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You may have heard there’s a new record coming out by a seventy-something rocker who gave voice to an angry, inarticulate audience decades ago. You know, the guy who sports dark shades and affects a corona of curly hair? Sings anthems in a raspy voice about all the inequities of life? You’re right. Ian Hunter does have a new record: When I’m President (Slimstyle), recorded with his Rant Band, hits the streets today. And it may be the best thing Hunter has done since his storied work as leader of the legendary Mott The Hoople. Angry pub rockers like “What For” take turns with, uh, angry ballads about Chief Crazy Horse. We spoke to this 73-year-old dude on the eve of his new release.
So many people of your generation seem to be just going out and playing their hits. How do you account for this run of incredibly strong recent albums?
I just think that when I was growing up, nothing meant anything until I heard Elvis and Little Richard and Jerry Lee. And it gave me life. And to go and sit on a pier and play me greatest hits is not really repaying the debt. Repaying the debt is doin’ the best you can with it before you pop off. That’s repaying the debt. It happened for me at the right time. I was 15, 16, something like that when [rock and roll] all started.
There was a period there when I wasn’t performing properly, I was just writin’ songs like a songwriter would write songs. You know, a professional songwriter. And when Mick [Ronson, Hunter’s bandmate] died, that went out the window. It was like, “Get back to business. You gotta do this.”
Lots of good anger going on in your new songs (“Fatal Flaws,” “What For”). Do you know how it is that you can be 70something and still be angry? Where does the pissed-offness come from?
It’s a lotta things over the years. When I was doing (the 2007 album) Shrunken Heads, it would’ve been Bush, ya know. It’s very hard to watch bad actors on television pretendin’ they’re something they’re not. I’ve always had the underdog mentality and I’m very sympathetic to underdogs. That’s where my area is. So, anything can piss me off. Just as anything can piss you off. I’m no different than anybody else. You sit and watch a bad actor long enough before, ‘Shut up! We’re supposed to vote for that?’
I noticed on the new record, there are three songs where you reference the James Brothers, Crazy Horse and The Wild Bunch. Were you aware there was some Western mythology going on, Ian?
I read a lot. I don’t really listen to the radio. And where English history is vast, American history is recent. Some of these people died in the ’20s. I was born in ’39 and Wyatt Earp [died in] 1929; that’s how recent this is. It’s a rocker’s romanticism. I’ve read a ton of books about The Civil War. I can’t write about man and woman falling in love anymore. I’m 73. You’re looking for lyrics and some of that is pretty inspirational stuff. Especially Crazy Horse. That’s typical me. Rooting for the underdog.
Was the Mott the Hoople reunion [in 2009] a satisfying week for you?
Oh, it was wonderful. Great to rehearse with ’em, great to meet up with ’em again. I mean Pete [“Overend”] Watts can talk 10 hours and it’s fascinatin’. Every one of those guys is a star in their own right, you know. I guess that’s why it never worked. I mean musically it always worked. I was worried if it would be there, but it was right there. No problem.
Did you have much time for rehearsal before you guys did the shows?
Well Mick [Ralphs, guitarist] started workin’ with them down by Buff’s [Dale Griffin’s] place cause Buff wasn’t too well [due to Parkinson’s disease], and Mick rang me up and said, “It’s like a pub band.” So 10 days before we started I went in and [Pretender’s drummer] Martin Chambers went in, ’cause we knew Buff would only be able to do the encores. These were guys who haven’t played much in the last 35 years. But it was back on the bike. No problem.
I have a theory that because you’ve lived more the life of a writer than a rocker, that accounts for why your stuff is so consistent. And the guys who can’t come up with anything are still shooting heroin at the age of 69.
Well, it’s a question of self-respect. Live today, forget tomorrow, that was the whole thing with rock and roll, you know. And you couldn’t say anything else because it would’ve been very unfashionable and very unromantic. But some of us were, like, pounding the pavement when other people were doin’ heroin. You have to fill up your day doing something. I just thought if I ever get old, I wanna have two legs and two arms. A lot of people never thought that way. And they suffer for it.
Do you see another book coming before you shuffle off? [Hunter’s Diary Of A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star was published in 1974.]
[Diary is] still in print. That has to make you feel good.
It’s in its 15th printing. It’s like a textbook now. All the kids, when they get to a certain age have to buy it. It’s quaint. It’s history now.
The other guys who need to write a book about things is R.E.M. The way they handled their career, you wish that Peter Buck would write a book and tell everybody how to keep a band together. They really did it beautifully, didn’t they? Plus they namechecked Mott [in “Man On The Moon”].
Well, they’re intelligent people. As we were saying, there are rich people and poor people. There are also intelligent people and dumb people. I don’t know Peter, but I’ve met him a few times. They’ve all gone out of their way to be really nice to me.
Why would you say you and Mott still have such loyal fans after all these years? I mention certain tunes like “Irene Wilde” or “Ballad Of Mott” and musicians, their eyes well up with tears. Do you hear that a lot?
With the Mott reunion, it happened a lot. 50-year-old guys, with beer bellies, tears streaming down their faces. It’s simple really. When you come to hear me or my Rant Band, we mean it. This isn’t a business to us and never was. When it got to be a business, that’s when it all fell apart. I do it for the right reasons. That’s all you have to do—be truthful. Sometimes you have a night off, because you’re knackered. But in the main? We mean it.
Ian Hunter plays the Highline Ballroom on September 14.