The Ian McDonald Interview
The thing about living right outside of New York City is that occasionally I stumble across some amazing, out-of-the-way little happenings that feature people I have admired for years. And maybe some I haven’t heard from in a while.
This is what happened to me recently when I came upon a reading of Hamlet performed by the Frog and Peach Theatre Company. It was here where I spotted none other than Ian McDonald, a co-founding member of who both King Crimson and Foreigner, playing piano to accompany the reading. How could I pass up the chance to talk to one of rock royalty and a man I have been a huge fan of for years?
I got my chance and during the following exchange, we touched briefly on the then and now, with a hint of what’s ahead. If you’re in New York City, be sure to check out Frog and Peach, where you just might just catch Ian McDonald on stage playing. While in town, you may also to see if McDonald is playing with Honey West during one their frequent NYC gigs.
First and foremost, how is that I find you here at Frog and Peach?
The directors here, Lynnea Benson and her husband Ted, have been neighbors of mine for a number of years. They literally live right across the street (McDonald has lived in New York City since 1976) and we finally got to talking about a year or so ago about me maybe doing some music for one of their productions. So I got involved. I am also involved with Ted’s band, Honey West. I have more or less joined them now. They are really responsible for me getting some things going. It’s great.
Now I know you released an album called Driver’s Eyes about a decade or so ago, and there are plenty of instances where I have heard and seen you do a live walk-on, but what else has been happening?
Yes, I did put out Driver's Eyes about 10 years ago, though it never really got a proper release in the states; it came out in Europe and Japan. Since then yes, I’ve been doing session work, various things and yes the odd live gig, basically trying to figure out what to do next. I do seem to be quite busy at the moment, which is great. I’m writing a lot. I went through a period when I wasn’t writing very much at all. But now I’m enjoying a good period of writing and performing. It’s a good place for me right now.
Of those live gigs, I know you joined Keith Emerson and Greg Lake on a few dates in my own state of New Jersey when they came through here in 2010.
Yes, I did two shows with them. I came out to do “I Talk To The Wind” with Greg, and we sang together for what must have been the first time since 1969. That was a lot of fun. Keith Emerson is playing great; an amazing pianist really and it was good to hear and watch him close up. Greg is a really solid performer and singer.
Prior to that I did a similar thing with Asia (that performance is documented on the live CD/DVD Spirit Of The Night: The Phoenix Tour Live In Cambridge 2009). There was no announcement or anything, they just went into “Court Of The Crimson King” and I walked on stage, the crowd was going: “Who’s this?” and then I went into the flute part they were like: “Oh yeah, it’s him” (laughs).
You are also on Steve Hackett’s Watcher Of The Skies (an album that features the ex-Genesis guitarist covering Genesis material with McDonald, John Wetton, Chester Thompson and a few other luminaries).
Yeah that was a lot of fun. They’re good friends of mine, Steve and John. We all sort of come out of the same era. I enjoyed doing that very much.
How does that usually work? Do you just get a phone call asking you to come down to a gig?
With the Lake and Emerson walk-on, I got a call maybe like literally a day before, two days at the most, from their manager saying that they were in the area and would I like to walk on. Luckily I’d been doing some playing recently so my chops were in fairly good shape. Usually, I like a little bit of warning with the wind instruments especially. I wouldn’t mind doing so more of that.
So now with all this renewed activity with you writing and performing as much as you are, do you naturally think, “OK, I’ll go out and scare-up a record deal”? How does that even work these days for someone like you with the business having changed so much?
Oh, I don’t know — I don’t know where to begin. Everything is so different. Drivers Eyes was 10 years ago. There were record companies then. But nowadays I don’t really know. We’re actually recording an album with the Honey West band and I’m sure we’ll press CDs and look for a distributor — it is all about distributing these days, I suppose. And then there is all the downloading, the Internet, though I’m not really sure how that all works. But I know we’ll make things available as much as we can.
How often do you see or talk to the guys in Foreigner? (The night I met McDonald he was gracious enough to introduce me to Al Greenwood, another original member of Foreigner who had come down to the reading)
Well, occasionally we all do talk. We still have business together, and Al and I have remained friends all these years. It’s kind of a sticky legal subject but there’s a couple things happening with the band that some of the old members and I aren’t so happy with. I won’t go into that now.
Let’s get back to happier projects. Are you going to be doing more with Frog and Peach specifically?
I’m not sure. Last fall they did The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, and Ted and I wrote and recorded seven, eight songs, and 30- to 40-second guitar pieces. The actors were singing to pre-recorded tracks and that was pretty good, a lot of fun. I co-wrote that music. As far as their next production, I don’t know what they have in mind.
I have never been involved in theatre or a musical. It’s really not my scene, but I enjoy doing this because it is Shakespeare first of all. Ted and Lynnea are friends of mine and I like what they do. This is a great education for me to, to get inside these plays and be part of the production; it’s really fascinating to see how plays are brought to the stage. I want to reassure your readers though that I haven’t “Gone Broadway.” (laughs)
I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you, with all the false starts, some actual shows, and the release of the Epitaph box set a few years ago…how possible is it for an original King Crimson line up to go out and tour?
It’s virtually impossible. It’s strange because I did get a call from Robert Fripp once suggesting that he, myself, Michael Giles and John Wetton go out as King Crimson. This was a few years ago and I said no. The reason was that literally I had just been speaking to Greg Lake, and I said to him I’d never go out with King Crimson unless it was the original lineup. I had just got through saying that when Robert called, which on the face of it would have been a good band to go out with. That was about as close as we got.
I did go out with a band called 21st Century Schizoid Band. That was with Michael originally on drums but he dropped out and the late Ian Wallace came in. That was, for the most part, kind of fun. We had Mel Collins in too. We had double sax. It was pretty good. We did go to a number of interesting places like Russia and Greece, Spain and here in the U.S. That was kind of cool and we had lots of audience members saying they had been waiting 30 years to hear certain songs. It was very gratifying in that regard but the tour fizzled out. It was poorly organized and there was a lot of weird internal stuff going on.
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk to me. You have lots of fans at Vintage Rock and they are going to be happy to hear about your latest musical adventures I am sure.
Well, thank you very much.