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Interview: Rick Wakeman

Rock Stars...

Rick Wakeman is back playing the keys with prog-rockers Yes but he also embarks on an extensive solo tour in April/May

Rick Wakeman

Any plans to follow-up the ‘Hummingbird’ project?

The one with Dave (Cousins)? That was good fun that. Dave and I talked for years about doing an album together, as we really are good friends. I just met him in Teddington and he said come and have a coffee. He said I’ve got some songs here and he played these songs, in typical Dave fashion they were all unfinished. I said ‘Well I’ve got a bit that can fit in there’. By the time the afternoon finished we had an album of songs. We went into a studio and it worked out really nicely. People seem to like it and undoubtedly we will do another one but I don’t know when to be honest. Hopefully it won’t be another 25 or 30 years until we do one again! I would think in another couple of years because we really enjoyed it.

There is a Strawbs convention in the US next year. Would you go along?

Yeah, if I am around I’ll go along. When they had their Strawbs anniversary two or three years ago I would have gone if I could have. I am great friends with all of the guys.

What was the highlight of your days with the Strawbs?

Undoubtedly when we did the old QE (Queen Elizabeth) Hall in 1971. It was fantastic and that kicked the Strawbs off in many respects. It took us out of the folk clubs and gave us a chance to go onto the university tours. A good stepping stone. It was great in those days, as there were stepping stones for bands to play. It’s not like that now. There are such great players out there and it’s so hard. Because my kids are in so many bands I meet loads and loads of different young musicians, some of them are so, so talented. We could do the folk clubs, the pubs, the clubs, the polytechnic and university circuits, and the college circuit. Then you could do the small theatre tour, civic hall tour – a whole series of stepping stones for bands that are not around anymore. I will always remember the QE Hall as it was a stepping stone. I always remember events that move you on a step or into different areas. When it was finished, in true rock’n’roll fashion we got on the train back out to where I lived. Went down Clarendon Road, ate fish and chips, then went to bed.

On your new album you’ve got a good line-up. Damian Wilson, former Threshold vocalist. Six years on the trot he’s won the Classic Rock Society’s Best Vocalist Award.

Mind you, he’s the only who enters. No, only joking - he’s a good lad!

How did you hook-up with him?

He’s been with me nearly three years now. About three years ago I got a call from an agent in South America asking me to do some shows. Pretty sizeable ones – 5-10,000 seaters. Only problem is I don’t have a band at the moment. He said two things are important - put a band together for a prog rock show and it’s got to be called the English Rock Ensemble, because everyone will now who it is. I spoke to Adam, my second oldest son, saying I needed a band. He said ‘What to play your shit?’ I want guys, influenced by lots of things. He said leave it to me. We had a warm-up show in Glastonbury. I sent out music to these guys Adam had mentioned. I know Damian from a band he was in with Adam, Joining My Road. I’d seen Damian and like his singing. Such a great range in his voice which was perfect. When you’ve had a few singers in your band they all have different ranges and to find someone to cover all these ranges is pretty tough.

So I said to Adam, ’Who else have I got then?’ Guitar player Ant Glyne. I said I know about him, great player. He’s a prog metal player, that’ll be good, something different. I said ‘What about the bass player?’ He named this guy Paul, can’t remember his second name. I already had my man on drums Tony Fernadez. But for that particular show he couldn’t do, so I got Richard Brook for that particular gig - great, great drummer. So the rehearsal came along, it was really fun. This guy came up to me and said ‘I am your new bass player’. I said hello Paul and he replied ‘I am not Paul’. He offered to change his name to Paul if it helped me! ‘Who booked you for this?’ He replied 'Paul' - I thought hold on, this is getting confusing. I asked him his name and he said it was Lee. Adam turned up and I asked him who the bass player was and he said he didn’t know! I’ve got a massive tour coming up in South America and it’s a bit of a worry when you don’t even know the bass player! I looked over at him, he takes his bass guitar out and puts it on the wrong way round and all the strings are on the wrong way round. I thought this is not confidence building! Adam goes over to have a word with him. So Adam tells me ‘Here’s the situation, the guy I booked Paul gave the gig to this guy. He is the best prog rock bass player around and Paul reckoned it wouldn’t be long until you found out about him and he would be out of a job!’

So anyway we started the rehearsal and asked if they got all the tapes prior to this rehearsal. They all said yes but Lee said ‘No. I probably know what you are going to do anyway’. We ran through ‘Starship Trooper’, from start to finish and it was amazing. Lee was just unbelievably good. Little Lee walked over to me and said ‘Boss’, he always calls me that, ‘That middle section, do you want me to show you where you’re going wrong?’ He then played me the parts again and I replied ‘Thank you very much. Any problems you got just come along to me.’ He does that with everyone in the band, he’s like our musical director.

How is Ant doing now? (The guitarist is currently recovering from cancer treatment).

He’s currently in remission, but he’s very fit. He’s well fit to do the tour. A great, great man. The whole band has bought so much to the music and I’ve had to rearrange parts. It’s been really nice. We’ve played together for 2-3 years before we made an album. Great bunch of guys, completely mad though.

Rick Wakeman

You’ve got the new album coming out on March 17th? It’s quite prog metal in parts?

You’ve just got the radio edit right? We have had such a problem with bootleg copies before. Last year I got a phone call about the ‘Live in Buenos Aires’ DVD saying congratulations that this DVD was number 9 in Brazil. It was the first time a music DVD had got into the film charts in that country. I thought that’s great and I made a couple of phone calls. I asked how many copies you’d have to sell to get to number nine. I was told about 120,000 - great! I phoned the distributors up and there was silence at the other end and then they said that the DVD wasn’t out for another three weeks over there. They turned round and said there was no point in releasing it over there now. They now only release previews 7-10 days before the release date, as this doesn’t give enough time to make bootleg copies. They have been really strict and said they would pull it otherwise.

For the radio edits we took out the huge prog rock bits. The metal element comes in from Ant in the way he plays, which I like a lot. It’s interesting that you mention prog metal, there’s a lot of it about. Ozzy’s ‘Ozmosis’ album was a prog metal album, tracks like ‘Perry Mason’. It doesn’t have to be airy fairie and arty farty. I was talking to guy recently at a radio station, where prog rock was like the thing you bought under the counter, in a hidden brown paper envelope. There are a lot of spin-offs from prog rock into different areas. Like early Genesis 75% prog rock, late Genesis 5% prog rock, and King Crimson 90% prog rock. So many bands nick bits of prog rock, like Muse, Furry Animals, which is great.

I like the way the band plays the music in their style and add their own touches. Damian’s very individual in vocals. Damian does things like we are checking into Gatwick to fly to Rio, whilst he’s at Heathrow trying to check into Moscow. He’s wonderful, the Frank Spencer of the band. If rehearsals are at 3 he’ll be there at 5 or 3 the previous day. Love him to death.

How did you come to rejoin Yes again?

When we did the ‘Keys to Ascension’ thing there was a management screw-up with two managers running parallel at the same time. One booked me a solo tour and the other booked a Yes tour for the same time. When one of the managers was sacked I found out I was contracted to do a tour the same time as Yes was. No way of getting out of it. In the end we kept it clear until June 2002. Lots of fans were contacting us that nothing was happening on either side from June and they were asking ‘Does this mean that both of you are working together again?’ Like 2,000 Sherlock Holmes out there! We agreed nobody books anything until Yes are booked and then we all book our various things around this. Hopefully this will continue for a long time yet.

Yes are touring in June?

June, July and August, when we’ll be touring Europe and then Japan and Australia. We were meant to tour there but Jon had his accident. He needs six months to recoup, he’s on his well. We can’t hurry it, as you might get on the road for one month and then be off for eight months because you came back too early.

Your solo tour - you must be looking forward to that. Heck of an extensive UK tour. What sort of setlist will you have?

It shouldn’t be called the ‘Out There’ tour, it should be ‘The I am Completely Off My Head It’s Bloody Stupid Tour’. We wanted to tour with a band and production. It’s got serious front screen projection coming in from JVC. Cameras over the keys as everyone always say we only see you grimacing with the music or either you’ve just farted.

When the tour agency, John Shaw, asked did we want to tour and I said we can’t its far too expensive. We need to do seriously big places, no way we could do a theatre tour. They came back a few weeks later and said you’re dead right. You’d need to do 47 shows in 47 days with a 97% capacity just to break even, so it’s really stupid. I said we quite agree, so we’re doing it then. It’s completely mad but I don’t like days off anyway. If we had a day off we’d only go and lose Damian anyway. He’d go off on a run and we’d never find him again.

Production shows have left the theatres now, we want to bring it back in. A lot of animation in it as well, we’ve done it already for a studio DVD coming in June/July. It’s got the spaceship looking for the source of music, it’s all built around that.

To answer your question - I am like a politician really, talk about anything I want. Talk about Man City in a minute! We’ll be doing stuff from ‘Journey…’ ‘Six Wives…’ ‘King Arthur’ and surprise bits ’n’ pieces. From the new album we will be certainly be doing the title track ‘Out There’ and ‘Cathedral In The Sky’, plus ‘Music of Love’ or ‘Universe of Sound’. Thirty minutes or more of the new album. End of the first half we’ll bring on ‘Out There’ and the first time we bring out the projection, rather than the curtain opens to everything you’ve got. We want to build the show up. If we can make this work we know we can take it to Europe and the US.

Any style of music that you’d still like to play - any musical challenges left?

Some of the things you do for yourself, almost an ego trip. I did a classical album with the English Chamber Choir called ‘The Wizard of the Forest of All Dreams’, which was something I’d always wanted to do. I love classical and I knew it would cost a lot of money. At the very best it would take a minimum of five years at least before it made its money back. If you’re always thinking you can’t afford that you end up not writing what you want to. Some of the pianos cost serious money once you’ve rented the best Steinway in town. Plus a good acoustics studio, you’ll be spending £2-2,500 per day for ten days. I love doing those sorts of things.

I’d like a full-scale ballet. But you know you’re on a hiding to nothing. I’ve had some stuff used in ballet and one in Milan. But I know what it would cost and in a nice sense, ballet soundtracks are not big winners in the market today. Ballet’s a really interesting area. I go to Milan a lot, my girlfriend’s Italian and we go to the Scala a lot. We are great friends with the director there and also in Florence. They are getting more adventurous in their music, some of it is jaw dropping. I think there is room to bring in some modified prog rock – there’s a huge gap there and market to excite. Bring the music to a new audience. I like exploring new avenues. Major problem is that no-one will back anything with no track record in the music industry.

We had a bit of a fight over the front cover. On a CD you can’t get any depth once the band’s name or writing is on there. Adam Lovesey, head of the art department at Classic (Pictures) showed me the new cover with all the writing down the spine, leaving a clear picture cover. I thought it was great. So we knocked it up and showed it to the decision-makers. They said great but where is the title on the front? We said it’s not there and we’re putting it there. They said no one does that but we won in the end and we showed ‘Record Collector’ and they thought it was great.

I also wanted a full colour booklet, but they wanted black and white because of the cost. They wanted to know why but I wanted to go back to the days when the album cover was the introduction to the music. When you go to a bookshop for a book called ‘Killer At Dawn’ you don’t have a mental picture of a little furry monkey holding a lolly do you? Bu that’s what’s been happening with CD covers and we wanted the booklet to give you an idea of the music and it’s quality. I hate those booklets with four pages of black and white and no info. But on the other hand I’ve had some stupid ideas but they’ve quite rightly knocked me back.

Same with the whole prog rock thing. All the people at BMG were looking forward to the new album but didn’t know what prog rock was! They asked what does it sound like? They all love the album. But its like me saying to you that I’ve got this great new colour called ‘splodge’. You’d say what’s that then? If I could show you ‘splodge’ you’d straight away say I like that! It’s like music sometimes its hard to describe and I play the mentally senile, he’s 54 this year let him do what he wants to.

Rick Wakeman

A few years ago you did your autobiography called ‘Say Yes’. Would you like to do another, more updated account?

I had two biographies, the first one was ghost written and six months later I got divorced. The publishers were not happy, as you had these happy family photos. The publishers said that’s complete ruined, we can’t sell that one, thanks very much. Did ‘Say Yes’ with Hodder and Stoughton, it did really well and even made the bestsellers, 34 or 32, did all right. Just about to go into second pressing and I got divorced again. They weren’t happy at all. HarperCollins asked for another one in a slightly different style and that’s what I plan to do. There’s one David Niven did called ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’, which is great. The best autobiography ever, it’s not about him but the people he meets. No particular order, he just rambles on - that’s the sort of book I want to do. There are so many people I’ve meet which is really nice and had an influence on the things I’ve done. Biographies are hard as many people said you didn’t much about Yes. I will do a book about Yes but I won’t do it until I know Yes is coming to an end. Because if you’re going to write an honest book about Yes you have to have an ending.

I have every single book written on Yes, even those in foreign languages. Some are very good like Chris Welch’s book, but it doesn’t tell the story as the only way you can tell the story is from within. They come from a different perspective. A lot of things happened for a reason, nothing against the guys in the band. It will only make people say ‘That’s why that happened’. There were never less than a hundred people around the band – managers, crew – and these all have an effect on the band.

Some of the books are disgusting, Chris Welch is very good but Darren Hedges is disgusting. Darren Hedges is like Salman Rushdie to me! He just wrote what he like. If you’re writing a biography you can’t be opinionated and fill in the facts as you want. They don’t do any harm but some bits should be redressed.

How did you get into the TV work?

In ‘Countdown’ there is no cheating, what you see is what you get. The people sitting next to you in Dictionary Corner are nice ladies from Oxford or whatever, they are unbelievable, absolutely brilliant. They come up with words you have never heard of. The secret is, people like Damian the Scrabble champion, I believe this is right – most people know 10% of the words in the dictionary and use 10% of those 10%. Whereas a Scrabble champion will know 98% of the words in an English dictionary, they won’t know anymore than 8% mean but they know the words.

Invariably I’ll be sitting there and the letters will come up and they will come up with a word. I’ll ask Damian what it means and he’ll say he doesn’t know but it’s there in the dictionary. It might mean a castrated camel’s penis or whatever, but it’s in there. The reason they have someone really clever who passes the words to you after checking them, you’d have no end of letters about words you’d missed. It has a monster audience.

Carol (Vorderman) is lovely, a great person. She comes out and meets the audience each show - she still does it some twenty years or so since the show started. Carol loves the programme, she doesn’t have to do it. I went racing with her, she’s got that knack of being able to talk to anyone. From little old ladies to fourteen year old kids who have a crush on her.

I love the TV, ‘Buzzcocks’ (a BBC TV pop quiz show), Mark Lamar, Bill Bailey and Phil Jupitus - three of my favourate people. I love doing those sort of programmes. Mark likes to get the wrinkly rockers on there and take the piss out of them, but he says I am a waste of space as I just want a laugh.

My great love is the big prog rock stuff. It may sound like a bad analogy but I am a great curry nut. But if I did eat it every day I’d have had enough. The greatest thing for me is that I enjoy all the different things I do because when I come back to prog rock I get excited again. If I’d been doing prog rock for the last ten years I’d a) get as excited as I am about a new album and b) I doubt it would have turned out as it has.

Finally, is the curry-on-stage with Yes story true?

Manchester Free Trade Hall, ‘Tales from the Topographic Ocean’ tour, in the days when my roadie used to hide under my Hammond. Two good reasons, if anything went wrong he could fix it and he could also hand me up me beer and Scotch. Certain bits of ‘Topographic Ocean’ where I had little to do, just ‘plink plink’. We used to have these conversations and he said ‘Fancy a curry?’ but with all the noise I thought he said after the show. So, I said yeah, chicken vindaloo, bombay aloo, popadom. Ten minutes later I could smell curry and he’d only gone and got my order! So I was eating away whilst Chris (Squire) and Steve (Howe) did some intricate parts. Jon (Anderson) starts sniffing the air and comes over, ‘You're eating a curry!’ So yeah it was true, but I didn’t leave the show as I have heard sometimes!


Interview © 2003 Jason Ritchie

CD review

Photos from the Classic Pictures DVD, 'Live In Buenos Aires'

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