John Wesley is a name familiar to most in the prog community. His live work with Porcupine Tree, co-writer with ex-Marillion singer Fish and his own solo work are testaments to his abilities and skills as a side man and solo man. With his latest album, Disconnect (reviewed here), we asked John about the state of prog in 2014 and just what it was like working with prog royalty.
(((o))): You began you career in the early 1980’s, a time when progressive music had suffered the backlash from punk and new wave. Why do you think that 34 years later, in 2014, progressive music is experiencing such resurgence in popularity?
John: There are several reasons really, number one is that people are tired, worn out from insincerity and cloning, lack of effort. I love a great pop song, but a clone of a clone of clone of great pop song can be very wearing. The other reason is access, now more than ever in history people have choice, not only can you find great progressive music, but you find exactly the niche of the great progressive music or just music in general that speaks to you. That give artists more chance to be free and cater to their own muse, knowing that the audience may be smaller, but more in tune with what they as artists can offer.
(((o))): 'Any Old Saint' features a guitar solo that, to my ears, rivals Gilmour's 'Comfortably Numb' solo in terms of emotion and dynamics. How do you create a solo? Do you sit down and write them out methodically or is it a stream of consciousness jams and refined later?
John: I was a frustrated vocalist for most of the 1980’s, I wrote lyrics that were sang by someone else because I had not developed my voice. The guitar for me became that voice and I gravitated towards players like Gilmour and Lifeson and Beck that conveyed emotion and melody through the solos. I hear melodies... and after I have written the vocals, I sometimes hear a continuation of the vocal theme in subject matter and melody. In a song like ‘Any Old Saint’, I had said with the words all I could say verbally, but I was hearing more in my head...so yes the solos are developed as “stream of consciousness jams” and then the motifs that speak the most are brought out to create the body of the solos. I don’t really “write” solos, it is all very stream of conscious expression.
(((o))): You've worked with some notable names in the prog world. What are the pros and cons of being a supporting artist within an established band/artist as opposed to being the focal point in the solo career?
John: The pros are that you get to tour and play. And I love to tour and play, which brings me to the biggest con… You can become so caught up in bringing someone else’s vision to life... that you lose focus on your own vision. That happened a lot with me. I loved those gigs and all of those shows, and so I was happy internally. I was always writing and recording, but never focused on my own vision enough to get that vision to the forefront. Also the time factor is a con, I literally spent years focusing on the vision of others, which was incredible. I loved every minute of it, but at the expense of my own writing. Now I seem to have found a balance, because there is a balance where both worlds can exist. I can honor my vision and still be a part of another’s vision and “all will be well in the shire” (spot the prog joke...)!
(((o))): You were the primary co-writer on Fish's album Fellini Days, which features one of my fav prog tracks of all time, 'Clock Moves Sideways'. What was that experience like working with him?
John: Fish is a “Big man”! By that I mean...big personality, big ideas and a big vision...and he can be big fun! So in the studio he has a lot of ideas...very stream of conscious ...to the point that some days he would come in with ideas that were so far out it overwhelmed me. So to work with an artist that is so creative, you have to learn to take a step back when the ideas get so far out that you can’t process them and try to corral them in your head. Then channel them in a way that makes sense to the songs...and his vision. The danger is that if you don’t carefully “edit the idea stream”, you run the risk of losing some great moments in the maelstrom. You have to be careful to not over edit as well. You don’t want to lose that gem; you have to really work to find it in the stream. I was very tired when I finished that album!
(((o))): Your latest album Disconnect features a captivating blend of sounds and styles. Do you find that writing songs comes naturally or do you have to "work" at it? Is there ever a point when it feels like a struggle to articulate an idea?
John: I have to work at it… nothing comes easy. Some things come faster than others and require less editing as ideas. But I do at times struggle and then other times it is like magic, as if some “music fairy” just taps me with wand and the song is there. Of course on the Fish album it wasn’t the music fairy tapping me, it was usually Fish tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “ PUB!, It’s time for a pint of 70 laddy, off we go...”.
(((o))): Lyrically you've been likened to Roger Waters. How do you go about writing lyrics? Do they start with a theme or concept?
John: In my twenties I was looking for more streamlined methods of writing, I guess we always are searching really, and I started to read a lot of Hemingway. He was very good about sharing his methods and one of the things I adopted was “periods of input and output”. This develops into the flow of in and out so that you are always writing...sometimes taking in all around you, observing, meeting people, sitting and having a beer with them as you take in their story, reading, watching the news, and just listening really. Then all of that cooks in your brain as you go about your days and themes and concepts start to assemble subconsciously. Then I do the same sort of thing on the guitar...search for ideas and melodies that speak to me...and then the two worlds start to meld. Some guitar parts will start to connect with words and things will happen. As on Disconnect, there was no thought of that theme at the beginning, but unbeknownst to me... one was taking shape internally because I was observing so many forms of Disconnect all around me. When I took a step back and looked at the collection of songs...there it was.
(((o))): What is your earliest musical memory?
John: My mom playing the piano, she always played to us when we were little, and she would sing to us.
(((o))): If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
John: Wish You Were Here. It is not my favorite album of all time...it just has enough of all the elements musically and lyrically I would need to keep me happy.
(((o))): Much has been said over the past 15 years about the negative and positive effects of illegal downloads on the music industry and on individual musicians. What are your thoughts on the subject?
John: Pandora’s box here... I could go on for hours. People that download your music for free and don’t pay for it...were never going to pay for it to begin with. They just don’t care enough about you to see you do well, they were only ever going to pay for music of the masses, the music that is was either properly promoted so you had access to it or it was pushed upon them by the labels. It is a double-edged sword. Now we have the ability to choose exactly the music we like, and the creators have had the gatekeepers removed and now more people can make music than ever before. But that also means less people pay for music... and income creation and sustainability for artists is the lowest that it has been in many years. It’s a true problem, so on one hand… it was good in that it shook everything up, but on the other hand… now we can barely afford to create.
(((o))): Other than your own, what is your favourite song(s) to play?
John: I really love playing the Incident as piece on the last Porcupine Tree tour...I found it really enjoyable.
(((o))): What does 2014 hold for you?
John: Hopefully some shows... touring... more new music... more shows....
(((o))): What are you currently listening to?
John: Today it was Amplifier’s Echo Street.
(((o))): Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
John: I hope you enjoy the album and get to come out to a show... we hope to see you all soon!