Amidst releasing and touring a belting new LP, renowned guitar supremo John Wesley talked to Headwarmer about his origins and influences, empathy, listening to the sounds in your head and being ‘overdrawn at the memory bank’.
by STEVE FLETCHER
April 22nd 2014
Hey John, nice to meet you and thanks for talking to us. What were you doing before you sat down to read this?
Preparing a Jameson’s and ginger
Great job with Disconnect. There’s a depth and warmth to it that’s instantly engaging. It feels very personal, despite some other worldly concepts perhaps. We’d love to hear about it. What was the first idea to emerge for the record?
Thank you… many elements of the album are rooted in personal experiences, but then brought to life through the lens of another, some of the stories are observations… I tend to be a bit overly “empathic”. So when I embark on creating a story that might have come from someone else’s experience, it can tend to become “real” for me…so I try to convey that to the listener. The first idea was the song “disconnect” and it grew from there…
How was the writing and recording process; did you go about things any differently this time?
I did actually…. I was writing on my own and with Dean Tidey, but we had started a process with the Lilypad Suite in which we would arrange the songs as a band, Dean, myself and Mark Prator on drums… so the ideas came to life not as me “solo”… but as a true band.
How would you say it differs to Shiver and the Lilypad Suite?
Growth really, Shiver and LLS were steps along the path, there was a sound in my head and in my hands that I had not yet accessed in the previous works… a more aggressive vibe that I could play on guitar, but it as of yet had not connected with the actual songwriting. Disconnect finds those elements meeting with confidence for the first time. The Lilypad Suite was for me more of an “art piece”. It was a story that I had been holding in for a long time and at that moment chose to happen. There was less regard to “craft” and almost complete attention to “expression”. Disconnect was the “expression” but honed more with the craft of songwriting that I had been developing all these years.
There’s some wonderful guitar work, particularly Mary Will and that solo on Any Old Saint – can you describe your influences for us?
I hate to be so classic rock in my guitar influences…but Clapton, Beck, Hendrix etc…. it’s all there. Alex Lifeson was a huge influence as was Gilmore. The left field reference would be vocalists… I have spent a lot of hours imitating vocalists on guitar…learning the elements of the voice on the guitar itself. There is a phrasing that happens with a good singer that I have always wanted to wring out of the guitar… so Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Kate Bush…Steve Hogarth and so many more have crept into my guitar work.
You’ve played with some diverse acts over the years. What elements of your time spent with Marillion and Porcupine Tree in particular have you drawn from?
The willingness to take a chance with creativity, and to be honest with yourself as an artist and to play what you hear, and say what it is you want to say. There were many times during the course of this album that I had to take a step back and push through an idea that others around me were resisting because it was “outside the norm” or least outside of their frame of reference…and go with my gut feeling… take a chance… working with Steven and the Marillos and Fish, gave me the foundation, the courage to just…go for it. WWSW do? He would say, “don’t like it? don’t listen to it… now get out of my way…”.
I expect you had a plethora of artists to work with on Disconnect. Alex Lifeson makes an appearance – how did you think he would compliment the album, and who asked who?
So much of how I structure guitar sounds and parts comes from a youth of ripping off Alex Lifeson licks. I literally spent my teen years trundling around with a copy of “A Farewell to Kings” and attempting to learn every bit of it and many others. So as I had become friends with Alex, it just seemed a natural fit the way the songs were developing. He had mentioned working together a few years ago, but I had never approached him, lucky for me near the end of the recording process he asked me what I was up to, I told him I was recording a new album and he graciously offered to have a play…. so then he did. Wow. Just wow.
You’ve mentioned the concept of a man being overdrawn at the memory bank (love that), for the title track video. ‘A place to go to disconnect from painful memories’. Is there a personal experience behind that?
I am afraid so. Life isn’t easy…for any of us. We all have our challenges and our “levels of tolerance”. I hit my “wall” a few times… so that story that I had read when I was younger, became almost a beacon at times… and I am afraid there doesn’t seem to be enough Guinness or Jameson’s in the world to completely erase some of those things. So when you finally realize… it happened and it isn’t going away…ever, you either learn to cope, or collapse, you can become a “casualty”. The “walking damaged” are all around us, I recognized that element in people I had known, and I didn’t want to become that… I didn’t want to be consumed by the past. So I learned, worked at… taking those things that forced me into “the wall” and put them in the proper place. You don’t live a full life and take some risks without some damage, but you can learn to cope, rebuild and put things in the proper place to go on and live life. So one of the elements of “Disconnect” was the search for that ability to … put things where they belong and carry on.
How did you know when the album was complete? Were you tempted to go back over and make changes?
It’s funny, about two weeks before we began mixing I knew we were there… there was still a bit of “grunt work” to be done… shakers, some doubling of parts, a little editing…but overall, I knew it was finished. With the completion of the arrangement of “satellite”, that had finished the “message”, the last paragraph had been written and edited, now it just needed the polish and assembly, but I knew that I had said what I wanted to say, both with the vocals and the guitar at that point.
You recently went on tour with Sound of Contact. How did that go?
Initially fairly well, but as things went on, I realized that creatively I wasn’t going to be a part of the ensemble. Also from the live performance standpoint, we had some ideas that were fairly far apart and I began to not enjoy the shows, so at that time…I knew it was time to move on for me.
You’ll be heading out on tour in Europe for Disconnect soon? How are the new songs going across so far?
The new song reception has been way above expectations… people that take chance on the songs, dig in and find the stories, really get it…so I really can’t wait to bring it all to them live.
Away from the record, would you mind telling us a bit about where you grew up and how you first got into playing guitar and writing songs?
I grew up in the Deep South in the US, Central Florida, a mix between cowboys, urban runaways from the north and sun seekers. Musically it was a very stunted existence, only the very commercial poked through this far south, for example “Punk” was over and Sid was dead before I ever really understood it. I was 18 before I got into any Prog beyond the obvious Floyd and Yes… and that was through friends that had moved here from the North…
Any idea what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing this?
I think I would be training “working” dogs… I love Shepard type dogs (and am a sucker for any dog really)… Belgian Malinois are my favs… so I think…dogs!
What’s your view of the Rock scene right now?
There are some exciting things happening…but at times it can be hard to discover. I think there is so much music now that I get overwhelmed and miss some things. For me to listen…all the elements have to be in place… I struggle, a lot…I crave new things… but not so much excites me. In prog for example there are so many artists that will push the boundaries instrumentally and then fall flat for me lyrically. I was sad when Oceansize ended, I love Amplifier, elements of Mars Volta but that is over as well, Marillion always delivers, Steve W solo is still exciting. I am always searching, Elbow, Patty Griffin, Jeff Beck, Gov’t Mule is always exciting these days… The Civil Wars… I am always looking…
Which current artists excite you the most?
We’re all about unearthing the forgotten bands and albums out there so often overlooked in the modern scenes. Are there any in particular you can recommend to us?
There is a current indie artist I love…Geri X, worth keeping an eye on, a sincerity in her writing that can be at times brutal. But as to a lost band? In the early 70’s Tampa Florida had a Prog contribution that has mostly been forgotten. “White Witch”…one great album… on a southern rock label…they were doomed!
Someone asks you what Prog-Rock is, which album do you give them?
Wish You Were Here
And finally if you could resurrect one musician to write and record with, who would it be?
Cobain would be an interesting choice… but I am afraid for me it would have to be John Bonham… Playing guitar against his drumming would be beyond comprehension.
‘Disconnect’ is out now on InsideOut Music