Posted May, 2012
If you’ve been listening to rock and roll since the late seventies, then John Waite is no stranger to you. He was the face and voice of The Babys with whom he enjoyed Top 20 successes with their hits, Isn’t It Time and Every Time I Think of You.
Since those days, John has gone on to a successfully satisfying solo career that last year launched his tenth studio album (on top of two live and two compilation albums). That tenth album, entitled Rough and Tumble, is enjoying radio and, for the last year and continuing, is being supported by a world-wide tour. Because that tour is bringing Waite to my area of the world (Dallas, Texas, May 8th, Poor David’s Pub), I had the good fortunate to be able to have a phone interview with Waite arranged for me by the promoter.
Waite called me from his home in Southern California at what I thought would be awfully early for a rock and roller in his time zone. He quickly let me know otherwise. “No! No! No! No! That’s a myth! I leap out of bed when the sun comes up! I do!”
We cut right to the chase by talking about John’s Rough and Tumble tour. He said of the tour, “It’s been great! We’ve been on it for a year. We’ve been all over Europe and all over America. For the first half of it we were joined by Matchbox 20’s guitar player, Kyle Cook. We have a number one single on radio with Rough and Tumble and the response in Europe is very pleasing. We played in my home town, which was incredible. It was a whole different ballgame than playing anywhere else.
“But, it’s been great. We enjoy what we do. We’ve been taking off a couple of weeks here and there and then going back out for a couple of weeks and looking at the summer. The summer is going to be interesting because we might go overseas again like Australia and Japan. We just might tour through America. There’s just so much up in the air right now. It’s hard to say.”
I have listened to “Rough and Tumble” several times and I have to say with all sincerity – it’s great! My personal favorites are If You Ever Get Lonely, Skyward and Further the Sky. I asked John if he had a sense as to which song is the audience’s favorite.
“I think If You Ever Get Lonely – people have been cutting it. I think it’s coming out on a couple of different records. It’s interesting to see that. Basically, it’s a beautiful song. It’s a little dark but sincere, you know?”
While sharing with me what the response has been like to the album, Waite said, “Well, like I said, we have a number one single but the music business is absolutely upside down. I don’t know if it’s going to be one of those things where we keep putting records out to give you an excuse to tour. I don’t think since everybody’s downloading music now – and quite a lot of it’s for free – it isn’t substantial. You put a record out – like I said, it went number one on the radio and we sold big numbers. It’s like all the fans have it and then you’re there playing all the hits which you have to do as well.
“So I don’t know which end of the music business I’m in other than I’m looking forward to playing! It’s a good thing to make a successful record and it’s a great thing to be able to sing with people that play well and make a life as a musician. Apart from that the music business is completely out of its head at the moment.”
Because Waite lamented the state of the music business, I asked him what he would do to fix it if he were appointed its czar.
“I love that! ‘Czar’. I do! I like that. Good choice of words! I like it! Um, what would I do? Well, I think it’s sort of being done. Twenty years ago people were signed to record contracts and they gave you an advance to make a record. Then you went in and made the record and then they paid you 14 points of the profit. They kept eighty-five percent and they charged you back for everything! Manufacturing, photography, promotion, dinners, backhanders, bribes, drugs, whatever. They charged you back for everything. It was very unfair.
“Now, with the internet and iTunes, you can make a record and you can put it up there. If you’re a small band in a small town you can actually achieve a world wide release by doing it yourself. What I do is make a record – and I make it at a pretty high standard because that’s what I do – but I license it to record companies and they distribute it around the world or different territories. But the fact that anybody can go online now and download music, a record of that is kept so iTunes has to pay the artists. It bypasses a lot of the record companies. I don’t think it’s as dishonest of a business as it was because people have more of a voice. Surely that’s what it must be about!
“Some guy chomping on a cigar, sitting behind a desk, telling you that he doesn’t hear a single doesn’t really work for me. It never did. So, I’m quite happy that I have the freedom I’ve got now. I never needed a big record company to make big records. And you actually get paid now. The record company’s job was not to pay the artists. They would give you the advance and you might as well say, ‘Thanks for the memories’ and then disappear because, apart from the publishing checks and the air play checks, they’re not going to pay you if they can help it. It was just the way the record business was run. It was a ridiculous thing that people could be that dishonest but it’s the truth and it’s how it worked.”
With over 30 years in the rough and tumble world of the music business and a lot of albums under his belt, I asked John how was working on Rough and Tumble different – as well as the same – as compared to his other recordings.
“Well, the fact that you can record digital and not cut two inch tape with a razor blade at three in the morning. It’s very primitive to do that. Digital recording has come so far now – just so far! It’s almost impossible to tell the difference whereas fifteen years ago everything that was digital sounded incredibly ‘tinny’ and had less aspects of sound – sonic frequency – in the music. It just didn’t have it. It was a more limited rendition of sound.
“During the first half of Rough and Tumble, we met in a songwriting room in Nashville with David Thoener – the co-producer and he’s a very, very good engineer/producer – and he helped me and Kyle navigate through working in broom closets and storage rooms and singing live in the room to save money. But we did go into a studio called Treasure Island and knocked out the drums and bass. In and out very quick . . . and that was done in analog, I think.
“The second half of the record was made in four days. I cut seven tracks in four days in this small studio in Thousand Oaks in California – just hell-for-leather! It was kind of like, ‘I’m just going to finish this thing if it kills me.’ I went into the studio the day before. We wrote Rough and Tumble - the track itself. I pulled in a couple of old songs and rearranged them. Did a Tina Turner song and, hey! Presto! I almost gave myself a nervous breakdown and wore myself out.
“But the difference now is if you really want an album quickly and you’re focused, you can do it almost as quickly as you think to the end product. It’s just so fast! That means to me that you can capture a lot of emotion and live performance without having to deal with, again, two inch tape and a very primitive set-up.
“When you look back at what The Babys went through in the studio, trying to capture things on two inch tape and mixing down all the time and transferring performances to virgin tape so that it wouldn’t get worn out by being rolled over a recording head. I mean, it’s gigantic work! While being in the studio, you should be in free-fall. You just feel like doing it. You record it, thank you and good night!
“And, besides, not to whine on about this, but the analog sound is a precious thing and it’s very much about a certain period. We live in a digital world now and the music of the digital world is cut digitally. And to keep going back – and it’s an anachronistic kind of view of, like, maybe it’s going to sound like yesterday, why? It was great yesterday. It’s been done. You can go and buy those records and it sounds wonderful! But I feel that the problem might be here is to sound like we’re in the present day and still be authentic! That’s exactly what I’m trying to say with my music. I’m trying to sound authentic in the present day without having to be referred as being from a different period.”
At the risk of sounding as though I was patronizing him, I offered to John that I strongly believed that the music buying public is hungry for something “present day” that is built on a classic rock foundation much like he’s done with Rough and Tumble.
“If I could hear that from somebody, then I know that I’ve done it successfully. I mean, that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was not trying to become something else to be successful. I’ve seen people do that in their careers. They go off and be ‘disco’ for five minutes. But I wanted to do something that was like Evil is almost like Miss You by the Stones . . . it sounds like somebody’s really out of their mind and he’s sexy because of that. He’s very seventies and very Studio 54.
“Peace of Mind is like this song that’s based on Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and he has a monologue in it where I’m talking and telling a story as the song begins. That’s heavy stuff, you know, when you have other bands that are doing the same old stuff from thirty years ago and trying to sound like 30 years ago.
“My job as a musician – as a writer – is to try and push out into different areas. I think that this album did it. Some of it is very produced like Peace of Mind because that’s what was needed for this song to rock but the track is cut live. I used all I could in the studio to be clever with that, capture the live sound but keep it like a movie. Rough and Tumble is just a three piece band and a singer and that’s what I really love the most, I suppose.”
Earlier, Waite had alluded that his hometown crowd was a different kind of experience. I reached back to that comment and I asked him if he found that crowds in different parts of the U.S. or the globe react differently.
“No, the European audiences are extremely different. The Dutch and the Germans stand there and check you out and you better throw down! They know every syllable. They know where you’re coming from. They have all the old records. They have the new records. They have records that you didn’t think did too well. They know what you’re doing up there. There’s nowhere to hide.
“A couple of years ago on stage in London, I was in Camden at the Underworld and I was singing Isn’t It Time and I was thinking, ‘Well, this is all very nice but I’ve got so much more to offer than a song book.’ I mean, it’s beautiful to go out there and do a song that makes the audience erupt. There’s nothing quite like it because you’ve earned it. It’s one of your songs. What do you want to do, not play it?
But the idea is to do half of the songs that the people expect and the other half – that’s going to be anything I can think of before I go on stage to shake things up. That’s what all the great bands used to do. I remember when I went to go see The Who and the Small Faces and Free and Family at Lancaster University when I was about sixteen. Imagine seeing The Who! Imagine it and being that impressionable and you’re just dabbling in psychedelics and finding your feet as a young man and there’s The Who! And that is enough to blow your hair back and your mind right out of the room. That’s what we all came for.
“I feel that there has to be a part of a performance where you’re flying by the seat of your pants and if that isn’t in the performance . . .” At that point, Waite interrupted himself and opened the curtains of today’s rock and roll Oz by saying, “Unfortunately, a lot of the bands – the arena rock bands – play along to tapes. They just do it. They do it because they ain’t got what it used to be. They come out with all the keyboards and all the harmonies and sometimes a lot of the lead vocals, it’s just pre-recorded. You stand there and you watch these bands lip-sync. I can’t imagine anything more dishonest or dreadful. They think so little of the audience that they would do that but they do.”
I mentioned that legendary singer, Mitch Ryder, told me the same thing about German audiences. Waite excitedly commented about Ryder.
“I saw him play in Michigan last year and he was something else! He was every bit as good as he used to be! It was like, ‘HELLO!’ It was really a throw down! I was thinking that it was going to be on the edge but it wasn’t. He was totally in control.”
I asked John if he knew – from his side of the microphone – which songs from Rough and Tumble the crowds seem to enjoy the most at his shows.
“As I expected, maybe, Rough and Tumble because it got so much air play and knocked everybody out of the way to get to number one. So, they know it. They know it in Europe and they know it in America. The one that seems to bring everyone to a grand stop is If You Ever Get Lonely. I think it’s because the song is that good. But from the moment we start to play it the place tends to go quiet. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve heard it before or because it’s that kind of song but those two songs just really seem to kill people”
After listening to Rough and Tumble a few times, I would argue that tunes like If You Ever Get Lonely, Skyward, and Hanging Tree would be great candidates for the air play on country radio. I asked Waite about that possibility.
“I don’t differentiate between whatever is country – or classic country – or rock and roll. There was a time that it was all the same thing. That’s what I like the best. I have a lot of country influence – especially western songs as a kid – country and western but the western end of it. So, yeah, it’s in the consciousness. I worked with Alison Krauss a few years ago and spent a great deal of time in Nashville and got to meet a lot of very serious country people. I sat down and talked to Dolly Parton and hung out with Vince Gill and Larry Sparks and the Del McCoury Band. It’s (country music) very authentic. Rock and roll? You can’t tell anymore.”
Some artists who have enjoyed a long, successful and distinguished career as John enjoys often feel that there’s something else they still need to accomplish that they haven’t already. When I asked Mr. Waite if there was anything he’s yet to accomplish, his reply revealed a man who is both comfortable in his own skin and has an understandable pride in the work he’s already accomplished.
“I’m afraid that I’ve done everything that I thought I was going to do. I think I’ve been number one a couple of times in two different entities – when I was in The Babys which was kind of a cutting edge band – certainly the first version. I made a few mistakes. But I’ve basically succeeded. Missing You was number one around the world and was regarded as a piece of art. I didn’t sell out. I still make music. I think I’m pretty happy.”
John Waite has worked with many talented people, from the likes of Alison Krauss to Ringo Starr. I asked him who he would like to work with that he hasn’t worked with already.
“Well, not many. Maybe some people from bluegrass. I really like bluegrass music and that kind of poetry. That’s the magic of song: it’s all inter-connected. But things happen naturally with me. I don’t go after things like career moves. People come to me and say, ‘Hey, do you want to sing this song with me or do you want to do this session or can I play with you on this gig?’ It all works out. I’m not a business man.”
On the subject of a follow-up to Rough and Tumble, Waite said, “We usually travel for two and a half or three years after a record. There is talk of doing a live album towards the end of the year with special guests showing up. There’s a location that we’re checking out now. It’s wide open. I’m sure that we’re going to have a very, very busy year playing live and it would be nice to record towards the end because we’ll probably be firing on all cylinders by then.”
What can fans expect from one of Waite’s shows during this tour - especially here in Dallas at Poor David’s Pub?
“You have the boundaries of a three piece band. It’s pretty rockin’. We touch on all the songs you might expect. We do try to make things interesting and bring nearly all the new stuff. The people that show up to hear the music seem to know it so it’s pretty loose. We may change direction right in the middle of a set. It’s a pretty good time!”
John Waite undoubtedly has many, many more years of music left in him to create. That said, I asked him if he has any thoughts about what he hopes his legacy will be and how he’ll be remembered when he’s no longer on this planet rocking the world stages.
“Well, I feel that would be ego-trippin’ to start talking about how you want to be remembered. It’s like having a gravestone . . . though I’ll probably have a gravestone. It’s the whole idea of being buried. But I think that if I have moved somebody or made somebody pick up the guitar themselves or become a writer of some sort, I’ve passed it along to somebody and I think that’s important. I think that to inspire somebody else is the highest thing that you can bring to a life.
“People inspired my life since I was a kid – from country singers to western singers to blues singers to rock n’ roll singers, songwriters, writers of literature, political people, people that made a difference in the world and actually really changed people or elevate people – if only for a brief moment.”
Then, with obvious and sincere humility, he added, “I’m just, at the end of the day, a singer/songwriter. If I could’ve lifted somebody up with a song during my time here, I think that’s pretty good!”