By Lee Zimmerman
Teetering on the verge of breaking up some 40 years ago, a promising British band named Mott the Hoople gamely struggled to find its rightful audience. Five albums on, the band’s brash bombast had garnered its members little more than a cult following, and they found themselves at a precipice where few options remained open.
It was at that crucial juncture that fate conspired to offer the members of Mott a hand in the form of David Bowie, who promptly offered the band “All The Young Dudes,” one of the most enduring rock anthems of all time. It was all Mott The Hoople needed to continue to soldier on, and from that point forward, the band’s brand was forever viable, ensuring a legacy that lingered intact.
The man at the helm in those days of tumult and triumph was the tousle-haired, sunglasses-wearing, raspy-voiced rocker named Ian Hunter. As the band’s singer, keyboardist and guitarist, he also furnished the band with an exceptional stock of songs and a persona that generated immediate attention.
Though the years have advanced, Hunter’s devotion to rock and roll has remained stalwart. He’s offered up 20 albums filled with such bona fide classics as “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “Cleveland Rocks,” “All the Good Ones Are Taken,” and his poignant tribute to his one-time ally in arms Mick Ronson, “Michael Picasso.” And yet, at age 73, this tireless troubadour still struggles to get his due. These days, Hunter’s raspy voice is weathered, but his posture is no less defiant. His latest album, “When I’m President,” may be his most consistent effort yet, a typically searing set of songs that often brings to mind Mott the Hoople in its prime. Hunter wraps his rockers around more philosophical themes these days, but he retains his knack for procuring exceedingly relentless refrains.
When Goldmine caught up with Hunter, he was at home in Connecticut, where he’s lived for the better part of the past three decades. Affable, amiable and still speaking in a humble workingman’s British accent, he comes across as an average bloke adept at plying his trade. So while his band carried on with rehearsal downstairs in preparation for an upcoming tour, Hunter took time to expound on his past and present.
Goldmine: Given that the new album is titled “When I’m President,” it might suggest you’re ready to immerse yourself in some presidential politics.
Ian Hunter: Not really. The album’s really all about the misinformation that surrounds presidential politics these days. Imagine a bunch of guys sitting around in the pub, talking. It’s either too much information or not enough.
GM: As the new album indicates, you’re still a master of reliable riffing and ready refrains. So how do you manage to keep at it after all these years?
IH: Maybe it’s just a quirk in my DNA (laughs). The fact is, a lot of it just sort of comes to me. The actual ideas behind the songs are the most difficult thing for me. Sometimes you get a line or two, maybe the beginning of a melody. Then it all starts coming together and a basic idea forms out of that. But the words themselves can take months.
GM: So if it isn’t about politics, what is the theme behind this album?
IH: I read a lot of books about American history, mostly about events that transpired between 1840 and 1915. I find it fascinating. In England, the history is thousands of years old, but in America, it’s still relatively fresh, like you can reach out and touch it. For example, Wyatt Earp died in 1929! I was born in 1939! That’s how close I feel to it. It really fires up my imagination.
GM: So how did the material on the new album come about?
IH: I can’t really write songs on tour, but this album clicked right away. We had the songs ready to go, so I told the band that we should just go in the studio and get it down. We did it in four days, and it was all done live. And when you do an album that quickly, there’s a definite freshness about it.
GM: In 2009, Mott the Hoople regrouped for a limited number of gigs in the U.K. Any chance that might happen again?
IH: That’s not really something I can discuss. It’s a weird predicament. Mick Ralphs and I have the same management, and the others are managed by someone entirely different. And that person has delusions of averageness. It’s ludicrous. Usually it’s the singer and the lead guitarist who are reticent to participate, but in this case, it’s the other guys. And I’m not sure if anyone really cares to see some old guys replaying the hits, as it were. We were never a huge band to begin with. Nobody’s really paying much attention these days.
GM: Yet with England’s Angel Air label reissuing the Mott albums in recent years, there would seem to be some renewed awareness out there.
IH: Right, and the Internet helps keep the visibility going as well.
GM: Did you ever expect you’d still be recording and performing more than four decades later?
IH: I’m just clawing my way back of late, but I believe my band is getting better and better. In truth, I shouldn’t be doing this at my age. Actually, I was astonished when I found myself still out on the road at 50 or 52. I woke up one day and asked myself, “Good God, what am I doing?” I’m still not sure why I’m doing it, but I do it regardless. Besides, traveling isn’t all that physically wearing. It’s really not so hard, compared to what some people have to do to earn a living.
GM: What’s your current set list like? Are you still including any of the classic Mott tunes?
IH: It’s about a third solo, a third old stuff, a third new material. I have to do a certain amount of hits, because that’s what people expect. I know when I go to a show, I like to hear the songs I’m most familiar with.
GM: Out of curiosity, do you still keep in touch with David Bowie?
IH: Not really. He’s a good bloke and we enjoyed our collaboration. He’s a great performer, but we never formed any kind of social bond. I was much closer to Mick Ronson. I mean, I admire him, and he certainly arrived during a crucial phase of my life, but no, we didn’t have any contact after that.
GM: The new album finds you on yet another record label. Why do you hop around so much?
IH: I dunno. The last album was on New West, but I never even spoke to them, not once. The one before that came out on Yep Roc, which was a very good little label. But I’m quite pleased with the current company, Slimstyle Records. They’re very computer savvy, and, of course, that’s a technology that’s always changing. And they’re extremely keen on the new album; I’m getting more promotion than ever.
GM: Were you surprised when “The Drew Carey Show” tapped your song “Cleveland Rocks” as its theme song?
IH: I didn’t know that they did that until I saw it on TV! They changed that theme song six or seven times before they settled on “Cleveland Rocks.” It was great. It’s so much better when you can get a song on television than when you get it on the radio. Financially, it was a big help to me.
GM: Your book, “Diary of a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” was the definitive narrative about life on the road in service to rock and roll. But it’s been 40 years since it was published. Have you ever thought of writing a sequel?
IH: No, not really. The book ended with the end of that tour, the final gig, and that was a natural climax. It’s basically the same way with every tour — you do the last gig, and then you go home. The only reason I did the book to begin with was because a friend of mine had a publishing company, and he needed two books to reach his yearly quota. I had this diary, so I offered it to him. It was never meant to be a book. Honestly, everything that’s happened since then has been pretty much a blur. Ronno and I always had this mantra that dictated we would never look back. We only looked forward, always looked toward the next adventure. I think it’s important to always have something new to look forward to.
GM: So what are you looking forward to at this point?
IH: I’m just hoping to survive the tour (laughs)! I’m just eager to go out and play the songs from the new album. I think it’s a great rock album, and this is a great band I’m working with.
GM: How do you spend your down time these days when you’re out on tour?
IH: I read a lot. I love books that focus on certain historical eras, whether it’s the ’30s, the ’40s or the ’50s … anything just prior to the modern age.
GM: Do you listen to any current music? Are there any current artists that you like?
IH: No, not at all. I’m out of the habit of listening to the radio. As with anything, 95 percent of it is crap and 5 percent is great.