Ian McDonald, best known for founding British supergroups King Crimson and Foreigner, takes the prize as the most interesting old-new act in music. His new group, Honey West, released their debut album, Bad Old World to rave reviews for its sound and lyrics.
The album features Honey West founder, accomplished actor and neighbor Ted Zurkowski (the Actor’s Studio)), McDonald’s son Maxwell on bass, and Steve Holley from Paul McCartney’s Wings on drums.
The band is slated to perform this year at New York City’s Cutting Room, Jan. 25, before heading out to Nashville to play some of its storied rock clubs.
We caught up with McDonald and Zurkowski in New York City during rehearsals for an Improper magazine Q&A
Improper: Ian, tell us a bit about your role in King Crimson and Foreigner?
McDonald: Even though I was a founding member of Foreigner and King Crimson, my roles were a little bit different. In King Crimson, there was an equal standing among the five of us. In Foreigner it was more of a hierarchy. With both bands, I co-produced the albums, especially the King Crimson debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. I was at the forefront of that, co-writing everything and playing various instruments – woodwinds, horns, keyboards and such. I didn’t play any guitar, even though I wrote a lot of the songs on guitar, because I left them to [King Crimson’s Robert] Fripp to play.
In Foreigner, I was more or less the second guitarist, and I co-produced the first three albums. I didn’t co-write as much, though more than I was probably credited for, but that’s another story. I played sax, flute, and clarinet in both bands, actually. Back to King Crimson, I was stuck with the Mellotron and I needed and wanted string arrangements, so I ended up doing that with the Mellotron. For those who don’t know, the Mellotron was an early sampling instrument that recreated brass and flutes and things like that.
IM: You’re a multi-instrumentalist; how many instruments do you play?
McDonald: Probably about six but there are a number of spinoffs from that. The basic six would be clarinet, flute sax, guitar, piano and percussion. But there are all kinds of spinoffs like vibraphones, bass clarinet, and various forms of guitar and that sort of thing. My favorite is guitar, probably. In recent years I’ve concentrated on the flute because I took lessons from a classical flute teacher to improve my tone and technique. I‘ve always loved the sound of orchestral flutists, so I wanted to know if I could get anywhere near that kind of tone. Very often you hear flute players who are really sax players doubling on flute. Hopefully the lessons made some improvement, I would like to think so.
IM: After Foreigner, did you want to form another band? What was the process that led to Honey West?
McDonald: I didn’t really want to form another band initially. After being excused from Foreigner, I went through a period of readjusting, and I did do various other things. Flashing forward a number of years, I felt that I still wanted to get involved in something that I could really dig into, and that’s when I met Ted Zurkowski. That opportunity arose after I heard his original version of the Honey West band. I felt I could help in some way and that they could also help me get back into something major. I saw this mutually beneficial opportunity to create an album and to enhance the band, which I feel we’ve done, and I’m very proud of it.
IM: What is the songwriting process like with Ted for Bad Old World.
McDonald: Generally, Ted will bring in a lyric more or less completed. So the songs are pretty much based around a lyric idea. Ted will often have a starting chord progression and melody, and I’ll take it from there and add some chords and things like that, and basically work on structure and arrangements. I’m very interested in song structure. Then there are other times, in the song “California,” for instance, where Ted had a lyric and a particular melody or chord, so that was something we wrote from scratch together. I like to call it our breakthrough song. I came up with the guitar riff and then we took it from there. We usually don’t start without some kind of lyric idea. It’s not as if we sit around jamming, although we do that as well, but that’s not how the songs are written.
IM: What is “Dementia” all about? The video is great. Tell us how that came to be, and tell us about the new single, “Bad Old World,” and the upcoming music video?
McDonald: “Dementia” was Ted’s lyric idea, but it’s about accepting one’s situation and enjoying it as much as possible. As far as the video is concerned, that was an idea that my son Max, who plays bass in Honey West, came up with, and he directed and organized that as a lyric video. I encourage people to look for it online because it’s very innovative and quite complicated, but in a simple way. It’s a tracking shot with one camera, but with continuous movement – quite clever. Billboard must have thought so, too, as they decided to premiere it online. “Bad Old World”, like many of the tracks on the album, was recorded live with a live vocal that we kept. It’s basically a live feel with production overlays and trimming and fairy dust. The mixture of live and produced gives the album its unique sound: a live feel, but with definite production values. We’re working on a video, but it’s still in the planning stages.
IM: Ted, how did you and Ian meet up?
Zurkowski: My wife, Lynnea Benson, runs Frog & Peach, a well-known Shakespeare company here in New York and told me one day that an English neighbor had been coming to a lot of her shows and that he happened to mention that he had been in a couple of very well-known bands. I’m coming home from a band rehearsal one night and there’s Ian on our street corner and Lynnea introduces us and the rest is history.
IM: Frog & Peach; The Actor’s Studio; tell us a bit about your background with them.
Zurkowski: I auditioned for Lee Strasberg back in the day and he made me a lifetime member. All of a sudden, I found myself in class, so to speak, with Al Pacino, Shelley Winters, Paul Newman and Chris Walken! I was there for the last two years of Strasberg’s life and also continued to work there throughout my acting career. Frog and Peach we started 20 years ago because we were looking for that Holy Grail that exists somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean right between the Actors Studio method and whatever it is the Brits have been doing so brilliantly for generations. Once I started working with Ian, Lynnea had us writing music for several of her productions. She has A Midsummer Night’s Dream opening February 1, 2018 at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street and it has half a dozen songs in it that Ian and I composed.
IM: I was at the Bowery Electric show and it immediately seemed like Honey West was a band for the ages – how do you feel about the band so far?
Zurkowski: That is a wonderful assessment. Thank you. How do I feel about the band so far? I feel like it’s a band for the ages!
IM: Ted, had you been in bands previously?
Zurkowski: I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut and there were a lot of great musicians and I got pretty good on drums and started backing up a lot of the older kids, so to speak. And then I got bitten by the acting bug and came to New York, and then got out of acting for a while and started one of the last power trios back in the ‘80s, a little band called Right Little Boy. We played a bunch of gigs and did a great demo and almost got signed, and then we dropped it. Years later I got back to picking up a guitar and singing and I wanted to get out in front and start writing songs. Just before I met Ian, I was on about my sixth or seventh band and this one happened to be called Honey West and it was a bit of an alt country act. Ian came to see us at a club. This band also happened to be a trio at the time. Ian liked the energy and the songs and decided that he would like to join. So what he saw was me out in front doing all the singing and guitar playing backed up by a very good rhythm section.
IM: Where do you see Honey West heading?
Zurkowski: For starters, I see Honey West heading into The Cutting Room here in Manhattan for a January 25 gig. Then, probably down to Nashville of all places to play some of the better-known rock clubs there.
Check out the video below for more on the band’s background and their lyric video for “Dementia.”