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Interviews of Prog

John Wetton
John Wetton

UK: Happiness in each letter

Three concerts that were some of the most incredible and the most desired among lovers of prog rock, took place in Poland in November. The poster and the ticket literally read the following: “Eddie Jobson’s group UKZ with guest appearances by John Wetton and Tony Levin”, “30th anniversary of UK” and “A night of music by UK and King Crimson”. But in reality everyone (just as I did) had determined a general formula “Jobson and Wetton = UK”, which fortunately those concerts fit perfectly. King Crimson was an excellent logical addition to UK’s program that brought great joy to listeners, but the audience cheered “UK!”, and the most memorable moments of the night were the songs of this legendary group that produced only two albums in the late 70s, which became the golden standard of the genre for many fans. John Wetton hasn’t played together with Eddie Jobson for the last three decades, which made the event particularly unique. The audience was unanimous “Eddie and John are in great shape!” and you would call this concert stunning even if you judged it by the strictest music standards. It was enhanced by the chemistry between musicians, whose energy made the place light up. During the songs, be it UK or King Crimson, listeners were holding their breath, and with the last chord of each song, a wave rose in the venue – people would stand up, clap, shout, cheer. Many of them had tears in their eyes. This was the magic achieved by musicians. Eddie Jobson, surrounded by this wonderful team of musicians, effortlessly cast avalanches of emotions on listeners, while John Wetton finished singing “Carrying No Cross” by UK with such expression and sang the beginning of the third verse of "Starless” by King Crimson with such unexpected tenderness, that it would melt even a heart of stone. The powerful instrumental developments of the songs, that are so characteristic of UK, sounded very modern and even close to “progressive”, not least of all because of the rhythm section formed by two excellent bassists (Wetton and Levin) and one of the best drummers in the world, Marco Minnemann. It should be mentioned that Tony Levin was “hugging” his Chapman stick in the depth of the stage and played a more significant part in King Crimson songs. The night featured UK’s and King Crimson’s songs “Alaska – The Only Thing She Needs – Nevermore” (some of those followed one another without stops), “Indiscipline”, “Red”, “Lark’s Tongues In Aspic Pt2”, “One More Red Nightmare” – “Caesar’s Palace Blues” – “Sahara”. The set alternated between those songs and solo performances of the musicians. The music journey of Eddie Jobson from keyboards to violin turned out demonically erotic, and when in the stormy finale the electronic diva of a violin was roaring like a beast, it was only out of pleasure – and the audience was doing the same! The dramatic solo performance of John Wetton included “Book of Saturday” that was played more powerfully than the studio version from King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic”. You could hardly call the solo performance of Marco Minneman anything other than a circus stunt. Someone in the audience even named him a “ninja-drummer”. Guitarist Greg Howe excellently performed in the boundaries of his own style which can be compared to that of Yngwie Malmsteen’s, which however didn’t prevent him from producing a solo in Holdsworth’s manner (Allan Holdsworth was the guitarist in the first line-up of the group). Overall, it was UK that ran the show on stage that night, to the complete delight of a thankful audience. “I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years!” said a man in the crowd that surrounded the Great and Wonderful Eddie Jobson to the sister of Mr Jobson that had come from England to make a surprise appearance at her brother’s concert. Personally, I’ve been waiting for “only” 20 years… In my correspondence with John Wetton’s management I didn’t try to hide the fact that I am “not local, coming from afar for the sake of the concert”, since for me those shows in Poland were the main prog rock event of 2009. I informed them that I represented the site ProgressoR, and the interview with one of the most famous, active and notable figures in prog rock world actually took place!

John Wetton: “I just have to work!”

I met up with John Wetton, member of the classic line-ups of King Crimson, UK and Asia, as well as many other bands and projects, before his concert in Krakow, in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying. The famous musician came across as an amiable and well-disposed person. He talked to me much longer than we had arranged originally and turned out to be an interesting and emotional partner in conversation.

OP: Could you tell us about your concerts with Eddie Jobson and Tony Levin. Is it UK?

JW: Well, I’m a guest on this thing. We play lots of UK stuff that Eddie and myself haven’t played together for a long time, but it’s not really a UK reunion. They are all fantastic musicians, and… they come to play with us, but I am very much a guest on that project. It is just to see if there is a possibility… if we (Eddie and I) can work together again. I will do these 3 shows in Poland, no more, and we will know how viable this idea is. Then, if we can work, next year we can talk about doing something properly. And, of course, those guys are incredibly good musicians. Some of them I have never met before. I have never met Marco or Greg. I have met Tony once or twice, because we are doing the same things (laugh), but he doesn’t sing.

OP: So this concert wasn’t your idea?

JW: The concert already was already planned, but it was suggested that Eddie Jobson take part in it. I agreed to join this project as an experiment, because there’ve been lots of strange things that happened in the past, and maybe we can forget about those strange things… And that was the perfect opportunity to do that. And as soon as I agreed to do it, and the promoter could see that Eddie and myself were going to play together in a group, he said, “That’s UK!”, because more people are going to come and see. We don’t see that as UK. We do lots of UK material, but we do also lots of other material tonight. For me it’s easy, really, because it’s from my period in the group. So, we will play “Starless”, “Red” and “Book of Saturday”. You know, it will be a nice show. I hope you understand it's an experiment and it's been very lucky so far, so that there is a possibility that it will go forward.

OP: What’s you main project at the moment? Asia, Icon?

JW: Now I am in the middle of recording an Asia album – a new Asia album! Now my head is all over the disc... But we’ve just recorded a new Icon live DVD in the church of St Mary le Bow in London. It will be released next month (December). We will have a new Asia record ready to be released, and we will be touring with Asia most of next summer.

OP: And which line-up? Classic line-up of ASIA with Steve Howe?

JW: Yes, always the same. The same four. That’s the only real Asia!

OP: I am curious as to how you compose your songs. Is it a sudden flash – and there is a song in your mind, or is it an intentional work on a piano?

JW: It can happen either way. Yeah, sometimes... it'll come from a musical idea when I am sitting at the piano (my first instrument was a piano). Sometimes it's lyrics first, sometimes it's music first. Usually it's just an idea. It'll bea situation, it'll just be something for my mind to register a situation that will sit very well into a song. Just something will spark, and I will be ready to go!

OP: Do you always remember everything like a tape-recorder (dictaphone)?

JW: Yeah... it is difficult. I do carry a dictaphone with me, but sometimes I lose really good ideas because I get home and start thinking, “What was that?”. I can’t even remember what the idea for the lyrics really was... So, I have to think, “Well, maybe it wasn't really good... If it was that good, I would remember!”

OP: Are Asia songs entirely yours?

JW: No, absolutely not! Geoff Downes and I write most Asia tunes. Occasionally Steve will have one or two songs on a record.

OP: Could you describe the process of creation of a certain song?

JW: Only Time Will Tell, for instance... I had the verse melody and I hear the lyric was (singing "You are leaving now, it's in your eyes...") That was already written and I didn't have anything else, just that melody and those words. When I started working with Geoff, it turned out that he came from a very similar background – church music – and lots of our ideas work together very well. It's not like you dealing with one guy coming from rock and another guy coming from a classical background, so that we have to find a middle ground. We have to be from a very similar background, so if I come with a verse and Jeff comes with a chorus, there is a likelihood they will fit together. And they do! Particularly on the first Asia record they fit together perfectly. So, Only Time Will Tell came from my verse, Geoff's chorus, and lines which I rewrote in a different way. And I finished all the lyrics too. As for the arrangement... It pretty much arranged itself. It was the same with Heat of the Moment. Funnily enough, the singles from the first and the second Asia albums both were the last tracks to be recorded. We recorded Heat of the Moment at the last moment. It wasn’t part of the first conception of the album. It was just late one night that we decided to put two ideas together, this time with my chorus, Geoff's verse, and some different structures. We tried anything to make it work, and I hope it worked. When it came to our second album, "Alpha", we had finished recording, and were playing the album in Montreal, Canada. We got to the end of the record, and heard the voice from the record company guy who said, "I don't see any singles. You need a single!". So, we wrote Don't Cry that day. We normally spend a little longer on the writing of music, but sometimes it has to be done in a hurry. So, once we’ve decided on the music, the direction of the song – it’s not difficult to arrange it. And Carl comes in and put the drums right then, and Steve will play his lovely guitar.

OP: A few words about “Starless”. Is that extremely beautiful ballad in the first part of the song your melody?

JW: Ah…Well, it’s the verse in the beginning that is mine, the tune (singing...) – that’s all mine. The introduction is Robert Fripp’s, and the big, basic riff is Bill Bruford’s. The story of Starless - the reason why it is called Starless and not Starless and Bible Black - is that I had presented it the previous year, when we where rehearsing for the album “Starless and Bible Black”, as the title track, but nobody really liked it. A year later, when we were rehearsing again for “Red”, someone (I don’t remember who it was) said, “That thing we were playing last year when recording “Starless and Bible Black”…Ah…it was really good!”. So, we started working on that and it became Starless. We couldn’t use the title “Starless and Bible Black” as it had already been done… Anyway… That’s how it came about.

OP: Is UK as a project for you personally just a stage between King Crimson and ASIA or something more than that?

JW: No. If you look at my career from King Crimson into UK, that was a real step forward.

OP: Uriah Heep, Roxy Music…

JW: Yes, but they were really not to do with my career, they were just to earn money, You know, I’m a professional musician, and, if I don’t have a band, I will work with other people. I have done it all my life! I have a very strong work ethic, I don’t like to sit around and do nothing - I have to be working! So, If you look at the bands I have seriously been a part of (I have never really been a part of Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash), the ones I was really playing with were King Crimson, UK, Asia. But that’s a something extra. If you go from King Crimson to UK, it’s logical, isn’t it? Same drummer, progressive music. But in between UK and Asia, there was a solo album in 1980 called “Caught in the Crossfire” - that was where Asia was born. If you listen to this music, it takes what I have learnt from King Crimson and UK, and I’ve put it into 4-minute songs. And that was really what Asia was – it was really well-crafted 4-minute songs.

OP: So it turns out that “Nothing To Lose” from UK’s second album is a typical ASIA song?

JW: Yes, absolutely. Yes, it could have been an Asia song, no doubt. In the 1970s the tradition was to take 4 minutes from something I had brought in for King Crimson or UK, take those 3 or 4 minutes and turn them into a complete song. Starless is a perfect example: I brought in the first three minutes of the song, and they extended it into 12 minutes. A very similar thing was happening with UK. What I did with “Caught in the Crossfire” – I cut down 8 minutes of the additional stuff, and just gave you 4 minutes of the song. And that what Asia did also. That really where Asia was born. It was after UK but it was when I made a conscious effort to move it into the Eighties, because it was really something we couldn’t do in the Seventies. It really was changing at the beginning of the Eighties : music on television for the first time, and the radio was changing too. Something had to change for me... I had to get into the scene with the serious guys, but if we had tried to come out with Asia in the same format as UK (8-9-10-minute songs, 10 minutes of music) it would have just died, nothing would have happened. We would have sold 20,000 records, and disappeared. But we didn’t. And it worked really well! The thinking behind that was to move on with the times, take a really good progressive rock background and put it into contemporary rock – 4-minute, accessibile songs. Yeah, you know, it had to keep some of this prog because that’s where we all came from. That’s where Carl, Steve and myself – all of us came from that background – YES, ELP, King Crimson. Geoff played with YES, but he came more from a pop background.

OP: Now is an interesting time when serious groups like Gentle Giant and Renaissance reunite and play concerts. Do you think interest towards progressive rock has grown recently?

JW: Yeah, oh yeah. Because it’s real music, isn’t it? It’s real music and the proof of this is we are playing stuff tonight that was written 30-35 years ago. I think it’s also very satisfying to listen to. But, in fact, because of declining record sales, because of the Internet, the emphasis now is on live performance, not on records. So, it’s other way round now. That is what we used to do up until 5 years ago: we toured in order to promote the album. Now it’s the other way around. Touring is an important part and the record is not the all-important item that it used to be. Before that I would work for 9 months to get an album ready, and we got on tour for 2 months, hoping that the album would sell. Now we know that the record isn’t going to sell, and we have created another interest to enhance the tour.

OP: Do you like touring in general?

JW: No. Do I like moving? I hate flying now, but I loved it in the Seventies and Eighties. It’s become virtually impossible to enjoy flying any more - they have taken all the fun out of it. As I’m getting older, I dislike having my daily structure interrupted. If I don’t sleep properly, I am terrible, and I didn’t sleep very well last night…

OP: So are you “terrible” right now?

JW: Yeah, I am. My head is all over the place. But imagine that you have been flying to Odessa… every day you do this, for 3 months. It’s not a great way to live. I mean, most of these hotels are not like home, where I know my kitchen well and I know where the bathroom is… When I was 25 it didn’t follow me, I was probably really enjoying traveling, it was all challenge, a fun. I used to like staying in hotels – they were counted as just one movable party. But it’s not fun anymore - I just have to really be careful to keep myself to show a great performance. That’s what I have to keep in mind, and anything that gets in the way of that, I can’t do it. If somebody start smoking in here, I would have to leave. I can’t stay up too late because if I don’t get enough sleep….you know. When I am on the road, there are a lot of factors that can influence on my voice, so I have to be cautious. It’s not like when I was 25, when I was relatively indestructible. Now if I have a cold – it’s terrible! So I have just to be very careful, I’m the one being criticized - the next day they will write, “His voice was terrible”… Yeah, you laugh, but when my voice is bad, maybe people don’t think, “Oh, maybe he had a late night”, they think, “Oh, his voice was terrible”!

OP: Your voice is some kind of golden standard for the progressive movement, that’s why many singers are trying to sound like John Wetton.

JW: Yeah?

OP: For instance, Roine Stolt from “Flower Kings”: at times it seems to me that I hear your voice, but I see a different person on stage.

JW: Oh, well (laughing)… It’s known that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I take it as a compliment if people want to sound like me

OP: Your duets with female vocals are very beautiful (for instance with Annie Haslam from Renaissance). Was the arrangement of “I’ll Remember You”, from the recent Asia album “Phoenix”, deliberately done in the style of Renaissance?

JW: Is that like Renaissance? I don’t really know them very well (I was in Renaissance for about two shows), but I know Annie.

OP: I saw a picture of you and Annie Haslam.

JW: Yeah, at Reading Festival

OP: It’s such a romantic picture…

JW: No, no, no… No (laugh).

OP: So it’s just a picture?

JW: Yeah, Annie and I have been friends for a long, long time. She is also a good friend of Steve. When we were recording “Icon”, where Annie sings on In the End - it’s a great song, but I had written a chorus too high for me to sing, and I didn’t realize it until we got to the studio and we’d recorded everything including the back-in track. When I tried to sing it, it sounded too sweet, and I was too strained… So I thought, “Why don’t we get someone else?”. And since I had seen Annie the previous week ( she lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and her voice sounded really, really good… So we sent over the track, and Annie recorded the vocals in Philadelphia, and sent it back to us – and it sounded great!

OP: Our daughter calls it “a song of a king and queen”…

JW: Ah, OK! I have a little boy, my son, I will see him again on Friday… So…the next Icon record, about 6 months later. I went out to LA because a friend of Robert Fripp’s was working on a movie score, and he wanted my voice in a duet for one of his films with a Dutch girl singer called Anneke Van Giersbergen (she was in a Dutch band called The Gathering). But I did the session in LA and didn’t meet the person who was singing. Great song! I asked Jeff Fayman who was singing, and he said that it was Anneke Van Giersbergen. She lives in Holland, and I couldn’t think anymore because she has a fabulous voice. I went back to England, and then we started on the second Icon record. We were going through the material, and Geoff said to me, ”Are we going to do another duet?” I said, “Yes” . He said, “Who are we getting to sing and write a song?” My first thought was Agnetha from ABBA, because Geoff and I worked with her in 1985 on one of her songs. But we couldn’t get her - she just doesn’t work anymore. And I thought, “Uh! Wait a minute!” I remembered this voice in LA, that singer who lived in Holland. We recorded a track and sent it to her, she recorded the vocals and sent it back... That was it!

OP: Is it some sort of a journey of a song?

JW: Well, we didn’t even have to leave the studio! We just e-mailed the track, it takes about 2 hours. She recorded the vocal – e-mailed it back – and there you are! So, that sounds as the end of the story, isn’t it? But it is not, because it was another song, which Jeff Fayman played me while I was in LA. I could not get it out from my head. I thought: “it would be a great song for Asia”, because we wanted to do a song from outside the band and I said, “Let’s do that song because it’s really good”! I played it to everyone, and that was Orchard of Mines, which is featured on “Phoenix”. So, that relationship with Jeff Fayman was in house to Asia. And when it came to record the third Icon album, we decided to make a change in drummers and guitar, so now we ‘ve got Dave Kilminster and Pete Riley. Geoff and I were writing the song Raven, so that we could have a duet! Dave Kilminster introduced us to Anne-Marie Helder from Mostly Autumn. So, that was it for the third album.

OP: So a duet with a female voice has already become a tradition for Icon?

JW: Yeah! Yeah, with Icon - yes, for sure.

OP: Have you got any plans for Icon? Album four maybe?

JW: Well, not yet. We have only ever thought of a trilogy, 3 albums. So, now we’ve got. the trilogy, and we also have a DVD to document Icon. The next thing we do is concentrate on Asia. Asia’s gonna take most of next year, and at the end of the tour – it’ll be October - I want to whisk myself to California and make another solo record, something like “Battlelines”.

OP: Is there any chance of you coming to Ukraine?

JW: I would like to. We have to be careful when we tour, because we have to be guaranteed that we will sell some tickets. It’s not like Icon, which is fairly adjustable - we can have a big place or small place, you know, we are not that worried about it. But Asia needs a lot of people! Yes, it’s for commercial reasons.

OP: If you decide to tour Ukraine, come to Odessa. For instance, Jethro Tull played in Odessa last year…

JW: Jethro Tull have played everywhere (laughing)!

OP: Why shouldn’t Asia play everywhere too?

JW: Look at us! We are Asia (laughing)! No, we would love to. I can’t speak for the rest of the band but I know, they would all like to play there.

OP: We are parted with mutual wishes of good health and all the best and John Wetton headed to his rehearsal in order to completely stun the audience that night by his incredible voice in some of the most famous and legendary prog rock songs. (Special thanks to Martin Darvill and Will Boswell for providing this opportunity and for their assistance in organizing this interview.)

By OP=Olga Potekhina, November 21, 2009.

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