Words by Eddie STATS Houghton
About the time that Germany was trouncing England out of the FIFA World Cup finals in South Africa this past summer, Sir Keith Richards hit me up via cellphone and told me about a baby bird he rescued. True, that’s not WHY he called. In real life, he was graciously granting me a phone interview to support the release of the 2nd–and most likely final–album from his pet Wingless Angels project, which basically consists of Sir Keith noodling along to the nyabinghi rhythms of a self-organizing band of rasta drummers that, in some form or another, have gathered to jam in the living room of his house on the North coast of Jamaica since the 1970s. (But the baby bird is what stayed with me.)
Any recordings of Sir Keith finding his spiritual center in the swirl of freeform jams recorded with a bunch of dreads would have a place in music history secured by the monumental shadow of The Rolling Stones, anyway. But it just so happens that one of the dreads who regularly came by the Richards residence to join in was reggae pioneer Justin Hinds, of Justin Hinds & the Dominoes. Dominoes’ 45s like “Carry Go Bring Come” not only changed the direction of Jamaican music but also helped to break down doors in the UK, even influencing, by his own admission, a young art-school dropout named Keith Richards. But as if the power of those stars aligning was a little too much for this world, the sessions that became Wingless Angels II–released last month on Mindless records–are the last known recordings of Hinds, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2005.
At any rate, the result of our conversation that fine, sunny day was a short Reheaters feature (you can read it here) on the project for the current issue of FADER magazine–but recognizing the historic nature of the moment I kept the full transcript of our Q&A and secured permission to post it exclusively here on Large Up. Preview and purchase the record–which also comes in a deluxe 2-CD set with documentation, drawings and lithographs from Richards and more–here. And dive more fully into the mind of the one and only Sir Keith after the jump:
LU: Have you been doing press all day?
KR: Um, today what have I been doing? A bird fell out of it’s nest and we took it to the bird sanctuary and made sure its alright and uh, I watched some soccer. That’s about it.
Q: That sounds like a good days work.
A; Yeah, well it is, right?
Q: That’s good, I’m glad I’m not asking you to repeat all the same stories you’ve been telling all day.
A: No, no…this is the only one today.
Q: So can you start me at the beginning with the Wingless Angels, tell me how the first record came about–and how you linked up with guys in first place?
A: Well, yeah…it goes back a long way. When the Stones cut Goats Head Soup, we cut it in Kingston, Jamaica and afterwards I decided to stay. I went up to the North coast and uh, I got a house on the beach. There’s just a lot of guys that were hangin around because of the music and a lot of them were rastafarians–because they work the beach as fishermen or divers. Or sailors, however you want to put it. We started talking about music and they invited me up to the village, up in Steer Town. Soon as I lit up there I started to hear what they were doing–very different and very ancient, like, and probably that’s the last of it, which is why I finally put a record out. But basically around my house in Jamaica its what we would do in the evening; the guys would come by with the drums and we’d just jam.
Eventually the 1st record came about from people doing that and a friend of mine, Rob Fraboni, turned up at the door with the recording trucks. I had no intention of making a record but we plugged in and so the first record got made–I think it was ’96 we did that. That was very well, I really enjoyed making it. A few years later, I think it was 2002, all the guys got together again. We hooked up the studio somewhere down the road and that’s when number 2 got recorded. So that’s the story up til now.
Q: Before Fraboni came by that 1st time, you’d never played around with recording these jams? Were they just a spur of the moment thing…?
A: No I used to record them, just on a cassette player, you know, I got reams of that from nights in the 70s. Basically it was just something we did in Jamaica and these friends of mine, they got to know the village, play with the kids and stuff and so the impetus, I mean the possibility, turned up of putting the record out so…we went for it, you know?
Q: Is it essentially the same cast of characters now that you were playing with on the jams from the 70s, or…?
A: Yeah, yeah, its basically the same characters. One or two have passed away, then a couple of younger guys joined but a lot of it was Justin Hinds and his family, basically his cousins–all the same people on both records.
Q: Can you walk me through the core people you collaborated with?
A: Well I can tell you Justin was the only professional musician. He did tour, he made records, he knew the music business but the rest of them they never thought about that, its just what they do and that’s kinda what I liked about it.
Q: So that’s Justin Hinds from Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, correct?
A: Yeah and that’s the reason, basically, that number 2 has come out, is that Justin died–so probably these are the last recordings that he made, because he died soon after this. So in a way it was a tribute to Justin and everybody was saying, Oh, you got to put Justin out. So I did. And there it is.
Q: Judging from the previous project it seems like this has a lot less to do with reggae or what people usually think of Jamaican music and more about rasta music and nyabinghi, which is really a totally different thing…
A: Yes, absolutely. I think the real story of it is sort of way lost in history but when I first heard it and first started to know the guys I realized that they just…I mean it wasn’t much of a back to Africa thing at all, at least not geographically, it was an Africa in spirit or in mind or imagination. It’s sort of a Jamaican blues or something…
Q: Did you find when you started playing with theses guys that it fit naturally with what you do or did you have to kind of get in the spirit or get into their headspace?
A: No, it wasn’t that. What they’re doing is based on old hymns, you know Methodist hymns and melodies and at first I wasn’t allowed to play. The old guys were like, No, no, no. No guitars, you know. And then one night I was just tinkling away behind them and then, Ok you’re in. so I just kind of played my hand cool, there and (it came from) just being around those guys…
Q: That’s funny, so the seniority was a little bit reversed…
A: In a way but really, we just got to know each other better and I just became an accepted part of the village apparently, and that was it.
Q: I have to imagine that long before those sessions for Goats Head Soup that Jamaican music of one strain or another must have been a pretty big influence on you and the band…
A: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean growing up in London, right? And to me the music was always somewhere in the background it was there and you got it, were always aware of it—rocksteady or ska–when I was growing up. It was sort of a theme underneath that we knew about. But to get it firsthand in Jamaica itself was quite interesting…
Q: Was there any particular moment or song that piqued your interest in Jamaican music or made you aware of it, in those early days?
A: Well, I think maybe just to pick one out I would say Justin Hinds’ song “Oh What a Joy and a Comfort.” I mean that was always–especially the way he took on that melody–has always been a favorite of mine.
Q: I know you guys covered one or two reggae songs–Eric Donaldson’s “Cherry Oh Baby” for instance. Was that kind of a common interest with you and the other guys in the Stones?
A: Yeah I think that came about just because we were around it all the time in Jamaica. As a musician you are what you hear. I mean the influence I suppose it came from that more than any deliberate attempt like, We’re gonna do a reggae track or something. It just sort of happened…
Q: Explain to me how this 2nd project is different –if it is different—from the last one. Do the sessions range over the time from the last one, are they all newer sessions?
A: They’re more recent. It is a continuation of the first one, although there are some differences—I think there’s an extra drum kit on this one for a few tracks, because one of Justin’s nephews found out a way of actually incorporating them with nyabinghi drums and its quite an interesting experiment. Also I gotta say Rob absolutely did most of the donkey work on this, I mean he did the mixing and editing and stuff. That’s it. I like the guys and I like to hear them again and just thought because of Justin Hinds we’d sort of put it out, really give it what it deserves. It’s the very last of Justin–such a sweet voice and a sweet man.
Q: Would you say that–as when you look at the Stones catalog over time– that there is an evolution of the way you guys played together from Wingless Angels I to II?
A: I don’t know. I think everything’s an evolution, especially in music. I’m just following the trail, you know I mean it is evolutionary in the way it works, I think.
Q: I get the sense that what really drew you to Jamaica, even though you went there to record, was something about the lifestyle or the overall vibe (?)
A: Hopefully, yeah, its about atmosphere. I guess for me like a lot of people, it just blew my mind, like the idea that people coming from villages can just sit around and play drums all night and its just a sort of fascinating way of life. It got me. And I think its getting rarer and rarer so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to capture it while its still there…
Q: It seems like there’s less of distinction between, This is art, on one side and, This is everyday life–everything is kind of mixed up.
A: Yeah, that’s it exactly.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time in Jamaica these days?
A: I haven’t in the last year or so…but usually I’m there for one reason or another. I’m meaning to get back when I can, if they give me some time (laughs).
Q: Do you always stick to your place in the North coast do you travel around?
A: Yeah but we travel around, go to Port Antonio, Negril, all around…
Q: Besides the weight that these being Justin’s last recordings give it, what do you hope for this project in terms of what you want people to get from it?
A: I just hope they listen to it and enjoy it. You know, there wont be much more like this. If you like that kind of thing, if you like Jamaica and certain evocations it has, then that’s the stuff for you. Especially if you like Justin Hinds.
Q: Evocations–could you talk a little bit more about what you think is evoked by the music?
A: Well, basically it’s a sharing of emotions, this sort of music. Everyone’s feeling the same thing at the same time, there is an emotional force behind it and youre aware of it when you’re there.
Q: From what I hear, there’s a very spiritual quality to it, not just in the sense of church music, but…
A: Yeah it is. You know, with a bunch of guys sitting around making music you’re intending to aim for something, no matter what it is. And it was that sort of feeling–of a sort of quest or a search about their music, a haunting thing it’s got to it…
Q: Making these recordings—or even reaching that place in the jams when you weren’t recording it—has that changed you at all, tuned you into a different way of thinking?
A: Yeah, it reminds you of other things and one of them is a certain stoicism and just an openness and acceptance of life these guys have. That’s very interesting.