Toronto — FOR years now, there have been three givens to a Rolling Stones interview: Keith Richards will tell you what's really happening, Mick Jagger will keep his guard up, and there's no reason to talk about the new music because it's probably not very interesting.
But this time something was different. Jagger showed a new openness, especially in the music, and that helps make the Stones' new album their strongest since "Tattoo You" almost a quarter-century ago.
As the Stones wrapped up rehearsals here for a world tour that begins tonight in Boston, it was clear that after nearly two decades of off-and-on feuding, Jagger and Richards have not only reestablished their friendship but also recaptured their creative partnership. And in doing so, they may have averted a showdown regarding the future of the band (yes, Keith does tell you what's really happening).
Some of the new songs offer classic jolts of the Stones' blues-rock swagger, while others show a vulnerability that has rarely surfaced in the band's work (that's part of Jagger's opening up).
"There was a time when Mick and I could have argued forever over the most mundane things," Richards says. "The color of the album cover could turn into a life-and-death debate. I used to think he was getting too big for his boots, and he probably thought I was a cantankerous sod."
Last year, though, instead of being pulled apart, Jagger and Richards found themselves coming together. The bridge: finding out that drummer Charlie Watts was battling throat cancer. Past differences suddenly seemed petty.
"When we got the news about Charlie, we sat there, looking at each other and thinking, 'OK, what now?' " Richards said in his dimly lighted dressing room, reggae playing in the background. "We realized we may not totally agree on everything, but there are too many plusses to our relationship."
They were at Jagger's house in France at the time, and they threw themselves into writing songs.
"Mick and I hadn't worked like this for God knows how long," Richards continued. "We wrote 'Satisfaction' and 'Get Off My Cloud' in a little motel room. If I said, 'Mick, I have an idea,' he'd be in my room within five minutes or I'd be over in his.
"After 'Exile on Main Street,' we got used to being exiles ourselves, and it's hard to write songs 3,000 miles apart. Talking on the phone isn't like looking across the room, eyeball to eyeball."
Don Was, who has produced Stones albums for more than a decade, said he's never seen Jagger and Richards as close as they were during the making of the album.
"They didn't just hang out together in the studio," Was said. "They went out to dinner. They enjoyed each other's company. In the past, I could tell in the studio if it was a Mick song or Keith song. But this time, everything sounded like a Rolling Stones song."
Richards went even further in stressing the importance of the new work.
He wasn't thrilled with the band's 2002-03 tour, which was designed chiefly to promote the greatest hits package "Forty Licks." It felt too retro, he said.
"The last tour, you might say, was basically resting on your laurels. It was like celebrating your wonderful career, your great success and all that -- a hurdle to get over. After that, we needed to prove ourselves again. I don't think we would be talking about the new tour if it was pure regurgitation.
"But now I feel like a kid again. I can't wait every day to walk up to the rehearsal room and play with Mick and Charlie and Ron. It's been like that ever since Charlie came back. He's already playing with the intensity of being on stage at Madison Square Garden. What a thrill."
FOR all the camaraderie surrounding the Stones these days, the rehearsals are serious business. Jagger and Richards frequently huddle in the rehearsal room, but they're talking about bridges and choruses.
The mood was lighter several weeks earlier as they mixed the album in a Hollywood studio. They were frequently arm in arm, simply high on the new music. This renewed closeness may explain why the atmosphere was so warm as the Stones dusted off their old "Moonlight Mile" during an early-evening rehearsal.
A little Maltese spaniel, named for the Stones' '60s hit "Ruby Tuesday," checked the contents of an equipment case in the corner of the room, while Richards' wife, model Patti Hansen, and one of Jagger's daughters listened across the room.
Rather than book an actual rehearsal hall, the band had set up shop in a high school that was closed for the summer.
During the dinner break, Jagger, Richards, Watts and guitarist Ron Wood all went to the cafeteria for a stylish buffet prepared by their chef. Richards joked with Jagger before sitting down at a table with his wife. Wood and Watts shared another table
"This is my 30th-year anniversary with the band, and I've never enjoyed it more," said Wood, who had previously been in the Faces with Rod Stewart. "Everyone is more relaxed, and I think the music is better for it."