A Chat with Mick Hucknall, Mick Hucknall interview, Mick Hucknall solo album: Tribute to Bobby

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Mick Hucknall has spent the past 20+ years as the frontman for the jazzy and soulful band known as Simply Red, but late last year, he announced that 2009 would bring the retirement of the band. In a move that can in no way be seen as coincidental, 2008 has already brought us the first-ever Mick Hucknall solo album: Tribute to Bobby, where Hucknall honors legendary R&B singer Bobby “Blue” Bland by offering up covers of 12 Bland classics. Bullz-Eye spoke with Hucknall about this album and how Mr. Bland reacted to these interpretations, but don’t worry, we followed up by asking plenty of Simply Red questions.

Mick Hucknall: Hi, Will? It’s Mick. Hi!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, how are you?

MH: I’m good, and I’m sorry for the delay. I couldn’t get off the last interview; they kept asking me more questions.

BE: That’s all right. I’ll try not to do the same thing! Well, I’ve been a fan since the beginning, and I’ve tried to follow your career over the years as much as my economic state has allowed.

MH: (laughs) Oh, definitely!

BE: So you made the decision to release Tribute to Bobby under your own name. I know you were already planning to retire the Simply Red name, anyway, but did you do this in particular because it was a bit too personal to call it Simply Red?

MH: Well, it sort of tied in with the fact that the last studio album Simply Red did, the second half of the recording definitely was…you can really hear the beginnings of a change in direction, musically. And I just felt that, when I had the idea of doing the Bobby record, it just came together in a way where I just felt, “You know what? I’ve got to move on. I want to go into this area, and I should just go ahead and get on with it.”

BE: Which is funny, because when I first listened to it, I was actually struck by how much it reminded me of the earlier Simply Red stuff. Sound-wise, I didn’t think it would’ve been that much of a stretch to release it under the band name.

MH: Well, I think…I’m not trying to run away from my past. I’m only trying to move into another direction. Obviously, as you would be fully aware, we’ve had a much bigger career in terms of continuity in Western Europe than we have in the States. We’re only really known for two records here in America, whereas here I’ve had 22 top-20 hits. So they have expectations of what we sound like, and that, in a strange way, can somehow be quite restrictive. So as I said, I was somehow moving into another place, and I wanted to get on with it.

BE: Actually, I guess I’ll jump ahead on this question, based on what you just said: what are your expectations for the album here? Given that the profile of Simply Red in this country is, uh, not what it is elsewhere.

MH: (laughs) Well, my expectations are not high, you know? I’m not expecting pop chart success, but we’ll just have to see. Funny things can happen. Also, it’s really up to the public, isn’t it? It’s up to what level of interest there is. It’s truly a labor of love for me, and it’s very much a springboard for my future career, in terms of the individual songwriting, because the change has occurred naturally and gradually, and I’m moving more into this area as a sphere of influence, and I want to try and create something new. I’m a 47-year-old guy, and it’s quite a challenge -- a lovely challenge, actually -- to do something different and try and move in another direction.

BE: I know a lot of this is covered within the liner notes, but for those who haven’t picked up the record and might be interested to know, what was your first experience with the music of Bobby Bland?

MH: I first heard Bobby as a 19-year-old in a club in Liverpool called Eric’s during the punk era. The manager of the club, who went on to manage me for a couple of years, was playing these songs on a jukebox. He had a song by the Sex Pistols, he had “Ornithology,” by Charlie Parker, and he had “Further up the Road,” by Bobby Bland, among many other eclectic mixes…some reggae and stuff. He was probably my biggest musical mentor, and he turned me on to a lot of stuff. I’d already started listening to the blues when I was 13 or 14, but Roger introduced me to a much broader range and a far more set of obscure music that was enormously influential for me.

“I’m not expecting pop chart success (for Tribute to Bobby), but we’ll just have to see. Funny things can happen. Obviously, we want a certain level…we actually require a certain level…of commercial success to enable us to go on and make another record, but, y’know, it’s quite clear that we’re not aiming to go to #1 in the pop charts with this.”

BE: Were you sweating it when you went to play your version of Bobby’s songs to Bobby?

MH: Well, you know, I was very nervous, and it just was a relief that my manager had played him several songs before we went into the room, and he’d had a positive reaction. I think Bobby was quite surprised by them, and he immediately made me feel at ease within the first few seconds. He was very warm and generous, and…it was great. I mean, we spent the whole day together in the end, and it was just a very special time for me.

BE: I read that he really praised your arrangements of his songs, the way they differed from his.

MH: Well, if you want to check it out yourself…I’m really surprised that they’ve not sent you the short documentary.

BE: Yeah, they sent me the CD, but not the special edition with the CD.

MH: Well, if you just log onto YouTube and type in “tribute to Bobby,” and it should come up. There’s a short documentary we have that has contributions from B.B. King and from Van Morrison as well, talking about us. And that really gives you a flavor of what the whole thing was like, meeting him.

BE: This actually ties into what you were saying a moment ago, but when you recorded this album, was it something where you were less concerned about how it might do commercially as long as it was a creative success?

MH: Well, obviously, we want a certain level…we actually require a certain level…of commercial success to enable us to go on and make another record, but, y’know, it’s quite clear that we’re not aiming to go to #1 in the pop charts with this. Blues, whatever people think of it, is still kind of a minority music. Geniuses like the Beatles and the Stones used it as an influence and it took them into the mainstream, but the actual genre itself is not really described as huge. I think it would be unrealistic to expect that it’s going to be a major, major commercial success. That would be almost some kind of miracle.

BE: I did see that it pulled a Top 20 placing in its first week of release, though.

MH: (shocked) It did what?

BE: It pulled a Top 20 (suddenly realizing why he sounds so shocked) Not in the States! Sorry, I meant in the UK!

MH: Jesus, I was about to fall off my chair!

BE: As well you should have, if it had happened here! (laughs)

MH: But, yeah, actually, that was really good. We were very pleased with that position. We didn’t have expectations, because a Simply Red release in the UK generally goes Top 5, so for us, it was great, that. People must’ve gone out without really knowing what it was going to be, and we were really pleased with that.

BE: So how many more covers of Bobby’s songs could you have found it in your heart to record?

MH: (laughs) I think there were at least another five or six that were already on the list. But as I said, I’m looking at this piece of work as a kind of a springboard to writing in this kind of style and trying to make a contemporary record at the same time.

BE: Well, I’ll get off the topic of covers after this, then, but having done your share of covers in the past, were you prepared for the critics to say, “Well, he’s finally gone and done it: he’s recorded an entire album of them?”

MH: Well, you know, I always ask journalists to look back and ask Frankie Sinatra how many songs he wrote. And maybe they could ask Elvis as well how many he wrote. It’s really not that imperative. I find that a lot of music people…well, just regular folks, you know, to be honest, I think a lot of fans just don’t care. They really don’t care. They just want to hear a great song and kick back and enjoy their music. I think journalists and musicians, because we’re so close to it and so involved in it, that we think some things are a big deal when in actual fact they’re not.

BE: Well, you’re talking to someone who enjoys a good cover song, anyway, so you’ve got no complaints from me.

MH: Yeah, me, too. And whatever people say, I do…and this is the point I’m trying to get over…I do still validate and treasure somebody coming up with original material in a contemporary sense. There’s something not only very financially rewarding for the artist but it’s just a great cultural statement when something new hits the scene.

BE: How much input did you have in the recent expanded reissues of the Simply Red albums?

MH: Um (laughs) not really a lot, actually. But I did have the joy of them having renegotiated with us, and the fact that I now partly own them is really quite pleasing. We kind of were having a little bit of a battle with them at about 1999 or 2000, but I feel that it’s a battle that I…I wouldn’t want to say that I won, because that wouldn’t be very diplomatic, but as Mick Jagger might say, I got my satisfaction.

BE: On a related note, and I’m not looking for financial specifics here, but how much more viable has it been to have your own label versus being on a major label?

“All you can do as recording artists, I think, is try to make great recordings and know full well that if you’ve done them well, people pick up on them. They don’t go away, they keep getting discovered and re-discovered, and they don’t really go away if they’re of a certain quality.”

MH: Well, the thing is, you have to look at it in the long term. And, also, you have to look at it in the sense that, in a broader sense, the music industry is kind of in the toilet right now. Look at how many sales you have to achieve to earn a #1 in America compared to what you had to do 10 or 15 years ago, and it’s plain as the nose on your face that the industry is in some kind of weird recession. And there are factors for that. I think the pop idol thing has definitely taken away a lot of the impact of what I would describe as real music because of the family nature of it, where a family can sit down on a Saturday night and watch the show and phone in and feel involved in their music. I think that, in some ways, real musicians who write songs and make these kinds of recordings have felt the pinch. And things like video games and the internet itself, let alone piracy, have had an impact. But all you can do as recording artists, I think, is try to make great recordings and know full well that if you’ve done them well, people pick up on them. They don’t go away, they keep getting discovered and re-discovered, and they don’t really go away if they’re of a certain quality. We’ve made a bit of cash, but not really a huge amount of cash. We’re doing more than breaking even, but we’re not setting the word alight. But as I say, there is value in the catalog. There’s some great recordings that we’ve done since 2000, and that value is already tangible and is there, so it’s a very worthwhile thing to do.

BE: What’s your favorite of the more recent Simply Red recordings?

MH: The second half of Stay really works for me. From track five onwards, I really, really like that record. And I very much enjoyed this tribute. But I can only say that I’m very excited about the future. There are individual tracks on the Simplified album as well, but it was not a great…it was a slightly directionless album, in that it had too many directions. It was sort of a mix of Latino and our greatest hits meeting soul ballads. It didn’t have a really tangible thrust. But there are recordings there that we’ll be able to use for the box set in a couple years time, so all in all, I’m very satisfied with the SimplyRed.com catalog that we’ve put together.

BE: I’ve got a few rapid-fire questions to start wrapping things up, since I know you’re running behind. I couldn’t help but notice that Men and Women is not among the Simply Red albums to receive an expanded reissue. Was that your decision, the label’s decision, or is it forthcoming?

MH: I don’t know, but I think it’s sort of a fair decision. That was one of the most unhappy times of my career. That album could’ve been a great record, and I think it was spoiled by…it was overproduced. It was over-mixed. At one point, (producer) Alex Sadkin had three or four different engineers in three or four different studios, competing with each other to see who could do the best mix per track. And I just thought this was an insane asylum. I didn’t understand it, and I actually…I did officially quit at one point, for a couple of hours, and was persuaded not to by my manager. I didn’t really enjoy that process at all. Strangely, we do play one or two songs from that album. We play “The Right Thing” even now when Simply Red are in concert. It’s one of those things that just didn’t work out. My relationship with Alex…it was actually quite good, in a way, with Alex. It wasn’t that good in terms of, like, him really getting the fact that we were going to take this on the road and play it. There was a lot of what I call ’80s production values going on. (laughs)

BE: Is your co-owned reggae label, Blood and Fire, still a going concern?

MH: Just about, yeah. I think we’ve kind of reached the core audience that we’re gonna reach, and now I think it’s up to somebody with a little more…with a different take on finding a way to re-release the material further down the line, but obviously still using Blood and Fire. But we need some new blood in there, forgive the pun. I’m very, very proud of what we achieved with that. It contains some of my favorite all-time reggae recordings, and the feeling that I’ve been part of getting that out into the world is one of great satisfaction and joy for me, actually.

BE: How did you get involved in the Man Ray restaurant? When I see your name next to those of the other investors, it strikes me as a “one of these things is not like the other” moment.

MH: Um…sorry, I don’t quite get what you mean.

BE: I just mean that it’s you, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and John Malkovich. You very much stand out as being the non-actor of the bunch.

MH: Well, yeah, I didn’t really collude directly with all of them. I’m more friendly with Sean Penn than I am with John Malkovich. I know Johnny a little bit, but I’m more friendly and have hung out with Sean. But the restaurant is still going…miraculously, for a show business restaurant. Usually, they kind of end in tears. But this one is…wow, it’s profitable! We’re making money! Well, at least, I am. So I’m very happy that it’s still going. I have an apartment just around the corner, so it’s a real watering hole for me.

BE: One of our other editors wanted me to ask you for your thoughts about “24 Hour Party People,” since you’re actually a character in the film.

MH: Well, I’ve never seen it, but I know for a fact that it’s not quite as accurate as they would like you to believe. I used to visit the Hacienda two nights a week for years, and several people who were very important in that story were not mentioned in the movie, which was a real shame. Tony Wilson is a remarkable and original character, but he’s also a person that had a vastly oversized ego, and I would describe that movie as one big ego trip, y’know? I do acknowledge that he did see some great talent and did oversee some incredible recordings. Some of the recordings of Joy Division are brilliant. And the Happy Mondays, who are actually friends of mine. I think, a lot of the time with Tony, he really was very jealous of our commercial success. I think it really intimidated him, because getting number ones in America like that and selling millions of albums throughout the world…it sort of really got to him, I think. He was always very friendly with me, Tony, and we even had dinner a couple of times, so I don’t think that slight mean streak in the movie really came directly from the movie. It was just more within the script, y’know? I have mixed feelings about it, really.

“I always ask journalists to look back and ask Frankie Sinatra how many songs he wrote. And maybe they could ask Elvis as well how many he wrote. It’s really not that imperative. I think a lot of fans just don’t care. They really don’t care. They just want to hear a great song and kick back and enjoy their music.”

BE: Who were the omissions that he didn’t mention who you felt should’ve been mentioned?

MH: Well, Leroy Richardson, who ran dry bar and also had a lot to do with keeping the bar supplied for drinks, which is pretty important for a club! (laughs) Angela Matthews, who managed the club and was very, very important in the area of the tickets and the door and organizing all the bar staff and this kind of thing. You know, the kind of people who actually run the place. They just get completely written out because of, I suppose, some kind of glamour trip. And it’s just people like that. Paul as well, one of the managers there, didn’t get any mention. Or some of the security guards. These people made that club work in the second half, and if it wasn’t for Ecstasy, that club would’ve shut down. That’s the truth. Without Ecstasy and the Happy Mondays, it would’ve all fallen apart, because they were hemorrhaging incredible sums of money, mainly coming out of the royalties of New Order.

BE: Last question: how well has the Frantic Elevators’ stuff (Hucknall’s pre-Simply Red band) aged for you?

MH: I can’t take it seriously at all. We were having a really good time – the song “Holding Back the Years” came out of that era, which was obviously very significant for me – and I just remember having great times. Just after I left the Frantic Elevators, I worked in Liverpool as a DJ in an R&B club, and I performed with Bo Diddley and Junior Walker and the All-Stars and Alexis Corner and Sonny Perry and Bryan McGee, and I did all these amazing things that I’ll never forget. It was a very, very special time for a teenage boy just starting out in the music business, and I can never forget that. But I would say…I’ve not heard it for so long, but I would guess that most of the music is pretty throwaway.

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you…and I’ve got a 2-year-old daughter who will eventually be really impressed that I spoke with you. She’s had Simply Red’s greatest hits as her bedtime soundtrack for the past month or so.

MH: Oh, that’s really sweet. Thank you! I appreciate your, uh, commitment to my work! (laughs) No, but thank you very, very much.

BE: Not a problem. I’ve even invested in the import reissues, which is not exactly cheap in today’s economic climate.

MH: Well, I hope this interview gets a few more wages, then. (laughs)

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