Geek The Beatles: Paul McCartney Gets Technocultural With Digital Libraries, Wikileaks

Image courtesy MPL Comunications Ltd./M.J. Kim

This is the first part of my two-part Wired interview with the Beatles’ legend, solo dynamo and postmodern knight, Paul McCartney. It was an illuminating purposes, especially for my continuing series Geek The Beatles. From the first digital solo library, courtesy of Hewlett-Packard, and anti-corporate home recordings to electronic music and even Wikileaks, McCartney’s digital innovations have helped code the past, present and future.

From his legendary work with the Beatles to his extensive solo career, now being exhaustively digitized by Hewlett-Packard, Paul McCartney has had technocultural innovation on the brain. It’s always so incredible to read more about how music technology has changed over the years, and artists like McCartney have seen these changes happen right infront of their own eyes.

“You certainly find a younger generation discovering and remixing stuff that I did, and making it all fresh again,” the perpetually productive McCartney told by phone in the long and winding interview below. “I love the idea that what I did then can still be relevant now.”

The 69-year-old McCartney has made that process much easier by being consistently ahead of the cultural curve. Although he penned immortal Beatles lullabies like “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude,” his tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and unhinged noise on “Helter Skelter” influenced hip-hop, heavy metal, horror and more.

McCartney, who kicks off a U.S. tour with consecutive headlining dates at Yankees Stadium in July, has also become the first superstar to completely digitize his mammoth solo library, according to Hewlett-Packard, which is running the ambitious project.

Over the next three years, HP will compress more than a million McCartney tracks, clips, photos, reviews, experiments and ephemera into a cloud-based collection the musician can access from anywhere in the world. That is light-years ahead of digging out old tapes from beneath his studio in England and literally baking them to reverse physical deterioration.

“That amazed me when I heard that one,” McCartney told me. “We’ve actually got to bake my old tapes before we can play them? It’s a bit like the steam engine, you know. A bit old-fashioned.”

Although McCartney himself has been slammed for being old-fashioned on hits like “Silly Love Songs,” he’s also been routinely, and unfairly, slammed for the opposite. His first two solo albums, McCartney and McCartney II, whose remastered deluxe upgrades arrive Tuesday, were respectively blamed for breaking up the Beatles and heretically mucking about with electronic music.
‘We’ve actually got to bake my old tapes before we can play them? It’s a bit like the steam engine, you know.’

Yet the solo records have a sense of prescience to them. McCartney was a “non-corporate” response to the Beatles’ suffocating insulation and turmoil, as well as an early example of home-based music production now ubiquitous in our age of GarageBand, McCartney said.

Meanwhile, McCartney II’s love of sequencers and synthesizers merged dance and pop music into a defiant hybrid that tipped its hat to stellar but obscure bands like Sparks while providing an early sonic antecedent of horny G-funk (“Darkroom”) and crossover R&B. (How many MTV and VH1 viewers know that popular soul trio TLC bit McCartney’s rhyme “Waterfalls” on the way to the big time?)

The groundbreaking video for “Coming Up” even featured sci-fi McCartney clones called The Plastic Macs, a nod to his nickname as well as John Lennon’s solo outfits Plastic Ono Band and The Dirty Mac.

While logging more than 50 years of work, McCartney has always had one foot in the future, even as some around him have complained that he is locked in “Yesterday.” Of course, they simply haven’t done their research.

Today, award-winning director Jack McCoy is channeling obscure tunes from McCartney’s electronic music project The Fireman and McCartney II into captivating surf films and YouTube videos. (Check out McCartney and McCoy’s brand new short film “Blue Sway” at the bottom of our interview.)

And, as I reported last week, McCartney is revisiting tape loops and found sounds in a forthcoming project utilizing the same machines used on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

We chatted with McCartney about his time-warping influence, the Beatles, McCartney and McCartney II’s bleeding edges and why his titanic digital library has nothing to fear from WikiLeaks.

Coming on the heels of the Beatles’ breakup, McCartney seems to be one of the early instances of an artist taking control of his production and making an album mostly at home.

Paul McCartney: It was a combination of things that led me to do that. Obviously, the band was breaking up, which meant that I didn’t have anyone to make the music with. So I had the alternative of putting together a band quickly, or taking it in another direction, which is what I decided to do. Also, that period of my life was one where I was going against the corporate mentality, which didn’t fit for me with the music I loved and wanted to make. The Beatles were with a label and had a studio, but once the band broke up I wanted to go in another direction. So I got a machine identical to the one we were using in the studio, a few mics and started work.

What was the corporate mentality that you were rebelling against at the time?

McCartney: When I was with the Beatles, everything was taken care of. Someone would even buy my Christmas tree for me. But suddenly I got with Linda, and things changed. We didn’t want to do that; we wanted to get a bit more real. So I decided that I was going to buy my own Christmas tree and make my own album in the living room. It was all part of my thought process. It turned out to be something that was quite innovative, although I didn’t think of that implication at the time.

It’s been said before, but I think it bears repeating that all of the Beatles albums were made on four-track and later eight-track machines. Which is nearly inconceivable, but nevertheless empowering, in our current era where artists can make polished albums with way more tracks pretty much anywhere on their laptops.

McCartney: Yeah, exactly. It is a great thing. And you have to think about where the Beatles were coming from. We were listening to great records from Sun Studio, which had very primitive recording systems. Music from Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard tended to be made in quite funky little studios, but it was that sound that attracted us. Since it came from a weird little place, it tended to have a cool little sound. And we all had our favorite places in the house where we practiced our guitar. My favorite was in the toilet, because it had good acoustics. When John and I first started playing and writing together, there was a little vestibule on the front of his house which had a good little sound. And that all fits with this idea that keeping it real, funky and non-corporate. I just think that somehow found its way into the excitement of the records.

The lo-fi rock genre of the ’80s onward had that same vibe, going for raw takes and sounds rather than massive studio productions.

McCartney: Yeah, I think I was reacting against the same thing that people were to react against later.

What do you think about home recording’s evolution?

McCartney: I think it’s a great thing, and a buzz. It ties in with what I was doing on McCartney and McCartney II, by allowing you to just get on with having your ideas and not having to cope with being in a social situation. Which is a double-edged sword: Sometimes it’s a great thing to hang out with a band like the Beatles. But it’s not always great, especially during times when it’s argumentative or you wish you were somewhere else where you could be yourself a bit more.

The bottom line, which I’m very happy about, is you still have to make great music, no matter how you make it. The Beatles went from two-track to four-track to eight-track to 16-track, but it didn’t really matter which we used because we still had to have great songs. I mean, Beck’s “Loser” was done in his bedroom. And I’m sure there were thousands of people making tracks in their bedroom, but they weren’t anywhere near as cool.

Speaking of cool, how are you feeling about HP not only digitizing your entire solo vault, but also being able to access it from anywhere in the world?

McCartney: That’s also a great thing, particularly when you’ve been at it as long as I have, because you accumulate so much. I have a large basement at my studio in England where I store all my post-Beatles stuff. I’ve got all the old tapes, so if I want to mix them again like I’m doing with these remastered reissues, we’ve got to find the tape and actually bake it, because the oxide comes off.

Next up, cooking with Paul McCartney!

McCartney: That amazed me when I heard that one. We’ve actually got to bake my old tapes before we can play them? It’s a bit like the steam engine, you know. A bit old-fashioned. Being able to access it at the press of the button is much better, which is why I was happy when Hewlett-Packard came along and offered to sponsor my concerts.

I’m always looking for a sponsor I can get behind. My last sponsor was Lexus, because I was into the hybrid cars, which were just then arriving on the scene. Once it was put to me that Hewlett-Packard would digitize my library as part of the deal, I was in.

I read that your library has over a million items in it. How long is digitizing all of that going to take?

McCartney: They’re going to take the next three years. At the end of that time, all I am going to have to do is press a button from anywhere in the world. If I want to access Wings’ 1976 world tour, I’ll get it, which is pretty amazing.

Unless I’m mistaken, you’re the first artist to do this. At least, Hewlett-Packard says you are.

McCartney: I think so. You know, I’m not a great keeper of records, so someone can tell you that rather than me. But I think it is true. Either way, it works for both of us. I get my library digitized so I and my office staff can have immediate access, and HP gets a flagship leader for this whole process. No doubt they are going to put this together for other people and say, “Hey, we did it for Paul, you want it?” We both win.

The first thing that came to mind when I read about it was security.

McCartney: You and me both. I don’t want Mr. Wiki getting in there, you know? [Laughs] But they’ve assured me. As I say, they’re developing this not just for me, but for banks and others, so the security has to be red-hot. But watch this space. We’ll find out, won’t we?

I’m guessing Mr. Wiki is WikiLeaks. What do you think about that site?

McCartney: Well, again, WikiLeaks is a double-edged sword. It’s really great that we find out about the truth behind some of these state secrets, which the public could never find out. Anyone researching or writing articles on these things would never be able to see them, and if they did there would be injunctions. So freedom of information is essentially a great thing.

But the thing that has been mentioned against WikiLeaks, which I can see, is that if you’ve got people who are in an aid situation and they start getting hit, that’s a danger. There are probably some good reasons to keep some information private. But I suppose on a general freedom-of-information level, there seem to be some good things about it. It certainly makes everyone watch what they do. And it’s a good thing if it makes everyone more honest. But the good thing is that it’s not my field of expertise.

Well, from what I know of WikiLeaks, I’d say your digital library is safe.

McCartney: Yeah, that’s the thing. They don’t want me. That’s good.

Met with mixed reactions on its release in 1980, McCartney has survived as a prescient electro-pop exercise. Let’s jump to McCartney II, which was a bit heretical for its time given all the electronic music it had on it. But I think that side of your career is under-reported, from the tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to The Fireman, whose last album, Electric Arguments, was brilliant.

McCartney: I think what happens, and it happens to everyone, is that people tend to sort of get an image. Stuff floats to the top of the water, you know? And some of the stuff that I do, and I’ve been interested in, just doesn’t float up to the top.

Your loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sequenced the genes for electronic music in pop and hop.

mccartney: A great thing is that I’ve got a project coming up now, which I’m really excited about, which has led me to get back into tape loops. I did similar experiments on McCartney, using wine glasses on tracks like “Glasses,” or sequencers and synthesizers on tracks like “Temporary Secretary” for McCartney II. I got a shout a couple years ago about a DJ in Brighton who’s playing the hell out of that record. So you certainly find a younger generation discovering and remixing stuff that I did, and making it all fresh again.

Which is great for me; I love the idea that what I did then can still be relevant now. That’s one of the interesting things about these reissues. Now you’ve got people listening to material like “Check My Machine” or “Secret Friend.” Because the recording techniques were funky and not normal. Like you say, I’ve always done stuff like that, which has been a lesser-known part of my career. And naturally so, because let’s face it: “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” are going to attract attention.

I believe that might be a colossal understatement.

mccartney: But I do love that other side, and the great thing is that it informs my other work. If I get all that off my chest and do the funky stuff, that’s a great thing. I like the way it crosses over and finds its way into other stuff I’m doing. But besides all of that, it keeps the whole thing fresh for me.

How so?

McCartney: It means I never reach a point in music where I go, “Oh God, been there, done that.” It’s always, like, “Whoa.” Like right now, I’m parked outside the rehearsal studios where we are in L.A., and I’m really excited to get in there to plug in my guitar and work on a couple songs. That’s what it’s all about. You don’t have that, you know, then you ain’t got nothing, baby!

This article appeared at WIRED and CNN