What do you get when you allow a superfan to produce your band’s newest album? Hackney Diamonds.
Andrew Watt, who helmed the Rolling Stones‘ first album of original music in 18 years, wants it known that, first and foremost, he is a Stones fan, with an admittedly unhealthy obsession at that. Sure, he’s won the Grammy for Producer of the Year, as well as Grammys for albums he produced or co-produced for Ozzy Osbourne and Dua Lipa. And yeah, his credits include records by pop, hip-hop, and rock hitmakers: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, Future, Eddie Vedder, Iggy Pop, and Elton John, among them. But his biggest heroes have always been Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“If I revealed how many Rolling Stones concerts I’ve been to, I don’t think the band would ever talk to me again,” the endlessly energetic 32-year-old says. “I’ve seen them in the rafters. I’ve seen them up close. I’ve lived this band as a fan.”
Seriously? “I wore a different Stones shirt in the studio every day,” he says. “My collection of Rolling Stones shirts goes deep; I have old ones and everything. I should’ve been ejected from the control room. The number one thing I would tell the band in the studio is, ‘You took a freak from behind the barricade and let him produce the album.’”
Yet Hackney Diamonds is far from a freak show. It’s the band’s best-reviewed album in four decades, and the singles “Angry” and “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” the latter of which features Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder, both landed on Billboard’s rock chart. And since the LP came out last week, listeners have been picking apart guest contributions from Paul McCartney, Elton John, and original bassist Bill Wyman, as well as the drumming of Steve Jordan, who assumed a place behind the kit following the 2021 death of Charlie Watts. “I just think [the album is] the Stones this year,” Jagger told Rolling Stone last month. “I wanted it to be great. I didn’t want it to be just an album that was OK. And I think the album delivered what I wanted.”
Watt says Jagger first approached him about producing the album over tea in June of 2022, around the time the Stones performed at London’s Hyde Park. He’d met Jagger through producer Don Was, who’d worked on every Stones record going back to 1994’s Voodoo Lounge. Watt had only made a few remixes for the Stones by the Hyde Park show, so he was surprised when Jagger floated the idea of making new music by him more seriously later that summer. “My answer was actually, like, ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’” the producer says.
The next few months quickly became surreal for him. “What’s cool is I made relationships with all these dudes who are, like, my heroes,” Watt says. “And I had the best conversations with Keith ever. He taught me how to play in open-G tuning with five strings. He taught me. It’s so cool. Like, how is that even real for a kid that wants to play guitar? Just watching the masters of their craft doing their thing, it’s like going to college.”
With enthusiasm still resounding in his voice, Watt was eager to give a detailed testimony, complete with his own Polaroids, of how Hackney Diamonds came together, during a two-and-a-half–hour interview. “Obviously,” he exclaims, “it goes without saying that this is the honor of my life.”
When did the idea of producing a Stones album begin to feel like a serious possibility to you?
Mick called me at the end of July . He basically was like, “I just got off the phone with Ronnie [Wood], and Ronnie told me he just had dinner with Paul McCartney and his wife, and Paul recommended a ‘spright young fellow named Andrew Watt’ to work with.” My jaw is on the floor. That doesn’t sound like a real conversation. And then Mick said, “I told Ronnie, that’s the producer I was thinking of showing you.” How fucking cool is that?
So Mick said, “We are going to New York to start preproduction, recording some of this stuff at Electric Lady towards the end of September. I think you should come by and meet the guys.” I was playing the Ohana Festival with Eddie Vedder. I had to play that show that night and get on a plane immediately to get to New York and be in the studio. So I didn’t sleep that night.
How was it walking into that first session with the band?
To observe that band working through songs, making them better, getting them tighter … I truly didn’t care if I was there just for a couple of hours and left; it still would have been the coolest experience of my life.
Which songs were they working on?
One of the first things I heard was “Angry.” It wasn’t musically there, and, vocally, it wasn’t fully fleshed out. They did a song called “Tell Me Straight,” which was a Keith-led song. That was a whole different experience.
From there, I went out to dinner with Ron and Mick. At one point, I went to the bathroom and when I came back, Ronnie was going, “Tell him, Mick.” And Mick was like, “You’re the producer of the Rolling Stones.” [Laughs.] I was so excited. After that, I started talking with Mick every day.
So once you were officially in, how did it all begin?
In mid-October, I flew to Paris to get with Mick. We listened to everything they recorded at Electric Lady, and we listened to stuff they recorded in Jamaica [earlier in 2022]. We listened to stuff from the past that they recorded with Don. We listened to demos. We listened to over 100 songs, no question. We started picking the things that we liked and talking about things that could change.
After that experience, I flew to New York and did the exact same thing with Keith. It was really important to me to get time alone with Keith and earn his respect before we started this experience. If we could get the best Keith stuff on display, and weave the guitars between Ronnie and Keith, and then get Mick’s vocals on top of that, then this is going to sound like the Stones.
Then I went to L.A., and I listened with Ron again. And we talked about what was important to him and making sure there were some great moments for leads.
At what point did you start talking about guest artists?
In Paris, there was a drum set, and I was playing drums. Mick and I were jamming, and I guess it brought a memory back for him that when he wrote “Miss You,” Billy Preston was on the drums and he was on the guitar. Mick was telling me how great it was for the Stones to have Billy Preston come to the studio. Like, when a guest would arrive, everyone would behave. So I was thinking, “Who could be the Billy Preston of the Stones in 2023?”
Then Mick played me an early version of “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.” He was playing the piano. What’s amazing about that song is that it’s very simple chordally. It’s almost like a classic gospel kind of Stones song in the way of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or “Shine a Light.”
I have some tattoos on my fingers. One of the people I have tattooed on my finger is Stevie Wonder. When we were talking about “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” I was thinking, “That feels like a moment for a guest.” I saw my finger and I thought, “Stevie Wonder.” As a fan, how cool would it be for Stevie Wonder to be playing on a Rolling Stones song and not just singing? I asked Mick what he thought, and he instantly got it. So we asked Stevie if he’d want to play, and he said, “Yeah.”
That’s amazing. When did the main sessions for the album begin?
Mick said, “It’s going to be in L.A. in November.” And I’m looking at my calendar and I go, “Oh, fuck. I’ve got Paul McCartney booked during this time.” The Stones wanted to do it for a month straight, from early November into early December. But I don’t think I need to explain to you why you do not cancel on Paul McCartney.
So I call Mick and I’m like, “Listen, I can work, but I have these four or five days booked with Paul right in the middle of this.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, I understand.” So I hung up and said to myself, “I’m going to ask the dumbest question I could ever ask.” I called Mick back and said, “What do you think about me asking if Paul would be into playing bass on a track?” And Mick was like, “Yeah, that sounds great.” So I called Paul and he said, “Yeah, I’d love to play bass with the Stones.”
It sounds like you had it all coming together. How did the sessions go?
Usually, producers set up in the control room. We had 28, 29 songs on the list. I decided I was going to sit in the live room with the band. That way, I could help with the arrangements as we were going. This is a performance-based record; this is live. That’s why it speeds up and slows down and pushes and pulls — the only way the Stones should be.
Being out in the live room really helped me watch the performances and communicate with each musician face to face. I’d be able to go over to Keith or Mick and work through things as we were going.
What song did you begin with?
I kid you not, the first song we recorded on day one in Los Angeles was “Angry.” On the album, you are listening to take two. That’s how quickly these guys were in it. I wanted to keep the pace quick. So if we did 10, 12 takes of a song, we’d keep it going quickly so there’s no room for ripping things apart. I didn’t want to leave room for debate.
When you’re tracking a band live, it’s awesome when everyone’s parts are perfect, like on a song like “Dreamy Skies.” Keith was playing bass on that one and then he overdubbed his electric guitar afterwards, but besides that, it was all on the floor.
After we got the basic tracks, we worked on Keith’s parts. When you listen to this record, I feel like you can pick out Keith Richards or Ron Wood at any time. The “weave” is on display. If you don’t have that, you don’t have the Stones.
How was it working with Ronnie?
The coolest thing about when you watch Ronnie play the guitar is he plays rhythm and lead at the same time. He’ll play chords and then [mimics soloing], and then he goes back to the chord. He plays that way because he came from the Faces, and the Faces had one guitar player. When he would do a guitar solo in the Faces, it would just be bass and drums, so he would have to cover the chords, and that became the style.
The solos are so cool on this record. They’re blistering when they need to be and sparse when they need to be, and he plays Dobro on “Dreamy Skies.” The only person who could do that is Ronnie Wood.
You said Keith was playing bass. Who else was playing bass on the sessions?
Darryl [Jones] was on tour, so everyone was picking up the bass. I got to play bass on a couple of songs, which is the craziest honor of my life. Keith played bass. Ronnie played bass. Paul played bass. There’s a lot of different bass players on this record, one of which is Stevie Wonder on the Moog bass.
Was the band still writing songs while in the studio?
There were so many magical moments, like Keith coming up with the riff for “Whole Wide World.” Mick’s demo was completely different, and Keith started playing this riff, and then Steve started playing along, and it was such a vibe. I was just like, “Mick, start singing your verse,” and he says, “Where’s the verse?” It didn’t make sense to him. So I said, “Just sing that verse over this.” He started singing along, and boom, it went to the chorus, and it was a joy. These guys were having a blast.
Did you work with Mick on the lyrics?
Keith wrote lyrics; Mick wrote lyrics; they wrote some together. There are some songs where I said, “I think you could have a better line here.” And we’d sit for a second and come up with something, or he’d go away and come up with something. Or he’d say, “Nah, it’s better like this.”
On “Whole Wide World,” I felt the story could be more personal. Most people would be like, “Fuck you, this is my story.” He was like, “OK, give me the night. I’ll come back tomorrow.” And now they’re some of my favorite lyrics on the album. He wrote this story about his young days in London and getting arrested and being a kid on the streets. It’s so cool.
What other songs came together during the sessions?
The last song written and finished for the record was “Driving Me Too Hard.” The lyrics weren’t finished. And Keith was like, “Oh, I’m going to go back to my house and get these lyrics done.” And I threw it out: “You guys are both right here. Why don’t you take a couple of hours and write it together? You know the deal, Jagger-Richards.” So I sat with them just as a buffer, playing guitar, and those guys just bounced back and forth making each other crack up laughing, and they wrote these lyrics sitting next to each other, truly together.
Mick sang it 30 minutes after that, and Keith did the backgrounds. It was so special to watch — like, folklore-level Jagger-Richards.
A few of these songs have Jagger-Richards-Watt songwriting credits, which seems unusual. How did that happen?
It’s the honor of my life. It was just natural, man, nothing preconceived. Those guys are just super generous, and we wrote together. There was a day where Mick and Keith came to the studio and we all started playing this riff; and Keith started playing these changes, and that’s how “Depending on You” came. It was a natural thing. That’s why [the credit is] on some of those songs but not others.
How did the session with Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga come together?
Stevie was late. I was like, “I’ve got the Rolling Stones here sitting around waiting.” I called his right hand, and she says, “Stevie’s on the way. He just stopped to vote. It’s a very important thing.” When I came in and told the guys, everyone was laughing. It was a great icebreaker.
So Stevie comes and we’re getting into it. I’m calling the chords and showing him the sections. And he calls out in the middle of it, “Andrew, you got a bass?” I picked up the bass, and he goes, “This is the bass line.” And he starts singing it. I had to figure it out, and it became a theme that the guitars played, and he played it on the Moog. It was this big climactic thing. To make a gospel rock song with Moog bass, that’s tricky.
So while we’re doing takes with Stevie, we go back into the control room and there’s a knock at the door. An assistant comes in and goes, “Lady Gaga would like to say hi to Mick.” I guess Mick heard she was in the studio and said to say hi. Everyone is happy to see her. She knows all the Stones well. I introduced her to Stevie. And suddenly she’s in the room with all of us. I don’t know what she was expecting, but she wasn’t expecting that.
Mick told her, “Come out to the live room.” So she sits down on the floor. We get her a pair of headphones. There’s a microphone. And without speaking about it, she just joined our jam that day. She wasn’t trying to; it was just this natural thing. She only ever heard the song one time before and was ready to join. That’s how much of a badass she is.
Then you took a break for a couple of days for your session with Paul McCartney before he recorded with the band. How did the band pick “Bite My Head Off” for him?
It would be expected to have him play on a great big ballad like “Depending on You,” or one of the softer songs to get that “melodic Paul McCartney” thing. But you’ve got to also understand, Paul McCartney loves to fucking rock. So I thought, “Why not pick the most punk-rock fucking song — the one where everyone’s on 10 the whole time — and let these guys have the time of their lives rocking out together?”
Paul really digs into it during his solo, too. How did he get that sound?
I had just gotten Paul a ’64 Hoffner, a lefty one, as a present. He was like, “Why are you giving me this bass? I obviously have my famous one from the Beatles. I don’t need another.” I said, “Just touch that switch right there.” My guitar tech, Mark, put in a Univox Super Fuzz circuit into the bass, so when he hit one of the Hoffner switches it gives the loudest, most wicked fuzz bass you ever heard in your life. So he was crying laughing. He had that as his secret weapon.
So Paul comes in, learns the song, everyone’s playing around a little bit, we start going for takes, Paul stands up. All of a sudden, Ron stands up, Keith stands up, Mick drags a mic into the fucking center of the room, and I swear to God, the roof left the fucking building. I can’t explain what that feels like, but it was the Stones and the Beatles. It wasn’t heavy for them; it was a fucking blast. And the smile on Paul’s face kept getting bigger and bigger. We did three or four takes of that. And Paul hit the switch during his bass solo, and Mick literally goes, “Come on, Paul, let’s hear something” in his Liverpool accent. Like, you can’t make it up. Everyone was on fire. We did another tune because we were having so much fun.
Just how much fun did Paul have?
When I was walking Paul out, he literally was like, “I just played fucking bass with the Stones — and I’m a fucking Beatle.” He literally said those words. These guys were literally like they were 18 again, and you can hear it in the recording. It’s ferocious.
Speaking of people the Stones have known since the Sixties, when did Bill Wyman play on “Live by the Sword”?
We moved to London for the Christmas season. And that’s when we had Bill Wyman come in and play bass. I was like, “Why don’t we get Bill to play?” Mick was like, “Let’s see what Keith thinks and see if that’s a good idea.” And Keith thought it was a good idea. Mick sent Bill an email, and he said he would love to. We got him to play bass on one of the songs with Charlie [that the band recorded around 2019], which was fabulous.
What did Bill say about the session?
He’s 86 years old. He wanted to make sure he was getting it right. I’d sent him the song before so he could familiarize himself with it. We soloed up Charlie, and he started playing along, and as he was doing it, he started having so much fun. He was smiling and laughing, and stories came back to him with Charlie. And I remember him saying, “Now it’s swinging, now it’s swinging.” And I can just imagine that that was something he had said to Charlie in the past. That’s such a rhythm-section thing.
Elton John also played piano on “Live by the Sword.” Mick told me he didn’t think Elton would want to do it since he wouldn’t be singing.
When we were doing “Live by the Sword,” we were talking about getting a honky-tonk, almost Jerry Lee Lewis/Nicky Hopkins piano part for that. I thought, “Why not get Elton?” Number one, he’s fucking Elton John. Number two, nobody in the world plays that style better than Elton. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard are his gods. He’s a student of that piano playing.
It was so great watching Mick bounce off him and call for things. And Elton was like a session musician that day. He was playing an upright piano, not a grand, so he got that sound, and he just ripped through it and played off the guitars so beautifully. The way Elton was playing, it almost got this T. Rex-y kind of thing. It was great seeing him say, “Mick, what did you think of that?” And Mick saying, “Could you play a little more melodic in the bridge? How about a line here?” It was great to watch those guys collaborating.
So Mick was wrong: It was special to Elton.
Elton loves to play. He started as a session musician. Just like Paul was so excited, Elton was like, “I just fucking played with the Rolling Stones.” Everyone had a smile on their face.
How was it working with Mick on vocals?
We did a lot of vocals in London and then we went to the Bahamas and kind of finished up the album there. I’ve never seen anybody push themselves to the level that this guy pushed himself to in the studio. He never left a vocal without a full deep sweat, putting every single thing he had into it every time. That’s when the song comes alive: when you get the vocal.
There’s a sense of abandon in the way he sings, like he’s losing himself in the vocals.
He is. And what’s so fucking cool is sometimes he’d do a take and he’d be like, “I’m singing too good. I need to do that again and throw that away more.” Like, what do you mean? “Throw it away more, give it more feeling.” And he’d do the most effortless shit you ever heard in your life, and it’s so much better and so much catchier, even though it wasn’t even a note. You could imitate the shape of his mouth with your ears when you’re listening. He goes in and just nails it.
Mick told me he’d work out some of the vocals with Steve Jordan, just the two of them, vocals and drums.
Mick is very tempo focused. He likes things to be quick and be uptempo, but also certain things can’t be too quick because he can’t get the vocal out. I remember they worked out “Get Close.” I took a Polaroid while they were doing it. Steve was playing the drum beat and Mick was trying the vocals, just to make sure Mick felt there was a pocket he could sing in properly.
By the way, do you hear the drums on this fucking album?
Yeah. Steve Jordan sounds fantastic.
Steve Jordan did not play one hi-hat and snare at the same time ever. He honored Charlie like you can’t believe and put his own swag into it in a way that only he could. I think about how hard Steve hits, and the guitars have to be stronger. The band sounds strong because they have to be right up with Steve.
Steve set his cymbals all the way on the right, behind him, because Charlie had set up that way to get the cymbals out of the way so he could see Keith. And that’s a hard way to play; it’s like he was making it harder for himself. And he didn’t care because he wanted to honor Charlie and have an eyeline on Keith.
One of the coolest moments on the album, “Rolling Stone Blues,” is just Mick and Keith. Whose idea was that?
I was sitting with Keith while we’re doing overdubs, and he’s playing a little bit with his acoustic while he’s talking to me. So I asked him, “How did you and Mick meet?” He told me the story [about meeting Mick at Dartford Station]. When they got their first gig, Keith was on the phone, and the promoter said, “What do you call yourselves?” And he saw The Best of Muddy Waters face down, and track five is a song called ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ So he just said, ‘The Rollin’ Stones.’”
I asked, “Have you guys ever played that song?” I’m thinking, “Oh, fuck, you’ve asked the dumbest question. He’s gonna say, ‘Obviously, yes.’” And he said, “Actually, no. We’ve never played it.” And my heart sinks to my chest. I’m like, “Would you play it? You named the band after it.” He said, “I would love to play it. I know it backwards and forwards. Would Mick do it?” I’m like, “Let me call him.”
How did the session end up going?
We set it up with one microphone in the middle of the two of them. On each take, they move closer and closer together. And even on the recording that we chose — which I believe is take four — the timing is wobbly and cool. By the end of the song, they’re somehow literally playing the same licks at the same exact time. If you listen to the final 30 seconds of the song, they’re literally playing the same inversion in the harp and the guitar, the same notes, the same rhythms — they become one another.
That, to me, encapsulates that these two guys fucking need each other. They complete each other. It’s their relationship of love. All the blemishes are there. And that’s what you hear: take four.
You mentioned that the sessions had 28 or 29 songs. Is there a plan to do another album?
There’s a lot of material. It took 18 years to make the last one. So that will leave them at age 98 when they finish the next one [laughs]. Listen, it’s like Batman. If they put up the tongue in the air, I know where to show up and I will be there. Are you kidding me? My vote is for them to finish it. As a fan, they should finish it. It takes a lot to get everyone together, so hopefully it happens. And if not, I’m so proud of this one.