Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds – Interview

I had the great honor of interviewing Jim McCarty the innovative drummer and driving force of the iconic group, The Yardbirds. The Yardbirds began as a blues influenced group and quickly incorporated music from a wide variety of sources. Their giant influence continues through the present day. I enjoyed his recently published second book, She Walks in Beauty: My Quest For The Bigger Picture. It was a fascinating look into his lifelong quest to explore the mysteries of the world beyond the world in which we live. McCarty is an incredibly warm, thoughtful and spiritual person who continues to play and tour.

Interview by Rob Landis. Edited by Fredda Gordon. Photos courtesy of Jim McCarty.

Rob Landis: There’s two interviews in my head going on at once. One is about the book you wrote about your spiritual journey and the other is about your incredible musical journey.

Jim McCarty: [Laughter] Yeah, they don’t always fit together.

RL: You started out playing snare drum in the Boys Brigade. Did you take rudimental lessons at that point?

JM: Yeah, there was a teacher. We were taught the little rolls, the five stroke roll, seven stroke roll, things like that.

RL: Did you learn to read sheet music?

JM: I never really got into music notation.

RL: I noticed on some earlier clips you had great left-hand form with a traditional grip. Then you switch over to match grip. Why was that? Because of volume?

JM: Yes, it could have been to get more power because they played pretty loud and they didn’t mic up the drums right, so I had to play quite hard.

RL:  Could you hear things on stage or was it a roar?

JM:  Sometimes I couldn’t even hear my drums it was so loud. But now and then you would play in a club that was quiet and you could hear yourself and you could hear everyone. That was lovely. Now it’s so different because everything’s mic’d up and you’ve got monitors.

RL: At that time did you see people play live that blew you away?

JM: Yeah, I saw Buddy Rich a couple of times live… funny enough I had an old neighbor and she was about 70 and she was a Buddy Rich fanatic so she took me along. I saw lots of groups. I saw the Rolling Stones quite a bit very early on. I saw them before they had Charlie but they were always very good, in the early days anyway.

RL: I know Charlie was a big jazz fan. Were you listening to jazz players at any point back then?

JM: Yes, I like people like Joe Morello and all the classics, the Art Blakey’s and all those people that had the chops. I like Joe Morello because I like that sort of cool Dave Brubeck thing.

RL: I was listening to Roger the Engineer, which I think is a hugely underrated album. It wasn’t a commercial album, but musically that’s an amazing album.

JM: Yes, a mixture of stuff that we played live but that we changed slightly for the recording and some we made up in the studio.

RL: I hear the strong blues influence that I guess Jeff Beck was doing, but it’s different  things going on at once. Blues, world music and chant and all that other stuff.

JM: We had a lot of fun. We like to mess around and enjoy stuff. A lot of it came from we’d be in a dressing room waiting to go on and we’d pick up things in the dressing room and play them. Quite often it was like a percussion jam, playing on a Pepsi bottle and an ashtray. We brought that into some of the songs. [laughter]

RL: It sounds like a lot of the songs developed organically from an initial jam.

JM: That’s right because we had a good chemistry then and we didn’t really have to worry, we didn’t have to make a single or anything like that. We didn’t have to please anybody, so we just did what we liked.

RL: The guitar players who evolved to iconic levels were very much individuals. Did you feel like they were part of the team?

JM: They were all part of the team at one point, and then they became removed in some way.

RL:  I imagine once people get a bit of fame that it’s hard for them to be part of a team.

JM: I don’t think Eric [Clapton] and Jeff [Beck] were actually very happy in a team. They were in the team, but they were unhappy about it. Then they pulled away. They were always going to be solo people that called the shots.

 RL:  Back to the jazz thing, I was listening to “Turn Into Earth” and that’s got a great three feel to it!

JM: Yeah I like that, it’s really nice. I enjoyed that, the straight bass drum coming down on the 3s and that flowy, jazzy stuff. I enjoyed that.

RL: Whose idea was it on “He’s Always There” to play a guiro and play the Latin rhythm?

JM: Is it really? I didn’t know that. I can’t remember who played that but that was a great Latin feel, wasn’t it?

RL: Yeah. Some of it’s almost a mambo feel. It started as a blues band and then all of a sudden you have chant, you have mambo, you have like three four. It really exploded into different areas.

JM: We used to go to a club in the Village, they always had all these South American bands, Cuban bands and things.

RL: It’s a testament that you were open to hearing that and listening to it.

JM: Definitely. There was some great music around, especially in New York.

RL: Do you listen to music now very much?

JM: Things are quite silent in comparison. I don’t listen to the radio, to be honest. I suppose more than anything else, I listen to classical music. I find it very relaxing.

RL: Do you play your drums at all?

JM: Yeah! I play with some mates and we have a little blues thing going. Funny enough, I was playing with one of The Stranglers. He lives around here and was jamming with us. He was quite good.

RL: Do you practice at all anymore?

JM: Not really, no. I don’t like to play on my own. I like to jam with people, play all the old rhythms, the shuffles and all that.

RL: I was watching a live version of “I’m a Man” and you were playing traditional grip and your shuffle groove, backbeat and time were amazing. The feel that emanated from the band was so strong. I think that was one of the keys to success, in addition to great songwriting.

JM: Me and the bass player were at school together, we were very friendly. I wrote quite a bit about him in my in my other book [Nobody Told Me]. Paul [Samwell-Smith] and I were very close and he was always very creative, very clever guy.

RL: You could tell that you guys were locked in as a rhythm section.

JM: Yeah, we played well together. It’s a shame he gave up playing bass, he just wanted to do production. It’s a shame because he was such a good player.

RL: You wrote about talking with Keith [Relf] about a parallel world that we’re not really in touch with unless we’re open to it.

JM: I’ve got more into that now. I suppose I’ve become more and more open to it because I’ve had so many signs with my wife. I get so many things that I think it’s a question of believing it because, first of all, I didn’t really believe it.

RL: You strike me as a very practical, down-to-earth person.

JM: Yeah, and there were a few cases where I asked her questions in my mind and she said, “Oh, you’ll see a particular color flower,” or something like that, on a walk. She said, “That would be affirmative, that would be a ‘yes’”. Suddenly I was on this walk and there were no flowers and I thought, ‘This is a joke, this is my imagination.’ She kept saying to me, “Keep walking, keep walking.” So I kept walking and I finally came to these flowers that she was talking about. It was just completely out of the blue. There were no flowers anywhere except these ones that she spoke about. I thought, ‘Hey! That’s amazing! I don’t know whether I believe it.’

RL: You mentioned the idea that people have faith in one thing but not in another thing. It doesn’t make sense that you would believe some things that you can’t explain but not in others.

JM: That’s right. They believe all sorts of strange things, there must be loads of things going on. And, of course, the consciousness does survive. It’s written about in so many old books, it’s in old scriptures, in Buddhism and all this stuff. Loads of people have mentioned that the conscious goes on. It’s in the brain but it’s separate to the brain.

RL: I’ve often thought that my time now is laying groundwork for the next time around and about musical prodigies. How does somebody that’s 14 have the emotional, technical and conceptual ability to play at a certain level if they didn’t do it before?

JM: Yeah, they’ve had a lot of experience already. It’s amazing, isn’t it? I’ve heard lots of stories about children passing over and they’re actually quite bright. These kids are communicating back to their parents and they’re quite clever the way they do it. Amazing stories, I’m reading them all the time.

RL: I’d like to jump back to the music. When you were playing, were you very conscious about your gear, like picking out cymbals, and tuning the drums?

JM: Yes, but things have gotten better now because I’m always provided with DW [drums]. I usually have a choice. Someone will come along and say, “Do you want this cymbal, or this cymbal, or that one, or this snare drum?” and I normally get exactly what I want but that wasn’t so much the case in the old days. I’d have to probably use the drum kit of the support group.

RL: So you weren’t hauling your own drums around and setting them up at that point?

JM: Most of the time we used the drums that were there, so that’s why I had to be very flexible. In America it was always more advanced. Most of the bands had quite advanced drums compared to Europe. In Europe some of the kits were pretty naff.

RL: About the song “Shapes of Things,” I love how you played the fill that leads into the verse where you play the hi-hat.

JM: I quite like the triplets. I think I got the idea off Keith Moon because he used to play a lot of triplet fills. ‘I’ll play a triplet between the hi-hat and the bass drum. I’ll make it a bit different.’

RL: When you were recording those, were they all in one take?  

JM: It didn’t take that many takes but it was funny because the drum kit was a house kit [at the Chess Records Recording Studio]. It was in the corner and I thought, ‘This is a terrible kit, how can I play this?” [Laughter] They said, “No, don’t worry, it’ll sound fine.” The bass drum it had a big bag of sand to deaden it. I thought it looked really rough but it did sound good.

RL: Was there much direction from other people telling you what to do?

JM: We all honored what each other was doing. It all seemed quite easy at the time. The chemistry was good and Paul played a bass riff we got off an old jazz song as well.

RL: Where did that come from?

JM: I think that came from one of the Dave Brubeck songs. He played that and then I played that sort of marching rhythm. Then Jeff [Beck] was playing the chords.

RL: Unlike 50s music and early R&B you played with the music rather than just playing time.

JM: I was always very interested in getting original drum beats. These rhythms are a bit like lost woman friends. I worked out this tom rhythm, sort of like a pounding African rhythm.

RL: I was listening to “Hot House,” and it seems to be influenced by African drums. You have the tom stuff you’re doing and the vocals are like something out of Senegal.

JM: [Laughing]

RL: Was anybody listening to that stuff?

JM: Well, yeah, we listened. We were open to it. We didn’t listen to it all the time, but we were open to all sorts of things.

RL: How about chant? Did somebody bring in Gregorian chant and say, “Listen to this, let’s do this.”

JM: Paul was always good with vocals and he always liked chanting and chants were always great. I always loved chants.

RL: And the other thing we talked about “Turn into Earth,” it sounds like Sting before Sting happened.

JM: [Laughter] Yes.

RL: A lot of it is British sounding which comes out of this tradition of songwriting from the madrigals.

JM: Yeah, there was something very British about it, wasn’t there?

RL: What do you think was the environment that created it?

JM: We all loved blues music like Howling Wolf and Jimmy Reed and all that. We seem to discover it all at the same time.

RL: The scene in “Blow Up” was funny where the audience is completely deadpan and not reacting to the music at all and you guys are up on stage really playing.

JM: [Laughter] Yeah, I know. I read an account of that the other day. A guy that explained it all from [Michaelangelo] Antonioni and his standpoint of reality and unreality. He said the only time that the reality came into that scene was when he smashed the guitar and he threw it into the crowd and all of a sudden the crowd came to life. [Laughter]. That was reality and the other wasn’t. It was quite funny reading an account of it.

RL: I just read something about how The Who started smashing guitars because there was an art event that used destruction in a symbolic way and Pete Townsend appropriated that and incorporated it into their show.

JM: Yeah, another story was he was playing it in a place with a low ceiling and he banged the guitar on the ceiling by mistake but he thought, “This is a good thing to do.” I remember seeing The Who and they didn’t do the destruction, but they were very good. They were very loud and incredibly tight, they were a very tight band.

RL: I was listening to some of the music you did with Stairway, and some of the later things. It’s really beautiful music. Were you mostly working with keyboards and guitar at that point?

JM: Yeah, we had fun because Louie [Louis Cennamo] was a bass player and he went on to acoustic guitar and I was a drummer and I messed around with keyboard. It was a bit amateurish because we were playing not our own instruments. It was fun and had an amateur charm about it. Of course, it was very simple, very dreamy. We wanted it simple so it was easy to relax through it

RL: What would you have done if you hadn’t been in The Yardbirds?

JM: When I was studying, I worked as a stockbroker and I used to like figures. I was starting to be an actuary to work out insurance premiums. I got through the preliminary exam and was doing a correspondence course. I was doing quite well but I don’t think I would have traded that to be doing what I do.

RL: I read that you told your boss, “I’ve got this band I’m going to try to do, but can I come back if I need to?”

JM: Yeah [laughter] can I come back when it’s all over?

RL: Did your mom say, “What are you doing, you’ve got to be crazy?”

JM: Yeah, of course! You can’t leave your job. This was crazy, unheard of in those days.

RL:  You had to be proper and do the right thing.

JM: You had to wear a pin stripe suit and a tie and everything. And the umbrella. I’d sometimes go directly from work to a gig and have to change my clothes.

RL: Speaking of that, your touring schedules must have been brutal because it looked like you were playing every single night and traveling 500 miles when you were in the states, it looked insane.

JM: It was, and it was like six weeks of it.

RL: How did you get up there every night?

JM: I don’t know how we did it [laughter] but I think that doing all that groundwork was part of the thing that put us on the map. We can look back on that and say we did all that work and we got repaid for it because somebody must have heard of us.

RL: Your interest in the actuarial work makes me think you’re very precise and data oriented and that you like science and proof. That’s a contrast to the concept of being in touch with something other than our current reality.

JM: I know! Well, it is data. It’s sort of evident because… I studied all this stuff with the medium and she called herself an evidential medium which meant you have to get solid evidence. You have to ask for something that’s solid. Something you don’t know about somebody.

RL: I read that the medium said don’t tell me anything about yourself because I don’t want to scam you, I want to have real evidence.

JM: That’s right. And then the evidence in the book is actually real, it’s not made up. It’s solid evidence of things I didn’t know.

RL: Do you think you have to be open to it for it to happen? Do you have to be on the lookout for it?

JM: Oh, yeah! Yes, you do. You have to get your eyes open. I think she calls these things snags and she says, “Keep your eye out for snags in your life” and you go out and you’ll see something, like a number or a license plate that would be relevant, like maybe your wife’s birthday or something.

RL: Or, like in your book, the song from the soccer match.

JM: [Laughter] Right, yes, exactly! Because the song was the Liverpool [football club anthem], “You never walk alone.” And I thought, ‘You never walk alone,’ it’s her message.

RL: Do you think that it’s possible to become a medium or do you think it’s something that you’re born with?

JM: Suzanne, the one I studied, said anybody can be a medium if you really want to. I think that there are people born with that intuition. I’ve met a couple of people that before they became mediums would see people sit around and would think, “Who are they?” Like the movie with the little boy when he sees the dead people, a bit like that.

RL: It makes sense because everybody could learn how to play music but there are some people that are born intuitively musical so it makes sense that you have other areas that you could be born with more aptitude.

JM: Yeah, I agree. Like Jimi Hendrix or …

RL: He must have been playing music for a thousand years.

JM: [Laughter] Why not? Incredible, amazing, yeah!

RL:  You talked about different theta states and alpha states and I think when you listen to music on a deep level it puts you in a different vibration state so to speak. Do you think the same happens when you’re working with a medium?

JM:  It all helps if you can slow the mind down to the alpha. The beta is the usual one and the alpha’s a lot quieter one, but there’s a theta one I think you’re almost half asleep. It does help if you want to open up the mind because you’re slowing your brain down.

RL: When you go to a pop concert people are connecting with the rhythm and the whole tribal element of the music but they’re not listening on a deep level. They’re responding on a rhythmical level.

JM: Yeah, it is like that, isn’t it? It’s on a different frequency. It’s interesting. And how the audience will bond together like a tribe, like you’re saying.

RL:  You probably experienced that many times playing live where you have five thousand people tuned into what you were all doing.

JM:  Yeah, that’s amazing. It’s quite incredible, quite a cool feeling. Everyone’s in that zone.

RL:  What was it like when you first heard yourself in a recording studio on the play back. Were you pleased? Or were you like, “Oh no, that’s not what I thought it was?”

JM: [Laughter]I was a bit let down to be honest. It took awhile before it sounded any good. In the early English studios the drums didn’t sound very good. I don’t know what they did, but maybe it was something I did. Actually Roger the Engineer was one of the first recordings where they mic up all the drums.

RL: It is very well recorded.

JM: Yeah, and we spent quite a long time getting the drums to sound good. ‘

RL: That was in the very early days of actually thinking about how the drums would sound on a record.

JM:  Yes it was. The engineer was into the idea, he wanted it to sound good and they worked on it.

RL: It did sound really good. I hear so much on that album between the guiro, the cymbal work, etc. You do a lot of intros with just cymbals and that was very unique for that time.

JM:  Yeah, it was good fun.

RL:  Do you keep in touch with people from the past?

JM:  Yeah, sometimes. Probably Jimmy Page more than anyone else. We brought out an old, live album that never really came out before.

RL: Oh, that ‘68 album? That was great!

JM: Yeah and he remixed that.

RL: That is amazing.

JM: Yeah, that’s quite good, isn’t it?

RL: Everything’s so solid, the rhythm section, the drumming is incredibly solid and in the pocket. It’s really good.

JM: It’s quite a lot better than I remembered it.

RL: From what I read in your book, you’re open and looking for signs on a daily basis.

JM: Yes, it’s a part of my daily schedule in a way. I still have to go get the shopping and all. But it’s a beautiful area and there’s lots of wildlife and lots of birds. There was a butterfly the other day… it was quite cold, and there was a butterfly, and they’re all signs.

RL: The book mentioned this but birds are really interesting creatures and they’re frequently used as signs.

JM: Yeah, and what I gather is that birds are on the earth just to enjoy themselves. They’re not trying to get anywhere, there’s no real purpose, they’re just having a nice time. Apparently, the spirits on the other side can merge their energy with the bird. The bird’s quite happy to do that.

RL: You mentioned this affinity with France, maybe you did live in France in the 16th century.

JM: I think there is quite a connection. I don’t know what it is but there’s some very old stuff around here. There was a couple of places where Mary Magdalene used to live. She used to live in a cave. There’s a few places where she used to hang out and they’re quite sacred places, quite beautiful.