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toroddfuglesteg View Drop Down
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    Posted: July 17 2011 at 12:44

John Wetton does not really need any introduction. He is one of the greats in this scene. He has just released a new album and Drew Vreeland contacted him on behalf of where this interview was originally published.

They c/o Keith Hannaleck ("MuzikMan" here in PA) has kindly allowed us to publish this interview in ProgArchives. Enjoy !


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 Ė 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 Ďwhoí and the Ďhowí, with a little of theí whyí thrown in for good measure. Brass Tacks, you might call it, but I call it a good time.

In doing my research, I noticed that your last solo studio release was in 2003, but thatís not the only thing youíve been working on. Youíve been involved with Asia again; youíve been working with Martin Turner; so what Iím curious about is how long it took you to get that material for this release particularly?

Well, the material for this oneÖI mean Iíve probably done an album every year for the last 35 years I think, so my material gets channeled somewhat. I just write. I donít 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 doesnít always stop there. So the material has to go somewhere. 
Now Iíve 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 didnít 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 60ís and all hell broke loose because people rebelled against the constraints that theyíd been under in post-war, in Victorian post-war, in Victorian hangover Britain. So thereís a lot of stuff going on there.

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 weíre expected to process and assimilate things has us hemmed in, and thatís appropriateÖ

Absolutely. Yeah, well, weíre under scrutiny. Weíre constantly under scrutiny. You know, youíre being filmed everywhere Ė well youíre being filmed NOW! [Laughter] You know, youíre picture is going to a third party and itís being recorded while weíre speaking. 

This could all be on a database somewhere forever. 

Weíre constantly being recorded, you know, whenever youíre walking down the street youíre being recorded by hundreds of cameras that you canít see, so youíre in a goldfish bowl, whether you like it or not.

I guess the question is: is it better to be aware of it or to live oblivious to the cage youíre in?

No, of course itís better to be aware. Itís always better to be aware, in my book. 

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 donít make any profit from it, but itís 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 Shatnerís 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 Ė ďYup, you made it now. Now youíre cool!Ē My son even thinks Iím cool now and heís thirteen! [More Laughter]

Were there any songs on this William Shatner album that he sang in his universal language, I mean itís not HIS, like he didnít invent it or anything, but you know what I mean Ė what is it, Esperanto?

I havenít heard it yet but Iím hoping they did all of them in the universal language, yes. [Laughter] Absolutely marvelous! Lovely. 

And the other artists that you were involved in with this album [Raised in Captivity] are all artists that youíve worked with before as well. Now was thisÖ

Iím sorry I donít mean toÖsorry, let me just backtrack about Billy Sherwood: thatís how I got to meet him. I know heís 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. Heís very creative; heís very musical, and very intelligent. And also we get on fine; we have a very similar sense of humor. We get along OK and thatís really important when youíre in a room with someone for like three months. If you donít like someone when you go in, you will detest them after the first day, and it will become untenable. So, itís good that we got to share a few laughs along the way. Heís a lovely guy to work with, heís 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 Ė a little over three weeks Ė 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 thatís why Billyís 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)

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?

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 ďWoah woah, wait. Well thatís a little bit sort of...hum drum, letís try something different with it.Ē You know, because me alone, sitting at home with my acoustic guitar or my piano will end up writing dreary folk songs Ė sort of prog-edged, quasi-classical things. Billy comes from a very Rock direction, and I need that because I donít have that naturally inside me. Iím not a guitar writer. Billyís contribution was absolutely essential. 
I had to record it in Los Angeles and I had to have that edge, that kind ofÖenergy, 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 knowÖIíll 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.

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 youíve worked with before, so was this sort of you and Billy Sherwood together calling people who you felt could fill the gaps appropriately?

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 ďGood Bye Elsinore.Ē 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 ďOh, Iím doing my own solo album. First one for eleven years.Ē And I said, ďOK, but if you could slip this one in itíd be wonderful.Ē He said ďYeah, it shouldnít be a problem. Itís on the list, somewhere down the list.Ē
I got to about two weeks before I came home and it wasnít 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 ďAlex, could you just put a modal solo on this?Ē And it soundsÖitís very Alex, but itís also a little bit Allan Holdsworth, but Iím not complaining about that. I didnít say I wanted it to sound like Allan Holdsworth, but somehow it got the right flavor.

And earlier you said that youíre always writing, youíre 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?

On every solo album that Iíve done I have maybe five songs that I consider to be the most powerful. Theyíre 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 theyíre 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 canít exist on just doing those songs, I need to put in stuff thatís notÖthatís not me, if you like, well itís still me because I sing on it, but it has an energy that I wouldnít normally have, so thatís where my collaborators come in. So you get the flavor from those five songs. Theyíre the important ones, theyíre the ones with the message. I mean, the theme on this album is freedom, thereís no doubt about that. Itís 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 didnít know what to do, you know? I was like a kid in a candy store on one hand, and then the kid whoíd been brought up in a church family saying ďsh*t, I canít do that!Ē [Laughter] You know? I didnít know what to do. 
And itís the confusion that comes from being brought up in a sort of evangelical age, really, being told absolutely what to do and ďThis is wrong, this is right.Ē There is no wrong, there is no right, it just is. Itís what we make of it, and thatís the important thing. Um, and at the age of elevenÖIím sorry what was your question again?

[Laughter] I donít recall specifically, but it was a good answer. Oh, it was about your ideas finding an outlet, but you definitely covered thatÖ

[Laughter] Oh yes yes. Well in other words when Iím writing with Geoff Downs, itís 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 heís got a particular axe to grind with the idea of a song, then Iíll go along with it and Iíll support it, rather than saying ďOh, we canít do that.Ē My job is to support, or I would expect him to do the same for me if I come up with an idea thatís 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 donít. 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 theyíd work and sometimes I would say ďNo, Iíve got to get this one out of the way and completed.Ē So you need some sort of sympathy, or empathy rather, with the people or the person that youíre working with. It worked with Billy and Iíve been fortunate that it worked with Geoff and in the past with Eddie Jobson. When people say to me, ďAre you going to do another UK album?Ē I say I donít know because I donít know if our chemistry is still there, we could only find out if we sat down at a piano and started writing songs. ĎI donít knowí is the answer to that one; weíre taking it in baby steps until we do get a wee bit further in, maybe. I donít knowÖIf 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 donít know.

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 ďRendezvous 6:02,Ē 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 ďThat wasnít bad, was it? Come on, come on, that wasnít bad.Ē Maybe we could do it again, I donít know. 

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 itís a polishing and fine tuning more than it is experimentation and a well-letís-see-whatís-the-best-way-to-do-this type of approach?

Yeah, thereís a bit of both, actually. Sometimes itís very very quick. Very occasionally a song will almost write itself and Iíll know exactly how to record it. The best example of this is, from my catalogue, is ďThe Smile Has Left Your Eyes,Ē which wrote itself. I was walking back from the studio to my house in Shepardís 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 didnít have to work on it at all, there it was. Just press the button, recorded it, that was it. So thatís a one-off. It doesnít always happen like that. Sometimes Iíll 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 donít know which is best. Maybe itís a combination of both. Maybe itís a combination but sometimes I have to spend seven months on a song getting it absolutely perfect Ė just for me, just for my kind of anal, everythingís-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 Ė for me, the message I want to get across. So in the case of a song like ďThe Last Night of My LifeĒ 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: ďLast Night of My Life.Ē Which is virtually the theme of the album. Iíd already used Ďcarpe diemí on the Phoenix Asia record, but itís 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 doesnít really matter, what happened yesterday isÖnobodyís interested. So all we have is today, and more appropriately all we have is now, really Ė this moment. What happens in five minutes time I have no idea. So I think the kind of medical experiences Iíve had recently have taught me that. Maybe thatís something that comes with age as well, but I certainly appreciate a lot more what I have.

Thatís a good message to take away from the album.

I hope so, I hope so.

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 someoneís laptop in a garage or in a back yardÖ

[Laughter] Yes thatís trueÖno it hasnít, actually. No, it hasnít. But yeah, youíre right, the only reason really today for going to a proper studio is to use the toys when youíre mixing the damn thing. Because everything else, as you said, everyone has the capability to do multi-track recording now. 

I have it right here sitting next to me. Itís very common.

There you go. But has my approach Ė no, my approach hasnít 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 itís that easy, you just layer them in. Yeah, youíre 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 goesÖ [Phone ringing]Öexcuse me I have one call coming in, just a secondÖ
Hello? YeahÖHello Mary, Iím just in the middle of an interviewÖOk, thank youÖAlright, bye.
Ugh, the office. Now they should know, shouldnít they?

They scheduled it, I thinkÖ

JW: Where were we?

Maybe theyíre calling because our time is almost up; I was told we had twenty minutes for this interview.

Itís not quite up yet, youíve got another three minutes**. Iím sorry what was the question?
(**by now weíve been speaking for almost twenty three full minutes. ~DV)

We were talking about new technologiesÖ

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 digitalÖ

Like the music player, iPod competitor thing?

Thatís it. Records rehearsals brilliantly, as a little stereo digital recorder.

Thatís a nice plug for Zune in the interview; you should get free ones now.

Yes it is. [Laughter] Product placement. If you could see me, youíd see a little picture of it as well***. It goes from there, to multi track recording in a studio. It doesnít go anywhere else. If it happens to be Geoff Downes studio we do it in, or wherever itís going to be, thatís 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 Iíve written, with an acoustic guitar or a piano, and to me thatís what I bring to the party. How it gets dressed up is down to which particular environment itís in: which band Iím playing in or which records weíre 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 itís fine.
(***a reference to me not picking up his video feed on Skype ~DV)

And thatís an important element that youíve 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 canít 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 thatís an important element.

Itís a different animal. For me the song has to come first and whichever way it gets dressed up is just whatever happens. Sometimes youíll use a particular technique thatís kind of trendy, you know, in the studio. You still canít do that when youíre just performing in front of an audience with a piano Ė you canít do that, there are no gimmicks available. Itís just got to be your voice and the instrument. And the emotion from the song. 

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?

I donít listen to a lot of stuff. I do try to go to live gigs. I went to Ringoís 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 theyíre playing locally. I feel itís 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 itís in the Bournemouth International Center which is 4000 seats or whether itís in The Brook in Southampton which is about 200. Itís my duty to go out and see live stuff, but listening to stuff at home, or in the carÖwell 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 itís fantastic. Itís like Def Leppard twenty years on. Itís Mutt Langeís album with Adam Levine Ė is that the singer from Maroon 5? Ė with Adam Levineís voice, with Mutt Langeís album. Thatís it, but itís great. Itís very very good. 
My taste in music is Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Classical musicÖI donít listen to anything when Iím 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, Iím f**ked for the rest of the day because I canít get this damn phrase out of my head and I inevitably end up using part of it in something that Iím recording. So I canít do it, I canít listen to anything anymore.

So you isolate yourself from outside influences when you write, instead of cherry-picking phrases from here and there and kind of going with whateverÖso itís truly an internal process when you write. Itís generative, not reactive?

I go through a phase when Iím actually thinking what to write about where Iím open to everything. Iím looking at the world and taking little bits from everywhere, and then when the idea comes to write the song Iíve got plenty to draw on. Iíve 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 Iím actually in there recording it, I view it as a sort of cone. Because Iím going into this cone, and at the outset, everything is available Ė like I said when Iím writing it, itís all there, the whole world is at my fingertips. As I walk into this cone, it gets narrower and narrower and narrower until Iíve reached the end. And then thereís nothing, there are no options left. Thatís it. Youíre done. Itís over. If I start to walk out through the other side of the cone it all opens up again and Iím absolutely screwed. And Iíve seen people do that and the cost of making an album goes from like five thousand dollars to fifty thousand dollars overnight because theyíve walked through the other side of the cone, everything becomes available and you donít know what to do. But if I follow the cone, when I get to the end itís done. Whether itís writing or whether itís recording, itís done. 

Well thatís fantastic. Is there anything youíd like to conclude on, any note that youíd like to add that you donít feel weíve covered?

Nope, I think weíve done it. [Laughter] That was great, thank you. 

Well this was a pleasure. You enjoy the rest of your day, Mr. Wetton. 

You too, thank you very much indeed. God Bless you, Bye bye. Bye. 
Interview Conducted: 6 July 2011, 0800 EST

Thank you to Drew, John and Keith for this interview

John's PA profile is here

Edited by toroddfuglesteg - July 17 2011 at 14:30
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 17 2011 at 13:38
Nice interviewClap

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 19 2011 at 14:04
I really enjoyed that. I just read another interview with him in the Classic Prog magazine. Man he's been on some monster albums.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 19 2011 at 14:35
Thanks for posting, John Wetton is one of the most amazing & prolific talents in prog history!  Seems like a very nice chap as well.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 19 2011 at 15:55
he is a Steely Dan fan Cool and Maroon 5 fan Shocked
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 19 2011 at 17:55
Terrible album cover lol. Great interview.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 20 2011 at 20:08
Enjoyed it very much. Thanks for posting. Love Wetton's work, especially with UK and his solo stuff. Also does a damned fine live show.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: July 29 2011 at 10:15
Great interview!

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 08 2011 at 16:34
Very interesting. The new album just arrived today actually but haven't had chance to listen yet - looking forward to it.
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