Click here to visit the official website of the reunited original Asia.
Aug 2011 (skype, later broadcast on Roman Midnight Music Podcast Eps #37)
John Wetton's bass playing came to prominence via the British prog-rock scene. He's been a member of Mogul Thrash, Family, Wishbone Ash, Roxy Music, with session work for Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Yes's Peter Banks, Phil Manzanera, Larry Norman, & Steve Hackett. He became particularly well known through his work with UK with Bill Bruford & Eddie Jobson & Robert Fripp's King Crimson also with Bruford. But, it was the formation of the supergroup Asia in 1981, with Emerson Lake & Palmer's Carl Palmer, Yes's Steve Howe & Buggles/Yes' Geoff Downes, that brought Wetton his biggest commercial success, helped by a rotating video on MTV. It was also Asia that brought Wetton's songwriting & singing abilities to the commercial fore. Since Asia's original line-up split in the 80's Wetton has gone on to do numerous sessions, launch a solo career, plus extensive work with his former bandmate as Wetton/Downes. The original Asia line-up reunited 2006 & since toured & produced two critically successful studio albums.
I was offered the opportunity to talk with Wetton from a friend who hosts a metal podcast & was unable to fit Wetton into his format. Having been a big prog-rock fan through high school & spending many hours singing along to the second Asia album Alpha I welcomed this opportunity. It's purely coincidence, & I didn't know until afterwards, that my former co-worker Sal Maida, now of Cracker, had replaced Wetton as the bassist in Roxy Music. We recorded the interview over skype one afternoon from Wetton's home in England. Some have called this one of my best interviews as Wetton was enjoying himself as much as I was. I hope so.
Special thanks to Mike Catricola, host of the Heavy Metal Mayhem Podcast, for making this interview possible & to Billy Sherwood & Asia historian David Gallant for the support after the fact.
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JOHN: Fantastic. My piano tuner is due to come round any second. All I have to do is go downstairs & let him in. That will take me about 30 seconds. If that happens will you excuse me, I just have to go downstairs.
AJ: Alright. John, let me just say I discovered your music back in high school, I'm in my 30's now. It's been at least 15 years I've been listening to you, so I'm so thankful to have this little opportunity to talk with you.
JOHN: Excellent, good, go.
AJ: You have such a diverse resume, from all over the place, you know. From really prog/experimental to really commercial stuff. But, how do you see yourself? Are you a prog-rock guy in your own head, or just a guy that just likes to do whatever comes out of your musical soul?
JOHN: I am a singer/songwriter, basically. & what happens is when I write a song, depending on where that song's home is it will get treated in a different way. For instance, the song that I wrote in KING CRIMSON, one of the songs that I wrote almost completely in KING CRIMSON was the first part of "Starless" & that's the way it is performed. For the first 3 minutes that's my composition. Then it goes into all hell breaking loose & that's the other guys contributions. But, if you look at what I contributed to bands ... that's pretty much what I brought, which is a 3-4 minute song which then got processed by the band, it got homogenized & it got pasteurized & suddenly it ended up as something completely different. What you get with a John Wetton solo album is the stuff in its pure form. & pretty much with ASIA, I'd have to say its a pure form as well.
AJ: Last year I know you guys in ASIA released Omega, which had some great reviews, as good as the stuff you were doing when you first got together so long ago. Does that surprise you any, that you still have listeners, there's still fans, that people still love this music 20 years on?
JOHN: Does it surprise me? No, I know there's a few people out there because they come up to my website & they're very very fiercely fiercely loyal & they love the band ASIA & they always have done. They've only liked it when its been its original form.
AJ: Yeah yeah.
JOHN: So, I'm well aware of it & I see these guys on the road, you know, when we go out & do a show. I actually meet the people I've been talking to for the last 20 years online. & it's quite extraordinary. You know they are very very loyal. So, I think, judging by the reaction so far, that they like what I've done this time around with the solo album. For them it's a great variation on what I do. It's much more guitar based than ASIA. ASIA's normally the songs come from the keyboard version.
JOHN: Keyboard is my first instrument. & if I'm left to my own devices I'll sit at home in my sleepy little town in my front room with my piano. I will write dreary ballads until the cows come home. & what has to happen with me. Is I have to get picked up out of my dreary little front room & taken to Los Angeles & dropped into a studio with a guy that drinks too much coffee. & then, due to the outside influences of the kind of edgy atmosphere that I'm in, plus there's this guy drinking gallons of coffee, & playing guitar not playing keyboards you end up with what I've got basically, which is Raised In Captivity.
AJ: Well, I just got the solo album the other day, matter of fact. You have quite an array of guest musicians on this, you know, from ... all your alumni I guess we could say.
JOHN: Right. Yeah yeah.
AJ: Was that intended or was it just sort of an organic thing as you were creating the album?
JOHN: No, it was intended. It was always intended, but when Billy [Sherwood] & I decided to work together that we would do 90% of the record. Most of the instrumental on that record are myself & Billy & I do all the singing & plays all the drums & I play the bass & he plays the guitar. We knew exactly which spots we were gonna put each artist into, each guest artist. For instance, I already knew that Steve Hackett, I wanted Steve Hackett to play the solo on "Goodbye Elsinore". I already knew that I wanted Mick Box to play the solo on "New Star Rising". I knew that I wanted Robert Fripp on there somewhere. I didn't know where. But all the guys, apart from Billy's friends, which were Steve Morse & Tony Kaye, anyone else had their part set out before I left England, basically.
AJ: Did you ... you'll have to excuse me, John, if I'm not completely familiar with your background ... have you worked with Billy Sherwood before?
JOHN: No, no. We only worked together ... we worked together on various compilation albums, or tribute albums, which I would do ... I do it just for charity & for fun, because its the easiest thing in the world for me to sing a BEATLES tune. It's the easiest thing in the world for me to sing a QUEEN tune. & these are things that I love doing, you know. It doesn't take me very long. & I give the money to charity, so I don't say this is a career move, no. So, Billy & I worked together for the last 5 years on these things & so I knew what he brought to the party. I knew he that he's very quick. I knew he's incredibly musical. & that he was a great engineer & that he played great guitar. So, he had all the credentials.
AJ: I know him through his work with YES. I think a lot of us do. How do you two work together? Are you writing the songs & he's making the music as you've been hinting at or ... is it more like you're both writing or ...
JOHN: Well, we're writing & arranging simultaneously. That's what we're doing in the studio. I've got the chords & the melody that I've written out. & I've got maybe the beginnings of the lyrics. I've got 2 verses, 2 or 3 verses or I've got the chorus. & I sit down & I play that & then we'll start to make a map. It's exactly the same with the way I work with Geoff Downes. We make a map & it tells you where the verse is & with ProTools now it means you can take the verse, you can expand it, you can add another line here, you can take away a line there, put the chorus here, you can move the bridge around. It's all moveable. That's the way most of us work ... when there's only 2 people. Because it means you can put on a drum track. You can then think 'what type of bass do I need for this?' You can analyze everything as it goes on, but it still sounds like a band.
AJ: Yeah, of course.
JOHN: Where if you get guys who are good enough is just a band. Which is what Raised In Captivity does, it sounds like 4 guys playing in a studio.
AJ: Yeah, that's right, that's right.
JOHN: It doesn't sound like one person put together things where every note is analyzed. It doesn't sound like that at all. So, yeah. & the fact is that the 2 guys that are doing it know what they're doing.
AJ: Well, you have ... both of you have such extensive careers.
JOHN: Yeah we do. & neither of us drink, which helps a lot.
AJ: Do you see this ... I mean, you've done a few solo albums in the midst of all these bands that you've worked with, do you see this particular album as having a particular place in the timeline of your solo albums, like 'oh yes, my last album had this attitude & now I've moved here.' Does it reflect a certain place in your life, for your work?
JOHN: Yeah ... all of my records for the last 30 years. All of them have been autobiographical. They all tell the story of my life to date, to now. & so, what you heard from ASIA in 1982 was when I first started writing in the first person. & that's when "I" meant to refer back to you. All the songs suddenly take on the first person. I'm talking from personal experience rather than looking at someone else's life. So that was a big jump for me. But, it worked. A lot of people liked that & they went out & bought the record. & I also had a lot of stuff, I knew ... I knew I had a lot of stuff to give. & I had all this stuff stored up that had to go somewhere. So, the moment I started pouring it out with ASIA I couldn't stop it. So ever since then it's been a constant stream of my version of my insane outpourings in my head. So ... well, with a little bit of my heart thrown in & maybe a little bit from my hips too ... but in the end ... The main jist of it is that it's like I'm reading out of my journal, my diary. It's what's happened to me. It's the same with this one, Raised In Captivity. I go back as far as my childhood in Raised In Captivity & all points in between, so it's just like an update of my life so far. So, yes, it's very personal.
AJ: I just want to speak about ASIA for a minute because I actually discovered you when I picked up the second ASIA album, which remains my favorite.
JOHN: Yeah, totally.
AJ: I know its the first one that was the breakthrough but I like the second one better.
JOHN: Absolutely. You're right on it there, you're preaching to the converted. I think that ASIA, because of the way that we started out all coming from different bands & being kinda mega in there, in a way.
JOHN: We sounded like that product & the record company treated it in that way. They saw us as a super band & everybody can be virtuosos & stuff. Actually we were just like a British prog pop rock band, you know.
AJ: Yes, yes.
JOHN: & by the second album we found we could do that. We were allowed to do that. We didn't have to bring in EMERSON LAKE & PALMER's gongs, we didn't have to bring in KING CRIMSON's moodiness, we didn't have to bring in YES's quirkiness. We could just be ourselves. & so I think the second album is much much streaks above the first album. The first album had a couple of big hits on it.
Who is this? Excuse me one second.
Hello? You're at the door. I'll come & let you in. One second. I'm just upstairs doing an interview with this guy. I'll come & let you in. One sec. Bye.
Piano tuner. I'll be back in 30 seconds.
AJ: Go ahead. Go ahead, John.
JOHN: Thank you very much. The piano is an essential part of my equipment, you know.
AJ: I understand. I understand.
JOHN: Here we go. Thank you very much.
AJ: Don't worry about it. As you can see I've got a baby grand right next to me, too, so I'm sympathetic.
JOHN: Oh yeah.
AJ: I won't keep you too much longer.
AJ: I just wanna know ... this is reaching back into the timeline. How does it compare playing with Steve Howe, Geoff Downes & Carl Palmer [aka ASIA] now versus when you were thrown together by the record label as this supergroup?
JOHN: Well, we weren't actually thrown together. We came together fairly organically ... but, it's much better now. The band is ten times better on stage then it was. & we work much better as a unit then we did in 1982/83. I think we've all matured a bit. We certainly have a lot more patience with each other, a lot more tolerance. But, the best ... the main thing is we're actually better as a musicians & we work together much better on stage. That's very satisfying.
AJ: There's also, I think, a little bit of less commercial pressure.
JOHN: Yeah, certainly. The way the record industry is now ... there is virtually no commercial pressure.
AJ: We're not gonna see you marching around in a safari outfit on MTV videos?
JOHN: No. Really, I don't think so. Sort of hitchhike with the Amish.
AJ: John, I know that Steve Howe & Geoff Downes have been working with ASIA.
AJ: I'm sorry, not ASIA, the reunited YES now & they're on tour & I know you were touring with WETTON/DOWNES, is their stuff ... how's that affecting your tour schedule?
JOHN: We just have to be aware of each other, that's all. I don't think ... I don't think it threatens ASIA, when Geoff & Steve are with YES, anymore than I threaten Asia by going out on tour with Eddie Jobson as UK, which I will be doing. That doesn't threaten ASIA's position. ASIA is the mothership. You know we go off & do other stuff & then we come back & do Asia that way ... Unless something has changed. I don't know. As it often does in summer tours.
AJ: I understand.
JOHN: I even did a gig with EMERSON LAKE & PALMER last year! But, I don't think that threatens ASIA either. If you know the guys you know that they take ASIA very seriously.
AJ: So, the way you're talking can I guess that ASIA, the reunited ASIA, has much more to say?
JOHN: Yeah, I think so. I think we'll be around. I mean, you're talking to a guy who lives one day at a time. I can ... I can quite ... I can quite comfortably say that we'll be around all of next year because it's our 30th anniversary & we'll be doing something special for that.
AJ: That's right, that's right. I hadn't done the math. John, any solo touring for the album? Any special things you're doing with that?
JOHN: If you'd asked me that question a month ago I would have said "No." I would have said "No, not a prayer, not a chance" because I'd just come back from three runs on the road. But, I knew this would happen. I knew when my manager called up, he said "You wanna go out on the road & support this album?" I said, "No!" & then, a month later, I'd been at home for a month & I'd been sleeping in my own bed & I'd been making cups of tea in my own kitchen for a month & I'm thinking "Well, just maybe we could take ... it wouldn't be that difficult to put a band together & come up & do some gigs." So ... yes. Quite possible. Quite possible.
AJ: Alright, listen John, let me ask you one more question & then I'll let you take care of your piano. Do you have a favorite album from your career? Or something that's a very personal album to you when you look back?
JOHN: Yeah, I can ... I'd have to narrow it down to maybe 2 or 3.
AJ: That's alright.
JOHN: I don't think there's anyone one.
AJ: That's alright.
JOHN: I think I'd have to say ... I'd have to say it would be ... the second ASIA record the Alpha. I think it would have to be Battlelines, which I recorded in 1990 in Los Angeles & I'd have to say Red by KING CRIMSON All of them, for me they were all milestones.
AJ: Excellent. Red definitely is a well well received KING CRIMSON album.
AJ: John, I'm gonna let you go now & take care of your business.
JOHN: Thank you very much! Hey, it's been a pleasure!
AJ: Like I said, I'd been listening to you for 15 years. It's an absolute honor to get to speak to you.
JOHN: Thank you very much, Aaron.
AJ: Have a good day sir, have a good day & rock on.
JOHN: God bless you, you too & goodbye.