If you haven't heard the term "supergroup" in a while, it may be because there aren't many real rock titans left around to clash, much less mesh. But SuperHeavy is here to revive the tradition, with instigators Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart enlisting Joss Stone, Damian Marley, and film composer A.R. Rahman as co-conspirators in the unlikely meeting of musical sensibilities.
The ex-Eurythmic and still-Rolling-Stone talked with Yahoo! Music about the making of the debut album from their new "band," which one magazine aptly described as a "WTF lineup."
Dave Stewart understands, and welcomes, that initial expression of astonishment when the project was first announced just a few months ago. "A lot of times, when people announce supergroups, they are usually from a similar genre of music or background. Even with the Traveling Wilburys—which was recorded at my house, so I was watching them do it—you could see how it fit together, and they weren't too dissimilar in ages. Whereas if you think about this, everything looks peculiar…
"Joss just turned 24," continues Stewart, who also produced her recent solo album, "and then you've got somebody from every decade, basically." (The eldest member, Stewart refrains from mentioning, is Jagger, a spry 68.) "And then you've got a fully groomed Jamaican artist, an Indian artist, Joss from Devon in southern England, myself from the border of Scotland in northern England, and Mick from Dartford. It's hard for people to picture it and imagine what it was going to sound like. But then when we made our video for 'Miracle Worker,' and we put up a little video of us in the studio experimenting, I think it started to get easier for people to see.
"No matter what Mick does, he always gets 'Hey, you should be back in the Stones. You shouldn't do anything apart from doing that.' And other people get that when they try and step outside of their norm. But I think this was so far outside of it that everybody was like, 'Okay, what is that?' Or 'WTF,' as you say."
The last time Jagger participated in anything remotely resembling a supergroup, it was Jamming With Edward, which wasn't so much a "project" as an accident that eventually got released, years after it was put down on tape in the late '60s. Naturally, he sees SuperHeavy in a wholly different light from that ancient cult album.
"That was a jam," says Jagger. "The Jamming with Edward thing was basically the Rolling Stones with Ry (Cooder). But none of this was a jam. Of course we did jamming, but we never released that. This was about writing songs, and songs that have beginnings, middles, ends, choruses. We wanted to make songs that you could remember, or could dance to, or were just rather wistful…
"With supergroups in the old days, it was like the most famous bass player, the most famous guitarist, and a good drummer—you know what I mean. This is a more experimental record. When Dave and I talked about what we wanted to achieve by doing it, we were trying to do something that was fun and inventive and as a piece of work would represent a lot of different styles, and yet within that would be meaningful mixtures that would really hang together. And I think on the whole we've managed to achieve that."
Although Jagger emphasizes that SuperHeavy is all about having coherent, compact songs, Stewart makes it clear that the tunes did mostly come together through interplay in the studio—an approach he says made his primary partner slightly nervous.
"It's kind of scary, on one hand," Stewart says. "Mick was going, like, 'Whoa, hang on!' He couldn't believe it, the night before, that we weren't going in with any songs. But what happened was, in the first sort of 90 minutes, a kind of explosion. We had three songs on the go. Besides the (support) musicians in the room, you've got the five of us, and everybody's playing and jamming, and suddenly one of the group members starts doing something and the others start to lock in. That's when you start to realize, 'Oh yeah, I forgot, this is serious stuff.' Because every single member is pretty good at what they do, and it's suddenly like, 'Oh, sh*t, I'm on a racehorse, but a really good one. I better concentrate!'"
A.R. Rahman, the Indian film composer known for his work on 127 Hours and especially Slumdog Millionaire, would be the member you'd figure would have the least experience with group improvisation. And you'd be right.
"Yeah," says Stewart, "at the beginning [Rahman] was like, 'Hang on, how do I…' He said when he was at school, he was in a band, so it kind of reminded him a bit of that. But he hadn't done it in so long. He was used to being in control of making soundscapes and using orchestras and all that stuff. And then towards the end, he was the one most into creating jams and all this kind of [spontaneous] stuff. In fact, he's still doing it now. I keep getting emails. He's in India at the moment, and he's experimenting even more with SuperHeavy tracks."
Jagger admits he wasn't sure how he and Rahman would gel.
"A.R. I had never worked with, so he was a bit of an unknown quantity to me," Jagger says. "I didn't quite understand how he was going to just fit in, because since his high school days, he's always been in charge of all his own thing. So to fit into other people's things -- I think at the beginning he found that a little bit difficult, even though he seemed very into it. So he was the most left-field contributor, in a way, because a lot of his things that he added were kind of more of a spiritual nature. And obviously his [primary songwriting contribution, 'Satyameva Jayathe'] was the one that wasn't in English. So I would listen very closely to what he was trying to do and question him about where that was from and how he came upon it…
"The first thing that he did that I really liked was in the song called 'Unbelievable.' He played the solo. But it was not an Indian instrument, but actually an ancient Persian instrument called the santur, which was really out of left field. I said, 'Wow, I've always liked the music of the santur, but I never thought I'd actually have a santur solo.' The whole thing was kind of fun like that. You never knew quite what was gonna happen."
In the category of Known Quantities, there was Joss Stone. SuperHeavy is, in some small part, an Alfie soundtrack reunion, since Stewart produced a Christmas single that Jagger dueted on with the then-16-year-old Stone for that film back in 2004.
The interaction with Stone here will have fans recalling how effectively Jagger has vocally partnered with female singers over the years, from Merry Clayton (on "Gimme Shelter") to live partners like Tina Turner, Sheryl Crow, and (in the Stones' last concert movie) Christina Aguilera.
"I enjoy singing with women," Jagger says, "because the obvious thing is that, apart from the fact that you're a different sex, they have a voice that's usually very different from yours, so that it's much easier to sing with them, because they're always gonna do harmonies above you. Or if they're singing lead, you're gonna always be below them. In that way, it's easier than singing with a man, in some ways."
Trading verses with Bob Marley's son, meanwhile can't help but remind fans of "Don't Look Back," Jagger's popular late-'70s duet with Jimmy Cliff, or some of the Stones' own reggae-fied tunes.
"I'm very at home in that idiom," Jagger affirms. "And we did another song on there—it's one of the bonus tracks ['Common Ground,' on the deluxe edition]—which is more in a soka idiom rather than a reggae idiom. You would have thought that came from Damian, but actually it really came from Dave and me, initially. And even on the ballad that Joss and I do ['I Don't Mind'], because we had a Jamaican rhythm section, it gave it a slightly different lilt than it would have had if we'd had a rock drummer or one of our L.A. friends drumming."
This is the third release Stewart has been involved with in the course of just a few short months. First, there was his own solo project; then, the solo album he produced for Stone, which was made in-between the SuperHeavy sessions; and, obviously, SuperHeavy. Ironically, of these three albums, the one that actually has a Rolling Stone on it is the only one that doesn't sound particularly Stones-y.
"I'm a bit of a catalyst," Stewart says, explaining his favorite collaborative role. "Also, I'm able to wander across genres. Even in the Eurythmics, people would go 'Well, you're from an electronic background. And I'm like, 'Well, not really.' Because I was brought up in the northeast of England learning blues music from my cousin's records, who was sent from Memphis.
"And Eurythmics was a bit of a Trojan horse, because we started off with 'Sweet Dreams,' but actually that song is not too dissimilar to [Adele's] 'Rolling in the Deep' or something. We were singing kind of a blues melody on top of electronic stuff. Very soon we hit with 'Here Comes the Rain,' which was a big Gretsch guitar and orchestration, and then we were rolling out soul/R&B with guitars and horn sections with 'Would I Lie to You' and 'Missionary Man' and 'Sisters are Doing It for Themselves.'"
Eventually, as Stewart says, we all figured out just how traditional the Eurythmics really were. But will the masses be able to hear the pop hooks on SuperHeavy through all the cross-cultural trappings?
That remains to be seen, but don't expect a big tour to support the project. And that's not necessarily because it would conflict with a Rolling Stones tour.
Jagger and all his fellow bandmates were recently seen coming out of a London office, lending support to speculation that the band will hit the road again next year. We couldn't help asking: Are we more likely to see him on stage with SuperHeavy or the Stones?
"Or maybe it'll be nothing," he says, breaking into a hearty laugh. "Probably it'll be nothing at all! No, I never wanted to do the SuperHeavy 100-city tour. It doesn't really appeal to me, and I don't think it appeals to Dave. But if there was some special show [to do] in some different kind of way, we'd always want to do that…
"And as for the Stones," Jagger adds, "I don't really know what the Stones are going to do next year, or indeed any other year. But we've got the 50th anniversary coming up. I'm sure that there'll be all kinds of Stones-related things [in 2012], and everyone will be harshly bored with it by the end of the year!"
That very last prospect, anyway, is SuperUnlikely.