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Ian Hunter's "President" campaign bringing the rockin' ex-Mott man to Southern California

John Halpern

The croaking cough on the other end of the line was not encouraging. 

Just the tail end of the flu, its owner explained. And after a minute or so it had worked itself out and Ian Hunter didn’t sound all that different than he did back in the early ‘70s glam days when he fronted the English band Mott the Hoople. 

Of course, he had a pretty raspy croak back then, as much his signature as his oversized dark glasses and curly blond mane.

So whether it's a case of him not sounding much older than he did then (and on his recent album When I’m President, he doesn’t) or of him already having an “old” voice in the old days (he did) doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Ian Hunter is every bit as much Ian Hunter today as ever.

“People my age are not supposed to do it,” he says, his chuckle still shaped by his working-class West Midlands accent though he’s lived in the U.S. for years. “So that’s a motivation itself.”

We don’t need to talk about his age. You can look that up. Suffice to say that with the new album and current concerts, including three Southern California dates this week, he’s affirmed his status as one of the old rockers who’s still ready, willing and able to rock. Or at least who re-learned to rock, one of the handful of his generation that seemed to lose its way in the ‘80s and ‘90s before getting the fire back.

“What’s your option?” he says. “What do you do? You make a bunch of money so you don’t have to work anymore. That’s great. That was one of the ideas in the first place. You sit for a fortnight and nothing’s appealing. You can go on holiday. But the world’s claustrophobic for me after a while and in the end this is the only thing that interests me. And you’re not supposed to do it, so that’s the reason right there. Why let the young buggers do it? That’s the reason for living. I wouldn’t do anything else. As long as you can do it and people aren’t laughing, I don’t see why not.”

Hunter credits a few of the young buggers for his current power: the members of his Rant Band, which has been playing with him for several tours now (and named for his 2001 album, Rant), though this is the first album he’s made with them.

“[Expletive] Rant Band!” he says. “They’re loud! They’re great. Keep me young.”

Now, they’re in their 40s for the most part, so older than he was in the Mott days. But they really infuse the music with great energy. The new album’s title song and “Wild Bunch” have a prime Stones-y drive, “I Don’t Know What You Want” (featuring guest vocals by his son Jesse) is a cocky stomper and the more contemplative “Fatally Flawed” and “Black Tears” bear an incisive edge, with singer and band playing off each other to great effect.

“I totally relate to them,” he says. “If I have to hang out with people my own age it freaks me out. Can’t handle that at all. On the occasions I do we talk about our operations. Much prefer hanging with guys that age. And they don’t make any allowances for me, which is great. Not helping me out in any way, shape or form. I’ve gotta do this and do that. Same old! Great band, though.”

He did hang out with some guys his own age a few years back. Mott the Hoople reunited for a series of five heralded shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. It was the first time the members of the classic lineup — the one that gave us “All the Young Dudes” (the song David Bowie gave them to save the band in its dark, pre-fame days), “All the Way From Memphis” and “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” — played together since Hunter walked away in 1974. (Though health issues prevented drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin from performing, with the Pretenders’ Martin Chambers stepping in.)

“I learned a couple of things,” he says. “They’re a great band now! Going in [in the old days], they weren’t that great a band. We had the X factor, and I was worried that would be lost now. First five minutes and I knew it was there. Craziness. Mainly Pete Watts [the bass player, known by his nickname Overend]. The eccentricity that made them different. That was still there. The way they played, the organ player Verden Allen and Pete the bass player hadn’t played in 30-odd years, and they were telling me what to do. The homework they’d done! The rehearsals and gigs themselves were fantastic.”

There won’t be more, though, he says.

“We had a great time and that was that.”

He is, reportedly, doing Mott material in his current shows, as well as songs from his ‘70s solo years (“Once Bitten Twice Shy” and “Cleveland Rocks” the best-known) in which he partnered with Mick Ronson, the king of glam guitar and David Bowie’s sidekick in the crucial early-‘70s run (Ronson died of liver cancer in 1993).  But this is not about his yesterdays. There’s plenty of the great material from the current Rant Band era. Though even that is starting to take on a yesterdays feel to the singer.

“I only think in terms of tomorrow,” he says. “That’s all. Even this one’s getting boring. Getting ready for something else. It’s more interesting foraging into the future. Don’t know what that is.” 

Ian Hunter and the Rant Band play Wednesday Jan. 30 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Thursday Jan. 31 at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills and Saturday Feb. 2 at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.