So Much Fun: An Interview With Ian McDonald

“It (King Crimson) was fun!  It was done with a tremendous amount of humor. The image of King Crimson is sort of this monstrous band, but it was so much fun!  We were just having a laugh.– Ian McDonald

Between King Crimson and Foreigner (the two iconic bands he co-founded), Ian McDonald has figured prominently on not less than four of the biggest-selling albums between 1969 through 1979; no easy feat. His music has encompassed two distinct rock genres, and he is a bona fide “Prog rock god” in the eyes of his countless fans worldwide.  His career in music has spanned half a century, never once becoming stagnant, boring or mundane.

A major reason that his music has remained vibrant and exciting is because of his ceaseless endeavor to create new directions in music (he is one of Progressive rock’s ‘founding fathers’) as well as explore diverse genres. At 73, he shows no signs of slowing down his busy touring schedule, nor any inclination to rest on his laurels; unlike many of his musical peers. For those very reasons, it’s well worth looking into any project that Ian McDonald puts his hand to, and his latest band, Honey West, and their 2017 debut album Bad Old World, is no exception.

Honey West band members clockwise: Maxwell McDonald, Ted Zurkowski, Ian McDonald, Steve Holley.

The band consists of Ian McDonald on guitar, NYC theatre actor Ted Zurkowski on lead vocals, McDonald’s son Maxwell McDonald on bass, and drummer Steve Holley (whose credits include Paul McCartney & Wings). Their 2017 debut album Bad Old World includes this band lineup, as well as boasting a guest appearance by Graham Maby (Joe Jackson, They Might Be Giants) on bass (Brand New Car, California, A Girl Called Life).

McDonald proudly boasts that Bad Old World contains “some of the best work I’ve ever done.”In holding that belief, McDonald is far from alone.  Goldmine Magazine proclaimed Bad Old World as “one of my favorite albums of 2017” and included it, as did WFUV/New York’s Darren DeVivo, on its year-end Top Album list. The Vinyl District observed that Bad Old World is an album whose songs  “flow with spunk and real world rebellion…The overall exuberance that comes through encourages a resounding ‘yes.” Glide Magazine cheerfully noted that the album is “full of just good, fun, crisp-sounding, non-overproduced songs, and it’s very much worthy of a listen,” while Short & Sweet (NY/LA) deemed it “truly perfect.” It has also earned attention and praise from Premiere Radio Networks, the Huffington Post, M Music & Musicians and Digital First Media.

Fun-loving Ian McDonald took a break last week in New York City, in the midst of rehearsals for their upcoming show at NYC’s The Cutting Room, to sit down with The Los Angeles Beat and chat about his new band, the band’s release this month of the Collector’s Deluxe Edition box set of their 2017 debut album, and the 50th anniversary of King Crimson’s seminal album In The Court of The Crimson King:

I find it both fascinating and gratifying when I see older, more ‘seasoned’ music artists-such as yourself-go in a different direction musically, later in their career.  You continue to tour with Foreigner, still performing to packed crowds in larger arenas worldwide. What made you decide to undertake such a radical departure from your previous accomplishments?

I always try never to repeat myself, and I have always worked in different styles. I saw Honey West as an opportunity to get back in the studio and on stage and make an album as a producer and player and songwriter, because I felt I was ready to do something new. I’ve always tried to move into new territories musically, although everything is really the same to me, in a sense. It’s all music. The different genres are never really that far apart musically.

Honey West is quite a striking departure-both musically and visually-from your previous bands.  Tell our readers how you came together with Ted Zurkowsky to form this band.

Ted and his wife literally lived across the street from me. We eventually began talking and I found out that he had a trio called Honey West. I went to see them and was ready to do something new, and I saw the potential of getting involved in something new for myself, if they would have me. And fortunately they were happy to let me become involved.

Critics note that Honey West’s sound is more ‘old school’ Rock & Roll; a genre that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s music.  Was this a conscious effort on the part of you and Ted, or did it just spontaneously, naturally occur as you worked together?

I think the latter. Obviously one is influenced by what one hears and we wanted to preserve some kind of fresh sound – live group music in the studio rather than using computer generated sounds. We both enjoy the live playing aspect of the band, and hopefully that comes across on the Honey West album.

Unlike other people you have worked with in your previous bands. Ted Zurkowsky comes from a background in the theatre.  To my knowledge, this is Ted’s first foray into Rock & Roll.  What unique qualities do you think that Ted brings to the band, as a direct result of his extensive background in the theatre?

Ted has excellent stage presence and is a perfect front man for the band, as well as being a very talented lyric writer, so drawing on his experience with Shakespeare and Chekhov and other famous playwrights, he was able to bring that kind of intelligence and humor into his songwriting. I was very happy to discover that because it’s not easy to find a really good lyric writer. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to become involved in Honey West.

The front cover artwork for the Collector Deluxe Edition vinyl and CD of Bad Old World.

With the re-release to vinyl this month, of the band’s debut album Bad Old World, you have put together quite a formidable package that’s sure to please your fans.  This collector’s vinyl edition includes every copy autographed by yourself and Ted Zurkowski, a CD of Bad Old World also autographed by yourself and Ted, plus excerpts from your original production notebook-in your own handwriting–as well as bonus production and liner notes.  All I can say is WOW!  That is one hell of a deal for only $39.95! 

Yes, thank you. I hope as many people as possible become aware of that. I think it’s a really good package. The album itself is really worth a listen. If one is interested in the extras too, so much the better.

The debut album’s release to vinyl will be on 180 gram, so you certainly are not sparing any expense to bring to your fans a top quality listening experience for an album that garnered glowing reviews from quite a number of leading music-related magazines (such as Goldmine) and discerning music critics!  You’ve been quoted as saying “This is how ‘Bad Old World’ was meant to be heard: on high quality vinyl.”  Tell our readers how you managed to keep the price down, and the high quality sustained in this deluxe, collector’s edition of Bad Old World.

As I was quoted in your question, I like to present music in as high a quality as I can. We made every effort to do that, and make it easily accessible at the same time.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you feel this album contains “Some of the best work I’ve ever done.”  From your work with King Crimson, Foreigner, Michael Giles and your solo work, sir that is really saying something!  Can you elaborate on that statement for our readers?

Hopefully one improves with experience and time, and I drew on my experience as a producer to put all my best efforts into this record.

At the present time, Honey West are staying “close to home” in the band’s native New York City.  Will the band be touring anytime soon in Los Angeles?

Of course we’d love to do that, and we hope that will come about in the near future.

Ian McDonald in 1969, during his days with King Crimson. Photo courtesy of The Official King Crimson Website. All rights reserved.

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of what is arguably one of the finest, most original and influential albums in the entire history of Rock music: In The Court of The Crimson King.  Speaking for myself, listening to it is like looking at a Rembrandt painting: the exquisite details of its composition demand repeated listening to fully detect and appreciate. Damn, it’s a masterpiece!  Robert Fripp speaks of an elusive “fairy” spirit that from the album’s beginning to completion, he felt oversaw every aspect of the album’s production, and you’ve stated that you felt it, too.  Can you describe this special “spirit” that helped guide the creation of this amazing album?

It was just a whimsical term. No one can really prove that. We just used to call it our good fairy. Whether there was something else at work there, no one knows, but we certainly felt that the combination of the five of us was enabling us to produce the album that we did. And by the way, in a very short period of time, in terms of studio time.

Peter Sinfield loves to tell the story of how you took the album’s title song, deconstructed everything except its lyrics, and in effect re-built it into the masterwork it is today. When you first heard Sinfield’s ‘folksy’, original version of the song, what were the very first thoughts that came to your mind?

I thought his lyrics deserved a more majestic environment, and that’s what I aimed to do. Pete was very happy to let me run with it and write completely new music for the song.

Were there any particular artistic challenges in refashioning that title track?  If so, what were they?

No real challenges. We kept the lyric absolutely intact from the original. I just heard some greater things for the song.

Which song(s)-if any-proved to be the most daunting and/or time consuming to compose?  Which song(s) came to you the easiest?

I can’t say which were the hardest to compose. I know that in the studio, Epitaph for some reason took a while to record the basic track, whereas 21st Century Schizoid Man was recorded in the same time that it takes to listen to it today. In other words, one take, no edits.

ITCOTCK Front Jacket Sleeve

Another interesting aspect of ITCOTCK is that its influence isn’t limited to the genre of ‘Prog Rock’ alone, but instead continues to be heard in other genres of Rock.  In addition, unlike so many other albums released within the last fifty years, it continues to sound fresh and exciting, even with repeated listening. In fact, IMHO it actually sounds better when listened to repeatedly.  These fifty years later, do you find yourself in a bit of awe at the album’s enduring influence and popularity?

Without sounding conceited, it doesn’t surprise me. I’m very honored that people are still listening 50 years down the road, but in one sense it doesn’t surprise me because one thing I tried to do as the main producer was be very careful to have every moment be able to be listened to hundreds of times, so that hopefully the album would withstand the test of time. Here we are 50 years later, and people are still talking about it. I’m not the sole reason, but it’s one thing I look out for every time I set out to record: will it withstand many, many listenings? That’s my role as a producer, and hopefully that’s why we’re still talking about it today.

King Crimson: I Talk To The Wind: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8i0l6

Is there a particular aspect to the album that-a full half century later-you take particular pride in?

There’s one stretch, which is the coda to I Talk to the Wind, which contains solo flute by me, and which I feel blessed that I was able to get to play at the time under the circumstances, such as time restraints and other concerns. In terms of just a moment, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of and thankful for, that I managed to pull off that flute solo, which is actually two solos. I had two passes. I played one, then another. So you hear the beginning of one solo, then it switches to the ending of the other. You can hear the switch if you listen closely, and that doesn’t bother me. I think it’s amusing and I feel lucky to have had both of those takes to compile. And then there’s the overall song Epitaph, which happens to be my favorite on the album.

If you could travel back in time, is there anything that you would have done differently in the making of the album?

Yes, I probably would have put some acoustic guitar on I Talk to the Wind, which is the way I originally wrote it. Had I done that, it would not come as much of a surprise, with any luck, to people when they learn that I play guitar. I didn’t play any guitar on the album. That would have given it the flavor of the original composition. Guitar, in fact, was my first instrument.

Looking back, as many (if not most) King Crimson fans now consider ITCOTCK to be the band’s creative high point, and your contributions played an integral part in the creation of that album, do you have any regrets about departing from the band so soon after the album’s completion? 

I used to have regrets about that, and that I should have stayed at least through the second album. But now I don’t regret it because had I stayed, things would have turned out differently for me up until this moment. One can’t change that. Things are meant to be the way they’re meant to be. I’m very happy with the way things have played out since then. I have learned not to regret such things and to enjoy where I am in the present.

Special Note: Last month, Ian McDonald’s fans were given the opportunity to submit one question to Ian, for him to answer.  The following are the lucky fans whose question was chosen

Susan Garrelts:Ian, what type of flute do you use, and do you prefer open hole? Thanks!”

I have a Haynes closed hole flute from the 1930s, which my erstwhile flute teacher found for me. It’s not what I played on In the Court of the Crimson King,  but it’s the one I used most recently. I prefer closed hole flute.

Cheryl Remington:“Ian, who were your musical influences? Everything from guitarists, flute players, sax and so on?”

I try to be influenced in a good way by everything I hear, whether it be classical composers such as Stravinsky or Beethoven or Richard Strauss, to out jazz players such as Eric Dolphy to the early rockers such as Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran through Chuck Berry to The Beatles and on and on.

Susan Mooney Accola:Ask him if he will marry me!!!    I love that man…and his music…and his whole self!!!   What a sweet sounding guy!”

I’ve been married twice. Maybe the third time is the charm. Who knows?

The Collector’s Deluxe Edition of Bad Old World is now available at the official Honey West website: www.honeywestmusic.comEvery copy will be autographed by Ian McDonald and Ted Zurkowski. In addition, every collector’s package will include a Bad Old World CD, also autographed by Ian and Ted, plus excerpts from Ian’s original production notebook (in his handwriting) as well as bonus production and liner notes.

HONEY WEST ON THE WEB:

www.honeywestmusic.com

www.facebook.com/honeywestmusic

YouTube Channel

All photos courtesy of Randex Communications, except where indicated otherwise.

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Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Peña began her career as a music journalist almost twenty years ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes: the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Peña has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them: Goldmine, American Songwriter, Classic Drummer Magazine and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Peña loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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6 Responses to So Much Fun: An Interview With Ian McDonald

  1. Cheryl Remington says:

    What a great interview with Ian!
    Thank you!!

  2. Euripides Upman says:

    I really enjoyed your interview with Ian, Shirley. Ian continues to impress and inspire me.

    • Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

      Great to hear from you, Euripides! I’m delighted that you enjoyed my interview with Ian! Hopefully, in the near future I will get the opportunity to interview Ian once again, in which case I will ask him about his 1970 LP with Michael Giles, his enduring, wonderful work with Foreigner and his 1999 solo album Driver’s Eyes. THANKS for stopping by.

  3. Shirley – it’s Haynes flute, not Hynes. They are considered the best resonating, and well…. best flutes made and have been for 60 years,

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