Return Of The Prog Prodigal… IAN McDONALD Interviewed In 2004

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Forced into the army by disciplinarian parents, Ian McDonald (born 25.06.46, in Osterley) spent The Summer Of Love square-bashing but was out in time to co-create the influential dark psychedelia of King Crimson in 1969. Having answered the obligatory ad in Melody Maker with girlfriend and sometime Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble, he became a member of Giles, Giles And Fripp in time to appear in a Dunlop commercial with them (as “groovy guys.”) Shortly thereadter, G,G&F metamophosed into King Crimson, the Prog pioneers whose light burned twice as brightly and half as long. Leaving the band at the climx of a hugely successful U.S. tour in December ’69, McDonald worked as a highly respected session man (for artists as diverse as T. Rex and Centipede) and was a founding member of Foreigner, as well as releasing his underrated solo album Drivers Eyes in 1999. When we spoke in May 2004 his career had just come full circle, with his involvement in The 21st Century Schizoid Band, an impressive collection of Crimson alumni…

Ian, I’m so grateful that you could take the time out to talk. I really enjoyed seeing Schizoid Band last Saturday night in Rotherham and also at the Stables Theatre in Milton Keynes last year…

That was our first gig!

What, the very first one?

Well, the first proper one. We did previously play the Canterbury festival but that didn’t count as a proper gig, it was just running on and running off again

If I was to play the devils advocate, can you tell me what value there is in reassembling these players and reviving this repertoire at this moment in time?

Well, for one thing this group of players has not played together before as a group, we’ve all played at various times in various configurations and its a great opportunity for us to work together, you know, I mean obviously you are aware of your contemporaries and it’s a great opportunity to work with one another but in terms of the material, much of it hasn’t been played for many many years and in some cases it’s never been performed live. It’s a great opportunity to perform these pieces for the public and for ourselves as well, you know it sounds fresh to me, it’s not as if we are reviving old material that has been done over and over again, so its great and I think its valid to do it and the audience are really enjoying it.

Who was the prime mover in  getting the band together?

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Well the idea really was Peter Sinfield’s, the original idea was to put some kind of big extravaganza together, all ex-King Crimson members playing at big venues, going right through the history of the group and that sort of thing, but that original idea got distilled down a bit and became The Schizoid band. Rather than starting out on a big scale we’re starting out with a core group of musicians and building it, allowing it to grow from there. It was originally Peter’s idea though, that’s where it came from.

Will Peter be collaborating with you in the Schizoid Band?

I hope so, yeah, part of the idea of the group is not just to do the same material as the Crimson in the 60’s and 70’s etc, but to bring new, original material to the repertoire and that’s what we’d like to do, in fact next year our hope is to record an album of new material and I would very much like Peter to be involved in the writing of it and I think he would too… so yeah, definitely.

I very much liked the track Catleys Ashes, which sounds good as a studio extra on your “Live In Italy” CD but really takes off live…

That’s an original composition by our singer / guitarist Jakko, yeah a very good piece and that’s the kind of thing we want to bring in. That’s new material, and we do one relatively new song of mine and Peter Sinfield’s called Lets There Be Light from my solo album Drivers Eyes and we do want to record an album or original material, as I said we’re treating this like a real band… it’s not about nostalgia or a “tribute band” or anything… I wish I hadn’t said that, I really hate that whole “tribute band” thing…

It’s more of an organic thing…

Yeah, we’re all original members, every piece that we play, one or more of us was directly involved in the original version of that… its the real thing!

History has repeated itself, with Michael Giles leaving the band at a very early stage…

Yeah…

So what happened there?

Well, that’s a complicated question, but to answer it, he had trouble with the touring and also making the commitment to the band which was very upsetting at the time because everybody else was committed to the group… but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Ian Wallace who, as everyone knows, has also played drums in King Crimson is now in the group and it’s just gone really well and as I say, it turned out to be a blessing because morale is now that much higher, the musicianship is developing, it’s a really good band and it’s turned out for the better.

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The thing that struck me strongly the other night in Rotherham, in comparison with your show at The Stables, was that Jakko was really stepping out much more as a guitar player… at the earlier gig he was playing and singing well but he was leaving most of the lead stuff to you and Mel Collins,  now he seems to have stepped out of the long shadow of Robert Fripp…. do you think that’s a fair comment?

I suppose so, you’d probably have to ask him how he feels about that… I’m very pleased to see Jakko really stepping out, he just goes form strength to strength. I have an awful lot of admiration for him because either singing vocals or playing guitar on these songs is no easy matter, but to do both at the same time is really quite remarkable. Were very lucky to have him at the centre of the band, up front, he’s also done an incredible amount behind the scenes as well in terms of the organisation, using his contacts and that sort of thing. He’s been invaluable.

When the band was being put together, before you settled on Jakko, was anybody else in the frame for guitar and vocals?

Not really, Jakko’s name came up through Mike Giles…

… who I understand is his father-in-law…

Yeah, Mike suggested Jakko to me in the first place, I wasn’t that familiar with his work but as soon  as we got together for a trial run it worked just great.

Going back to your departure from the original King Crimson, I  just wondered how you felt about it now, and how your thoughts about it have changed over the course of 30-odd years…

Yeah well, you can’t change history. I’ve always said, many times, that it was an impulsive decision. Perhaps I should have given it a little more thought. It was rather an immature thing to do, I wasn’t quite aware of how good the band was at the time and what it was I was leaving, I was a bit sort of cavalier about it, and impulsive. In hindsight perhaps yes, I should have stayed at least for the second album but there’s not much can be done about that and this group, the Schizoid Band, in a way is a little bit of a redemption for me, because we are playing a fair amount of that material which the original band did…

You play all of the first album except Moon Child…

Yes and we do later material from In The Wake Of Poseidon and Red and Islands… and Lizard, so that brings the conversation full circle, yes I feel slightly redeemed playing in this band. It was probably an unfortunate decision to leave, but with hindsight I realise how important the band was…

They say that the candle which burns twice as bright only burns for half as long…

OK, it certainly was like that, it was an odd mixture of personalities and it did burn very brightly for a very short while…

What do you think of the archive releases that Fripp is putting out? Do you have any say in whether they come out or not, or how they are presented?

When anything like that is coming out all of the relevant members are informed, we all sort of stay in touch in that regard and we generally approve of these releases.

Has Fripp made any pronouncement on the Schizoid Band?

I don’t think he’s seen the band live. He certainly supports it, which is nice, you know… support is nice wherever it comes from, but it’s gratifying that he does approve.

I wonder if you had any memories of your guest appearance on the Crimson album Red, which one gleans was recorded at yet another turbulent point in the band’s  history… do you remember it being a particularly difficult session?

I remember doing the session, as far as what was going on around it I wasn’t that aware of the internal politics of the band or what was going on… it certainly took me by surprise and I think John Wetton and Bill Bruford were taken by surprise too, when Robert disbanded the group so suddenly, because I had just agreed to rejoin…

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Wetton / McDonald

I wondered how solid that was, I mean were there any rehearsals with you in that line up?

No, there were no rehearsals… I believe it was in the recording studio after I’d done my solo on One… what was it called?

One More Red Nightmare.

… One More Red Nightmare, right, and Robert asked if I would be interested in touring with the group. I said yeah, John and Bill were really in favour of that, of going out as a four-piece then Robert for his own reasons, I don’t know…

… he was supposed to have experienced some sort of spiritual epiphany or something.

I don’t know about that, it was a difficult time for everybody, I don’t know and I don’t want to guess but it was all a big surprise and a great disappointment, really…

… for all of us. When Sid Smith talks about the album Red in his book about Crimson he says, of the track Starless, something like: “it’s a fantasy King Crimson featuring both Ian McDonald and Mel Collins, imagine how cool that would be” and here you are of course now, both playing horns in the Schizoid Band…

Yeah (laughs)

So what’s it like, playing off Mel?

Oh its great, and again it reinforces the idea of this being a legitimate group, playing this material… I’m really enjoying playing with Mel, we’ve known each other for many years but never actually played together… our contributions to Starless were recorded separately… he’s great to work with.

He seems like a really shy person.

He’s not as shy as me, actually.

Well, you seem pretty shy, too.

Don’t be fooled by that, though.

Well, you’ve got to judge people by what they achieve, and your track record is beyond dispute.

Oh, that’s nice

It’s a fact… speaking of Sid Smith’s book, did you like it? Did you think it gave a balanced picture of what went down?

I did enjoy it, I think it was very fair and well written, yeah… it’s not easy to write about music but he made the albums sound very interesting and actually made me want to listen to them again. He’s a great guy, actually.

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Signing Sid Smith’s In The Court Of King Crimson with J Wetton and M Giles (sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk)

Listening to the material recorded by Giles, Giles & Fripp, both before and after you joined the group, I’m always amazed that that band never got anywhere…

Yeah, perhaps it was a little quirky for the time, I mean they were probably a hard group to market. When I joined with Judy Dyble it was going through a transitional period which turned out to be the transition into King Crimson, so the original trio of Giles, Giles And Fripp wasn’t around for that long in that form. I don’t know if the record company ever really got behind them.

I also think that the album which you made with Michael Giles stands up very well. What do you think of that album in retrospect, and is there any possibility of you and Michael making another?

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The chances of us making another one are very very slim at the moment, but you never know… I don’t know how to describe it really, it’s very much of its time. There was some very good writing on it and I was really glad of the opportunity to remaster it. When the album originally came out there were all sorts of time and budgetary constraints which meant we didn’t really have the chance to put the finishing touches to it. I was happy to go into the studio and just trim it up a bit here and there, now there are some really subtle editing and timing changes, little changes in the silences and that sort of thing… to me it sounds much better now than the original. I’m proud of Birdman as a piece of writing, it’s pretty good, even though I do say so myself.

Presumably you’d agree that the legacy of King Crimson has been criminally underrated, if you consider the influence the band exerted over the likes of Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music… Tony Blair recently cited 21st Century Schizoid Man as his favourite song ever, which you might have mixed feelings about…

Oh yeah…

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Is the problem that “Prog Rock” has become such a reviled term?

That’s a big question and it’s hard to answer from the inside, you know… we never really thought of ourselves as “Prog Rock” it’s not the kind of label we’d apply to ourselves and I don’t particularly care for it. The definition of it has sort of narrowed into something medieval with very flowery lyrics… on Court Of The Crimson King, Peter Sinfield deliberately wrote in this stylised, colourful language but the lyrics were actually very current, commenting on the state of things at the time, it was just sort of phrased in this way, but most “Progressive” bands and writers then tried to emulate that style. This applies to the music as well, “Prog” has become a very narrow term whereas originally the idea was to be expansive, more inclusive of other styles of music rather than just the same old “two guitars, bass and drum” rock band format, so we included classical and jazz elements… you’ve got me going on this “Prog rock” thing, now! Going back to your original question, King Crimson obviously have influenced people but whether it’s been for the best or not, I don’t know. I’m proud of what we did and if people are inspired by it then I’m really happy about that, but we never decided to form a “Progressive Rock” band together, it was just the times…

… the Zeitgeist…

Exactly! The opportunity was there, groups were given more freedom in the studio, we were able to produce our own album, you know… The Beatles had a lot to do with what was going on, this idea of using the studio as an instrument and just being free to make the music that they wanted, that impacted on the rest of the music business for a while… after a few years record companies started demanding more control over producers and budgets and that sort of thing again, but there was a time there when bands had a lot more freedom to express themselves in the studio. We weren’t given a lot of time though, I must add the first album was done very, very quickly, eight days from beginning to end I believe, including the mixing.

As opposed to somebody like Boston, who shipped a load of albums and were then given four years or something to record the follow-up.

(laughs) Yeah, that’s what happened later.

We haven’t said anything about Peter Giles yet, he comes across on stage as the joker in the pack…

Oh well, I really don’t know how to respond to that, whether to agree or disagree… but he’s a wonderful bass player and I’m sure that he is really enjoying this opportunity to play in the group. It must have been difficult for him in the beginning when Giles, Giles & Fripp became King Crimson and he was no longer a part of it… I’m sure it must be very satisfying for him to be able to go out and play this music. It’s great having him in the group and I hope he uses the opportunity to really go for it and at the same time take this group really seriously in terms of being a professional, creative endeavour.

The oft-touted reformation of the original King Crimson never happens, is this largely down to the apparent animosity between Fripp and Greg Lake?

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Peter Sinfield keeps Fripp & Lake apart in 1970

As we mentioned earlier it was a very odd mixture of personalities… that hasn’t changed (laughs) and has possibly even got worse as the years go by. I never say never but again, it’s very unlikely that it will ever happen… for a number of reasons. The Fripp and Lake thing might be part of it, there are also other members who might not want to work with each other, it’s a very difficult thing… and I think the Schizoid Band is equally important in a way… I don’t really want to make a categorical answer because stranger things have happened, but it’s really unlikely.

What’s in the immediate future for the Schizoid Band?

Definitely more touring, it’s being set up right now for us to tour The States in the spring, which I’m really looking forward to, then hopefully we can get in the studio that summer and record an album, then tour again… more shows are being organised all the time, and I can’t stress enough that this isn’t merely a one-off, its an ongoing undertaking. We’re going from strength to strength at the moment, morale is good, energy levels are really high and everybody is really relishing this opportunity to play together, to play this wonderful material and to develop, to write new material and we’ll treat it as a viable band, y’know, because that’s what it is.

It’s been a great pleasure speaking to you.

It’s my pleasure, too. I appreciate your interest.

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Categories: Interviews | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Return Of The Prog Prodigal… IAN McDONALD Interviewed In 2004

  1. The Silent Assassin

    A wonderful insight into the world of the 21st Century Schizoid band. It’s a pity the band weren’t around for very long, and that they didn’t produce an album before their demise.

    Like

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