Sweet Memories: We talk with Roger McGuinn
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 for his contributions to The Byrds, Roger McGuinn needs no introduction. He developed a style of guitar playing that Tom Petty, Peter Buck, Vicki Peterson and Johnny Marr learned to emulate, steering The Byrds from psychedelia (Younger Than Yesterday, 1967) to country rock (Sweetheart of The Rodeo, 1968), the band’s work both critically lauded and globally celebrated. He penned the seminal 'Ballad of Easy Rider' for the Dennis Hopper project Easy Rider and brought his musical expertise to Bob Dylan’s 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid' album. In 1995, McGuinn began recording and uploading a series of traditional folk songs to his web site and with Sweet Memories, he has just released his newest solo work.
Hello Roger. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to speak to a musician of your fame and prowess. This is your first rock CD since 2004. What was the impetus?
Why, thank you very much [laughs]. Well, the fans were coming up to us and asking for 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and 'Turn Turn Turn', and we don’t own those, they belong to Sony and Sony won’t give them to us at a price that’s reasonable [laughs], so the idea came up of re-recording and having them on an album for fans at concerts, and that’s really what the whole thing was about. And then we put in some other songs that we’d written over the years that hadn’t been recorded and a very fun song called 'Friday', a spoof on this girl called Rebecca Black, who recorded a video back in 2011 or something, and Nate Herman, who is an actor, he put together a video that he claims is by Bob Dylan and that The Byrds had done it, I thought it was such a funny story that I thought it would be fun to record that song too.
Did you record The Byrds originals differently in the studio than in a way you had with the band?
No, no, I wanted to be faithful to the originals. That was what the fans requested, and they wanted them to sound the way they did in the sixties. I think I did 'Mr. Tambourine Man' slightly faster, my take on the original was that it was a bit slow. So, I think I sped that up a little bit. The other ones are pretty much the way I heard them on the record.
You and Camilla McGuinn are collaborators on this album. How do you collaborate?
Well, I’ve got kind of a funny story, in that sometimes she’ll write something and I’ll say “that’s really stupid” and she’ll say “tell me, when you write songs with Tom Petty, do you say that’s really stupid to him?” [laughs uproariously] and of course, I never would, I miss him a great deal. He was a really good friend, we had a lot of fun together. Camilla and I have been collaborating since we met forty years ago. I always enjoy writing with somebody else, two heads are better than one, and some of my favourite collaborators have been with Jacques Levy and Camilla, really. Tom Petty too, 'King of The Hill', that was a great collaboration.
Yes, that’s a terrific song. Your song 'The Edge of The Water' was written next to a ship’s balcony. Does the ocean aid your creative muse?
Yeah, over the last ten years, I’ve really gotten into getting on ships and just the wonderful feeling of being out at sea. Being sort of isolated from the rest of the world. It’s very peaceful out there, although it can be deadly, but I find it very soothing and calming, so that’s what that song is.
And the title track, it dates back to the eighties, so what brought it back to life?
We were thinking that these songs are sweet memories, all of them, and so the song 'Sweet Memories' came into play. I wanted to say about 'The Edge of The Water', it’s a new song that sounds like an old song. I engineered it to sound like an old folk song.
'Light of The Darkness' was written at the beginning of your marriage. Can I ask, has it grown in time?
Well, it’s a song I wrote right away, as soon as we got married, and I’ve done it on stage in a few places, but never recorded it. I think it still means to me as it always did, it hasn’t gotten bigger or smaller or anything. It’s really just some good advice.
You are a seminal guitarist. How has your style changed over the years?
I’ve experimented with quite a few different styles. As a folk singer, I played the five string banjo, three finger style and that played into what I did later when I played with the Rickenbacker. I did a lot of arpeggios. Then I’ve gotten into more classical guitar styles, almost flamenco styles when I play certain songs like 'Eight Miles High'. I played around with classical techniques on the guitar, which I find very relaxing actually. I like to do that.
I believe George Harrison considered you an influence on his playing. Is that true?
I think we influenced each other as guitarists. I learned how to play lead lines the way George played them on the Rickenbacker in the movie Hard Day’s Night, he’d go up and down the G strings with a lead line and I’d emulate that, because it has more punch, it’s punchier than if you go to the higher string, the B string or the E string. That played into my developing the seven string Martin that has an octave G strings.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is one of the greatest albums of the sixties. You’re touring with a live version; how do you feel about this?
Well, it’s a song, a record, I mean, that wasn’t well received when it first came out and then over forty or fifty years, it became the most interesting Byrds album, especially to Rolling Stone magazine, it finally rose up in the charts in Rolling Stone, in their Top 500 albums of All Time and I just thought its worthy of a fiftieth anniversary celebration. It’s just America for now, and we’re really just going to go until maybe December because the fiftieth anniversary is from 1968 until 2018, so we don’t want to go beyond that, especially because David Crosby would probably perceive it as a mini Byrds tour. We don’t want to hurt his feelings.
Will you collaborate with Crosby again?
I haven’t collaborated with Crosby for a long time, it’s going to be Chris Hellman who will be on this tour. And Marty Stuart. And the fabulous Superlatives, they’re amazing, I played with them , I toured with them in 2015 and really enjoyed it.
There are some terrific lyrics on the new album, really heartfelt and some great songs. Have you any future projects?
I’m glad to hear that, its had some mixed reviews, some people object to The Byrds re-recorded. They don’t understand the reason for it, they think I’m, I don’t know what, just trying to say that “I am The Byrds” or something, which I’m not, just doing it for the fans. I’m not supposed to praise my own work, but we’ve been driving around with the record and it makes really good music for the road, its really good driving music. No new projects right now, going to go out touring, that’ll probably take up most of my time, and we’ll probably go back to recording some time next year.