studio to record his latest solo album, Time Takes Time.
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Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr may be the most famous drummer in the world, but that didn't prevent him from having the "worst attack of nerves ever" when he went into the studio to record his latest solo album, Time Takes Time. "It's true," admits Ringo. "It's my first solo studio album in nearly ten years, and even though a lot of good friends like Tom Petty and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys were helping me, I was so scared I actually ran away. It was very, very strange, and I was frightened that I'd lost my touch. I didn't know where I was or how you did it anymore, so I took off."

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It's hard to imagine him almost calling off the entire project because of nerves. After all, Ringo has recorded ten solo albums since the breakup of the Beatles, scoring such big hits as "Photograph," "It Don't Come Easy" and "You're Sixteen."

Fortunately for his many fans, Ringo got his nerve back, and the result is his strongest record in a long time. Recorded at a variety of L.A. studios over the past year-Conway, Rumbo, Westlake and Capitol, among them-Time Takes Time was overseen by Don Was, who produced five tracks, including the first single, "Weight of the World," which was mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The project was also co-produced by Jeff Lynne and Phil Ramone, who contributed two tracks each, and Peter Asher, who produced one song.

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Bel Air wearing a denim jacket, with his fingers covered in his trademark rings, Ringo talked about the making of his new record and his revived solo career.

I've heard that this is probably the first album you've made sober.
It's not "probably"-it is the only album I've ever made sober. But that's not to say that the other albums, like the Ringo record, were drunken sessions. We did a lot of work on them sober, but we did have our nights, like on Goodnight Vienna. And I think that if you listen to the records, they definitely went downhill from Goodnight Vienna on because I was going downhill, too. I was taking less and less interest in my career. I was just turning up, it just wasn't happening. And, of course, being Ringo, I was allowed to get away with it, so it all suffered.

Were you very nervous when you started recording clean and sober for the first time?
I was very nervous. Thank God I've got three years clean and sober behind me now. The last tour, when I was only eight months sober, was really strange the first week, because at the end of a show, your whole body and brain says, "Let's get crazy," and this little spark says, "We don't do that anymore." So then when it came to making this record, I went in with Jeff Lynne first, and after the first week I had to go on holiday because it was very, very strange. I didn't know who I was and how you do it anymore. It was a completely new learning process, so I took off and just went down to Baja California for a week and sat on the beach and meditated, and then came back because I'd sorted myself out.

Is it true that you went into the studio not quite sure of the kind of record you wanted to make?
Well, we went in with some clear ideas, and I'd already found a lot of songs I wanted to do, so that's not strictly true. I'd written four songs, and I knew I was going to record them, and then we had "Golden Blunders" by The Posies and "Don't Know a Thing About Love" by Stan Lynch, the drummer in The Heartbreakers, and Richard Feldman, so we did have some direction. But we didn't know the exact, final direction, it's true. We didn't know exactly what final sound we'd have, although I knew I wanted it very "guitarish," which it is. The other whole thing was whether to make a '60s-sounding album. It's not '6Os, it's more '90s, but it's got a '60s feel.

It sounds like that worried you a little.
It did. At one point I was backing off because some of the tracks were sounding just too '60s for me, and let's face it, we've been there already. So I had some serious doubts.

What convinced you?
It was Don Was. He just said, "Everyone out there is trying to imitate you and get that sound, and you were at least one of them and you can do it." So that really relaxed me, because I hate harping on the past and using it. I want to look forward like anyone else. But the sound works and the record works, and once I relaxed, everything flowed naturally. And I think that shows on the album.

How did you choose the producers for the album?
We started off with Jeff Lynne because I knew him and we'd worked together on George's album. He did the "I Call Your Name" track we did for John's foundation in Liverpool, and I played drums on a track he produced for Little Richard. So it was an obvious choice, and in a way it was playing safe. So I went in with Jeff, but like I said, after the first week I had to leave and then come back. At that point I felt we should just finish the whole album together, but he was busy with some other projects. Then I started speaking to Phil Ramone, and he had time, and then I wanted to finish the whole record with him.

Did you know him from before?
No. Well, we'd bumped into each other a lot over the years, he told me. Actually, a lot of people are telling me the same thing now that I'm sober. [Laughs] So I didn't remember meeting him, but we got on great and then we called Don Was up and he had some time, so we went in with him. But it's not like we just called up and went straight into the studio. It took five or six weeks to get it together.

Anyway, I really had a great time with Don. He was so cool, and we played everything live, which I much prefer. Both Jeff and Phil like to use click tracks, which is just a bane for drummers. I hate them really, although the tracks still worked out well. Anyway, then Private Music mentioned Peter Asher, so I said "Sure," and we went in and recorded The Posies song, "Golden Blunders," which he brought to the project. Then we decided to cut two more tracks, and it was my choice, so I decided to go with Don again, because he is Mr. Cool.

Did you ever worry that with four producers the finished album might sound schizophrenic?
Of course, but I didn't worry enough, and in the end it all evened out because Don was in charge of remixing the tracks produced by Phil and Peter, and Ed Cherney came in and remixed everything to give them a consistent sound. Then when we played those to Jeff, he went back in and remixed his tracks at Ocean Way, so it ended up sounding fairly consistent I think.

Give us some sense of the differences in approach and styles of the four producers.
With Jeff Lynne you record every single track separately-even with the drums, so that the bass, the snare, the cymbals are all miked and recorded individually, and then he builds up the layers into the finished track. Phil Ramone is totally different. He'll start with a click track, and then add the rhythm section. He has that New York attitude and approach, while Peter Asher is very meticulous. Don is perhaps looser-really cool to work with. For instance, on "Weight of the World," we'd just play it live in the studio until the basic track was there, and then Don added all the backup vocals and my percussion later.

There are quite a few star guest performances on the album.
Yeah, Brian Wilson arranged and sang all the harmonies on "In A Heartbeat," which was written by Diane Warren.

How was he to work with?
The truth is that I wasn't even there on those sessions. I was in Europe at the time. Brian came in because he's a friend of Don's, although, of course, I've known him for 200 years also. Don thought he'd be great on the track, and of course he was right. Then Benmont Tench from The Heartbreakers played Hammond on it, and Bonnie Raitt's bassist Hutch Hutchinson played bass, so it all just kind of flowed together naturally. A lot of the musicians on the album have all worked together many, many times in the past, like Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Waddy Wachtel, Andrew Gold and Harry Nilsson, so I think the result sounds more like a band than just a bunch of session guys.

Are you a tech head?
Not at all, but it's certainly changed a lot in the last few years. I used to drive them mad when we'd stretch something and we'd want to shorten the track, and I'd say "Just cut the bloody 24-track!" And they'd look at me and say, "No, no, we don't do that anymore. We do it electronically now." [Laughs]

Did you ever feel that you were a bit out of touch with all the high-tech equipment in studios today?
Not really, because that's not my job. That's the producers' and engineers' job. I just play the drums and do the vocals. I don't deal with the EQ and all the fancy outboard gear. Obviously, recording methods and studios have become more and more sophisticated, and we recorded tracks at some of the top places, like Conway, Westlake and Capitol, and used all the latest computerized gear. But I totally rely on the technical guys to pull all that together, and we had some top guys, like Rik Pekkonen, Bill Drescher and Ed Cherney, engineering.

Back in the '60s there was a definite shelf-life mentality to rock 'n' roll-the whole "Hope I die before I get old" attitude, and Jagger saying he'd never be performing "Satisfaction" when he hit 40. You'll be 54 this year. Do you ever think of retiring?
We all said, "Hope I die before I get old," but there's no reason why we shouldn't keep recording and performing. Look, Jerry Lee Lewis is still out there, Chuck Berry's still working, and that's the great thing about being a musician or singer-as long as they'll have you, you can keep doing it. There's no rule that says you have to retire. I'm sure once we all get to 60 we'll call ourselves "blues singers." [Laughs hard]