John Waite has been successfully writing, recording and performing some of the most listenable, enduring and appreciated popular music for more than 35 years. He was lead vocalist for The Babys and Bad English. As a solo artist, he scored several international hits, including 1984’s “Missing You”, a #1 hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and a top ten hit on the UK Singles Chart. The legacy of his music is a beautiful monster of sound and vision, the chronicle of an authentic artist, a superstar, a seeker of truth and a soother of hearts.
In 2011, John teamed up with Matchbox 20 lead guitarist and songwriter, Kyle Cook. Their creative chemistry birthed the exhilarating ‘Rough & Tumble,’ a long form exercise in raucous riffs and bloody truths highlighted by “Further the Sky,” “Shadows of Love” and the Classic Radio chart topping title track, a remarkable feat for any musician to reach number one airplay after three and a half decades in themusic business trenches. The latest endeavor from this amazing musician is an amazing live album titled, ‘Live: All Access.’ The album was released on iTunes June 11th and is a sparkling collection of live recordings of songs from the ‘Rough and Tumble’ album, from the solo albums ‘Ignition’ and ‘No Brakes’ and from The Babys era. Waite’s trademark vocals are crystal clear and every bit as powerful as the original studio recordings. The No Brakes band consists of Keri Kelli on guitars, Tim Hogan on bass, and Rhondo on drums. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with John Waite to discuss his decade spanning career, his longevity as an artist, the making of ‘Live: All Access’ and what the future holds for him in the years to come.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What are your first memories of music in your life?
I remember being about three years old and having a plastic ukulele that had a Tommy Steel on it. He was a big pop star in England in the 1950s. It was on a piece of paper and when it feel off, you could see Mickey Mouse’s head, so I think it was a Mickey Mouse ukulele with a Tommy Steel sticker on it. It was my first big musical disappointment! [laughs] When I was a little boy, I used to listen to western music like Marty Robbins, especially “Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs”. That really appealed to me at that age because of cowboys and indians. I had a very, very creative family of musicians and painters. My brother is a great guitar player. My cousin Michael played me Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams by the time I was six. I was surrounded by music, ya know? Actually, wherever I could find, I played! My auntie Doris gave me a radiogram, which is half radio, half record player, when I was around seven because we had no money. There was a selection of things in there like Nina and Frederick, who were a swedish singing duo. Really, Paul McCartney is the only other person I have ever heard mention their name. They had an influence on me it was all done in a minor key. My brother started his own band and I used to pluck away on his guitar when he was at school. Music was waiting for me everywhere I went!
What made you pursue music as a career as opposed to going a different route?
I knew I could sing until my voice broke. I could sing every dove note there is and it was soulful. I knew I had it! When your voice breaks, you get all self-conscience and put that to the back of your mind. I went to art school at sixteen and we listened to blues music, Jimi Hendrix, Free and all of those great bands that came out in the late 60s and early 70s, not to mention Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones and The Who. As I progressed as an artist in these classes, I realized I would never be a great painter. I had a choice. You look at it and think know you have been in a life class with the naked human form in front of you with the musculature, the bone frame and the personality that covers that. I realized if I was going to leave my mark, it wasn’t going to be as a painter. I found myself drifting more and more towards literature, music and politics because it was a very political time with sub-culture, counter-culture, the war in Vietnam and the whole thing. There was a huge explosion of blues music. Blues was the end of psychedelia, really. It was when Americana came back and people went back to a kind of retro-rock. The Beatles did it with “Get Back”. It all became obtainable because anyone could sing a three chord blues, ya know? That was my palette. I just knew if I was ever going to do anything, it was going to be music! Even though I wasn’t a brilliant singer, I could bring something to it that was human. That is it, that is really it.
Did you have any idea that following your love of music would take you to the heights it has?
No, not at all. I came from Lancaster, England. When my Auntie Doris gave me that radiogram, all we had was Radio Luxembourg, which was stationed in Luxembourg and beamed out to all the American servicemen. You would get Hank Williams, Rick Gentry and a tremendous amount of obscure Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke stuff. It was beyond belief! I can remember staring down at a record going around on a transportable record player and hearing Tina Turner sing “River Deep Mountain High,” which someone had lent me. If you jump forward a lifetime, Tina wound up singing “Missing You”. If you go from a 12 year old kid in a bedroom by himself, listening to the sound of African-American woman and this crazy, wild, fantastic energy coming off a piece of black plastic and move forward a lifetime to her singing one of my songs, I mean, my life is full of miracles, really! That is one of them!
Did you ever have a moment where you felt like you had truly made it as a musician?
No, no. I think that any idiot who thinks they are brilliant, well, that is part of their lunacy! I think a real artist never arrives anywhere. You have brief moments, flashes where you step through into a different level. When I finished “Missing You,” the demo, the first verse and chorus, I stepped back from the mic and I could hardly speak. I knew I had finally channeled it. It had landed in my lap. It felt like someone had just popped open a Christmas cracker and it had fallen out like a toy. It was like someone else did it, ya know? I think anyone who is self-satisfied and has gold records on their walls is basically a fucking idiot. That is like arena rock, it has everything to do with sales and commerce. It has nothing to do with music. Music never ends. It is like a painter with a palette full of colors, you never finish painting. There is a billion different ways you can paint it and there are a billion different way you can sing a song. It never ends and you can always do better than you have done before. The person who thinks he has arrived and is a big shot is basically looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
With that said…
That was quite brilliant wasn’t it! [laughs] It is quite early too, I don’t know what is wrong with me! [laughs]
Quite brilliant, indeed! You have had a career that has spanned many decades. To what do you attribute your longevity as an artist?
Naivety, probably! I just look at music and step forward. I don’t have a choice anymore. As Keith Richards said, “It’s to late to be a bricklayer!” I have an enormous interest in literature and poetry. I find that incredibly inspiring. The music I listen to is stuff like Bill Evans, the jazz keyboard player, Eric Satie, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams, Larry Sparks, Etta James, Alison Krauss, everything! Music is music! The Rolling Stones are still brilliant to me! I don’t know! It’s the form that is the slipperiest. You can walk into a studio, count it in and capture something in the air that is indescribable. A music critic can sit down, relate it to other pieces of music and go on and on and it can be an overdressed piece of arena rock crap or The Stones new record or about anything but you can’t describe it. It is tribal, it’s primitive, it’s something that is in every heartbeat and no matter what race or color you are, what language you speak or what you believe in, music speaks to us all. It is like God.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process? Is it something that has changed through the years?
When I was with The Babys, it was me and the guitar player. That was who The Babys was. Tony Brock joined and then there was three of us. The manager asked us, “Who writes songs?” Tony had one and the guitar player couldn’t write. I had written a couple of small things growing up. I said “Well, look. I can sing and I think I can do this.” He said “Write a couple of things for next week as we have to go into the studio in a couple of weeks, so get on it.” I thought, “Righty-O!” I went home and I took it extremely seriously but very confidently. I was fifty parts shy and fifty parts egomaniac! I don’t know what it is! It must be a mixture of my parents! I took it very seriously that I had been given a chance and I was incredibly shy as a human being. I would do anything rather than walk through a rook full of people but I was driven to play music. Once I found I could write songs and words, it all changed. There is always that moment when you walk in a song and you sing it, you look at their eyes and it is like their eyebrows are about to go up but they don’t. They look at you and they take you seriously. Their eyes change color really and they talk you seriously. As soon as I saw that, I went back home and started writing every chance I got and I became the chief writer in The Babys. That is whole I got started as a singer. So, no matter what misfortune befell The Babys and no matter how hard or rough it was, at the end of the game, it gave me career.
I have been waiting two and a half years since my last studio album, “Rough and Tumble”. I have been working on this song for two years. I had a title about a man living in a different town. I won’t go into it because it is a tale of it’s own but it is really strange and it has taken me nearly two years to get halfway through it but I could finish it in an afternoon in the studio. I know if I go into the studio and just write the music down, I will finish it. Two weeks ago, I had another song that hit me. It has a rhythm, like an R&B rhythm over some English poetry. The two things have nothing to do with each other but it is the album, it’s direction I have been waiting for. It is extremely exotic in it’s own form but it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. It’s storytelling and it’s reference and it’s sex. I carry loads of notebooks and they are all blank. Then there is one that is jammed full of scribbles, phone numbers and phrases. On my birthday last week, I was at a bar and I hit the wrong button on my iPhone and my voice memo played back. It was me singing a song into the phone I had forgotten about that was a year old. It was a beautiful song and I didn’t even know I had it! I am very unaware, yet I am super aware simultaneously and then it all comes together and I have to go to work. I avoid it as much as possible but a song could come out when you count me in and I shout “Key of G! 1, 2, 3!” and the next thing you know, it’s a song. It is the most unlikely thing. I actually don’t understand it an that is why I keep coming back to it.
It seems to be a process which has served you well through the years.
Yeah, but you can’t rely on that kind of conduit for something from outer space. It’s like a woman, you can’t disrespect it and you can’t take it for granted and go there thinking it will be there all the time. The moment you do that, it dries up and goes away. You have to sort of run along side it and coexist with it and then pick up the guitar, keep an open heart and there it is. Every woman is a lot of different things at the same time and you have to nurture the things that speak to you.
Your latest release is a live album titled ‘Live: All Access’. What made you feel it was time for a release of this sort and what where the challenges of capturing the magic?
We got a new guitar player, Keri Kelli, about 8 months ago. For a couple of months, it was hit or miss. We would be playing and doing great gigs and it was a lot to put on a guitar player, playing in a three piece band. Suddenly, after about three weeks of playing dates, Kerri turned around one night when we were playing in New York and said “I get it!” It is tough being in a three piece band and I insist on it being a three piece band. It is just like the late 60s and early 70s, I wanted it to be bluesy, rootsy, honest and I don’t want any synthesizers, overdubs or second guitars. I want it to be really spartan and he got it! We had this couple of weeks where we were just raging! It didn’t mater where we were playing. We were playing The Isle of Wight and we were in this incredible bubble. We said “We have to record his!” I hired a studio in SOuth Philly that is a church called Philly Sound. They have a recording studio alongside the church itself and the nave is a stage. We put a PA in and went in the radio, threw the doors open for two nights, bought three kegs of beer a night, got the audience drunk and had a great time recording everything! We got a lot of material but some of it was much better than others. I didn’t see that until we got to mastering. I got into a mastering room with the whole record and realized how good some of it was and how not as good some of it was. I waited another two months and recorded again on the road. We went up to New Hampshire in Manchester we did this show that was off the hook. It was just one of those things where the soundcheck was awful and I thought “Maybe it’s a tax write-off! I am going to live with this somehow. You can’t always win.” We came out on stage, counted it in and we had the best gig we have ever played and we actually got it on tape! Then, I went and mixed it. That is where the real art came into it because it is about balance in a three piece band. It is about ambient sound and it is very delicate. There are no overdubs whatsoever on this record, it is completely live! I woke up at 3 o’clock one morning and said out-load “Turn the vocals down.” The next day, I went into the studio and turn the vocals down about half a dB. It brought out the ambience of the room and suddenly that was the sound of the record. I picked the songs that I wanted, there are maybe two hits on there, as the call them. I was trying to put anything on there that was familiar to people. It is a defiant record. I am not playing the game of trying to sell you a record, I am just trying to share the music with you. I picked the best songs like “Evil,” Saturday Night” and “In Dreams”. The gem of it all might be “If You Ever Get Lonely” because that has just been released by Love and Theft, a country band from Tennessee. They had a number one single last year and they cut “If You Ever Get Lonely” and put a video out last week. They have a number one and there is a chance they will have another number one with “If You Ever Get Lonely”. We are coming back to radio and re-releasing “If You Ever Get Lonely,” the studio and live versions and we’re touring behind it. The idea was really to capture a really golden time when we hadn’t really found our feet yet and anything was possible. It was one of those bets on a roulette wheel where you bet against yourself almost and it came up! The best stuff made it and that is all I can think of to say about it! It was all done on instinct.
I have to agree with you. I have heard the album and it does have a life to it!
Thank you! You can feel the audience without having one of those things where you finish the song and suddenly the audience gets really loud. There is nothing jive about it. The band is only as good as the audience when they are playing in that situation. All you can do is capture the moment. If that was the last record I mad,e I wouldn’t be unhappy about it.
You mentioned your previous album “Rough and Tumble” and the release of this new live release. What’s next for you?
After leaving Bad English, I made a couple of albums, one called “Temple Bar” and then “When You Were Mine.” That was a really high point for me. That is when I became a really genuine, uncompromising, complete songwriter. I was writing about my life in New York City and it was the best stuff I have written so far. I think there is going to be a reversion to some of that lyrical content, as they say, getting a little arty! I think it is going to rock like hell! It is going to be so strange. As I have gotten older, I know more and I am going to put some of that into the songwriting rather than just describing situations. It is like when you listen to “Blood on the Tracks.” There are songs like “Simple Twist of Fate” where it is male and it’s female and the narrative is from different people but it is all in one song. It is like musical cubism. I am not saying I am going to go in that direction but I feel extremely brave about where I want to go to. Maybe it is getting metaphysical but as you get older, you get into that space. I am trying to describe life as it is, as it works for me. Otherwise, I would just be hacking out songs for Tin Pan Alley. It matters. I know where I am in my life to the music I make.
What are your musical plans both long and short term in support of this album and a return to the studio?
We are hoping to get on a bigger tour and play bigger places. Right now we have been playing a lot of small places. Two years ago, we went out and played everything we could — small clubs, fairs, amphitheaters, Borders bookshops and everywhere else. We managed to get to Clear Channel Radio every morning and do FOX TV and got a number one single because of that “Rough and Tumble” went to number one on classic rock radio. It was a huge achievement and it blew my mind. It was a hard rock song and I still look at it like “Thank you, Jesus!” We can’t do that again. Financially, it was suicide and I barely broke even after working a lot of dates. I barely walked away with a dime working like that. It got me a number one record but I can’t afford to do it again, so we are playing much bigger dates this year. Obviously, there will be less of them but they will be bigger. If we play twenty big dates before the end of the year, I hope to do another live album in about eight months with different songs and maybe some really obscure songs thrown in. At the same time, in September, I hope to start a new studio record. That is the plan and what I want to do. I have complete autonomy and I just do what I want. I have my own small label, No Brakes. Generally, what I have done in the past is make the record and then license it to a bigger company for distribution. The last time I put a record out in Europe, I played my hometown. I hadn’t played my hometown since I was 17 years old. They put us in this beautiful old theater where Dickens came and recited some of his short stories and I think Paganini played there. It is a tiny theater but there I was, John Waite, home after all those years playing to a packed house and HMV didn’t have one single John Waite record in it! I emailed the record company in Europe and said “Listen, you have a sold out concert. It is the biggest thing to happen in my life coming home. I didn’t even want to play the gig. I was embarrassed to go home and play but I am going to be here. For God’s sake put the record in the stores.” They overnighted two copies. They sold out and they didn’t order anymore.
Something inside me changed at that point. I thought, “What was that? What have I just done. Who means what at this table?” When I came back to America, we had already had the big hit with “Rough and Tumble” and it got major airplay. I bought the record back off the record company, put it under No Brakes and put it up on iTunes. With this record, it is on iTunes, you can get a signed copy from www.johnwaitethesinger.com and you can get a copy at the shows. Ya know, every time I walk into an office, I feel like I am about to be strip searched. It is like going through security at an airport. I don’t get it. I don’t like offices, I like music. I think I am going to continue on this path. I have always gone my own way and it has been as difficult as you can imagine but I am having a ball at the moment! I have been quite successful. Everything is about the work. I am not interested in being aligned with the corporate voice.
I am sure you have seen it all. If you have one piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring musicians, what would it be?
Get a gun, get a lawyer and get a one-way ticket to Paris! [laughs] It takes an enormous amount of balls and character to stick with it. You are going to meet some people along the way who surely don’t know right from wrong. They are there for all sorts of reasons. You have to be careful. If you are going to have to come up against, you will be a better man for coming up against it. You will learn about people and will live a fuller life. The music business is one rough business. If you don’t believe in the music 100%, don’t go in. The reward really is in the music, even if you are making a great living. Corporate bands go out there, they tour and make millions, playing the same songs every night, play along to tapes, serve you a very expensive beer, a t-shirt, charge you for parking and meet the fans if you want to pay an extra five hundred dollars. If that is being a musician, then I am going to be something else.
Absolutely! Have you ever given any thought to telling your tales in the form of an autobiography?
I have thought about it but I am not really kiss and tell. The was something in the “VJ” book. Nina Blackwood gave me my own chapter. It was extremely sweet and she was nervous about it coming out. I love Nina and I thought it was very sweet. It reminded me of a better time in the world, when people were focused on music. I am not too sure spilling you guts is right when it comes to women. I have known a lot of different women in my life and I have loved a lot of different women. I still think about them and I still kinda love them. I feel it would be a betrayal to make money from talking about who you got as close to as you can possibly get. There is a limit to it. I think Keith Richards book was the best of the lot. It was funny and it was written with panache. He is a character! He is an interesting human being, period! The women who have moved him in his life are like female versions of Keith Richards. Anita Pallenberg gives as good as she gets, she is a tough girl. I admire Keith Richards with all of my heart. When he goes, it will be like losing Dylan. The world will be a smaller place.
Well said, sir. I want to thank you for your time and wish you continued success. You are truly an inspiration!
Thank you so much! I appreciate you time and I have enjoyed talking to you!
For all the latest news and information on John Waite at his official website, www.johnwaitethesinger.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.