Although some Zoom-style collaborating was inevitable in making “Zoom In,” his five-track extended-play mini-album, Ringo Starr did allow a few vetted friends inside his L.A. home studio, even if some never got far beyond the welcome mat. It provided relief from brooding over having his second planned summer tour with his All Starr Band canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Zoom In” is your first EP, after 20 solo albums. Is that because the pandemic made doing something shorter more feasible?
After I finished “What’s My Name?” — the last album I had out — I thought, “That’s the last CD I’m going to make. I’m going to make EPs.” I loved EPs growing up; I had a Ray Charles collection of EPs that I found in Hamburg when I played with bands there. So I thought, yeah, four tracks [though it ended up being five]. And I wanted to change things so I don’t always have to be the writer or co-writer and we don’t always have to start from scratch. When I started, I asked Diane Warren for a song, and she sent over “Here’s to the Nights.” Of course, she sent it over in the key of F-demented, and I was like, “Fuck!” [Laughs.] With Benmont Tench’s help, we lowered the key to somewhere a human can sing.
You put out “Here’s to the Nights” prior to the new year beginning, with quite an all-star singalong chorale.
As we finished that track, I thought, “Well, Diane, it’s like a great New Year’s Eve singalong.” Because I think many of us have a couple of nights we don’t remember, and friends we won’t forget. That’s a great sentiment — it’s hers, but it’s great. And she said, “Let’s get a gang of people on.” So I said, “Would you get your crowd? And I’ll get mine.” So the end result was a surprise to her and a surprise to me. So I started with Paul (McCartney)…. No, I started actually with Dave Grohl and Ben Harper, and then I went to Sheryl (Crow), then I went to Jenny Lewis and I went that sort of route, and Corinne Bailey Rae I keep mentioning because she just sings out. She just takes hold of it so great. And some of the others came from Diane. Yola, that was absolutely Diane, but love her, and she was so great on it. Chris Stapleton, thank you, Chris — I mean, I have to thank all these people. You know, we have strange people, like Finneas… And then we ended with Lenny (Kravitz); Lenny’s a powerful guy. The video that they were all taking of themselves also relayed the message of, let’s go, peace and love, you know?
Was there any other track you most enjoyed?
I mean, the fun one was “Waiting for the Tide to Turn,” because it was reggae. (The EP’s co-producer) Bruce Sugar had put a lot of stuff on the first sort of verse, and then asked me to write it with him. So then we wrote the whole song, and then we found out that Tony Chen was in the Valley here in L.A. — the reggae guitar player who’s played with everybody from Bob Marley on. We got to know him because my son, Zak, is reggae-mad right now. And actually we did a few things for Toots’ (and the Maytals’) last album in this room, because Zak has the label and was producing. So it was the atmosphere of: Let’s make a reggae record… and I played reggae drums. I don’t know how you do that! I just do what I think of as reggae drums. But what was great was when Tony came in… “Yeah, mon.” He played great guitar for me — the four types of guitar. He said, “Hey mon, you played the drums?” I said, yeah, and he said, “Good drums, mon.” [Laughs.] So, my reggae paid off.
What was it like recording during the pandemic?
It’s a lifesaver for me. It gives you a chance in this pandemic to hang out with people — you know, not a crowd. You’ve seen footage: I’m here and someone’s over there, and we’ve got the masks on with people working. Nathan East came over and played bass on three tracks, standing by the door. [Laughs.]
But it was a bit of socializing, which was great. I mean, some days I just have had enough of the day by 11:30. I paint a bit, I record a bit and I’ve got a gym. I have a trainer, and when she doesn’t come, I go anyway. So, you know, to keep doing something — at least do one positive thing a day is what I do. But some days, you’re down and you’re fed up: “I want to go out. I want to shop. I want to be on tour.” That was the misery — two tours (canceled). I couldn’t leave the house, and I wanted to be out. I wanted to play. I love that… playing (concerts). But, you know, the alternative, of getting your own way, could be death.
So if this is the only way we can play right now, I’ll play (in theme studio). The drums are in the room therewith the amps. Getting my rocks off, as it were, I could just like go in there and bash those drums. And if I close my eyes, (with absent players) in the headphones… there’s a closeness, and not so much separation. I get a chance to play, I get a chance to paint, I work out… And I like to sit in the sun, and I’m in L.A., so there’s always plenty of chances to do that.
Your hair is growing out, after decades of having it close-cropped. You’re letting your mop top fly again?
I first got a buzz cut in ’96 and did it myself ever since; I never went to a barber. This is my COVID haircut now. Or my COVID not-haircut. I’m shocked I’ve got so much! I love it. I get up in the morning, and I’m like [miming admiring himself in the mirror], “OK, brother!”
You just put another book, “Ringo Rocks: 30 Years of the All Starrs,” recapping your last three decades of touring in photos and text. [Available exclusively via Julien’s auction house, the standard limited edition is sold out, but for the autographed $500 special edition is still available.] Was that always in the cards to come out this year, and did you delve into it more after the pandemic started and you realized you wouldn’t be on the road?
No, it was in the planner., and so last year we pulled it together and found a lot of photographs. I love the book just to see all those other people (who were in the All Starr Bands every year). It starts with the first band, which I put together out of my phone book. [He pauses to reflect on what he just said.] I love to say “phone book.” It’s like when we were all living in caves. “I got my phone book out!” [Laughs.] And everyone I called said yes. So we had Joe (Walsh) and Levon (Helm) and Dr. John and Billy (Preston). It was just a start; I didn’t know it would go on 30 years. In all honesty, in those days, we’d do America, and maybe Europe or Japan or South America, and then I’d end it. And then I’d get a whole new band (of different big-name musicians). And then I stopped doing that like 12 years ago, and I just changed two (players). [Laughs.] It just makes it easier. And I want to thank all those band members from other bands. The rule was: We’re not here to be tortured; let’s have fun. I love the audience; they know that, and I know they love me. And I’m up front doing my thing and (the early Beatles song) “Boys” and things like that that, and then I get to play all those other songs with all those other band members. I loved it.
I don’t know when we’ll go out again, because we were thinking that that tour we had planned for 2020, we were going to redo exactly that tour in ’21. Not a chance in hell. Because who knew it’d go on this long? I thought it’d be over by June; thought we’d do the October tour. And now, I honestly don’t know when this will be over, when we can live that life again. [After this interview was conducted, Starr confirmed tour dates for 2022; see the itinerary below.]
Everyone will be up for it, whatever summer it transpires.
I think so. We all have to be vaccinated. We have to do our part. Anyway, we’ll see. But I’ve started my next EP. I came in the other day with this great idea of doing this track for some other reason, and I thought, “Oh man. Why don’t I do another EP — four tracks.” So I’m going to start calling people.
People won’t see you on tour this year, but they will see a 50-years-back version of you this year in the “Get Back” film. You’ve said on many occasions before that you weren’t happy with the the movie that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg originally made out of this footage, “Let It Be,” in 1970.
It focused only on the one down moment. And, laughingly, I like to say that Michael Lindsay-Hogg was in most of the shots. [Laughs.] Everybody knows my position. I thought the downer was much bigger than the rest of it (in “Let It Be”). I was there. There was lots of fun… I said, “I know there’s lots of humor there.”
Thank God Peter came along and decided he’d take the gig (for a new film). He loves music anyway. He was putting it together then in New Zealand, and every time he came to L.A., he’d come over with his iPad and show me scenes where we’re just having fun. I mean, we’re playing, but we’re having fun as well. And that’s what I wanted to see. If you remember the teaser we put out, there’s a lot of fun in the teaser, you know, so that’s a different aspect.
The good news was that we’d decided to play together, as a live band. And we did think of other venues, and then we thought, “Wait, let’s just go up on the roof.” And Michael shot that stuff on the roof really great, with a lot of cameras. And, you know, in the original it’s like, I don’t know, eight minutes long. I don’t know how long — I should find out because everybody asks me. [The rooftop sequence in ‘Let It Be’ actually runs about 21 minutes.] But now it’s 43 minutes long. And it’s great.
Everyone assumes there will be a boxed set of the “Let It Be” album sessions to go with the film. You’ve talked before about how happy you are to have the familiar studio songs remastered as well as having the outtakes, partly because of the clarity of the drums.
I mean, it’s interesting for people who follow us and follow music as to how we got to the final one. But, you know, take four wasn’t bad either. [Laughs.] It’s a boxed set and you have to put in what you believe in, and that is to just show you where it goes. But the greatest things about the remastering is, as you’ve said, you can hear the drums now. Giles (Martin) is doing a great job; he loves drums, and I love Giles. And now they’ve got the Atmos mixes. It’s moving on from those mono days, I’m telling you.
The newly announced tour dates for the 2022 All-Starr Band shows: