The Fireman: Sir Paul Speaks
Electric Arguments is no ordinary Paul McCartney album. For a start, it's by the Fireman, his occasional musical partnership with Youth, former Killing Joke bassist turned award-winning producer. Secondly, it's received more critical acclaim than any Macca release since Band on the Run a trifling 35 years ago. Oh, and it released on an indie record label founded by anarchist punks, One Little Indian, whose most high-profile artist up until now has been Björk.
Fitting, then, that Sir Paul should host no ordinary publicity bash to launch the album to the world. From the lowliest of the UK's gutter press to the most far-flung print, broadcast and (of course) online correspondents from Europe and Asia, some fifty of us gather in — what else? — a converted Victorian fire station in London's Waterloo on the unfashionable south bank of the River Thames. Now a bar that retains the original fire buckets, tiling, brickwork and arches through which horse-drawn appliances would burst into the street a century ago, the Fire Station provided a picturesque tableau for life to imitate art.
The winter downpour has abated for the afternoon, so rather than "Penny Lane" it's "Good Day Sunshine" for His 66-year-old Fabness as he ambles in, beaming, as ever, with self-confidence — "Nice to see you; to see you, nice!" he Scouses up the catchphrase of the UK's veteran telly song-and-dance man Bruce Forsyth — to take an hour's worth of questions, all of them, by order of his media handlers, to be confined to the subject of the Fireman — translation: nobody mention Heather Mills. Only one of us even tries to hint in that direction with a question about whether the scream of betrayal that is the album's opening number, "Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight," is about anyone in particular.
"Not at all," breezes the former Moptop. The title, explains the dapper man in the brown Prince of Wales check suit, "is a phrase from a friend of mine who I used to see down the nightclubs in the '60s, Jimmy Scott, an African guy living in London who'd say, 'Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra '— and I said, 'I'm going to use that in a song! 'I was talking about him with Youth who said his phrase 'Nothing too much, just out of sight! 'was great and that we should use it. I took that idea and just shouted things around it."
And that, in a nutshell, is how it works in the Fireman between Paul and Youth: Youth is there for Paul to bounce his vague ideas off and to then give him license to run with the ball. It's a working relationship the squillionaire with the exuberant hand movements and Clinton-era digital wristwatch just loves to talk about: "I only met him because he was doing a mix," he recalls of the first Fireman album, 1993's Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest. "He was just some guy. But we started to talk and got on well, with a lot of things in common — mostly art and poetry, though he's a bit more Glastonbury than I am. So it grew. We did the first two Fireman albums for fun…" (1998's Rushes was also a trippy, no-vocal effort which "sold nothing!") "… and by the time we got to this one, he'd become more like a creative partner, because I had to trust that when I sang some stuff he would pull the best out, and that made it much easier for me to be creative. He's a good bloke; we have a laugh."
It's the vocals that make all the difference on Electric Arguments. "We made two instrumental albums all on one chord, like Indian music, very trancy and hypnotic. We just fancied a change in mood. First, we thought we might add another chord to take it somewhere else, and that opened the whole project. We could do anything. Youth suggested, ‘How about a bit of vocal? 'So I goofed around ad-libbing, then I looked in poetry books — Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg — just to find a couple of words, like Burroughs 'technique of the cut-ups — (sings) 'silent lover, silent lover '— and just kept singing all these things at the track and eventually a song came out of it. It's very random but also very liberating. And very quick: each track got done in a day. That's how the Fireman found his voice, through experimentation."
Though Macca likens the semi-improv music-making of the Fireman to Sgt Pepper, in Electric Arguments 'play of jokey and heartfelt, loose and intricate, raucous and delicate, it more audibly resembles Pepper's 1968 successor, the White Album, complete with funny voices.
"I don't fuss about my voice too much. I expect it to work. But it's not a Paul McCartney vocal, it's a Fireman vocal. So I do a voice (drops to nicotine-and-whiskey basso profundo rasp) like Tom Waits, and Youth will say, 'That's good! 'It's fun, and it takes you into places you didn't plan to go to. On a couple of tracks we listened to records before going in to do the vocal, to give a vibe, like a warm-up. One was Françoise Hardy — a blast from the past — and a couple of blues records before 'Light From Your Lighthouse. 'It was a jumping-off place."
In between drilling down into how he and Youth made their new album, Macca takes time to hail the new chief ("I'm so pleased that Obama won. I had fingers crossed right up until the last moment. If I ever got asked, I could sing 'Michelle 'to his wife."). He also berates his old record company, and name-checks both Radiohead ("I was thinking of downloading their album for 1p and telling all my friends I'd paid 10 quid!") and the Zutons ("a good little band from Liverpool"). It's a typically amiable yet ever-so-slightly waspish performance from a past master of the press conference. And, as ever, he is more sensitive than he likes to let on about his image as the square half of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.
"Being far-out is not something I'm known for, but I do enjoy that side of things. If you look at things I've done, from 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road, 'which is kind of out there, to 'Carnival Of Light, 'which is so 'out-there 'it hasn't even been released, you can see I like experimenting. John and I were both as earnest and experimental as each other in the '60s. I happened to have more opportunity because I was living on my own in London, whereas John was in the countryside in Weybridge and married so he was more pipe-and-slippers. I was down the clubs and Wigmore Hall, catching people like Luciano Berio and Cornelius Cardew, and into Stockhausen. But John ended up with "Revolution No. 9" so, perception-wise, he was the most experimental Beatle. That was something I'd been doing for a hobby and he was smart enough to bring it into the main event. That was John's courage — but I actually did set up the tape-recorders, because I had two Brenells. I think we were both equally experimental."
So why not redress that perception by releasing the Fireman project under your name?
"I wouldn't like to lose the Fireman — it's a real idea, like Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a real idea. You can't sack the Fireman — that would be uncool! But I hope it affects my next album; it's a nice way to record. I'm writing some songs at home at the moment and I'm hoping that feeling will overflow. When I get back to my day job, it freshens it up a little bit."