'Everyone is surprised and pleased we made another album': The Who - The Music Week Interview

Just the Who of us: Daltrey and Townshend embrace life on the road

Dallas is the home of epic power struggles and unexpected twists… Well, at least that’s what the 1980s soap opera taught us. However, even the antics of JR Ewing and co would struggle to hold a 10-gallon hat to the real-life dramas of the Texan city’s current visitors.

Basing themselves in town between dates on their epic North American tour, even when they’re not trying, The Who seem to create scenes TV writers would kill for. Take this, for example. While waiting to introduce Music Week to the group, one of The Who’s team gets chatting with a fellow hotel guest before enquiring if she is a fan of the band and wants gig tickets? “Ooh, I love them! Let me give you my contacts,” she gushes, before leaning on the shoulder of a man in shorts and T-shirt who has just joined us in the lobby to write her details.

“What are you writing?” the new arrival laughs as she takes her time. “A letter?”

As the lucky fan departs in a cascade of thank you’s it becomes apparent she had no idea her makeshift desk was the one and only Roger Daltrey.

Comic relief over, we cut to a serious plot twist that could rival Bobby Ewing’s return from the dead via a shower (Google it if you’re under 40). Almost 13 years on from 2006’s Endless Wire, The Who will release their 12th studio album, simply entitled Who, on December 6 via Polydor/Interscope. It’s a nailed-on Q4 highlight.

And, if that development alone is not enough, it must be noted that the record was made with Pete Townshend and band in one studio, Daltrey and vocal producer Dave Eringa in another, and album producer Dave Sardy ultimately assembling everything in LA. Oh, and Townshend’s debut novel, The Age Of Anxiety, which will eventually be accompanied by a musical project and stage show, will be published on November 5. How’s that for a story arc?

“An album had been mooted a few times but never came to anything. So it was an amazing surprise when Pete sent us 12 demos last year and they blew us away,” Robert Rosenberg from the band’s management Trinifold tells Music Week.

He’s not alone. Bursting with a kinetic energy and a series of sharp takes on everything from the Grenfell Tower tragedy to the ageing process, Who mixes classic Townshend guitars and Daltrey at his impassioned best, with a series of contemporary sonics courtesy of Sardy. It’s a whole new Who, as the likes of Street Song, I’ll Be Back and She Rocked My World remarkably land the band on fresh turf.

And, while The Who’s relationship with Polydor may stretch back to 1966, the new breed at the record company insist they are every bit as excited about this record as their predecessors were when the group made its label debut with classic single Substitute.

“It became a passion project to make sure this record saw the light of day,” says Polydor co-president Tom March. “We knew straight away it would be an important record. Personally, to be able to work one of my favourite bands of all time is an honour. The whole label feels that way.”

Overseeing the unconventional sessions was senior A&R manager Richard O’Donovan, who brought in Sardy.

“Your first feeling is it’s daunting because it is a bit of history, but the quality of the songs always shone through,” he says of the recording process. “I tried to be a good conduit between the two sets of studios, sometimes just getting Dave Sardy to speak to Roger, so we kept the same sense throughout. The two Daves were so easy-going and communicated, which really helped the project.”

As the album came together, serious consideration turned to the environment in which it will be released. The industry landscape has completely shifted since 2006, making the new record not only The Who’s first release in the streaming age, but also their first new material to truly benefit from the vinyl format’s renaissance.

“The challenge for any album like this is getting it out there to the silent majority of people who would buy a Who record if they knew about it,” notes Rosenberg. “We have to hopefully overcome that, so plans are in place.”

This includes artwork designed by Sir Peter Blake, revealed at an event at New York’s Pace Gallery in September, helping to encourage pre-orders of around 10,000 in the UK and 60,000 in the US, where tour ticket bundles are a key chart tactic.

“We’re experts in talking to and listening to our artists’ audiences and in creating products that they want,” asserts Polydor’s March. “That’s testament to our exceptional D2C and e-commerce teams. You only have to look at what we’ve done with Lana Del Rey, The 1975 and Sam Fender recently.”

A greater challenge will be reconditioning The Who for digital success.

“Are we ready for streaming? Yes and no,” admits Rosenberg. “You look at your figures and the biggest one we’ve got is Baba O’Riley, which has just gone over 200 million. But then you’ll find some act in the chart has a billion streams! Our demographic has not yet embraced streaming, that’s the challenge we’ve discussed with Polydor. We’re aiming at new audiences too. We know The Who has a young demographic because we’ve noticed it at the shows, particularly in America, but how we reach them is the question.”

Polydor’s co-president is optimistic they can deliver.

“It’s the key area we’ve identified for growth,” says March. “When you’re putting out a record now you can’t just be thinking about one release, especially when you have an artist with as rich a catalogue as The Who. Our plans include how we warm up the catalogue around the release and next year’s UK tour. We’re releasing at an incredibly busy time of year, but the early momentum feels incredibly positive. I want this to be remembered as one of the best Who albums ever made, I want a platinum album and more in the UK. We’re confident around the world too.”

So how do the band feel about this new chapter? Fresh from being scribbled on, one of the men who knows the answer settles down with Music Week in the Texan sunshine. Often brutally honest, there’s a mischievous glint behind the blue eyes that peer over Roger Daltrey’s mirrored aviators, as even during his bluntest moments humour and laughter underscore his words. He seems to be enjoying The Who’s latest ‘episode’…

How is the tour going?

“I’m loving playing gigs, to be able to do it at this age is a dream. I just love what I do on stage, it’s when I feel most complete. I have to have a day off after every gig now, it’s wiping [me out]. But the one thing I’ve promised myself is I’ll never cheat an audience, I’ll never go through the motions. I remember saving up to see Cliff Richard at the Chiswick Empire and how hard it was to get the money, so there’s no way I’m going to dial it in.” [Unfortunately proving the point, Daltrey lost his voice halfway through a show the next day, ending the gig early]

Did you expect to be doing interviews about a new Who album ever again?

“That was Pete’s condition for doing the tour, that we make a new record. He threw all these songs at me. At first, I listened to them and thought, ‘They’re really good songs, but it sounds like a Pete Townshend solo album, so how do I make an addition to it because his demos are so good?’ When I told him that – and I was very honest with him – he thought I was just being difficult, but I wasn’t. I was trying to be honest with my feelings. As it happens it’s a much better Who album than a solo album!” [Laughs]

What was actually missing from the songs, other than your vocals?

“I had to change some words and change some tenses. I had to make it sing to you rather than shout at you. I like music to draw me in. That was my main objection, but we got round all those issues and he gave me the freedom to do it.”

You add a sense of drama or character to every song?

“There’s no point in singing words that are meaningless. If your heart is not in it, don’t fucking do it. To me, music is always about moving people, not flattening them into the ground. Leave that to the heavy metal brigade!” [Laughs]

How did the sessions go?

“I worked totally separately, even with a separate producer because Pete wanted it done so quickly. It takes me a long time to build a relationship with a producer, because I’m incredibly fussy about the sound of my voice. I like to use the voice like a paintbrush. I do sketches and juggle. Once I get the final one I can do it easily, but to get there I have to do the sketches. He wanted to use this other producer, Dave Sardy, who is an American which I was nervous of, because I don’t think American producers get The Who. [Laughs] They’re always neat and tidy. We were never neat and tidy!”

Recording separately from Pete is not new though?

“No, we work better apart. There’s less interference. Even in the early days, most of the time we were doing stuff separately. I prefer it that way, it gives me more creative freedom.”

The album has a contemporary feel, was it important that the record sounded like it was made today?

“It was to Pete. I don’t think The Who sound has ever dated. There’s something about Who Townshend songs and the way they sound that just doesn’t seem to age in the way a lot of other rock music does.”

Does that mean you are geared up for the album to make an impact on streaming services?

“Geared up for it? Geared down for it! [Laughs] Record companies are making more profit than ever and artists are earning less and less, what is going on? You get half a billion streams and you earn one and six! It’s a joke. In my opinion, streaming should be 70/30 in favour of the musicians. I’m not just saying for us, but all musicians.”

So do you see streaming as a chance to gain access to new audiences?

“I don’t see anything. I might be dead next year. If you have no expectations, you can’t be disappointed. Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying it so much. The record industry that we knew has gone sadly, I wish it was the same but it was lost because of the greed of the record companies going into CDs. They threw away an artform that was so special: vinyl LPs. Then they went: ‘Ooh we’ve got this lovely thing called a CD which will exist in a plastic box and last forever’. The lying fuckers!” [Laughs]

You must be looking forward to Who on vinyl with Peter Blake’s sleeve?

“I’m looking forward to playing the vinyl because that to me is how music should be listened to. The artwork is good and Peter is a really lovely guy. Vinyl is bigger than ever, and I think there’s a digital backlash coming. Especially from these climate rebellion people who are warming the planet like nobody’s business because they’re always on their iPhones and fucking computers. If they are really serious then they are going to have to turn it all off. I’m alright with that, I haven’t even got a phone! I’m down to one call a day, I’m determined to be phone free. I want the last few years of my life to be me doing what I want to do in my time. I can’t stand emails, I spend all my life doing them.”

There’s a lyric on the album about not wanting to “get wise”, but have you become wise if you’ve worked out what you no longer need in your life?

“Are we ever wise?”

Wiser, maybe?

“We’re all unique. That’s one of the songs [I Don’t Wanna Get Wise] I changed the tense on. The original it was all ‘I was’, and that made it feel like being sung at. I changed it to ‘I was’, ‘He was’, ‘We were’ which makes it more inclusive. But have we become wise? Like you say, wiser perhaps, but the world today is such a fuck-up. I look at it and laugh. We’re all doomed!” [Laughs]

How have you found working with Polydor on this album?

“Well, they’ll make loads of money out of streaming! [Chuckles heartily] No, they’ve been very good. Richard O’Donovan, in particular, has been incredibly supportive.”

You have a 2020 UK arena tour booked, are there any more gigs planned beyond that?

“I don’t know, one day my voice will go. I must say I’ve recently been thinking this is the pinnacle and I’ve always felt if I do stop, I want to stop right at the top – so it ain’t far away. What can I say? You don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know how my voice will go. It’s an impossible question to answer, but if I had to stop at any time in our career, I would stop now because we are at the pinnacle. That’s not to say there couldn’t possibly be another [tour], but I don’t know how my voice will change. It will change because I’m 75 now – oh fuck!” [Laughs]

Is it good then to have got another Who record under your belt before it changes?

“Yes, it is good to have done it. I’m pleased with it.”

Highlighting the contrasts between the two Who men, while Daltrey might be striving to be a digital recluse, Pete Townshend remains online. Active on Instagram (username @ Yaggerdang) and a frequent SoundCloud explorer – even unearthing a songwriting collaborator for the new album via the platform – the guitarist is a studious and prompt email communicator. If the difference in their favoured modes of communication alone does not sufficiently highlight The Who founders’ different characters, Townshend’s replies to Music Week's questions certainly do...

Did you always have Roger in mind for the songs on Who?

“All the music for [Townshend’s solo project] The Age Of Anxiety was finished prior to starting on songs for Roger. So it was for his voice, and his heartbeat, that I was writing. I already had a 40-song solo album ready to go if he demurred.”

From your perspective how ‘finished’ was the material you sent to Roger?

“One day you’ll probably hear my demos. The tracks were very close to complete. Roger suggested no musical changes that I can remember. He made a few lyric changes. I have no real idea what he means when he says I gave him a Pete Townshend solo record and he had to work some kind of miracle on it. It’s just his view, I have to respect it.”

At what point were you all agreed that you were making a Who album?

“January this year, when it became clear that – without a new album – I would probably never tour under The Who banner again. This was not blackmail, I just needed to feel I was still a current, and relevant, songwriter.”

How important for you was it to make a contemporary Who album? The lyrical subject matter seems very of the moment…

“I knew Roger and I did not – do not – agree on much that is political. I looked at what we have in common. We share a passion for our upbringing in London, and the multi-cultural world we live in today, and the questions it brings up. But also we are both ‘elder statesmen’ in music now, and I wanted Roger to feel he could sing songs that allowed him the dignity and wisdom of old age, and also some humour about it.”

Although he didn’t write songs for this record, it seems your partnership with Roger is key to this album’s character. What qualities of his do you most admire?

“Roger, as a singer, is like a method actor from the New York school of Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. Roger hears the song, reads the lyric, and then goes to war with it. It’s an entirely private war, a deep and profound need for authenticity and truth in his approach to the song in question. Once he has found his position, his stance, he sings from the heart with comfort, fluidity and a lack of ego. He is as much a great actor in this respect as a singer. Really, Roger is not an ‘interpreter’. There isn’t anything in my songs that needs explanation; he is more of a grand orator. He could bring Shakespeare alive as well as the grand actors of our time, I feel certain of that. All I need to do is provide him with decent raw material.”

It’s your vocals on I’ll Be Back, was that because of the personal lyrics?

“No reason. It’s not only about reincarnation, it’s also about that bad penny, The Who. We keep coming back. I think one day Roger might sing it on one of his solo outings. Although no one except Stevie Wonder can play chromatic harmonica like me – sorry about the brag!”

You found a songwriting collaborator for this record via SoundCloud…

“I listen to new music on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Instagram and IGTV, all the time. It was on SoundCloud that I found Josh Hunsacker’s track and it inspired [Who song] Beads On One String. It’s his music, my arrangement and lyric. I plan to keep ‘collaborating’ this way.”

This will be the first Who album released in the streaming age. Are you excited about the possibilities that brings?

“Like every other artist, I just hope at least one of our songs catches fire as a streaming song. I’m on tenterhooks. I know we’re not going to do monster numbers, but I hope I don’t end up wishing I’d put it up for nothing on SoundCloud!”

Roger says The Who sound has never really dated. Are you hopeful this album will help bring your music to new audiences?

“It has dated. Any attempt to make new sounds has always been a problem for The Who. Everyone seems to know what a ‘Who’ song is except me! That preconception ties our sound, whatever we do, to the first 15 years of our recording career. Everyone wants what we once did already, again…”

What has it been like working with Polydor on the release of the new album?

“It’s been a joy. The entire senior team is fantastic. Our A&R man Richard O’Donovan is a real music man. He actually sequenced the album. The PR gang [Alan Edwards and Julian Stockton of the Outside Organisation] are great too. Quite what you can do with a brand like The Who is the question. That’s what they have to battle with, and they are open and realistic about what is possible. They’ve been the perfect label for The Who for many years dealing with back catalogue. Now they are running a record company that feels to me to be really old school in the best possible way.”

The album is simply called Who, why?

“A friend of mine called Big Bucks Burnett who runs a vinyl store in Texas suggested it. It felt good to me. At least 90% of the music buyers of today don’t know who we are. But it’s not a question like [1978 album] Who Are You, it’s a statement of fact. We’re doing that American thing of changing grammar to suit our needs.”

Was there much overlap with The Age Of Anxiety while sessions for Who were going on?

“The Age Of Anxiety was finished before I started on songs for Roger. I wanted to include a version of Hero Ground Zero on the Who album because I need a bridge from the novel, over the Who album, to whatever I do next musically with TAOA. I have delayed it many times. It started in 2008, it’s very ambitious, and might just flop. We shall see.”

The Who have always seemed keen to embrace new ways of working – concept albums, rock operas, films, etc. Why?

“We’ve just been around so long we’ve tried everything at least once!”

How important has your relationship with manager Bill Curbishley been in allowing you to do this?

“It’s so huge, so important, that it’s hard to explain. Prior to Bill, we had Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who were audacious ideas men. But Kit Lambert owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. It’s not hard to speculate how he paid for it. Since Bill took over from them in 73/74 I started to earn money. That has enabled me to grow, to experiment, but also to make mistakes that I can afford to pay for myself. I don’t have a palazzo in Venice, sadly. But if I could have Kit’s friendship and humour back, I’d forgive him all his mistakes and vices; he was a genius. He was also very, very funny.”

Finally, will we have to wait for another 13 years for the next Who album?

“You didn’t wait. Neither did I. Neither did Roger, or The Who’s managers. Even Who fans didn’t wait. No one was waiting. So everyone is surprised and pleased we made another album. I’m always ready to write songs for Roger. I hope next time he will again be able to twist and scramble, jump and strain, and find a way to sing what I write. Songwriting is mainly what I’m good at. I just love it. Why wouldn’t I want to try again if our fans like this one?”

So don’t yet rule out further twists in The Who’s epic tale. As Roger Daltrey highlights while he too praises their “legendary” relationship with Curbishley, there is still – despite their obvious differences – a strong spirit binding this band.

“The Who has always been a family,” Daltrey says. “Family is more important than a lot of the other things people strive for. Right from day one, The Who was a band with a social conscience – you could tell by the music and by our actions. Look at the foundations and charities we’ve supported, that part of our legacy means so much to me. When a band from Shepherd’s Bush with their arses hanging out their trousers can create what we’ve created in all spheres of life, I just think, ‘How lucky were we?’”

And with those creations now including a new, and more than worthy addition to The Who’s legendary canon, Daltrey and Townshend are not the only lucky ones...

By Paul Stokes

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