Mick Taylor sighs. "I almost regret calling it that," he says wearily of his recent album, A Stone's Throw, due for stateside release this month.
The album, in the works for most of the late '90s, was at one time named for its lead track, "Secret Affair." Cooler marketing heads prevailed, and the title of the low-key blues disc now hints at Taylor's legendary stint in the Rolling Stones.
Where some musicians are content to rehash their glory days with live albums and remakes, Taylor, the hot guitarist who stood stock-still onstage, consciously refusing to upstage Mick Jagger, remains at 50 a reticent figure. Although he can claim stellar contributions to the Stones' most relevant albums (1969's Let It Bleed through 1974's It's Only Rock and Roll), Taylor has spent his 25-year solo career playing rather than grandstanding. A Stone's Throw doesn't contain any Rolling Stones material and is only Taylor's second solo studio album (the first was a 1979 self-titled release).
"I think we actually managed to capture what we do onstage on CD," Taylor says from his London home. He's spent several years touring steadily with his band, perfecting the songs on Throw. "The production is good, the songs are quite good, the words are good. I think this music is not ordinary blues music."
He has reason to be satisfied. Taylor sings on the new album, and his vocals show a significant improvement over his first solo disc. His guitar, still instantly recognizable, favors tighter R&B licks over jazz runs. ("I don't give a shit if it's three chords or one chord. It's how you play," he says casually.) Taylor wrote most of the songs himself. "Secret Affair" and "Lost in the Desert" are Robert Cray-leaning highlights, both of which are Taylor's.
After logging time as an import-only release (one that didn't receive much, if any, attention here), Throw will be issued by Cannonball Blues, a label based out of Chanhassen, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb that also serves as home to Prince's Paisley Park Studio. Taylor expresses some concern about an indie's ability to market the disc, asking whether the label provided one to New Times and whether it arrived with the proper publicity materials. "That's one of the things a label is supposed to do," he says. But even the blues divisions of majors don't always spread the word, and Taylor knows that his shows are central to making fans aware he has something in stores.
"The record has been out a while in different forms, but not on a major label," Taylor adds. "Mostly we've sold it on the Internet through Sensible Records." Sensible is the imprint of his manager's company; it licensed the disc to Cannonball. Taylor doesn't seem surprised, or seem to mind, that his product is not a sought-after commodity by the recording industry. As Jagger complained in 1972, Taylor seems most interested in performing live.
"It's better than playing dead," Taylor says drolly. "I'm actually most looking forward to getting on the plane and getting out of England. It's cold here. I've done so much writing in the past two or three months, I can't wait to pick up a guitar again."
Taylor has spent his most recent downtime writing stories. "Literary stuff," he says. "I do it because I want to. I like writing music, but I also like writing stories. I don't know if they're any good. If you think too much about what people are interested in reading or listening to, if you think, 'Does the world really need this?', then you wouldn't do anything.
"I like working in isolation. Being introspective is great. But I also like collaborating and playing with other musicians. Doing things collectively is best. It's not good to think too much, and when I play the guitar, I stop thinking," Taylor says.
Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman already has an autobiography to his credit. Taylor has often been approached to produce his own memoirs, but he is waiting. "When other people ask you to do things like that, they have their own agenda and their own approach. My approach is just to do it," he says, suggesting that a quilt of his nonfiction writing may one day be sewn together. "When I feel something is complete, I'll show it." Taylor's recorded output seems slight, but he has remained busy. His sessions as a sideman -- performances with artists ranging from Jack Bruce (with whom Taylor worked immediately following his 1974 departure from the Stones) to Bob Dylan -- are the stuff of obsessive Internet chronicles.
"I used to jam a lot and play on people's albums," he explains. "But since I've been back in England the last four and a half years, I'm either on the road with my own band or we're in the studio. Occasionally, I play with people in Europe. But the group I'm touring with is more or less a permanent thing, and it takes up most of my time.
"There's not a substitute for that kind of fun -- playing live. And we've had a fantastic reception."
As with many worshiped guitar idols, part of Taylor's positive reception now involves free instruments, offerings given by both humble craftsmen and endorsement-seeking manufacturers.
"We were in Japan last autumn, and somebody in Tokyo had made me a beautiful custom blue guitar. It sounds fantastic. My name is engraved on it in gold letters," he says. "I know somebody in Switzerland who gave Sensible Music a custom Dobro with an electric pickup. It's about as thin as a Telecaster, and it sounds amazing."
Taylor, who left for the States the day after this interview, hadn't yet picked out his touring weapons. "When we get to San Francisco, I'll be able to get what I need. I know I'm taking some Les Pauls and a couple of Strats, maybe a couple of French or a Japanese Strat. Probably no acoustic guitars."
This brings up Keith Richards' instantly infamous recent gossip item: The Stone kept a guitar handed to him to autograph and sped into the night; a shocked fan left to give chase on foot. (Richards explained that autograph seekers often turn out to be people looking to profit from the sale of signed goods -- an opinion that should get him into the next NBA draft.)
Taylor, who tends to patiently sign napkins and answer questions for fans while on tour, hadn't heard the story. He pauses and says, "That sounds like Keith."
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Taylor's morning regimen -- "Coffee, one or two cigarettes" -- is likely also a contrast to Richards'. That goes for his work ethic, too. "I should practice more, really, but there are always so many things to take care of," he admits. Asked when the last time he hit a bum note was, he chuckles and says, "A few minutes ago, probably."
He doesn't bristle at talk of his Stones tenure, but aside from the songs he all but owns ("Sway" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" are two), he has chosen to close that part of his oeuvre. Again, the sigh escapes him when asked whether fans have provided him with bootleg concert tapes for his review. "All the time," he says.
"I hate listening to my own music. I don't think that makes me too different from other musicians, especially in my generation. Especially the day after the show. It's my music or my playing. It's not for me to listen to, it's for me to do." And even if it's news to Americans, Taylor is still doing it, with understated elegance and, refreshingly, without an eye to the past.
Mick Taylor is scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 17, at the Cajun House in Scottsdale, with the Pistoleros. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.