“The Cone”, William Shatner, and Acceptable Artistic Compromise:
Drew Vreeland Interviews John Wetton
Early one morning I got to connect with solo artist and Prog-Rock powerhouse John Wetton [formerly of King Crimson, UK, Asia, et al.] over Skype at his home in Dorset, England. Once we ironed out the wrinkles in our trans-Atlantic transmission (or rather – ignored them completely) we set down to what turned out to be a very enjoyable first time Skype experience for this inquisitor: discussing his latest release, Raised In Captivity. Specifically: the ‘who’ and the ‘how’, with a little of the’ why’ thrown in for good measure. Brass Tacks, you might call it, but I call it a good time.
Drew Vreeland: In doing my research, I noticed that your last solo studio release was in 2003, but that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. You’ve been involved with Asia again; you’ve been working with Martin Turner; so what I’m curious about is how long it took you to get that material for this release particularly?
John Wetton: Well, the material for this one…I mean I’ve probably done an album every year for the last 35 years I think, so my material gets channeled somewhat. I just write. I don’t write for a specific project, I just write, period. If I happen to be with Geoff Downes, we tend to write for Asia or for Icon, but it doesn’t always stop there. So the material has to go somewhere.
Now I’ve had this album kind of brewing for a while because my manager has been kicking my backside to do this since Rock of Faith is quite a long time ago. 2003 is what, eight years? I didn’t realize time was going by, but in that time I have done three Icon records, two Asia records and various sort of guest spots on other peoples records. The main reason for doing this album was because this title, Raised In Captivity, and the story that it tells, was meant to be the title for Battle Lines, which was my second solo album I think, which was in 1991-92. I ditched that title because someone scooped it from me and they used it for a newspaper headline and it kind of took the wind out of it, so I changed the title of that album to Battle Lines.
I kept that title [Raised In Captivity] in my back pocket because it actually does have a lot of relevance to the way I was brought up. I grew up in Litlington, England, in post-war, austere conditions when rationing was still around, the Victorian values were still in place. In other words: they were completely repressive. At my school, corporal punishment was an everyday occurrence. Everybody smoked, everybody drank; it was insane. [Laughter] To grow up in that period was insane. And then we had the 60’s and all hell broke loose because people rebelled against the constraints that they’d been under in post-war, in Victorian post-war, in Victorian hangover Britain. So there’s a lot of stuff going on there.
DV: Well Raised in Captivity certainly has a nice ring to it; it was good that you had the time to let that kind of cool off and be able to bring it back again. And I think now as well as then it has an appropriate connotation for how people are living: trapped and surrounded by media, surrounded by information and the speed with which we’re expected to process and assimilate things has us hemmed in, and that’s appropriate…
JW: Absolutely. Yeah, well, we’re under scrutiny. We’re constantly under scrutiny. You know, you’re being filmed everywhere – well you’re being filmed NOW! [Laughter] You know, you’re picture is going to a third party and it’s being recorded while we’re speaking.
DV: This could all be on a database somewhere forever.
JW: We’re constantly being recorded, you know, whenever you’re walking down the street you’re being recorded by hundreds of cameras that you can’t see, so you’re in a goldfish bowl, whether you like it or not.
DV: I guess the question is: is it better to be aware of it or to live oblivious to the cage you’re in?
JW: No, of course it’s better to be aware. It’s always better to be aware, in my book.
DV: Now you worked with Billy Sherwood on this album, is that right?
JW: I did indeed, yeah. I worked with him on several projects that I did for charity which are tribute albums, basically. They come out on Cleopatra Records in Los Angeles; he sends over a file, I sing on it, send it back, and it comes out as a commercial album. I don’t make any profit from it, but it’s enormous fun to sing Beatles songs and Doors songs and Led Zeppelin songs with anyone that comes along.
The last one I did, which was a Queen tribute, has made its way onto William Shatner’s album, his new album. And that, believe it or not, to some people, is the pinnacle of my career. [Laughter] I could have done nothing else with my career but played on a William Shatner album – “Yup, you made it now. Now you’re cool!” My son even thinks I’m cool now and he’s thirteen! [More Laughter]
DV: Were there any songs on this William Shatner album that he sang in his universal language, I mean it’s not HIS, like he didn’t invent it or anything, but you know what I mean – what is it, Esperanto?
JW: I haven’t heard it yet but I’m hoping they did all of them in the universal language, yes. [Laughter] Absolutely marvelous! Lovely.
DV: And the other artists that you were involved in with this album [Raised in Captivity] are all artists that you’ve worked with before as well. Now was this…
JW: I’m sorry I don’t mean to…sorry, let me just backtrack about Billy Sherwood: that’s how I got to meet him. I know he’s been involved with Yes and all sorts of bands, but I got to know him through doing these tribute albums. And I knew that he was fast, I knew that he was good, and I knew that he could work with me on this one. He’s very creative; he’s very musical, and very intelligent. And also we get on fine; we have a very similar sense of humor. We get along OK and that’s really important when you’re in a room with someone for like three months. If you don’t like someone when you go in, you will detest them after the first day, and it will become untenable. So, it’s good that we got to share a few laughs along the way. He’s a lovely guy to work with, he’s a very very good engineer, and he co-wrote most of the songs on the album.
I went out there with about seven songs which were either germinal or they were near completion, and by the time I finished we had twelve*. In just under a month – a little over three weeks – from nothing to actually walking out with a finished CD in our hands. Pretty good, and Billy was an enormous help. We worked all day every day, and not because we had to but because we wanted to. So that’s why Billy’s on the record.
(*astute readers and listeners may notice that Raised in Captivity only has eleven tracks. Wetton never mentions what exactly landed on the cutting room floor. ~DV)
DV: Well you just answered my next question, which would have been: what role did Billy Sherwood play in the composition process, and how long did it take you to wind up with the finished product?
JW: Yeah, well there you go. As I said some of the songs were near completion when I took them, and he just helped to either add something which gave it life or sprinkle the fairy dust on them. The best thing that Billy brought to the party was being able to look at my stuff objectively and say “Woah woah, wait. Well that’s a little bit sort of...hum drum, let’s try something different with it.” You know, because me alone, sitting at home with my acoustic guitar or my piano will end up writing dreary folk songs – sort of prog-edged, quasi-classical things. Billy comes from a very Rock direction, and I need that because I don’t have that naturally inside me. I’m not a guitar writer. Billy’s contribution was absolutely essential.
I had to record it in Los Angeles and I had to have that edge, that kind of…energy, if you like, that LA gives me. As I said, you know, sitting at home in rural Dorset with an acoustic guitar, I will sound like, you know…I’ll come up with folk songs, basically. And I need that edge, and that turns it into something a bit more special, a bit more Rocky.
DV: And what role in the writing process, if any, did the artists that you worked with on the album play? I know a lot of them were people you’ve worked with before, so was this sort of you and Billy Sherwood together calling people who you felt could fill the gaps appropriately?
JW: Precisely. Well I had a pretty good idea of who I wanted to be on this record before I left these shores, and I had a list in my head. Allan Holdsworth was one of them, Robert Fripp, Eddie Jobson, Mick Box, and there were a couple of vacancies that could have been anyone that played in that particular style. Steve Hackett was another one that I had earmarked for this, for that particular solo actually on “Good Bye Elsinore.” But Billy came up with the idea of Steve Morse. He had just done a tribute with him, and we sent the files to Steve and he put the solo on and sent it back and it was perfect. Allan Holdsworth, it turned out, he said to me “Oh, I’m doing my own solo album. First one for eleven years.” And I said, “OK, but if you could slip this one in it’d be wonderful.” He said “Yeah, it shouldn’t be a problem. It’s on the list, somewhere down the list.”
I got to about two weeks before I came home and it wasn’t happening. So I happened to be going out on the road, the next thing I was doing was a UK tour with Alex Machacek, so I said “Alex, could you just put a modal solo on this?” And it sounds…it’s very Alex, but it’s also a little bit Allan Holdsworth, but I’m not complaining about that. I didn’t say I wanted it to sound like Allan Holdsworth, but somehow it got the right flavor.
DV: And earlier you said that you’re always writing, you’re always generating ideas, and these ideas find an outlet in various projects depending on who you happen to be writing with, but is there anything you write that you want to save for yourself? Is choosing among favorite songs like choosing a favorite child, or do you have clear favorites and you know where you want them to end up?
JW: On every solo album that I’ve done I have maybe five songs that I consider to be the most powerful. They’re the ones that the record company would probably ditch, the ones that probably would mean the least to my record company of all, but to me they’re the most important. When I hear the fans reaction, they always seem to go for the ones that are closest to my heart. But I can’t exist on just doing those songs, I need to put in stuff that’s not…that’s not me, if you like, well it’s still me because I sing on it, but it has an energy that I wouldn’t normally have, so that’s where my collaborators come in. So you get the flavor from those five songs. They’re the important ones, they’re the ones with the message. I mean, the theme on this album is freedom, there’s no doubt about that. It’s having lived in a very repressed age up to the first ten or fifteen years of my life and then suddenly being propelled into the age of free love, and I didn’t know what to do, you know? I was like a kid in a candy store on one hand, and then the kid who’d been brought up in a church family saying “Shit, I can’t do that!” [Laughter] You know? I didn’t know what to do.
And it’s the confusion that comes from being brought up in a sort of evangelical age, really, being told absolutely what to do and “This is wrong, this is right.” There is no wrong, there is no right, it just is. It’s what we make of it, and that’s the important thing. Um, and at the age of eleven…I’m sorry what was your question again?
DV: [Laughter] I don’t recall specifically, but it was a good answer. Oh, it was about your ideas finding an outlet, but you definitely covered that…
JW: [Laughter] Oh yes yes. Well in other words when I’m writing with Geoff Downs, it’s either me acting as a catalyst for his vehicle or him acting as a catalyst for my vehicle. So we have a pretty good symbiosis, Geoff and myself. We know each other very very well, and we know...if he’s got a particular axe to grind with the idea of a song, then I’ll go along with it and I’ll support it, rather than saying “Oh, we can’t do that.” My job is to support, or I would expect him to do the same for me if I come up with an idea that’s just slightly off the wall. So we have a good rapport in that department.
Sometimes when I move to a different area, I expect people to react exactly the same as how Geoff would react and they don’t. Fortunately, this time with Billy, he was very sympathetic to the things I had to say. He would put in lyric suggestions sometimes and sometimes they’d work and sometimes I would say “No, I’ve got to get this one out of the way and completed.” So you need some sort of sympathy, or empathy rather, with the people or the person that you’re working with. It worked with Billy and I’ve been fortunate that it worked with Geoff and in the past with Eddie Jobson. When people say to me, “Are you going to do another UK album?” I say I don’t know because I don’t know if our chemistry is still there, we could only find out if we sat down at a piano and started writing songs. ‘I don’t know’ is the answer to that one; we’re taking it in baby steps until we do get a wee bit further in, maybe. I don’t know…If you were going to ask me some questions about UK, let me just answer that for you [Laughter]. We will be doing some more shows next year, whether that leads to making another record or not I don’t know.
DV: Well doing some shows together might be a good way to test the waters and see if some of that chemistry still exists between the members.
JW: Exactly. On the last tour of UK, we ended the show with Geoff, myself and Eddie, piano and voice doing “Rendezvous 6:02,” the end of a fairly, sort-of frenzied two hour set. It was gorgeous. People were really into it, they loved it. They loved the fact that there was no one else on stage; it was just the three of us, we started it, and it was really a tearful moment. And we leave the stage going “That wasn’t bad, was it? Come on, come on, that wasn’t bad.” Maybe we could do it again, I don’t know.
DV: Is the composition process for you still a process of trial and error or by now do you know what you want to say, you know how you want to say it, and then it’s a polishing and fine tuning more than it is experimentation and a well-let’s-see-what’s-the-best-way-to-do-this type of approach?
JW: Yeah, there’s a bit of both, actually. Sometimes it’s very very quick. Very occasionally a song will almost write itself and I’ll know exactly how to record it. The best example of this is, from my catalogue, is “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” which wrote itself. I was walking back from the studio to my house in Shepard’s Bush, and by the time I left the studio to the time I got home, it was done. I sat down at the piano when I walked into the house, and there it was: the right key, the melody, the lyrics, everything. Both verses. I didn’t have to work on it at all, there it was. Just press the button, recorded it, that was it. So that’s a one-off. It doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes I’ll work on stuff for six, seven months, one song, just to try and get everything perfect. Every note, every phrase, the internal rhyming going on, the message is coming across loud and clear. And I don’t know which is best. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Maybe it’s a combination but sometimes I have to spend seven months on a song getting it absolutely perfect – just for me, just for my kind of anal, everything’s-got-to-be-right perfectionism thing. Other times I just throw the stuff at the wall and some of it sticks and it sounds great.
Nowadays, I have a pretty clear idea what the message should be – for me, the message I want to get across. So in the case of a song like “The Last Night of My Life” from Raised in Captivity, it was just a matter of constructing the verse to get you to the payoff line. So it really could have been done any one of ten different ways. But the way that I chose is the one that leads you up to the payoff line, the very last line, which is like I said: “Last Night of My Life.” Which is virtually the theme of the album. I’d already used ‘carpe diem’ on the Phoenix Asia record, but it’s a continuation of that philosophy, basically. I mean, after coming in close contact with death a couple of times in the last ten years I have developed some kind of an awareness that we only have now, we only have today. What happens tomorrow doesn’t really matter, what happened yesterday is…nobody’s interested. So all we have is today, and more appropriately all we have is now, really – this moment. What happens in five minutes time I have no idea. So I think the kind of medical experiences I’ve had recently have taught me that. Maybe that’s something that comes with age as well, but I certainly appreciate a lot more what I have.
DV: That’s a good message to take away from the album.
JW: I hope so, I hope so.
DV: Has your approach to making music changed in the last decade or fifteen years with new technologies? I mean what could take you two months in a studio in the late seventies or early eighties you could do in an afternoon now on someone’s laptop in a garage or in a back yard…
JW: [Laughter] Yes that’s true…no it hasn’t, actually. No, it hasn’t. But yeah, you’re right, the only reason really today for going to a proper studio is to use the toys when you’re mixing the damn thing. Because everything else, as you said, everyone has the capability to do multi-track recording now.
DV: I have it right here sitting next to me. It’s very common.
JW: There you go. But has my approach – no, my approach hasn’t changed at all. It used to be a pain in the ass doing multiple vocal overdubs, you know for the band Asia, because we would inevitably have to do each chorus separately and it just took forever doing thirty voices every time a chorus came up. Now of course it’s that easy, you just layer them in. Yeah, you’re right, it used to take weeks, now you just do it in an afternoon. No, my approach is exactly the same. Exactly the same. My stuff goes… [Phone ringing]…excuse me I have one call coming in, just a second…
Hello? Yeah…Hello Mary, I’m just in the middle of an interview…Ok, thank you…Alright, bye.
Ugh, the office. Now they should know, shouldn’t they?
DV: They scheduled it, I think…
JW: Where were we?
DV: Maybe they’re calling because our time is almost up; I was told we had twenty minutes for this interview.
JW: It’s not quite up yet, you’ve got another three minutes**. I’m sorry what was the question?
(**by now we’ve been speaking for almost twenty three full minutes. ~DV)
DV: We were talking about new technologies…
JW: Oh yes. My stuff goes from piano or guitar into a Zune, which is sitting by my piano and my guitar, which is one of those little hand held...little digital…
DV: Like the music player, iPod competitor thing?
JW: That’s it. Records rehearsals brilliantly, as a little stereo digital recorder.
DV: That’s a nice plug for Zune in the interview; you should get free ones now.
JW: Yes it is. [Laughter] Product placement. If you could see me, you’d see a little picture of it as well***. It goes from there, to multi track recording in a studio. It doesn’t go anywhere else. If it happens to be Geoff Downes studio we do it in, or wherever it’s going to be, that’s where it goes from. If it works on the piano, still after fifty years of doing this, if it works on the piano it will work in the studio, because then you can always strip it back to being played on the piano again. I can sit in front of an audience with a piano or an acoustic guitar and play 95% of the songs that I’ve written, with an acoustic guitar or a piano, and to me that’s what I bring to the party. How it gets dressed up is down to which particular environment it’s in: which band I’m playing in or which records we’re making. For me, if I can strip it back down to being played on an acoustic guitar and sing it, or play it on a piano then it’s fine.
(***a reference to me not picking up his video feed on Skype ~DV)
DV: And that’s an important element that you’ve brought up: live musicianship. Because there are artists that can make a finely polished studio album that will not translate on stage and there are live acts that are incredible but can’t get it together in the studio and are sloppy and fall apart. It seems you walk a tight line between the two, getting good sound in the studio, creating that good sound (or recreating it) live, and that’s an important element.
JW: It’s a different animal. For me the song has to come first and whichever way it gets dressed up is just whatever happens. Sometimes you’ll use a particular technique that’s kind of trendy, you know, in the studio. You still can’t do that when you’re just performing in front of an audience with a piano – you can’t do that, there are no gimmicks available. It’s just got to be your voice and the instrument. And the emotion from the song.
DV: Now are there any artists currently that you are following, or are you just involved in your projects and your business? Does it afford you the time to pursue other acts?
JW: I don’t listen to a lot of stuff. I do try to go to live gigs. I went to Ringo’s gig at the Bournemouth International Center last week; I went to see Mostly Autumn at The Brook, a little club in Southampton. I do get out to see acts if they’re playing locally. I feel it’s almost a duty, if I want to make sure music stays live then I should damn well get out there and support it, you know? Whether it’s in the Bournemouth International Center which is 4000 seats or whether it’s in The Brook in Southampton which is about 200. It’s my duty to go out and see live stuff, but listening to stuff at home, or in the car…well the last album I bought was Maroon 5, and the reason I bought it was because Mutt Lange**** produced it and I wanted to see what he was up to and it’s fantastic. It’s like Def Leppard twenty years on. It’s Mutt Lange’s album with Adam Levine – is that the singer from Maroon 5? – with Adam Levine’s voice, with Mutt Lange’s album. That’s it, but it’s great. It’s very very good.
My taste in music is Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Classical music…I don’t listen to anything when I’m trying to write or trying to record because it inevitably affects me, it influences me too much. Even if I walk by a radio and something happens to sort of beam into me, I’m fucked for the rest of the day because I can’t get this damn phrase out of my head and I inevitably end up using part of it in something that I’m recording. So I can’t do it, I can’t listen to anything anymore.
(****songwriter/producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. ~ DV)
DV: So you isolate yourself from outside influences when you write, instead of cherry-picking phrases from here and there and kind of going with whatever…so it’s truly an internal process when you write. It’s generative, not reactive?
JW: I go through a phase when I’m actually thinking what to write about where I’m open to everything. I’m looking at the world and taking little bits from everywhere, and then when the idea comes to write the song I’ve got plenty to draw on. I’ve got a lot of images, a lot of phrases, a lot of stuff stored up in my squirrel pouch, and I can pull them out and use them. When I’m actually in there recording it, I view it as a sort of cone. Because I’m going into this cone, and at the outset, everything is available – like I said when I’m writing it, it’s all there, the whole world is at my fingertips. As I walk into this cone, it gets narrower and narrower and narrower until I’ve reached the end. And then there’s nothing, there are no options left. That’s it. You’re done. It’s over. If I start to walk out through the other side of the cone it all opens up again and I’m absolutely screwed. And I’ve seen people do that and the cost of making an album goes from like five thousand dollars to fifty thousand dollars overnight because they’ve walked through the other side of the cone, everything becomes available and you don’t know what to do. But if I follow the cone, when I get to the end it’s done. Whether it’s writing or whether it’s recording, it’s done.
DV: Well that’s fantastic. Is there anything you’d like to conclude on, any note that you’d like to add that you don’t feel we’ve covered?
JW: Nope, I think we’ve done it. [Laughter] That was great, thank you.
DV: Well this was a pleasure. You enjoy the rest of your day, Mr. Wetton.
JW: You too, thank you very much indeed. God Bless you, Bye bye. Bye.
Interview Conducted: 6 July 2011, 0800 EST