I took a big risk. Rolling Stones fans can be a little precious. Thank god the consensus is nothing but love.
"I took a big risk. Rolling Stones fans can be a little precious. Thank god the consensus is nothing but love." Cristina Arrigoni

It takes massive stones to cover the songs of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in as radically a different manner as Bernard Fowler does on this year's Inside Out album. But few people on earth have more than earned the right to reinterpret these canonical tracks and deep cuts than Fowler, who's sung backing vocals and played percussion with the British rock legends for the last 31 years. As I wrote in a Slog post of Fowler's version of "Sympathy for the Devil" (the album's highlight), "Inside Out's dominant mode is stripped-down, coiled funk, with Fowler not so much singing as declaiming with Last Poets-style defiance." You can't always get what you want, but you will hear tunes such as "Dancing with Mr. D," "Sister Morphine," "Undercover of the Night," "Must Be Hell," and "Tie You Up" with new ears.

The concept for Inside Out began in 2015 while Fowler was soundchecking for the Stones' Zip Code tour. When Stones musical director Chuck Leavell would call out a song, Fowler would recite the lyrics in a Beatnik-poet cadence as he practiced his conga parts. Everyone onstage dug it. Although Fowler took extreme liberties with the arrangements on Inside Out, the four core Stones members love the results, too. I spoke to Fowler—who's also played with Tackhead, Yoko Ono, Herbie Hancock, and Alice Cooper—in advance of his appearance with the Rolling Stones Wednesday, August 14, at CenturyLink Field. (A Fowler solo tour is slated to happen in the near future.)

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The Stranger: Describe the process of song selection for Inside Out. It must have been tough to narrow it down to the nine tracks that appear on the album, yeah?
Bernard Fowler: It wasn’t that tough. I was just thumbing through the Rolling Stones songbook looking for stuff that had strong lyrical content and that’s what I went with.

Can we assume that the songs on Inside Out are your favorites by the Stones, or did they simply make for the most interesting interpretations?
They made for the most interesting interpretations.

In the liner notes, you write about the difficulties involved in making Inside Out. Can you elaborate?
I made Inside Out with no budget. That was a difficulty.

That seems unusual and unjust.
Very unjust.

How could a musician of your stature not have a budget?
I didn’t go around looking for a budget. I know what I wanted to do and I didn’t have time to go around talking to people about the idea. I wasn’t ready to share the idea with anyone. Asking people for money, you’ve gotta give them a reason, and I wasn’t ready to share at that time.

So all the musicians who appear on the album did it for the sheer love of the music?
Yep. It was all my friends [Darryl Jones, Ray Parker Jr., Mike Garson, Vince Wilburn Jr., etc.]. I called them and knew who I wanted to use and like I said, they’re all friends of mine, and I was lucky enough that they were all in town and they weren’t busy.

Can you talk about the decisions you made about the arrangements? The interpretations are pretty radical, quite different from what the originals are.
My motivation was to do them unlike the originals. The only thing I’d use from the originals were the lyrics. Once I found the different grooves, the different rhythms, once I had that, it was easy. The lyrics had to have a flow to them when I read them back to myself. If it flowed well, I used it. I pretty much arranged [the songs] as I went along.

It seems that one goal of Inside Out is to make a case for Jagger-Richards as important lyricists. What is it about their words that stimulates you?
That wasn’t the case at all, but that was obvious. It was their lyrics that helped motivate the whole idea. There are a lot of great lyrics, and a lot of songs that people don’t know. Some of the songs people are walking around singing don’t have their greatest lyrics. A lot of the best lyrics are on their albums’ [deep cuts].

What is it about the lyrics that stimulates you?
The subject matter. It’s like a mirror of how we live now. The lyrics of all those songs [on Inside Out] could’ve been written yesterday. They said to me, we are not that different here in the states and across the water [the UK], and we’re dealing with a lot of the same issues.

Putting four songs from Undercover on Inside Out is a surprising move, as that album is generally not considered one of their best. Do you have a favorite Rolling Stones phase? Would it be safe to say that the ’80s is your favorite era?
It was not a plan [to put four songs from Undercover on Inside Out]. It just happened as I was thumbing through pages and I thought, “Yes, that’s what I’m gonna use.” I have three or four songs in the can that I didn’t use, because I didn’t have a budget and I ran out of time.

As far as a favorite era, if I have to choose, I would probably say 12 X 5, because that was the first album that I heard by the Stones. The other one would probably be Tattoo You, because when I was out of school and working a job, I had to go to Midtown [Manhattan] to drop something off and I saw Keith Richards in a deli… and I was listening to Tattoo You when I saw him. Things like that make me say to myself, wow, I understand why I’m here. The first record my dad gave me was 12 X 5. One of their albums has my last name on it. Things like that just happened over the years. So I think I’m meant to be here.

What year did you see Keith when you were listening to Tattoo You?
The year it was out [1981]. I met Mick at the Paradise Garage, this really big club in New York, when I was making records with the New York Citi Peech Boys.

Did you go up to him or was it a random encounter?
I think Larry Levan introduced me to him [in the '80s]. [Mick] was in the DJ booth. “Hey, man, how ya doing?” “Hi.” Just that quick.

You struck up a pretty good rapport right away?
Not then. We just said hello. I didn’t start a rapport with Mick till I started singing with Herbie Hancock [on 1983’s Future Shock].

Was there a particular incident or record you were on that made Mick say, “I need to have you in my band”?
You would think that. But I worked with Mick on his first solo record [1985’s She’s the Boss]. When he was putting together a solo tour, I didn’t get a call from him or his people. I just happened to run into him in the rehearsal studio. The funny thing about that is, though I had worked with him on his first solo record, he sent somebody into the room I was working in and asked me to audition. [I laugh here.] Yeah, it is funny. I almost didn’t go. It was like an insult to me. I worked on his first solo record, so why would I have to audition? He knew what I was capable of.

That’s weird.
It is weird. I guess he had a lot of things on his mind. Maybe I didn’t do that good of a job, I don’t know. But I had to audition.

Well, ultimately it worked out. You’ve been with the Stones for 30 years.
Almost 31 years. But that’s 31 on and off. In that time, I had the band Nickel Bag with Stevie Salas and with Tackhead. So I was always doing other stuff.

How did you get into the Last Poets, who are on obvious influence on Inside Out?
Yeah, because it is. My older brother bought those records, so I listened to them when they came out in my house on an Emerson hi-fi.

Those early records are fantastic.
Yeah, and probably one of my favorites from that time from the Last Poets is Hustler’s Convention [attributed to Lightnin’ Rod, aka Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin]. Great record.

Over the decades, people have taken offense to the lyrics of songs such as “Brown Sugar” and “Under My Thumb.” Do you share in this sense of outrage? Are there any Stones songs that you just can’t abide?
Nope. I mean, I understand people’s outrage, but I took no offense to it. They’ve had a helluva career, of listening to the blues. A lot of their favorite artists were black. I don’t think they meant to offend anybody by it. If I thought that, I would be offended.

Are there any Stones songs that you just can’t bring yourself to sing or enjoy?
No, not really.

What’s your favorite part of being in the Rolling Stones?
I would love to answer that question, but I’m not in the Rolling Stones. I’m not a member.

Well, you’re an integral member of the live band. Would that be correct to say?
Mmmm, yeah. I’ve done every tour since the Steel Wheels tour [1989].

Don’t the Stones consider you a member, or are you just a hired hand?
I’m a member of the family, probably, but I’m a hired hand. The Rolling Stones are four people: Charlie, Ronnie, Keith, and Mick.

To rephrase the question: What is your favorite part of performing with the Rolling Stones?
Aside from singing, it’s watching them do their thing. I got the best seat in the house.

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Are there any negative aspects of performing or traveling with the Rolling Stones?
The only negative aspect is not knowing when a tour is going to happen. I’ve always said it’s the best job in rock and roll and it’s the worst job in rock and roll. People think because you’re performing and touring with the Stones, you don’t need to work. So they don’t call. Or they have this weird idea that they can’t afford you. That’s not the case at all. All of us side cats, when we’re not with the Rolling Stones, we’re out doing gigs. We have to play. That’s how we live.

Do you get along well with the four core members in the Stones?
Oh, man, I love those cats. I love those cats, I love their families, we’ve watched each other’s kids grow up. It’s like a family. I’ve been blessed that whenever they go on the road, they’ve asked me to go along. Not only when they’re touring, but when they’re recording, they’ll ask.

Is Inside Out a one-off or will you do other Stones cover albums?
It was going to be a one-off. But it’s been received so well, I’m amazed at the reaction I’ve gotten from it. It’s been so positive, and because of that I have to do a follow-up.

Do you have the song selection solidified?
I have about three or four in the can for the next one.

Can you say what they are?
No, you know I’m not gonna do that.

Is the current tour going as well as you would hope?
It’s going better. They are playing better than ever and everybody’s healthy.

I saw footage of the Philadelphia show, and Mick looked pretty vigorous.
He’s kickin’ booty… as they all are.

Not bad for guys in their 70s.
It’s something to aspire to.

Have you ever done “Heaven” live?
Not while I’ve been here.

That is one of the biggest surprises in the whole Stones catalog. Oddly enough, Keith isn’t even on it.
One of my favorites that I don’t think they’ve ever done is “Dandelion.”

Oh, that would be great! Do you ever make suggestions for songs to play?
Absolutely. All the time. I get a lot of frowns from Mick, but that doesn’t deter me from sticking my two cents in. Occasionally they use the two cents.

They should listen to you. You have a distinctive take on the catalog.

You certainly made me appreciate "Undercover of the Night" more. You opened up a whole new vein there. With all of the songs on Inside Out, you found inventive ways to play them that they almost sound more like your songs than the Stones’. They’re total reinventions.
Wow, that’s very cool, because that’s what I was hoping. When people hear Inside Out, if they’ve heard the songs before, that they’d hear them differently.

Exactly. A lot of covers are too faithful to a fault and you wonder what the point is. I like when musicians take risks and try to put songs in different arrangements, and that’s what you did.
Oh, yeah. [laughs] I took a big risk. When I was making the record, I remember saying to Robert Davis, the guy who co-produced my last album [The Bura], with me, “You know, Robert, people are either gonna really love this record or they’re gonna hate it.” Especially Rolling Stones fans. They can be a little precious. Thank god the overall consensus is nothing but love. People are groovin’ on it.

The thing that boggles my mind a bit is that Mick or Keith couldn’t throw you a little money to help you record it under less stringent conditions. It seems like you would’ve earned their respect and trust, at least for them to help you out a little.
That would’ve been nice, but in their defense, I didn’t ask.

It might’ve been weird.
Yeah. But I wanted the project to be a surprise to everybody. I let them know early on what I was doing. I did play some stuff for them that was in a very rough state.

What do Charlie Watts and Ron Wood think?
They love it. Really, it’s more of a jazz record than anything else. It’s not a rock-and-roll record. Charlie really appreciates that.