Parting Shots: Ringo Starr

Mike Greenhaus on May 29, 2021
Parting Shots: Ringo Starr

“I was out shopping for clothes for the stage and then it all ended,” Ringo Starr says, as he thinks back to the first few months of 2020. “We got it all together and we couldn’t go.”

But, once The Beatles drummer’s planned tour with his ever-changing All[1]Starr Band was unexpectedly scrapped, he quickly pivoted, whipping together a new, five[1]song EP, Zoom In, between April-October 2020. Recorded mostly remotely—though a few friends like Benmont Tench did lend a hand in person— it’s a typical “all-star” affair, featuring Robby Krieger on the title track and the stacked roster of Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae, Black Pumas’ Eric Burton, Sheryl Crow, FINNEAS, Dave Grohl, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Jenny Lewis, Steve Lukather, Chris Stapleton, Yola and even Paul McCartney on the sing-along single, “Here’s to the Nights.”

“I was trying to do things I hadn’t done,” Starr says during a recent Zoom call from his Los Angeles studio, wearing dark sunglasses and sitting next to a museum’s worth of memorabilia celebrating both his Beatles days and his son’s Trojan Jamaica label. “It’s also a cassette because I heard the kids are into cassettes. Two years ago, I threw my cassette player away, trying to move on. And they’re all moving back.”

You recorded Zoom In at your studio during the height of the pandemic last year. Was there a specific catalyst early on that inspired you to launch into a new project?

I was sitting around doing nothing and cancelling tours. I had just had an album out, What’s My Name, but I love to play, and I love hanging with musicians. While I can’t do a lot of that these days, I can still send files back and forth. Diane Warren wrote “Here’s to the Nights.” She got a lot of people [to participate], and I got a lot of people. I called Sheryl Crow—I sent the files to Paul in England, and Dave Grohl and Ben Harper came over to my studio because they live right here. Everyone was looking for something to do.

We started with “Zoom In,” which was brought to me by my engineer Bruce Sugar. I love the expression “zoom in” because of what we’re doing now. But it’s a bit more spiritual than that. I didn’t wanna make a 10-track CD, but I thought, “I could look at making four tracks.” Sam Hollander produced—and put all the instruments on—“Teach Me to Tango” while in lockdown in New York. He sent it to me, and I did the vocals, which is something you can do now. My credit is “vocal and one drum fill.” I thought, “I’m going to put that down because it makes me laugh.”

Once I had four tracks down and was ready to close it down, Steve Lukather and John Williams came over. They’d written “Not Enough Love in the World” and I had to do it—there’s not enough peace in the world. So now it is a five-track EP.

You’ve been an advocate of Transcendental Meditation for decades. How has that practice helped you during this difficult time?

It helps you get a break from this difficult time and it puts you in a proper space. But we’re all human. Some days, it’s like, “I’ve had enough of this day.” But it’s not that often because of meditation and because I can stand up, come to the studio and call some people—someone will send me a few files and I can drum for them. I call it a studio, but it’s really just an empty guest house that I’ve put a lot of stuff in—the drums are in the bedroom. I’ve done five other people’s records so far.

I’m blessed—I’ve got stuff that can keep me busy. I have a little room where I can throw paint around and make a mess, and I’ve got the gym, which is really important. I truly believe that movement—you can just walk around the block—is really important to everybody. Otherwise, you just slow down more and more. You can’t help it.

You recently released a photo book, Ringo Rocks: 30 Years of the All Starrs 1989-2019, documenting your solo band’s first three decades. Looking over the group’s shifting lineups, can you pinpoint a thread that ties the first and most recent versions of the project together?

The thread was that you had to have hit songs. When I put the first band together in 1989, I’d never done it before. I called my friends first—I have quite a few musician friends. [Laughs.] I had Levon Helm playing drums with me, but I also wanted Jim Keltner as a drummer because he’s my friend. He’s incredible, and I like to do some “peace and love” down front. So we had three drummers.

It was quite organic. We did America and Japan, we had a year off and said, “Let’s do it again.” I called a lot of other people, got that band together and we did really well. And then I waited and did it again.

I kept changing the whole band and, after 10-15 years, that’s not the easiest thing to do—you have to practice and get to know each other. And so, for last 10-12 years, I’ve only changed a few of the characters in the band. It’s a bit looser. But the premise is still that we all have hits.

You mentioned Levon. Rick Danko and Garth Hudson were both also part of that first All Star Band tour, and you appear in the new Robbie Robertson documentary Once Were Brothers. Did The Band shape how you initially approached your All-Star Band?

I’ve always loved them. They were The Band—mine was a band of strangers. [Discovering them] was one of those moments. I was in New York and, just by chance—we didn’t plan it—George was in New York, too. And Eric Clapton brought us the acetate of The Band. That’s when we heard them for the first time—and, from that first listen, they were great. Levon has a great style.

Jimi Hendrix was upstairs at the same hotel. It was a great memory, hearing them for the first time like that. Levon was a very cool drummer, and Rick had a great voice and was a crazy bass player sometimes.

Paul sings on “Here’s to the Nights.” He’s been on a number of your recordings over the years, including “Grow Old With Me,” which was written by John Lennon and appears on What’s My Name. Does a tune have to have a special quality for you to ask Paul to appear on it?

When I’m making a CD, there are times when I’ll only want Paul to play on a track because he’s the best bass player in the land. He’s melodic and he’s emotional when he plays. He puts it in a place I know and love because I’ve played with him before. [Laughs.]

We used to put the drums and the bass together so that we weren’t treading on each other’s toes. I love having him in the room with me. I love being around him; we always have a laugh. That’s just how it is—we’re still friends after all these years. I miss our other friends. I was the luckiest guy in the world—an only child who suddenly had three deep, meaningful brothers. Every time I think that two of them have left us, I have to stop. It was the best band in the world.