Listen To What the Man Said: Paul McCartney discusses his dance-music project Fireman, the Beatles and, of course, the loves of his life

Feb 11, 2009 at 4:00 am

I magine you know who Paul McCartney is, but here are some recent data: He's 66 years old, single and financially secure. He recently released Electric Arguments, the third album by Fireman, an ongoing side project that represents the former Beatle's foray into trance and dance music. Composed of McCartney and British producer/DJ Youth, Fireman opens its third full-length release with "Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight," a tune that features the most bone-rattling vocal McCartney's delivered since "Helter Skelter." The first time I heard it on the radio, I thought it was Jack White. On the occasion of McCartney being announced as a Coachella headliner — and because he's the author of the Valentine's Day-appropriate "Silly Love Songs" — he agreed to a short chat.

Kristine McKenna: At what point did you become an adult?

Paul McCartney: When my first baby was born.

How old do you feel emotionally?


What's the biggest obstacle you've overcome in your life?

Linda's death.

What was it about Linda Eastman that made her such a stabilizing force in your life?

She was just such a super-cool girl. She just was. She was super cool.

Do you believe in destiny?


Do you believe in karma, or do some people get away with murder?

I believe in karma [laughing], and I believe people get away with murder, too. For a while. Somewhere down the line, everyone must pay for their misdeeds.

The Beatles' music was always wonderful, but at a certain point, it became something more than entertainment; at what point did you know that the work you were doing was important?

It's difficult to discuss this without sounding immodest, but I think I started to feel it around the time of "Eleanor Rigby." Prior to that, I thought the music was very good, and I realized we were in a different league when we wrote "From Me To You," because it had a middle eight in it and went somewhere we hadn't been before, but you used the word "important." For me, "Eleanor Rigby" was the start of that.

What's the most significant difference between work you do as Fireman and the rest of your music?

Fireman is improvisational theater. When I sit down to write a song, it's a kind of improvisation, but I formalize it a bit to get it into the studio, and when I step up to a microphone, I have a vague idea of what I'm about to do. I usually have a song, and I know the melody and lyrics, and my performance is the only unknown. In this case, I had neither lyrics nor melody to go on — and it felt great. The previous Fireman record didn't have vocals, so when we began adding them for this record, the music moved into the area of improvisational theater, as the lyrics were improvised in the studio as well. I'd arrive at the studio in the morning, and the first thing I'd do would be to apologize to the engineers. I'd say, "OK, guys, this could really be the most serious error of my career."

Working that way, how do you know when a piece of music is finished?

Instinct. I paint, and that's the trick with painting, too, particularly if you paint in the abstract form. You've just got to know when it's time to stop.

To what degree was the music sculpted in the editing?

Very much, and that's where Youth comes in. I trust him implicitly. He's a DJ, and I went to one of his gigs to watch him work, and he's good. He mixes stuff there and then, and it's the same process with Fireman. He takes everything I throw at him and selects what he thinks is the best, and 99 percent of the time I agree with him.

What's the most useful thing about money?

Helping people who are ill. I have a very large family, and if anybody gets ill, I can help them.

What's the biggest problem money creates?

Wow, you're getting deep, girl! I've never even met you! OK, the biggest problem are the kinds of people who have license plates like one I saw in East Hampton: It read Rich 1. The kind of people who actually believe they're cool because they've got money — I can't begin to describe the symptoms of that, but you know what I'm talking about.

What's the most significant historical event you've witnessed?

The death of John Kennedy. He was our hope and he got wiped out, and we hadn't realized that hope could get wiped out quite so easily. But now Obama's brought it back. I love it.

Is memory more apt to be a source of pain or pleasure?


Do you feel nostalgic for the past?

Nostalgia's not the right word, because it implies something sort of wrong. I love the past. There are parts of the past I hate, of course. My mum died, Linda died, John died and George died, so I can't say I love everything about it, but I have a great affection for the past. And why shouldn't I? I was just some kid from Liverpool, who walked around the streets with John Lennon and wrote songs with him, and met this beautiful girl from New York, then married her and had kids with her — why shouldn't I love the past? Mine has been good.

What aspect of the future, as you envision it, do you find most disturbing?

It's not a good idea to look at, or for, disturbances. They come anyway, so I don't invite them. Rather than just moan, "We're all fucked," it's better to work on avoiding them. A big subject of mine is a report recently completed by the U.N., called "Livestock's Long Shadow," which makes the point that the most important thing people could do for the future of the planet would be to eat vegetarian. Cattle-rearing is one of the most destructive human activities on Earth, and at this point, it's taking a bigger toll on the planet than airplanes and cars.

Are most people willing to change?

People are willing to change when they have to. I suppose people would all go to Disneyland and have milkshakes at McDonald's and wear Bermuda shorts if you didn't tell them it wasn't a good idea, and sometimes we have no choice but to speak in their ears very loudly.

Would you agree that most artists do their best work when they're hungry?

I think that's probably true.

When people approach you on the street, what do they want?

More often than not they just want to communicate, and it's normally quite cool. Everybody these days has a camera on their phone, so now they ask, "Can I have a photograph with you?" I say, "I'd rather not, because if I have a photograph with you, then somebody else will see us and say, 'I've got a phone and I'd like a photograph, too.'" It's funny, I was talking to a celebrity friend, and he made the point that people who don't even like your work line up for autographs and photographs, saying, "I can get one for my grandma!" Often, when I'm approached for a photograph or autograph, I try to persuade the person that what we really want is communication. That takes longer than signing a quick autograph, but it's an important point to make.