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Mitch Mitchell in the Talk-In
Dick Meadows, Sounds, 11 December 1971
I FIRST SAW the Jimi Hendrix Experience in a cramped Norfolk cellar club. Then the coloured guy with the frizzed-out hair was a nobody in rock. He proceeded to play his guitar with his teeth and on the amplifier and we were all aghast and amazed. There was also a new song. It was called 'Hey Joe'.
What happened next is rock history and when a drugs overdose killed Hendrix three years later music lost a musician whose importance was colossal. Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell came straight off the road to work on the remaining tapes in America. Now he has returned to England and here he talks about Jimi Hendrix and about himself.
Dick Meadows: You have just joined the Terry Reid band and were to have played with Terry at the Rainbow Theatre. Why was that gig cancelled, because there were conflicting reports of Terry having either an eye or a hand infection?
Mitch Mitchell: We did some gigs the previous weekend which was just after our first meeting. Then during the week Terry cut his hand, and although he had antibiotics the hand blew up instead of going down. So rather than go and do a bum show, especially as we haven't really got round to doing rehearsals – this is a spontaneous band anyway – we let it die.
Dick Meadows: How do you see your future with this band? Is it a fairly loose arrangement?
MM: We will do as many gigs as we can. I want to play all the time, be it with Terry or someone else. There was no plotting or scheming about me joining. I knew Terry from a few years back from America when he had his first band over there and we had a play together in a club once or twice. I had been over in the States and had been back for about five days in this country when Terry and I just met. Alan [White] had just left and we said, let's do a few gigs and see how it goes. And here it is! There haven't been any rehearsals. I wish there would be because I can't wait to play. I'll tell you something, this is a bitch of a good band. I say that as an outsider because I don't know what the band sounded like before I joined. It probably sounded a damn sight better! Terry is on one side of the band, and maybe it was a pretty one-sided gig before I joined. I'm not quite certain of that yet. The other guys are superb, they're so fine, they need somebody to bring them out to give Terry the freedom to play. So now we are saying, Christ let's get some gigs in, because we have only done three. This is a fun band. I don't want to get into a band that is pseudo-classical. I'm not interested in that. I just want to play in a band that has good fun and obviously is a good band. There is no friendship thing involved here. I didn't know the other guys in the band. I don't care if they like me or not, they'll like me if they like my playing and I will like them if I like their playing. So far it has been the happiest bunch of people possible. But wouldn't people just love to do the "Here we go again folks, supergroup type-band coming up." I don't give a crap about that sort of thing man. It is like people buying bootleg records, if they are dumb enough to buy them then it is their own fault. People can call it cock-rock for all I care. If they want a label then it is just happy music. It has an overall effect at the end of an evening at a gig when an audience realises – or should realise – that they have had a good time. That is how it is affecting me as well up to date. I'm having a good time with this band, dead right I am.
DM: You've called it a bitch of a good band. Could you expand that?
MM: They're strong players and it is my job to kick them as hard as I can to give Terry the freedom he needs. They need some kind of impetus to allow them room to breathe. There are plenty of fine drummers about that Terry has had who could no doubt do the gig and will do the gig, but they just hold the time down. Now it is so loose it would be a great shame to lose it. I've got no set plans as far as this band is concerned, none at all. I enjoy playing with Terry and hope we will do some work in the future, do you see what I mean? It's like Jack Bruce, fortunately in the past two years I have done maybe three or for jobs with him per year. I would dearly like to think that this would continue. I don't think Jack and I in a band all the time would really work. But as long as it stays pleasant that is the major thing.
DM: Terry is about to take the band to America. Will you go with him?
Mitch Mitchell: Well, I've been working over there for four or five years. Before I met Terry I had been working in the States with a girl guitarist, April Lawton, and I'm half-way through an album on that, so I've got an involvement over there to finish that. Will I play with Terry? I don't know. He has got his own plans. I've also got to go back to the States to finish the last Hendrix album, lest it be nostalgia, the Judy Garland syndrome and all that. I've just got to get it out of the way. I can't stand looking back on the past really. You know, immediately Jimi died and that thing went down, Warner Bros had 400 reels of tape, we had "X" number of reels and we were all playing numbers and games to see who was going to release what and who was going to hold back. Eighteen producers including ex-manager producers of the Jimi Hendrix Experience phoned up within 24 hours of his death and said, "Okay, don't worry we'll produce it, we'll do it." I thought, "Well this is two years of my life and it is my work not theirs." So after nine years on the road I just split to put the house in order. I mucked about in the studio and spent time mixing down the tapes and making the best job of it I could. At first, studios were new to me, just like playing noughts and crosses, so I learned the board. I had worked in studios for a number of years but now I realised I didn't quite know what was going on. So I got a good engineer that I had worked with and went from there. We did the Rainbow Bridge film and tracks thing, and that was a pretty abortive movie you know. We had these old Hollywood guys upstairs editing and giving me ten seconds of film a day to put music to. It was archaic. So in the end we just got a complete film and did it from there. People can judge it now, be it good bad or indifferent. As far as studios are concerned, it is a question of finding out what you do. I know when I go into the studio in the future, be it with Terry or anybody else, I've got peace of mind.
DM: Did you do any gigging after the end of the Experience?
MM: It was mainly working in the studio, but I did some work with Jack Casady, that was like the Jack Bruce thing I've mentioned. There are only two kinds of music – good and bad, you know. I admit that everything I've ever played I've copped from someone else. And that's how it is with nearly everyone else, that's obvious. It is a question of style, I don't want to get involved in any more of a rat race than I am. I want my playing to be as original as possible. I'm not playing as good now as I was three years ago with the Experience because the pressure isn't on quite that much. If the band I'm with now was gigging every night of the week it would be frightening. That is one of the things about working with a lot of bands in this country. They all get their little cottages in the country, build studios there and say, "Oh you can come and play in my house." That's shit. Of course I want to be in the boss rock and roll band, and just play music without all the bourgeois entourage thing. So far this year there have been 15 albums out with me playing drums on, and that is the way I work now. This is not really being anonymous although I consider myself the most anonymous person anyway which is great because I walk along the street and no one knows who the hell I am. It is a question of having my independence now and working on my own, rather than having someone patting me on the back and saying, "Well boy, you going to be here this week and at that place next week and you're going to be No. 1 in the Top Ten." I don't want to get involved in that sphere.
DM: You have talked about your work with the Hendrix tapes that remained after his death. Are they running out now?
MM: There is one final album to come, a live album. At the moment there remains 15 hours of listening time and at one time there were I don't know how many hours. I put in six months almost living in a studio in New York working on these tapes. I've cut them down to seven hours and I'm going back to the States soon to cut the time down to the one album. And that's it. I'd like to clear some of the bootlegs out of the way, not that it bothers me too much because people will buy what they want.
DM: Why are you editing the 15 hours of tape down to just one album?
MM: Well, you have got to bear in mind that some of the tape is pretty rough. There may be a rough vocal on one thing but with a perfect rhythm passage in a different key. Now in certain instances via modern electronics it is possible to put one track onto another. On certain ones, however this has been impossible. I don't know how many hours of time I have lost already. All I can say is that they have been scrapped. A title for the album hasn't been fixed yet. But there are at least three original tracks on it. It will come out when it is ready. I know record companies like to market things for Christmas, blah-blah-blah, but in this case say about April or May. When I hear it I always think it is a happy album. It will be mainly the original threesome plus Billy Cox. I have taken something like a year off the road to do this and it hasn't helped my playing any. It is now getting back to some sort of standard. I don't consider it a waste of my time though, because look, if a record company has say 400 boxes of tape, that's 400 albums or could be. I'm not saying they are unethical and would do that but the thought occurs. To me 400 boxes might mean only seven albums. I would like to get a hold of some live stuff for the new album because I was never too happy with the live things that have been released like for instance the Albert Hall album. Dead right I wasn't.
DM: How important a role did Jimi Hendrix play in your life?
MM: I don't look around me and think that every thing that has happened in my life has happened because of one person. Obviously Hendrix was a pretty supernatural person. I can't say that things wouldn't have happened had it not been for Hendrix. I learned certain things, he taught me an awful lot about music I was not aware of, mainly "de blues" man. Maybe I turned him on to a few things. Noel turned him on to rock and roll. All I've got to judge this by is that, for instance, he went and played with Roland Kirk at Ronnie Scott's and Roland Kirk had been the monkey's armpit as far as Hendrix was concerned.
DM: How easy was Hendrix to play with?
MM: Listen, I only play as good as the other people I am playing with, particularly the bass player. If they are playing well and inspiring me then I do my utmost to get underneath them. If they're not giving out too much then I might try to kick them a little too hard in which case you get nothing. In regards to Hendrix himself being difficult to work with I couldn't tell you because I have been quoted as being difficult to work with as well. It all goes back to this conflict thing I was talking about, especially in that three-piece group where you had people with such different backgrounds and musical ideas. Either you have enough gall to figure out that there is conflict there and put that conflict to use or you haven't. The Hendrix music was a violent type of music, the music I am playing in the band with Terry is happy music. That is the difference there. Hendrix, Noel and myself would put that conflict to use and make it work. Sometime anyway because there was another side to it when we couldn't make it work. It was a very schizophrenic kind of relationship. I was never employed by Hendrix. I've never been employed by anyone. I played with Hendrix because he was the best player I have ever played with. He was good, that good, although I didn't realise at first. It was only when Jimi began to go outside and play with other people like Roland Kirk that people became aware of really how good he was.
DM: What sort of personal relationship did the band have?
MM: Oh we got on together. Christ man, if we existed together as a band, as three people working almost every day for however long it was, if we got along and survived that long that's not bad going. We didn't start out as friends. It wasn't like a local youth club with us all going out and getting suits, it wasn't a buddy-buddy thing.
DM: How did you come to join the Jimi Hendrix Experience in the first place?
MM: Well I was sacked from Georgie Fame's Blue Flames on a Monday because George decided something. I don't know what. I still don't know what. Then on the Tuesday John Gunnell mentioned to me that Chas Chandler and Jimi Hendrix, a friend of his, were over here, and would I care to go and have a play. I still had a few gigs to play with the Blue Flames. I completed them and then went along. There was Noel and he'd never played a bass in his life, not ever, with his two tiny 15-watt amps. Hendrix arrived in like a Humphrey Bogart raincoat and his Stratocaster with two little Burns amps. We just proceeded to play and I found out that they had already auditioned something like 30 drummers. We just played over various rhythms and that was that. Hendrix said, "Okay, I will see you around." Chas said there was a gig in Paris the next week with Johnny Halliday and asked if we fancied doing it. So we said okay and spent three days rehearsing. Then off we went and that was how it started. There was complete freedom in what we played, it was like escaping from jail. It was tighter in the Blue Flames but it was still pretty loose. They were very good players, that was very good training. I guess that band was like a hip version of a Palais band.
DM: How did you rate Noel's bass playing considering he had never played bass before?
Mitch Mitchell: Well, you can hear it for yourself. As to whether it satisfied me I will stay evasive on that one! Noel is an adequate, a very competent guitarist and with his knowledge of the finger-board of the guitar he has the chance of being a superb bass player, barring very few. I think he may have found it difficult at the time working with someone such as Hendrix. I think Noel wants to play guitar and I don't blame him playing bass behind Hendrix. I would probably feel like playing guitar as well! Actually, from what I understand Noel is in fact playing bass again and I'm very happy to hear that.
DM: The Experience had broken up, hadn't it, when Jimi died?
MM: The Experience was over with completely by then. The only thing that was going to happen is that maybe there would have been a band whose running I was quite prepared to handle and leave Jimi alone to play and do the writing. That seemed to me like the obvious thing to do. Jimi was one of those people who pushed their lives to limits further than other people, so this band seemed a way of doing it. Jimi went off and did one thing and I did another and then when we came back and played together again he was playing differently from when I left him. That was fine with me, there was a kind of rapport. There was always some kind of rapport there. At one point I was in the States doing a tour with someone else, but we were still working together on an album, just the two of us. One thing I will explain is that on a lot of the albums it was done with just two people with Jimi playing bass and playing guitar. It was faster working that way.
DM: What effect, if any, did Hendrix have on your drumming?
MM: Oh, I'm too close to the wood for the trees. The only thing that I can really say honestly is that if anybody got any impetus or gained any knowledge from what the man put down – and a lot of people are only just beginning to realise what he did put down, including myself – then don't waste time making a nostalgia thing out of it but get on with it and use what impetus and energy you can for positive things.
DM: How big an influence do you think he has been as a guitarist?
MM: Of course now there is a completely new and different batch of people around. I don't know too much about the bands that are working in England now and haven't heard them and don't know what influence Hendrix had, if any, upon what is going on now. When I hear a group like Led Zeppelin – without being derogatory about them – I'm not hearing any new riffs coming out of that style of band which I didn't hear put down four years ago. Certain of the albums from that period I am particularly proud of. That is the only reason that I have continued being off the road working on the tapes. Ultimately albums are all that I have got – I don't want my old age pension yet. If I'm not happy with the records I have made well what is there? They are my diary.
© Dick Meadows, 1971