My Interview with Steve Howe of Yes, 1999

This article Copyright© 1999 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Steve Howe in 1999
Steve Howe in 1999

In 1999, I was commissioned by Guitar Player Magazine to do a short feature on Yes guitarist Steve Howe. I got an interview with him, in person, while he was on tour with Yes. Unfortunately, Guitar Player was only able to run a very short piece. I contacted Progression Magazine, a publication for fans of progressive rock, and they agreed to publish an edited version of my full interview with Steve Howe. What follows is the manuscript that I submitted to Progression; it’s a bit longer than what they actually published.

Yes press photo, 1999
Yes press photo, 1999

In 1999, Steve Howe was amazingly prolific, seeing the release of his solo albums Quantum Guitars and Portraits of Bob Dylan, in addition to Yes’ 18th studio album, The Ladder. And the 1968 album from his pre-Yes band, Tomorrow, became available on CD. As a fitting tribute, Martin Guitars released a limited edition of 250 Steve Howe-model acoustic guitars, based on his beloved 1953 00-18 model. Beyond Sound also released the Steve Howe Interactive three-CD-ROM package for Windows and Macintosh computers. It contains extensive interviews with Steve, and demonstrations where he performs his signature licks, as well as “Clap” and “Mood for a Day” in their entirety, on high-resolution video. This would be useful to any guitarist trying to cop his licks. The third CD in the set is a digital version of his 1994 coffee-table book, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, with audio narrations.

I spoke with Steve Howe at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 16, 1999, hours before Yes’ second performance of the American leg of their tour supporting The Ladder. I had a specific mission: to learn about Steve’s formative influences as a guitarist, and how he brought those influences to Yes. I posed the daunting question, “What is progressive rock?” As you’ll see, if you want to really understand where Steve’s playing comes from, it’s not just jazz; you’re going to have to go out and get a lot of country music from the 50s and 60s. And after more than two years of having Billy Sherwood as a full member of Yes, Steve shares his not-so-cordial reservations about having a second guitarist in the band.

Wheat: I just spent the afternoon going through the Steve Howe Interactive CD-ROM collection. The information on there was so good that I feel that I’ve already interviewed you, and in my own office.

Steve: Great!

Wheat: I guess the CD-ROM project started two or three years ago?

Steve: Yeah, at least. It took awhile. We kept thinking it was going to be this, and it was going to be that, and then we redid a lot of it, so it all had continuity. At one time we’d done some shooting. I thought I was done, but it didn’t really turn out good enough. So we got clever and the ideas got better, and we did it again. Hopefully it was worthwhile.

Wheat: So how is the material from the new album going over with audiences?

Steve: Well, we’ve done a bit in South America and we’ve done just one show here. Obviously America’s had a chance for some people to listen to it, and that helps us when we play. In South America they didn’t know what we were playing. Sometimes the language lost them a bit because it makes transitions difficult. In the weak space between songs they would start shouting.

We were going to so many new countries in South America that we decided to drop a few new songs because we felt they were struggling. We’d never played there before, so we stuck “Close to the Edge” back in there instead. We wanted to give them the kind of show that they were hoping for, not too much–you go to see a band and you’ve been itching to see them, and they don’t play your favorites. So we just worked, you know, to be as audience-friendly as we could.

Judging from last night, I would think it’s going to go reasonably well. I mean I think we’re going to find out what’s good and bad in it. Not every track that we record always necessarily works on stage.

Wheat: How would you define progressive rock? What is it?

Steve: Well it’s a pretty dangerous thing to try to decide. It’s almost about not having such a clear definition, but it being the beginning, if you like, toward much more openness towards crossing the music. Psychedelic music sort of started that; Indian music came in, and jazz then got kind of on the fringe of it because it was improvisation. Then psychedelic improvisation was brought in to jazz players. And then a lot more things started happening, I guess. Progressive seems to be more of a continuation of psychedelic, in my mind, than anything else, because it just opened up the idea that you could bring in influences that were much broader. Whereas classical music is part of a convention, progressive rock was broadening the music by bringing in something that was unconventional to be made a part of it, but in a way a convention of its own: classical music. I think that’s part of what happened.

But you could blame it on synthesizers. You could blame it all on Bob Moog!

Joining Yes was the opportunity for me to start fulfilling a dream of being in a group that had high musicianship, had strong individuality. And certainly we were a part of that progressive movement because we were allowed, or we allowed ourselves, if you like, to expand it into things like Close to the Edge and Relayer for instance.

When Patrick Moraz came into the band, we realized that in a way the band was like an orchestra, because it wasn’t limited by its personnel. The personnel could change and we could still kind of carry on the same concepts. So we had a certain style.

We did shut ourselves off from Genesis. They were a bit close for comfort after awhile. We didn’t want to hear them too much because in a way we didn’t want to be influenced. We didn’t want to be like them. Because they were formulating their own sort of style, you know. It was great for me later when I wasn’t in the middle of it to look back on what Genesis did, in particularly on the albums that Steve Hackett played on, and to find out more about what they were like after the fact.

Wheat: When I think of Genesis I honestly feel that their music is just very, very English.

Steve: Yeah.

Wheat: I mean anything from William Byrd up to Edward Elgar or this whole long line of British classical and church music composers. I seem to find some sense of that in there.

But specifically looking at things like multiple odd time signatures that change, frequent key changes, long form compositions: do you think that the people that were the architects of progressive rock, even the members of Yes before you joined, were they consciously looking to Bartók and Stravinsky and that sort of thing, or did that come afterwards?

Steve: Well, I think people just brought their ingredients. When I joined, and Jon and I began to talk about music over the first few years, we found we had quite different things we listened to. He liked classical music but a different era. And I was still kind of caught up in the Baroque era at that time and really influenced by Telemann and Vivaldi. Not influenced necessarily, but I listened, and I thought it was really bright and pure, and then the moody things I liked. The second movements from all those concertos was the other side of it. I liked those contrasts.

So I don’t know. I really can’t define it. But certainly as much as it was one kind of music, it was another kind of music. It was jazz as much as one thing, for me to come in and find that Bill [Bruford] was really into jazz. What he was talking about was something I enjoyed. And you know when we played “Siberian Khatru,” when we played that tune (hums second theme) that was one of Bill’s. When I play that, I still feel like I’m playing Bruford as much as I’m playing Yes.

Yes is hopefully a useful musical melting pot, where people just mix their ideas. I think that we weren’t really governed by what progressive rock was supposed to be. It didn’t almost exist. We were helping to invent it. We weren’t that conscious that we were doing something that was going to be called a name like that. We were certainly aware when we got to the mid seventies that there were two kinds of success for Yes. There was the immediacy of Fragile, and The Yes Album. Then Close to the Edge surprised everybody first, by just having three titles on it. We realized by the results of [Tales From] Topographic Oceans that a division was happening. Our popularity was going to the dedicated fans. The common man was going to say, “Oh no, Yes have got too much for me now.” So we just worked with the fan base and they seemed to be enormous. And in America so loyal, and in Europe so deceptively loyal.

Wheat: How’s that?

Steve: Yes didn’t pay a lot of attention to Europe. It was conceived that they weren’t really than interested in it. But as soon as we started to work there, and I did solo tours there, as well, then we realized that the Yes audience were really just dormant, waiting for Yes to return. So we did very well last year when we toured Europe. And we’ll go back next year. So that’s the kind of plot, why we do that thing: because people stuck with us and people kind of developed along with it. And clung to the memories that are surely deep in our minds. When we played “Perpetual Change” last night I was very surprised at how I felt about thinking that we wrote that song, and we played that song, and we arranged that song.

Wheat: That’s my favorite cut off that album.

Steve: Good. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

Wheat: If I can go back to one more question about the birth of this whole thing, would it be accurate to say that you guys were trying to avoid the Delta blues-influenced Rolling Stones to Cream and Eric Clapton kind of thing when you were starting, that you were trying to skirt around those blues-rock clichés and find something that was entirely different, but still used the same instruments?

Steve: Yeah, I mean, that affected me a lot because obviously I played guitar, and everybody else was playing guitar in a different style–and I wasn’t. I had done that in the early Sixties, and I was in a couple of blues bands then. And it was great fun. I dearly loved the blues. I want to return to the blues at some time. But the thing is that I got so caught up in not playing other peoples’ cliché guitar lines, but actually working out other guitarist’s lines, very short parts. I mean, I couldn’t concentrate on the whole track, so I’d learn maybe thirty-two bars from Tal Farlow, from Kenny Burrell, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian. I learned little bits from all of these guys but I didn’t attempt to learn vast amounts of each of them. I listen to them. I hear them. And I learned a few things.

I did make a conscious decision not to play blues after The In Crowd changed to Tomorrow. When I was working with people who wrote songs, then it was much easier to put original guitar into new songs than it was to put in old songs. So Keith West and I started writing songs, and then I wrote with another group before Yes called Bodast. That experience wasn’t enough for me because there wasn’t the instrumentation going [Bodast was a power trio].

When you first mention progressive, I think of King Crimson. I think Yes were conscious that Crimson were very close to them in the timing of it.

Wheat: Much darker, though.

Steve: Yes. I suppose that was what intrigued Bill, and we lost Bill, because he wanted to play in Crimson. We learned a lesson from Crimson in a way. We learned about music and certain people. And peoples’ decisiveness about their musical direction. We all admired Bill for his decisiveness. But he actually thought that Yes were getting too commercial. To think that we could have gone into a stage of writing Tales from Topographic Oceans with Bill might have been very unlikely in a way. Besides the fact that it’s not more commercial, which is kind of what Bill thought, it was certainly more time consuming. It was more meandering and more structurally fragile in its scale [spreads out arms wide]. For Bill it most probably would have been hard work on that record. But he may have been good for us.

Wheat: I have noticed one thing, though. I’ve met Robert Fripp on a couple of occasions. Both he and you state very clearly that [Elvis Presley’s original guitarist] Scotty Moore and [Ricky Nelson’s guitarist] James Burton were very motivational. Not necessarily for the licks but just because that made you want to run out and get a guitar and play it.

Steve: But it did also make me want to play exactly like them, which I couldn’t! You know, Scotty, and James Burton, and also, the other guitarist I’ve realized plays a big part in that is a guy called Jimmy Bryant.

Wheat: He played with Tennessee Ernie Ford, is that right?

Steve: Yeah. I know that Albert Lee often mentions him and Hank Garland. Make sure you get the mono version of Hank Garland’s The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland. It’s moving. It’s so brilliant. On the fake stereo version, it’s swamped with reverb and you can’t hear the guitar. It just begs the question. There’s been so many brilliant guitar records made. And Hank Garland is definitely one of the most brilliant.

Hank Garland
The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland

Jimmy Bryant’s records have come out on CD now, from the label. You should get those. Jimmy Bryant is just one of the all-time greats. Well, a lot happened before the 50s.

That guitarist Roy Smeck, he played some very inventive stuff. He played stuff overdubbing on records and playing multi-guitar family instruments way before it. But when you get to the electric guitar era, somebody invented the guitar solo, the brilliant guitar solo. Obviously Charlie Christian was one of those people. Django was doing it almost before as well, but then there’s Jimmy Bryant. He made the guitar solo stunning. A guitar break in a song from Jimmy Bryant was all over the guitar. It was so great. I can’t say how much that inspired me. And everybody else was only almost as good as him. Every rock guitarist after Jimmy Bryant. But he was really a cross between hillbilly, R&B, and just great guitar.

Wheat: I was privileged three years ago — DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore came out of retirement and did an album. I got to interview them, and spend a day in the studio with them.

Steve: Yeah? I played with them not long ago. They came to England with a band. Yeah, I played with them. I played one song, Scotty played “I Got a Woman.” Yeah, and a lot of guitarists popped up with him that night.

Wheat: Did you record?

Steve: I think they videotaped it, yeah.

Wheat: Meeting him was the most unbelievable thing. I was absolutely frightened.

Steve: No, he’s lovely. I wouldn’t have thought. I met him about three years ago for the first time and he was fantastic. Just fantastic.

Wheat: How is it working out playing with Billy Sherwood? I know that he’s been associated with Yes in some form or another going back to the Union album. He’s obviously been around a long time. And he’s also brought a lot of engineering and producing skills. But what is it like having him as a second guitarist on stage?

Steve: Well it kind of varies. I mean, things in the Open Your Eyes period were a little bit of unknown territory. We had to forge a different kind of Yes. Certainly Chris [Squire] was backing this idea of having two guitarists.

I said, if I want to play with another guitarist, how about [Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple guitarist] Steve Morse? Because to me there’s world class guitarists who I’d like to spend a lot more time with. Steve is one of the people at the top of my list. Because he’s amazing. But the concept here wasn’t to have two dazzling guitarists.

I had to redevelop where I should be in the group, and hope that Billy’s position wouldn’t either intimidate, threaten, or undermine me. He’s providing more fundamental parts than me, with my embellishments and solos and anything like that. So when we got to The Ladder, we kind of defined it a little more clearly. We couldn’t really go into the record not knowing who was playing what kind of guitar. So I suggested that we clarify it and make it fun for me, not to have to consider Billy in the lead guitar area at all.

But when we got back on stage, other things start to come into it. And other threats come into it and things get confusing. And it sometimes can remind me of the Trevor Rabin era a little bit and that’s obviously a problem for me. So I’m kind of working towards it all working out great. But I mean given the opportunity this group works for me better with one guitarist. The fact that Billy’s in the band as a full-time member is not a problem unless his guitar work interferes with what I’m doing. I imagined that he was going to become more of a multi-instrumentalist within the group. Because he has that capability. And that’s what I believe we were opening ourselves up to.

Wheat: Playing keys, playing bass?

Steve: Yeah. A variety of things all of which he does with a nice style. So seeming that guitar’s rather inseparable, obviously there are times when I’m watching how things are going. So it is a fluid situation where we need good intent, and fair use of what this group is. Optimizing on the group. That’s about all I can say. It hasn’t worked, it has worked, it can work, it is working, but it might not work. Not that it might not work, but that it might not be as easy as people would like to think.

When I played “Perpetual Change” last night, I was hit emotionally about the fact that we were playing that music in 1970. We wrote it in this beautiful place that I lived nearby. There was a lot of sentiment in it, a lot of romantic thoughts and a lot of awesome concepts of what life was like then, and how much time we had and how much space we had, and how much freedom we had. It’s quite an eye-opener when you find yourself playing a piece of music that somehow encapsulates some of that era. Deep, deep!

Wheat: You seem to be in a phase where you’re not interested in working with the latest technology. You’ve never gotten into the Roland VG-8, that physical modeling device that takes an input from any electric guitar and creates the sound of other types of guitars and amplifiers?

Steve: Oh, that stuff. Well, you know, I was very excited when I first heard of it, but then I saw David Bowie and his guitarist [Reeves Gabrels] using it. I thought, that’s very nice, but I’m not going to go over to it. It would be a fascination to use that stuff. And I reckon I could use it pretty well, but, the strange thing is, I’ve got really back into what amps are all about. What two guitar amps are supposed to sound like. And I think I enjoy that more. The purity of the mike. So a DI sound going into the PA doesn’t really interest me compared to the sound of an amp. A good guitar going into an amp; somehow that’s the sound I want to hear. I’m not using a great deal of processing, either. It comes in now and again, where it has incredible effect for me. But look at the gear. There’s the guitars, you know, I mean one or two effects might be on the standby making a stereo delay, but there’s basically the guitars, the amps, and a simple pedalboard I’ve been using since Keys [to Ascension]. I’ve still got a huge pedalboard that’s 24 switches, three volume pedals, lovely. It’s a bit big, and it’s really for the larger venue work. So on this tour I’m relying much more on what I like, which is the guitar and an amp.

steve howe book
The Steve Howe Guitar Collection coffee-table book, published in 1994

Wheat: Have you got any new guitars, since your Steinbergers, for instance?

Steve: Well, I got a lovely present from Scott Chinery; he gave me a marvellous Martin 00-42H, a Hawaiian guitar from the 1930s, and that was stunning. ESP gave me a beautiful Telecaster a couple of years ago that I like very much. And also Sans Amp gave me a very nice Tech 21 amp. Roland have been great and they’ve supplied me with two Jazz Choruses–the amp I never thought I’d use. But it’s actually a terrific amp. I like Jazz Chorus amps now.

Wheat: Still using a Fender Twin?

Steve: Yep. Can’t seem to replace them, but certainly for the solo shows the Jazz Chorus is great.

I think that guitars have become more a discovery of what I’ve got than the constant search for something else that I haven’t got. And that’s something that you realize in a collection. That by keeping on collecting and expanding you never really get to the core of why you did it. So I went back and started moving parts of my collection at various times. And I like that because it gets smaller, more manageable, and the things that are there I’ve got time for. Because the other maybe eighty guitars I used to have I didn’t have time for. I had no time at all for. Can you imagine how to get time for those guitars? It’s impossible, really. So a player’s collection, which mine’s becoming more and more, is more refined. And once a guitar has been tried numerous times for a particular various ideas and it doesn’t really do anything to you then there’s actually no point in keeping it. Because somebody else might find something in it.

Wheat: What was your reaction when Eric Clapton got $450,000 for his first Strat in the auction? I thought tha was pretty terrifying myself. I thought, well, I’ll never own one, will I?

Steve: I suppose I’ve got a lot of feelings about that as a one-off thing that Eric did. I understand that it wasn’t something he thought of automatically, and it wasn’t something that was easy for him to do. Having said that there were some reasonably conventional guitars in there that did go for some astronomical prices. But I think that just shows what the spirit of giving can be in this world. And it’s something that Eric, bless him, has always had, ever since I’ve known him, or met him, back in the 60s. He’s always been very generous and kind in that situation. So to see him do something like that wasn’t so much of a surprise as you might have thought. That says more than what’s already been said about Eric, so I feel admiration and respect for him and for the pleasure that he raised so much real money in terms of supporting his cause. And serious money it was. But I think that collection is so exceptional that one can’t relate it to any other sales. It wasn’t a sale so much. It was much more of an event.

Wheat: And a charity also.

Steve: That’s right. That’s what I mean. It was a multi-media thing that helps a need very much. But some of his obviously great guitars, and ones that he used, like Blackie and Brownie, and all those, deserve to go for very, very high prices. Those are high prices that they went for. They’re very high, truly top end, but then again, who did you think could sell guitars for more?

You know, it does show something, like when David Bowie went on the stock market with his songs. It shows that in reality a musician has to think what he’s worth, because he’s got bills to pay, and he’s got ideas to fulfill. You can’t just sit on wealth. It’s very negative. So in a way Eric’s a leader in a cause again, like [Princess] Diana was. I just love him. He’s a wonderful guy.

This article is Copyright © 1999 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and Trey Gunn in 1998

Here is another interview with musicians from my vault. This was for an article I published in Guitar Player Magazine on October, 1998, entitled “Progressive ProjeKct: Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and Trey Gunn Redefine the Power Trio”.

The band King Crimson was at that time a six-piece (with Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, and Bill Bruford). They had decided to take a hiatus but to perform in “subsets” of trios, or possibly duos or a quartet. One of these was called ProjeKct II. I interviewed these three musicians as they prepared for their first public appearances. Because this was Guitar Player, it has a lot to do with instruments, technology and gear; I start out asking Adrian Belew (who was an acquaintance of mine and with whom I had discussed broader musical topics on many previous occasions) to explain how he uses the new Roland electronic drum-kit, the V-Drums. So if you are not into all the techno-garble, skim over those parts and get to comments about the music and the state of the music business in 1998 — Robert Fripp had some interesting points about the latter.

I have to share a personal note: Robert Fripp had a reputation as being a difficult and intractable interview subject who had little patience for journalists. As I was arranging for this interview to take place, I was communicating via email through Adrian Belew who sent messages back and forth to the band’s publicist. At one point Adrian sent an email to the publicist which he copied me on. Adrian wrote, and I quote, “No way should Wheat interview Robert. Wheat is way too nice. Robert will tear him apart.”

Well, I wasn’t afraid, because I felt that I genuinely understood and was knowledgeable about Robert Fripp’s music, and that I was not going to waste his time. I did a lot of research, and I went in with much more than my usual self-confidence.

The other thing about Robert Fripp is that he was well-known for being extremely protective of his personal space. When I went to Adrian’s home for the interview, and Adrian introduced me to Robert, I boldly strode right across the floor and shook Robert’s hand. Adrian, standing next to him, went pale. Robert shook my hand but didn’t react. And we had a fine interview and I felt that Robert respected me.

To this day I tell my prog rock friends, “I shook the hand of Robert Fripp and lived to tell about it.”

Wheat Williams interviews  Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and Trey Gunn at Adrian’s home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, Saturday, February 21, 1998. Copyright ©  1998 by Wheat Williams. All rights reserved.

Adrian: …Then by May or June, by the time everyone has the first record, we can start selling the other record. The second follow-up record, at our shows. So we’re kinda always gonna be a little bit ahead of ourselves. Sort of leap-frogging mechanism. And now, since we have the ability to record live all the time, I’m sure there’s going to be tons of material coming out of that.

We’re going to record everything. The wonderful thing about this, even working here in my studio, it’s all done on six tracks. You have a stereo pair of V-Drums, you have stereo Robert and stereo Trey. Even though the V-Drums can come out on eight separate channels, we’ve always just left it stereo, because I balance the kits the way I want them to sound, and that’s that. You don’t really need to have control over those sets.

Wheat: I noticed on the first album, though, that you deliberately picked some extremely atypical kit selection sounds.

Adrian: At first. I started from that. And then I decided, no, these are the things that really interest me, the unusual sounds. That’s what I really like the most.

Wheat: And I noticed that you were practically getting a simple bass line out of some overtones coming out of your tom sounds.

Adrian: No, what it really is is that the bass drum can trigger a sequence of bass notes.

Wheat: I thought so!

Adrian: So it’s very interesting. Whenever you hit the bass drum, you’re advancing the sequence of notes. So even though it’s a small sequence of notes

Wheat: Kind of like an analog sequencer, but done digitally.

Adrian: Yeah. Even though it’s a small sequence of notes, the bass pattern is always changing due to the fact that you’re always changing your bass drum patterns. So I can break up and play odd kinds of drumrolls and things and it seems to fit okay because of the fact that the bass is going with me. And that leaves these two guys free not to have to play a bass part.

Wheat: Do all of those bass tones come from the V-Drum module, or do you have additional…

Adrian: No, they’re in the V-Drum module. And sometimes I also use a piano line that I can turn on and off from the rim of one of the pads. So you can turn it on while you are playing and turn it off whenever you want it.

Wheat: Where do you get the piano sound from?

Adrian: Same place. It’s built into the V-Drums. I think there are 50 additional sounds. Some of them are loops of funk riffs or something like that that I wouldn’t be so apt to use. But the single bass line is pretty good, and there are several bass tones to choose from. So it gives us the option to actually be a four-piece band because I’m playing bass as I play drums. And that was one of the first things that we discovered, or I discovered, when we were playing together. One of those Space Groove pieces is entirely that. The drum kit is a normal-sounding drum kit when I do that, but in other times now I’ve introduced it into some of my real strange kits.

Wheat: You brought up some pitched marimba rolls at one point.

Adrian: Yeah, I got a bunch of stuff.


Wheat: Any specific information about your tour plans or the marketing plans for these records?

Adrian: We have a two-record set coming out called Space Groove, and it comes out April 6.

Robert: The CDs will be available in England, where they’re being currently pressed, as of Tuesday [February 24, 1998]. And in America, probably toward the end of next week. So if you are in touch with Lori [Discipline Records’ publicist], she will let you have a copy.

Adrian: Lori can also give you better than I could the bits of touring that we’ve got blocked out. But it kind of works on an on/off basis where we go out for about two weeks and then we’re off for about two weeks. At this point, we will cover Japan, UK, West Coast, Midwest, Northeast, East Coast, and Canada.

Wheat: What size venues are you playing?

Robert: 450 to a thousand. Basically club-sized.

Adrian: And they’re being carefully screened by Mr. Fribble [indicates Robert].

Wheat: So that’s generally smaller venues than what you did with the Thrak tour in America, right?

Robert: Oh, yes. That was our intention.

Adrian: And as I mentioned, while we are here this time, we recorded a whole new generation of Project II material with brand new sounds and things, and we’ll edit that together and put that out as a record, which will hope to come out May, or June? Think?

Robert: Probably in the shops in the autumn, although we’ll be selling it at performances before, and making it available on Discipline mail order. The prevalence of bootlegging would tend to suggest that there is at least a moderate demand for recorded performances.

Wheat: So you’d rather have something to sell right there at the show.

Robert: If people really want to have live recorded music, and they go into bootleg, and the artist says, quite strongly, ‘Please, this is not something that we wish you to do,’ then how can the musicians respond to the audience? Well, what we are doing within Discipline generally across our catalog is to make available live recorded performances, official bootlegs are sometimes better. Since mainstream retail outlets can’t quite handle that bulk, what we do is make them available both at the performances of the artists, wherever they might be, and also by mail order, Discipline mail-order in England, which generally responds throughout Europe and Japan and North and South America, so it’s always available.

Wheat: I’ve been following Gary Davis’ Artist Shoppe, on the Internet, and he’s a big promoter of yours as well. And I must say I really admire what you are doing, because you are creating new paradigms for, as you said, how the band relates to the audience in terms of selling records and getting the recordings to them.

Robert: New understandings and insights generate new institutions. And currently the music industry is a hangover from days of buccaneering and the slave trades. It’s an exploitive, inequitable industry, and because levels of discussion on prime matters like ownership of copyright, they’re stifled by gagging clauses. There are one or two very famous groups who you’d know about who are currently in negotiation for re-acquiring the copyright ownership of their masters, which they paid to make.

Wheat: Oh, yes.

Robert: You might ask, well, why does the record company own the record that the artist made and paid for? Well the answer is it’s common policy. Why is it common policy? Because it’s established by institutions that have overwhelming negotiating clout. Overwhelming.

But no longer is it acceptable, and it’s coming to the area of discussion and debate. And in response to the perception and the understanding that this is inequitable, there has to be a new generation of institutions which are not based on exploitation and theft. And Discipline is one of them; a small company, which is ethically based and has particular aims, led by the music, and is artist-friendly.

Now, you want specifics on where ProjeKct II is touring, since I know you only have a page. So there’s no point in us talking for an hour on Discipline’s operating procedures, ’cause you simply won’t have any use for it. I’ve spent two hours of my time talking in detail about lots of matters to get one paragraph in the local paper. If you can use it, I’m happy to talk about it. But if this is not the time, I won’t waste your time.

Wheat: Well, let’s focus on the band. I just wanted to ask, this is sort of going back to your original philosophy of the small, highly mobile, intelligent unit, but how did you decide…

Robert: We don’t claim intelligence. We aspire to it. But we are small and mobile.

(I allow myself a chuckle, as Robert smiles)

Wheat: Well, how is it that you decided that it was the time for a trio project? Was it just that it was flowing out of the music that was flowing out of you at the time?

Robert: That’s two distinct questions. May I suggest a better one? How did ProjeKct II come about?

Firstly, I suggested to all the six current members of King Crimson that we fractalize, that we break into sub-groups, fractals of King Crimson projects, so that a new generation of King Crimson music can be discovered. So far there’ve been two projects that have gone public now. The first was ProjeKct I in the Jazz Cafe [in London], from December the 1st through the 4th last year. We recorded that, and will be releasing it later in the year. ProjeKct II actually began before ProjeKct I, when we recorded the Space Groove album here, in two or three days last November. This is just being released. These are both fractals of King Crimson, each of which function as research and development departments for the greater Crimson, and each of which are also stand-alone. So that’s how ProjeKct II came about. Is it in response to music flowing? Yes. And it’s also a way of enabling and helping music to flow as well.

Wheat: Well, I know that Thrak was much more of a composed album, and this sort of thing is stressing free improvisation, right?

Robert: Yeah. But it’s not stressing it. That’s essentially what it is.

Wheat: So for once you’re not writing down arrangements and contemplating them a great deal before hand.

Robert: That’s very true with both of these projects. Although my manuscript score and pencil are through the other room. But they don’t play a huge role within this context.

So, where are we touring?

We’re touring in California, in Ventura in the middle of March, moving to Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Los Angeles, then we’re going to Tokyo, Osaka and Nogoya, in April, followed by London and Birmingham, coming back here to begin a tour of the East Coast beginning in Washington, moving to probably Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Irving Plaza in New York, ending the first week of May. We’re coming back at the end of May or beginning of June with an in-store in Boston, probably Tower in Harvard Square. Which will also present to the public Absent Lovers, a two-volume CD of King Crimson’s last performance in Montreal on June the 11th, 1984. We’ll also be presenting at the in-store the Bruford-Levin Upper Limits, which is the group we’re touring with in Japan.

Wheat: So Bruford and Levin are going to be opening for you?

Robert: No, we’re opening for them.

Wheat: That’s so marvellous.

Robert: Well, we’re looking forward to sitting in the audience after our set.

Wheat: Is Pat Mastelotto back to the session player thing?

Robert: No, Pat, Trey, and I have been in close discussions about when we’ll be working together, and the problem so far has been purely technical; I mean, when can we find time to work together? So the next step in terms of my interest is working with Pat, and we’ve talked about different configurations. Pat is currently planning on coming to the Discipline studio in England at the end of March. We were hoping it would be the end of February, but we have a backlog of work. Pat has been doing his own research, and it’s quietly phenomenal. But I’m not going to speak for him or blow the whistle on what we’re up to.

How did you react when Adrian said ‘I want to play drums this time’?

Robert: He didn’t quite say ,’I want to play drums.’ We already had some three-guitar arrangements of music which are underway. It’s intended for the next Crimson, and we thought that was maybe something we’d feature. But when the V-Drums arrived, Adrian set up, and we began. So.

Wheat: Well, I remember when you started the Discipline-era King Crimson, in an interview you said that, or you agreed with the interviewer, that a lot of it was fueled by new technology: guitar synthesizers, the Chapman Stick, the Simmons drums. So I guess you could say that Adrian got quite inspired by the sounds he could make with the V-Drums and the different performance opportunities.

Robert: You must speak to Adrian on that.

Wheat: Certainly.

Robert: I won’t speak for him. Personally, I find that acoustic drums in a live context, particularly rock, is overwhelmingly doomed to failure. You can’t really hear anything. And live, cranked up through a PA, you can’t really hear a hi-hat. So the situation we had with the last Crimson was that I was in between the two drummers with large Plexiglas screens so that I wouldn’t lose my high range [hearing], and one in front of Tony too. And you still couldn’t really hear everything. So V-Drums for me are, at least in the live context, immediately more practical. You can actually hear what the drummer is doing.

Wheat: Marvelous.

Robert: And you don’t need to screen the other players, so that the hearing remains intact.

I think that technology is primarily a response, once again, to the different understanding or insight about music, which may or may not be taken up. If the technology isn’t taken up by players, it’s a good idea but it’s not the right time for it. Like the Theremin. It’s a really nice instrument that never really happened. But I think the technology that is now available is very practically applicable.

Wheat: Let’s segue over to the guitar then. I have a friend who came up with me to see the show who was in one of your Crafty seminars in West Virginia.

Robert: Who’s that?

Wheat: His name is Jeff Blanks. He did one seminar with you and Trey was there at the time. He remembers it.

At that time you had developed the Crafty tuning, and you veered off into acoustic for a long time. Then when you came back together with Crimson you applied the Crafty tuning exclusively with everything that you played. Right?

Robert: Yeah.

Wheat: So what is the state of the art of electric guitar today as you see it?

Robert: Have you seen my rig? [he says with a gleam in his eye]

Wheat: Oh, yeah! Obviously the synthesizers work much better than they used to. I have an old Roland GM-70, it doesn’t track that well.

Robert: I prefer the GR-300 to the 70. Pat Metheney still uses one, too.

Wheat: No kidding.

Robert: What I’ve got is pretty well state of the art, although there’s one or two refinements as well. But having that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be played well. There are far better players than me with far less-developed technology. But my rig at the moment, which looks something like a space module, enables me, in addition to being a guitarist in a power trio, to also work in studio level quadraphonic.

Wheat: which is why you have the four TC Electronics delay units.

Robert: Yeah. And If I’m doing a solo performance live in a church, where we have an opportunity to get into the space ourselves, we generally do six-speaker quadraphonic. So it’s a very sophisticated rig.

Wheat: And the guitars you are playing, are those the Tokai copies that you’ve had for a long time?

Robert: Lori has the list of all the equipment. No, they’re not Tokai, they’re Fernandez copies, both made for me in September and October 1995, and modified by Ted Lees, who does work for me in England.

Wheat: I’ve seen Adrian’s Fernandez that he played during the Thrak tour. I was here exactly a year ago and got a chance to see that.

Robert: And as soon as possible I’d like to have the new, is it Buzz Teitel tuning system?

Wheat: Oh, I’ve heard about it. Feitel, I think. [It is in fact “Buzz Feiten”]

Robert: That’s right. There’s the Washburn, they’ve carried the guitars away, they sent one here for us to check. And as soon as Buzz works out the correct intonation for my tuning, then I’ll have it retrofitted.

Wheat: But the GR-30 and the new generation of guitar synths work even with your Crafty system, even with your extended lower range.

Robert: Oh, sure.

Wheat: I’m fascinated by Trey’s instrument. I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about that. He also got me in touch with Mark Warr.

Robert: Whose litigation with Emmet Chapman is a tragedy.

Wheat: I’ve been following that on the Internet with much interest.

Robert: It’s very sad.

Wheat: I noticed that Tony Levin doesn’t even mention Emmett Chapman on his Web site any more. He probably just wants to stay out of it.

Robert: Um, if anyone made a comment on that, they would probably be sued by Emmett at the moment.

Wheat: Well, I told Trey that I was not going to use the words ‘Chapman’ or ‘Stick’ in my little sidebar on him. We’ll just talk about the Warr instrument, how it’s tuned, and all that.

Robert: In terms of Guitar Craft, I’ve just come from a Guitar Craft course in Seattle.

Wheat: Oh, you have? That was my next question. So you’re still teaching.

Robert: I’m not a teacher.

Wheat: A facilitator?

Robert: Instructor. And I’m off to Chile in a couple of weeks for the first Guitar Craft course there. We’ve had several courses in Argentina, and the Argentinean team is going to Chile.

Wheat: And do you still do all of that teaching on acoustic guitar, or amplified acoustic?

Robert: Just acoustic. It’s very direct.

With an electric guitar, it is a different instrument. And a lot of the tonal response has very little to do with the actual playing. Obviously, on an acoustic guitar, what you hear is what you get, and it’s what you give to it. And if you can’t hit the pick at a decent angle, you get a horrible tone. So the guitar tone will immediately tell you how ‘on’ you are. Whereas if you are an electric player, well, you twiddle your graphics [equalization], or you deal with it that way. So it’s a very direct response.

An electric guitar is schizophonic. The sound emerges from a different place than the point of origin.

And it’s part of the training. For Crafties playing live, we had to deal with problems of schizophonia, where you’re playing the acoustic instrument, and the sound is coming out from the PA. So that’s part of it.

But yes, Guitar Craft is ongoing.

Wheat: That’s wonderful.

Is there any new music coming out today that you find appealing, in terms of the craft of the musicians making it?

[Long pause.]

Robert: I doubt that I would give you names. But is there? Yes. But eternal music is… Some music is outside the time stream. So

Wheat: That’s kind of what you strive for, isn’t it?

Robert: The musician strives to be true. So were you to say, ‘what do I listen to in the bath?,’ which is about the only time, well, a recent selection of what I’ve been listening to is the late Beethoven string quartets, Penderecki, Schnittke, Radiohead, the Verve, Haydn string quartets. I’ve just got Coltrane live in Seattle, but I haven’t had the chance to listen to it. So it’s very broad, very broad listening. To me it’s as if they were one musician speaking in different dialects.

Wheat: I wanted to ask you. I got to see you on the G3 tour, I think it was in December, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta?

Robert: It would have been, I think, October.

Wheat: October? Time flies. But I assume that was a good experience for you, and got you in front of a bunch of Kenny Wayne Sheppard fans that wouldn’t have heard you otherwise.

Robert: In terms of the sheer pleasure of touring, and touring is a very hard and arduous thing, both the legs of the G3 tour were for me the most enjoyable, supportive and friendly tours I’ve been on in 28 years.

Wheat: Marvelous.

Robert: I made friends. I made personal friends on the tour. And I appreciate that probably for a lot of people in the audience I was perhaps a strange character to have. I was originally booked for a 20-minute opening slot, comparable to Adrian Leg when he went out with the early G3s. So although I had my official 20 minutes, I suggested I play when the doors opened. So that in addition to having my 20 minutes, I was also play-on music. For me it was a wonderful experience.

Wheat: Sounds rather risky to me…

Robert: Yeah! of course

Wheat: that the audience is not going to give you the due attention you deserve as a performer.

Robert: Well, I’m not sure I’m due very much attention. But I was happy to play to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise probably ever see me. And the fact that some of them were fairly hostile is not really my prime concern. I’m sorry if they were upset by my playing.

Wheat: I think everybody in the Fox enjoyed it, and I went right out in the lobby and bought a copy of Pie Jesu.

Robert: Ah!

I read a comment in an English magazine, from a young…

[Adrian Belew pokes his head in the room]

…We’re just winding up, Ade.

Adrian: I was coming to rescue you!

Wheat: I’m asking him how the G3 tour went.

Robert: I’ll be two minutes, Ade.

From a young guitar player. I read in a guitar magazine in England where he said, ‘Paul Kossov’s two notes were worth far more than Steve Vai’s 10,000 notes.’ Well, I’ve stood in front of Paul Kossov’s two notes, and I’ve stood in front of Steve Vai, and both have integrity, or had integrity, in their own domains. And for me it’s disappointing that one trades names quite like that. Steve’s ten thousand notes are great, provided they are the right notes, and Steve’s are.

Paul Kossov, I stood in front of his two notes in the Marquee in 1968, and they’re a great two notes, too.

He couldn’t be Steve, and Steve couldn’t be Paul. The beauty is that Paul is Paul and Steve is Steve.

Wheat: I remember your saying about Brian Eno many years ago that he plays very few notes, but that they are the right notes.


[After and exchange of thanks, the interview ends, and Robert goes off to summon Adrian]



Wheat: I’m kind of surprised by the number of people that I talk to that don’t know that you are a drummer. Because you’ve done some wonderful drumming on some of your solo albums. It’s been a very integral part of your music making. But I guess, by and large, people know you from David Bowie, and those kinds of things.

Adrian: Oh, sure. My guitar profile far exceeds anything else even though I play all the instruments on my records. And I do a bit of producing and a lot of songwriting and singing. Always seems to get overshadowed by the guitar playing.

I reserved, up to this point, the drumming just for my solo albums. I felt like I knew what I wanted the drumming to be on my own records, so it was fun for me to do it myself. Not that I’m the most accomplished player or anything, but I could do what I wanted to do. There was only one other time where I sort of went public with it, and that was in the 1984 King Crimson. Bill Bruford coerced me to play live on stage allowing him to be free to be sort of the avant-garde percussionist.

Wheat: And there aren’t really any recordings of that, are there?

Adrian: Well, I’m sure there probably are. Nothing that we really released that I know of officially, but I’m sure that there are recordings of that. It was fun, you know.

Wheat: Did you have a moment of pause, saying, ‘now wait a minute. If I sit down at the drums I’m relinquishing control of a part of the music that I’m used to influencing directly’? The melody? Did you have a moment of pause saying, ‘maybe I should call up Pat Mastelotto, and ask him to do this’?

Adrian: I think eventually Pat will join us for a different project, and I’ll be able to go back and forth between guitar and drums. But, no, the way I approached this was simple. At first I gotta tell you what happened.

The situation was this. I saw the V-Drums at the NAMM show last year, way back in July, and I ordered them immediately. ‘Cause I had been thinking about expanding from regular drum kits that I had to have more sound abilities. And I thought, wow, they’ve really made a leap forward. The demonstration of it proved that to me, that you can get a different sound on the rim, and the head, and it feels great, and you can trigger bass parts, and you can do all sorts of interesting sounds. But it was the sounds that really appealed to me. I approached the V-drumming just like I approach guitar. Trying to orchestrate the songs with interesting sounds is the same thing I try to do with the V-Drums. So I ordered them.

Around the same time, Robert was talking to me about doing a trio with Trey, and of course we all assumed it would be three guitar players. At that point he said, ‘Is there anything you can think of that would be really exciting to do?’

I said, ‘Well, I’ve just ordered these really interesting drums, and they’re fairly compact, and if you’re thinking about going and touring and stuff, maybe I could play drums a little bit. I think I’m going to do something cool with these things.’ Well, that excited Robert and me, and by the time they arrived here to actually, quote, ‘rehearse’ ProjeKct II, which in fact turned into making a record without us realizing it.

I just got the drums exactly when Robert was arriving. I had literally like a day or so to play with them, and I wrote one or two really interesting patches. Backwards sounds, and breaths, and glass breaking, all manner of strange things going on in the drumming department. Trey arrived the next day, and so we started to play as the string trio. The three of us sat down with three guitars, and we played a piece that we’ve already been working on called ‘Construction,’ which is probably going to be one of the next-generation pieces for King Crimson. It sounded nice, and we were happy with that, and we stopped and took a little break.

I said, ‘What shall we do next?,’ and Robert was eying the V-Drums sitting in the corner.

He said, ‘I really want to hear your new drum kit.’ I walked over, I sat down, and started playing a really interesting, breathy, weird, strange vibe, and Robert and Trey started playing too. Twenty-two minutes later, we stopped. We all kind of looked at each other, and we said, ‘Wow. What was that?’

And I asked Ken Latchney, our engineer, ‘Did you record that by any chance?’


‘Okay, let’s come and hear it.’ We went in the studio. By the end of that day, we were kind of looking at each other, and Robert said, ‘I think we’re making a record.’ By the end of the second day, we went out to dinner, and Robert said, ‘I think we’re making a double record.’ Because by the end of the third day, we had recorded I think maybe twelve hours worth of stuff. Quite a lot of it we really liked, so we went through them, we mixed all the songs. As I was telling you earlier, it’s a simple procedure because you’ve got stereo drums, stereo guitars, and stereo Warr guitar.

[Tape runs out, is flipped over]

Yeah, Robert and David Singleton did the editing, and there you go, we had Space Groove, with a two-sided CD. That’s how this came about. So that was a very long answer to your question: did I have any doubts about relinquishing my role as a guitar player? No. I really came into it saying, ‘This is going to be fun.’

I’m really enjoying being a V-drummer. It’s very different than being a drummer, I think, because you’re dealing mainly with a lot of sounds and things, and like I say, I’m triggering things, I’m triggering other parts.

Wheat: But every blessed sound comes out of the stock V-Drum machine. You don’t have any additional samplers or anything back there?

Adrian: I don’t have any additional sampling, but there’s almost none of those sounds that are now stock. One of my favorite things to do, and one thing people probably don’t realize, that you have to do if you are an adventurous musician, is the same thing I do with guitar. You spend endless hours creating these programs and these patches, and you have to redesign all the sounds. So now I’ve redesigned about twelve different styles of kits. Each kit has fourteen to sixteen different sounds depending on where you hit. If you hit the rim of one of the pads, you get a different sound than if you hit the pad itself. Some of them have, as I said, sequenced parts that can be triggered by the bass drum or one of the toms. So there’s all kind of strange things going on.

What I’m attempting to do as the V-drummer in ProjeKct II is create very interesting-sounding grooves. But definitely grooves. They’re not odd time signatures, and they’re meant to feel groovy to your body. But they are also made up of components of very strange sounds. So you’ve got all kinds of things that wouldn’t normally be considered parts of a drum kit.

Wheat: How about the physical, visceral problem? Robert was speaking about this, acoustic guitar versus electric, as in why he always has Crafty students play acoustic. The first time anybody went from a real piano to a digital piano it was like, ‘well it sounds fine but I can’t feel the notes I’m playing.’

Adrian: Yeah.

Wheat: You know what I’m saying? The sound’s coming from across the room. It’s not flowing up through my body from the piano. Do you have that problem with the V-Drums?

Adrian: Well, as you notice, I have a monitor system that I also put together for the V-Drums. It’s a full-range system with horns and bass cabinets and stuff. It’s seated right there [places his hands on either side of his head, about an inch away from each ear], and it’s not feeling like it’s coming right off the drums, but it’s right there, and it is very physical. ‘Cause actually the bass drum really can knock you off of your seat if you turn it up loud enough. Much louder than a wooden bass drum would do.

Wheat: Robert says he very much appreciates the clarity and distinction. He says this is the only time he’s ever been able to hear the hi-hat.

Adrian: Which never sounds much like a hi-hat!

First of all, because there’s two different sounds on that pad. So I could have the hi-hat be a bass drum and a triangle if I wanted.

Wheat: Or a reverse gated open hi-hat. [He uses such a sound.]

Adrian: Anything. I have it being a lot of different things. The show starts out with me playing kind of a drum kit. But the bass drum is triggering a sequenced bass part. So I’m the bass player and the drummer at the same time.

After that, I flip into the mode that I like the most, which is where the V-Drums start to make all sorts of interesting sounds. And that’s where I really consider myself being the V-drummer.

Wheat: Yeah, I noticed that one piece that begins with some marimba rolls, maybe a melodic pattern and then goes from there.

Well, keep in mind that none of those are pieces. Everything is improvised and it will probably be that every night they’ll be different. We don’t even have a starting point. Which is another thing that interests me about this. Why I was able to give up the idea of playing guitar and being melodic is because the idea behind this music is that it’s free-form. You walk on stage and you really don’t know what you’re going to play and there’s not even a song title to even call out. ‘Hey, let’s play ‘Larks Tongues’.’ No, you can’t do that anymore. There are no titles. You are just going to play whatever comes to mind. I respond to them and they respond to me. And of course being the V-drummer I often of set the pace, but sometimes they do. Sometimes Robert and Trey will come in at a certain sort of tempo and I can tell what they are kind of doing and I’ll find something that works to that.

You were asking about the way V-Drums feel. They actually feel good. They’re soft…

Wheat: They’re real drum heads, right?

Adrian: They’re real drum heads. But when you change the tuning of the drum heads, it doesn’t change the pitch of the sound. That has to be done internally [in the tone generator module], when you are designing sounds. And it has a wide range. I mean it’s unbelievable how high and low each drum can go.

You can pitch the actual head for feel purposes, whether you want it to feel more like a floppy tom-tom or like a real tight snare drum. And so they’re kind of soft to the touch, to play. The only problem that I’ve found so far is that if I start playing really hard, the pads tend to bounce the stick out of my hand. So you probably noticed last night I dropped a stick once or twice. That happens a lot. I don’t know how to get around that, because the harder you play, the more it sort of bounces out of your hand. But I’ll get that under control eventually, too.

Wheat: I want to go back to being in a band with two phenomenal, visionary drummers. I mean…

Adrian: It scares me a bit.

Wheat: Pat Mastelotto is the conventional studio guy who can play anything, and Bill Bruford is the most innovative avante gard drummer of our time, probably. But you have managed to find a unique voice with this new instrument. Are you kind of afraid that those guys are going to go out and buy V-Drums and…

Adrian: Actually, Robert is working heavily towards getting them to do that. He envisions the next generation of King Crimson being three sets of V-Drums, and therefore I can come and go as I please as a drummer in that band too.

Wheat: Wow, that’s powerful.

Adrian: Yeah, it is a powerful vision. Whether or not that will really happen, I don’t know. I think it’s up to Bill and Pat, what they want to play. I think Pat will really like them. I’m not sure what Bill will make of it, ’cause he has some definite ideas about how he likes drums to be. So does Pat for that matter.

You know, it’s been great for me to be in the company of those two players. I think between them there’s nothing that you can’t hear being done on drums. They both have amazing abilities, and they work together extremely well. It’s really been interesting for me to watch that.

So coming into this, my one concern was, as you said, how can I find a place to be a drummer that won’t be constantly compared to Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto? I don’t want to be compared to them. I’m not nearly the drummer that either of them are. What I could do is what I can do on guitar–make drums sound kind of interesting. And so that’s how I’ve approached it. I like playing something that’s fairly simple, but the sounds are really interesting. And they are going together in a unique way. It percolates.

Wheat: Well I’m very fond of the drumming that you did on Op Zop Too Wah, and I thought you were really pushing the envelope beyond anything that you’d done before on drums.

Adrian: I have done that recently. I’ve been playing a lot since I’ve had a studio. You see right here sitting next to us a beautiful set of real drums, Ayotte drums, that I play on record a lot.

I practice a lot. And it’s not on a schedule. I’ll just be doing something, when I’ll go, ‘Gosh, I’d love to play drums right now.’ So I’ll run down here to the studio and play. I think I’ve gotten in a lot more practice time and I’m probably going to get even better now that I’m kind of a professional drummer! I’ll call myself a V-drummer just to be able to delineate between myself and any other person out there.

Wheat: I’m looking forward to hearing the Irresponsibles tonight. Did the success of the Jars of Clay single change your perspective? Obviously you must be being pelted with demo tapes now by people that want you to produce them.

Adrian: Yeah, I have done a lot of fishing through tapes, and it’s rare for me to find things that I feel are not only things that I’m in sync with musically, but also that I have the time and ability to do. Some projects are just simply too long. Like for instance I have really wanted to produce XTC, and that would be great, but they want to do it for six months in England. I really can’t give up my life long enough to do that. They probably have a lot of choices that are better than me anyway. But that’s okay. We did talk about it, though, Andy Partridge and I.

Production is something that I always saw fitting into my life once that I had developed a studio. And now we’ve had that going here for three or four years. Jars of Clay obviously being the most successful thing. But I think the Irresponsibles was a great success, too, because first of all it was one of the most pleasant projects I’ve ever done. The band was great to work with. We accomplished more than I thought we would. The tracks sound terrific. It’s a completely accurate, perfect representation of what that band should sound like. So I’m really pleased with the production. It’s a six-song CD, for anyone who wants to buy it. We have it out on my label right now, but we are shopping to try and get them a major label, because I think they need that kind of major support. And I really was thrilled doing it also because it required that I tweak some string quartet parts together. That was fun, you know. I really love doing that.

Wheat: This is a little off the subject, but you are doing a lot more with strings, aren’t you? You are working with string players here in town. I noticed Peter Hyrka, my old friend from Human Radio played some with the Irresponsibles, right?

Adrian: Well, the way we actually did the string parts is that we brought in Peter Hyrka and friend Gary Tussing, who played cello. We just had two guys. It was really better for me, because I could work out the first two parts, and then I could say, ‘oh, now I want you to play these two parts.’ I could separate them out. They were quick, and they could try a lot of things. They have more of the rock player mentality. So if I said, ‘do this,’ [makes a sliding sound] they didn’t look at me funny.

[Slight break]

Wheat: You played cello on the Nine Inch Nails record?

Adrian; I did, on two songs. I played lap steel, I played mandolin, I played a bunch of different strangely tuned guitars that Trent had lying around. I also played string bass. But mostly guitar.

Wheat: Did you play drums?

Adrian: No, I didn’t. The drumming was already done. He had forty tracks. It sounded tremendous. And this was done in Pro Tools, utilizing a continual loop of the music. And that means that I could play guitar for as long as I wanted. So what we often did…

Wheat: And he has to do massive editing after you go home?

Adrian: Massive editing.

So what we did is we linked a bunch of little footpedals together. He had every little stomp box, all the vintage ones, you know, and we kept linking them together different ways. We’d get a really interesting sound. We’d say, ‘oh, that’s cool,’ and then I’d start playing, and it would get wilder and wilder. Finally after a little bit of doing this, it was great, and I felt that I was playing some very aggressive guitar. But Trent kept wanting me to change the sounds as I was playing. Well, I said, well, ‘why don’t you just get down on the floor and work the pedals, and I’ll play.’ And so quite a few of the tracks that I played on…

Wheat: And so it becomes like a pipe organ. Stops flying everywhere.

Adrian: Yeah. So he’s operating whammy pedals and wah-wah, and stuff on the floor, and we play together, really intensely for like twenty minutes. Finally he stopped and said, ‘I gotta stop, my hands are sore from turning all the pedals.’ So I said, ‘Between the two of us, we make a really excellent guitar player.’ [Adrian laughs heartily.]

Which was in New Orleans. He has a studio there. It’s a reconditioned funeral home [more laughter], of course.

Wheat: This is the guy that discovered Marilyn Manson.

Adrian: Yeah. The studio is called Hot Snakes. It was really great. I had a terrific time.

Last time I didn’t get to play as much, on Downward Spiral, because the record was kind of in its final stages when I walked in and did my parts. This time they were still building the tracks. There were no vocals. And so I really played a lot of stuff. I mean hours and hours and hours. I played for three days solid. Long days. And the next week I heard from one of the manufacturing people that I work with that they bought one of the fuzz tones that I had brought. They told him that it was gonna take them weeks to sort out all the stuff that I played. But I think that there were some really really good things in there.

Wheat: Any idea when that album might be released?

Adrian: No. I really don’t know what their plan was for it. But it was a lot of stuff and it really sounded tremendous. For me, as a producer and a person who owns a studio and makes records, it was intriguing to see how he makes records. Because he’s got a different way of doing it. I generally work on the basis that’s more typical. You record the songs and you edit things and you do this. But he works on this basis whereby you put it all in the computer, and it’s always running as one big loop, and you just play anything and then you go back later and you get rid of whatever you didn’t like.

Wheat: Non-linear composition.

Adrian: It’s intriguing to see, and something I’ll probably do some of in the future.

Wheat: That’s amazing. Why don’t we get Trey in here…

[break, in which Adrian reveals to me that he has reunited with his former band the Bears, and that they have written and recorded seven new songs.]

Adrian: One of the things that I really love about doing ProjeKct II is the fact that I think in this particular lineup Robert and Trey really get to stretch out. They have to. It forces them to play. There is no one singing. There are no songs. There’s no format. There’s only one drummer, and playing a certain groove. It really opens up the door for Robert and Trey to play, and they’re just playing so well. And I love it, because I’m sitting in between them. Here are two of my favorite players, and I get to hear them finally open up, so it’s fun for me to just be able to accommodate that and be a part of it.

Wheat: That’s great.

Trey Gunn

[For this interview, I ask Trey to bring his Warr guitar out from its case, hold it on his lap, and show me its features.]

Wheat: Do most people play those things tuned in fourths rather than tuned in fifths, ‘Crafty style’ like you do?

Trey: I don’t think of it as ‘Crafty style.’ Actually it’s basically a cello tuning. I don’t know what most people do. This is not the most common model of the Warr guitar. The common one is the stereo one, the twelve-string.

Wheat: Which you played all through the Thrak tour.

Trey: Yeah. And I still have one, and I still play it. I still do some recording with it.

Wheat: Now this instrument has a monophonic output. It doesn’t split up the bass notes from the lead.

Trey: I think that for your original question, I think the most of the twelve-string players play with the bass in fifths and the melody in fourths. I’ve always used all fifths. When this instrument came about Mark had an idea of doing an eight-string bass. And I had kind of the same idea of just taking the top side of the twelve-string, the melody side, and extending it down into the bass register and coming up with just a simpler configuration.

Wheat: And the string spacing is rather like a conventional electric guitar.

Trey: Yes. It’s not bass string spacing.

Wheat: Do you ever play with a pick?

Trey: I have played with a pick. I did some recording on my last solo record, just one little thing with a pick. But mostly I don’t.

Wheat: Well, the Trey Gunn Band with two eight-string Warrs and I guess a lead guitar, are you usually responsible for the bass end of things?

Trey: No. That’s why Chris, the other Warr guitarist is there, We take turns in the bass register and in the soloing register.

Wheat: Now you actually started out as a classically-minded pianist, am I right?

Trey: Well, if you can call a seven-year-old classically-minded, yeah.

Wheat: But I mean you came up studying the classics, the Mozart and the Bach, and that kind of thing.

Trey: As a kid, yeah.

Wheat: Did you play conventional guitar before you got into that other touch-style instrument?

Trey: Oh, no. I played electric bass when I was a teenager, for years and years and years. And then acoustic guitar, and then electric guitar. Bass in the meantime, and then keyboards a little bit. I kind of left the keyboards behind, once I got really serious into the guitar and bass.

Wheat: What is Mark Warr done to sort of further the evolution of the electric guitar as an instrument?

Trey: What seems to be developing is the generic term of ‘touch guitar.’ Mark has addressed the needs of the guitar player who uses tapping technique, either exclusively or at least a lot of the time. He’s got some six-string guitar models where essentially just the setup is different.

The pickups for all Mark’s instruments are custom-built by Bartolini, at Mark’s specification, to get the tapping balanced right. Because the sound is really soft [taps the highest string] and then it gets really loud [taps the lowest string], really loud, just the acoustic sound. Whereas when you pick, you can pick a high string pretty loud. So we’ve had to do some custom pickups. And he’s done some other tricky little things.

Wheat: So in other words the pickups are hotter on the treble end and not so hot on the low end.

Trey: Every string is specifically wound.

Wheat: You mean every pole-piece in the pickup is wound for the response necessary…

Trey: For that gauge of string, yeah.

Bill Bartolini, who’s fantastic, first started working on the twelve-strings and did a lot of prototypes, sending me pickups and new guitars to try. We’d discuss it and agree, ‘These top two strings just aren’t cutting it, but this bass is so intense.’ So Bill had to balance a lot of things. And you can do a lot in your shop, but you can’t really work it all out until a player gets it.

Wheat: Have Fripp or Belew ever been tempted to pick up one of those things?

Trey: You know, I don’t think they have.

Mark did another very clever thing. This is an extended range guitar, really. It’s hard to call it a bass. It’s hard to call it a guitar. It’s not either, and yet it’s both. Because the eight strings range from very small to huge, and this is a .140, on the earlier prototypes, as you were moving across the neck, it felt like the action was getting higher and higher, although it actually wasn’t. So what Mark has done on this is that the neck is basically flat on this side [points out how the neck is situated under the highest string] and then from this point over [indicates the middle strings] it makes a really steep curve, so that it kind of gives you the experience like the ‘center of gravity’ of the string stays the same all the way across. And that was something that we wouldn’t have known until. You just had to make an eight string, and we had to play it.

Wheat: This guy is a master luthier. How many instruments has he made for you?

Trey: I have four.

Wheat: Two twelves and two eights?

Trey: Yeah.

Wheat: And what’s the difference between the neck-through and the bolt-on neck designs, in terms of how it plays and how it sounds?

Trey: I haven’t spent much time with the twelve-string bolt-on. The twelve-strings have evolved a lot since my models. All of my instruments are padauk neck-throughs, except for my other 8-string, which is a bolt-on. And that was kind of an experiment. Mark does a lot of bolt-on 12-strings now, and some guys really like them. I guess traditionally the secret is the neck-throughs give you a lot of fundamental of the note, whereas the bolt-on gives you a lot of the upper harmonics and not so much fundamental. So when we were thinking of the 8-string in terms of fitting in with Crimson and fitting in with Tony Levin, he did a bolt. This is the second eight-string. He said, let’s do a bolt -on, let’s try it.

I have a tendency to go for a really big bass sound. So we thought we’d go for a pokier, kind of honkier, cutting sound that would kind of fit above Tony. So we did the bolt-on neck, and it has that quality. It’s a very bright, poky sound. Then he made this one that has the bigger, fuller bass sound. [Turns the instrument over to examine the neck] And the neck is a three piece. But it’s nothing fancy. Chris, the other Warr guitarist in my band, has Mark’s kind of traditional five-piece laminate. They’re not for looks. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Mark yet.

Wheat: Just briefly. He called me literally as I was about to get in the car to drive up here. So I asked him to e-mail me some more info later.

Trey: I don’t know how much he’ll get into it, but the combinations of woods is Mark’s secret. And the shape of the horn [indicates the upper bout of the instrument] is experimental. It really changes the tone.

Wheat: No kidding.

Trey: This is just solid padauk, and padauk has sort of a growly bass sound, which I like. But in some of the other neck-throughs, he’ll put a strip of wenge in. He’ll say things like, ‘Strips of wenge bring out compression in the high frequencies, and then two strips of bubinga, that brings out a certain kind of midrange, not with compression, so it’s really looser, and then with the horn,’ and so on. He’s very much into the wood combinations.

Wheat: So as far as Trey Gunn is concerned, this is the future of the electric guitar, right here.

Trey: Yeah, for me. I can’t speak about other guitarists. I think this instrument [the 8-string] is more appealing to guitarists, although, would I want to unleash a full-range instrument on most guitarists? I think not!

Wheat: Just let them stay in their own little defined part of the frequency spectrum.

Trey: The thing about this is that I can play bass and I can play guitar and I don’t have to switch instruments. Especially within ProjeKct II, I can leave the bass area, and Robert can take it, or Adrian can take it, or there can just be no bass, which is great, or we can all play bass. This is all nice and compact. Eight strings is a lot of strings, but it’s a lot less than twelve. I am really working to learn the neck and the notes all over the place. I’m getting pretty good.

Wheat: How long have you been playing with Robert Fripp?

Trey: I met Robert in 1985, and Sunday All Over The World was in 1987, so you know, between eleven and twelve years. About five or six years there were pretty exclusive. The only stuff we were doing was stuff that we did together, all different sorts of projects: David Sylvian, Sunday All Over The World, the String Quintet, to getting ready for Crimson, to different sessions. Now we’ve branched out and we actually work apart from each other as well.

Wheat: And does Discipline Global Mobile distribute your solo albums?

Trey: Yeah. Do you have them?

Wheat: No.

Trey: Okay. I’ll get them upstairs.

Wheat: I’d certainly like to get One Thousand Years.

Trey: That’s the first one, which is quite good. The second one, The Third Star, is very good and there’s a lot of the eight-string on it.


Copyright ©  1998 by Wheat Williams. All rights reserved.

My interview with Steve Hackett, March 2000

It recently came to my attention that I’ve never published this interview, which was for a short feature that ran in Guitar Player Magazine in the July, 2000 issue.

Steve Hackett is a guitarist best known for his work with the band Genesis from 1971 through 1977. Since then he has mostly worked solo, alternating from electrified progressive rock to projects based around acoustic classical guitar. He has remained popular and successful throughout Western Europe since leaving Genesis.

At the time Guitar Player Magazine assigned me to conduct this interview, Hackett had not performed in the United States in many years. The occasion for the interview was that he had secured distribution to sell his  back-catalog of solo albums in the United States. The result, seen a few years after the interview, is that Hackett was able to do some successful limited touring in the United States. In 2010 Genesis, with Hackett, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Interview with Steve Hackett
Friday, 24 March 2000
by Wheat Williams
Phone interview from Twickenham, England
Copyright © March, 2000  by Wheat Williams
All Rights Reserved

Wheat: Do I understand that Guitar Noir, Many Sides to the Night and Tokyo Tapes are just being released in America for the first time?

Steve: I think some of them are being released for the first time and some are being re-released. I think in Guitar Noir’s case it’s re-released. As far as I remember correctly that was out on Viceroy for awhile. I may be completely wrong there. I find that, as ever, the distances between countries mean that it’s a far more complex equation. The idea of simultaneous worldwide release is no longer a reality, and really hasn’t been the case for about the past fifteen years or so. It’s just the way it goes.

Wheat: Is there any chance that Sketches of Satie and Darktown are going to be released in America?

Steve: I think it’s inevitable that they will be. But they always seem to have to wait their time until the deals are done. And as we don’t have a man on the spot to do that for our company, it’s always a kind of long distance fishing expedition.

Wheat: Maybe you ought to talk to Robert Fripp.

Steve: So many of us are in this position. Robert and I used to communicate at one time.

Wheat: When he had his own record label?

Steve: No, no, no, many years before that, before he worked with Peter Gabriel in fact, we used to talk quite regularly in the mid-70s.

Wheat: He’s regarded as one of the more successful people in terms of starting a record label where the artists own their own masters and doing their own marketing and all that.

Steve: Well, that’s what we’re doing in this country. We seem to have got the situation sorted out in England and in most of Europe. America always seems to be more difficult for us.

I was just reading an e-mail today from somebody who was saying they couldn’t find products by the various other artists, and he included people like Alan Parsons Project and many others. And I thought, ah, there are many more people in this position than I’d imagined. There were many names that I consider to be well-known in that list. This is just part of what happens to music from musicians of a certain age or a certain era. It’s just the way it goes.

Wheat: Let’s get right on to talking about Sketches of Satie.

Steve: Sure.

Wheat: I noticed that tracks 10 through 15 are for two guitars, and no flute. Is your brother John playing guitar or is this a double-track thing that you did?

Steve: That’s a double-track from me. John is specifically playing flute.

Wheat: Does John have his own career as a working musician?

Steve: Yeah, John has a couple of things on the go. There’s an outfit called Symbiosis that he does albums with, and which is basically mainly improvised stuff, atmospheric stuff. And then he’s worked with the English Flute Quartet. He has fingers in a number of pies in the classical world, but this is the first time he’s been a featured artist on a record.

Wheat: Satie originally wrote all these pieces for solo piano?

Steve: Yeah, that’s right.

Wheat: And the two of you worked out the transcriptions?

Steve: Well, it was a team. There was my brother and a woman named Sally Goodworth who did the tempo mapping. In other words she played piano versions of the songs on a MIDI piano so that we had the score both written out and recorded.

Wheat: And she played them in your transpositions, or you did that with the MIDI data afterwards?

Steve: It’s a complicated process. We did versions with flute and piano first of all which were just rough to audio then we did versions on piano with MIDI so we had references. Then we replaced the flute on the flute and piano versions. Only then did I play guitar to that. It sounds like a really arse-about way of playing it, but there are several reasons for that.

Wheat: Please tell me.

Steve: Okay, number 1, the Satie music doesn’t actually fit on the guitar. You have to keep retuning. The lowest note that’s played is actually not just an E below the lowest E on a regular guitar, but E-flat, a semitone below that. To get notes which were outside the range on the high end, I’d use harmonics. So to my mind it wasn’t possible to play arrangements that do it justice just sitting down with the two of us.

I’m trying to think how to describe the technical process. I spent a long time doing the guitar parts and the flute parts were done actually relatively quickly. But the guitar work took quite some time. Because the harmonies are very complex and plus I wanted to make sure it was recorded very, very cleanly. I think it’s a totally squeak free album.

Wheat: Can you play these live?

Steve: We can do some of them. We were rehearsing this up recently. But in the main, John’s not really up for touring. He’s got other commitments. It’s basically an album I don’t think you’re really going to be seeing us doing that live. We might do the occasional radio performance or the odd TV thing but we’re not really touring it around halls.

Wheat: Do you think that your transcriptions and your arrangements of Satie are something that other classical guitarists are going to want to get ahold of and perform?

Steve: To be honest, I think you would need a guitar quartet to be able to do, or certainly a trio, to cover the bases that I did. I don’t think it’s possible even with two guitarists. It would be too cumbersome. I don’t suggest it.

Wheat: So on some of these pieces, when I hear one guitar, I’m actually hearing multi-tracking of different tunings?

Steve: Yeah. I basically did it line by line you understand. So I didn’t keep track of of how many guitars there were at any one point. There might be as much as four at one point; there may be as little as one. This may well upset the purists; however, the ends justify the means, always, for me.

Wheat: So what classical guitar composers and performers have influenced you?

Steve: Well, if I could upset the apple cart a little bit here, I think the best music for classical guitar was never actually written for the guitar. I think it’s the transcriptions of Bach that Segovia did. That’s still the best guitar music, as far as I’m concerned.

Wheat: And it’s never been surpassed?

Steve: Never been surpassed, really. You know, the additional harmonies that Segovia added himself, things that were often solo violin or cello, have yet to be surpassed.

Wheat: Did you study classical guitar early on, before your career started?

Steve: No. I’ve never had any formal training other than the fact that for the past few years now I have been working with a guitarist named Theodore Cheng. He’s been doing transcriptions of my pieces. And we sit down and we give each other guitar lessons. I’ve passed on what I can do to him, and he passes on what he can do to me, and it’s very nice. It means that nobody is Herr Professor. Nobody is the Meister Glockenspieler, if you know what I mean. And neither of us has to lord it over each other. We just appreciate each others styles and techniques.

Wheat: Are the transcriptions going to be published?

Steve: Yes they are. And so far we are doing some on the Internet. I think they’re actually up and running.

Wheat: You’re just making those freely available?

Steve: No, as ever, one’s running a business. And have to recoup their costs. Quite a lot of my life has been spent working on these classically inspired ditties, so I’m pleased that they hit the airwaves.

Wheat: Is some of A Midsummer Night’s Dream included in that?

Steve: Yes it is, yeah.

Wheat: I have not had a chance to listen in depth to all these records, but I just love the playing on Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s very evocative and totally original.

Steve: Oh, thank you very much. You know I read some notes about Rachmaninoff. Many of his detractors said that he was too Romantic and that it wasn’t original, and he said, I don’t try to be original, I just try to play the music that I hear in my head and that’s been inspired by lots of people, including Tchaikovsky, etc. And I think that’s very honest.

That’s the way I approach music. If it comes out as original, fine, but I’d rather have something that was evocative. I think that’s a good word. In other words, it makes you think about something else. And you’re not quite sure what that thing is. Whether it’s magic, or if it comes from some deep spiritual source, we don’t really know, but it has a question mark. Why does it stop me in my tracks?

Wheat: Was A Midsummer Night’s Dream a successful album for you?

Steve: Yes, it’s been very successful. EMI in England signed me up for that one and they did a great job promoting it, and I was thrilled. It was a top-ten classical guitar album here for about two months. It was a total vindication of all the ideas that once got me in a lot of trouble, a lot of hot water.

Wheat: For instance?

Steve: It got me booted off my original record label, Charisma.

Wheat: For being too classical?

Steve: Yeah, for being too esoteric, airy-fairy, you name it.

Wheat: Have you heard Rick Wakeman’s Return to the Center of the Earth by any chance?

Steve: I did many years ago.

Wheat: No, the new one that just came out last year?

Steve: Oh, really? No I haven’t heard that.

Wheat: It’s Return to the Center of the Earth.

Steve: Really? A reworked version? No I haven’t heard that.

Wheat: It’s a pretty sad story actually. He collapsed and was in hospital from pneumonia as he was finishing the album. He could not do any touring or promotion of the record and it kind of just sank like a stone. It was a major international label, a huge symphony orchestra, and it’s beautiful stuff, but this is about a year ago. Patrick Stewart is the narrator. Wakeman took sick and there was no promotion, there were no live gigs, it was very sad. And I thought it was great music. But anyway, that’s ancient history already.

Steve: Yeah, well, let’s hope he recovers. We spent some time together over the years, Rick and myself. He had a TV show here called “Gas Tank.”

Wheat: Yeah, well, we don’t get to see that over here.

Steve: Well, it was a while ago, a long time ago now. It must have been early 80s. I did a guest spot on there, and we ended up playing together.

Wheat: Let’s talk about Darktown. Are there some contemporary artists that influenced your experimenting with sampling and looping and lots of digital editing in the music?

Steve: Many of them. It’s difficult to say a specifically. You’d be surprised at the things that I listen to and like. Like the Beastie Boys, there’s a band called Garbage that I like very much. I liked their first album very much. “Stupid Girl” I thought was a great single. Great guitar hook. One little guitar note that’s just such a fantastic sound. So I do listen to contemporary stuff.

Wheat: And on this record, your engineers, Roger King and Ben Fenner really came to the fore.

Steve: Oh, sure, and Jerry Peal. Yes, I think that the album was a massive engineering feat.

Wheat: Tell me about it. What was the recording method?

Steve: Well, instead of having a traditional band, in the sense of you have musicians lined up…take Garbage–three different producers are involved with that. All the guys in the band are producers. And I find that very interesting. So the band, for me, was three different engineer-producers who worked with me, and they’re all immensely talented people. I can’t sing their praises enough. There are other people playing on my album, but so much has been done from the producer-engineers’ archives.

When somebody who’s an engineer-player-programmer turns up, he’s usually got a suitcase full of their own sounds and samples. For instance, two days ago I was working with Roger on some rock stuff here at home. And I said to him, I got a lyric in a song that talks about the harbor lights calling me. It’s a jokey kind of tune. I said, “have you got the sound of a harbor, something like that?” And he did. Lo and behold, he had a CD of the sounds of a ship’s bell and a kind of foghorn, I think it was a lighthouse sound.. And it’s just wonderful. In stereo, those two sounds are on the track. And I’m amazed, you know, the things I’ll suggest to Roger or Ben or Jerry, that obviates the need for me to go on location with a microphone myself. I love personalized sounds as well, don’t get me wrong. I don’t do everything by myself, but I don’t think that covers half of it. But I have no prejudice. At the end of the day, whether it’s specimens or whether it’s to unique specifications, it really doesn’t matter. If it does the job, then that’s fine.

I do think there’s a tremendous difference between sampled strings and real strings.

Wheat: Of course.

Steve: As there is between a guitarist and a sampled guitarist. Even that I’ve used from time to time if I thought it was interesting. Again, one hopes to have no prejudice.

Wheat: Tell me about the actual recording process. Was this recorded to digital tape, was it recorded to ProTools?

Steve: Okay. The Satie album is all ProTools.

Darktown was put together in tandem with many other releases over a ten-year period. So that meant that it started out on a Studer 24-track analog machine. It went round the houses. ADAT recordings have been included. ProTools recordings have been included. So there were many different formats that we used. Lots of different levels of transfer that had gone on. But at the end of the day, I don’ believe that’s to the detriment of any of it.

Wheat: I was not aware that you spent ten years recording this album.

Steve: Yeah, Darktown was ten years in the making. It’s gonna be a little complicated to explain this. I really wish I could give you the short answer. Mainly because of the politics surrounding it. There were many other projects that were easier to get off the ground whilst I was recording Darktown. Many other things.

There was, if I remember correctly, Guitar Noir, the Blues With a Feeling album, all of the other ones that you’ve received, were done after the start of Darktown, which was material that I always had that I was always putting to one side. There always seemed to be something else that was more pressing.

I was in love with lots of the tracks that were on Darktown, and I was playing it in my car for ages and ages and thinking, “Will this material ever see the light of day?” Also, during that period we started our own record label. It takes awhile to set those little things up! You know, we built our own studio, our record label Camino Records.

Wheat: Is the studio in your home?

Steve: Most of the studio is in my home, and we are building another one near where we have our office.

Wheat: And where is Twickenham? I’m not very good with British geography.

Steve: Okay, on the map from London, Richmond is side-by-side with Twickenham, which is the other side of the Thames. Richmond would be perhaps the better-known internationally, but Twickenham is kinda the home of rugby.

A lot of French nobles escaped during the French Revolution to Twickenham, which was a more sought-after address in the 1700s I believe. And lots of things were built in the 1790s, lots of Twickenham was built at that point. There’s a more picturesque part which might correspond with another area called Hampstead, which is now a London suburb. I totally recommend it. Richmond is fantastic, and has a wonderful park with deer that roam free. Walk up to them and feed them if they’ll let you. And Richmond has the river which is it’s a very beautiful town. Lots of musicians live in Richmond and Twickenham.

Wheat: And how long have you lived there?

Steve: Since the early 80s.

Wheat: What guitars are you playing these days?

Steve: Well, electric guitars, still the favorite, really, would be the Les Paul original that I have, from 1957.

Wheat: Is that the gold top?

Steve: Yeah, gold top. And I don’t care what Spinal Tap say, it’s still my favorite. And I’ve got another electric, I’ve got a Fernandes Japanese guitar which has a Sustainer pickup.

Wheat: Is that patterned after a Les Paul?

Steve: It’s a Les Paul shape, it’s black. It looks like a Les Paul Custom from a distance. I’m staring at it right now, in fact. It’s called a Burney.

Wheat: Is it an off-the-shelf model, or is it something that they built for you?

Steve: It’s one that they built for me. They built this one with a Floyd Rose tremolo and a Sustainer pickup. I have to say, it’s a wonderful guitar.

Wheat: Do you use a Roland MIDI pickup?

Steve: No, I haven’t got a Roland MIDI pickup on that one. I’ve got a Gibson Les Paul with a Roland MIDI pickup, and they look, from a distance, practically identical.

Wheat: Is that from your GTR days?

Steve: I think it is from the GTR days.

Wheat: I’m laughing because just about three months ago I saw its counterpart, belonging to that other guy named Steve from GTR. I went to see Yes and interviewed Steve Howe and he had his. His is cherry red, I believe. You have its counterpart.

Steve: I’ve got the black version. The cherry red versions look very nice, I must say.

Wheat: How do you record guitars? Is it a bunch of digital effects and straight to the desk? Do you mike amplifiers?

Steve: I try to employ all techniques so that we don’t get too stuck with one kind of sound or one kind of approach. I use a mixture of amps and a mixture of DI effects.

Wheat: What are your favorite amps?

Steve: Well, what I tend to use for recording these days is a Peavey Classic 50 which I originally bought as a harmonica amp. And just found out that it happened to sound great with guitar. It also sounded great with bass. I’ve recorded John Wetton’s bass through it and before now, and that sounds fabulous. It’s really a copy of the Fender Bassman that the harmonica players used to like using. So ironically, there you are. There’s this amplifier that was built for bass players in the 50s that harmonica players liked to play through at one time. Tweed-covered, and the levels of distortion were just right for harmonica. The Peavey Classic 50 has got many of the features of the Fender Bassman, but a more controllable level of distortion.

Wheat: What are the speakers on that amp?

Steve: They’re 2 x 12s. But in my time I’ve used, with some satisfaction, HiWatts and Marshall. In my new studio I think I’m going to try some Marshall gear again. With the size studio that I have at home, there isn’t enough room to mike up a Marshall stack. But I don’t feel it’s limited my sound. I’m pleased with what I’ve got. I do move away from the home studio at times, especially to go and record orchestras and what have you, but yeah, I’m interested….

[Break while the tape is turned over.]

I’ve also got a Groove Tube amp that I like to use. I’ve used it sometime recording DI in the studio and I’ve used it live as well. That’s a great sound, I must say. And I use a SansAmp as well, but I use it as a preamp in my amps.

Wheat: Was Genesis Revisited: Watcher of the Skies recorded in your home studio?

Steve: Yeah, partly recorded at home, but the drums were recorded in other studios, as was the orchestra.

Wheat: Was that pretty much an ADAT project?

Steve: That was an ADAT project. Yeah. In fact I’m very glad to have moved on to ProTools since, because it was really too big a project for ADATs.

Wheat: Do you do some of the ProTools recording and editing yourself or do the engineers come in at that point?

Steve: No, I that’s basically an engineering function. I prefer not to be involved. I’m a great fan of technology, but some people have called me a technophobe because I don’t particularly like punching the buttons. I like to listen. I must say, and I like to have a dialog with at least one other person. I find it ideal. A musical conversation between two people is great. I think three people, you’ve already got an argument.

Wheat: That’s a great quote, Steve.

Steve: Form a group at your peril.

Wheat: Do you think you’re ever going to function as part of a group again? It’s been 15 years I guess since GTR.

Steve: I think that is unlikely in this lifetime. However, recently I’ve been hired to play guitar for one or two people. And I may be part of their band for the project.

There’s something going on at the moment. I’m playing with some people that worked with the following bands: the Cocteau Twins, Spiritualized, Echo and the Bunnymen, Portishead, and Massive Attack.

Wheat: That’s marvelous.

Steve: Yeah. It’s a totally different crowd, much younger, but they seem to be giving me greater freedom to do pretty much what I want on top of their stuff.

Wheat: Does the band have a name?

Steve: Don’t have a name yet, no. They have a record deal. But it’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Suddenly, after all these years.

Wheat: I’m sure you were an inspiration to them for long before they called you up on the phone. They’ve got all the Genesis stuff in their heads.

Steve: Yeah. I think they’re as unprejudiced as younger players can be.

It’s Liz Fraser and her husband Damien. who are putting together the band. It’s a much younger scene.

Wheat: It sounds very exciting.

Steve: I played on two tracks on what’s become an album. I hope it materializes, now, you know, because hey, who knows what could happen? They could the band could break up, their record company should go bust, they might divorce. I should be wary of talking about things in the future too much! The people that are involved with those bands are aware of what I’ve done. It’s great. I must feel like Ronnie Scott felt when Phil Collins called him up to play sax on Face Value. Yeah, I’m pleased. And the nice thing is so far they have given what I’ve done a prominent place in the mix. It’s not just a case of wanting the name so that it fits the corporate image. They hired me cause they like what I do. So and that’s a refreshing change, believe me.

Wheat: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about the Tokyo Tapes. Was this really just a one-shot show?

Steve: We did four gigs in Japan. By the third gig it was just turning into a really great band. But hey, you know, it would have been nice if we had taken that everywhere, but everyone had their own life to lead.

Wheat: Has that one sold well?

Steve: Yes, it has, yeah. It’s been one of our best sellers for Camino.

Wheat: What kind of sales figures are we talking about on Camino?

Steve: You’d have to ask my manager Billy about that.

Wheat: You don’t concern yourself with that part of it?

Steve: Well, I do and I don’t. But I’d rather not be misquoted. Suffice it to say we’re in business after several years here now. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because it isn’t. I mean I think decisions are made very carefully. But because we make in-house albums, I think the money is very well spent.

Wheat: You get a good return on your investment?

Steve: We get a good return on the investment.

What tends to happen is I may re-record a track as much as two or three times if I think that’s necessary. But that’s somewhat easier theses days due to ProTools. You keep the things that you want and you lose the things that you don’t. You know the concept of the demo record versus the master has become much more blurred in the past twenty years, really. And it’s much more flexible.

Wheat: I want to ask you this only because it’s in the first sentence in the bio that they sent me. They refer to you as the inventor of tapping. I know what they’re referring to, “Return of the Giant Hogweed,” aren’t they?

Steve: Also, “The Musical Box,” there’s a tapping solo. That was in ‘71. And there’s also a tapping solo, on Selling England By the Pound, the first track, “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.”

Wheat: [remembers and hums the lick]

Steve: Yeah, that one [hums along].

Wheat: Where did that come from? Did you just pick that up out of the air? Was there some other artist that was doing that?

Steve: No, no, no, no. It was my idea. I was just very frustrated one day that I couldn’t do the things that J. S. Bach could do on the keyboard. I suddenly realized that with the fuzz box that I had at the time that I didn’t need to pick every note. You could hammer on and off with one hand and use the nail, which I was using, the flat of the nail. I still do, which is a technique which no one else uses. As far as I’m aware of, everyone else uses the fingertip for it. But I use the flat of the nail to hammer on and pull off.

Wheat: Do you think that you directly inspired people like Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan?

Steve: Well, I would have to say that those people’s recordings appeared later than mine. So it may have been parallel development or they may have listened to what I’d done.

Wheat: We’re hoping that Darktown and Sketches of Satie will be available on this side of the pond.

Wheat: Are you doing much live performing these days?

Steve: No, not really. But I’m gonna be doing some dates in Italy in the summer. I’m putting together a band at the moment, and then I’m possibly going to do some gigs with Elizabeth and Damien if all goes well.

Wheat: When was the last time you played the States?

Steve: Oh, a long time ago now, isn’t it. Was it ‘92, ,93, ‘94? Can’t quite remember but it’s awhile ago now.

Wheat: Have you got any hopes for coming back over here?

Steve: I’d like to tour there from a position of strength rather than having to do every thing that’s on offer. It’s gotta be economically viable. I hate saying that kind of stuff, but you know I’m sure. I miss it all. I miss the clubs, I miss the theaters, I miss the stadiums in the States. And I miss the American audience, which has been wonderful to me.

Wheat: You know this just occurred to me. I saw them two years ago in a rare visit outside of Montreal, but have you ever heard of a group called The Musical Box?

Steve: Yeah, I’ve heard about them and I’ve heard that they create faithfully the era of 1973.

[Discussion of The Musical Box]

Steve: The presentation became very important to us as a band. That’s another reason why I find touring these days an immense drawback. Normally I want to take a presentation. I don’t really just want to stand there with a single light bulb and do it. But, yeah, if it’s up to me, I’ll deliver Disneyland on stage. There’s an aspect of that, Disneyland with music, I think is the real aim, isn’t it? It’s music to transport people and take them to different places.

Wheat: You had the opportunity to do that in the 70s with Genesis.

Steve: Many of those shows benefited from that. I think that the era of ‘73 was one whereby, I mean I wouldn’t say we necessarily peaked, musically, at that point, but we came pretty close to it. I mean I liked so much of what we were doing then, and the presentation, and what have you.

Wheat: The stuff of yours with Genesis though that really grabbed me and affected me the most was Trick of the Tale and Wind and Wuthering.

Steve: Well, I think we were getting more professional. We were playing to larger audiences, we had bigger budgets, and.

Wheat: But I just loved the writing, the pieces.

Steve: I thought you meant the live shows.

Wheat: I’m not old enough to have seen you live at that point, unfortunately.

Steve: Right, fair enough.

There was a lot of interesting stuff that was written after that period in time. I’m just remembering a time when it seemed to me that the live presentation and what we were doing on album seemed to be very much in sync. When we started to get our own light show and when we started to move into that area of controlling the environment and paying special attention to special effects, sticking out for it, and I think sticking out for what we believed in individually. I think it was a good time.

Wheat: Did you undertake some of that theatrical presentation and lighting in the Tokyo Tapes shows?

Steve: Yes, some of it did. We did have a presentation in Tokyo. We had lights, and they were very good indeed. And you know some of the lighting effects were absolutely wonderful and I would love to be able to wrap them up and take them home and present them in the future. It always seems as if it’s that kind of thing that’s kind of snatched away from you. Everyone has this in life to some degree. Something is hinted at and then it’s snatched away. But yeah, that was some wonderful effects.

Wheat: Where are Ian McDonald and John Wetton these days? Do they still live in England?

Steve: Ian lives in New York. Ian’s a very interesting character.

Wheat: Does he work as a session musician?

Steve: Oh, yeah. And he produces other people. He produced a really wonderful harp album, for instance. I mean concert harp, a guy who plays jazz concert harp, a guy called ???? Ian was the producer and Ian’s done an album of his own, which is called Drivers Eyes, on Camino again.

Wheat: Did you enjoy working with John Wetton?

Steve: Yes, I did. I’ve worked with John on record and live. You know, John’s immensely talented, has a wonderful voice, and is a great bass player.

Wheat: It was really fascinating listening to Watcher of the Skies, with all the great players you pulled together to do that. Was that recorded over a long period.?

Steve: There’s a video in fact of us playing in Tokyo as well, doing that set.

Wheat: And is Camino selling the video?

Steve: Yeah. You might be interested in that.

Wheat: Oh, I’d be extremely interested.

Steve: I think that’s available in more than one format as well.

[Long digression]

Wheat: Did you enjoy playing the Crimson tunes in Tokyo Tapes?

Steve: Yes we did, yeah!

Wheat: I know that Fripp was a big inspiration for you in the early days.

Steve: Well, and Ian as well, you know? I think it was the whole of that band at that time and I think what was interesting was the fact that there were players there who were a little bit older than me, which makes all the difference at that time, who were playing material that you would’ve considered to have been–I’m trying to find the right words–material that really shouldn’t have belonged side-by-side. And yet you’ve got those things side-by-side.

Wheat: Well, the essence of progressive rock and psychedelic rock is putting together a lot of unlikely elements.

Steve: Unlikely elements. I think that’s the word, isn’t it? And yet making it cohesive and making one seem stronger because of its juxtaposition with the other. And that’s motivated me for years and years. The Beatles started doing that stuff, but I mean it went back further than that. It went back to the Goons, it went back to Peter Sellers, it went back to the Temperance Seven, it went back to comedy records that I heard in the early 50s, and I’ve really been inspired by all of the same things. Yeah, you name it. I’d have to mention a thousand people. I’d have to go back to Danny Kaye and Django Rhinehart to Segovia. It’s just, where do you stop? You have to doff your cap to all of them.

Wheat: You’re one of the architects of progressive rock and that had a big influence on popular music at one time, and it still resonates, I feel. If people like Portishead and Cocteau Twins are calling you up and saying come play for us.

Steve: Sure. It’s interesting, isn’t it. It has to have a larger resonance than you could ever realize. And it also quashes the myth that some things are fashionable an other things aren’t. Because it means to the currently fashionable, those things are still fashionable. I know what I’m trying to say, but I’m getting my knickers in a twist here.

Wheat: No, I understand exactly what you are saying.

[Closing digressions and pleasantries]

Copyright March, 2000 by Wheat Williams
All Rights Reserved

My Article on Wayne Famous of the Producers in 2001

In 2001 I wrote a short article for Keyboard Magazine, about Wayne Famous of the seminal new-wave band The Producers. Here is the original text that I submitted to Keyboard  for publication (what they printed was edited and shortened somewhat).

You can see more from my years of work as a music journalist at this link.

I want also to give a shout-out to some young friends of mine in an excellent Atlanta cover band called Electric Avenue (also known in another incarnation as the Yacht Rock Schooner) who are doing a show of early-80s New Wave and synth pop on Friday at the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Georgia.

Wayne Famous of The Producers
by Wheat Williams
Copyright ©  2001 by Wheat Williams

The Coelacanth was an ancient, extinct fish known only to science from fossils–until one showed up alive in a South African port in 1938. Then, in 1998, they found another one 10,000 kilometers away in Indonesia. The latest Coelacanth showed up in Atlanta, Georgia in 2001, a living fossil from the sedimentary beds of MCA Record’s forgotten tape vaults.

Rewind. It was 1979, the same year the B-52s burst out of Athens, and the scene was changing in nearby Atlanta. Southern rock was over. 29-year-old but endearingly bald Wayne McNatt gave up his R&B road-show sideman persona and sold his Hammond B3 for an Oberheim synth. Enter Wayne Famous of The Producers, a whip-smart quartet who, though since overlooked, help to kick-start the new-wave movement. They deconstructed the clichés of frat-party rock and crafted a new sound: sparse, bouncy, and danceable. They cranked on tightly-arranged power-pop masterpieces, mostly about teenage girls and teenage angst. Their two albums for Portrait/CBS in ‘81 and ‘82, The Producers and You Make The Heat, made them one of the first hit bands on that brand-new cable channel, MTV. “She Sheila,” their biggest song, is a harmony-drenched, perfect four-and-a-half minute pop symphony.

Wayne with his custom keyboard, 1981. Photo by Michael Lippus

“People were tired of the old sounds,” says Wayne. “I was convinced that if I kept playing what I grew up playing, that no attention would be paid to us.” Wayne was determined not to be window dressing in the rhythm section. He developed a distorted, effected rhythm voice, chugging along in tight harmony with the guitarist’s palm-muted ostinatos, breaking out to soar on brief, guitaristic solos, then underpinning the chords with icy, chiming, simple counterpoint.

Wayne went way out front with the Producers. He got California engineer Wayne Yentis to tear apart the Oberheim and build a five-octave over-the-shoulder remote controller which replicated every knob and control on the synth back in the rack. “They didn’t have MIDI back then, so we had to connect the remote keyboard and all its knobs to the synth through two 48-conductor telecom cables fifty feet long.” Boasting seven voices, it may have been the first polyphonic remote synth rig. Though the controller weighed 37 pounds, he played the whole show standing with this behemoth around his neck, except when he set it down to play his Yamaha CP-70 electric piano. “I had serious back problems,” he says, sheepishly.

After their run at CBS, fickle fate left the Producers behind. “We co-owned our publishing with our manager and he ripped us off terribly. We sold 500,000 records but never made a dime from mechanical royalties. By ‘87, CDs were the new consumer format, but CBS steadfastly ignored us and refused to put our vinyl catalog out on CD. If you’re not on CD, you’re not on the radio, you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. We were extinct.”

The cruelest blow was yet to come. The Producers hung in there and got a new deal with MCA in 1987, recording Coelacanth with producer John Jansen (Lou Reed, Supertramp, Hendrix). But a shift in A&R executives saw the band dropped and Coelacanth unreleased, locked in the vault. “It broke the back of the band, broke our will to achieve,” says Wayne. “Yet we never quit playing, ever. When the band is that good, you don’t break it up.” Wayne drove a cab for 13 years, just to have the schedule flexibility to play the band’s increasingly infrequent regional gigs.

Fast-forward. Fan web sites started appearing in the late ‘90s, and the gigs started lining up again. One Way Records licensed The Producers and You Make The Heat and put them out on a single budget CD in 2000. A tiny royalty check appeared. And now One Way has released Coelacanth, its title more apt than ever.

It might be the missing link, the end of the bouncy innocence of New Wave, heading toward the close of the ‘80s. The Producers confidently craft a much broader sound. Wayne uses MIDI to orchestrate the attacks of a Yamaha DX7 with two meaty Oberheim Xpanders, quirky, undulating Roland D50 sounds, and his custom samples on a Yamaha TX16W, “the absolute hardest sampler on Planet Earth to operate.

“I used the Xpanders for their ability to achieve control over the sound in ways not possible with other synths, then or since. I got deep into the programming architecture and created sounds from scratch.” He played all this out front from a thankfully much lighter, modified Oberheim Xk MIDI controller.

Nowadays there are no roadies or tour bus, so Wayne plays only a single Emu Proteus Master Performance keyboard on a stand. Besides, “At some point the technology starts getting to be in the way of the music. Hopefully, when you get older, you start developing more of a finesse and an expertise about drawing it out of your fingers.” And Wayne still plays. Sure, they may be fossils, but the Producers refuse to be extinct.

Wayne in concert in 2012. Photo by TimothyJ

My interview with Jon Lord, December, 1997

The great rock keyboardist Jon Lord, of Deep Purple fame, passed away this week. Here is an interview that I conducted with him in 1997, for an article that was published in Keyboard Magazine in the USA.

You can read more from my years of work as a music journalist at this link.

Interview with Jon Lord of Deep Purple

Friday, 5 December 1997

The Tabernacle, occasional site of the House of Blues, Atlanta, Georgia, before Purple’s appearance there that night.

Interview by Wheat Williams

This interview is Copyright © 1997 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Wheat: I have to tell you something. I got on the website night before last, and I found out so much information about you, your role in the band, and your solo projects. It was like a journalist’s dream. These guys handed me all the background research that I needed.

Jon: That’s the website for you. Bless their little hearts.

Wheat: So you have a solo album coming out.

Jon: I have, yeah. I guess it’s the end of January. We only just delivered it recently, so I don’t know.

Wheat: What’s it going to be called?

Jon: It’s called Pictured Within.

Wheat: And who plays on it?

Jon: Me! There is a string quartet, there are French horn players, oboe players, clarinet players, and a stunning young German cello player who’s brilliant.

Wheat: What’s his name?

Jon: Hagen Kuhr.

It’s like nothing I’ve done before. There is no discernible Deep Purple influence at all. It’s not like the last one I did, which was 115 years ago — it feels like that to me. I think you can take away the “100.” That last one has some pretty quiet moments on it, but there are still some organ, synths, and drums.

Wheat: So are you playing piano, or are you the orchestral conductor?

Jon: A bit of both. I’m playing a lot of piano on it. We had a small orchestra on a couple tracks and I conducted them.

Wheat: Was this all recorded in Germany?

Jon: Yes. It was all done in Cologne. It’s very much a written album. It presents me more as a composer than as a performer, for which I’m really grateful to the record company for seeing which way I wanted to go.

Wheat: And it’s on EMI Germany?

Jon: Yes, it’s EMI World. But, I think it’s going to be Virgin Classics. It’s the classical division that signed me. Which was rather nice.

Wheat: Is it going to be available in America?

Jon: Oh, yeah. World-wide release.

Wheat: Marvelous. Love to hear that.

Jon: I’d like to hear it, too.

Wheat: Now, you live in England?

Jon: Yes, I do.

Wheat: Do you spend a lot of time in Orlando, or is that just when the band is rehearsing?

Jon: Well, it’s the third or fourth album we’ve made. It’s a small town outside of Orlando called Altamonte Springs. It’s warm, It’s friendly, well it was warm, until today!

It’s friendly, there’s great restaurants, people are nice, and the [recording studio] room is fantastic. It’s one of those great rooms where you don’t know why the room is good. It just is. It wasn’t designed as a recording studio. It was designed as a video studio. But it’s a big big room. It’s designed for photo shoots, for video shoots.

Wheat: Well, I’ll have to make a pilgrimage and visit it. I’m an audio engineer myself.

Jon: You know sometimes a room just is good. We get a great drum sound in there, and we can play live in there, and still get reasonable separation.

Wheat: Let me ask you. How do you maintain the classical, orchestral, acoustic music connection while all these years  you’ve been trucking all over the world playing very loud, nasty rock and roll? How do you keep both of those things alive?

Jon: Well, I’m a Gemini. I guess was born with a distinctly split way of looking at things. I adore both styles of music and in fact I used to go so far as to sort of pontificate on the subject by saying “There is only one music,” or “There are only two kinds of music, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” And I don’t want to get quite that passionate about it, but I honestly believe that the less labels, the better. The less demarcation between one kind of thing and another, the better. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the past. I may well be perceived as a rock and roll musician, a rock keyboard player, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do this or that.

Wheat: Your family were classical musicians, weren’t they?

Jon: Well, right back to some great-great grandparents, there’s been music in the family.  Not performance, but my father was semi-professional saxophone player. He played in a regular dance band, strict-tempo ballroom dancing kind of dance band. But they used to hanker after and do the occasional Glenn Miller arrangement, or Stan Kenton, or stuff like that.

Wheat: So do you still play a lot of classical piano at home?

Jon: Yes, I do. For the simple reason that it’s pretty hard to practice at home playing “Smoke On the Water” or “Highway Star.” It doesn’t help. It’s difficult to do that at home.

Wheat: Your hands kind of get stuck playing parallel fifths?

Jon: Well, I’m an Englishman. Parallel fifths are absolutely essential. All English music has parallel fifths!

Wheat: Lots of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’m a big choral singer. That’s my thing.

Jon: So you’ve sung a lot of old music?

Wheat: Yeah.

[Interruption where Steve Morse offers to bring us coffee.]

Jon: No, it’s a great tradition in England. It’s always had a great choral tradition.

Wheat: I’ve never been there. I must go some day. I’m doing the tenor solos in a local church production of Handel’s Messiah.

Jon: It’s time for the Messiah again, isn’t it.

Wheat: Yes, time to trot the old thing out.

Wheat: What’s it like playing with this kind gentleman here? [Gestures to Steve Morse]

Steve: See me for some sidebar quotes.

Wheat: Sidebar quotes? Okay, cool.

[Digression where I tell Steve Morse what a big fan I am of his solo work]

Steve: He’s so good at improvisation. You’d do well to find a jazz keyboard player with ears as big as this guy.

Wheat: [to Jon] What’s it like playing with this man and having a new lead guitar focus in the band?

Jon: Well, it’s now three years since Steve’s been on board. So I’m getting used to it. It’s great.

Wheat: He obviously brings a lot of energy.

Jon: An enormous amount of energy, and a lot of good will as well, which is essential. We hit it off, I think, within about twelve minutes. He would have to tell you this, but I do know that when he was asked to join, he said, “Only if that keyboard player [Jon points to himself] is a part of the band.” And I felt that was a great compliment. We play well together. You know it’s good. And we’ve changed sides. Ritchie used to be on stage left. Steve now plays stage right, and I’ve moved my keyboards back, facing the audience and next to the drum riser. So we get a much better point of contact.

It’s a different thing. It’s not better than Ritchie, it’s just different. There’s no point in trying to go–it’s chalk or cheese. Except for the fact that chalk and cheese, only one of them is food, and Steve and Ritchie, they’re both guitarists, but it’s a different world.

Wheat: He is obviously renowned as just about the most technically proficient guitarist in rock.

Jon: I would say so, yeah. He’s pretty remarkable. He never takes his bloody guitar off, that’s why! He’s always practicing. But sorry, you had a question.

Wheat: Are all the songs on Purpendicular group compositions? Did everybody have pretty much equal input?

Jon: Yeah, over the whole spectrum of the album. Some came from different directions, more from one guy than another.

Wheat: So Steve’s ideas get equal weight with everybody else’s?

Jon: Oh, sure. In fact he did warn us when he first joined the band. He said, “You’ll get pissed off at me in the end because you have to turn me off.” Ideas just pour out of the guy. It’s wonderful to work with that. It’s sometimes an embarrassment to each other, when you have to really look at what sounds like a good riff, and see if it actually means anything. Is it going to go into a song, or is it just… So it’s probably better that way than just sitting around twiddling your fingers wondering what you’re going to do next.

Wheat: Do you play much from Purpendicular in your set tonight?

Jon: Six or seven, I guess. Five or six? We’re probably going to do a couple of work in progress, you know, just to see how they feel. It seems like the perfect opportunity, doing these House of Blues gigs, to try out a couple of new songs.

Wheat: You don’t play much in America, do you? You get a lot of call for Japan and Europe.

Jon: Well, we kind of blew America. I don’t wish to get into laying any blame anywhere, but Ritchie didn’t particularly want to play here for the longest time.

We were on stage, we were doing a tour in ‘86, I think it was, and he broke his finger on stage. He was throwing his guitar up into the air and catching it, you know, one of his little tricks that he used to do, and he caught it wrong. That was in the middle of a sold-out twelve-to-nineteen-thousand-seater-hall kind of tour. By the time we came back again, Gillan and Ritchie had fallen out again. This is now 1990. Joe Lynn Turner had joined the band much to the chagrin [uses French pronunciation] of the rest of the band. It wasn’t a great move, we didn’t all think. And we lost our audience, quite simply. We lost our audience. By 1991 or ‘92, a lot of people over here thought that we had disbanded and just gone our separate ways.

WheatThe Battle Rages On was a great album.

Jon: It was okay, considering that the backing tracks were conceived with Joe Lynn Turner as the vocalist, but it was recorded with Ian Gillan.

Wheat: That must have been difficult adjustment, with regards to changing keys.

Jon: Some of the tracks were already recorded. Some of them we didn’t have time to change. So Ian had to write a different sort of song [vocal part] than he would normally have written. It was a strange time. But you know then, Ian was back in the band, Ritchie was fine for a while. We started the 1993 tour with high hopes and big ticket sales, but not over here. Nothing over here. He just would not come over here.

Wheat: Do you think there is an opportunity to regain the American audience?

Jon: We shall see. You know the old thing about not counting chickens, and everything. I guess we could only try.

It would be easy as hell to go the nostalgia route, you know, just to say that all we are going to do is play the old stuff, and we’ll play at classic rock concerts, and we’ll do classic rock tours with other classic rock bands…

Wheat: Which is not in itself a dishonorable thing…

Jon: I’m not saying it’s dishonorable. No, no. No, no. Absolutely not. It’s just not the way we want to go. We want to write new material. We want to be perceived as a band that still has a current viability as a recording unit. We want very much, you know, in spite of the fact that we’ve all been together since God was a child, we still believe a band of this style and this ability has a place in rock music.

Wheat: So are there plans for the next Purple album? Are you hoping to get a better label situation?

Jon: We have as yet, I can’t tell you who, but two major American labels are interested, so that is wonderful news for us.

Wheat: When will you be working on your new recording?

Jon: We are in process, right now. We’ve got all backing tracks done, we’ve got twelve new backing tracks. We are in the process of doing overdubs. We’ve done most of them. We are getting back in the middle of January to restart overdubs and vocals. So it’s close. It should be out May. And as I say, we do have the potential of a really good, big American label–not dissimilar from one that we were with once before.

Wheat: Okay, I don’t intend to second guess that.

I might get a chance to talk with Mickey [Soul], your keyboard technician [Soul, an American, was also the keyboardist in the band Rainbow at one point.]. Keyboard is a gear mag, and they want to know about all the instruments you play, but I wanted to mention something that just blew my mind. They have a review in the new issue [January, 1998] of the Roland VK-7, which is a keyboard that emulates the Hammond B-3, and they mention that it has a ring modulator on it. And a little light bulb went off in my head. I remembered that Jon Lord used to have a Moog ring modulator hooked to the output of his Hammond. So I think this is sort of a Jon Lord tribute. Maybe you should get an endorsement from them!

Jon: Well, that would be nice.

Wheat: But you’ll always play a real Hammond, won’t you.

Jon: Of course, but Hammonds occasionally go wrong.

[Discussion of the ring modulation effect]

I just used to use it as a some way to take the organ other than just being a Hammond. I’ve always tried to see how far you can take a Hammond, or where else you can take it, rather than how far.

[After the interview, while walking to the sound check, Jon mentioned that the ring modulator he used on his Hammond was in fact a Gibson, not a Moog. He said that he bought several, because each one had a working life of only about three months before it broke down.]

Wheat: Does that include an awful lot of customization of the circuitry, hot-rodding and overdriving it?

Jon: The simplest, easiest thing to get that really wonderful overdriven sound is to just turn the Leslies up. Turn the Hammond up, turn the Leslies up, and play it properly. You can’t pussyfoot around with a Hammond organ. If you do, it ends up sounding like a rather nasty church organ. You have to be in charge of it. In the early to mid 70s, I wanted to try and do something with that, which is where the ring modulator came in.

I mean, I’ve tried to play synthesizers. I’m not a great synthesizer player, but there’s some reason that I don’t actually like them very much. What I use them for, I’ve got a couple out there, I just use them for pads, for bits and pieces. Less and less now. Yeah. I’m actually in the process of scaling right back down. What I want to take out next year is a B or a C, nice, simple, with two darn good Leslies, and a nice piano keyboard. I’ve got a little Kurzweil MicroPiano which gives me a wonderful piano.

Wheat: You have it connected to a Roland controller?

Jon: Yes, a Roland controller. And there’s a [Korg] M1 on top of the organ for some reason. It must have got stuck there about eight years ago.

Wheat: And a [Yamaha] DX7.

Jon: Yeah. Again, that got there on top of the piano. I just use them both as controller keyboards.

Wheat: What do you have in the rack?

Jon: A [Korg] Wavestation. What I would love to take around with me is a [Roland JV-] 2080.

Wheat: The studio players love those.

Jon: Oh, I use it quite a bit on my solo record. What I tried to do on that, the interest for me is to combine real piano, a big concert Steinway, with some nice pads and acoustic instruments like string quartets and French horns and so on. Or a small choir, and see where I could take that.

Wheat: So did you use the 2080 for backing tracks, and replace it with real musicians?

Jon: Yeah, on a couple of things I did exactly that. To see how the string quartet sounded, I built one up.

Wheat: That orchestral board for the 2080 is wonderful.

Jon: Oh, fantastic. That, hopefully, would be my setup next year.

So what you see out there now is really the end of the 80s. I built that system up during the 80s because nobody wanted to hear real Hammond sounds. They wanted to hear volume. Perfect Strangers, for example, that album was made with a normal Hammond, but when we got into the live part of things, then Blackmore said, “No, you should get this louder.” And then Paicey said, “Yeah, I can’t hear it, get it louder, man.”

Wheat: I noticed that you have those extra bass cabinets underneath the Leslies.

Jon: That’s just for the piano and the pads and all.

But basically it’s an outdated, outmoded system that’s just about ready for the bonfire!

Wheat: I was talking with my editor at Keyboard magazine. Greg Rule, the editor that I work for, does techno/dance music, and the magazine has this raging thing in the letters to the editor saying, “I don’t want to read about Keith Wakeman, give me Prodigy.” Uh–I mean, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman.

Jon: They’re interchangeable. Rick Emerson.

Wheat: [does an earnest reversal] No, I would never say that. That was a big slip there. I’ve met Rick, and he is an exceptionally nice gentleman.

Jon: He’s a delightful man.

Wheat: But at any rate, I’m always concerned about this tug, this duality between the sampling, techno, programmed music versus guys that play [non-sequenced] musical instruments. And I’m far more interested in the latter. Now, these [techno] people are doing very creative stuff…

Jon: Of course they are.

Wheat: …but does any of that have any influence on you?

Jon: Not really, no. I think I’ve missed that part of musical history. I don’t believe that my talent, whatever it might be, would be in that area, really. I’m an instinctive musician. I tend to play off the moment. I like to improvise, I like to just, well, sometimes just screw around.

Wheat: And to interact with other players.

Jon: Yeah, and as a result, that’s what I believe, without patting myself on the back, that’s one of the elements that made early Deep Purple so interesting. What Blackmore and I used to do together. When he was pliable in that respect, when he decided that he had this particular row to hoe.

Wheat: Was he more the blues man and you more of the classical person? Is that what you brought to the table?

Jon: No, actually! I was in an English rhythm and blues band for four years before I started Purple.

Wheat: Before Roundabout.

Jon: Yeah, exactly. And Blackmore used to play in a very English rock and roll band–pop rock, you know, until he went out to Germany. I think he had a band called The Three Musketeers, where he started to experiment a little, and then he first heard Hendrix and listened to early Clapton and stuff.  But I was more of a blues player I think, and I only started using the classical things in the blues band that I was in the R&B band that I was in. What we call R&B in England is not what you call it here.

I started using classical stuff because it was somewhere else to go. Sometimes you come up against a wall on a straight 12-bar blues sequence, and I just thought, well where can I go? So one night that bit of Bach kind of got in there. The guitarist in the band at the time said, “That was great. Why can’t you do that more often?” So that was all he had to say. He just pushed that button, and I was there.

Wheat: You are certainly one of the pioneers, like your work with Eberhart Schoener, trying to meld the classical with the rock.

Jon: It was hard work in those days. Nowadays, people are doing it all the time. You feel like saying, “We were doing that twenty-five years ago.”

Wheat: Yeah, but now it’s like Yanni and John Tesh.

Jon: Oh, yeah. They say, “What was it that you did?”

I say, “I did a thing called Concerto for Group and Orchestra, Gemini Suite, Sarabande…” They go, “Wow, where is this stuff?”

Wheat: Most of that’s available on CD, isn’t it?

Jon: It’s available on CD in Germany. It’s all being remastered, hopefully next year.

Wheat: Marvellous!

Wheat: On Pictured Within, did you do your own orchestration and arranging for that?

Jon: Yes.

Wheat: So it’s just pencil and paper. As much of an improviser as you are, you still have the discipline to sit down…

Jon: Well, I was taught that. You don’t lose that. But I also improvise a lot at home, an enormous amount.

Wheat: Do you use a computer and a sequencer ever?

Jon; No, I’ve got a Disklavier.

Wheat: Ah, the Yamaha. So you sequence right from the acoustic piano.

Jon: Sometimes, yeah. I actually use it as a giant, expensive memo pad. I just sit there and I play into it.

Wheat: Is it an upright, or a grand?

Jon: I’ve got an upright. I’m changing for a grand, because I’ve got a grand piano at home, but I use that more, and neglect the Disklavier sitting in the corner. Because I don’t get so much feedback from an upright. I get a tubby, sort of round sound.

But I find that most of my ideas come out of improvising. There’s a tune on the new album that came about thirty-eight thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, on the way back from Japan. I’ll take it wherever it comes.

Wheat: I remember reading John Paul Jones saying that he would do his Led Zeppelin arranging while walking around in the garden with a pad and a pencil. Do you do that to?

Jon: I go walking, but I don’t take a pad and a pencil. I’ve got a dog to deal with!

Wheat: You’ve just got an amazing memory.

Jon: I write it down when I come back.

[We depart to go to the sound check and take some pictures. End of interview]


This interview is Copyright © 1997 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.